Sickly Sam and Her Teachable Moments

I know, I know. It’s been two weeks since I’ve come back from my trip to Romania, and I have been woefully silent. I apologize for that. I promise there’s a reason behind it… but I’ll get to that in a minute. First, let me break you the bad news:

I will not give you a detailed account of my trip through this blog. In fact, I won’t even give you a brief play-by-play.

“But that’s what blogs are for!” you cry indignantly. Well, okay. That may be true to some extent. But I’m also a firm believer in telling my story as I feel fit to tell it, and I don’t feel like writing a novel about my trip to see my sister — unless a story becomes so pressing that I feel like I’ll explode if I don’t share it with you.


I did that already — I shared with you about the deaf community that I met in my first days in Romania. And I’m sure that, in person, that will be one of the stories that I deem exciting enough to retell; and there will be a few others. In fact, here. Here’s the overly abundant photo album of my trip, which you can browse through to get a visual for the times that I do tell you those stories. But I don’t want to force a story on you any more than I want a story to be forced on me.

There. I’ve said my piece. And now I will tell you about something that has been a little more pressing to me.

Sam’s been sick. Not crazy, “I’m going to die” sick, but that constant sort of nagging sick that pisses you off. I’ve actually been sick for about a month now. Easy does it, folks — this started a couple of days before my trip, so no, I did not stereotypically gallivant off to a foreign country and bring back some disease, thank you very much. But I’m on my second bout of antibiotics now (wicked fun, guys), and that’s guaranteed to get a girl grumpy. And tired. So it’s been a fun couple of weeks being back.

So that’s my excuse, really, for not having written in this blog in the meantime. But it’s also a great teachable moment for the art of finding peace in chaos (or, in my case, irritation). There were moments when I was traipsing about in the middle of Romania, seeing the world from an angle that I’d never seen before, and all I could think about was how grumpy I was. Somehow, I managed to quash my joy of being in a foreign culture.

The same has gone for my time back in the States. I’m going to make a generalized apology to anyone who I may have been rude to in the past couple of weeks (any time before that, and I’ll have to make a separate apology. See me on your own time). Folks, there are moments in life when you must realize, okay, you’re pretty miserable. Why make yourself more miserable by allowing your misery to take over? This was a realization that I made, but, due to my grumpy exhaustion, that realization was unfortunately trumped by the second realization that I just couldn’t be bothered.  I wish I had listened to myself and been a little more intentional about my happiness.

Actually, I will tell you one story about my trip; and it may involve a second teachable moment. This story takes place in Philadelphia, where I had landed and was waiting for a train back to Harrisburg. I was sitting on a bench next to a man who asked where I was coming from (he was just back from Germany). I said Romania, and he said, “Oh! That’s backwards, right?”

“Sorry, what do you mean?”

“Like, not modern; they haven’t fully caught up yet.”

I nearly laughed, but held it in — apparently just because a country doesn’t have as much privilege as other countries, that makes it “backwards”. But I decided to be levelheaded, and explained that, though I hadn’t gone to any of the villages, the bigger towns and cities seemed to be pretty “forward”, other than the fact that you probably shouldn’t drink out of the tap; but then, I added, that’s the case for a lot of European countries (note: now that I’ve done my research, “a lot” should actually be revised to “some”, but… you can’t change time).

I know I get really irritated (even without being sick!) when people assume things about other cultures. Perhaps this is a teachable moment to myself to guard myself from judging others who judge too quickly. But that being said, this is my second teachable moment: sometimes one’s assumptions about something become a filter through which they see the rest of that thing. Don’t let that happen. Don’t let an experience become dulled because you’re sick and cranky, and don’t call a culture “backward” just because it’s not America.

On another note! Though I already miss my sister, and am sad that it’ll be several months, if not more, before I see her in person again, I’ve also found that coming back home after vacation gives you a chance to rediscover how much you adore a place. I’ve missed my little Harrisburg community, and it’s good to be back. I’m also grateful to be able to drink as much water as I damn well please.

So, teachable moments are as follows: be intentional about your happiness, and don’t assume. Teachable moments over; grumpy child over and out. See you next week, lovely people! I promise I won’t fall off the face of the earth again.

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Deafinitely Beautiful

I know I’ve been fairly silent since I crossed the Atlantic Ocean, but don’t worry: I am safe and sound with mi hermana. I had to wait in Budapest for a day and a half to be reunited with her, but reunited we were, and then we crossed into Romanian territory.

Becky and I set off my first full day in Romania with a bang. How, you ask? We spent it with deaf Romanians. Talk about a communication barrier, right? Except it actually wasn’t – or at least as much as you would think. Granted, I did have the advantage of two hearing people with me – my sister, and Natalia, who both speak limited Romanian and Romaninan sign – but for the most part, it was just a joyful mess of trying to figure out what people were saying. I say “joyful”, but maybe that was a bit one-sided… I had fun, anyway.

The morning started at the bus stop, where Becky and I met Natalia, Becky’s Russian coworker. We then got on the bus, which was entirely inhabited at this point by Deaf passengers going to the same service we were going to (one of whom looked like Christopher Eccleston! Sorry, no pictures).

When we got to the church, Becky picked a spot far enough away from the speakers so that we wouldn’t get blasted with sound during the music portions. Yes, music is still incorporated into a deaf service… they can feel the vibrations of the bass, to keep the beat. They did songs in two ways: one, in which someone would lead the congregation in signing the words that appeared on the screen; and two, in which the pastor turned to the congregation and asked if anyone would like to lead them in a song. Someone volunteered, and this heavy beat would start playing and then the individual would essentially (or at least from what I could tell) freestyle it, signing a Psalm or some other Bible verse. This was my favorite, because it was like musical improvisation.

Following the sermon was very difficult for me. Natalia was to be my interpreter, the poor girl. Imagine wanting to sit down and get something out of a message and then have to interpret for some idiot. She inadvertently made Becky and me laugh before the sermon began, because she had put in earplugs to fend off the loud speakers, and started speaking to us – in Russian. She quickly realized her mistake, and interpreted the sermon as best she could (she was able to speak out loud as the speaker signed), but I already have a hard enough time focusing on things while I’m sitting for a long period of time. Becky was merciful and blamed it on jetlag, but you can be let in on my little secret: I haven’t been able to listen to a sermon, or even a lecture, for years without falling asleep at some point during  the message. I need to be doing something active.

After the service, everyone sat around and drank coffee (which apparently not all Romanian Christians do… I guess some of the churches won’t drink coffee because it’s bordering on “coffee and cigarettes” imagery). This was the obligatory introduction period, in which every single person commented on how much Becky and I looked alike, and how beautiful we were. After meeting about thirty people, I now have that awkward “haha, thanks” expression permanently ingrained onto my face.

But it was also an exciting time for me, as I tried to communicate with people via Becky, and worked on picking up some Romanian signs. A lot of it was just staring at people as they talked, then nudging Becky and saying, “What does this mean?” and doing a clumsy attempt at a sign, and hearing the reply, “Um, I’m not sure.”

Some of the people were good to me, and mixed in some miming with their signs as they talked to Becky and me — something that Becky later told me is great for communication, but not so great for learning. Deaf people are apparently much better at communicating across languages, because they have so much practice dealing with incompetent people such as myself, so they get used to the idea of having to communicate in whatever way possible.

After coffee, a group of us decided to go out to lunch, during which I did some more staring, but also got to know Becky’s friends a little more. Imagine having to communicate with someone who knows absolutely none of your own language, and think of how frustrated you would get; now erase that attitude from the equation, and you have the reaction that these people had to communicating with me. Now, true, a lot of the time they simply involved themselves in other conversations, as unsure as I was about what to talk to me about, but when we were engaged, they engaged. They didn’t just walk away.

The day ended with a walk around the city center, which is beautiful and under construction, which somehow makes it more beautiful. A metaphor for life, perhaps? Or at least the perfect ending to my first full day in Romania.


Look for more pictures to come, darlings.

Kick-off

When I was looking for flights out of the country, I figured it would be appropriate to fly out of Boston so I could make a quick visit to the Cape and see my family. Man, I make good decisions sometimes. Though I always manage to only be home for a day or two, and have to rush through my time there and spread it thin, it still always feels really good.

This time was a little weird for me. Hopefully it didn’t show too much — I hate to be that person who ruins the fun — but it was the first time since my grandmother’s funeral that I hung out on the Cape. I kept expecting to see Gma in her chair by the fireplace, watching Judge Judy, but she wasn’t there.

Other things have changed, too. The Yarmouth House has a new menu. Panera doesn’t sell Jones soda anymore. The chipmunk has moved his hole to the other side of the backyard, and the grass under the red maple tree is thinning.

But the crows are still there, and the turkeys, too. And the beach. And Keltic Kitchen is every bit as perfect. And my mom and my Grandad are still there. And we still have to squish around a long table when the entire family comes for dinner.

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I went walking on the beach this morning, and encountered two women walking their dogs. As soon as they hit the sand, one of the dogs made a beeline for the water. Her owner was not pleased. “Dixie!” she yelled, annoyance crossing her face. “Dixie!” I left them for a few minutes, squishing my toes in the sand and taking in the salt air and throwing not-quite-seaglass back into the water. When I started coming back up the shore, the women and their dogs were still there. Dixie was still wading. “Dixie!” cried her owner. Dixie sat down with a splash.

I had to laugh. Let Dixie be Dixie, I wanted to say. She’s a dog; dogs like to play in the water. Let her be a dog. Enjoy how she frustrates you — don’t take it for granted — because it’s who she is, and it won’t be constant. One day, she may not be around anymore, and you’ll have an empty chair by the fireplace that you won’t know what to do with.

My Grandad will finally be undergoing heart surgery sometime within the next few weeks. He’s normally such an active person, and he’s getting so tired of being tired; hopefully this surgery will help a little with that. But it has its risks. I told him as I left this morning to take it easy, that I loved him, and that I’d see him soon.

And then I visited my Grandma’s grave, and updated her on Grandad’s surgery plans; that was one of the things she asked about even in the last few days. And I cleared the twigs off her nameplate, told her I missed her, I loved her, and I’d see her soon.

And now I’m boarding a plane to Romania.

The Thing About Culture Shock

Guys. I leave for Romania in less than a week.

As I prepare for my trip to Romania to visit my sister, I’ve been reflecting a lot on past trips — I’ve been comparing the amounts of time it took me to prepare for my various previous travels, reminiscing about the experiences I had, etc. I have also found myself wondering if I will experience culture shock.

imageI experienced minor culture shock in Guatemala, major culture shock in Uganda, and a different kind of culture shock in the UK (since their culture is closer to that of the State, it was more like “solo travel” culture shock). But I don’t know how drastic it will be in Romania. I’ll only be there for two weeks, and while I won’t exactly be cramped up in a hotel, eating Burger King and avoiding the local culture, I honestly don’t know if I’ll have enough time to stumble past the “honeymoon phase” of the experience and hit crisis mode. Plus the fact that I’ll be staying with an American expat — not nearly as immersive as some past experiences have been, regardless of the time frame.

I was talking with some friends of mine who just had a fairly immersive experience in China, and we drifted to the topic of culture shock. They admitted that they had been hit pretty hard, an understandable thing given the drastic contrast of China’s culture to America’s. But interestingly enough, we found that we agreed that sometimes reentry shock (that is, returning to your native culture) can be just as bad.

I had that experience with my trip to Uganda. I had some rough patches while I was there, and they were nothing to be scoffed at, but it was nothing compared to coming back to the States.

It makes sense, if you think about it. First off, returning to your native culture, you’ll feel a sense of loss as the amount of adventure in your day-to-day life drastically changes. Suddenly, every experience doesn’t seem new and exciting… it just seems like something you’ve done every day for the larger half of your life. This is something that you can experience for any amount of travel, whether it’s a two-week trip or an entire four months.

But there’s something more substantial to reentry shock than just a sense of boredom; there’s also a shift in values, and a feeling of whiplash as your stretched worldview gets shoved back into its original container.

When you experience shock in a new culture, it usually involves a sense of discomfort or even disgust at the way that something is happening — whether it’s traditions, attitudes of the locals, uncomfortable miscommunications, etc. For the most part, the reason why you feel this discomfort is because you don’t understand that aspect of the culture, and you have to learn how to adapt.

What makes reentry shock so hard is that you do understand. You grew up in that culture; you used to do things that specific way. But now you’re suddenly seeing it from a new perspective. And so the fact that it disturbs you is even worse, because it used to be you. What you once accepted as absolute truth has now been tipped on its head, and you see how backwards the truth may be — or at least how dependent on the situaton it is – and you are terrified by it. And what makes it all the more frustrating is trying to describe this feeling to people who don’t understand it.

I remember coming back to the States in complete cynical disarray. I couldn’t wrap my head around how much we wasted in America, how much we took things for granted… There’s a water shortage in California? Well, no wonder — look how much water we use to shower, or to run the dishwasher for those four cups we forgot in the last run. Or, why can’t I eat as much junk food as I used to? Because my body has gotten used to real food, a concept that had previously just meant putting veggies on my pizza. Or, why do people assume that I went to Africa on a missions trip? Because some people can’t see the citizens of a third world culture as anything other than helpless (a view that is actually, terrifyingly enough, being adopted in those cultures, but that’s a topic for another time). I was warned that this incredulity would happen, but I didn’t realize the implications of the warning until I actually experienced it.

Luckily, with every bout of culture/reentry shock, there is a period of adjustment. Hopefully, it becomes a learning experience, and doesn’t just thrust you into a state of eternal cynicism (though I’ll put myself out there and say that a little bit of cynicism is a good thing). And hopefully, it will spark a change, and hopefully, that spark won’t fade over time (something that I continually worry about). And hopefully, your worldview won’t just shift, it will expand.

I doubt I’ll go through the rollercoaster that I just described in the mere two weeks that I’m abroad; but I like checking in with myself every once in a while and making sure that I haven’t lost the impact of the experiences that I’ve already had. And let’s be honest: if I don’t experience the same drastic culture shock that I experienced before, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t learned anything about that culture. If I have a more shallow experience of something, I still had that experience… it just takes a little more effort and presence of mind to process it and incorporate it into my understanding of the world.

Let’s Get Out of Here!

Guess what? I’m antsy. And I blame it all on a film.

Every month I get to watch a film that won’t actually be at the Midtown Cinema for another month: an early screener for the review I write for TheBurg. This month it was TIMBUKTU, a West African film centering around the Jihadist control of a community in Mali (calm down, kiddos, you’ll get to see the review in the March edition).

The fact that the screener I watched this month was an Oscar nomination for the foreign language category was not lost on me. In fact, I will shamelessly say that it was intentional. I really wanted to see this particular film before the Academy Awards — it’s really hard to get a hold of the foreign language films that don’t have particularly wide releases, so yes. I was a bit biased in my choice.

But regardless of bias, this film is awesome. And, as a fun little bonus, it kept prodding my brain to reminisce about the four months I spent in Uganda back in college. Okay, yes — Uganda, Mali, different places, I know… but the culture and the attitudes of the people were very similar, with some slight Mali-influenced nuances. At any rate, it made me wish I could go back to Uganda and soak in that culture again. Or any culture, for that matter… it doesn’t take much to trigger the wanderlust.

It’s so easy to see why I’m so enamored with storytelling: it gives you a glimpse into someone else’s world. TIMBUKTU is not the first film to have made me antsy. I mean, think about it: watching a movie or reading a book is a really cheap way to transport yourself into another culture or mindset, and meet interesting new people. And writing is the same idea — with The Fields, I literally got to create a culture (or, probably more accurately, mix a few cultures together). It was challenging, and so much fun. But it’s not nearly the same as seeing it in real life.

A pretty succinct image of my time in Uganda: my host sister, Resty, doing laundry next to the family’s fancy-schmancy water tower, with dinner cooking in the background.

If it were at all possible, I would be halfway across the world right now. Not that I despise the place I live in — on the contrary, as I stated in my last post, I love Harrisburg. But… don’t you ever get the urge to peek around the corner and see your neighbors? Or even better, take a day trip and see what life is like in another state or two? Or even better, hop a flight to another country and see how people live their life there? I love people watching, and I love taking note of different people and their customs: what makes them tick, what fuels their decisions, what keeps them going after they have a crappy day, etc. That is what I find my pleasure in — that’s what causes me to get antsy every few months or so. Curiosity. I want to discover how the popular vernacular came to be; I want to eat a whole bunch of food I’ve never tried before. I want to break out of my comfort zone.

About two years ago, I decided to put aside as much of each leftover paycheck as I can muster towards saving towards travel, to try to go to at least one new place every year. Last year, I had finally saved up enough to go to the UK for three weeks. It was a whirlwind — three weeks is not enough time to fully experience a culture, no matter how much you believe it will be, but what  I did get to experience was amazing. It started off rocky, as I was traveling solo for the first time. Traveling alone is something you have to adjust to… it can be a lot of fun, but the first few days are going to be tough. For some, it’s initially scary; for me, it wasn’t that… it was just incredibly lonely. It didn’t help that the trip started off in London, which can be a pretty intimidating place for someone who doesn’t have a friend to help them out. But once I’d gotten comfortable with the idea that I was going to have to either get used to being by myself or put myself out there more, things took a turn for the better. I meandered my way over to Cardiff, then up through Liverpool, and then finished my trip in glorious Scotland, where part of my heritage lies. By the time I had finished my trip, I was elated. I had met so many cool and interesting people, tried as much British cuisine as I could afford, and seen some pretty fantastic sights.

Feeling proud of myself for finding the Boyne Castle ruins (Scotland).

One of the many reasons I chose the UK as my first solo traveling trip was that the culture wasn’t the complete opposite of my own. I could still speak the language, so if I got lost, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world… and it wouldn’t be so much of a culture shock that I would do something incredibly stupid upon arrival. But now I’m ready for another adventure, and I’m actually quite eager to try something completely different. I want to be stretched — hell, I’d even be okay with doing something incredibly stupid, as long as I’m able to laugh about it later.

I’m already saving up for a trip to Romania — my sister, Becky, is moving there next week to work for Wycliffe, and I want to visit her — but there are so many other places that I’d love to go. I’d love to go to Southeast Asia, and hop from place to place. I’d love to go back to Uganda and visit my host family, or go to Brazil, or Russia, or Ethiopia, or Iceland, or — okay, who am I fooling? I’d like to see every country before I die. That’s a lot of like to, but hey, everyone’s gotta have dreams, right?

I’ve wondered if my need to get up and move around the world every so often is just a sign of restless behavior, and a stubborn refusal to lay down roots. But every time that conversation comes up, I always decide that there’s got to be more to it than that. What I think it truly boils down to is that I am not willing to accept that the world is a narrow place. I know there’s more out there that I haven’t seen, and don’t understand, and I won’t rest until I’ve at least tried to see and understand it.

I probably sound an awful lot like a cheesy commercial for a travel agency, so I’ll wrap this post up. But, for those of you who have yet to travel past the border of your own country, here’s one last note: you’re still breathing, right? You’ve still got time. Start saving whatever you can to get out of here and go visit your neighbors.