Reverse Culture Shock

I’d been home twice during my Peace Corps tenure in Nicaragua. The first time, I went after serving just a little under a year and the second time was after living in Nicaragua for a year and nine months.

What I remember about the first trip was worrying about not staying too long so my Spanish wouldn’t revert while I was gone. I didn’t worry too much about anything else and when it was time to return, I remember hugging my parents and leaving again with no difficulty at all.

This second time however was beyond difficult. I remember with distinction the moment I set foot in New Jersey. My layover in Houston was easy. I spoke in Spanish the entire time I was there from ordering food to returning to my terminal. But New Jersey felt foreign, from its artificial lighting to the incredible amount of white people and the absence of Spanish. I remember thinking to myself, “I want to go home” and I didn’t mean North Carolina. I meant Estelí, Nicaragua with Madre Vilma and my little cement bedroom where I’d been living for almost two years. That home.

I ended up missing my flight and having to spend the night in the airport. No, that wasn’t fun, but it gave me silence to think. I really consider Nicaragua my home now and the thought made me instantly feel guilty, like somehow I had betrayed my country.

How could the country of my birth feel like a too tight skin? It was itchy, uncomfortable and hot. I didn’t like the way all the air was controlled. I felt either too hot or too cold. I hated how everyone was on their phones and not interacting. I kept forgetting there was a sewage system and it was safe to flush my toilet paper. There wasn’t any smell of food I recognized or Latin music playing in the background. The entire country felt eerily quiet. And the one that is most selfish is that I missed how people acknowledged me.

In Nicaragua, I am seen. Whether for my foreignness or the respect I received for my membership in my community, there is no time when people walk past me and ignore me. But in the United States they do. Here, I feel valued and accomplished. I am both respected for being here, working hard in my community, having a degree (which 90% in my community don’t have) and my intellect.

In America, I’m just another black girl.

Going back, I felt the coolness of being a nobody again and I didn’t like it. I don’t think that makes me egocentric at all. It’s just the truth.

My family, on several different occasions, looked at me strangely while I was home. Or told me, “You are not Nicaraguan.” But I feel like I am. From my Nica-isms like pointing at things with my lips to not understanding American pop culture references to the random times I would try to translate something directly from Spanish to English and it didn’t translate well. For example, we were talking about me knowing someone and, to try to remember, I asked, “Is she pale?” My family immediately looked at me strangely and laughed. “Pale? Do you mean is she light-skinned?” I felt embarrassed and tried to explain. Being pale-skinned in Nicaragua is a way of identifying someone. They’re chele. It’s more than being black or white.

But how can I explain an entirely different culture? Or how much that culture means to me?

My holidays have been spent somewhere between feeling like an imposter and feeling guilty for using things that are of minor convenience like taking a bath, knowing that amount of water could give my family in Nicaragua clean water for a month.

I’ve embraced the Nicaraguan ways. Pointing with your lips is faster than pointing with your hands. Saying “how” (como) instead of saying “what?” (que) is more polite when you don’t understand something. Knowing your actual neighbors and being a large family is economically better and it means you don’t ever have to worry about not having enough to live on.

Things in Nicaragua makes sense to me while the only other place I’ve known in the entire world is starting to make none… and I have to reconcile that with myself in the next three months because I’m about to close my service. That makes me scared and nervous. How will my first home welcome me? How will I feel knowing I won’t return to my second home for, at the very minimum, a year?

I have heard from other Peace Corps Volunteers that your community never forgets you, that serving gives you a permanent home in the country of your service and I am both grateful and heartbroken that I will be leaving soon.

I can remember first arriving in Nicaragua and feeling like a sticker that has been awkwardly pasted somewhere it’s not supposed to be. I remember confronting how I felt about my blackness, people touching my hair and never being able to hide. But those things have made me face myself and now, I feel more myself in Nicaragua – from my natural hair, my looks and my acceptance of two tongues – than I have ever felt in the United States.

Who knew reverse culture shock would be this hard?

 

Affinity Groups

One of the biggest markers for success in any organization is to not only be diverse but acknowledging and supporting those differences. Peace Corps, as a global organization has since it’s conception has made strides to stay current, be aware of the growing diversity within volunteers and support those who are in need of support.

One example of that was the approval of an affinity group within Peace Corps Nicaragua. An affinity group is a group of people who come together to safely share experiences around specific identity markers (such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, age, etc.). As a member of the Diversity Committee, we’ve seen and discussed the diversity that happens within our race, gender, sexual orientation and life experiences within Peace Corps. Unfortunately, that’s not always highlighted.

Our first affinity group  was centered around race and how volunteers identify. We hope to have more in the future around sexual orientation, class, religion and even more. It was hard to plan and a lot of time and effort went into the invitation, the activities, and the overall spirit of the event but in the end, it was worth it. It was a huge success. We started with an icebreaker called, “What I want You To Know.” Each identity group had to write on a flip chart: 1. What we want you to know about our group, 2. What we never want to see, hear or experience again as a member of this group, 3. What we want our allies to do. Here’s an example of what the black female group wrote because there was no black male in attendance.

IMG_63602After that, we created norms/rules to govern the conversations and interactions for the entire day and every affinity group we’d have in the future. Of the rules, my favorite was “send love” and “address not attack”. We defined words and acknowledged the purpose before getting into reflection activities. Separately, each identity group discussed 4 topics: Identity, Discrimination, Ally, and Support. We asked questions like how they identify, what experiences led them to that identity marker, what the word ally means, what does support look and feel like within Peace Corps. After that, we had lunch together and overall relaxed, even more, getting to know one another. After lunch, we came together as one group and discussed the difference answers  from each question. Then we created an action plan from the answers. If this is what you need to feel supported, what can Peace Corps do and what can you do as a volunteer? We invited two Headquarter representatives who were in Nicaragua to lead staff through a week-long long diversity training, to attend the action planning. It was great to share ideas and come together with an actual plan to propose to PC Nicaragua and PC as a whole. Afterward, one young lady brought her keyboard and sung Hello – Adele, Change is Going to Coe – Sam Cook, Woman’s Worth – Alicia Keys and more. We sang along and ended the day with greater bonds than we had before the event.

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I am overwhelming proud of those who attended and thankful that my voice was used as a change agent. I am so proud of everyone who showed up and all the voices we heard. I am proud of my agency and I am proud to have been here to see the beauty in so many volunteers feeling heard, supported and empowered. Peace Corps’ main purpose is to promote peace and friendship between host country nationals and the United States. I don’t know a better way to do that than to acknowledge the differences amongst Americans, learn about the different cultures and share it with every Nicaraguan we encounter.

#squadgoals

#mypeacecorps

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Half Done Service

If this what life looks like from the halfway mark, it looks great!

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If you’ve have made it this far you really are the chosen few! By this time you have probably gotten sick, experience some form of depression, visited home or experienced the holidays the Nica way, lost several of your fellow PCVs to ETs, Med Evacs, and more. Most likely several of your fellow PCVs are in relationships or have had relations with Nicas and other PCVs. So let’s take a moment and reflect. What have I learned so far?
Amongst many other things, I learned selflessness, problem-solving skills, appreciation of my own culture and most importantly a better awareness of myself.

Unlike many volunteers, I had never been outside of the country before. Therefore, I didn’t know what to expect. I couldn’t speak another language, although I took many Spanish classes in the States and I was unsure of proper behaviors in respecting other cultures customs while maintaining my own. It was tough for me but not as tough as it could be, because I kept an open mind. I learned how to see life through someone else’s eyes. There is a lot of poverty here. Suddenly, things like brand new shoes lost their significant meaning when I could have my old shoes repaired for cheaper good as new. I began to understand my grandparent’s beliefs of using things completely up. I also found contentment in the little things. I never knew I would prefer the smell of fresh air in my sheets from drying on a line than the downy sheet used in the dryer. I also never knew having little can make a family have much. What I mean is that even though my family had to share the same towels and could only afford to eat three times a day, no more, they were happy with that. They were happy with a TV that was ten times bigger than a flat screen TV and content without a radio or iPhone. Their phones worked just fine and without many things to do in the town, the friendships grew deeper. You have to start over as a PCV, beginning as a foreigner, untrustworthy and without a true understanding of the language. Then slowly you became a part of the family and apart of the community. Little kids know your name and you know the hidden gems of your town. Without noticing, you’re referring to Nicaragua as home. You speak like a Nica and even foster many Nica gestures. Life becomes simpler, easier and altogether more worthwhile because you are accepted and appreciated. This is life at the halfway mark. A slow infusion of yourself with others and another Country to call home. You realize just how fast a year went by and realize the second will fly even faster. But all in all, you are happy and content in the moment should be appreciated as it is often very hard to achieve.

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Leon Cathedral. You’re not allowed to wear shoes up there.

Here’s to one year down and another one flying just as fast!

Palo de Mayo

The end of May is an exciting time in Nicaraguan culture. Every last weekend of May, this year May 27-29th is Maypole or Palo de Mayo. Palo de Mayo is a festival and an old Afrocaribbean dance (with sensual movements) that forms part of the culture of several communities in the current RAAS area (Región Autónoma del Atlántico Sur). Bluefields is the most important scenario for this event.  Vibrant Caribbean rhythms and colorful processions, marks the start of the Palo de Mayo festival, a tribute to Mayaya African goddess of fertility. This celebration dates from the early nineteenth century, is an adaptation of the British tradition who celebrated the first day of May with a feast.

It is considered the highest expression of culture and tradition of the Caribbean of Nicaragua, the first of May starts with a presentation around a tree which is decorated with colored ribbons and around which dances are performed as welcome to the rainy season , production and new life. Throughout the month, there are festivals, dances, and presentations. Then on the weekend, each neighborhood dresses up and dances in the street on the absolute last day of May is Tululu. This year, I reached out to other Peace Corps volunteers who live in the area for a connect because I wanted to dance in the parade. I was given an official handmade outfit and a few days prior learned the traditional dance. It was amazing. We walked around the entire city and danced in the streets for about 3 hours. It was fun and exciting to be with people who look like me.

 

10 Accomplishments For Your 20s

I am in my mid 20’s and following a very non-traditional career path since I’m in the Peace Corps and living in Nicaragua. Watching my friend’s move on and build careers through distant social media has shown me a few things. Which is why I am writing this. Somehow, some way, we have been pressured to believe we have to have our entire life together by 21. I just want to encourage everyone struggling with debt, still living with their parents, unable to go to grad school and doesn’t have a spouse or children: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU.
I don’t know where we get this from but I felt it too. I have felt at one time or another that I was not enough. This feeling that I haven’t accomplished enough. I still have debt. I haven’t attended grad school and when I am home, I live with my parents. I am in my twenties and although I’ve accomplished way more than the average 20-year-old, I’m saying you’re normal if you haven’t accomplished anything at all. I am not saying don’t have aspirations. You need to have dreams. But you are not somehow less than for not accomplishing what others have in their 40s. Here is what you need to accomplish in your twenties.

1. Grow up.

We think we’re grown in college but after that, the real adulting begins. You need to mature and accept your fate. Yes, the time has come. That means paying all fees and tickets you receive. Unless you’re unemployed, it’s not ok to ask your parents for money all the time. Handle your business. No more late night parties and out of control drinking. Get to work on time. Dress appropriately and act like you want your job.  Be mindful of what you post on social media and for once take your parents advice.

2. Know and accept your responsibilities.

It’s your responsibility to know what is in your checking and savings account. It’s your responsibility to check weekly and not overdraft. It is your responsibility to prioritize the phone bill over the weekly unnecessary splurges (i.e., Starbucks, fast food, etc.). It’s your responsibility to prioritize and start thinking about other things like not related to drama.

3. Contribute.

If you live with your parents, wash some dishes, cook dinner every now and then. If you live with roommates, make an effort to get to know them. If you are good friends, talk about ways to help each other reach your dreams. Make a pact to collectively reduce debt or spend less for the month.

4. Make an effort.

 

Set small goals and strive to accomplish them. Build your resume. If you can’t find a job, volunteer somewhere for experience in your industry. Don’t just sit bitterly on the couch. Go out and visit the places you’re applying to, ask what specific skills they’re looking for. Introduce yourself and let them know you’re applying online. Show up to the interview in actual professional attire.

5. Ask for help.

 

Don’t beg but humble yourself enough to sit under someone else for wisdom. Take advantage of what the adults in your life have to offer. Whether it’s taking a job you don’t necessarily want or interning, ask for help. If you’re really behind on a bill, don’t be ashamed to ask for a small loan.

6. Love yourself.

 

Don’t be bitter towards all those being lovey-dovey pictures on social media. Understand that there is more to everybody’s relationship than what meets social media’s eye. Your special someone is out there waiting for you to become a person ready for a relationship. Instead of being jealous, build on yourself. Are you someone worth loving? Until you are, don’t worry about everybody else’s relationship. They might not be together in a year, but you will still have yourself in a year.

7. Social media is not life.

 

Do you post your burnt dinners, failed exams or boring days of work on social media? No. Neither does everyone else. Social media is everyone’s highlight reels. Don’t compare your down to someone’s publicised high. We’re all just trying to make a way for ourselves and have a better tomorrow. Focus on yourself and you’ll be amazed how much happier you’ll be.

8. Build.

 

Build your portfolio. Build your skill set and your network. It’s not always what you know. It’s also who you know. Go to meetups. Attend local events in your community. Ask your friends for suggestions, just get our of your comfort zone.

9. Make mistakes.

 

Travel. Splurge but remember to save. Learn a new language. Get lost and free yourself to make mistakes. It’s never a loss if it’s a lesson. Failure is life’s way of saying, maybe another time. “Failure isn’t fatal, but failure to change might be” – John Wooden

10. Connect.

 

Make friends you want for a lifetime. Take time to love your family. They will not always be here and figure out what you really want from life. Don’t compare yourself to others. Don’t stress about your life in 10 years.

Don’t worry about what they say. Just accomplish these 10 things and you’ll do your 20s right.

Extended Hand to Any Rape Victim

To the woman who woke up and realized she had to be strong, I want you to know you are not alone. I cannot imagine how it felt to wake up and know something had been done to you but not knowing just quite the extent of the damage done. I can, however, with clear accuracy imagine how it feels to be raped and then misunderstood. I know what it’s like to be so spiritually broken because you cannot understand how physically you are still standing. I understand violation and I understand the monster that is rape culture. I just want to tell you I am so sorry this happened to you. I am so sorry that in this day and age, men are still being held at a lower standard than women. I am so sorry that you had to be belittled to numerical facts such as your weight, age and how much you drank. I am sorry that those things are even relevant to clearly judge what violation of a human being is. I am so sorry that you had to find out via the internet and that your life has been publicized for something so ugly but please know:

YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

Please know that we are here. We – the women silenced by the very same heinous act. The women who acknowledge what it feels to be broken and what it means to survive. The women who carry the shame every day and have to constantly remind themselves that it was not their fault. Please hear me, no matter what they say (they being the ignorant, misogynistic, unfeeling, uncaring, soulless trolls and inhumane beings on the internet): it is not, was not and will never be your fault. It wasn’t about what you wore. It wasn’t about what you drank. It was about this human being who took advantage of an unconscious woman and tried to get away with it. That is and will always be defined as rape.

That guy, he doesn’t even deserved to be spoken to by a goddess like you and yet you were strong enough to not only speak your truth but make sure the public clearly heard it too. I am proud of you and I stand with you. You stood strong for every girl, like me, who didn’t report, didn’t take a test or tell anyone outside of my family for fear of shame, stigma, and not being believed. You ended your letter by saying, “To girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought every day for you. So never stop fighting. I believe you.” Thank you. You are a testament to how much work still needs to be done. Your letter was beautiful and your heart is courageously golden. I am in awe of you and I hope you never have to feel such pain again. I pray every day forward from now is filled with pure joy. You deserve that. You deserve to dance. You deserve to be carefree and you deserve justice. I hope you get that too. They have labeled you a rape victim and I see how truly victorious you have become.

For anyone else reading this, please sign this petition. 6 months is a great way to continue telling women their bodies are worth nothing. If you know the strong young lady I am addressing, will you please pass on my letter and give her a hug. Don’t stare and don’t you dare ask her “so you really can’t remember?” No one should ever have to feel public humiliation bearing shame for something someone did to them. If you don’t understand consent, watch this video.

Photosource: http://www.goabroad.com/blog/2014/08/26/20-quotes-20-inspiring-women-around-world/

Day 404

This is a story about Black Nicaraguans and the love I found amongst them. I went to visit Bluefields and Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua. It is where the “black” people live. I have to say this trip changed my life. I found that their history was very similar to our own. They were initially shipwrecked on the coast of Nicaragua. At that time, it wasn’t a part of Nicaragua. The indigenous people became a British colony. Then the British shipped slaves over from West Africa. When slavery was outlawed in 1840, the slaves became workers and it’s how you get the diverse looks of the people. Some are very dark and have wide noses with afros. Others are light skinned and have big, wide curls, not kinky at all. They are as colorful as you would expect black people to be. When Nicaragua conquered and claimed the land, they were unable to get through the dense jungle and essentially they were spared from the first war of Somoza. But after the war was won by the Sandinistas, there was another smaller war fought to conquer the Coast. The people will tell you they believe it had nothing to do with the land and everything to do with killing all blacks. Finally, a peace treaty was written, allowing the land to be autonomous. However, despite their autonomism, their representatives are Managuan (Spanish) and the government has mandated they teach in Spanish. They are not given the rights they were promised in the treaty. Now, Bluefields is almost entirely Spanish. Everyone speaks Spanish and it’s only about 30% blacks. However, 45 minutes south in Pearl Lagoon, it is 90% black and only 1% speak Spanish. I only spent two days in Bluefields which left me to spend 6 days in Pearl Lagoon.

I have been on a pursuit to study Universal Blackness. Most often, the black perspective is told from an African American lens. But I am sure that being black in America is entirely different than being Black in France than being black in Nicaragua. My trip was enlightening. I was excited to see people who looked like me. I was excited to find grape flavored everything. The rest of Nicaragua seems to have no appreciation for grape although, in my opinion, grape is the best juice and the best soda. I had coconut bread, soda cake and piko. I ate fried chicken for almost the entire week I was there. I was embraced entirely. People spoke creole to me and I tried to understand. I had my hair braided there. (Which is a foreign concept in other parts of Nicaragua. They think my braids are pretty but foreign. They want to touch them.) I wore my afro and no one stared. It was wonderful. I heard my music. While waiting for a boat, Cece Winans played! It warmed my heart to see little brown girls with afro puffs and wearing clocker balls in their hair. I never knew how much I missed those things until I saw it. While I found many differences, I found that a universal blackness does not exist. However, it seems that there is a universal attempt to silence blackness. When I spoke with community leaders, they complained of their history being erased and being forced to speak in Spanish, not their own tongue Creole and the English. It sounded a lot like what I feel when I hear that slavery is being taken out of the history books and how I feel lost when I try to think of my lineage and my history past my great grandparents. It was sad. It both warmed and broke my heart. I could talk for hours on my trip and everything I learned there, but for this email, I will stop while I am ahead.

God knew what He was doing when I was assigned a different site. I don’t think my service would have been as fulfilling if I was living there. For one, I wouldn’t have learned Spanish. For two, I wouldn’t have been able to teach people what it’s like to be an American. They thought I was one of them. However, I am so glad to have had the opportunity to visit there and speak with the people. I was able to see the discrimination between black Nicaraguans and the Spanish looking ones. It appears that wherever there is colonialism, there is colorism. Black Nicaraguans are definitely discriminated against and they hate traveling away from the Coast. When they do, people make inappropriate comments and stare. I have personally felt this awkwardness. It is not always like that. My own community has accepted me. First, they didn’t want to believe I was an American. They kept telling me I was from the coast, in part because I am black and in part because my Spanish is so bad. (Coastians prefer to speak Creole or English.) But then I showed them pictures and told them about my family. But I have heard people call me “negrita” – little black girl and they love to touch my hair. My first host family tried to shame me into straightening my afro. Not everyone is bad, there is always good to be found where people work hard to love. Love is the deciding factor. Love changes things.

If you ever want to come to Nicaragua, the Coast would be top 5 to see!

Oven Building

This month, in the Adventures of Janae, I built an oven.. wait for it… FROM SCRATCH! Yep, sure did. Oven building is a project we often do in rural areas to help prevent smoke inhalation. Women are expected to be the sole cookers and usually families who can’t afford gas use wood. That’s dangerous in a small room and as a result rural women die early from smoke inhalation. The oven is built outside and it’s more efficient in wood burning. You build it using, horse manure, dirt, a sticky glue mixture made from soaking dragon fruit leaves in water, clay bricks, and one large barrel.

The process is as follows:

-dragonfruit leaves, soaked for two days in water is used as glue, mixed with a little water, horse manure and dirt.

-Bricks are cut into the necessary size and often times clay bricks break

-a base of two layers of bricks are built first and it must be level

We had the additional obstacle of building on a hill. The women we worked with lived in a very rural area and were unable to get proper notification. So they had to scrape the glue material from the leaves by hand.

It was messy and hard. You have to use a leveler for every brick laid. Often times we had to cut the bricks with a machete to get the right fit. The dirt mixture smells a bit, but only when it’s wet and the sun is disrespectful in Boaco, Nicaragua. Still, the people were overjoyed to have an oven. A cooperation of three families will be using to sell bread in their small community. This oven is literally a means to have money to put food on the table. It’s great to know, one small oven changed these women’s lives.

Semana Santa

During Holy Week or Semana Santa in Spanish, Christian cultures like the one in Nicaragua commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus. Since pretty much the entire country is religious, Holy Week is a nationally recognized holiday! It’s hard for me not to overwork myself but aside from one small conquest to see a famous man in my department, I mostly read.

My small vacation consisted of me visiting The Natural Reserve Tisey Estanzuela and meeting Alberto Gutierrez, also known as the Stone Man, in his beautiful home deep in the Tisey Estanzuela Natural Reserve. He is 76 years young and has been carving stones on his land for over 40 years. He lives on rural land and it’s a bit of a hike but meeting him is half the fun. Not only does he show you his humble home but he makes you sign his book. Only about 1,000 people have met him. He loves taking pictures and showing what historical moments he’s commemorated in stone. Among the birth of Jesus Christ, 9/11 and many cities in Nicaragua. The view was spectacular. You could tell just how much Alberto loved his piece of Nicaragua and the stories it told. His attention to detail was apparent in the fruits, flowers and animals he pointed out at different times during the tour. Despite all the stones he already has, he continues to find mew places to carve drawings and inviting all who will listen to hear his stories.