Shoes

Today my coworker walked into Panera (our “office”) with a large bag and handed it to me. “If I give it to you in public, then I might not cry,” she told me as I pulled out the pink and green tissue paper.

Underneath the tissue paper was the fuzziest, most beautiful flannel tie blanket (the kind that you don’t have to sew, just cut strips and tie together) that I had ever seen. She’d done a fabulous job picking out colors, and as I unfolded it, it finally hit me that I was coming to the end of something. I’ll be finishing my full time job next Friday, and then transitioning from full time employment to a full time student studying International Education Policy.

As I looked closer at the flannel my coworker had chosen for the blanket, I saw that one side was a print full of shoes. All kinds of shoes. I never thought of myself as a shoe person, but after reading the accompanying letter, I realized that I’ve slowly developed an obsession with cute shoes—I adore my coral flats and black and white patterned wedges. If I wear something colorful in an outfit, it’s either my scarf or my shoes. I guess that just happens when you’re female.

Over the past few years, the concept of shoes have taken on a greater meaning for me. Despite not being on my feet for my job (my job entails sitting behind a computer most of the time), I’ve walked in many different places—the dusty streets and beaches of Haiti, the sidewalks of Boston, the back roads of North Carolina for Thanksgiving, the carpeted hallways of the DC hotel for the FIGT conference, the ice-covered walkways in New Jersey, and the new turf of Minneapolis for my best friend’s wedding. Soon, I’ll be privileged to walk through the hallways of Harvard.

This year has also been a journey professionally and personally—I’ve been stretched in ways I could have never imagined, and learned lessons that I know God will use someday. My feet have carried me places I never could have imagined.

But it’s not just my shoes that are important. As I thought more about shoes and returning to a student community, I remembered an activity that Barry Loy, Dean of Students at my undergraduate college, did with the incoming RA staff every year. He called it “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” and he always started the session with the song. Then we all went outside and lined up, and Barry would read a characteristic that may or may not apply to us—first family member to attend college, having a disability, member of a minority, etc.—and we would step forward if it applied. The idea was to get us to recognize the diversity and the importance of empathy…to walk a mile in their shoes.

When I taught in North Carolina, it was that concept of empathy that I wanted to impart on my students, more than anything. We don’t fully understand a person’s story until we walk a mile in their shoes. Amidst the diversity that comes with our increasingly globalized world, it’s that empathy that is going to bring us together as members of humanity when disagreements want to tear us a part.

So, when you put on shoes, remember that they are a reminder not just of your own journey, but also of the journey that others have walked.

I look forward to sharing more about my journey this next year as a grad student.

Mwen te ale Ayiti, mwen te aprann…

If I had to sum up my professional year in numbers, this would be it:

17 flights
26 nights in guesthouses and hotels
35+ Creole vocabulary words
6 daylong workshops published
2,530 PowerPoint slides created
430 new Haitian 朋友s
1 birthday on foreign soil

If I had to sum up my professional year in thoughts and lessons, then it goes something more like this:

As a kid, I never really had a desire to travel to the Caribbean. The region always sounded like that exotic vacation spot that I would never go to. Haiti in particular never called me, even when my grandfather mentioned his trips there.

Switch regions for a second to Asia: in 2004 when the tsunami hit Thailand, I had an uncanny desire to do something about it. I was in 9th grade at the time, and so really couldn’t do much, but my friend and I organized a bake sale and donated the money to WorldVision.

Back to the Caribbean: In 2010, when the earthquake hit Haiti, the world sprung into action. But for some reason (call me unfeeling) I didn’t feel drawn to helping right then and there. Should I do something? I wondered, but the more I wondered, the more I felt I needed to just wait.

A year and a half ago Haiti walked into my life.

I had a phenomenal opportunity to do something in Haiti by developing teacher training material and instructing workshops in Haiti. I took it, and spent the past year living and breathing Haiti.

And as usually happens when teaching and/or traveling in a foreigner country, I ended up learning more than I feel like I imparted. Even though Haiti continues to be one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, the people of Haiti exhibit such an undying optimism, gratitude, and grace that it’s impossible not to feel like we’re missing out on something in the states. Yes, many people of Haiti may live in material poverty, but their wealth of optimism and spirit points to something bigger that I think we can all learn from. There’s a graciousness in relationships that is hard to find in other countries.

When I tell people that I’ve been working in Haiti over the past year, their common response is, “Oh my goodness, what’s it like down there? I hear it’s a mess. How do they live?”

As I got this question more and more, it bothered me increasingly. Yes, people living in poverty is unjust and inexcusable–no one should live in material poverty. There’s a lot to improve. But that’s the case in any country. To think that any country has it together would be a sorely misguided conclusion. The growth areas of other countries may not be material wealth, but there are other areas to grow. I’d love for us to move from the question of “What’s it like?” to “What can we learn?”

That’s exactly the attitude that the Haitian teacher with whom we worked displayed this year. The more we visited, the more they asked, “What can I learn?” and “How does this apply to my classroom?”

I’ll admit, I’m guilty of this too. So often I am quick to judge from my own perspective and leave the learning aside. So as I wrap up my year of working in Haiti, my own challenge to myself is to change my perspective from, “What’s it like?” to “What can I learn?”

Let’s Talk Greek

Every morning of March 2011, twenty-two college students gathered in the library that overlooked the garden kept by the nuns in the adjoining section of the Italian monastery.  Some of the lessons involved watching photographs projected on the white interior wall of the tufa building, while other lessons grew around discussions of art, symbolism, and Italian culture.

One of these lessons introduce the words kairos and chronos.

According to Wikipedia, kairos is “is an ancient Greek word meaning the right or opportune moment” and “signifies a time lapse, a moment of indeterminate time in which everything happens.”  In contrast, chronos is defined as “chronological or sequential time.”  In perhaps an overly simplistic summary of the two words, kairos refers to more of a perception of time as fluidic, whereas chronos refers to the structured, sequential measuring time.  [Please bear in mind that I’m no Greek scholar–this is literally what I remember from from a class four years ago.]

As I sat there, a junior in college at the time, listening to classmates discuss these two powerful words, I had trouble wrapping my head around the concept of kairos.  I knew chronos. Chronos helped to get things done.  How did you know where to be if you didn’t measure the minutes and seconds?  I knew that some people were not as time-oriented as I was, and that was completely fine…as long as I didn’t have to wait on those people to get something done.  I also knew that different cultures had different perceptions of time (which was the reason why we usually sat in the Italian restaurant that served our meals for an hour before the food actually came).  But when our professor raised the question of how it would impact our lives if we lived in kairos instead of chronos, I decided it wasn’t even worth considering.  If everyone lived in the moment and didn’t measure time, how would anything happen?  In my mind, kairos meant laziness.

And I’ve continued to live very much by chronos.

I still think that there’s nothing wrong with measuring time, especially sequentially.  It’s how things get done, how we keep everyone on the same page, and also a way to show respect to other people–we show that we care about them by valuing their time, because we know that they only have so much time to give and would probably like to give it in many places.  Time is a valuable commodity.

Three weeks ago I was privileged to travel back to Haiti for another teacher training seminar with my job.  I won’t even try to analyze the Haitian concept of time.  But I do know that it did not match my perception of structure, order, and routine.

And that’s okay.  In fact, it was great.

On Wednesday between seminars, we ended up with an extra day to relax.  In an effort to find something besides chicken and rice for lunch, we went to a hotel restaurant for lunch.  After being seated for about 15 minutes, the manager came out and told us there was no food.  What?  Okay, there was chicken.  And rice.  And fish.

We went to another restaurant.

After looking at the menu for 30 minutes, the waiter finally came out.  It took 20 minutes to place and order.  Then we realized that they were almost literally going to have to go catch the fish and harvest the potatoes before we got our food.

We left to find another restaurant.  It was 3 PM by the time we ate lunch.

Normally during this series of events, I would be getting more and more annoyed.  What was it that restaurants couldn’t get their act together?  Didn’t they serve customers on a regular basis?  What is wrong with people?

But seeing the way the people I traveled with made me change my perspective a little bit.  Sure we were all hungry.  But laughing at it and just being in the moment and being able to tell a story about ridiculous restaurants afterward was in a way more valuable than getting food that day.  Maybe it’s just looking on the bright side.  Or maybe it is kairos.

When you live in the moment and stop thinking about what’s next, it’s easier to see life around you.  It’s easier to see people.  It’s easier to hear their stories.

The International Flight: A Sacred Space

One of the things that I love about writing book reviews for expat and TCK books is that they are bizarrely relatable to my life.  I mean, it would be a little bit concerning if they weren’t, given that I spent my life as a TCK.  But it always boggles my mind that it’s possible to take something as enigmatic and paradoxical as the identity of a TCK and write about it so accurately.  From BuzzFeeds to research articles, they seem to hit the TCK on the nose.

Reading my most recent TCK book brought me to a new realization about myself.  The author wrote about how he had realized after moving that he had misplaced a new and exciting toy.  It was only when his mother prompted him to think where he saw it last that I realized he had left it…in another country, and he was despondent over the loss.  Even though it was just a toy, he described how that toy symbolized the entire transition/loss experience for him.

I’m sure there was something or other that I forgot in the wrong country as a child and cried over (or maybe not…I was kind of an obsessive packer), but his story made me think about symbols for transition in the TCK’s life.  Though not quite the same, I realized how significant the international flight had become for me.  I started flying alone internationally when I was sixteen, and while terrified at first (given that it was right after the attempted liquid bombings in London), I soon cherished flying alone.  Not because I was antisocial (although I am admittedly an introvert), but because that time between countries was a space for transition.  It was a time to leave one life and enter another–not to switch identities, but to…adapt.

[Sidenote: this is not intended to be a bash on my family, with whom I traveled internationally for the first sixteen years of my life. My father did an excellent job navigating us through airport terminals, and my mother was a constant Scrabble companion.]

I didn’t realize until recently that this feature of my international travel is what has made my most recent international travel so unique.  Traveling to Haiti was the first time as an adult that I was not traveling to another country to engage in the culture for an extended period of time, but was still being called to meaningfully engage in the culture.  I traveled for a week to provide teacher training and then left.  Adapt?  Ha, yeah right.  You didn’t have time to do that.  Moreover, I was traveling with companions.  This time was no longer mine–it was shared.

Fortunately my companion was lovely and sweet as all get-out and understood that I slept on all airplane flights.  Even so, it was a new kind of international travel.  It no longer functioned as the sacred space that it used to, which is fine.  Just different.

And so if you’re someone who transitions between cultures frequently, I encourage you to figure out what your sacred space is (or maybe even read one of the books that I’m recommending to figure it out…;) ).

Maybe the Explorers got Something Right

The good news about my new job is that it provides me with regular and somewhat frequent international travel, which provides fuel for my blog. The bad news is that the weeks surrounding my international travel are usually pretty busy, which means that I don’t actually get to post until about three weeks later (such as this time).

About three weeks ago I returned from Haiti. We were there running teacher training seminars in two separate cities, and were privileged to interact with almost 100 Haitian teachers in each city that we worked in. We drove through gorgeous mountains and had breakfast by the beach overlooking Caribbean water. We also taught outside in some pretty sweltering humidity amid random power outages and braved attack peacocks, so it wasn’t all fun and games.

As a Caucasian who has spent a chunk of time overseas and an educator, one of the things that I’m always thinking about is how I am impacting another culture as an American. This is something that I had to carefully consider before I took a job that would lead me to directly impacting the education system of a third world country. It’s also something that I had to think a lot about when I moved to North Carolina (despite it being in the United States, it was actually a very different culture than what I had lived in previously). You can find an excellent description of why I feel this way here: http://cindywords.com/an-open-letter-to-missionaries/ .

Too often I see people in other countries who uphold Americans because they believe that American way of doing things is the best–because they are white and therefore must be rich and thus must have a quality of life to be coveted. They desire to follow the “American dream” because they believe it leads to material wealth and prosperity. In so doing, many of them leave their own countries and try to conform to an American way of life.

This trip, though, I met Pierre (which isn’t his real name, but since I try to avoid posting real names on my blog, we’ll call him Pierre). Pierre interpreted our training in the second location we visited. We weren’t actually sure if he would come, because no one could get a hold of him before the seminar. But come Thursday morning, there he was, tall, skinny, in a plaid button down shirt ready to go.

As we introduced ourselves to him, he told us a little more about himself–he had interpreted for similar events to ours before, and was also a teacher. He taught history (US and World History) and was currently in university. I’m not really sure how the school system works that a person can be in university and be a teacher at the same time, but there are a lot of things that I don’t really know how they work in Haiti, so I didn’t ask.

During lunch, I snagged Pierre and started asking him questions about teaching, his classroom, and Haiti.

“You know what the real problem that we need to solve in Haiti is?” he began. Inwardly I cringed a little. I feared that he would say that the country needed more American aid coming in, that they needed more money, or more American businesses.

“We need to want something,” he continued. “The Europeans who traveled across the ocean to the New World on their boats, they had a clear objective. They were working toward something. In Haiti, too often we just wait for things to come to us. We don’t work together to get anything.”

I paused. His analysis was never something that I had expected to hear during my trip in Haiti. Moreover, it was one that I had rarely given value to myself. Frequently as a social studies teacher, I had written off the early explorers and pioneers into the United States as narrow-minded and selfish given the way that they blatantly devalued native cultures. I prided myself in getting my students to see these people not through the lens of glorification that they are traditionally taught, but with a critical eye, challenging cultural assumptions about these people.

But as I listened to Pierre, I saw someone whose analysis knew this and considered this, but saw good in them anyway. And in so doing, he took a lesson from it that transcended culture and values. He was not saying that Haiti needed to be like America. Rather, he was saying that he wanted his people to build a country that they could be proud of, and in order to do that, they could look to other parts of history as examples.