Saturday, December 29, 2012


One part of Peace Corps service that is not frequently addressed is the readjustment period upon returning to the United States. This is understandable because it happens at the very end and has no bearing on your service in country – it comes after everything else is all done. Readjustment is no small task, though. The PCV must re-enter life in the States after two years abroad, but that gap encompasses not only two years of life lived, but also two years of life missed. I’m not really sure where or how I’m supposed to re-enter my life in the States, so I’m just kinda going with whatever happens. So far, I seem to be doing fine, although it could be a while yet before I’m fully readjusted. I’ve dropped most of my Samoan language habits, but I still have plenty of awkward pauses, statements, and personal space issues. Just ask anyone who has interacted with me in the past three weeks.

I miss Samoa, absolutely. I miss my kids, my families, how everything in my village worked – or didn’t. I had to leave behind everything that has been my life for two years, and I know I’ll never return to it in the same way. Really, though, you can never go back to how things were; everything is constantly changing. But for everything I love about Samoa, there was also something to love in the States. I loved that I never had to wear anything warmer than a t-shirt in Samoa, but what I missed most about the States was the change of seasons. Arriving on the plane, I kept thinking to myself “I’m so lucky to be coming back to Colorado because it is so beautiful here!” and even in the middle of winter, with the trees bare and the landscape gray and brown, it is still absolutely gorgeous. I loved that life in Samoa never felt quite so rushed and urgent as it feels in the States, but I am unspeakably happy to have reliable, high-speed wi-fi.

The United States has a lot of other conveniences that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed in my few weeks back. I did about 8 loads of laundry in my first day home. I’m fascinated by the Keurig (sp?), which lets me brew a single cup of tea in something ridiculous like 60 seconds. And I’m completely baffled that a tiny GPS in a car can recalculate a 1,500 mile road trip in 10 seconds. Don’t even get me started on the quality of the toilet paper here (which is probably not a conversation you really want to have). In general, I’m finding life in the States to be bigger, easier, and more convenient. I’m amazed at the horizon. Looking out over the ocean, the horizon is literally endless because you can see until you can’t see anymore. An infinite horizon is self-limiting, though – without any borders, it doesn’t give a sense of distance. Looking at the mountains in the distance makes the world seem so much bigger and farther away. I know the mountains, however far away they seem, are still closer than the “edge” of the ocean, but it gives me something to measure by, and jeeze is it a lot farther away than the edge of the ocean!

One thing that really bothered me in Samoa was all the comments I received about my life in the States. “Oh, there’s so much stuff in America. Everyone has everything they want.” I never really knew how to respond to these statements, which came at least 2 or 3 times a week. I could never quite figure out what judgment was being passed on me, because I knew judgment was being passed, but was I supposed to apologize? Promise I could make it happen in Samoa? I could never quite tell what desire was at the root of those statements. I’ve been incredibly lucky in life – all my basic needs have always been met, and I’ve always had some leftover for all the extras. I have a lot of privilege. The biggest challenge I find myself facing in the States is how to live a life of privilege that doesn’t ignore the rest of the world. But privilege also comes with a lot of resources, and a little resourcefulness goes a long way to addressing the problems that don’t constantly stare us in the face – the inequality that consumes every part of the world, regardless of your country, in various forms and incarnations. This is the life I have now, and I have to figure out how to live it so that I am happy with it. That’s exactly what I had to figure out in Samoa, but my circumstances have just changed a little bit.

Please forgive me, I don’t mean this as a judgment on every person within the borders of the US. This is just what it means for me to return to the States. I also apologize for the heavy tone this post has taken on, so to lighten it up a bit, here are some of the things I don’t miss about Samoa

Waking up to cockroaches crawling all over my room
Finding dead lizards in my bed
Sweating to death while sitting still
Taro (but I do miss breadfruit!)
Getting unexpected visitors at inconvenient times (like when I am in the shower)
Lavaspot (the wireless provider in Samoa)
Digicel (my cell provider in Samoa)
Lap-sitting on the bus (sitting on other people)
Getting caught in a downpour without an umbrella
Running errands in Apia and lugging around shopping bags
Coconut wireless
Inconvenient flight times
Testing season at school
When the power went out and my milk would spoil in about 20 minutes

OK, this list is getting really hard to keep up now because every time I think of something that was occasionally annoying, I then thing of at least twice as many occasions on which I loved it. So we’ll have to leave it at that. More luck – nostalgia that lets me look back and remember all the good things.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What was it like?

As part of our close of service process for Peace Corps, we do a COS interview with a staff member that basically asks us to sum up our entire PC experience in a few questions, although you have as much time as you want to answer. I ran into a few Americans on my travels, and they asked me a lot of the same questions. I have a feeling I’m going to be getting a lot more once I get back to the States, so this is an attempt to broadly answer those questions now, and you can ask me more later.

What was it like?
Wow, how do you expect me to answer that question? I hate to say it, but the slogan is right – it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love. It was fantastic, awful, challenging, inspiring, hilarious, and generally overwhelming. Nothing is ever easy, even after two years in the same place with a fairly thorough understanding of the language and cultural expectations, but it is the experience of a lifetime. I’ve done more and learned more in the past 2 years than I ever thought would happen in my entire life. It is so hard, but if you have the patience and determination to stick with it, it is incredibly rewarding.

What was the hardest part?
Can you narrow it down a little bit? It was really hard to live without water for 8 months, but I figured out how to do it so that my life felt normal again after the first two months or so. It was incredibly frustrating that I wasn’t fluent in the language, so I knew people were talking about me – right in front of me – but I didn’t know what they were saying. Stepping in front of a classroom without knowing the language was almost impossible. Overall, though, I think the hardest part for me was living in the fishbowl and dealing with all the cultural differences at the same time. I had zero privacy and everything in my life was available for scrutiny and discussion, which sucks and generally only made me feel incredibly isolated. Finding some kind of balance between acknowledging my cultural background and integrating into a new community was a continuous struggle. I couldn’t make everyone happy all the time, and I often felt uselessly angry when people didn’t acknowledge my efforts but instead criticized me or laughed at my mistakes. That’s an individual process though – you have to figure out what you can put up with, what you can compromise on, and what you absolutely can’t give up. You might find that it’s different than you expected. I never thought I would be such a flexible eater, but when my water went away, it was more important to me that I didn’t have to do dishes than that I could stay within my desired diet plan.

What was it like living there?
Overwhelming at first, but I really loved it. The people were amazing. I lived with the pastor, but the pastor’s family lived in a separate fale in back, while I lived in the church hall. Everything happened at the church hall and people were there all the time (that’s an exaggeration, but not much, especially compared to the standard of privacy in the US). It was really hard to find balance at first, but I had great relationships in my village that really helped me through. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

How is Samoa different from the US?
Samoa seems to be community-centered, whereas the US has a more individual focus. In Samoa, the entire family takes care of each other and provides for each other. This is great because then everybody is always taken care of to some degree, but coming from the US, it is hard to adjust to the idea that “what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is everybody else’s.” It felt a lot more laid-back than the States – there was more flexibility in the routines and daily schedules, and if weather got in the way, then that was no problem (it could either be too hot or too rainy, and I used both excuses many times). Overall, Samoa has a “go with the flow” kind of atmosphere, but it also seems really easy for people to settle with what they have. They can get taro and coconuts from the plantation, and money is always coming in from somewhere, so there isn’t such a pressing need to change anything. From a development perspective, it’s hard to find any reason why people should change their lifestyle if they think they are getting along just fine as they are.

What was the best part?
The people. The relationships I had in my village were by far the most important part of my life in Peace Corps, and they helped me through just about every situation I encountered. My adopted families took such good care of me, and I went to them with every single question, confusion, and problem I had. I’m going to make a huge assumption here and say I had the best village relationships of any PCV in my group. I’m pretty sure it’s true.

What did you learn/how have you changed?
That can get really personal. I’ve learned how to manage a classroom. I’ve learned how to not manage a classroom. I’ve learned that I will never be an English teacher again (hear me out. I discovered this when I started teaching piano. During my piano lessons, I would correct all the little mistakes my students made because I wanted them to get all parts of it correct. I didn’t do that in my English lessons because it was more important to me that my students were trying than that they were getting it right. I was too worried that correcting mistakes would make them insecure and shy. That’s not what a good teacher does. So if I teach again, I’ll stick to piano or astronomy). I think I’ve learned to be patient and flexible. Peace Corps showed me that I never know the answer – even if I think I know what’s happening, and when all is said and done, it actually happened, you never know the answer. Always pay attention, have a million backup plans, and observe what is happening and how. I don’t know how long that lesson will stick around – it’s hard enough to learn, and killer to put into practice. My views on personal relationships have changed – what friendship means, how to ask for help, reciprocity, forgiveness, unconditional love, being a role model, etc. That would take a book to explain, though. I’ve begun to see the importance of finding my own identity and letting that guide me through life. As a PC V in a rural setting, I was out of place all the time, which gave me both freedom and restriction. If I wanted to fit in, I had to be triply concerned with my behavior, appearance, and anything else people could use to make judgments on me. However, I was constantly told that the rules didn’t apply to me because I was a palagi, so if I did or didn’t want to do something, I just had to move past the mental barrier that was blocking my actions. That would also take a book to explain. I like to think I’ve gained a more global perspective, enough life experience for five lifetimes, and a greater understanding of where I come from and my own cultural background. If none of that counts, then at least I’m moderately fluent in Samoan, can get through an entire cup of coffee, am capable of napping on the bus, and my skills at French braiding have upgraded from great to grand master.

In Limbo

I’m having mixed feelings about travelling after Peace Corps – half the time I think “I just want to be home already!” and the other half the time I think “Thank goodness I’m not back in the States yet!” Overall, though, I think my week in New Zealand is more or less beneficial because it is serving as a buffer. I’m getting a good dose of reverse culture shock here, and my audiences are only temporary so my cultural faux pas and social maladjustments don’t really have any serious impact. But if I don’t get them all out here, surely I’ll be forgiven back home, right?

So far, the experiences here resemble my past travels in Peace Corps. Above all else, I can’t believe how big everything is! I can wander around in grocery stores for hours! All the buses have cushy seats, and not every seat is full with people sitting on laps! The cities have more than 2 streets! I remember this shocking me on previous travels, but the surprise never seems to wear off. I also find myself continually surprised to encounter personal cars, stoplights, hot water, microwaves, people who speak English as their first language…the list could go on and on forever. It mostly includes conveniences – the hot water, microwaves, places to get food outside of standard business hours, wi-fi! Sometimes it’s wonderful to be in a first world country. However, I am slightly annoyed that my bus driver doesn’t pick me up from my door and drop me off exactly where I want to go. I’ll miss that.

It’s been really weird to travel though, because every time you meet somebody, you’re obviously a tourist (I can’t help it, I like to use the map to know where I am, and even then I get lost sometimes. Seriously, I walked around downtown Rotorua for at least an hour because I couldn’t match up the intersections in real life with the picture on the map), so the standard questions always come up: “Where are you from? How long will you be in New Zealand?” I always try to give a brief answer to these questions, but really there’s no way to explain it without some background. “I’m just in New Zealand for a week because I’ve been living in Samoa for the past two years, but I’m on my way back to the States and wanted to squeeze in just a little extra travel on the way.” If people are particularly interested, they get to find out that I was teaching English in Samoa, I’m going home for the first time in two years, and New Zealand is awfully cold in summer. That’s usually where the story ends, although I’ve had some longer conversations.

It’s a nice place to leave Peace Corps behind. There’s a strong bicultural identity to New Zealand, so I can still see Polynesia, but Maori tradition is drastically different than Samoan tradition, so it’s familiar, but not very. I’m just starting to move away from Samoan culture, but I haven’t left it behind entirely. At the same time, I’m getting a taste of what the States will be like without having to jump in all at once. Sometimes I still give my name as Tali, although it’s really the Ziemba they’re looking for in their list of reservations. I haven’t caught myself trying to speak Samoan all the time, but I still use some expressions in regular conversation, and I still rely strongly on the nonverbal communication I picked up. I always wonder about that – what do these people make of the fact that I’m wiggling my eyebrows all over the place while they’re talking to me? I can’t help it; I do it unconsciously.

A few of my PCV friends keep asking me how my time is in New Zealand, and I keep telling them that I’m getting a lot of rest, relaxation, and food, and honestly, that perfectly sums up what I’m doing. I’m taking a break. I’ve left home, but I’m going home, and this just gives me a chance to breathe and let things pass.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Cool Story, Hansel

I love to relate stories from my village to the staff at the Peace Corps office – I feel they have a unique appreciation for our stories (I’m not actually sure how often they appreciate my stories, but they are in a unique position to listen to them). Most of the staff in the PC office are locally hired, so they have a thorough understanding of the culture, and most have been working in the office long enough to also have a unique appreciation (there’s that phrase again) of the Pisikoa perspective of what happens in the village. I was talking to someone in the office the other day, sharing my hilarious stories from the village, and she asked me “Do you think people back in the States will find these stories funny?” My response: “I’m not sure, but they’d better at least pretend to because they’re the only stories I have.” Here are a few examples, so you can prepare your (fake) appreciative response for when you see me in person.

• Choir practice was particularly full one week because we were preparing a special song for a district church session. Our choir is about ¾ men, so as more and more showed up after practice had begun, they had to move around to make space for everyone on the pew. At one point, this one man stood up to move a row or two to the front (because everybody always wants to sit in back) and someone called out “nice hair!” I took a closer look, and it looked like a plain old chop job. He had little puffs of hair sticking up randomly, while other sections were cut so close that it looked like he could have been going bald. We all had a good laugh. Then as I was walking around the village after choir practice, I saw a bunch of men with the same haircut – shaved close on the sides with a little more on top. Like a buzz cut. The next morning, when the pastor called out a group of men for being particularly drunk a few nights ago, it dawned on me that this man in choir had the same haircut, but it looked especially ridiculous because he had a bald spot on top. I was even more surprised when he didn’t patch up the chop job and left his hair the same as all the other men for a good week or two more.

• The corn flavored lollipop. What a disaster. I had finished dinner with one of my families and was hanging out with the kids in front of their shop, waiting to be walked home. The kids love to give me things from the store, especially when the parents aren’t looking. Fortunately it’s mostly little items – bubblegum and candy and whatnot. This time, the only candy they had was a corn flavored lollipop. I was suspicious of the look of it, and though I tried to tell them I was full, they insisted I eat it. How can you say no? So the boy behind the counter gave one to me and his little sister (we were out front). A few licks in (ugh, but I can get through this I’m sure), the little girl bumped my arm and I dropped my lollipop (yes! Now I don’t have to finish it!). We looked at the lollipop, then at each other, then back at the lollipop, and then she slowly held hers out for me and picked up mine off the ground. Then we all looked at each other (including the boy behind the counter), then the girl and I looked at each other and our lollipops, then she put her new/old one in her mouth and I put hers in my mouth. After all this happened (it felt like minutes, but I’m sure it wasn’t more than 10 seconds), the boy said “no, no, no! Let me get you a new one!” So my original lollipop was discarded, I returned my replacement to the little girl, and commenced eating a brand new corn flavored lollipop, suffering through every lick.

• My bed had a bad smell to it, which was frustrating because I couldn’t fathom the cause of the smell and it meant I would probably have to wash my sheets again when I was sure I had washed them for the last time in Peace Corps. I texted my friend complaining about the smell, and she said it was probably a dead lizard, which I immediately dismissed because it was in one very specific spot in my bed. Not to mention, it was my bed, which is impenetrable because I sleep under a mosquito net. I had noticed it for two nights running, so I resigned myself to laundry the next day because I was too tired to deal with it tonight. Instead, I positioned myself so that I covered the smelly spot, then I couldn’t smell it at all. I was half asleep for an hour or so because it was a particularly noisy night, then I got up to go to the bathroom. As I moved to get out of bed, my hand hit the smelly spot and just underneath the sheet, I felt the distinct outline of a lizard. My body instantly became wide awake, but my brain lagged behind and I thought “What do I do? Do I leave it there and get it in the morning?” Idiot! You take care of that dead lizard now! I’m pretty much a pro with dead bugs at this point, but lizards are another story entirely, so I panicked throughout the whole situation. I got my pieces of cardboard that I use to scoop up dead bugs, pulled the sheet off my bed and scooted the lizard off my bed. Crisis averted. Except I still had a dead lizard on the floor, and I would have to deal with it in the morning. Not to mention, I would probably forget it was there and step on it in the morning. So I returned again to the dead lizard and picked it up with my dead-bug removers. I was wearing my headlamp at this point, and it made a horrible glare of his scales, so I couldn’t really look at what I was doing. I threw him outside, rearranged my bed, and spent the next hour trying not to think about it so I wouldn’t throw up. I still can’t figure it out. I tuck two sheets under my mattress, and I can’t fathom how this lizard crawled between the sheets to die right next to my shoulder under my top sheet. I also have no idea how long it had been there, but I really don’t want to know the answer to that one. The next morning, I texted my friend to tell her she had been right, that it had been a dead lizard. Her response: “those things can get anywhere.” I will never doubt it again.

• One Friday after school, I came home to my neighbor kids on my porch. The Year 8 boy said he was going to Apia with the grandfather and a Year 9 girl who was somehow related to them so they could watch the premiere of the latest Samoan movie. They would be returning the next day. When the bus came by, I stayed with his younger sister and watched the party leave. I felt a little left out, so I assumed the younger sisters would too (the sisters are in Year 6 and Year 2, I was standing with the Year 2 girl). So I turned to her and asked her if she wanted to get ice cream, figuring that this would be a nice little treat because she was left out of the bigger plans. She said no. I nagged her about it for a little while because by then I was really set on the idea of ice cream, and finally she gave in. So I got my money, then we went over to their house to pick up her sister. They were quite engrossed in the movie they were watching, so I chatted with the mom for a while, then the mom basically had to kick them out of the house to go get ice cream with me. We ate our ice cream quickly, left the shop immediately, and they went straight back to watching their movie.