"We were not supposed to leave. We have to go back [to the island]!"

-Jack Shepard

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Who says you can't go home?

“Nothing makes you feel more like a native of your own country than to live where nearly everyone is not.” –Bill Bryson

My great return to the land of freedom, Stephen Colbert, and non-seasonal produce aisles was far too short and not nearly as overwhelming as I expected. I was only home for about 3 days before hopping a giant boat to Mangoritaville, but I had enough curious revelations to fill another insanely long blog post. In an effort to keep your mind from drifting off to Mangoritaville as well (not that I’d blame you), I’ve condensed my thoughts into this letter:


Dear America,

It was fantastic seeing you again; if only we’d had more time to catch up. Sounds like you’ve had quite the summer. Thanks so much for the warm welcome; it was such a surprise to see you heat waving at me when I arrived at the airport in DC. I heard through the grapevine that you were recently quaking with anxiety from the hurricane of work that’s blown your way at the office – you know how you always exaggerate problems in your head! But I digress. I’m still a little confused by some things you said during our time together, and I just want to get some of my concerns out in the open:

• I’m still not sure I understand the obsession with bottled water. It seems even crazier to me after living in a place where I filter and bleach all my drinking water because bottled water is too expensive to buy regularly. May I remind you of how easy you have it with your free, non-amoeba infested water straight from the tap?
• I can’t stop thinking about that last Harry Potter movie and how it officially marks the end of an era. I know there’s nothing you can do…I guess I’m just wondering if you feel the same way?
• I couldn’t help but notice the over-abundance of processed, low-fat snacks in your grocery stores. Okay, so I’m not so concerned with the “processed” part, but I’ve yet to find a low-fat snack that’s as delicious as its calorific counterpart. It’s nearly impossible to find America-quality junk food in Madagascar – I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve spent hours of my life here fantasizing about Oreos, Cheetos, and Hershey’s chocolate. I beg you to eat healthy, wholesome foods 95% of the time, then go to town on a bag of full-calorie Doritos for me.
• No more Coffee Toffee Twisted Frostees..? Really?
• Can you help me explain my post-vacation obsession with Taylor Swift? Then again, it could be worse in a country that’s so power ballad and cheesy 90s pop-saturated, hearing a Justin Bieber song on the radio brings a tear of homesickness to the eye.
• You should seriously consider cutting down on the variety of foods available in your stores and restaurants. I know, I never thought there was such a thing as too much variety. But I was so overwhelmed by the sheer number of foodstuffs available and spent so much effort deciding combinations of best possible taste + lack of availability in Madagascar that I didn’t even come close to gaining my goal weight of 10lbs.

I hope I don’t seem ungrateful for your hospitality. In fact, I have a greater appreciation for those quirky Americanisms that the rest of the world seems to find so off-putting. Walmart saved my life when I had a million unrelated things to buy and only a few hours to find them. And I can’t thank you enough for your infatuation with ice. Iced coffees, Slurpees, piña coladas, even just a soda with ice cubes – how does the rest of the world live without this basic human right? Finally, I will never, NEVER again take for granted that which we call “sandwich.” Deli meat, cheese, veggies – all piled high on condiment-soaked sliced bread. Sweet land of liberty.

Anyway, I just want to thank you for everything you’ve given me over the years. I’ve never been prouder to be an American. Take care and stay out of trouble. I’ll see you in a year!

Love always,



So now I’m back in the Windy City of Madagascar. The cruise was incredible, particularly because I was with my entire family plus some in-laws and family friends. I didn’t go half as buffet-crazy as I’d hoped, though I did drink my weight in frozen tropical cocktails. The negative side effect of this euphoria was a subsequent affliction with crippling homesickness for a couple weeks after my return. Basically, I locked myself in my house for the first week and slept 12+ hour/day (thank you jetlag), sobbed “I hate Peace Corps!” into my pillow a couple hundred times, and lived solely on grilled sweet potatoes (welcome back gifts from my neighbors). A dark time, indeed, but not dark enough to have actually made me consider ditching my Beach Corps life. Side note: They finally fixed the pipes in and around my house. Jess has running water, biotch! (Not that it changes my lifestyle much, but hot darn it sure makes flushing the toilet easier.)

I’m back into the swing of things now, still teaching a bunch of classes and loving it. I recently finished editing and formatting an English teacher training manual for one of the NGOs in town, which was an absolute blast. No sarcasm, seriously. I’ve learned that editing is what I do best, and I enjoy doing it.

So for one of my advanced classes, I decided to do a session on American culture and diversity – what it means to be “politically correct” and using appropriate terminology when talking about race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc. Like many people around the world, the Malagasy have a tendency to place non-Malagasy in generalized categories when discussing ethnicity. I had just finished a whole schpeal about the difference between nationality and race and how there is a huge variety of ethnicities in America (i.e. why you can’t assume someone is from a certain country based on physical characteristics), when one of my students enthusiastically declares, “Okay, but I think you are Chinese.”
“No, I’m American.”
“Yes, but you are Chinese.”
“I’m not Chinese.”
“But you look Chinese!”

Sexual orientation was another interesting topic. The students I teach have access to Western media, so they are all aware of the concept of homosexuality, but their ideas are very vague (picture the looks on their faces when I tried to explain the term “transgender”) and most don’t agree with it or simply deny its existence. I explained how sensitive an issue this is in America and advised that it is better to avoid the topic altogether rather than risk an exchange that could be offensive to both parties. Like the lesson on race, most of the class understood and took to heart what I’d said, but there’s always that one student…
Me: “Can someone give me a sentence using the vocabulary we learned today?”
Student: “Yes. Gays, bisexuals, and transgenders are mentally disabled!”
Class: *embarrassed laughter*
Me: *cracking up* “Okay, that sentence is grammatically correct.”
If I were a more sensitive person, that student would’ve left class with my flip-flop print on his ass. Thank goodness for Peace Corps cross-cultural training.

On the topic of cultural exchanges… Those of you who know me well know that I love to make generalizations about groups of people (usually jokingly) that have no bearing whatsoever on my opinion of them as individuals. Here’s another one for you: I cannot STAND expats. Phew, feels good to get that one off my chest. More accurately, I should say I don’t like expat drama. Why? They’re like alphas without a pack. Expats get themselves so invested in certain aspects, issues, institutions, etc. in this country that they become convinced that only they know what’s right. It almost becomes an “if you’re not with me, you’re against me” situation. I cannot count the number times I’ve sat amongst a group of expats bitching and bickering about the conflicts in their lives and laughed to myself about how pointless (and impossible to keep straight) it all is. Some of it is long-term animosity (the Brits don’t like the French, the French don’t like the South Africans…) and some of it is ideological differences (missionaries v. holding groups v. NGOs v. entrepreneurs), but it’s all part of an convoluted web that can never be untangled. Peace Corps volunteers have an interesting perspective because we’re not working for ourselves or for a particular affiliation. We don’t bring development; our goal is to transfer skills to the Malagasy people so they can facilitate their own development. Maybe that’s why it’s so amusing to watch all of these white people argue over which one of them knows what’s best for Madagascar. But then I guess therein lies the irony: We all want the same thing – whatever is best for Madagascar.

All that said, I LOVE the expats in Fort Dauphin as individuals. They’ve all enthusiastically welcomed me into their respective communities and done so much to help me. They provide me with interesting conversations and new perspectives, and they are almost always willing to share what’s theirs. They’ve become some of my best friends here. Thank you expats! (And try to chillax – it’s just life.)

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