Eleven days

They say that for getting over jet lag it takes the same number of days as there are hours of time difference in the new place. In other words, if you travel from New York to Los Angeles, it takes three days to get over jet lag because there’s a three-hour time difference. I’m now eleven days into my new life in Laos, a time zone with an eleven-hour difference from Eastern Standard Time. I should feel right with the world, but I am still actively adjusting to a new culture where very few people speak English, it smells funny, and I don’t have a car.

Riding a bike home to my little apartment surrounded by tuk-tuks, SUVs, and motorcycles without getting run off the road was a major accomplishment. Then I figured out where the little supermarket was and how to load up groceries into my backpack. Water is really heavy. Yesterday I met with Ministry of Education officials and didn’t understand 99% of what was being said. I need to learn Lao. But I looked good in a long traditional silk skirt that I borrowed from another American woman and had ironed by the lady who cleans the apartments. She also helped me figure out how to put it on. I’m pretty good at speaking via gestures – what would you expect from a lifelong English language teacher?

A surge of self-confidence wells up in my head as I cross each new challenge off the “firsts” list. Find a place to live, tell the taxi how to get there in the dark, find the bicycle that M. left me, pay for a meal, get the Embassy badge in just the right color, and talk to the little boy who lives in my building – hey he speaks English! I can’t complain: I’ve got air-conditioning, CNN, and a swimming pool. Who cares if I’m a little too far from the American Center to walk?

My job is a little slow to get started but that’s okay. A woman who’s been here for years told me that P.D.R. does not stand for People’s Democratic Republic – it stands for Please Don’t Rush. I’m happy to pace myself, recognizing that I am privileged to work in this amazing country and eager not to be a pushy American.

How to make 140 new friends in 5 days

When I accepted the English Language Teaching Fellowship back in March, I knew that I would be giving notice to my public school district and setting off on an exhilarating new adventure. A lot of teachers my age are counting down the days to retirement, but I have taken a leave of absence to travel alone to the other side of the world. (My husband might come visit, but he isn’t moving to Southeast Asia with me.) I was thrilled to be matched to Laos, the country I fell in love with as a tourist in 2015. The natural beauty of Luang Prabang makes it one of the top World Heritage sites. The Mekong River, whose name punctuated my formative years, would soon be at my front door. The warm-hearted Laotian people would welcome me and tie friendship bracelets around my wrists again. It is fate I told myself.

A little nervous anxiety kicked in, however, when I realized I’d be going as an independent contractor, and not a U.S. Embassy employee or an employee of Georgetown University, who actually runs the program. I would not be a Peace Corps Volunteer, as I was in 1982 in Niger, with the weight of the U.S. government behind me. Nor would I be “the wife of ~” as I was 22 years ago when I followed my husband to the Comoros Islands as a trailing Peace Corps spouse. I wouldn’t even have the wonderful tour guide who led our group of teachers in 2015. Who will tell me where the good larb salad is? I wondered. How will I know who to contact at the Ministry of Education? Who will tell me if I’m too old to go rowing? Who will have my back if something goes wrong?

I ignored the sense of apprehension that settled into the pit of my stomach. My support network would be just an email or a Skype conversation away. Right? I spoke with the outgoing Fellows leaving the country, and got some good logistical advice. Too bad they wouldn’t be in-country to greet me when I arrived. I started to cross items off my To Do list. All my burning questions could wait for the Pre Departure Orientation in Washington, DC. Well, the orientation took place last week in Washington, DC and I met 140 other English Language teaching Fellows going to 70 countries around the world.  Now I know that I will not be truly alone at my post.

The Pre Departure Orientation (PDO) involved an intense five days of lectures, workshops, discussions, and receptions at the historic Mayflower Hotel. And coffee. I did not realize that the U.S. Department of State would be out in force – sharing resources, teaching strategies, and a network of connections to help in my professional growth. I didn’t realize that the Georgetown University team would be working so hard to put together an outstanding conference. Now that PDO is finished, I can say that a lot of people want to see me succeed.

But more valuable than anything else during PDO, was the group of Fellows themselves. I did not realize that there would be so many talented teachers – in the flesh – offering recommendations, jokes, and a hand of friendship. It was remarkable that we all had a certain openness in common, which made breakfast conversations flow as easily as the coffee. At every session, I spoke to Fellows of all ages – some even older than I am – from all regions of the world. I was impressed with the level of international teaching experience, even among teachers who looked like they were 18 years old (they weren’t). I was delighted to meet the Fellows going to the countries where I’d lived decades ago. So many new and renewing Fellows were willing to go out of their way to welcome like-minded colleagues. I left certain presentations feeling inspired by my new community.

During PDO, we exchanged phone numbers, Facebook invitations, and offers to visit. I got invited out on several occasions by Fellows much younger (and more fun) than I am. “No, thanks. I’m too old,” is not an answer I plan to use again. It’s not just fate that total strangers turned into friends so quickly.

During PDO, I learned that 140 characters is not just a Twitter word count; it’s the number new English Language teacher friends I’ve got in 70 countries around the world. We’ve only known each other for five days, but we are here to guide each other through the 2017-2018 Fellowship year. I can’t wait!

 

Enhanced

Activities this summer are taking on a more profound, urgent sense, like I’m trying to imprint America into my brain before I head overseas. I’ve rowed at sunrise five of the past seven days, biked up the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail with a friend, visited the Hive exhibit at the Smithsonian Building Museum, gone to “The Big Sick” at the new AMC movie theatre, celebrated Denizen Brew Pub’s 3rd anniversary, brunched with a woman I haven’t seen in 20 years, visited Rockland Farms Winery with my husband, and hiked through a blooming sunflower field at McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area. It’s like I’ve pushed the “enhance” button on the video of my life to make my experiences sharper, with more vibrant color and emotion, and everyone’s going along with it. These are the days I will remember and yearn for. These are the days that will contrast brightly with my future lifestyle. These are the good old days.

Like the sunflower blooming, I am open to new experiences. Or maybe old experiences felt more profoundly. Like going to church yesterday. The music made me cry. Even with Father Jacek and Father Mike gone, I felt uplifted by the sermon, the singing, and the multicultural community around me. To my left was an African woman who sang loudly off-key and prayed emphatically with a strong French accent. Five gorgeous stair-step children sat to her left and bent their heads, probably in embarrassment. A few years ago I would have been annoyed by her, but yesterday I smiled to myself and held her hand at the Our Father. To my right was a short Latina grandmother who couldn’t hear the cell phone buzzing constantly in her purse. As her family members crowded late into the pew, I got squeezed between the two women. The piano played, the drum beat, we swayed and clapped together, the choir sang in English, French and Spanish and I was moved to tears. I put my head down as if to pray and wiped away the wet stains on my cheeks. The woman sitting behind me gave me a big hug after mass and told me she’d pray for me. We were in a “Find Your Gifts” workshop together two years ago. What is she projecting on to me? The only thing different is that I’m leaving it all behind for a year. So why does that make my feelings so powerful?

It shouldn’t take an international relocation to reboot one’s life. I wasn’t bright enough to figure out exactly what I wanted until I applied for an English Language Teaching Fellowship. I had only a vague sense that I would like to be a stranger again and I followed that feeling. If I had to give anyone advice, here’s what I would recommend: follow your feelings. It turns out that I’ve gotten exactly what I needed. And I haven’t even left home yet.

Here’s a poem that inspired me. I’ve had it on my bulletin board since January 2015 when I saw it in the Inward Outward blog.

For a New Beginning         

In out of the way places of the heart

Where your thoughts never think to wander

This beginning has been quietly forming

Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

 

For a long time it has watched your desire

Feeling the emptiness grow inside you

Noticing how you willed yourself on

Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

 

It watched you play with the seduction of safety

And the grey promises that sameness whispered

Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent

Wondered would you always live like this.

 

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,

And out you stepped onto new ground,

Your eyes young again with energy and dream

A path of plenitude opening before you.

 

Though your destination is not clear

You can trust the promise of this opening;

Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning

That is one with your life’s desire.

 

Awaken your spirit to adventure

Hold nothing back,

Learn to find ease in risk

Soon you will be home in a new rhythm

For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

 

– John O’Donohue, Bless the Space Between Us

Beginnings and Endings

Beginnings and endings have always been easy for me. As a young child I was constantly on the move. By the time I was 12 years old I had lived in four different states and 10 different houses. According to family lore – aka my older sister – of all my siblings, I was the first to adapt to a new place. When we moved from Southwest Louisiana to upstate New York, I was the first to lose my southern drawl and acquire a new accent. I was the first to give up eating mayonnaise on hotdogs because it repulsed my Yankee friends. My rapid adaptation to a new culture was helped by some modicum of social awareness and the general opinion that I was pretty damn cute. These traits have served me well over the years, and I may need to rely on them again soon.

My older sister has fed the myth of my popularity to all who would listen. She will never let me live this down. During the first week of school in Huntington, West Virginia – where my father had taken a job at Marshall University – I was named to the 7th grade student council while she suffered miserably in gawky adolescent angst. My sister was actively rebelling against the backwardness of her teachers, her classmates’ behind-the-times fashion choices, the poor curriculum, the “run down” school and the entire experience of leaving behind a place she loved. She was 15, awkward, and hated everything about her new environment. Even though I was affected by her negativity, I kept those opinions to myself. I got along with everyone and made true friends. Big Sister left for college three years later and only returned to West Virginia thereafter as a guest. It would be my parents’ last big move, and my and my younger siblings’ home base for the next four-and-a-half decades. My mother still lives in the Victorian house pictured above.

I have completely adapted. When people ask where I’m from, I easily respond “West Virginia,” even though it’s more complicated than that. I spent my formative years in that state and can code switch naturally. After college – West Virginia University, with a gap year in Boston – I moved to Washington DC, then applied to the Peace Corps. I was on my 17th home in 23 years and I wanted to live overseas desperately. What is it about being the newcomer that is so addicting? For years, all I had to do was show up, smile, and try to fit in. People were so nice and accepting. In some back channel of my mind I wanted to re-create that pleasant childhood experience.

In my mid-20’s I spent two years in the Peace Corps in West Africa, where I met my husband. I smiled and he showed up again and again. I was his “vision in white,” and he was my “knight in shining armor.” The fact that we’d met in West Africa meant that I had met my true match in terms of adapting to a new culture. After we married and our children were born, he became Peace Corps Country Director, and we moved back to Africa. I was more than willing to follow him overseas, to become the welcomed newcomer again. When you’re the novice, people have few expectations of you yet, and it’s possible to reinvent yourself while nobody’s paying attention. When we first arrived in West Africa, I still had the robust confidence that comes with youth. I was going to lead literary salons, host international parties, travel, and write a book. Except that I was a “trailing spouse” with two children under the age of five. I quickly learned that I needed more than good looks and wishful thinking to get by.

The year I turned 40 provided a jolting wake up. My social expectations had been shaped by Peace Corps, but I was surrounded by expats who played by different rules. The easy friendships that had always come to me without effort suddenly became tense. It seemed that my husband’s high status position – or maybe the fact that I had young children – changed people’s perceptions of me. Or maybe it was because I became the old-timer and was supposed to lead the way. It was such a struggle to adapt to others’ expectations in West Africa, that I’ve written a 400-page memoir about how difficult that sojourn was. At least one of my youthful dreams has come true.

So why, in 2017, am I seeking the newcomer experience again? On September 1st, I will be moving to Laos, Southeast Asia, for an English Language Teaching Fellowship through the U.S. Department of State. This time, I am going alone, without husband or family. Another new beginning. While I’m excited to start fresh in a new place where my professional experience might allow me to make a big difference, I am nervous that maybe I will not be able to adapt well socially. I will arrive with only one context, one role: Teacher. I will not be “the wife of ~” or “the mother of ~.” That puts more pressure on me to make friends and claim my own extracurricular identity. I think I’m ready.

Some teacher colleagues believe I’m brave and adventurous, but I’m really going back to my roots. I’m trying to recreate that familiar childhood experience of just showing up,  smiling, and expecting the best. I don’t know what the equivalent of eating hotdogs with mayonnaise will be in Laos, but I’m prepared to give up some of my comforts. I’ll be on  the lookout for unfamiliar customs, people, places and language that will shape my Fellowship year. I plan on sharing my impressions via this blog. Even though I’m not so cute any more, I’m good at new beginnings. I hope people will be interested enough in my experience to follow me on this amazing journey. Laos will be my 28th home.

Wonder Women

I was surprised I liked Wonder Woman so much! This blogger explains just why it was so appealing.

Wine and Cheese (Doodles)

When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind….

Wonder. Woman.

I wasn’t expecting to get emotional over a movie based on a comic book character, especially one in which I was going to have to look past the sexy push-up bra and the cascade of dark, glossy locks.

But I did.

Here’s the thing: Unless you belong to a group which is un or under represented–in movies, television, books, politics, life–you probably don’t appreciate the emotions that come with finally witnessing that representation–ten feet high on a movie screen. But trust me, it’s one of the reasons there’s so much hype surrounding Wonder Woman, especially and notably, from women. It’s not that it’s not a good movie in its own right (it is), it’s that a new generation of girls and boys, sitting in…

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One way to end the school year

It was 75 degrees and sunny with low humidity and a bright breeze rustling the leaves around my suburban brick home. A perfect June day. I was sitting on the front porch after a long day’s work watching Honda vans and GMC SUVs full of kids coming home from practice in time for dinner. There were 10 days left of school year. I was trying to come up with a profound way to end the school year – maybe I could give humorous little certificates of achievement to the students, like paper plate awards that the rowing team used to do, or have a pizza party. Maybe I could return the letters they wrote me at the beginning of the year, the ones with their mission statements, and ask them to reflect on their progress as writers and critical thinkers. Maybe they could make little speeches about their goals, or we could play Two Truths and a Lie. My other class loved that game. It would be good for oral language development. I sat on the porch planning all this in my mind while drinking a rosé d’Anjou in a tiny etched glass that used to belong to my grandmother.

I want the end of the year to be meaningful and memorable because I’m leaving it all behind. I’m taking a one-year leave of absence to work as an English Language Teaching Fellow with the U.S. Embassy in Laos. I want to savor every last moment at my MCPS high school.

Instead, I spend my last days trying to grade my Required Quarterly Assessments, which some Board members thought would be a good substitute for semester exams and forced teachers to give up semester exams – and the time to grade them that was built into every high school schedule the last week of school. But ESOL RQAs are not just bubble sheets that can be run through a Scantron. They require days of practice just to expose students to the hastily-written, poorly formatted writing prompts – which this quarter included a checklist for students with misspellings [Did I organizer my writing?]. In the final days of the marking period, so many students were pulled from my class (it wasn’t random, but it sure felt that way) to take PARCC and H.S.A. tests that I gave them independent projects to work on for weeks. I was providing the same mini-lessons over and over again until each group cycled through the tests. I couldn’t move ahead with instruction, so I had to come up with extension activities for those students who weren’t testing. I knew I’d lost them when C., usually my best student, asked if she could just listen to music one day. She was so far ahead of the class that I had to say yes.

So the final days were spent trying to score the RQA exams while students sat in the classroom doing no new work. So many kids have missed so many assignments that the last week was mostly make up work. Thirteen students are failing the semester, even though I tried to save them. It is demoralizing to realize that I care more about their grades than some of them. Today I managed to give out summer reading assignments and to distribute little gifts, but I almost forgot to give out the little candies I bought and return the portfolio of work that I’d been collecting since the beginning of the year. The students opted to watch videos, play Uno and throw their folders in the trash. This is not how I want to remember my nine years as a high school ESOL teacher.

Tomorrow is a half day, and I don’t expect many students to show up. That’s good, because I have to clean out my classroom. I’m having a little lunch with my colleagues then attending a staff meeting, where we’ll celebrate the retirees and those moving on to new schools. I know my name will be on the Saying Goodbye list. I’m going to miss the daily smiles and stresses. I’m going to miss my colleagues, who are such amazingly dedicated teachers. I have so much to learn from them, and I’m grateful they’ve shared another school year with me. I hope I can come back to this place in a year. I know it seems hectic now, but in retrospect, it will seem so wonderful.

A man and a woman are walking by, with a dog on a leash and a toddler in a stroller. I wave at them. The tree branches above my head dance in a mesmerizing forward and back motion. I’m sitting on concrete steps under an American flag. I’m thinking that this is the coldest weather I’ll feel for a long time. By the end of the summer, I’ll be leaving it all behind and I know I’ll miss it.

 

Dirty Windows

I hadn’t slept in until sunrise for four months. Usually I’m out of the house by 6:20 am and on the way to work well before the birds start chirping. Then one April morning I woke up with brilliant light streaming in and noticed all the windows were dirty. High school teachers in my district aren’t exactly nocturnal, but sometimes it can feel that way. In November the government gives back an hour of the morning light, just before nature takes it away for the winter. Then in March we get a glimpse of the early gleaming before we Spring Forward and the mornings feel gloomy once again. I read symbolism into everything. Dirty windows equals unclear vision. If this is my time to shine, I need to see those little green buds unfurling on the trees around my house. It feels urgent this year. Maybe because I’ve accepted an English Language Teaching Fellowship for next year and am moving to Laos in August. I was offered the same Fellowship in 2014 but couldn’t accept because the timing was wrong. I’ve dreamed of this moment ever since. At school, they’re already interviewing for my replacement. I’m worried that our new president will cut off the State Department funds before I have a signed contract in my hands. Maybe because the weather started to change too early – in February – then everything froze again. The daffodils, cherry blossoms, and crocuses almost died off. Why is it that the things we wait for the longest are the best? The hope that seems most fragile is the one that nurtures us. Through the windows suddenly I see neighbors with new babies in strollers, dogs I don’t recognize, and isn’t that Hannah home from Holland with a friend? Let me go say hello.

Spring Break starts today and now I finally have time to reflect on all the changes this year will bring. April is not the cruelest month, but I’ve got to get those windows cleaned.