Learning to be alone again

It’s not just the rains that force me to stay inside my Vientiane apartment. Every time I step out the door I’m reminded that I am The Other. I look different, I have strange habits, and I don’t speak Lao. The people around me are used to foreigners, though, and speak enough English to make me believe they’ve understood, but in reality it’s complicated. “Where you going?” the security guard asks me kindly. “Working?” “Yes, working,” I reply. I can’t explain that I don’t have a regular schedule yet and my unpredictability is throwing him off. In reality, I’m heading to the local coffee shop. I’ve learned enough about this collectivist culture to know that people are wondering why I’m always alone. These days I’ve been asking myself the same question.

Except for two years in the Peace Corps, I have never lived alone. I left home at age 18 and went from roommate to roommate until I got married and had children. It’s hard to believe. I began a teaching career and spent years thinking that snatches of adult conversation between classes was the norm. As my own children grew up, we stopped having family dinner together. I took on extra work, coached a high school rowing team, joined a writing group, and stayed out later and later. By the time my husband got home I was usually too tired to exchange much more than perfunctory greetings before we’d retreat into our separate corners of the house, exhausted. “Don’t ask me to make a single decision!” I remember saying on more than one occasion. I was too busy to work at improving relationships. I spent decades surrounded by people, living the illusion of togetherness when in reality I’ve been alone all this time and never embraced it.

The physical hardships of being in a faraway place are the easy ones to get used to. The heat and humidity hit like a thick velvet curtain every morning, causing my hair to frizz and my clothes to go limp on my body. I sweat through two outfits a day and show up anywhere looking like a marathon runner in sore need of a towel. I’ve gotten used to biking home in the dark, past the dusty market, where breathing in exhaust fumes from motorcycle tailpipes is a hazard. Maybe I’ll get one of those ubiquitous face masks that Asians seem to wear everywhere. I’ve accepted that hauling groceries in a backpack from the minimart is better than taking an expensive taxi. It makes me look ridiculous, but it’s a humility I can live with. Since I can’t drink the tap water, I’ve figured out how to get the five-gallon jugs delivered to my apartment. I’m doing pretty well.

Then there’s the rain. It was supposed to have stopped already. But it keeps on raining. Twice in the last week, torrential downpours have forced me to stay inside my apartment for most of the day. I looked into renting a car, contacted several places and got price quotes. But since I don’t have to be anywhere in particular most days, why bother? I started reading a good book, looked through some teaching material sent by the B. Council woman I might be working with, I reorganized the shelves in my bedroom, I made myself a sandwich, and I posted way too many comments on Facebook. I started thinking about my husband, my sons, my mother, my sisters and brothers, my friends, and my colleagues back in the States. There’s an 11-hour time difference, so I couldn’t really speak to anyone in real time. I started writing. When forced into solitude, I admit that I am lonely. It feels a lot different over here.

By far, the most difficult adjustment for me – an American used to individualism and agency – has been the wait. I’m waiting for the higher-ups to sign the necessary paperwork for me to begin my official job, the one I was brought over here to do. Bureaucracy is not for the faint hearted. I’m used to a well-defined role: Teacher, Coach, Teammate, Writer, Wife, Mother. It’s been a real stretch to find purpose and fulfillment in a work-around environment. But it has an up side: when someone reaches out in friendship, I jump at the opportunity to make a connection. Because I really need it. I have to remind myself that building relationships takes time. In the U.S. I took all those things for granted. Here in Laos, I am having to work harder at the softer skills than I ever expected.

A little solitude is good for everyone. Being alone again has allowed me to examine what it means to have meaningful work, what it means to have friendship, and how important it is to reach out to people and share thoughts and feelings, even the uncomfortable truth. I have never been very good at that. But I am good at reaching out to people and am rewarded when they respond. Aloneness doesn’t necessarily equal loneliness.

Pretty soon, I’ll look back on this experience and wonder where the time has gone. It’s going to get busy very soon. The rains are about to stop, and the cool season will begin. I can feel changes in the air already. What has happened during my forced solitude is that I’ve had to face the pain of disappointment, my own self-doubt, and the belief that I was totally in control. I am reminded that I chose to be here. Personal growth can only come when one examines and accepts the harsh realities. I accepted this Fellowship to challenge myself and get away from the predictable routines of my life.

Being alone has allowed me to explore new thoughts and feelings, and to connect with a deeper desire to gain a different cultural perspective. Maybe next time the guard asks where I am going, I will stop pretending I’m hurrying off to work, and take the opportunity to practice my emerging language skills with him. Maybe solitude is the true reason I accepted this Fellowship. I needed to learn to live alone again so that I could reach out to people authentically.

“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.”

  • Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company

School Choice is a Lie. It Does Not Mean More Options. It Means Fewer.

When I taught at a Title I elementary school from 2001 to 2006, we were labelled a “failing school.” Under NCLB students were given a choice to attend a “good” school. Only three students (out of nearly 700) made the leap, and two came right back to their neighborhood school. School choice is an artificial name to open the way for profiteering off the backs of students and their families.

Source: School Choice is a Lie. It Does Not Mean More Options. It Means Less.

Baw bpen nyang

There’s a Lao expression, baw bpen nyang, that loosely translates as “no problem.” It’s used in a variety of situations to mean anything from “don’t worry,” – as in the tuk-tuk driver saying, “it’s the wrong change, but don’t worry, I’ll give you Thai baht” – to “you’re welcome” – as a response to letting a student at the American Center join a class even though they didn’t register. Baw bpen nyang seems to be a way of life that I have no choice but to accept. For a Westerner used to taking charge, it’s got some advantages.

Riding a bicycle loaded down with water bottles from the minimart can be a challenge under any circumstances. But riding after dark, with motorcycles criss-crossing in front of me, while sandwiched between two cars jockeying for the same lane can raise it to a different level of stress. I’ve got a fierce determined look on my face and a bright beam of light to mark the potholes. Traffic seems to move around me in an effortless dance that I don’t understand. Baw bpen nyang. I make it home drenched with sweat just before a torrential rainstorm floods the street. Relief!

During my first week in Laos, the U.S. Embassy staff introduced me to some officials at the Ministry of Education, where I am supposed to be working with Lao teachers of English to help develop a curriculum. I knew that I wouldn’t be starting my job right away; it’s not like the U.S. where schools start in lock step just before or just after Labor Day. It’s the first time an English Language Fellow has been asked to do this work so I knew it would take some time to get all the paperwork completed. While I’m waiting for my official job to begin, I’ve been getting out to meet teachers informally. Baw bpen nyang. I’m resourceful and resilient I tell myself. Okay, I’ll admit it’s been a little stressful not to have a real job yet. But as soon as people learn that I want to visit their schools, they invite me to observe or teach a class. It’s been fun to be back in a classroom doing what I’m best at: teaching English language learners. It turns out I’m pretty good at networking, too. I’m excited to meet Lao teachers, to see them trying new methods and to watch students brighten up when they get a sentence right. I can feel the energy and enthusiasm of the young people here, and it’s a little bit contagious.

Yesterday I invited one of the Teaching Assistants from the American Center out to lunch. Today he’s invited me out to his school to meet some teachers. It’s Teacher Appreciation Day, so I’ve got a couple of boxes of American candy to offer the head master. His cousin is coming to pick me up in an air-conditioned car. I’m wearing a traditional Lao skirt, a sinh made of silk, and waiting for rain to stop. I get a message in perfect English, with a smiley face, “My cousin is in the temple and I’m waiting for him to come back.” You know what I’m thinking: baw bpen nyang. I’m trying to convince this guy to enter the ASEAN Youth contest. He’s got the skills to make it work, and I can help him craft a strong essay. If he doesn’t meet the deadline – well, I guess there will be other opportunities.

Sometimes when I’m beginning to feel a little lost and confused, a new person shows up to help me. This week one of my dreams came true: I got to go out on the Mekong River in a long boat. It’s a few days before the Boat Racing Festival, Boun Xuang Heua, one of Vientiane’s biggest events of the year. It’s understandable that Ms. S didn’t really want the responsibility of an extra falang woman when she was trying to launch an international crew safely before sunset. But my new friend, JC told her I was “a professional” and since I just showed up, baw bpen nyang, she let me go out in the coaching boat. What a thrill! It felt at once foreign and familiar to watch 48 people paddle in sync in a gorgeously decorated boat, counting the rhythm in Lao: nung, song, saam, sii, haa

It will take a while for me to find my rhythm in this new place. My experience tells me that it’s best to be patient and wait for things to happen instead of trying to force them. I’m learning that something magical and uniquely Asian happens when you simply plant an idea, then sit back and let it grow.

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.