Take your eyes off the clock

One of the things about being a full time K-12 teacher is that it takes several weeks after school ends to emerge as a whole person. I’m more than halfway through summer break and I finally feel like the real me.

In late June I started off the summer by traveling to El Salvador – not exactly a top tourist destination. It was for a graduate course on Visual Literacy as a Tool for Cultural Proficiency in the Classroom – how could I not go? That was almost the exact title of my last WATESOL presentation! Perfect synchronicity! Since I have so many students from El Salvador and Central America, I wanted to try to understand a little more about their country and culture. I also wanted a chance to speak Spanish every day in an authentic setting. And I’m getting graduate credits!

Laberinto Projects Educa was the perfect way to combine education and tourism – an experience led by a woman who grew up in San Salvador, a child of immigrant refugees, who is trying to keep her mother’s art legacy alive. Her personal story is a powerful entry into learning about the Salvadoran Civil War, the gangs, and how ordinary people are trying to find a way to make a difference. Our group of DC area teachers had several powerful lectures by local artists, a photo-journalist, a museum curator, an archeologist, a seed conservationist, and a gallery owner. We were able to travel around the western part of the country with a trusted driver. Everywhere we went we were the only tourists. In one colorful mountain town, villagers took photos of us taking photos.

Not everyone has the chance to kickstart their summer vacation like me, but I feel empowered. Now that I have had some down time, I’ve been able to catch up on exercise, my family, and my reading.

I subscribe to a blog called Curmudgucation that I absolutely love. It’s written by a retired teacher who stands up for public education. It’s usually more political than the following post, but I want to share it anyway. Time flies during the summer, and sometimes teachers need a reminder to unlearn certain behaviors that develop over the 10 months we’re jogging on the conveyor belt of the school year.

This is from the July 26th Curmudgucation blog, about teachers needing the summer to unlearn some things.

Here are some things I have had to learn.

* Measure out time in increments larger than 30 seconds. It is not necessary to squeeze achievements into every second of the day, particularly when you could be using the time to interact with the other carbon based life forms in your home.

* Eat a meal in more than five minutes.

* Read a book without repeatedly thinking, “I could use this in class for my unit about X.”

* Read a book that you couldn’t possibly use for class ever.

* Visit an interesting location without grabbing pamphlets for your classroom.

* Moving through your day without a gnawing sense of urgency that there’s something you should be grading, reading, planning or reviewing.

* Figuring out what to do with the uncontrollable urge that hits every time you learn something new, which is the urge to pass it on to somebody else.

* Understanding that you might never not be a teacher, and you’re going to have to figure out what to do with that.

* Exercise. Because you’re not walking ten miles a day any more.

* Face you’re unreasonable addiction to office supplies.

* Talk yourself out of running for school board.

* Seriously. You can take fifteen or twenty minutes to eat lunch. Take a breath between bites. Chew your food. Talk to somebody.

* Take your eyes off the clock.

 

 

Memorial Day

May 28, 2019

Memorial Day has come and gone. I’ve read the stories of soldiers who fought and died for freedom, watched the parades, and listened to the commentators praise our military service members. I’ve stood facing the flag with my hand over my heart five days a week and said the Pledge of Allegiance in front of a room full of immigrants and recited the words, “with Liberty and Justice for all.” But I’m not feeling it this year. I understand that my perspective may be in the minority and it might make me unpopular; I’ll say it anyway. I’m a little bit angry about all the praise for war.

Don’t get me wrong. My father, my mother, and my uncles fought in World War II. My cousin served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. His name is engraved on the Wall on the National Mall in Washington, DC. I’ve taken my students there and pointed out Peter M. Sullivan on Panel 15E, Line 10. They were impressed when the docent climbed a ladder to create a rubbing for me. It made the experience a little more real for them. My students from Vietnam were silent. Even though we’d read an excerpt from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, later they told me, “Miss, I thought we were going to see something about my culture!” They understood that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was not about them. They helped me see it in a new light.

I have cousins in the Army today, and I’m sure they are making a sacrifice to serve in the military. I am not against giving people respect for the jobs they do. But why aren’t we giving the same respect to people actively promoting peace? to students who lose their lives to gun violence in schools? According to Education Week , and the Washington Post more American students died from mass shootings than died during active-duty combat while serving their country in the U.S. military. There have been 13 school shootings so far this year in the USA. Wikipedia says that there have been 48 school-shooting deaths since January 2018. I have had to conduct active-shooter drills in my classroom. There’s no honor in preparing for some crazy person with a gun who wields more power than I do. His rights are firmly protected by the Constitution and the NRA. What about our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

I don’t want to put down the work of our military; they have an important role. But when the focus is so strongly on the heroism of death, why aren’t we honoring the teachers and students who face a lunatic gunman and come out alive? Instead we get Parkland students mocked and threatened for daring to speak out after surviving a school shooting where 17 children were gunned down. They were followed around by badass NRA-provoked warriors in tank-like vehicles. When students and ordinary people are the ones making “the ultimate sacrifice,” who is honoring their deaths? *

Why aren’t we honoring people who bring peace to our communities? The Martin Luther Kings of the future? The activists and leaders who speak out against killing and preventable gun violence? In 1961 President Kennedy founded the U.S. Peace Corps. My ESOL 5 students started a unit about it this week. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and I served this country. I raised my right hand and swore an oath to the U.S. Constitution, against all enemies, foreign and domestic. More than 235,000 volunteers have served in 141 countries. We’ve never gotten an entire holiday dedicated to our service.  What about all the Foreign Service workers and diplomats? The ones who do the actual work of promoting the interests of the United States? I served again as an English Language Fellow helping promote American ideals overseas. Why is peaceful service not being honored?

All the flag waving feels hollow to me. I don’t want to glorify death via military service or any other way. When students and ordinary people are the ones making “the ultimate sacrifice,” who is honoring their deaths? Next Memorial Day, I will honor the peacemakers.

* Hot off the press! Parkland school journalists win Pulitzer Prize!

 

Am I less valued because I teach low-income students?

I’m re-posting this piece I wrote 3 years ago.

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Time to make noise (again.

Here’s another great voice for the need to support teachers of low socio-economic-status students in this EdWeek article. Bruce Hansen mentions that when he received the “golden apple award” his colleagues assumed that he would pursue an easier job at a school in a high-income district. He may feel guilty, but that’s exactly what he did. “There’s a perception that really good teachers work in schools that cater to students from wealthy families,” he writes. He recommends that teachers get special training “from university educators,” who develop specialized techniques and curricula. But the reason Mr. Hansen left his job has nothing to do with curriculum or training. He left because he did not receive enough support.

I’ve been teaching high-poverty English Language Learners for 15 years and it’s both rewarding and exhausting. When students are so needy every day, it can be emotionally and physically draining. We don’t need more university educators telling us what to do.  We need compassionate administrators who understand what it’s like to “work in the trenches.” We need a network of like-minded teachers and student counselors who can prevent us from being traumatized by the traumas of our students. At the end of the day, I can get in my car and drive back to my leafy suburb. It’s important for teachers of high poverty students to be mentally healthy.

Unfortunately many low-income schools are where new principals get placed to learn the ropes before moving on, where teachers involuntarily transferred land, and where there’s high teacher turnover and little administrative support. I’m proud to say that this practice is not prevalent in my mixed-income school. However, I definitely get a feeling that I count less than teachers of AP and IB students heading to Harvard. My administrator has never set foot in my classroom to give his famous Timeline speech, in spite of my annual plea to come for a visit. However, he is very supportive in other ways. And that makes all the difference.

I also have a union that backs me up at the district level, full access to excellent training resources, and local leadership that listens to teachers and gives priority to education. Now if they could just add back that hour of time that Daylight Savings took away, I could get a lot more done in 24 hours.

 

 

 

Boxed In – Help!

During the holidays, I ordered a lot of items to be delivered directly to my house. I’m not an Amazon person – except for books – but I have been a Catalogue Queen for two decades. Lands End, LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, J. Jill, Garnet Hill, and DHC are among my favorites. Each item comes in a box that is sometimes so beautiful that I don’t want to throw it away!

Lands End used to have a holiday themed coloring outline on the inside of its boxes. When the kids were little, we used to cut open each one carefully and spend hours on the floor with crayons and markers. It was a surprisingly fun holiday activity when we lived overseas. Now I have no such excuse to keep the boxes, but they are filling up my basement and cluttering up my life.

To make matters worse, my son seems to have inherited this disturbing habit. Just when I start to clean them out, he orders another Japanese robot collectible. Each comes mindfully packaged in high-quality cardboard. Like me, he thinks, “That box would be a perfect container for something.” I brought some to work when we were cleaning out the book room, and those things proved to be quite sturdy. He must have noticed the same properties because, when I got home, they were filled with my books. And his Japanese transformers now cover the bookshelves. Where is Marie Kondo when I need her? These changes do NOT spark joy!

While I was living in Laos last year, my sister sent a message. “What do you want from the house?” They were clearing out my mother’s home of almost 50 years, and I wasn’t ready to stake a claim. “I don’t want anything,” I replied. It was an honest reply. Until she sent photos of each room: the living room, the dining room, the kitchen, the TV room, the bedrooms. “Some things will go to the new house, some will go to family members, and the rest will be donated,” she wrote. I suddenly wanted some mementos. Antique family treasures now form the foundation of the Basement Box Room.

Help! I’m looking for inspiration to overhaul my house. And maybe my life. Please don’t tell me to kick out my son. That will come in due time. But what do I do with these things?!

 

Boxed sets – empty

My 2018 Heroine’s Journey…

I’m reading a book called You Are a Heroine, A Retelling of the Hero’s Journey, written by  Susanna Liller (a friend). In it she describes the journeys we all take throughout our lives. She names the steps along the way, provides practical exercises to help women hear “the Call,” and provides encouragement with her own real-life stories of heroines who are traveling this time-honored path. It’s a good way to think about my 2018, which has indeed been a journey.

It started with a swim in the warm pool right outside my apartment in Vientiane, Laos, where I was living. It finished with a dip in a hot tub surrounded by snow in the mountains of Maryland. In between January 1st and December 31st, I traveled to 10 countries, attended a wedding, a funeral, and a family reunion. I lay in a hospital bed, alone, in Thailand for five days, where I recovered from a bone infection. In the jargon of the book, I traveled through the Belly of the Whale, I met some Mentors, became a Mentor, and had to deal with some Dragons (women don’t slay their dragons; they invite them out for tea). I have crossed the Return Threshold and am trying to figure out what it all means and how to share what I’ve learned with others.

Several friends and family members traveled to Laos to visit me during my 10-month Fellowship with the U.S. Department of State.  I became a tour guide, a culture broker, and a companion for my visitors. I shared photos of exotic places on Facebook, and friends back home loved my captions. I felt an obligation to teach about the country where I was living. I accepted new Lao friends on social media – something I never would have done two years ago. My public profile and my private life are intermingled now in a way I’ve grown to cherish. Laos is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, and I’ve been getting wonderful Happy New Year messages for a couple of days. To imagine someone across the world thinking about me, carefully choosing a little gif in English, and sending it to me is a gift I would not have appreciated before I took a risk and moved overseas by myself.

Winter Break is a time for teachers to rest, renew, and recharge. For me, it’s a time to reconnect with my higher purpose. I love my job, but why did I take a year off to live abroad if not to share what I’ve learned with others? During this break, I’ve had a chance to reflect on what I did in 2018 and what I want to do in 2019. I want to continue rowing and staying physically fit. I’m lucky to be part of a welcoming rowing community. However, I feel pulled to travel again, to write about my experiences. Maybe I’ll try a long bike trip next year. I’ve recently connected with fellow writers through social media, and done a couple of manuscript exchanges. We’re all writing about faraway countries. Maybe I’ll get published in 2019.

In 2018 I made a presentation at a professional TESOL conference that connected me back to the English Language Fellow program, exposed me to new opportunities, and helped me connect with international English teachers. I now have Twitter followers whose names I can’t even read because they’re in a language whose script I don’t understand! Some of my teacher friends have retired this year. I’m not quite ready for that, but I long to teach in a quieter way – without bells ringing every 50 minutes. We’ll see where summer 2019 will take me.

I have finished one heroine’s journey and I feel only marginally clearer, more focused, and more powerful. According to You Are a Heroine, self-reflection is a key component of  claiming one’s true identity. The Milestones I’ve reached this year were the results of micro-decisions that helped me widen my view of what is possible. On January 1st I will make some New Year’s Resolutions that will guide me toward the next Call. Thank you for sharing this journey with me!

fullsizeoutput_4e5a Sunset on the Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Laos. March 2018.

 

It’s a Good School

A few years ago, the Superintendent of schools added a controversial Gallup poll to our district’s annual staff climate survey. Teachers had a good laugh about one question: Do you have a best friend at work? Based on their answers, an elementary school received public recognition, and named one teacher Most Hopeful teacher of the year. It came with a $2,000 cash award. By the time the staff survey rolled around a year later, we all decided to find a best friend at work and to be a bit more hopeful on the survey.

School climate is a reliable indicator of student success, but it’s rarely something that gets media attention. People tend to measure a school by word-of-mouth or personal connections. It’s no coincidence that most parents like their child’s school, no matter how negative the “ratings” are. But the happiness of teachers is one of the most important factors for student success. It takes a school leadership team that is both supportive and strong to keep teachers happy. I am proud to work in a district where this is the norm.

When people ask where I’m working this year, the predictable response is, “Oh, that’s a good school.” The first few times it happened, I felt validated, pumped, that I had landed in a school worthy of the praise of my friends and acquaintances. But then I started to get bothered by it. Why do they think it’s a good school? It’s not really different from my old school, except that it’s bigger and – oh yeah – it has an application-only, competitive-admissions magnet program attached to it. I do not teach in that program.

I thought my previous school was a good school. I had supportive colleagues and a principal who let me teach in two different departments – exactly what I wanted. My commute was 12 minutes each way. Recently in the news, however, there was a story about a former student who stabbed his pregnant girlfriend and was sentenced to 70 years in prison. I remember seeing him in the hallways. Does his conviction make my old school a bad school? People’s impressions of a school are often based on stories like this, but teaching and learning continue despite the sensational headlines.

Nowadays high schools are huge, diverse, sprawling institutions with 1,000+ students. Being a “good school” is just an illusion. Every high school in my district is simultaneously a “good school” and “bad school,” depending on where you look.

At my old school, students revered the principal, especially the top athletes. The coaches loved him too. He attended all the football and basketball games, and created a special mentorship program for struggling athletes. He was always visible in the hallways between classes, during lunch, and after school. He helped improve school spirit dramatically. At graduation each year, some students would talk about him as if he were a beloved coach. Except that my ESOL students never saw that side of him. And some teachers I spoke with confidentially in the hallways thought he focused too much on certain programs at the expense of others.

From my perspective as a transfer teacher, I can see how the leadership team sets the tone of a school, and determines its priorities. Sure, we have good AP test scores, a percentage of National Merit Scholars every year, even a few Siemens-Westinghouse STEM awards to post in the main hall. But the expectations for teachers of all students are high, and systems are in place to keep academic achievement front and center.

It’s exhausting.

The end of the first marking period approaches, and I’ve barely managed to keep my head above water. The work load is intense – and I don’t just mean coming up with what to teach five times a day, then delivering perfectly-tailored lessons with clear objectives and differentiation, then scoring all students’ work in a timely manner. I think I have a handle on what happens inside the classroom. In fact, the principal, my department chair, and a Central Office guy all came to observe me teaching during my first month on the job and gave me high marks. They told me they lucked out getting me as a transfer teacher. I replied, “No, I’m the lucky one!” Really, I am.

This school takes the accountability systems seriously, and I’m constantly out of breath trying to keep up. At my old school, I begged the principal to visit my classroom. Nobody questioned my lesson plans. It’s a little stressful this year trying to keep up with colleagues who don’t have the same learning curve. They smile indulgently at me, while I struggle to learn the school culture. The leadership team here actually checks the Gradebooks, Student Learning Objectives, our Professional Learning Community logs, and the School Improvement Plan focus groups. I feel an intense pressure to do my part well.

I’ve been meaning to enlist the support of my colleagues, who have been amazingly helpful, but I’ve barely had time to step out of the classroom. It figures that the leadership team has already anticipated the need of new teachers to learn from their peers. They’ve developed a protocol and a timeline for informal observations so that we can improve by watching each other teach. I feel very hopeful and supported, and have added this to my To-Do list. It’s great being at a good school.

Now if I can just find a best friend at work…

 

Bringing cultural proficiency back to school

fullsizeoutput_6bdcIt takes most teachers a couple of weeks to adjust to the routines of a new school year. The first week is a head rush of frenetic activity when all the plans we’ve carefully made face the reality of the mass movement of teens walking in and out of classrooms every 50 minutes. Once the bell rings, there’s no rethinking the bulletin board, the handouts, or the icebreaker activity. We make it through the first week as if struck by hurricane-force winds. It’s not just me, returning from a one-year leave of absence; it’s everyone. Teachers gather in the department office for lunch like divers coming up for air. We laugh, eat quickly, and get back to work. It’s both exhilarating and exhausting. By the second week, we’ve learned more names, what time the photocopier is least likely to jam, and where the nearest staff bathroom is.

I’ve been a public school ESOL teacher for 18 years, so I don’t know why this September seems so much harder than previous ones. Is it because I lived and worked in Southeast Asia last year and got used to a slower, more-balanced pace of life? That’s certainly part of it. I’m returning to a different school, but I’m not a new teacher. The general curriculum, overall expectations, and district jargon are familiar. (Honestly, I don’t know how the brand-new teachers cope with all the acronyms). I’m adapting to new classroom technology and getting comfortable with updated reporting systems. But the biggest change, by far, is that I’m in a new school with new colleagues, different leadership, and a unique micro-culture that I’m still learning.

I spent half of my summer taking required courses on “religious diversity,” “supporting LGBTQ students,”  and “equal opportunity in the workplace.” I’ve been living and breathing these lessons for most of my professional life. As an ESOL teacher exposed to students from around the world, I thought I was well prepared for my school district’s focus on cultural proficiency. We’d always provided a space for Muslim students fasting during the month of Ramadan. We’ve had bilingual counselors who can speak to students and their parents in their native language – Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, French, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, etc. Sometimes we have to speak up to make sure our English language learners are accommodated fairly. It can feel lonely and scary to stand up for my students alone. At my new school, however, there’s an entire team of ESOL teachers promoting the needs of ELLs and celebrating this type of diversity as a positive contribution to our school community.

After a year abroad, I am struck all at once by little changes that my colleagues have experienced incrementally. For example, our district policy now addresses the rights of gender nonconforming students. Teachers and staff should use a student’s preferred name and students should be addressed by the chosen pronoun. My colleagues shrug when I tell them about my first transgender student two years ago, about how I felt awkward and embarrassed bungling the he and she. At a celebration this summer my friend’s 6’1″ son showed up with purple hair and a beard. I’ve watched him grow up, from a cute toddler to an awkward adolescent. But now he’s a they and called by the name of a flower. I’m struggling with how rapidly everyone has adapted to this new reality.

Between 5th and 6th period, I sometimes have to take the elevator. I see the same girl in a wheelchair every day. She’s got an aide who travels with her. We smile and say hello. Schools have had to accommodate students with disabilities since the ADA was passed in 1990. But this week I saw something I’ve never seen. A girl was walking up the stairs with a dog in a harness. It looked like a standard poodle because of it’s prancing gait. I smiled as they passed. The girl didn’t appear to be vision-impaired. It was clearly a service dog, probably for a mental or emotional disability (do we even say that any more?).

I realize now that cultural proficiency is a broad term that includes equity and acceptance for all kinds of diversity, not just language diversity. My course in Culturally Responsive Teaching has taught me to be more aware of my own beliefs and to take responsibility to help reduce students’ social-emotional stress from stereotypes and micro-aggressions. I will have to do a lot more than just accommodate students from different countries.

A public school is probably the most diverse institution in the USA. We accept students from all backgrounds, interests, gender identities, learning styles, families, and developmental levels. We build lessons at the beginning of the year to create a safe space for learning. We teach them how to respect each other as they work together in cooperative groups. ESOL students have a unique challenge in that they are learning the language and culture at the same time. If little changes are difficult for me — an American returning to the US — I can only imagine how difficult adjustment is for my students.

ESOL classes have age diversity because students are placed by language proficiency not grade level. I’ve got brand new 9th graders and second-year seniors who are almost 21. Many students work after school and support themselves. Some are here alone, living independently or with distant relatives. I have to spend extra time establishing routines and structures to help the class get comfortable with each other. They have trust their peers before they can share their own stories and feel a sense of agency in their newly-adopted culture.

We’re three weeks into the school year, and I can finally begin to process my own re-entry shock. It’s natural for teachers to put the needs of their students first. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by colleagues who understand the importance of team building better than I do. This week we went out for our first department Happy Hour – I mean professional learning community – and I think it’s going to be a fabulous year.

I have to remind myself that teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in the world; it is also one of the most rewarding.

IMG_0241 My colleague has created a rain forest in her classroom.

Reverse Culture Shock

Coming home after an extended period overseas can be an emotional shock. I should know; this is my third time doing it. After just 10 months in Southeast Asia, I’m returning to the USA with fond memories and a fresh perspective of my own culture. Re-entry shock is real, but the adjustment is a little easier this time.

There was no down time my first week back. I hadn’t driven a car in almost a year and suddenly I’m merging into Beltway traffic at 55 mph. With people cutting in front of me, rushing to get somewhere, I gripped the steering wheel in fear. It’s not that I forgot how to drive; I’d just forgotten how to be aggressive. Driving in the DC metro area is not for the faint-hearted. I needed a break, so I walked to my local Starbucks where I could sit and relax. In Laos, sitting in a coffee shop alone was something I learned to enjoy. Here, nobody said hello, not even the server. It was all a business exchange. Even though I was dining in – do we say that any more? – I was served in a paper cup with a plastic lid I didn’t use, and a plastic fork for my muffin. I thought the USA was a developed country! Laos was way more advanced in terms of ecologically-sound practices. In Laos, I was served in a ceramic mug and used real silverware. Typical American consumer habits have appeared to me in a new light.

Re-entry is easier when you can see your own country as a tourist. I drove 400 miles to visit my mother at her home along the Ohio River. That area of the United States is its own micro-culture. I used to be shocked by the amount of personal space that strangers seem to need when interacting there. At the gas station minimart, people apologize for bumping into one another when they are five feet away. You can imagine what the supermarkets look like: vast caverns of choice. My first visit to a Kroger left me overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place. Shoppers pushing supersized grocery carts could pass without a bump. Several long, wide aisles were devoted to nothing but breakfast cereal. Who needs a mile of options?! In Laos I was lucky to find one familiar grocery item in the local market. At Kroger, rows of open refrigerators offered up frozen fish, chicken, pork chops, cut green beans, packaged waffles, and frozen items I’ve never heard of.  Who buys those things?! I reached for some gum while waiting in line at the cash register. The man in front of me jumped as if I were a snake in his peripheral vision. “Oh sorry,” I apologized. I have to re-learn the cultural rules of shared physical space.

It helps that I’m returning to the same house, with the same people living in it, in the same neighborhood. My husband has kept the grass cut short, and my son has reorganized all the bookshelves. I’m rediscovering the luxuries I once took for granted: hot water in the kitchen sink, a garbage disposal, ice cubes directly from the refrigerator, and mail delivered to the front door! I’d almost forgotten how much I love cool morning walks in the neighborhood. Petunias, roses, daisies, and black-eyed Susans punctuate the perfectly-manicured lawns. I admire tall trees in the woods. Black squirrels. Deer. Couples walking dogs. “How was it?” my neighbor asked enthusiastically my first morning back. I knew to expect this question, but I wasn’t quite ready to summarize an entire year into one short answer. The first time I returned from overseas, conversations rarely got past “What did you eat over there?” I knew to have a pat answer ready. “Great!” I managed. “I’m jet-lagged but it’s good to be back!”

Already I miss the fresh food from Laos – the pile of leafy greens that arrived for each delicious shared meal with new friends. I miss the smell of ripe fruit sold on the side of the streets – pineapples, bananas, dragon fruit, rambutan, mangoes. I miss riding my bike past families whose living quarters spill outdoors each evening when the air cools down. I miss seeing Lao students in their neat school uniforms, monks in orange robes, smelling of incense from the temple. I miss Lao music and the sound of roosters waking me up in the morning. I miss frogs singing at night. I miss the pointed roofs of ordinary houses, with a bird sitting at the peak, chirping to the world. I miss colorful  sunsets on the Mekong. I miss meeting people from other countries in my everyday activities.

In Laos, I was used to being the outsider. At first I struggled with it. Then it became part of my identity. As an older woman and a teacher, I got instant respect. I liked being treated with deference. But until all my paperwork was signed ceremonially, my affiliation with the U.S. Embassy got me nowhere jobwise. That was okay; I learned firsthand that Lao people are very warm, welcoming, and friendly. The Lao bureaucracy, however, is mind-boggling. I learned to separate the Lao people from the Lao government. I was happy that this particular lesson was reciprocated. My best experiences were when I could relax and be myself, not an official representative of the U.S. Department of State, as my business card declared. Upon reflection, I see now that in reality my personal and professional lives could never truly be separated. It’s a little bit of a let-down to come home after being such an easily-recognizable “other” and treated well because of it.

Twenty years ago, when I came home after five years in West Africa, it was a much more difficult transition. We had to find a home, buy a car, and enroll our two children in an U.S. school for the first time. They’d both been in a French school. Outside the home, we’d been speaking French for most of their lives. Much of my culture shock then was related to relearning our own place in society. We were no longer the privileged American foreigners. We’d lost all our status the moment we stepped off the airplane at Dulles. Once while standing in line with my husband to pay for groceries, I made a negative comment to him about the woman in front of me, something about her clothing choice. She turned around and lit into me – angrily, rightfully. I felt terrible – I’d forgotten that English was no longer our secret language. 

In the Peace Corps, they taught us cross-cultural awareness. In matters of culture, they said, there is no right or wrong – just different. In Laos, the neighborhood streets are buzzing after the sun goes down. People sear meat on open grills near the sidewalk, elders walk with babies on their hips as motorcycles zoom down the dirt road zigzagging around potholes. Children are playing, dogs running loose, chickens scratching, and loud music is spilling out onto the street. Some nights early in my Fellowship, this burst of evening activity just emphasized my aloneness. Later, I joined in and felt more alive than ever. In my neighborhood here in the DC suburbs, I take a walk on a warm summer evening and see nobody outside. Families are shut away inside their houses with the AC blasting and the doors closed – not even the dogs or the children are visible. I’m trying not to be judgmental; but how is the Lao way not so much better?

I expected to feel sad about leaving a beautiful country like Laos; I was ready to return home. Just as I once incorporated aspects of West African culture into my American identity, I now celebrate parts of Southeast Asia that are internalized within me. In Laos, for example, people don’t shake hands when greeting and taking leave. They place their palms together as if in prayer, and take a little bow while saying sabaidee. It is also the posture used to say thank you. I adapted to this tradition so well that it’s taken me three weeks back home to stop doing it reflexively. It is with this practice in mind that I re-enter my own country – buoyed by a rich, new cultural perspective, full of gratitude, humility, and an open mind. Sabaidee.

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Using my gifts

My superpower is to see someone else’s point of view as easily as I see my own. This is a gift when it comes to working with people from different cultures, as I have been doing most of my professional life. It has helped me be an effective English language teacher, and it has helped me adapt to life here in Laos, Southeast Asia, where I have been living since September.

However, this same ability is a curse when it comes to other things. For example, when I was a student, I hated multiple-choice tests, because I could always justify more than one correct answer. It’s also a curse when dealing with linear Americans whose expectations bump up against my polyvalent nature. I feel much more comfortable in the high-context social setting of Laos than with Americans who bludgeon you with their directness.

The other day I invited an American colleague out to meet some of my new friends, teaching associates at the university. They had asked for help with teaching materials for English classes. After brief introductions she asked to look at the textbooks they were currently using for English classes. Without any preamble, she told them it was the wrong textbook for that course, effectively causing them to lose face. This criticism would be normal in the USA for visiting consultants, but here where relationships are more important than the actual work, it seemed a huge cultural breach. It was uncomfortable to be caught in the middle. I am certainly no diplomat, but my ability to see both sides so clearly allows me to explain one side to the other, to patch things up, to move forward in friendship.

When my job description changed for the third time in four months, I just smiled and rolled with it. I can sacrifice my individual need for a routine schedule in order to focus on the softer skills. I may not be teaching regular classes, but I am building connections with people. Family, food, clothing – these are all areas where it’s easy to find something in common. I’m learning to sit quietly and listen to what’s not being said, and to accept what is offered. It’s slower than I’d like, but I’m earning the trust of Lao people I work with by accepting their culture wholeheartedly.

I met another American woman who’s lived in Southeast Asia for a number of years. We met over coffee, and I felt like I was being interviewed for a job. She extracted more information from me in 30 minutes than I usually share with colleagues over several months. I quickly adapted to her communication style, answering her explicit questions honestly, and stating what I needed. I must have won her respect because we exchanged valuable information, and now we’re friends. At least on Facebook.

In Laos, Facebook is another cultural phenomenon that I’ve had to adapt to. People use it for everything: apartment rentals, restaurants, small business advertising, even Ministry updates. Businesses of all kinds will have a Facebook page but no website. Of course it’s also used for social networking. I expected to keep my separate spheres, as I did in the USA. But when work and social life are so strongly interconnected, sharing personal photos and videos is a must. Lao people love to take pictures, and we’re all friends on Facebook, so it looks like I’ve got the most exciting job surrounded by groups of happy people, dancing, singing, and drinking Beer Lao. In reality, these relationships are my job, not the 9-to-5 teaching.

It’s taken months to build these relationship and I cherish them because I’ve worked so hard to build connections.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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