The Mad Mad Mad Mad World

Be sweet, and do awesome stuff all the time

The Three-Month Rule April 24, 2011

Filed under: Ottawa — themadmadmadmadworld @ 3:44 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

My first overseas adventure was a week or 2 after my 13th birthday, when I went to France for a three-month student exchange. Looking back, the experience was a very positive one: I learned a lot about myself, was exposed to a life that was different from my own, and (almost) became able to communicate in a language I knew next to nothing of before I left. At the time, however, I was an angsty young adolescent who was her own worst enemy in a strange land. The first month and a half I spent in France I was completely miserable: I barely spoke to anyone other than the other 2 Canadian exchange students at my school, and I spent most of my time locked in my room writing letters to my BFF’s back home, who were so lucky to have been able to go to the mall and have sleepovers with each other all the time while I was stuck in this weird, smelly, mall-less hellhole for another hundred years (or so it seemed at the time).

As time went on, I eventually got my act together and started allowing myself to enjoy the experience. About half way through my time in France, I realized that I could actually speak and understand French at an acceptable level. This opened to door to independence, pain au chocolat whenever I wanted it, and new friendships with people who were as foreign to me as I was to them. I started to participate more in activities with my host family, no longer relying on their English-speaking daughter to be my sole companion and guide, and became a part of a new family. By the time my 3 months were up, I didn’t want to leave. Forget the mall, le printemps dans la France m’attendait!

There’s this idea of a parabola of culture shock: after the peak of the initial honeymoon period is over, you start to resent the differences between this culture and your own, and you sink to an emotional low point. After a time (the length of which is different for everybody), you reconcile yourself with these differences however you see fit, you get happy and comfortable again and you settle in for the long haul. (Or, you don’t reconcile, and you leave if you can.) Once you return home, a similar parabola of reverse culture shock usually follows.

Ever since my formative experience of spending three months in France, I have found myself relating to this culture shock parabola for not just travel, but for any big life changes. It’s different for everyone, but it seems that for me three months is the amount of time it takes to run the gamut, establish a level of comfort with a situation, place, person, idea, etc. and have a clear opinion of whether or not it’s for me. Over the years I’ve had relationships, jobs, and living situations that have reached the three-month point and been abandoned, just because by then I knew it wouldn’t work. I have often caught myself living my life in three-month chucks of time. Last year was a prime example: 3 months in Mexico, 3 months in Haiti, 3 months in Canada,  another 3 months in Haiti.

Now it’s been just over three months that I’ve been back from Haiti. I haven’t been blogging during that time, mostly because I felt like I didn’t have much of interest to say. I’m pretty sure that exposes me for the crap blogger that I am, so let’s pretend that it was because I’ve been riding out my three-month adjustment period. How have I reconciled myself with the difference between my new-old life, my old-old life, and my most recent travel experiences? It hasn’t always been easy. Sometimes I still can’t believe that last year really happened, or that it was actually me who lived the experiences I did. (Re-reading my own blog now I think, “Really? There’s no way it was me who wrote something with a title as pretentious as ‘Political Cacophony’. Please.”) It was hard to come back to things like fashion, consumerism, and the way people go on about things like how unfair the electoral system is in Canada (compared to how they roll in certain other places I’ve been). It freaked me out to think of how I maybe used to think before, and how I might return to thinking that way, being back in this world. It’s hard realizing that the more you learn, the less you know, and trying to find a way to work that realization into your daily life.

At first when I came back there were some aspects of my new life that I tried to force, to prove to myself that what I’d learned was tangible and real. That ended up making me pretty unhappy. So I did the mature thing and gave my whole experience the middle finger, declared it just a bunch of stuff that happened, and wallowed in some serious regression for a while. That also didn’t really do it for me, so I decided to just stop worrying about it and just let myself live. Much to my surprise, the laissez-faire attitude has been working out pretty well so far. Maybe the things that I’ve learned aren’t tangible, and the changes that came didn’t come because I decided they would. These lessons and changes are manifesting themselves in surprising ways now that I’m allowing them to just be. Some of it is what I’d hoped for, some of it maybe isn’t. For example, I’m no longer obsessively following the situation in Haiti as I was trying to do when I first got home, although I do stay in touch with my friends and dream about being back there at least once a week. I’m prioritizing taking care of myself and focusing on doing what I’m doing here and now as well as I can, instead of relentlessly planning my next adventure like I usually do. I’m not frantically working my butt off to be able to make everything happen as quickly as possible, and it’s insane how much free time I’ve discovered as a result.

My life right now isn’t as exciting and interesting as it maybe was this time last year, but I feel happy and healthy and sane, so I really have no cause for complaint. Adventure comes in many forms, and right now the one I’m on is a bit more slow-paced than I’m used to. This likely means less blogging, but it’s good to not share everything with everyone all the time. (Especially when it makes for an uninteresting read.) Maybe I’ll write again in another three months, by which time I might be on a whole other level I’d never imagined before. Or I might still be here in Ottawa, doing the same stuff and feeling the same way, which would be great as well. You’ll know I’ve reached a point where it’s time to stage an adventure intervention when this turns into a cooking blog…but considering the state of my perpetually dirty kitchen, I don’t think there are any worries for the time being.

Advertisements
 

“Mesi bondye pou tou zanmi’m!” November 27, 2010

Lately I’ve been hearing from the people who know me best that my blog has been giving me away, indicating signs of wear and tear, exposing my waning optimism and questionable mental health. I just can’t get anything past you guys, can I, and mesi bondye for that!

I have definitely been feeling the strain of not only living and working in a challenging environment, but also the added stress of having multiple existential/moral/socio-economic/sexual (why not?)/political crises every single day about said life and work in said environment. When I said in my last post that I needed an extended mental health break, I was serious. It started out with just a week with good friends from base at an insanely luxurious all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic, which was at the same time the most amazing and most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen. (Kind of like dogs wearing sweaters or Chinese children who can expertly play classical violin while still in their mothers’ wombs.) Crossing the border and seeing the difference in the quality of life was shocking enough (pothole-free roads! Christmas lights! Lights at all!), but the extreme excess of the Lifestyle Hacienda Resort in Puerto Plata was enough to send me into a frenzy. So I did what anyone in my position would do: I drank and ate as much as possible, then booked a ticket back to Canada to digest for a week.

My visit home was unexpected. Even I didn’t know I was coming! I had a lot of time to relax and hang out with the people who I love most of all. I got a lot of insight into everything that’s been going on in the past month, both inside and outside of my selfish self. I am uncomfortable with the situation in Haiti and how it’s being handled by all parties involved, right down to who thinks they have the right to even be involved. What am I, as a white Canadian from a privileged background with little to no connection to this country, doing here at all? Am I some kind of a saviour, or some kind of sick tourist on the ultimate off-the-beaten-track backpacking adventure?  Both of these ideas sicken me. I don’t want to be either, but I guess the best I can do is to fall somewhere in between.

I’ve decided that in order to continue with whatever it is that I’m doing here (helping? gawking? sweating?), there are a few things that I have to do. I’ve decided that I can’t continue with the project that I was leading before, which involved working with the local government trying to do capacity building and liason stuff with the UN and other NGO’s. I know that I don’t have the knowledge, experience, or resources to do any really useful capacity building, and I also feel wrong pushing for the local government to rely more on NGO’s when I feel like that’s a really terrible way for a country to be run (something I will rant about later…I’m trying to keep these posts a readable length). Over the 2 months I have left with All Hands I’m going to do more physical, outside-type work, and also more work that gets me into the community on a personal level. I’m not sure what exactly I’ll be doing, but I feel like by doing that I can help in a more sustainable way. Mostly because it won’t make me go crazy and I will be a happier, more productive volunteer.

Yesterday was American Thanksgiving, and because we are a US-based NGO, we had a huge party last night to celebrate. We invited about 60 people from the community, including all of our local staff and volunteers and their families, and there were volunteers working all day to cook an amazing, full-on turkey dinner. It was the best holiday we’ve had so far on this project, mostly because of the positive reaction of our Haitian guests. I tried to explain the conecpt of giving thanks in my sometimes passable Creole, and asked my Haitian friends what they were thankful for. It was so great to hear them say “Mesi bondye pou tou zanmi’m,” – I thank God for all of my friends – refering to us, the foreign devils who have infested their town and tried to take over their lives.

I know I’ve said this before, but if nothing else,  this is what keeps me believing that I have a place here.