Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Alive and Well

So this is just a quick post to get something up here on my blog other than my doom-and-gloom culture shock post. I realized that since that was my last post, its vibe kind of holds steady until I counteract it with a new post, and many people have perhaps been concerned that I fell into a black hole and disappeared into despair. While that makes for a great, dramatic mental image, I'm actually doing fine (see the picture for visual proof, taken two days after the culture shock post). Alive and smiling, to boot. I did very much appreciate all the nice comments and messages I received to cheer me up and boost my spirits, and it did help me feel better. So that smile may have something to do with you, dear readers.

Actually, the weekend following my lousy week was quite amazing, so I had an immediate mood improvement. That Saturday we were helping out with Lisa’s Pride again, and it’s always great to hang with kids, and then the following Sunday we were able to participate in a celebration for the Maryknoll Sisters that have worked in Tanzania since the early 1950’s. Katie wrote a nice blog post about it HERE, and there’s a short video of an awesome drum circle HERE. Quite an amazing experience.

And THAT was over a week ago. Last week was pretty good. I had some typical frustrations associated with doing something hard (ie, learning Kiswahili) but overall the week was good. And last weekend we hung out with Liz Mach for a weekend of movie watching and relaxing (except with a lot less electricity and movie watching than we originally anticipated).

So things are quite nice here in Tanzania, and I hope things are going well for you, too.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

In The Doldrums, or My Exciting Adventures In Culture Shock

I haven’t given an update on our day-today life here in Tanzania in a few weeks, and I’m committed to giving you the good and the bad, so here’s a very real and honest post for you. Things are going well, but this last week has been a hard one for me.

Now, let it be noted that I am VERY happy with my decision to move to Tanzania and have no plans to pack up and come home anytime soon. However, a move like this is not without it’s emotional toll, and that’s what I am talking about today. A very common theme that popped up in our trainings in New York was the cycle of culture shock and the transition and adjustment to a very different environment. Everyone who has made a move like ours talked about the periods when you’ll be down in the dumps and sort of casting about for normalcy. And that’s where I’ve been this last week. I’ve had a few moments of vague sadness hit me now and then, but it came up on me full-force this week, culminating in a mini-breakdown yesterday. There are five of us new folks here, and while there’s no one in the group that stands out as a candidate for hitting the culture shock wall first, I am surprised it was me.

My little freakout has been slowly creeping up on me over the last week or two. Lots of various things have been manifesting in a recipe for an emotional crash. First, the weather here is like a warm spring/early summer day everyday. Sunny, cool breezes, 80 degrees give or take a few. It’s great. It’s also the “season” that gives me terrible allergies, so I’ve been sneezing and coughing with watery eyes, runny nose, an itchy throat for weeks now. I’m used to allergies, so I’ll live. BUT, the way people dispose of all trash here is to burn it, so there is constantly smoke in the air. Now, I like a good fire and have spent many an hour around a bonfire, but when there’s NO break from the smoky air, my allergies and my asthma really get going. So I haven’t felt very well for the last few weeks.

Also, Kiswahili is hard to learn! Everyone who speaks it say “it’s easy!” but it’s not. Certainly not the hardest language to learn, but it is another language with very different rules, and it is hard. I’ve been doing pretty well at it, but this week we hit some new grammar rules that are just beyond me right now. I’m sure I’ll get it, but sitting in class for hours a day and not understanding a lot of what is being discussed will wear you down. I think I’ve been overly hard on myself, setting unrealistic expectations for where I should be at this point in time, so I have been beating myself up a bit. So now I’m in a bad mood and I don’t feel good. More ingredients added to mix…

I’ve also noticed a few bad habits forming, all centering around “avoidance.” I was wasting time I could have been studying, and instead procrastinating and playing Connect Four online. I’ve been reading a lot, but at the expense of other things I should have been doing. I need to be out practicing my Swahili but instead I found I was holing up on campus, avoiding going out and having to speak to anyone beyond the gates of the school. Pretty much avoiding the “African” part of my African experience, seeking out familiar.

Three nights ago, we tried to load up more credits to access the internet and we did something wrong and we couldn’t get online that night. No big deal, but boy I freaked out. I thought everyone was blaming me for the mistake and I got really defensive and threw a little tantrum. I talked about how I guess it was dumb for me to freak out over such a stupid little mistake because “Africa itself was nothing but a long line of stupid mistakes” that we’ll have to deal with, but that I didn’t feel good and “people should just leave me alone!” Katie and I had a fight, and I fully admit I was acting like an ass. The overly critical attack on “Africa itself” is also a classic symptom of culture shock.

We’ve been pretty rootless the last 6 months, jumping from place to place, and I think that has been wearing on me, too. I want a routine, and I want to be doing something.” So yesterday afternoon, I’m sitting in our language lab after a particularly frustrating day of classes and a rough week in general, and I am suddenly overwhelmed with homesickness. Now, I mentioned a few weeks back that I don’t really get homesick, but this was without a doubt full-blown homesickness. And not a general feeling of missing the United States, but a very specific pang of missing Columbia and my old life. I didn’t want to be in Musoma, Tanzania anymore. I missed my house. I missed my cats. I missed the Horseshoe in the middle of USC’s campus. I missed Pizza Man. And I wanted desperately to ride our bikes up to the Yoghut on the corner of Blossom and Main Streets and eat frozen yoghurt and sit outside at sundown and watch the students mill about campus. It hit me hard, and I immediately just packed up and walked back to my room, lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling. And then I cried a little.

And that, my friends, is culture shock!

Now, I feel much better today. After my little breakdown, I holed up in my room and just zoned out online. Then I exercised, had dinner, watched some TV, and read a book. I didn’t look at Swahili at all. And that night, the students here all gathered in the community room to watch an episode of The #1 Ladies Detective Agency. Now, reading the series of books on which the TV show is based was one of the first things that piqued my interest in Africa a decade ago, and I’ve read all 12 of the books. Seeing all my favorite characters on screen, with the great music, and shots of the beautiful people of Africa, and images of the true beauty that exists in Africa reminded me why I’ve wanted to live here and why I’ve worked so hard to get here for all these years. Something about watching that show was the just the salve my soul needed.

So I had a bad week, and I’ll have bad times again. It’s part and parcel of the experience, and I am sure the good times will vastly outweigh the bad. So I'll just chalk my culture shock up to one of the requisite experiences of my move to Tanzania, and I’ll pick myself up, say a prayer, and take stroll outside those front gates and see what’s out there waiting for me.