This year I am trying something new for my writing practice…a blog challenge! This post is part of BloggingAbroad’s Blog Boot Camp challenge that commenced in January 2016.
This week’s prompt: My why (aka how we reached this 2.25 year South African extravaganza) . Final round up for prompt #1 is here!
It is me, in your early 20’s. I can quell at least a few of the anxieties in your head and say that you at least make it to 2016.
In 5th grade, America is still reeling from the terrorist attacks that occurred a year ago. In the aftermath of what happened, all Muslims became subject to America’s anxiety attack following 9/11. You started to become less naïve when you realized that your parents’ dear friends from the engineering circles practice Islam, but are not the terrorists you read about in the newspaper. In this spirit of this cultural exchange you learned from, you picked Egypt (where one of the family friends is from) for the 5th grade country report and tried to provide a picture of the Middle East beyond pyramids and terrorism.
It was a great learning experience talking to Mrs H. about her culture. For the final presentation, every child had to make a dish representing their profiled nation and create an international potluck. Since most of the 5th grade picked European countries, the table was piled with sugary carbohydrates like Swedish saffron buns and Russian Blitzes. Mrs. H. recommended a delicious dessert dish called Umm Ali, and it sat isolated with no 5th grader opting to try the unfamiliar dish. Ms. H. actually came for the final presentation, and you felt mortified when she saw the one non-European dish untouched. Your mom and Mrs. H. are adults with thick skin and took it well, while sharing motherly words of comfort as we dug into the Umm Ali. Their words kept you from having a yet another meltdown in front of Dennis Chavez Elementary over the Umm Ali incident, but even today as you still struggle to understand why people are afraid of what is different.
I am also writing to you at this age because it is one of the hardest periods into your life as bullying is intensified and you feel overwhelmed by your senses 24/7. In a couple of months you will become aware of a complex word called autism and that it defines your behavior. All you need to know now is autism describes how your brain works and helps explains why you act differently than all the other kids. Your classmates do not delight over your enthusiasm for maps, history, and geography. This and being extremely sensitive (emotionally and physically) makes being autistic hard sometimes but there are great parts of being on the spectrum. Like how you volunteer for others in Albuquerque, and gain social cues from interacting with adults who are patient enough to communicate with you. The same passion for learning about other cultures that propelled you through geography bees, provides great opportunities in the future.
All the countries you will experience, were feasible options not from a “places to see before you die list” that provided authentic cultural experiences. At the age of 14, you receive the opportunity to travel abroad and see how books are limited in their ability to make cultures come alive. The trip to Australia and New Zealand leaves you with a permanent love for travel, pull towards the Southern Hemisphere, and willingness to take any international opportunity. The next chances come in college, where you joined a group that teamed up with communities in Ecuador and Nicaragua for 3 summers building toilets and water systems. The communities you worked with gave you a more authentic cultural experience and sustainable global health became your career focus. In order to make sure that this career is what you want, you venture off the beaten path for study abroad and choose Botswana for its global health perspective. The semester experience also provided you your first public blogging experience, to introduce Americans to Africa via a country where people thrive beyond Safari stereotypes. Even though the 5th grade despised your country commentary, you learn that people actually appreciate what an autistic, New Mexican, woman with an interest in global health perceives in adventures abroad.
That brings me to now, you actually become a PCV in the arguably easiest country for Americans to identify on the African continent because of the English Name. However South Africa is the target of many damaging misperceptions from abroad. Just as your 5th grade class refused to try the Umm Ali, some people refuse to look past South Africa’s health problems, and history of ethnic conflict. As the amaZulu people who host you prove, South Africa is a beautifully complex nation that has persevered beyond the crippling effects of Apartheid rule and the HIV Epidemic. It is impossible to be bored here as the diverse cultural landscape forces you to reevaluate your perspectives and there is always something new to learn from Rainbow Nation cuisine to how the amaZulu protect their homesteads from violent storms. In Peace Corps, sharing your experiences abroad is part of the job criteria. Through Eish, you simultaneously attempt to share a more balanced view of South Africa and break stereotypes as a PCV with permanent mental health needs. It is far from easy but the challenge makes you feel so alive.
Right now, you are simply trying to survive and cannot picture leaving Albuquerque. The thought of Peace Corps feels so overwhelming and when you learned that you were autistic, international experiences seemed unlikely. Even in college after serving on several rural international development projects, an older couple who served in Mongolia will graciously complement you with those words, “You should consider the Peace Corps,” and you will still table the thought. An autistic woman would not be an easy applicant for the Peace Corps, and it takes a site visit in South Africa during your semester abroad to realize that this is an experience you really want. The journey to get an invitation and maintain a fulfilling Peace Corps service is emotionally intense, but absolutely worth the tears. The chance to participate in a community and collaborate on ways to address their problems for 2 years, is a rare and humbling learning experience. I ask you not to rule Peace Corps as impossible because as your younger brother will say “…it suits you” because of your lifelong zest for service and international experiences. This zest also fuels your daring career focus in global health.
In the meantime, believe in your potential. There will always be doubt over people with mental health challenges’ ability to hold international jobs, but self-confidence speaks volumes. Also do not be intimidated by your diverse interests and desire to ask hard questions like, “why are people intimidated by other cultures and thus do not eat a delicious Egyptian take on dessert?” Your college, graduate school, future friends, and the Peace Corps recruiters appreciate your quirkiness, and it takes you places.
Hang in there, it gets much better.
All the best,
Katey-Red, PCV edition