A special person told me his observation of volunteers serving in other countries (such as…Peace Corps Volunteers):
“They come and think they can change Colombia, but Colombia will change you!”
At that word, “you,” I sensed many imaginary fingers pointing at me.
This took me a moment to realize…
Yes, I am guilty of the Ugly American syndrome with idealist thinking by wanting to change the host country with ridiculous, extravagant ideas for the sake of making a difference or changing the world.
I looked back on my old notebooks that I wrote in upon my arrival to Colombia, and I chuckled at how silly I was. I had so many notes about what I wanted to do during my 2 years. Do this, do that, do it all all to change Colombia, make a difference, leave an impact, and [enter whatever cliché phrase you know here.]
Well, that special person was right. The idea to change Colombia didn’t go according to plan and I’m the one that’s ending up going through change.
During a PC-hosted tech conference, I had a conversation with a fellow PCV from the Community Economic Development sector, Akil. We happened to be talking about how we’ve changed during our service and her story went a little like this…
“When I was in training, my host mom cooked me something and there were ants all over it. I asked her about it and my host mom replied that those were called crazy ants but were ok. I didn’t have a huge stink about it, but I had a stink.”
She did not eat the meal, by the way.
“Then, the other day, I opened my pancake mix and when I opened it, I saw ants in it. I thought about my mix: how I bought them, how I waited for the bus, how I carried it on the bus, how I brought it home, and all the struggles along with buying that mix. So, I just started scraping and patting the ants out of that batter and made my pancakes.”
We laughed so hard.
That’s how you know one has changed. Another PCV, Audrey, chirped in after and said, the next level of adaptation is to just eat the pancakes without taking the ants out.
One thing I want to point out in this thing called, CHANGE, is that I feel it in the problem-solving department. I remember at my previous job at a medical device consulting company, every little problem I faced, every complaint I received from a client, every whatever obstacle that came my way with the softwares, finances, etc, I would seek help from my boss or colleagues like a big, whiny baby.
Now…please entertain yourselves with the problems I’ve encountered in Colombia and their respective following solutions:
- One time, I had this mysterious animal coming into my bathroom (my bathroom is located outside the house with a sliding door) and eating a trillion seeds of some kind and leaving the shells all over the ground and in the shower! For those of you who don’t know me…I am OCD, a neat freak, and very orderly…so these seeds drove me nuts. Every morning when I entered, seeds…seeds…and more seeds. After days of the seed mystery, I started to close the door at night so whatever the animal was, it couldn’t enter to eat and leave those d### seeds. Well, to my extreme annoyance and disappointment, I still found seeds the next day. I observed my surroundings of my bathroom and after some careful looking around and meditating to lower my blood pressure, I figured out that I should also close the small window.. And voila! – the next day, there were no more bathroom seeds. I will never know what kind of animal was entering my bathroom, but it had wings and it liked seeds. Animal kingdom…ugh.
- At the beginning of my service, I was not eating well because my host family´s kitchen is so tiny and very messy. Fruit flies, ants, leftover food, no space to place anything, etc (sorry, host mom…) Reminder, I am a clean person so this can cause huge amounts of stress for me. The desire to cook or meal prep?? Forget about it… it went down the drain as well as my appetite. So for a few months, I ate sancocho de la tienda…basically, chips and cookies from the nearby store. Such nutrition! I was miserable. I was gaining weight. When I could not stand the feeling of weight gain any longer, I finally did something about it. I started waking up at 4 am to use the kitchen when it was clean and to use it before my host mom occupied it. 4 am to cut food, use the pressure cooker, cook my breakfast and few days’ worth of lunch and dinner. It has been working out nicely. The feeling of having control of my health and something like a kitchen for a few hours makes me feel like a million bucks. Although I cannot control the insects, the personality of my host mom, the physical space of the kitchen, I have control of my way of thinking and adapting to this situation. It´s a really strange feeling when you realize that something that drove you crazy is now not such a big deal. The power of the mind, I tell ya.
- The nearest grocery store (think Kroger, Wal Mart, etc) is in the city, which is an hour and half away from me by bus. The nearby stores do not carry the foods I crave and need, so I have to go to the city. It was an extreme inconvenience to lug back so many groceries in a huge sack and with a huge backpack from the city on a bus with several other sweaty people. Mind you, these buses not only carry people but also, a range of THINGS…from bed mattresses, window glass, other peoples’ sacks, tourists’ HUGE backpacks, and my favorite…chickens. Picture me with a fat backpack on my back, a full sack of groceries on one hand and a tray of 36 eggs on the other hand. (I eat a lot of eggs.) I hated doing this. I felt like such a loser with my tray of eggs and my grocery sack. It’s tiring and it was embarrassing for me. I never looked good going into the city and Colombia is very much a beauty pageant country. Like, people get dressed up to go the city or the mall and the women wear a lot of makeup. I never wear make up here because I sweat it all off. Colombia women just don´t seem to sweat??? Anyway, looking polished is pretty important in Colombia and I felt so ugly and lame going to the city.
Well, here is where the real, internal change has happened, ladies and gentlemen….
I don’t care now. I repeat. I do not care. I don’t care how I am looked at, whether or not I am carrying a grocery cart in the mall like a homeless person, or if I simply look ridiculous. Just don’t break my eggs!
What others think of me is not my business and you gotta do what you gotta do. I wear my campesina (farmer) clothes, jeans, tennis shoes, carry my sweat towel, bring my sack and get ready to rock n roll at the grocery store now. It is like a mission to me. I have no shame in carrying 36 eggs, a Santa Claus sized sack on a bus, and a backpack filled with 6 packs of heavy, bagged milk. JUST MOVE OUT THE WAY! For a person who used to think about the past often, this is significant progress. Now, I am trying to not think about the future so much. We are working on it, folks. Baby steps.
- The school system in Colombia is very different than the U.S.’s. Recently, we had a month long strike with the teacher’s union, FECODE, and the government for better pay for the teachers and more funds and resources in the schools. This strike meant no school for one month. A more usual disruption in our schools is that we would get several Fridays off for a plethora of reasons and there are many holidays that fall on Mondays. Basically, a full of week school can be a rarity lol. When I would co-plan with my colleagues for class and there would be these surprise day offs or holidays or strikes, we could never carry out those plans. Talk about banging your head on the table several times. I was this pestering American pushing for these lesson plans to be carried out for the days we planned and Colombia was like, “Yeah right, get lost, gringa..” I pushed so much. Got frustrated so much. I was like WTF all the time. But, the tidal waves of Colombia got to me and are still getting to me like an eroding rock. Now, I just say, “Ok, we will postpone this plan for the next week or next class.” I am even shocked at my current peaceful composure. I assure you, I am not being complacent or lazy. I am just accepting things I cannot control…slowly and surely.
- Now, my favorite story that even my site mate, Karen, still to this day makes fun of me, but ends with extreme awe for me was my first trip to the hair salon in Colombia. My hair was starting to feel very heavy due to its thickness and it was time for a haircut. I usually get it thinned out through layers because I like to keep the length but want to take out some of the weight. After asking several PCVs, I learned that the phrase I need to say is Quiero sacar el volumen de mi pelo, I want to take out the volume in my hair. I repeated this to the hairdresser and had her repeat it back to me and confirmed she understood me. So, I trusted her. She was working hard in the back of my head and made three braids. I was wondering what was up, but just tried to relax because I was treating myself to a haircut. Then, without notice or warning, she cut one of the braids from my scalp and then threw the braid on the table in front of me. As I saw a braid of my hair fly onto the table, my eyes popped out of their sockets, and my insides just fell to the bottom of my gut. She asked me boldly after if I want her to cut the other two braids and I yelled, “No!” I told her that is NOT what I wanted and that I needed a moment. She looked at me expressionless, while I was internally freaking out. So, this is what sacar el volumen means…What could I do? Couldn’t glue the braid back to my head, couldn’t go back through time…So, pursing my lips, I just told her to please cut the split ends. Well, if you saw me now, you can’t see the tragedy. However, when I put my hair in a ponytail at a certain angle, you can feel the bald spot. And if you look carefully, you can see the bald spot. Now, I gotta wait 10 years for that area of hair to be the same length as the rest of my hair. I thought about hair for a long time that day. I did confide in some of my friends of what happened and they all told me that they would’ve cried. I don’t know why, but I didn’t cry.
After I left the salon, I actually laughed at how ridiculous my situation was and how ridiculous my bald spot felt. I couldn’t stop rubbing it which were followed by deep, pathetic breaths. Then, I thought about my mom when she had chemotherapy and was a cute, bald lady. I thought about other people who don’t have hair because of disease or other causes. I realized hair grows. My mom has a full head of hair now. I still have so much hair that covers the bald spot. I’m ok. That silly hairdresser said I could keep the braid…I just threw it in the trash. Good riddance to the memory and I am never coming back to your hair salon, you soul-less woman!
I told my friend, Juju, about what had happened and she replied…
“And knowing how you usually are…that reaction showed extreme..patience. lol”
This is pretty major, because I am not a patient person.
I haven’t completely grasped this cógela suave, take it easy, mentality or culture, but ya know, I’m doing it. I am still told to CÓGELA SUAVE every day, especially from my special person, but I would like to proudly say that hey, I am doing a pretty d### good job.
The problems I face here aren’t extremely serious, but they were and are so very, annoying. I still feel overwhelmed with new problems or let it get to me, but…I try to break it down to get to a solution. It sounds so basic, so simple, but it’s hard to actually apply when you get lost in the OMG WTF phase of the problem. I am slowly overcoming that crazy phase to get to the steps towards a solution.
This is part of the process of my ~* change *~
I am on that Mario Kart rainbow road of transformation! It is annoying, and in the PC everything feels 10x more annoying, but I keep on going because I refuse to be a big, whiny baby. I want to brag and say I am proud of myself.
So there you go. Angell Kim, the constantly changing, caterpillar. Life would be boring if there was no change. So, although it is all so uncomfortable, it is nice and fulfilling to know that you’re becoming something better than you were. You were able to do something you couldn’t before. You were able to endure and overcome something when you almost wanted to give up. To recognize the change and to see the progress of it, is pretty nice. It is like seeing yourself in a before and after photoshoot. Nowadays, I am starting to look real good.
Hey grandma, speaking of change and transformation…you know, every time I call you, you always ask me your two fave questions…?
“Have you lost weight?”
The answer is still no, but I look skinnier…does that count?
“Do you have a boyfriend? (남자친구)”
Well, that special person I mentioned earlier in this post is actually my 남자친구.
He really, really likes kimchi and tries everything, by the way.
He, too, is going through a Korean transformation.
How wonderful life is.