Sunday, April 24, 2016

Who's Afraid of the Dark?

I stayed too late at the track and the sun turned off like it does here, all at once – at 6:30 it simply topples off the side of the earth. I started to walk home, long strides with my head down as if I could walk through the dark, as if I could outrun it.

I wasn’t afraid of the dark as a child. I never slept with a nightlight. Even now it’s not the twilight that I fear, but what is in it – just as I’m not afraid of high places, but of the thought of tumbling off of them.

That sickening kissing sound men make at me during the day hardly bothers me anymore, but at night it makes my heart pound. The sound of footsteps makes me hold my breath. I look for other people and for light. I don’t stay out late. I sleep behind a locked door until the dawn begins to trickle in.

Tegucigalpa can be a safe enough city if you know it well, if you stay in its bright, public places, and if you have a car to get around. I’ve been here eight months and have never been robbed or threatened. But I am always taking precautions. I hide money in my clothes, come home before dark, walk quickly and don’t meet strangers’ eyes.

Something happens when the sun sets. The streets become quiet. People return to their homes. The military police come out and stand watch under the flickering stoplights, young, bored-looking men with guns slung over their narrow shoulders. That little pinch of fear in your stomach. That tightness.

This was a fear I didn’t understand at first here. Nothing bad had ever happened to me, not really. The dark was just another shade of day.

I had to learn to fear; I had to be taught. Not the silly, fluttery fear of imaginations but the sturdier one of possibilities. Of Where are you going and when will you be home. Of Let’s cross the street here, right now. My adventurousness had to bend to reality.

The dark is something unignorable, more even for my neighbors than myself. They feel it breathing down their necks as they rush home from work. They go to bed early; it hovers over them.

What you can’t see could be anything. That’s who’s afraid of the dark – the people who don’t know what it’s hiding. The people with thinner walls or no walls, who can’t afford cars and alarm systems and private guards. The dark weighs down on them like eiderdown in summer. It feels hot and sour, like fear, like the memory of what happened to their neighbor, their daughter, themselves.

I feel something most acutely in this darkness – that violence is not an equal opportunity offender. It usually strikes the weakest, the closest to tumbling over the edge. It often strikes in the dark. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Six Months In

It’s been six whole months here, and you have yet to start your own nonprofit, write a prize-winning documentary, or pen an incisive think piece that makes it into the newsfeeds of all your Facebook friends.

Your victories are smaller. You know the names of the people in your office. You’ve (almost) mastered public transportation. You start to dream in your second language.

Absolutely nothing worthy of a bestselling memoir.

When they told you that international work is difficult, that it can years of work to see change, you wrote it down neatly in your notes, but it didn’t stick. You felt called to make a difference and sure that you could do it.

Now you’re here, in the type of job you always dreamed about. You feel lucky, you feel blessed, and sometimes you feel sick with guilt that you aren’t enjoying this more.

You didn’t really think it would be so hard.

Sure there are the moments you share with your friends and family over Skype: victories and friendships and glimpses of the divine in late-night prayer services, mountains, the kitchen when your host mom makes tortillas.

But after six months, the novelty of hand-washing clothes and bucket showers becomes tedious. You miss your family, macaroni and cheese, clean city parks and libraries, and knowing where to go to buy socks or hair conditioner.

Community doesn’t come ready-made, you’re learning, cross-cultural friendships can develop, but that they’re not always easy. You often find yourself feeling lonely.

You realize that relating to the poor and marginalized in another country is just as difficult as relating to the poor and marginalized in your home country – and you didn’t always do a very good job at that.

You’re still coming to terms with your comparative wealth and privilege, the language that you speak and the connections that you have, your education: weighing all of these against poverty that you see daily but feel helpless to change.

What you do seems like less than a drop in the bucket.

You trade messages with people working elsewhere, and they all seem to have it figured out. Their lives seem more glamorous and exciting than yours, they seem to have deeper and more meaningful connections with their communities, while you still don’t know the name of the woman sells gum and cigarettes on your street corner.

It’s been six months.

This sometimes seems like an eternity, but it’s barely any time at all. You are still stretching and adjusting to this new place.

You may have no publishable victories after just six months. The documentary will have to wait. The nonprofit start-up may need to go back to the drawing board. Because if a problem could be fixed in six months, it wouldn’t be worth you working on it.

You’re not here to save the world, you tell yourself. You’re not here because you’re a good person, though maybe you’re here because you’re a faithful person. Maybe you’re just here because you are a person, and you understand that this humanness owes attention to other humans’ needs.

And that’s what this six months has been about.

Before you can solve poverty, you have to understand poverty. Before you can love people transformationally, you have to know who they really are. After six months, you don’t quite understand. You don’t quite know. But you are closer. You listen better. Your humility has grown.

As you struggle with your identity when your humor and intelligence are dampened by a foreign language, you know you will never again judge anyone for an accent.

As you learn from brave and brilliant people who are transforming their own countries, you know you will never again think of a country’s people as helpless.

As you ask questions and make mistakes over and over again, you are gifted with forgiveness just as many times. And you begin to see God’s heart.

In these six months, you’ve been broken into pieces – from fear, loneliness, helplessness, shame – you are stronger now, and braver, and humbler by far, even if you haven’t really felt a change.

You’ve listened for six months, unable to speak.

You’ve followed for six months, not ready to lead.

You’ve set aside your own agenda – your insightful writing or heart-tugging documentary or award-winning nonprofit – and become a small part of what was already been happening before you came and what will continue to happen after you leave.

And this is where your work begins.

Playing Cards

We were playing cards and Paolo was winning when suddenly he looked up: “Hey, Katy, I owe you money,” he said.

“No you don’t,” I said, in Spanish, slapping a double seven and raking in the stack of cards. “What are you talking about?”

“Mom told me that the United States lent Honduras a whole lot of money and we never paid it back. So now every kid that’s born owes you lots and lots of money,” He laid another card. “Your turn!”

I couldn’t figure out how I wanted to respond. “You don’t have to worry about that,” I stammered, “You don’t owe me anything.”

I tried again, “A lot of that debt was cancelled and really a lot of the reason why Honduras is poor is the United States’ fault, so…” My Spanish isn’t good enough for complexities and nuances. Also I was forgetting that he was ten years old.

“I’ve only got eight pesos, though,” Paolo said chipperly, “So it will take a long time.” 

Ese Blanco Milionario

¿Ese blanco milionario, vas a votar por él? You going to vote for that white millionare?

My taxi driver can’t believe he’s for real: “He’s the one who hates Latinos, right?” he asked me, “But the States has a lot of Latinos, right?”

Yeah, I can’t figure it out either.

He showed up on TV here, dubbed in Spanish, saying something more inflammatory than newsworthy. (In Spanish his name sounds like troomp, such a strange and foreign collection of sounds).

I had just been talking with my 10-year-old host brother about his biology assignment, studying the inside of cells. We marveled at how, inside, we all have the same nuclei and Golgi apparati and all the other things I’ve forgotten the names of. We talked about the little quirk, melanin, that makes my skin so pale while his is canelito, as he describes it – cinnamon-colored.

He held his skinny, brown arm next to mine. “I don’t understand why people are racists,” he said. “We’re different colors and we get along just fine.”

I want him to keep thinking this – for racism to stick in his head as something incomprehensible. I don’t want him to hear that people a few countries north are afraid of children just like him and men like the man he’ll grow up to be.

And that guy, Trump?” people ask me. Try explaining the concept of a giant, unnecessary wall to the people who would be on the other side of it. “He’s the one who hates Latinos, right?” Remember that the influence of a political decision reaches beyond borders.

This election is about more than governance. We have to ask ourselves, whose voice do we want to represent ours? More than that, as a people, how do we want to be known?

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Learning from the Little Ones

A few weeks before I arrived in Honduras, someone called me to tell me about the host family I would be staying with. They had three children, they told me, Paolo is 10, Hector is 7, and Allisson, who has Down’s syndrome, is 4.

That’s how they said it: “Allisson, she has Down’s syndrome, is 4.”

In-country, others told me about my family too, and the medical condition always hung there in a footnote: “and the little girl has Down’s syndrome.” I didn’t know much about the condition, and wondered what it would be like to live with her. I didn’t know what to expect.

What I found was that it didn’t take long to look past the footnote that always followed her name – to fall in love not with Allisson-who-has-Down’s-syndrome but with Allisson, who, when I come home, drops her toys and shouts my name, “Ka-TAH!” running towards me for a hug,

Allisson, the copy-cat, the queen of the house, who doesn’t say many words but understands almost everything, who struts and preens and throws tantrums, who cuddles and kisses and dances with her face lifted to the sky in pure joy,

Allisson, who walks through the living room with an empty pringles can on top of her head, like the ladies at the market who balance baskets full of vegetables, “Papa papa papa,” she babbles, “potatoes potatoes potatoes,” and we give her imaginary money and she puts it into her pockets,

Allisson, sassy and persistent, who digs her fingers in my purse when I leave it out, looking for the 2-lempira bills that are enough to buy a packet of her favorite chips, who will grab the bills and show them to me, then point to herself, cocking her head in a question – Can I have it?

Allisson, who can sometimes be maddening, who gets frustrated that we don’t understand her, or that we won’t let her do what her brothers do, who screams loud enough to shake the house and can’t be trusted with a crayon without eating it,

Allisson, whose tantrums fade away as quickly as they start, and who snuggles beside me to stroke my hair, trying her best to smooth it into a ponytail and humming the low, tuneless melody that means she’s completely satisfied.

Allisson the princess in pink plastic glasses, the glue of the family, who can read anger or sadness with remarkable astuteness and knows just what to do to fix it.

One day Hector was misbehaving and his grandmother reached for the ruler. She was shouting and he was crying and Allisson left her toys to squeeze herself between her brother and her grandmother. She held Hector’s face between her little hands. “Shh,” she told him, then looked back at her grandmother, “Da da da,” she said in a scolding tone, shaking her finger, and kept stroking her brother’s face as he quieted down. “No ‘buela,” she said, “No, grandma.” Her grandmother’s voice softened. She spoke sternly, but gently to Hector, and the ruler fell to the side of the couch, forgotten.

She keeps me company in my room sometimes, coloring with a pencil that won’t break if she bites it, and I talk to her. I think I need to sweep in here, I tell her, and she slides off the bed, goes downstairs, and comes back three minutes later dragging the broom and dustpan. She loves to help, and beams when you thank her. Sometimes she cries when I carry my own plate to the sink.

There are things that Allisson will never be able to do. Allisson-with-Down-Syndrome may never bring home the good grades that her brothers earn, learn English like her cousins, or run a business like her mother and father. But Allisson, just Allisson, can still do so much. She amazes me with her gentleness and her silliness and her sassiness and imagination. She makes us laugh and she keeps us from crying. She can already do more than some people said she’d ever do, and she’s learning more every day.

How much do we miss when we see people like Allisson for who they’re not and not for who they are? Does the world really need more brilliant minds, or does it need more kind ones? Does it need more expertise, or does it need more faithfulness? There’s a lot that I’m learning, for example, that only this four-year-old could teach me. 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

What Do We Mean, “Normal”?

Tegucigalpa, Honduras 
A few weeks ago a volunteer from the United States was telling me how much Tegucigalpa had challenged her expectations.

“I expected there to be poverty and all the bad things you hear about,” she said, “But there's malls here and TGI Friday’s – it’s actually pretty normal!”

“Normal”, of course, was a short-hand for “familiar." But I knew, and sympathized with what she was trying to say. Realizing that Hondurans eat at TGI Friday’s, that they take their kids to karate class, watch Netflix, and snap Instagram shots of their latte art, makes Honduras feel a lot less foreign.

A few weekends ago, I went to a friend’s house and we cooked pasta with pesto and an apple pie. I went and saw a Hollywood movie (in English, with Spanish subtitles) in this mall, then I went out with friends to a tea shop and sipped lemongrass tea while we talked about books we’d recently read.

To me this felt normal, by which I mean familiar. Not all my weekends are like this, but the familiarity was comfortable and rejuvenating. And I realized this – I can create a life for myself here in Honduras that feels familiar. But there was nothing about that weekend that was normal.

I live in one of the poorest countries in Latin America, where half of all residents are still rural farmers, and where the GDP per capita is about $6/day. Over 60% of Hondurans live in poverty, and 60% of these poorest Hondurans will have dropped out of school by age 12.  

This isn’t just Honduras. Something like 80% of the world lives on less than $10/day. Poverty is normal. The threat of diseases like malaria, dengue, HIV-AIDS is still normal. Gender inequality, racial discrimination, violent armed conflict – these things are still all too normal.

TGI Fridays is not normal.

It’s only natural to feel more comfortable in places that look familiar, or to connect more with people who share your background, your interests, and your outlook on life. But to see these things as the norm is dangerous. When we have the idea that “normal” means “like us”, that means that those who are different are somehow “abnormal”, and, thus, that they should change.

This is sneaky rhetoric. It happens in the United States when the goal for immigrants or ethnic minorities is “assimilation,” which often secretly means, “act, talk, and think ‘normal’,” which often means, “act, talk, and think like the white, male people in power.”

Acting “normal” becomes the test for which the reward is professional advancement, integration into social groups, and the constant murmur of, “why can’t the rest of them be like you.”

But a world in which all think, speak, and act alike is no world I want to live in.

It’s easy to come to Honduras and connect with people who are like me, friends who grew up on the same U.S. media, graduated college, and enjoy travel and hiking and coffee shops. It’s harder to connect with the girl in my neighborhood who dropped out of school at 15 to have her first child, who makes what living she can selling gum and newspapers by the bus station, and who’s too tired to have many hobbies.

It’s harder, but there’s more to learn in that friendship than in people who reinforce what I already think and know. We have a problem in our world where powerful people know and interact only with other powerful people, and view those with less education, fewer connections, less experience as less interesting, less worthy of attention, less normal.

Until we know and care for people who aren’t like us, we can’t be their advocates and they can’t be ours. We can’t start the work of reconciliation across culture or class or position. We’ll keep thinking “their” underprivileged position is because they aren’t enough like “us.”

It’s not that I shouldn’t enjoy lemongrass tea with friends when I am in a position to do so. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with karate or Netflix or Instagram. But it’s important to recognize how rare and unusual these privileges are where I am – and how rich lives can be even when they don’t contain them.

This is a challenge to myself to redefine normal and stretch my boundaries of the familiar, to appreciate the wealth of differences this world hosts, and accept humbly that I’m not normal, not remotely, and that that’s okay.  

Take Care

I fell down. It doesn’t matter how, but I ended up with two skinned knees and a patch scraped off my forearm. Embarrassing. Grimacing and feeling the tingly sting I hadn’t felt since I was young enough to run on gravel.

Even cool, clean water stung at first. The angry red patches clung tightly to the bits of dirt and I had to pour and pour until the wound dripped clean. I had a raisin-purple bruise beneath.

They gave me the day off on Monday. Rest! Get better! I stared at my joints so swollen they looked like foreign things. They were like children, crying out to be bathed and cared for. When I tried to run, I shuffled. Stubborn, the knees wouldn’t bend.

They are tiny little scrapes, really, the kind children are distracted from by popsicles. But they demand my attention, my care, and I realize how unaccustomed I am to caring for myself. Someone else always had to tell me to go home when I was sniffling. I don’t like to stop.

I get pitying glances, on the bus and in line to buy band-aids. There were gasps and hands clasped against chests. Everyone told me to buy a different cream that they swore by. They were just little scratches, a moment of clumsiness, I was embarrassed by the attention. It’s nothing, I kept saying, It’s no problem, though it stung to stand.

Cuídete! They tell me here when I leave in the morning, Take care of yourself. I think of myself, as any selfish human, but that doesn’t become care, the gentle attuned-ness to needs and inclinations.

My knees woke me up in the morning, the drying scabs pricking. How disgusting. I scooped a pailful of water from the cistern and bathed them. The red was hardening and turning a brown-maroon. I sat in bed and cleaned my knees and forearm, watched the puckered pink skin begin to emerge. I’m not used to this conversation, this asking and answering with my body: What do you need? What will make you feel better? It was a moment that surprised me – the peacefulness of self-care.

What a silly and sheepish emotion, to suddenly love my knees and care very much about what happens to them. What if this love extended to the rest of me, the parts that cry out for sleep or for vegetables, for slowing down sometimes? From my knees to the rest of me, I want to take care.