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?