Sunday, October 16, 2016

How To Not Change Your Name

I fully advocate for winter weddings.
I realized there is a piece of my life that pertains to living overseas that I've never recorded here. So here is that story.

I got married December 2014. I always thought I'd marry someone other than an American. I pictured myself with someone from another continent, eventually earning duel citizenship, taking my children across multiple countries to visit their very different sets of grandparents. For someone with my life history, it seemed inevitable.

But I married someone from Pennsylvania. Turns out this is easier. And he's an amazing partner.

But I didn't change my name. Despite the convention. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Millennial women change their names. Despite a religious background avidly suggesting that women must change their names to observe interpretations of "submissiveness." I didn't change mine.

I started thinking about this in Cambodia. Around the same time I began experiencing gender discrimination and started to critically engage with issues of gender. I eventually embraced the term "feminist" because I believe in the equality of the sexes, I believe I should have equal opportunities, believe I should be paid the same, and I believe childcare should be affordable.

But that's not the whole reason I kept my name. I kept it because first, I love my name. It's a funny sounding Eastern European name. It's only two syllables and fits neatly on visa entry and exit forms. It has a good ring with my first name. Secondly, I've called 15 places home (upgraded to 16 since Liberia). You only have to read a few posts here to know that my story is complex. I don't have a place I call home. I'm a nomad. My life is full of change and uncertainty.

But I've always had my name. I have an amazing family who have shared that adventure and that name. And if everything else is changing around me and I myself seek change, well...I need the consistency of that Eastern-European name. My name gives me a comforting sense of grounding and home.

Besides. I didn't marry a "Smith." I would have upgraded to a three-syllable funny sounding Germanic name with a "z" in the middle. People occasionally ask how my partner feels about my decision. My partner decided his family name was important to him and I didn't ask him to change it. He extended the same courtesy to me.

This is one story of how being a nomad affects you in unexpected and surprising ways. This story deserves to be told because there's no shame in having an abnormal life abroad. There's no shame in choosing your name, or choosing not to change your name. There's no shame in naming your needs, or the fact that your needs are different from other global nomads. It's a process to learn to be comfortable with yourself, your name, and your calling. I'm on that journey everyday. And I'm happy to be on that journey with an funny Eastern European name. While my Germanic-named partner tags along.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

How to Make Liberia Work: Six weeks

After six weeks in Liberia, I don’t have too many discoveries to share. I go to work, I return home to eat and sleep. There isn't much to do, therefore few pictures to share or posts to write. I don't have mastery of the culture yet, therefore few interesting things to share. 

I find myself reflecting constantly about this place in relation to other places I've lived. I haven’t lived in Africa since early 2009 (see those older Zim posts). I've never been to West Africa. I've never worked in Africa. So my most recent point of comparison was Cambodia. And Liberia doesn’t match up to Cambodia. I decided this yesterday. As an expect working in the development sector abroad, Cambodia is significantly superior.

Liberia (like Cambodia) is post-conflict. However, Liberia’s post-conflict is fresh from the late 1990s. The UN peacekeeping operation withdrew only June 2016 and there is anxiety about security and this transition from Liberian colleagues. Like so many countries, it was a beautiful developing country once, with strong connections to the United States. Liberia was created as a “homeland” for African Americans in the 1800s, one of Africa’s first democracies, later growing into a prosperous--if inequitable--country, an exporter of iron and rubber.

Now, there’s really nothing left. It hasn’t recovered. Everything is imported right down to tomatoes, making cost of living the highest in West Africa. Wealth is measured by how many meals you can eat per day; one or three. There is Monrovia, and nothing else. Even Monrovia is fairly small by national capital standards though we have at least 15 good restaurant options.

By and large, life isn’t hard for me as resident. But there are no motorbikes, it’s costs hundreds to thousands to travel to the nearest country or Europe, there isn’t vacation infrastructure (i.e. beaches and resorts), everything from frying pans, to dinner, to fruit is ridiculously expensive. While on a day-to-day basis, life isn't hard, it's also not particularly fun or easy. 

After six weeks, I'm beginning to see why people don't particularly love it here. I don't think I particularly love it here either. But I have several things going for me that I hope will sustain some of the challenges while I learn and grow both personally and professionally; access to my Virginia library's ebooks, my podcasts and coloring books, a few board games, and knowing this is a nine-month contract. I can make anything work for a year.

Monday, July 18, 2016

How I moved to Liberia

The easiest way to move to Liberia, is simply to get a job.

And I did!! After over 120 job applications, being a final candidate on multiple occasions, after six months telling myself to be patient without being patient, I did get a job. In Liberia. (FYI this is common story in my field. We find employment. It just takes forever and we occasionally experience self-loathing.)

I work with an international nonprofit specializing in good governance and post-conflict reconstruction. I'm a project manager on a nine-month grant extension. Much of my job entails pieces of previous work; partners, evaluation, proposal/grant writing, being the timely one. I've wanted to work with this group for years. They were literally number two on my list. I could honestly not be luckier. And frankly, I'm really happy not to be in South Sudan or Somalia.

The appeal of Liberia was that my family lived here. Or rather they did. My mom and brothers returned to the States six weeks before I moved here. My dad left seven days before I arrived. This didn't really bother me until I arrived, which is when it truly sank in how tantalizingly close this opportunity came to fruition. However, I'm hugely proud of their new chapter in life and will wait a few more years for us to share cities again.

This new chapter also entails bringing a partner. I've never brought a partner before! Six years together, I'm finally living abroad with my partner. He was warned prior to our union he might live in some uncomfortable places, and warned again prior to departure. He hasn't had a meltdown yet. I'm crossing my fingers.

After 2.5 years in the States, I wondered how I'd feel after going abroad again. I truly did adapt into my roles and home in Virginia. It felt natural and effortless even. I wondered if perhaps I had lost "it;" that misunderstood yet unmistakable part of myself that lives a normal life in abnormal places. It was a strange feeling. But I don't think I did. Almost as soon as I arrived, it all felt familiar. The place is different, but the struggles, the background, they are all the same. It felt like returning home. It's a lifestyle I know and feel comfortable navigating. It's a place I'll call home for now, and I'll learn to love the skies I'm under.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

This Post is for Virginia (Part 2)

Virginia or West Virginia? Amazing regardless.
This space already documented one farewell from Virginia. Now it will document a second.

Virginia Part 2 was a great 2.5 years. I love the Shenandoah Valley. I hope to call the area home again. There are mountains, friendly faces, wide open spaces, family close by and excellent food. I think a part of me will always value this place. It's comforting to know that I can make my home in North America and there are communities of people empathetic to my narrative.

During these 2.5 years, a lot of life happened. I finished my graduate degree. I finally got a real drivers licence. I cultivated professional skills and solidified my professional ambitions. I worked a lot of retail; first as a cashier at a grocery store, then later adding sorting clothes at a local thrift shop to my skill set. I made friends. I joined an excellent congregation. We married off my sister, and later a brother-in-law. I watched as my family transitioned back to the States after 18 years abroad. I road tripped to Ohio (never moving there), and North Carolina (much better). I visited a great friend in Michigan. My partner and I cemented our relationship through engagement, marriage and even celebrated our first anniversary. We watched the USWNT dominate, though still struggling to dominate the equal pay game. I cried after the last Hunger Games film. We road a lot of bike. We discussed what we wanted next and what professional opportunities we should pursue...over and over again.

During the last few months I found myself wondering if I was a lifer, like I've written here before. There are so many things I love about the United States. It's so easy to slide into routines. These are my people by birth. Whatever cultural heritage and ethnic background I hold is tied to the States. This is the place where I have roots and the privilege of working without a visa. Is this where I want to belong?

All our anguished pondering came down to what professional opportunities opened up. And right now, that doesn't include the Shenandoah Valley. For me, it's the opportunity to call a 10th country home (which means resurrecting the blog). For my partner, it's a whole new world.

So again, farewell Virginia. We leave ever so grateful. We leave perhaps regretfully. But like everything else, it's just for now.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

This Post is for My Cambodian Experience

It is with sadness that I leave the Kingdom of Wonder. Wonderful, it has been. I have learned far more than I ever thought possible. I have made friends that will last a lifetime. I've learned that I can live on my own, work on my own and survive, with just a little encouragement from my family and friends. I learned how to ask more questions, hopefully better questions. I learned to sit-at-the-table even when I didn't feel like it.

I thought about staying longer but I'm grateful that the pieces feel together infinitely better than I ever through possible. I overflow with gratitude for the experiences I've had here. I wouldn't trade it, though many nights I cried and many days I plowed through with sheer determination when my heart just wasn't it in. I tried to learn something from each miserable experience, and I like to think that largely, I do take lessons away.

My organization likes to point out we never return from our assignments the same. Well obviously. You never live in any foreign country unchanged. But I am a lifer. This is not the solely defining international home. This is one piece of my story, and a very good piece indeed. It was a good use of three years.

My next story will take me back to Virginia and on to grad school. It will take me on adventures of pursuing important relationships. I thought I would be unhappy but I've begun to feel it's time. You know something is right when you feel a sense of inner peace; inexplicable yet comforting.

What does that mean for this blog? Well, after seven years, it can't stop now. It might take a sabbatical, but it will continue in various forms, at various times. After all, I am a lifer.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

How my street changed in 2.5 years

I have been looking forward to this post for quite some time. For one, I like comparisons. Secondly, this is the easiest method to express in a limited way just how much Phnom Penh has changed over my time here. I live on the third floor of an apartment building and have a beautiful balcony which once offered an amazing view of the city. Now it offers a lovely view of...something....altered by urban development. Apparently all industrious Cambodians want to build a high-rise and make a quick buck from renters. Due to zero zoning laws, they continue to grow higher and closer together.

The first picture happened by accident. The second was intentional (if on a whim). The third is carefully and excitedly planned. Change is fascinating, it's it?

June 2011

November 2012

September 2013

A bonus picture

Just an average evening. Coming home and finding a cement mixer.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

How to Plan...And Ultimately Let Go

Reflecting at one of the highest points in Phnom Penh

Much of my time in Cambodia has been overshadowed by a complete lack of control. I go to great lengths to explain something; clothes at the tailor, how a report should be written, how exactly I want my house cleaned, and how I want a hamburger without mayo. Sometimes I get what I want. Sometimes I don’t. This is how it goes.

Over the past three years, there has been a handful of times when I felt this most acutely. One of those times was planning this year’s peace conference. Helping plan a conference is a challenging, but even more so cross-culturally. Cambodians have a strong opinion about how certain things must be done. I find many of these expectations ridiculous, but this is how it's done and success requires complying.

  • There must be a fancy invitations addressed to the director of the organization you are inviting, and follow-up messages/invitations later on. Nothing may be handwritten, and this includes the envelope.
  • There must be a certificate, even for a short workshop, which must have gold edges and must NOT be printed on just black and white. There must be ONE official looking stamp, even if it’s from Hogwarts, stamps matter, but only ONE.
  • We must sit in a formal U-shaped conference setting.
  • We must be provided free pens and a notebook.
  • All games (including ice-breaker games) must have prizes.
  • There must be games.
  • The facilitator must be dressed well. The facilitator’s appearance reflects the importance of the content.
  • The hotel room must have an abundance of amenities (a conference in 2011 was ruined because the hotel did not provide free toothbrushes).
  • We must all be provided per diems for attending, even if you are fairly middle-class. 

For assistance with these odd social expectations, you must work closely with Cambodian counterparts. For example, after designing a colorful and modern looking certificate of participation, a colleague was quick to tell me that it was “wrong.” Two hours wasted, I went with the opulent cliché option, because that is how it’s done.

Cambodians are quick to complain; “my hotel room does not have a desk,” “my hotel room doesn’t have a mini-fridge,” “the fried rice at the restaurant was too salty,” yes, all this happened. There is a balance between trying to make people happy and just having to let go. We are guests in Cambodia. I remind myself of this constantly and the importance of respectful compliance when possible.

The second part of my plan-let-go process for this event was the content. I felt very passionate about the content and its relevance to our work. I spent days researching a perfect, simple and engaging model to share. I drafted notes, summarized articles and revised several frameworks.

Then I gave it to the Cambodian facilitator. We went through the content, discussed it, answered questions, and made additional modifications. Ultimately however, she presented this material in Khmer and I ultimately attended with no idea whatsoever was being said. It went well! But there were pieces that I wish had gone differently. This is all part of the planning and letting go.

There are things you can and cannot control. There is preemptive risk mitigation. And for all the times I’ve worked so hard to explain to my colleagues not to ask double-barreled questions in surveys, they still occasionally asked double-barreled questions! There are moments when you push for excellence and moments when you just have to let go.  In some ways I’m a teacher and in other ways I’m a student. You do your best, and then you step back, pray it goes well, and let it happen.