Song of the Traveler

Music is my first language; it’s how I understand and relate to the world. When I listen to music, I feel things I can’t describe in words. The sounds, the blending of notes, encapsulates and pulls at emotion better than any language.

Each place that’s influenced me, each important event, is marked in my mind with a song. It’s a song that we played over and over again to get us through dark times. Or, it’s a song we sang at the top of our lungs while driving, dancing, running, hiking, whatever. Still, to this day, I can listen to these songs and sing along without getting tired of them.

There’s only a handful of songs that do that for me.

But I couldn’t find that song in Madagascar. I don’t know why. I’ve listened to dozens of great songs, and learned a handful, but nothing pulled at that part of my heart where words don’t reach. That one song that is imprinted in my heart was somehow missing…

…and I’m wondering now if it made me feel somehow less than settled here. Or maybe I couldn’t find that song because I wasn’t settled. Nervous, anxious, couldn’t relax, couldn’t let music speak to me. Couldn’t put my roots down. I had this honest, angry thought that maybe I just don’t belong in a small village of Malagasy people…because I’ll never be Malagasy. No matter how good my language is, how much I dress or eat or act like the locals, I will never be one of them.

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And then, just recently, it hit me like lightning: Well obviously. I can never erase my skin or my face or my heritage, or rewrite my past, or will myself into being born in another part of the world instead.

But what I can do is learn, and try, and allow that learning to inform my behavior, my thoughts, and my responses (I almost said reactions, but I’m working on responding rather than reacting.) I’m still me; I’m still Melanie. I’ve been Melanie all along. Only, now, I’m Melanie who speaks Malagasy and sometimes braids her hair and dresses in colorful clothing and understands a little more about a little part of the world.

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Which brings me to this song: this beautiful, Malagasy folk song by two singers written and performed by two musicians from the East Coast of Madagascar: Mika and Davis. The lyrics, roughly summarized, are as follows:

How are you all? It’s so good to see you. What’s up? What’s new with you all?

There’s nothing new here. Our health is good.

There’s not a lot we’re bringing with us. We’re looking for goodness, we’re looking for happiness, we’re looking for wonder, we’re looking for love, we’re looking for things that will make us happy.  That’s what brought us here…

There’s nothing to make us sad. And there’s nothing that should make us fight.  But we missed you all, so we came to visit.

–Oh, it’s good to miss people. Thank you for visiting.

We’re happy to be here. We’re full of happiness to see you. We’re so happy to be with you.

I can’t stop listening to this song. Watching the music video, that little part in the depth of my heart came alive again and told my brain this simple lesson: You can belong to people who aren’t like you. That’s what makes friendship real. True friendship, the kind Malagasy call “havana,” meaning family from different blood, means that ‘I see your difference, I enjoy it, I learn from it, I appreciate it, and I accept you with it. With all of it.’ That is what this song means to me.

And that’s what this journey has been for me…me seeing my blaring difference, feeling like a white-bellied fish laid out on the ice in a grocery store, yet people saying to me, “just be here with us.”

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Cultural Adjustment: The Six Month Slump

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omelette for dinner

What do all of the following items have in common?

  • cooking omelettes

  • exercising
  • fishing
  • watching cows
  • reading Harry Potter

They belong on my list of things that have made me happy this past month.

It’s been a slow moving month.

Between extra meetings that caused lapses in school, a surprise cyclone, an illness and a school holiday, I feel like I have accomplished virtually nothing all  month. My English club has had exactly one meeting, it’s been very hard to get in touch with people, and because of exams (at least, I hope that’s why), fewer students have been coming around to study English.

Then another cyclone hit. We had our first one of the year back in early January, during which groups of volunteers were consolidated in various larger towns out of precaution. This time, however, we received no warning and were all at home in our villages. This meant days and days of endless rain and wind, no school, no market, no sun to charge electronics or solar lights. Frankly, it was a bit depressing. I played a lot of cards with some of my students, the ones who were brave enough to walk in the rain to come visit me. I also got my hair braided by a friend and taught those same students some American songs. So, the cyclone wasn’t a total loss.

When you live in a small village, with no electricity or amenities, and whose population is mostly farmers, life tends to move at a snail’s pace. Everything from sifting, picking, washing and cleaning rice to pounding, pounding and pounding cassava leaves for dinner, to transplanting rice to make it grow, to sewing clothes, to fetching water, to walking to school, takes its time. When I first arrived to my village, I was captivated by this slower pace of life. Here were some people who were not stressed and angry all the time, I thought. How different their temperaments are from Americans, whose lives revolve around calendars and alarms and rushing, rushing, rushing.  

This is still all true, of course. It’s still beautiful. But it’s also so boringly ordinary. I’m crossing off exactly six months living in my village (nine months total in country). I’m due for a Six Month Slump.

The habits that I found peculiar and fascinating during my first few months I often find irritating now. I find myself thinking things like, “why doesn’t he or she just do this instead?” I also find myself fed up with the slow and tedious ways of cutting grass, making peanut butter, washing my clothes, having no food storage, chasing away rats, walking through mud, dealing with miscommunications, dealing with language mistakes, dealing with insults or ridiculous questions or the insane lack of privacy and anonymity.

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the u-curve: a commonly held theory of the stages of cultural adjustment

I wrote about a similar experience when I was living and working in Thailand. Even though I lived in a big city then, my feelings towards Thai culture and everything unfamiliar pulsated with resentment. According to the U-curve theory of cultural adjustment, months 4-9 are right around the time where everything, for lack of a better term, feels like shit. Nothing seems to make sense; you get frustrated at every little thing, and maybe, you just want to go home. That’s me, right now.

Being someone who has a history of depression, this can be a dangerous game. The resentment, anger and isolation I feel can quickly breed and fester and cause me to alienate myself even further from my village, my people, my new Madagascar. Because I like to justify my feelings, it’s easy for me to talk myself into the fact that I deserve to feel resentful and upset, and that I deserve to ignore people and keep to myself, and that I deserve to give myself a break and stop trying.

I know.

Rereading my own post from three and a half years ago tickles me, because my thoughts are so similar, and my conclusions are so simple. Yet somehow, I’m incapable of remembering my own life lessons:

Eventually, I had to emerge from my hole in the wall and breathe in the smelly air of Bangkok [again], because at a certain point I ceased to recharge, and I ended up hurting myself by isolating myself beyond what was necessary. This is something, I’m noticing after many years, I tend to do.

So it’s a habit, and it’s a habit I haven’t yet successfully broken. So how do we mentally unstable do-gooders deal with the onslaught of berating thoughts?

The best way I know to deal with this is to keep going and just do it. The mantra of athletes and successful people who are obviously not me, seems simple and straight forward. Just do it. Just keep going.

I’ve been given this simple, profound advice from current PCVs and RPCVs who served all over the globe. The simplest way to keep going is just to keep going. Breathe, let things go, get a good night’s sleep (if the rats don’t keep you awake), and keep going another day.

Just do it.

The Savior Complex

“A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wings. Alone it must seek the ether.” –Khalil Gibran

 

If I had my way, I would be a bird. I would fly from place to place and peep in on other people’s realities, never getting too attached or involved. I would skim the surface of life, laughing at my reflection in oceans and dancing on telephone wires. As a traveler, all I have truly ever wanted is to sit in tiny rooms with friends and drink in laughter between paper thin walls, sweet, steamy chai wafting through our noses and thick, melodious languages dripping from our tongues. But I’m not a bird, and I’m not a wallflower. I exist; people notice me.

I hate that people notice me. Sometimes I wish I could just keep the inspirational experiences in my heart and leave the embarrassing ones behind. I wish I could help people when I want to help rescue them and not when I feel obligated to do so. There comes a point when one can feel so emptied that we cannot seem to be filled. Perhaps this is because “help” has turned into “rescue.”

The world doesn’t give us a break. We can’t decide when people need our help, and we can’t really decide when we need another’s help. But not asking for help when we are drowning doesn’t make sense. Yet how do we move on from a rescue?

No man is an island. But for those of us who have grown up privileged, it’s easy to think that we have some God-given power to help others because of our circumstances, because we’ve been told to go out into the world and make it better. But change isn’t a power, it’s a responsibility, and a very precarious one. If you’re not aware of your own impact, you can do more harm then good.

Reflecting on my time in Thailand, I think I felt a lot of pressure to live up this image of a rescuer that, at the time, I was not aware I had. Being part of a faith community, learning about the plight of refugees, I became very involved with the idea of saving others. I didn’t see it as anything problematic, but I wasn’t just a witness. I was an actor and people noticed me and started assuming things about me that I wasn’t aware of because I was not fully present. I was in my own head. 

I grew up in my head. I dreamed away my reality with visions of waterfalls, open fields, and a sense of life with a purpose. I am learning how to live a life with purpose, but a lot of this has been painful. I think that’s the point. The hardest part about wanting to rescue someone is needing to save them from pain. Sometimes this is absolutely vital; sometimes it isn’t. I don’t know where that line is and I never want to make that decision but I know that I will. Life is tough like that. I have a tendency to remember only the good things and forget the times I failed. But at the same time, failure can be life’s greatest teacher, even if it means giving up and moving home. A friend of mine asked me, “What do you want to learn from this?” I think that’s a great start.

I’ve failed a lot in my life, which is how I know I’m not a savior. I believe there is only one Savior. But even if you don’t, as travelers, teachers, explorers, we have to start acknowledging our own impact. We are not wallflowers and we are not birds. We might be called on to rescue someone, but we need to examine our motivations as well as our plans. Does this person need help? If so, what does that need to look like?

Never stop asking questions.

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Inle Lake, Myanmar: 2015

Christmas In Vietnam

Typical motorbike traffic in Ho Chi Minh City.
Photo credit:Noemi Agagianian

I’m really sucking at Christmas this year.

Most people in my neighborhood have already finished their Christmas shopping, sent cards and letters, hosted parties, strung lights and cozied up by the fire place at least thrice. I, on the other hand, bought a handful a presents last week that I forgot to wrap, haven’t written a single Christmas card and have forgotten that Christmas lights are a “thing.” But it’s not my fault, I swear.

Last year, I spent Christmas in Vietnam.

While most folks at home were baking pies and watching Christmas specials, I was buying plane tickets and booking hostels, reading up on sites to see and haggling for discounted bus tickets. 

View from the former South Vietnam’s HQ.

After a twelve hour overnight bus from Siem Riep to Bangkok , I flew again from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon. And yes, I refrained from singing “One Night in Bangkok” the whole time!) on December 22, 2014. We arrived late at night and took a taxi-van to our hostel. I had already noted the few Catholic churches in my guidebook, because I like to go to Church on Christmas eve. We passed a few on our way downtown, brightly decorated with blue Christmas lights and little nativity scenes. Maybe Ho Chi Minh city would be a nice place to spend Christmas, after all, I thought!

We spent the next two days touring the city, visiting the War Museum (formerly, and aptly, called the “Museum of American War Crimes”), the former president of South Vietnam’s headquarters, a densely packed textile market, the Cu Chi war tunnels, a few islands in the Mekong Delta, and quite a few coffee shops. Ho Chi Minh city is bustling and couture mix of French architecture, sundry shops, restaurants, opera houses, and markets, all sandwiched in between thousands of motor bikes whizzing around pedestrians and traffic stops.

Typical traffic outside the Cathedral
Photo credit: Noemi Agagianian

On Christmas Eve day, we wandered around the city, drank coffee and took lots of pictures. Like most cities I’ve visited, we ended up walking in circles for several hours until it finally got dark and we got hungry. I was craving Western food, perhaps because of a timely longing for home, so we found a cute little “Italian” shop (though it was Vietnamese owned) that sold everything from curry to pizza to gelato. I ordered a caprese salad, which turned out to be cheddar cheese, basil, sliced tomato and olives, and a pasta dish. My friends ordered curry and a burger. Ho Chi Minh is cosmopolitan that way!

With my capricious caprese salad (forgive the pun..)

After eating our fill, we headed down to the Church for the Christmas Eve service. But we didn’t get far before we started pressing ourselves against the crowds of local residents gathered in the Church courtyard. They weren’t really concerned that a service was happening inside; a sea of red and white Santa costumes in sweaty bodies swam and danced around. Young people laughed, took selfies, and sprayed each other with snow-in-a-can. Snow-in-a-can. It was a big shock. Yet as shocking as all the Santa costumes and snow-in-a-can were to me, I still imagine the sight of three tall American girls was even more shocking to everyone else. People screamed, laughed, took pictures, and sprayed us with lots of fake snow.

One of many little boys out for Christmas Eve
Photo credit: Noemi Agagianian

I was surprised at how many families were out so late at night. In my mind, Christmas means spending time with family in the home, cozied up on the couch, braving the winter weather. Obviously, you don’t need to brave winter weather in a tropical country. Babies, little boys and girls, moms and dads all posed for “groupies” by their motorbikes, laughed, chatted, celebrated.

That Christmas Eve was certainly memorable. I lost my friends, found the Chapel, and got covered in lots of wet foam. But I learned something important: Christmas, and every other American holiday, is not the same anywhere else. In my home in Memphis, Christmas is a big deal. In my family, Christmas has religious significance; it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. But somehow, that message has gotten lost in translation. The message of Christmas that managed to make it to Vietnam was not so much the birth of Jesus Christ or the quiet peace of “Silent Night,” but the red and white costumes, the snow, the jingle bells, and Santa Claus. It was difficult for me to spend my Christmas in a part of that whirlwind; those things were never part of my Christmas. 

Looking back, I see now that spending Christmas in Vietnam taught me to cherish what I hold to be true about Christmas: Christ was born to save the world. Family matters. Peace on Earth cannot be lip service. I understand not everyone feels that way, and that’s fine with me, because as Ani DiFranco said, “I know there is strength in the differences between us.” There is strength in difference, and there is value in celebrations. We become stronger when we can celebrate our own holidays differently. It means we accept that there is more to a day then the presents, or the food, or the way we hold our services.


Merry Christmas, everyone, and Happy Holidays. May you and yours be blessed and joyful, wherever you are in the world and however you decide to celebrate.