Coming Home: Thoughts on Rediscovering and Reclaiming Identity

I just finished listening to a fabulous Ted Talk: “The Art of Being Yourself.” In it, the presenter says the following:

With every passing year, your job is to be better and better at being who you already are.

Caroline McHugh, “The Art of Being Yourself”

When I was evacuated from Peace Corps, I didn’t just lose my job, my home, and my community. I lost my identity. Peace Corps is a very strange animal, in that it requires you to become a chameleon. More than any other international job, Peace Corps volunteers undergo a tremendous identity change. You have to become a master at code switching, changing what you say and how you behave in order to adapt to your immediate environment. You have to learn how people think in order to communicate effectively and be understood.

Over time, I found myself internalizing certain habits I picked up from local culture. Here’s an example: in the US, we tend to substitute”Uh-huh” and “uh-uh” for “yes” and “no,” respectively. In the Malagasy dialect that I spoke, it’s reversed: “uh-uh” means “yes” and “uh-huh” means no. This confused me to no end. Are people agreeing or disagreeing with me? Are they saying yes or no? Eventually, though, I adopted this behavior, without really meaning to. In fact, it became so habitual to me that I would do it without thinking, often in the presence of other volunteers, or while talking to my American parents on the phone. I took on this habit, because it was an effective (and, let’s be honest, fun) way to communicate. And it’s still a part of me. I don’t know how to undo it.

Another example is sitting on the floor. People sit on the floor in my region of Madagascar. Not because they don’t have chairs. They’re just accustomed to the ground. I got in the habit of cooking, eating, writing, and socializing, all while sitting crosslegged on the floor. Now, it’s so much easier for me to get work done on the floor. I have a desk in my bedroom, but I hardly use it.

These may seem like small, trivial habits, but they’re important to me because they’ve become a part of me. They represent what I had to go through to survive and what I eventually came to love and cherish. I never considered cooking on the floor before Madagascar. I never peeled carrots in one hand with a pairing knife, or shouted “oiee” when I was surprised or startled, or stopped to say hello to every stranger I pass on the road. These habits are now part of my new, post Peace Corps American self, and I don’t know what to do with them. They’ve become part of my identity, but the identity I was crafting feels painfully irrelevant in post-evacuation, quarantine life.

Now that I’m back, I don’t need to cook on the floor, or answer “uh-uh” as an affirmative, or greet everyone with a firm handshake, or sit down before I start a conversation. I’ve been trying to stir up some of my old habits to fill the void. But nothing feels exactly correct now, because nothing is exactly me anymore. I don’t know who me is. I’m not who I was before 2017…but I’m not who I was up until the evacuation, either.

When I step back and take a birds’ eye view, what’s happening to me now is exactly what I expected to happen. I was pulled out of a life I loved and thrown into a life I didn’t recognize, didn’t plan for, and didn’t choose (at that time), and given no projects and very little guidance. No job or identity was waiting to replace the ones I had abandoned. Only old books and notebooks and tshirts, mementos from a life I had almost forgotten. Maybe I’m having such a hard time being home because I didn’t like who I was before I left, and I buried those parts deep down in the corners of suitcases or left them at the Memphis International Airport three years ago. But they’ve been waiting for me this whole time. It’s time to unpack.

This is scary and painful. But if there’s one saving grace, it’s that I know I can do it, because I did Peace Corps, and damnit, that’s hard. To quote Glennon Doyle, We can do hard things.”

Before I left for Peace Corps, I wrote a manifesto of all the things I wanted to do and not do during my time. It was my contract with myself. It served me well and helped guide me in times of ambiguity. Perhaps it’s time to write another one. Perhaps I need to sit down with this new, post Peace Corps, post evacuation self, on the floor, and write out who I am now, or who I want to become.

No one is expecting me to act a certain way anymore. Maybe that’s liberating. Maybe that’s release. Maybe I can tap back into the parts of myself I liked pre-Peace Corps and leave the rest behind. For now, I need to let that be enough.

Your life has to be your message.

Caroline McHugh

Cooking with Coconut (with Recipe)

Coconut is king in Northern Madagascar.

Let’s talk food; is there anything better to talk about?

Someone asked me last week what I miss most about Madagascar. My answer: the food. Not a very common answer, actually. Since Madagascar is so geographically diverse, the food changes drastically depending on which part of the country you’re in. Happily, I lived in the Northwest, where coconut is king.

Before you go picturing me drinking coconut water out of a straw on the beach, know that people in my region cooked with mature coconuts (the ones you drink from are much younger), and typically, they don’t like to drink the water. That never stopped me, of course.

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Making fresh coconut milk using an ambozy, a traditional tool with a wooden seat and a metal grater attached to the end

Maybe you’re thinking of shredded coconut flakes, the kind you put in macaroons. Nope. When people cook with coconut here, they actually shred mature coconuts to make coconut milk. Here’s how:

  1. Whack open a coconut with a machete or a big knife. Pour the water into a zinga, filter it and drink!
  2. Shred each half of the coconut on an ambozy (pictured above). Make sure you have a large bowl placed below for catching the flakes.
  3. Next, add clean water to the shreds–just enough to cover. Start to squeeze the flakes and extract the milk.
  4. Pour the shreds through a strainer into another bowl set aside.
  5. Repeat the process a second and third time.
  6. The first press is always the richest. In my experience, you want to use the first press last, so that your food retains the coconuty-rich flavor.

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Coconut beans! My favorite coconut dish

Of course, if you’re in America, whole coconuts and ambozys can be hard to come by. Luckily, full fat coconut milk makes a decent substitute.

My favorite of all coconut recipes are coconut beans. They’re filling, cheap, and last forever. In Madagascar, I would cook my beans over a traditional fatana sarbonne like the one pictured below, because beans take such a long time to cook. However, if you soak dry beans overnight, they’ll cook up in less than an hour.

When I went home to America, I adapted this recipe and made it for my family using locally available ingredients. I found that I still preferred to use dry beans, because it allows more time for the coconut flavor to absorb. But I’m sure, in a pinch, canned beans would suffice.

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Beans cooking over a traditional fatana sarbonne, a charcoal cooking stove

Here’s my American recipe:

Malagasy Coconut Beans

Serves 8-10 people; can be halved or doubled easily

2 lbs dry dark red beans

3 cans coconut milk

2 large tomatoes

1 large red onion

1 head of garlic

Salt

Pepper

Cilantro (optional)

  1. Soak beans overnight
  2. When ready to cook, rinse beans and fill to cover with fresh water. Do NOT fill the pot with water; fill just enough to cover the beans with maybe an inch of water on top.
  3. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are starting to get soft but not completely cooked.
  4. When soft but not still not cooked through, add two cans of coconut milk and bring to a boil again. Reduce to simmer and continue to cook the beans until they are soft.
  5. While the beans are cooking, smash the head of garlic with generous amounts of salt and pepper (I like to use a mortar and pestle for tradition’s sake, but you could certainly blend it in a food processor). Add the garlic, salt and pepper blend into the beans and stir. Cover.
  6. Chop the tomatoes and onions and add them to the pot.
  7. Taste a few beans to see if they are soft. They should almost melt in your mouth. At this point, add the last can of coconut milk and cook for ten more minutes, covered.
  8. Taste for salt and pepper. Add more if you like.
  9. Chop the cilantro and add it to the pot. Stir and serve.

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Serve coconut beans with generous amounts of white rice and shredded mango salad.

 

 

Rice Cakes

I have a coffee shop in my village.

The decor is rustic–hipster chic. It’s full of wooden stools and green plants and it serves the best rice cakes in the world. Yes, in the whole world. It’s a fact.

The recipe is a secret passed down from generation to generation. It’s run by a local grandmother. Only, it’s not so secret any more. She shared it with me.

When my friend and fellow volunteer, Alyssa, came to visit me last year, she boasted that this coffee stand sold the best mokary vary in all of Madagascar. At the time, I had only been in Madagascar for three months, so I took her word for it. A year and a half later, I see now that Alyssa wasn’t wrong.

What makes this mokary vary (rice bread or rice cake in the Northern Malagasy dialect) the best? I’m not really sure. Maybe it’s the combination of yeast and baking powder. Maybe it’s the type of rice she uses to grind into flour. Maybe it’s just the right amount of sugar added, or the right amount of charcoal used…or maybe it’s just pure, natural talent.

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Whatever it is, I’m satisfied eating it every day. This place has become my daily routine. I wake up, throw on a salovana, sweep my house and then wander out of my yard up the road to drink coffee and eat mokary vary and listen to the gossip and the news. If it weren’t for this place, I’d have no idea what’s happening in the village.

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Local “Starbucks”

Before Alyssa finished her service, she came back to our coffee shop and begged the owner for the recipe. With a hearty laugh, she obligingly walked us through each step. It’s a two day process. Day two begins very early (“at the cock’s crow”) and we overslept and missed it. But I promised Alyssa that I would go back and observe the final piece of the puzzle, so that she could bring this little piece of Madagascar (my little piece) back to The States with her.

Well Alyssa, here it is. Let me know if it tastes the same over there.

PS: She misses you.

Dady's Mokary Vary Recipe:

Ingredients:
4 cups of rice flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp yeast
1 cup sugar
water

The Night Before:
1. Put 4 Tablespoons of rice flour in a saucepan (1 TB per cup of rice flour)
2. Add enough water to make a thin liquid
3. Place the saucepan over direct heat
4. Cook until the mixture (called koba) gets thick and becomes difficult to stir
5. Let the koba cool
6. Add the baking powder and yeast to the remaining rice flour in a large bowl
7. Add the cooled koba to the mixture and combine until it is incorporated. It'll be a bit lumpy
8. Let this mixture sit overnight. I didn't see this part, but I assume Dady covered it with a cloth.

The Morning Of (3 am or When the Cock Crows):
1. Add the sugar and enough water to make a very thin batter
2. Heat very small pans with lids over charcoal (or I guess in an oven if you're going that way)
3. Add enough oil to coat the pans
4. Pour about 1/4 cup batter in each pan. Cover and let cook for a few minutes.
5. Flip the mokary once it has had time to set on one side.
6. When the edges are brown, remove and let cool.

Make sure to eat this with some really mahery coffee. 

Mazotoa.

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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The Hardest Part (Wrapping Up Year 1)

One evening, when I was seventeen, I wrote a list of life goals on a piece of paper and hanged it to my dad. “These are all the things I want to do before I die,” I told him. The list included things like “hike Mount Everest. Skydive. Finish a triathalon.” Now that I’m a bit older and know a lot more about myself, it’s clear to me that certain things I will never do. Jumping out of an airplane is definitely one of them. And if that triathalon includes any amount of mountain biking, you can count me out. I would still like to hike Everest one day…but maybe only to Base Camp.

Peace Corps has been on my list for a while. This is something I have always wanted to do. There is so much romance that I found in the idea of living in a small, isolated community in a strange country for so long. I spent a year preparing to go, going to great lengths to convince DC that I was physically and mentally fit for service. In the end, I went, and ended up in a tiny, isolated rural village in Madagascar. My job description was simple enough: teach English. Teach other teachers English. Encourage English learning in the community.

Significant hurdles, however, have recently made it difficult for me to do my “job”– my formal, on paper job. Me being me, I’ve been left feeling, for lack of an easier term, useless.

Some of these obstacles here include big political events, like a national teachers’ strike (for higher pay), and some have included meetings and other events that render school cancelled. Now that summer vacation is officially here, (more of less, since we moved from a long school strike into summer vacation without any idea of when exams will happen or if they will happen) I find myself with even more time to simply….exist.

So why is that the hardest part?

In the interest of self-reflection and not beating myself up, it’s worth me acknowledging that I do actually feel very happy with my accomplishments over Year 1. Like, really, really happy. I actually did a lot of what I set out to do: paint a world map, work at a GLOW camp, play music, learn more of my dialect, read books with my students, cook Gasy food, love Gasy people, eat a lot of rice (that wasn’t a goal, but it’s definitely an accomplishment), read more books by myself, have “me time” in my house, get back on my bicycle after my accident. I did all those things. Me. I did them. Not alone, obviously, but I was there. I have this awful tendency to erase myself from my life story, but right now, I’m saying, actually, yes, I did that.

But now what? My dad tells me that “we tend to overestimate what we can do in a day, but underestimate what we can do in a year.” I would add that I also tend to overestimate what I can accomplish alone, and grossly underestimate what I can do with others. I think these lessons are essential, and I’m so glad I’m learning them.

And so, I’m closing out year one on a high note. I’m choosing to do that. I’m choosing to feel happy and satisfied and focus on my accomplishments and see the faces of those I love the most at site and around the country. These are all things–relationships, experiences, events, memories, and insight, that I didn’t have a year ago.

That’s good enough for me right now.

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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.

On Coexistence and Feeling Pain

A few days ago I woke up to the familiar sound of a dog barking–a low, deep, rapid barking that sounded exactly like my dog Lucky’s bark back home.

With my eyes still closed, lying under my mosquito net, I was transported. I heard the sound of my dog’s barks, then felt the soft cotton sheet of my twin bed in the guest room where I slept for four months before service. I heard the low growling of the coffee maker coming from the kitchen and rolled over, deciding to sleep a little longer.

The next moment, the drip drip of the coffee maker gives way to a rooster crowing and men and women shouting to each other: “Vaovao!” they say. “What’s new today!” the ox carts rumble past, squishing over soft mud from last night’s rain.

In a single moment, the symphonic percussions in my ears pull me in two directions: one is a brick home in Memphis, Tennessee; the other is a ravinala hut  in the country-side in rural Madagascar. With my eyes still closed, I feel as if I’m floating, suspending between two coexisting realities, both already melded into my heart.


Two nights ago, my second niece was born: a girl. I took one look at the her picture over Facebook messenger and burst into tears. The pain of not being there a second time for the first year and a half of my new baby niece’s life was unbearable. I did not feel guilt but supreme sadness. And I cried.

In that moment, I wished I could be there to hold her and hug my family and kiss my stepsister and congratulate them on their beautiful, growing family. But I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to transport my family to my little grass hut and have everyone and everything I love for once, finally, be all in one place.

Yet when I closed my eyes and laid down on my soft foam mattress, smelled the clean air around me and felt the quiet of a dark, black neighborhood asleep under the stars, I felt a sense of peace and connection that calmed my fears, my painful longings, my anxiety and my guilt.

Guilt is like wet cement: once you get stuck in it, it becomes harder and harder to get out. I always ask myself why I chose to come here. What was it about “home” that I wanted to leave behind? What was I giving up?

In reality, I don’t think there was anything wrong with my home life. I loved my family and friends. That love never stopped being enough. I just started to need something else in my life. Maybe it has something to do with finding a way to feel safe and secure without the comfortable bubble of a familiar, easy life. I think my experience here is about finding ways to live out my values of human equality and equal opportunity and not be held back my the guilt and anxiety that tells me I need to keep myself “safe” and shouldn’t take risks–risks that could lead to embarrassment and failure, but also amazing results.  Maybe you can be wise and brave at the same time.

I heard a quote from Maya Angelou the other day: “do the best with what you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” As a Peace Corps volunteer barely six months into service, I know about as much as a two year old. But I also know that growing up and learning is possible; I’ve done it before in my country, America. I learned some very hard lessons in some very painful ways. Now I’m doing it in Madagascar. And I’m no longer afraid of the pain. When I wept in my hut for sadness and loneliness, it might have been dramatic through someone else’s eyes, but for me it was what I needed to feel. I’m no longer afraid of feeling, because I think feeling is the most authentic way of being human. There are no distractions here to hide my discomfort, or sadness, or disappointment: no gyms or movie theatres or bars or restaurants or clubs or Netflix or ice cream parlors to numb the pain of another bad day, another disappointment. Most nights, it’s just me and my mosquito net.

This is how it needs to be. And as my little niece grows up in America, taking in all the sights and sounds of this crazy new, noisy world, so will I grow here in Madagascar, slowly crawling and then learning to walk and talk and decipher how to be in my reality. Home will never stop being a part of my reality. But I think now I just need to make more space in my heart for two existences.

The heart, I believe, is like a plant that can just grow and grow if we feed it well.

Here’s to nourishment.

 

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Three of my zandrys (little brothers) posing on sheep-grazing day. They are pictured in my yard.