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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