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

The Injustice of Birth: Thoughts on an Urban Site

NOTE: It’s been ten months since the evacuation, and COVID-19 cases continue to rise every day. I’m still grounded in Memphis for the time being, though I’m making plans again. I wrote this blog back in January after moving to my third year, urban site. At the time of evacuation, I had started work on a grant for some really exciting remote teacher trainings and was just starting to get in the swing of things. But I never published this essay.

The reality of my new living environment, and how much it contrasted against my first site, was still troubling. I’m thinking about this again now, as COVID-19 has invariably changed the landscape of our schools and shaped the lives of our young people. As seems to be the case, those who will come out on top will probably not be the ones who were left at the bottom to begin with.

Written January 25, 2020 from Diego-Suarez, Madagascar

I’m finally in my new assignment, in my new home: a room in a unit in a compound behind the offices for the Direction Regionale de l’Education Nationale or DREN. Think of him as the state superintendent for public schools. I’ll be working closely with the English librarians here as well as the nearby Centre Regional de l’Institut National de Formation Pedagogique, the local teacher’s college.

My first week on this campus feels a lot like how I always imagined, when I was younger, what Peace Corps would be like: people were excited to meet me, dedicated to helping me get settled in my home, and scheduling meetings with me so that we could talk—in English—about my scope of work. They had even identified potential projects for me, all of which sound exciting and doable. But more on that later.

The difference between my arrival at my third year site and my arrival at my first year site couldn’t be more night and day. In fact, I can barely remember my first few days in Beramanja. I know I cooked on the floor, and my host brother brought me some really weird yogurt-y fruit that I had never seen before (but ended up enjoying). I remember various people came into my yard to meet me and, as I could barely speak Malagasy then, sat on my porch with me in silence. I remember getting pulled out of my house one morning before coffee to attend a teacher’s meeting, wherein I sat on a bench in a classroom with a pounding headache, sweating, while my new coworkers argued and yelled about which time slots they wanted, and probably a lot of other very important things to which I could in no way contribute.

Yet even as my language improved, the unpredictability and improbability of teaching at that school never went away. Classes were frequently cancelled due to rain, funerals, meetings, parties, holidays that never showed up on the school calendar, sports events, and, during my first year, a three-month teacher strike. I was slightly comforted talking to my fellow PCVs in other sites who experienced similar things. So, for the sake of integration, I learned to accept the unpredictability and not let it get to me. After all, everyone else was accepting it.

There are great, supportive teachers at my old site, as well as eager and curious students.  So why is it so widely accepted that the quality of their education should be less, and that infrequent classes and school cancellations are just a part of it?

It dawns on me now that perhaps my third-year site, with its English library and connectedness, is the exception, not the rule. Of course, an urban site does not dictate a supportive environment any more than a rural site dictates an unsupportive one. Sometimes it can be quite the opposite. Once again, we see the injustice of birth: is it true that a child born in a rural village has less opportunity to go to college than a child born in the regional capital? Or is it all about who they know? I honestly don’t have the answers. But I’d like to find out.

My new environment and scope of work feel so different: I have space here, and privacy, and workspaces. I’m working with adults now, not children. I’m working with colleagues who speak excellent English. It’s going to be a different experience, for sure. And I’m grateful to have it.

With a colleague at my third year posting, working with a teacher's college in Diego-Suarez, Madagascar
With a colleague at my new job in Diego-Suarez (Antsiranana), the Northern capital

A Third Year? The Last Few Months in Re-Cap

I took a few months off of blogging. When I left my village at the end of August, I moved to the capital city to take a job working with local HQ on Pre-Service Training for the newest cohort of volunteers, and that kept me pretty busy, so I let my blogging habit go. However, now that PST is over and home-leave is almost over, I’ve realized I still have almost a year to go! I tacked on a third year, and that means more stories (I hope).

So, what is PST? Well, when you join the Peace Corps, you are committing to 2 years of service at a place of Peace Corps’ choosing. You also commit to three months of Pre-Service Training before you take the Oath.  The training is 3 months long; it’s an 8-5 schedule, Monday-Friday, and there are evening and weekend homework assignments. Trainees live with host families in the community to practice language and adjusting to local culture. It’s emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting, complete with very little personal freedom, a lot of cultural faux-pas, homesickness, frustration, and probably a little diarrhea (or worse).

It can also be incredibly rewarding.

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Education trainees take the Oath to become official Volunteers.

For me, the most rewarding part was being on the trainer side of things. Getting to know a new group of trainees, the ones who  ultimately became volunteers and replaced my own cohort’s sites, was so inspiring and yes, hopeful. We talked about how we hate that word, hopeful, when people back home say, “you’re going to do such great things. You give us hope.” We talked about the pressure and anxiety and awkwardness that can come from being seen as a beacon of “hope.”  How you feel like you don’t know anything, and how you really don’t want to bring hope, you just want to make things better and take yourself out of the equation. We talked about the “savior complex” and the pitfalls of gathering bad data. But I see it now. We were able to talk about all of the things–fears, insecurities, regrets, anxieties. I saw my own journey in a new light. I got to reflect on all the fear and excitement I felt when I took the Oath and how much my expectations have changed.  I got to share what I hope was a little bit of insight and a lot of realness with them about how to make service something that works for you. I got to plan fun events and go for mountain runs and learn more about their journeys, which is my favorite thing in the world.

It’s so inspiring to watch someone else step into your shoes. It can also make you feel sad and irrelevant. But what I told myself at the beginning of this journey was to trust the process. 27 months are 27 months for a reason.

Well, I’ve trusted the process, but I’m not ready to let go yet. I’m getting there. Being back in the United States has helped me see that service is only two (or three! or four!) years for a reason. And of course, being with loved ones has been wonderful.

Yet at times I don’t know which place I miss more, American or Madagascar, and I find myself feeling like my heart is planted in two separate worlds. Perhaps it’s good I’m going back, because there is more left for me on this journey. But there’s no road-map this time.

Guess I’ll have to make my own.

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Three generations of Northern region volunteers at the swearing-in ceremony for the latest cohort of volunteers in the capital, Antananarivo.

 

New Year’s in February

 

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I’ve written about New Year’s before…aside from Independence Day, it’s the biggest day of the year.

Life can be hard here. No power. Fetching water every day. Working in the fields. Sweating. So that’s why parties mean so much. They’re a break from the every day. And they are so.much.fun. They’re also an opportunity for my students to take a break, socialize, and get me to take their picture 🙂

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I’ll leave you here with a visual account of my day. Not pictured: the late-night sweaty disco party or the dead zebu, sacrificed to the school, which fed about 600 people.

Happy 2019. Arabaina!

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With colleagues after the traditional meal of rice and zebu meat

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Seventh graders…enough said…

 

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Deuces for the chefs

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Attempt #1,250 to take an organized picture…