2014: And I went from this to that and this again

I sit on my couch, having just finished watching one of my ultimate guilty pleasure movies: My Best Friend’s Wedding. I incidentally just returned from my best friend’s house as well, clear on the other side of the U.S. The past 24 hours represent the past year in a nutshell: a whirlwind of balancing my new career with my family and friends.

2014 has been the best year of my life. It has also been a test of patience and adjustment. I went from being an only child with no relatives living within 1000 miles, to suddenly having sisters and a very large extended family within 50 miles. I went from Peace Corps back to advertising, and clearly not handling it very well. (But the blog post it inspired continues to strike a chord with RPCVs everywhere!) I went from complete uncertainty about the future to more uncertainty to far too much excitement to care. I went from “now what” to 8 months of Arabic training! I went from RPCV consumerism guilt to taxpayer guilt. I went from Arabic to German four separate times on the plane just this morning.  I went from being a cashier at Whole Foods to a diplomat in one day.

January of this year, I sat in a computer room awaiting my fate. That hour ticked by so slowly as I waited and waited, while people kept being called away leaving me with two other people questioning what we could have done differently. But with one smile and a “let us be the first to congratulate you” my whole world changed. That moment, forever etched in my brain, was one I’d dreamed of for 10 years. And when I finally opened my envelope and saw that my score was high enough to ensure I was called off the register, I felt every emotion possible stream through my body. The second I saw my score, I knew that my dreams came true because I worked for it. I put everything into that day and I was rewarded. Turns out hard work and dedication really do produce results, but sometimes it takes a while. January 23, 2014 changed my life.

This year has also been about maintaining the relationships that are most important to me. But, it isn’t easy when there is a lot of physical distance between you and everyone else. And it won’t improve next year when you can tack on an extra 10,000 miles. But, I’ve tried really hard to make the time for my family and friends. Financially, it isn’t easy either, but I know it is important to them. It is always hard on me when I get back though, because it hits me that I live a completely different lifestyle than what 90% of people are used to. I’m a fair weather friend, daughter, sister now and while I don’t particularly like labeling myself that, that’s just sort of how the cookie crumbles. My lifestyle and priorities are completely different from most of the people I know (outside of the Foreign Service). It is not a vacation until I’ve eaten at the restaurant I’ve meticulously researched. Or it is not a family event until I’ve explained “yes, I’m aware of the dangers of living in Egypt.” I’m at this weird point in my life where I’m a complete outsider within my own family or friend group. I’m that wackadoodle relative or friend that you bring up over the dinner table, wondering “what’s she doing now?” But it’s okay, this is what I’ve chosen and I know that if it were easy it wouldn’t be as rewarding.

2014 was the year in which I sat at a picnic table on my lunch break devouring my delicious Whole Foods salad when everything changed. I still remember looking at my phone while scarfing down some mashed sweet potatoes with candied pecans. I remember checking my email and reading in big bold yellow highlighted text that my name was added to the register and my score was high enough to be selected for the June/July class. And then proceeding to lose it. My fork was still midway to my mouth when I started half-crying, half-hyperventilating. And then I called everyone. Passing the oral assessment was the most glorious feeling on Earth, but getting invited to a class that truly was hyperventilate worthy. 2014 was the year that I made my dreams a reality.

My father is an immigrant. His family didn’t have a lot. My mom didn’t have much growing up either; her dad worked in a sardine factory. But they both worked hard and did everything they could to provide me with opportunities, the opportunities they didn’t have growing up. I went to a competitive and challenging public high school 30 minutes from home, because I knew that it was what I needed to grow. I pursued my own challenges and I haven’t stopped since.
This is my lesson from 2014: hard work pays off. Dreams are a reality, but only if you accept that they are also a challenge. You can’t just be handed your dream career or vacation or experience or relationship. You have to work for it. You have to want it and you can’t give up. Dreams are difficult to obtain for a reason, but determination to succeed and just plain ole hard work can put them within your grasp. I didn’t give up, even after failing multiple times. But as my favorite quote from Edison goes: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

2014 was a year of many changes, but all of them put me right where I am today: extremely happy, grateful, and humbled to have been given such a wonderful year to cherish.

It’s all downhill from Monday

Since we are all really just an experiment at the Foreign Service Institute, I’ve been taking notes about my condition. I need more data points, but I have made some correlations that surely will be made into a lovely Excel chart at some point, all in an effort to avoid homework at all costs. The first thing I’ve discovered is my best day is typically Monday and it all goes downhill from there. But, working towards Friday is always uphill, so win win for me. The second thing I’ve discovered is my total and utter lack of patience for class past 10:11am. After 2.5 hours of class, I’m at my maximum saturation point and my brain turns to mush. Which luckily for me, the Egyptian word to negate things sounds a lot like mush, so I can just mutter that under my breath and pretend I’m really following along. I’ve also determined that I really enjoy learning languages, despite my attempts to derail class into a discussion on natural gas production in the US. I enjoy my time with my classmates, because we each have different strengths and we mesh together well. (I like m[]sh words now.) I know that when I’m struggling with something I can rely on my classmates to help me get where I need to be or to go off on a tangent and let my brain rest. I also immensely appreciate having a great friend who speaks Egyptian. That way I can have someone to correct my pronunciation and drill me on vocab when we are just out and about, also secret languages are fun. Also, she tells me I have good pronunciation and then I feel smug about my life.

Another discovery has been truly how vital work life balance is, also my English sucks now. Does that sentence even make grammatical sense? Eh, I don’t care. Either way, work life balance is not just a concept the Germans have down pat and Americans like to mock. Having a balance is good for the mind and the soul. I could study more, I know I should study more, because thanks societal and work pressure, but I don’t. Why? Because, I’ve found that excessive studying does not yield better results. In fact, it leads to worse results. My brain becomes fried and I’m practically useless the next day. I’m sure my brain is consuming some crazy amount of energy processing all this stuff all day, so when I come home and don’t let it reset, it overheats. Just like my laptop with a bad fan. I prefer to spend my time doing something completely unrelated to language learning, such as going to trivia or out to dinner, or dancing around my house to super loud country music, alone. And it’s awesome.

I’ve also found that by taking the occasional brain break, I’m able to come back to class or my homework and knock something out of the park. So now we come to the part of my post that I’ve really just been leading up to, because I want to boast, mainly because I’m shocked and excited, and hells yeah, why not? (“why not” is my favorite sassy thing to say in Arabic) So today, I wasn’t really feeling the first two hours of class, but then I started to feel a little bit like I was back on track. Then 10:11am hit me with a sleepy stick and I mentally checked out for 15 minutes. After the break, I met with my learning consultant and we had a one hour session where he will go over any exercise you feel like. For me, I need the most practice just talking, so he asks me random questions and we have a dialogue. I started talking about working for a natural gas company after college, which lead to a discussion on Qatar and natural gas rights. Which, frankly I couldn’t talk about before Area Studies because I had no idea there was anything to talk about. But, we sat there talking about maritime borders and natural gas fields in Arabic on a Monday freaking morning. And then we talked about the economy of Ghana and the primary exports, including politics between gold producing regions and national foreign relations interests. I blew my own mind with my seemingly out of nowhere ability to talk about these topics. But then I realized I was good at it because it was something new and interesting. I wasn’t talking about Oklahoma or food, but something different. And I loved it. So, I came home and did a 16 minute recording talking about Ghana’s primary exports, expanding more on different products. Off the cuff, just because. All in Arabic. We are just under 2 months in and this is where we are. I love my job. I have no complaints.

Life is awesome. And someone is paying me to do this. Inshallah y’all.

Things I Do Instead of Studying

Language learning is exhausting. But even worse than struggling to pay attention for a full 6 hours a day, is motivation. I have a hard time finding and keeping motivated in the evenings. I have lots of things I could do, but I still don’t know what works best for me. What makes it stick?! So, instead of studying, here are the things I do that I think seem productive, but really it is just me avoiding the inevitable:

1. Clean my house. Need your toilets scrubbed? Because I would rather do that than sit down and conjugate verbs.

2. Vacuum. The sweet dolcent tones of the vacuum cleaner are so soothing after listening to Arabic all day.

3. Translate English into Oklahoman. Because I don’t have enough languages in my brain already.

4. Blog. Avoidance level bravo.

5. Eat sour cream. Alright, I have an unhealthy relationship with sour cream. I sneak into my fridge, grab a spoon, and eat sour cream like it is ice cream. I just ate chips and salsa, so I could have an excuse to eat sour cream. So, basically, I just ate chips with sour cream and a wee bit of salsa.

6. Dance around my sunroom. Turn off the lights, blare the Taylor Swift, and shake it out. Nothing beats avoiding language like shaking your hips until they fall off or your neighbors complain.

7. Happy hours. That’s work right?

8. Watch the cleaners in the office building next to my apartment. They have these nifty little backpack vacuums that look super fun.

9. Shop on Amazon, but never buy anything. It’s the best of all worlds.

10. Read the FAM. The Foreign Affairs Manual, because it’s only creepy if I quote it.

11. Text people. Everyone needs to know every little thing I’m doing right?

12. Do yoga. Well sorta, and in bursts. And then I get bored and would rather stare at those vacuum backpacks.

13. Make lists.

Grumbles and Gratitude

I often grumble about language classes. Mainly because I never talk about anything else besides language nowadays. I grumble about how mentally exhausting it is and how everyone expects more out of us than I physically have the capacity to do. I grumble about how difficult it is and how somedays I feel like nothing sticks. I grumble about homework and not knowing how or what to study. I just sorta grumble all day long. And this negative energy is miserable. Language is hard, boo hoo. It can be incredibly frustrating to have no measurable or perceived notion of progress. We know what score we need to obtain in order to get off language probation and go to post, but there is no real measure in class of how we are doing. It feels like we are just building a lego castle one brick at a time, but we have no concept of what the final design is supposed to look like. I spend so much mental energy on Arabic, when I get frustrated it seems to come out as whatever emotion my body’s emotion roulette wheel just landed on. Most of the spaces are filled with tears. Because learning a new language is hard.

But when I get too far into the weeds of language despair, I sit back and think about everything that has happened in the past year. I start listing off things I’m grateful for. I start thinking about the little things that make me happy. I think about how lucky I am to be doing what I am doing. And suddenly all my worries seem so much less significant. And I feel right with the world again.

Three years ago, today, I was boarding a plane bound for Ghana. I spent two years hot, sweaty, and poor. I treasured running water and air conditioning. I obsessed over food. I was rarely healthy. And now I have the greatest luxury of all: a good paying dream job. I am eternally grateful for everything I have, because less than a year ago I had barely anything. I used to grumble about the stench of my latrine when someone forgot to put down the cover. Now I grumble about getting paid to learn a fascinating language all day? Perspective is truly everything when you’ve seen both sides. Sometimes, I just forget to look back. We all do I guess. It is so easy to get wrapped up in our own world and issues, that we forget to be thankful. We forget to take a step back and see the bigger picture. And sometimes this girl needs a post-it note on the back of her door that says: “suck it up, cupcake.” Just a friendly reminder that gratitude can affect your attitude.

I was made for this…

I grew up consolidating words, drawing out vowels, and being a little backwards. So naturally, Arabic is a wonderful fit! We had a wonderful word in Oklahoma that really reminds me of Arabic: d’ge’t. Did you eat (yet)? In Arabic, not all the vowels are written and ‘to be’ is implied. Let me get one thing straight though – this is hard. Am I enjoying it? Yes! Does my brain hurt? Yep. Is it fun? Actually, yes. Do I need a nap at every hour of every day? Oh hell yes.

I am sure there are plenty of studies out there evaluating how we learn new languages. But, ain’t nobody got time for that. So let me just tell you what it feels like. Imagine yourself walking into a pitch black room. What’s the first thing you try to do? Look for a light switch. You feel around for a switch and finally find something against the wall. You’ve never been in this room before, so you have no earthly idea how big it is or if it is even multiple rooms. You flip the switch and a very dim light turns on. It’s only enough light to illuminate a small portion of the room and the light is flickering. You stumble over to something that look familiar and feel around for something that might possibly provide more light. When you find nothing, you try to look around and get your bearings. Where am I? What do I need to do? Why am I here? In the faint light you see a door on another wall, you walk slowly and like a zombie towards the door. You test the handle to make sure it works. It’s locked. You go back and look for a key. It isn’t on the desk in the middle of the room, so you go back to the door and kick it. Why? Because that always seems like a good idea. The door doesn’t budge, you stub your toe, you curse profusely, but after you finish your pouting, you feel something that has fallen on the floor. It is the key. It fell from the top of the doorframe when you kicked it. You unlock the door, go through it and find another dark room. This time the light turns on and it is brighter. You can see more things and the room sorta makes sense now. You still have no clue what you are supposed to be doing in this house/room, but at least now you know where the light switch is.

 

Often times, you’ll see language students walking around like this:

It’s because our mental energy is completely drained by trying to figure out what we are doing in this pitch black house. After a while, things start to make sense, they start to click. It takes a while, it is frustrating and it is often hazy. But gradually, it gets better. Then you finally feel like you are making progress and you have to take on even more challenges. When I come out of class, after a particularly difficult and long day, I almost feel drunk. It is as if my motor skills no longer function and I can’t even walk straight. And it hurts. My brain can only handle so much at one time. Interestingly enough though, after a day of Arabic, my German comes back to me. My English is shot, but my German is fantastic! Clearly one part of our brain stores away foreign languages and once that drawer is open, all the files come spilling out.

How do you like your brains? Scrambled?

It’s only day two and I’ve already found myself crying in the bathroom. No scratch that, I ran from the room crying. Is it really that bad? No. I just have a trifecta of crap going on, in addition to the learning a new language. I was sick last week and somehow the soothing tones of Arabic made my cold come back for round two. Add on top of that being calorie restricted – I want those damn boots! Then let’s throw on top of this pile an upset stomach from something I ate either this morning or yesterday. Cold, diet, and stomach problems. Oh, and because of my cold I can barely hear anything out of my left ear.

Three hours of Arabic into the morning and it’s still barely 10:00am. My brain felt like mush, my stomach was rumbling and gurgling, my nose was not having it, and suddenly I felt light-headed. I looked at my page of unfamiliar vocabulary words and all these new letters and it all looked like gobbledegook.

And that’s when the tears started. Everything was spinning and the only thing I could think of was to announce my sudden and running departure to the bathroom. What I really wanted was my couch at home with a giant bowl of soup and my blanket. After a few minutes of trying to stop everything from spinning, my female teacher came into the bathroom to check on me. She told me it’s okay to be overwhelmed. And I thought to myself “oh good, I’m not abnormal, but here have some tears.” She assured me that I’m doing a great job for day two, and it is only day two. I don’t have to know everything yet. She must be a fantastic mom, because it was definitely a mom pep talk. I called mine quickly after class for another round of mom talk.

 

I think back to my first moments in Ghana when I plopped down my bags at my training host family’s house. The door closed behind me with a screech and a bang and I was all alone. It all sank in that this was the start of my next two years, in a developing country. I sat on the edge of my beat up foam mattress and cried. I just cried. I did the same when I moved to my first site. When reality sinks in and the pretty patina wears off, that’s when I break down. It’s only for a bit, but I just need to get it out of my system.

Now if only this cold would get out of my system, maybe I could be a fully functional adult. Here’s to 8 months of brain mush and seeing the world from right to left.

Ugh, argh, and sigh

Area Studies makes me feel like a complete and total failure, so that’s fun. But on the other hand, it helps me defend my decision to not go to grad school. It also makes me really love management issues even more. Can someone give me a logistics issue to handle? Anyone? Gah, what I wouldn’t do for a terrible customer service problem right about now. Area Studies just makes me realize that policy isn’t my strong point. It doesn’t help that I have absolutely no background whatsoever in this part of the world. It also doesn’t help when people associated with the class let me know that I have no background, because I didn’t already feel like an idiot. I am learning, but I feel like my curve is Mount Everest. But, you know what? Not everyone has to get to the top. I’m happy to just schlep around the bags down at basecamp. I’ll do the dirty work and let someone else tackle the summit. I really do want to learn, but my struggle is the least of anyone’s worries.

Why does this class do such a good job of exposing my insecurities? Some days I hold back tears because I’m so lost, I feel like I’ll never make it in this profession. I spend half the class trying to just understand the words the lecturers are using. At least once I start Arabic classes, I’ll know it is a foreign language.

And then while, Area Studies is beating me to pulp in the corner, I’ve got other crap going on. I’m in a holding pattern, which means I’m still waiting to get my diplomatic passport and visas. I need to extend my stay in DC, which means I need to contact someone, I think, but I still need to figure out who that is. I always feel like I’m forgetting something all the time. But at least I’m keeping up with my TSP!

And then there is the glaring issue of life. A-100 made me question a few of my fundamental beliefs about how I want to live my life. I’ve been clinging on to my self-sufficient, independent attitude for so long. I can’t tell anymore if it was a coping mechanism or if I actually believe it. I feel like a piece of clothing, tumbling in a dryer. I’m just spinning and spinning and I have no clue when I’ll stop spinning. And the more I think about my own internal upheaval, the more I cling to anything I can, perhaps another lost sock in the dryer. So many things in my life feel like they have all flipped upside down and I don’t know how to look at them anymore. Maybe I just need to work on my Ender’s Game attitude – there is no up or down, only a different perspective.

I guess I’m just a little lost in this whole new world. I’ll find my way soon enough, probably right after Area Studies is over.