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.

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Readjustment Phase Two–Where is Home?

In July I posted about discovering what home means to me – the place where you become yourself. As I feel the second phase of my readjustment kicking in, I no longer know where my home is.

I was looking forward to reconnecting with family and friends as part of my COS experience. However, everyone remembers me as the girl who left in 2011. I’m radically different from that girl. I don’t feel like I can be myself anymore because everyone is expecting me to be the old me. I’m caught in between this limbo of being my new self and faking my old self. As my best friend said “Peace Corps sent back a very zen person.” I was not that way when I left. I don’t know how to interact with old friends anymore. I don’t know how to connect. I feel like there is something missing in the middle, and that’s time. I’ve been gone for two years. I haven’t seen some people for ever longer. How do I be the same friend when I’m a different person? I struggle with every conversation to not monopolize the discussion and blabber on about Peace Corps. I’m genuinely curious about what everyone else has been up to, but most people don’t have two years worth of incredibly crazy stories to tell. How do I be myself?

Home. I’m back in America. But I’m not home. I don’t know where I consider home anymore, I can’t be myself and I don’t feel connected to any specific place. My mom’s house was cozy and nice, but it didn’t feel like home. The area and way of life seemed so alien that I could hardly connect to it. San Diego was fantastic, but it’s my best friend’s home. I was just visiting. I could be myself with her, I felt the most at ease during that week. I was so excited to return to Oklahoma. I grew up here. I have such fond memories of life in this house, but it isn’t my home anymore. It is scary how un-homelike it feels.

There were a few things that finally severed ties for me with this house. After just one hour, I knew this place was no longer my home. First, my dog didn’t recognize me. And he still doesn’t. That’s been one of the hardest aspects of coming back so far. I couldn’t wait to be reunited and dogs are supposed to have such great memories of their owners. He doesn’t even come when I call him. It’s almost as if he is scared of me. He loves everyone else though. It breaks my heart everyday to watch it.
Then, as I entered my room I felt disorientated. There was no carpet, just the concrete slab. My bed was there, but my mattress was gone. During my service I slept on a terrible mattress. It was made of “high density” foam with no springs. It was very soft and had completely molded to my body, which really means I made a giant butt imprint in it. It was so bad that I couldn’t roll over at night, I would just roll back into the butt pit. Turning it regularly didn’t help. I hated it. I couldn’t wait to get back to Oklahoma and sleep on my mattress again. The mattress I had literally been dreaming about for two years. That mattress was one of the first things I bought post college. It’s a material thing, but when you’ve been deprived of good sleep for two years, you really want a nice place to sleep. While I was tossing and turning every night, my dad decided to claim my mattress and it’s now on his bed. I probably would have said it was okay, if he ever asked me, but he didn’t. He said he’d buy me a new one, but that doesn’t solve the problem I have right now – I want to feel comfortable in my house.
This house doesn’t feel the same. My dad’s made a lot of changes, so it doesn’t look the same or feel like the house I grew up in. It isn’t friendly anymore. It isn’t inviting. I don’t feel like I’m wanted here. I don’t even feel like a guest. As I walked through the house, I found one picture of me. And there is a frame that says family and it has everyone in it, but me. No one talks to me or asks me questions. In fact, we barely say anything at all. It’s like I don’t even exist. This is now just a place I’m crashing while I search for a job. And it breaks my heart every night and every morning. I go to bed feeling lost and disconnected. I wake up wishing I was waking up to the sound of hand brooms and goats. I’d take my crappy mattress back and early morning wake up calls. Ghana was home, this is not. But I can’t go back to Ghana. So I sit here struggling with feeling like I no longer belong anywhere.

The only way I know to cope is to continue pursuing my dreams.
This too shall pass.

It Goes to Eleven

It’s hard to believe it has been 8 days since my birthday already. It feels like just yesterday I was standing at the station in Techiman, waiting to board my final bus to Accra. I didn’t expect my service to end this way. I never expected anything that happened to me during my service. But I did expect these final moments to be a mix of emotions. In just eleven days I’ll board a plane bound for Germany. My service will be over. It already feels over though. I no longer have a site. I no longer have attachment. I’m just ready to go home.

For the past week, I’ve been a robot. I’ve had to forget my emotions and set aside my beliefs. I became numb to everything. The days passed by and I didn’t even realize it. I’m tired. My bones ache. I long for a sofa. I long for a bed that my feet don’t dangle off the edge. I long for home. Home is no longer here. Home is America. Home is my family. Home is so close, but still so far away. I’m ready.

I said my goodbyes to my community. Today I said goodbye to my favorite batik lady in all of Ghana – Auntie Esther. She surprised me with a gift too. I felt humbled and loved. In the coming week, I’ll say goodbye to my Peace Corps friends. And I’ll be heartbroken. They have been there for me through the many many difficult times I’ve endured. I’ve listened to them cry. I’ve listened to them rant. They’ve heard me scream. They’ve heard me laugh. We’ve been to hell and back together and that’s something no one will understand. Now it is time to return to my friends who’ve waited patiently for my return, for my friends that supported me even though I could never fully explain what has happened here. I hope they will still recognize me underneath the plethora of freckles and African fabrics.

Life will never be the same.

Last night I attended a cultural event that was fantastic. One of the most powerful moments of the night came from a famous Ghanaian singer. She didn’t sing, she told her story. She told the story of a famous woman being denied the privilege of singing the National Anthem at a World Cup match because some Ministers, big men, said a woman was a bad omen. At this point, she couldn’t even continue telling her story. It was too raw and too emotional for her. To have the honor of being the first woman to sing the National Anthem at such a big event and then watching it slip away from you because some men think they know what’s best. Her story seemed simple on the surface. It seemed typical to me. But it stirred something in me. It reminded me of the injustice I’ve dealt with being a woman in Ghana. It reminded me of the times I had to work twice as hard to get even a shred of respect, because I was a woman. It reminded me of the times I wasn’t taken seriously because I was a woman. It reminded me of all the times someone treated me like I wasn’t good enough. It reminded me of the fear I’ve experienced living here. The fear I still carry with me.

Her story made me reflect on my service and the challenges I’ve faced. And I came to one conclusion:
I’m strong.

Despite everything, I’m still here. I’m going to finish my service. I’m going to get the hole punched in my ID that proves I’m now an RPCV. No one can tell me I’m not worthy. That I’m not capable. I’m not good enough.

Africa has shown me that hidden beneath this freckly white skin, I’m really a sassy black woman.
And I’m damn proud of it.

Shadows on a Cloudy Day

When you join Peace Corps, two years doesn’t seem long. But as time wears on, you feel yourself slowly shrinking away from the world. There comes a point when you realize you are living in a small fishbowl off in some dark corner of a forgotten room. Life moves on around you, but no one really takes notice of you anymore. They learn to live without you. They move on. They keep in touch, but the memory of you starts to fade. You’re just a shadow of a memory chasing the pavement on a cloudy day. As the time slowly reaches the two year mark, your shadow comes back into focus. They start to remember where they left that fish. The excitement returns. You’re back in their life.

It’s that period of time when you feel like a distant memory that just aches. Your shadow tries incessantly to jump up and down, “I’m still here!” I never left, I’m just somewhere else.

My Chief Friend

Back in Philadelphia during staging in October of 2011, I knew that I was going to be friends with Richie. Richie and I were two of the 7 business volunteers imbedded amongst a sea of environment/natural resources volunteers.

During training, I was always jealous of Richie, Cara, and Britney they were all fast friends and I was still swimming around just trying to keep my head above water. Richie and I had language classes together though and we spent about 6 hours a day together. Over the course of training we became good friends.

Then we moved to site. I was the biggest market town in relation to Richie’s site. So I saw him often. We both bonded with my new friend Ralph. When I joined Peace Corps I thought I was going to be isolated, alone, far from any other volunteer, and not able to easily communicate with others. The world has changed but the perception of Peace Corps has not.

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Richie has sat with me while I have been sick, taking care of me. Richie has been there to listen to my rants. I give him advice, support, and someone tall to hug. We have had a few moments where things weren’t perfect, but life will do that. In the end we both realize that we need each other too much to stay mad. We are a dynamic duo. I know everything that is going on in his life. We finish each other’s sentences. We have gained the ability to read each other’s mind. Richie needs to just make one small movement with his hand and I can blurt out exactly what he is trying to convey. I know that flustered look he gets when he just wants his space. There simply aren’t enough words to describe what a great relationship we have.

Everyone in Peace Corps needs someone. We need a good friend whom we can call, cry to, laugh with, and vent to. Sometimes everything seems too overwhelming and you just want to go home, but your Peace Corps friends are there to talk you down from whatever invisible ledge you are perched on.

When everything went down with my site, I had to leave very quickly. I didn’t know when or if I would be allowed back. I knew I was moving though, so I called in the biggest friend favor request I’ve ever used.

I asked Richie to pack my entire house for me. And he did. Every single item.

How many people do you know who would stop what they are doing, go to your house, and pack the entire place? A few days after he finished packing, I was chatting with Richie on the phone. He asked me: “so what exactly happened?” I realized I hadn’t even told him the circumstances of my abrupt move from site. So he did this favor for me without any context.

When I think about my Peace Corps experience so far, a few major things pop into my head:

SAP, Typhoid, Business Literacy, the Cashew Initiative, malnourished, sacred hole, the smell of cashew trees blooming, banku, my Ghanaian family, and one more thing.

How incredibly lucky I am to have found such a wonderful friend like Richie.