Confessions of an Oklahoman in the Foreign Service

The Oklahoma Education System has failed me. What history did I learn in middle school? Oklahoma history. What history did I learn in high school? Well, we watched the musical 1776 a few times and I self taught myself enough to get a 6 in Higher Level International Baccalaureate History. A 6 in HL History is a pretty good score. How did I pull it off? I studied for the test. I knew what types of questions they always ask. And then I got lucky. Incredibly, incredibly lucky. My history paper during the IB test had one big question on a quote from Robert McNamara. One week before, I just so happened to randomly watch the documentary where the quote was pulled from. Luck. To study for the Foreign Service Test, I had to reread basic history books three times.

Maybe history just isn’t my strong suit. Or maybe my education should have left a more lasting impression. Yesterday, this could not have been more evident. Our first class in the morning was the third part of our Diplomatic History module. The speaker seemed entertaining, but he used words I didn’t even know what they meant. He completely lost me when he said bifurcate. After that all I could think of was bifrost and Thor.  Why did he lose me so quickly though? Because I had no idea what he was even remotely talking about. He was referencing things I should have learned in school. He was alluding to times in history I should have been aware of. But I wasn’t. I had no idea. That history class and our previous offsite activities really struck a chord with me. A very out of tune and sad chord. They ferreted out my insecurities and put them on display.

During offsite, I was the black sheep in our group. During one of the activities, I had to rely on part of my team to give me direction. I had to trust them. I could not for the life of me figure out what they were trying to tell me. So I took a big misstep and I felt shattered. I felt like I let my team down and I felt so alone and isolated. I was exposed. Later in the day, we were blindfolded and put through another exercise. While everyone else quickly figured out the puzzle we were trying to solve, I was sitting there trying to speak up. But the loud people in our group kept talking over me. When I did have a chance to speak, I questioned the assumptions everyone else made so quickly. But they laughed at me. Later, a few people told me I must have trust issues. Damn straight I have trust issues when I’m blindfolded. Throughout the offsite, I felt exposed. This past week has been the most insecure I’ve felt in many years.

I’m constantly surrounded by people who are smarter, more educated, and more experienced than I am. It is hard to not feel insecure about my own shortcomings. I don’t feel like I need to prove myself, because I feel so insignificant that it isn’t necessary. I know that everyone in my class has strengths and weaknesses. I know that for the management track, that I’m going to do great. But throw me into the ring with my peers and I start to question that. People keep reassuring me that I’m going to do fine, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking I’m not supposed to be here.

I’m just a lost girl from Oklahoma trying to play dress up as a diplomat.

Take That!

When I was in middle school I was bullied for being nerdy and for not letting people cheat off me. I was in band, a library aide, and did Algebra 2 independent study in the Algebra 1 class. I had great teachers who supported me and pushed me to keep at it, but many of the kids at my small town Oklahoma school thought I was weird. I didn’t fit in; I only had a few friends. My friends back then have been some of the most loyal, in fact we just went and dominated trivia the other day. I wasn’t popular. I was always a year late on the fashion trends. I had terrible, I mean parent-disowning terrible, hair. The kind of haircut that when I look back at old school photos, I ask my mom “WHY?!?!!?!” I was incredibly tall compared to everyone else, and I’m still working on that “how to not look like this: while dancing.”

Middle school is an awkward time for everyone, but being smart and unpopular in a small Oklahoma town is a curse. The bullying was never physical, but the name calling and rejection from my peers was rough. It got so bad that I transferred schools after middle school; instead of going to the local high school where I would be subject to more ridicule by even more people and in a not so great academic environment, I drove 25 miles to the city to attend an International Baccalaureate program.

The high school I attended allowed me to flourish and I wasn’t nerdy anymore. I fit in, because I was just like everyone else. The academic standards were incredibly high, so much so that my first year in college was a cakewalk. The people I graduated high school with have gone on to pursue great things. The people I went to middle school with, well most of them are still wearing leggings as pants and haven’t moved more than 20 miles. Most people I went to middle school with are already married with kids – high school, maybe one person is married. And you know what, good for them. If they are happy and content with their lives, more power to them. But, that wasn’t in the cards for me.

No, the bullying, the name calling, the rejection, the years of being unpopular, they just lit a fire under me. I wanted to prove that where you live doesn’t dictate where you will end up. I wanted to prove that being a nerd wasn’t an insult, but a complement. I wanted to prove that being a bully and popular doesn’t mean squat when you leave school. I wanted to prove that karma has a funny way of letting things work out. But you know what, I don’t have to prove anything to those people. The only person I have to prove anything to is myself. And through the years I’ve proven that I have the will and the drive to go after my dreams. I’ve proven to myself that nerd is a beautiful word. I’ve proven to myself that I can withstand pain, heartbreak, and developing world conditions. I survived Peace Corps. I graduated Magna cum Laude. I took on every challenge as an opportunity. I passed the Foreign Service Oral Assessment.

I was invited to be a Foreign Service Officer.

I’ve been bestowed the highest honor a little girl growing up in a small town in Oklahoma can dream about. I’ve proven time and time again that no matter what is hurled at me, whether it is a nasty name, a bout of tropical disease, a less than stellar job, or bullying, I come out better than before. So take that world! Keep trying to knock me down, you’ll find that it only makes me stronger.


This post was inspired by this Sunday’s PostSecret: http://postsecret.com/2014/06/21/classic-secrets-31/

Pack, Pack, Rest

Pack two days. Rest one. Repeat. It’s really not that bad. I’m spacing the whole process out, mainly because I want to do it all now, and because I’ll get to do this every two years! Why not try out a variety of techniques.

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My collection of papers, which I consolidated into one folder, instead of 15.

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The boxes, thus far. All that’s left is in my room. I’m guessing it’s another 5-10 boxes, depending on what I decide to save. Really, this isn’t bad considering I had an entire Budget truck that hauled my stuff from Tulsa to my dad’s house. This is what remains of the probably 50 boxes that left Tulsa. I gave a lot of things away. Because they were just things. Does anyone really need to keep 3 boxes of free college t-shirts? No. Most of the stuff I gave away earlier in the year.

Three boxes on top of the dresser (not mine) are just books. I had a hard time going through that pile. I know it is just added weight, but they are my books! Plus, half of the box below on the left is in German. So I will keep them, because some things are just worth the weight.

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Looks like I’ll finally get to use the two books on the right!

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Before and after. The piles on the left are for storage. The piles on the right are to donate/garage sale/give to relatives who might want them. Many things moved from the left pile into the right one. It was hard to part with some of my Ghana clothes, but I knew it was time to say goodbye. I still feel like I have too many clothes hanging in my closet. How will they all fit in my suitcases! I’ll make it work. I just need to remember to pack my suitcases before the movers show up, so that if it doesn’t fit I can still put it in storage.

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Pack, pack, rest. I helped my dad take the pool cover off last Friday, which is our family’s official start to summer. We haven’t been able to get in the pool yet, mainly because of rain, but I peeked outside this afternoon to see how the pool looked. It rained heavily last night and the water is pretty high, but the sun came out and a few freeloaders decided to go for a dip. I just hope they realize their little mating dance is going to end tragically when my dad pours the chemicals in the pool and all their little eggs they are currently producing won’t make it. Interestingly enough, a spider was actually hitching a ride on top of the male toad on top. I’m pretty sure there is a fable in there.

And now to go enjoy the Oklahoma sunshine while I still can.

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.

The Good Old Days

“I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” As I sit here vacillating between excitement over going home and sadness about saying goodbye, I remember all the stories of my service. When will I have an opportunity like this again? When will I be able to experience such highs and such lows? As I heard that quote from my favorite show, the Office, tonight I shed a tear. I’m in the good old days. I’m in those memories of adventure. I want to go home, but I don’t want this to end. I don’t want to give up my dream job working on my dream project doing things that matter. I don’t want to say goodbye to my best friend. And I surely don’t want to give up this amazing healthcare. Yes, there are things I will not miss like strange tropical diseases and being covered in filth after a 100km ride in a totally unsafe vehicle. But there are things I will always look back fondly on, that I will carry with me like a badge of honor.

Here are some of my favorite memories:

Just this past week, I attended the African Cashew Alliance World Cashew Conference. Also in attendance at this event was the Chairman of the Wenchi Cashew Association. I didn’t know he was going to be there and when I found his name on the list I instantly broke into cold sweats and I felt myself close up. Suddenly, all the bad memories from my old site came flooding back and I thought I would have a panic attack. Then I saw a white truck and I thought I would just crumble into pieces. Instead of succumbing to my fears, I decided to become a secret agent and do everything possible to avoid him at all costs. I actually had fun suddenly finding hidden alcoves and learning to spin quickly on my heel and duck behind a plant when I saw him. Despite me seeing him, he never saw me. I became a master of hiding and camouflage. I went the entire week without him even recognizing me. I’m very proud of my sneakiness and ability to overcome my fears.

And over a year ago, I remember so vividly hearing the news that the President of Ghana had died. I was in Richie’s tiny village. We stood on a rock with the phone in the air trying to get service so we could verify the villager’s claims on the internet. The next day was full of such craziness that I still can’t even believe what happened. We walked through 5ft tall grass looking for the sacred hole, sacrificed for the ancestors, drank spirits in their honor, and found wild orchids. I will never forget singing Lion King songs on the way back and showing up in town to find the entire place dancing. We literally emerged from the bush and danced our way through town. Apparently, the villagers still remember me for that very reason.

I remember the Fourth of July in 2012. We didn’t have a grill for our steaks, so we improvised and purchased burglar wire. We broke a set of pliers shaping the wire into a grill that would fit over two coal pots.

I remember my initial site visit when Sam came to meet me. He talked to me about the SAP project and set me up for an amazing next two years.

I remember the first Peace Corps party I went to. While many parts are fuzzy, I still remember dancing into the wee hours of the night and returning around 4am. I remember the fence was locked and someone scaling it to unlock it, despite the fact that we didn’t have a key.

I remember the look my Tess’s face when she saw me crawling to the bathroom for the umpteenth time during the last part of my typhoid. It still cracks me up.

I remember opening the door at Richie’s house to find an entire gaggle of students who should be in class, instead they were delivering us a chameleon.

I remember sitting on the hard concrete ground looking for shooting stars with my Ghanaian family.

I remember rolling through town with my Ghanaian brother and Richie screaming Kwabena at every guy we saw.

I remember standing on my rickety table thinking “oh god this is bad news” and hearing the table crack in two. I still remember the slow and gradual fall as I grabbed for the rope hoping that 1mm of flimsy rope would save me.

I remember sitting at the table with my expats eating something delicious with their new neighbor. I turned to him and asked where he was from. I will never forget the shock on my face when he said Oklahoma.

I remember my first trip to Accra, I thought my stomach wasn’t going to make it as I bumped along the Kumasi Accra road. I didn’t care how terrible I felt, I made a beeline for the closest supermarket where I proceeded to purchase 20cd of cheese and ate it all immediately.

How could I forget the countless dance parties that started on a whim? Or the moments with Richie? Or friends who have come and gone. Or the lessons learned, mainly the hard way?

I’ve had quite the adventure and I wish it wouldn’t end. I’m in the good ole days. I’m here. And I’m going to leave soon, but until then I’m going to soak up as much good as I can.

I Dream of Dreamcatchers

I’m in an airy and bright room somewhere in Oklahoma. I’m staring at a display case full of jewelry. I spot a pair of earrings which draw me in immediately. They are delicate golden dreamcatchers enclosed in many long oval hoops. The sun shines on them and the room suddenly feels brighter. Next to them is a fantastic ring with designs etched inside the band. The designs flow like water, intricately weaving the history of Oklahoma into a tiny ring. The outer part of the band has the seal from the Oklahoma flag in just one miniscule place. I want them both, the earrings and the ring. I look up to find a sales associate and my dream disappears like a whisper of smoke.

A few nights later, I find myself drifting through the streets of my town. As I walk in one direction the ground becomes sandy and suddenly I find myself on the beach. I turn around and head back in the other direction. As I pass my house I see a cobbled street in front of me. I step onto the street and walk past Ghanaian houses, which are slowly becoming more and more European. I turn the corner and suddenly the bustling square in Lisbon is in front of me. I walk farther and the deeper into the city. The farther I get the more it starts to look like America. I look up and see a glittery sign board for a movie house. I look down and I’m fully back in America. As I walk back through the city, I take a look around and sigh. I feel like a part of too many worlds.

Last night, I returned to the shop in my first dream. I’m staring at the earrings and ring again. This time when I look up, I find the associate and tell her I want to buy both of them. She takes my things to the counter to wrap them. I can’t stop staring at the earrings. They are so beautiful. I feel like they are sucking me in. The closer I get to them, the more of a magnetic draw I feel. I reach out to touch them and the sales associate asks me a question. I move my hand away. I buy them, but for some reason I can’t take them home with me. The dream fades and I wake up smiling.

I dream of dreamcatchers.

Home: Where I Keep Myself Company

I just made it home from a very long journey. There’s nothing quite like visiting your latrine and thinking “I missed this.” I had to do a lot of cleaning, but once the place was dust free I felt whole again. I sat down on my bed, sighed and kicked off my shoes. I’m home.

As I sat down wondering what to do now, I checked my email. A friend sent me a Ted Talk that he thought I’d like. I downloaded it and listened intently as the speaker revealed exactly what my life has been like. The talk was about what “home” is. When someone asks you: “where’s home?” How do you answer? Is home where you were born? Or where you currently live? Is it where you pay your bills? Is it where you studied?

That’s a hard question for me to answer. What do I consider home? I grew up in two countries. I currently live in Ghana, but my service is slowly coming to an end. Is home where I’ll end up once I’m done with Peace Corps? The speaker went on to say “home is the place where you become yourself.” I like that idea. Home truly is where you keep your soul. For me that’s my spot on Earth where I can have peace and quiet, and where I can be alone. I need alone time. I need the ability to separate myself from the hustle and bustle going on around me. That’s home to me, where I can be with myself. The speaker continued to talk about stopping to enjoy the silence and stillness, instead of constantly moving. I feel like that’s the thing that always grounds me here in Ghana. We have more than enough free time as volunteers. We have more than enough time to contemplate. I’ve used the time to really discover who’s underneath the fabulous Ghanaian clothes. I revel in the silence.

I’ve found my form of meditation as well, my own form of zen: tro travel. I put my headphones on, zone out, and spend the entire trip just thinking. I remember happy memories from my service. I recall events that stood out in my life. I use the time to learn from my experiences, to reflect. If I’ve learned anything during my time in Peace Corps, it is how to learn from your mistakes.

I’m incredibly grateful for my Peace Corps service. It truly has taught me how to relax, reflect, and grow. Last week one of the Peace Corps staff members commented on how much I’ve changed since I’ve been here. High-strung me has all but gone, she appears every once in a while in very stressful situations though. I’ve learned to cope with circumstances beyond my control. I’ve learned to be a better team player. I’ve learned the value of good leadership. I’ve learned to live with very little. I’ve learned to appreciate fate. I’ve also learned the meaning of home.

Home is truly where you become yourself. Whether it is in curled up in a ball on my bed, wrapped up in a hug, or where my thoughts lead me – home is where I feel at ease.

Right now, home is sitting in my house in Ghana listening to Oklahoma country eating German chocolate.