Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What I meant to talk about in that last post....

The last post I wrote was about relationships. And it got a lot of attention, which was pretty cool, and unexpected, because when I posted the blog, even though it was really true, it wasn't actually about the thing that I've really been thinking about that led me to write the blog in the first place, which is, well weird, except when you consider that the relationship most affected by living here is my relationship with language.

This is difficult to explain, and yet I know that there's not a single other Peace Corps volunteer who doesn't at least to some degree feel the same way. So forgive me for being self indulgent in describing how this feels to me and not trying to be universal about it.

I'm a words person. I don't know who many types of people there are, but there are certain people who are words people. I'm one of them - I generally find it a great deal easier to communicate in writing. I appreciate words for the tools that they are: of communication, of beauty, of meditation. I have an unfortunate and terrible talent for using words as weapons, especially against loved ones, especially in moments of anger. I wish words didn't have that power, but they do, and this post isn't about that dark side, of words or of me.

I like analogies. I like words that create worlds unto themselves. I enjoy puns and intellectual conversation that hinge on people's disparate understandings of single sentences. I like to study what words can do. I think that what you say depends on how you choose to say it. I am analytically inclined, whether about people or texts. I use language to gain insight into both the people I know and the ones I don't. I look for meaning, everywhere. I am particular. I really, really try to say what I mean, and to be very precise about it. I write blog posts  and personal essays and research papers while I'm running, reading, teaching, and trying to go to sleep and in those moments, I return to mental scripts and edit them, too. I cannot experience something without imagining how I would write about it later (or in the moment). Words are my most prominent lens. Actually, I believe words are really everyone's most prominent lens, since as language using animals, language shapes the way we think, interpret the world, and thus feel about it. But I know that not everyone thinks about it that way. Not everyone is always obsessively thinking about language in the way that I am - but I do think that being in Peace Corps probably turns on that tendency in every volunteer.

I'm also a very serious person. I don't feel comfortable acting silly or being in the limelight, and the jokes I enjoy and the things I laugh at usually tend toward sarcasm, irony, and even a kind of cynicism.

People don't call me because I will make them laugh. They call me because what I say will probably make them think. With friends, I tend to be honest, probably more honest than they'd like in some instances, but I think very hard about how I deliver the comments I make, the advice I give; I try to make sure that what comes out of my mouth doesn't come tumbling out, but is measured, true, thoughtful, and, let's be honest, well-composed. I don't like to make comments in casual conversation unless I know exactly how they'll come out, unless I know my audience and the effect those comments might have. I feel terrible when my words are misconstrued or misunderstood, or when they miss their mark, partly because that's usually when someone ends up hurt, and partly because I think that how someone receives what you say and what they think you mean is as important as your intent. So, you think I'm crazy now, right? Fair enough. (I think I'm a little bit crazy, too.) When operating in English, this constant self-editing, this handle-with-care sense that I have about words, well, it works. Automatically. Easily. Less like a robot than it sounds.

It doesn't work in Thai. It doesn't work in Thailand. And this means that a lot of things that I have taken for granted for my entire life just don't work here. I didn't really expect this to happen, and even though it was probably the case the minute I stepped of the plane onto the Tarmac at Suvarnabhumi (the "v" is a "w" and don't pronounce the "i") airport, it's a fact that has only been slowly seeping into my consciousness and poisoning it. I take to languages easily - I like them - and I learned Thai quickly and easily during pre-service training. At site, those skills impressed people. And that made me feel good. I probably let those early successes with talking about family and fruit and food (fruit is not food, in Thailand) with strangers fool me into thinking that I had this language thing under wraps, that it would continue to be easy and self-satisfying to add to my Thai vocabulary and grammar repertoire.

It hasn't continued to be easy or self-satisfying. I never expected to be fluent in Thai. I don't even know that I expected to be as decent at it as I am now. But I am still a fool.

In short, a few things have converged during this experience to make me feel as though I'm Alice falling through the rabbit hole--un-anchored, watching everything I know disappear until even the point of light that marked which way is up as closed in on itself, the walls too far away to touch, the bottom still a theoretical probability. (Yes, I'm being dramatic. This is that cynical sense of humor I alluded to.)

1) It's really hard to keep learning Thai without the help of your ajaans, even if you were pretty good at it in the first place.
2) If I don't know what's going on in a conversation, I retreat into the inner conversation, the one always running in my head, and the editing and the thinking and the English, by God, block out everything else going on around me.
3) Something about people assuming you know what's going on makes it really embarrassing to ask when you don't.
4) For months during PST we were basically advised not to be direct (this is an oversimplification, I know, but it sunk into my consciousness like this, and I have really stopped being able to be as direct or as honest with people as I probably would be at home. Then again, at home, I wouldn't be encountering some of these situations and would probably be at a loss for English words, anyway).
5) My desire for precision in my own language means that I generally put myself on mute until I know exactly how whatever comes out of my mouth is going to come out. Until I have a sentence mentally lined up, and one on deck, and another waiting in the wings, I generally have trouble joining a conversation.
6) Since I rarely ever know what's going on, I have absolutely no insight, none that I trust, anyway, into what people are thinking or what motivates them or why or even, most of the time, what they're really trying to say when they're saying something.

In my case, it's these last three that have really turned my inner world upside down, left that "indelible mark" I mentioned in the last post. Because I don't really know how to read people's reactions, and I don't really know what's appropriate to say, -- I mean, yes, there are some basic cultural guidelines that are easy enough to follow, and have become automatic enough in a year and a half that I'm not going around offending everybody all the time with impunity and not really knowing it -- and I am always already editing what I want to say, I often feel nothing more than tongue twisted and confused. And isolated in my own mental state (yes, mental state is a double entendre. See how not funny I am?).

The constant second-guessing communication, wondering if I heard people right, if they heard me right, if they understood what I meant and are just ignoring it, or really didn't understand is bad enough with Thai co-workers and friends. That's become par for the course. And also kind of funny, and not exactly a complete hindrance to friendships or work or general existence. It is distracting though, the constant second guessing of what I'm saying, the weird hole in my memory where lots of that English I like to speak used to be--words that were once accessible and readily available to be used precisely when and as needed seem to have disappeared, or else recessed into cobwebby filing cabinets at the back of my brain, the creeping uncertainty about what's appropriate to say in conversations with friends, Peace Corps staff members, Thai colleagues, and relatives, the weird and terrible guilt and shame that creeps in and sits in the back of my throat at not being able to say the right thing in the right way at the right time. The complete breakdown of rhetoric, for the love of all that is good and Aristotelian.

I thought the ants would drive me crazy. It turns out, however, that the break downs occur because the foundation of which I have been so sure for so long - language - has crumbled.

Josh, never one to spare me his thoughts (or the words they come in), tells me that this is all ego. And I suppose it is. But, well, you take out your ego and bash it on some rocks for a while and see how that feels, huh?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

there : here :: then : now...

I'm a dork. On standardized tests, I used to really like the analogies, trying to figure out the relationships between words, to see the nuances, to fill in that enticing blank with something that made everything all fall into place. I guess it isn’t just analogies, though; in my life I have tended to be a student of relationships, especially of disparate things: chemistry and literature; madness and history; education and health; writing and landscapes. It is perhaps no wonder that culture fascinates me, that the idea of living in a different culture has always excited me so much. 

During PST, when volunteers are still trainees, when they are still motivated by “the work we came here to do” and when they are struggling to find footholds in anything that seems, feels, smells, or tastes familiar, the training staff attempt to bury a particular piece of wisdom into their brains: It’s all about the relationships, they will reiterate over, and over, and over, and over. Yeah yeah yeah, thinks everyone, and then right about that time they’re trying to get some work done, this bit of advice starts to make sense. It is fortunately lodged in the brain, and creeps out as soon as school starts and everything that the volunteer thinks should be orderly is actually chaos.

The volunteer soon discovers that work doesn’t get done, not in Thailand anyway, without establishing rapport. Change simply doesn’t happen: roads don’t get paved, houses don’t get built, often, classes don't get taught – not unless under all this is a foundation of relationships among people. In some ways, you could argue that it’s the same everywhere, but I can assure you it’s not, and I will just leave it at that. It’s personal, it's hierarchical, it's cultural. It's confusing. 

What PC staff doesn’t tell volunteers, what they can’t tell them, because maybe they don’t even know, or maybe they take it as such a given that it doesn’t require a warning, or maybe because it just can’t really be articulated very well (watch out readers, this doesn’t bode well for the rest of the post), is that living in a different culture isn’t just about the relationships with people that you build to get things done (or to survive without being totally lonely)--it also goes to the very core of your relationships with, well, everything and everyone.

For example, PC warns you about this in all sorts of ways before they sign you up as a married couple. They ask you all sorts of questions during the recruiting process about how you each handle stress, what you'll do when one of you is more successful with language or your project than the other. They ask what your support systems are, who you talk to other than each other. And they're right to prepare married couples for this. You’ll experience your ups and your downs at different times and over different things. You will admire your spouse and feel jealous of his accomplishments at exactly the same time. Simultaneously, he’ll feel like he’s not accomplishing anything. You’ll become disturbingly co-dependent. You'll recognize that what people think of you depends in part on what you think of him. You will constantly have to explain that you are not worried about him working with women (even beautiful ones). You might even have to explain to your host mother that you don't actually share her concern that he's sleeping with the elementary school teacher across the street. You'll take things personally that weren't ever personal before. In Thailand, you'll probably become overly combative in your personal life because you repress so much frustration elsewhere. And yet, you'll still feel lucky to be doing this together, undergoing these changes in your relationship, and hoping you come out of the kiln tougher, smoother, and with a nice, glossy finish.

Speaking of that nice glossy finish, you'll forget what your skin looks like without a gloss of sweat on it. You'll realize that makeup is a cruel joke. That the expensive power you brought with you from home only works in air-conditioned parts of Bangkok. You will develop dandruff or your hair will fall out.  Your intestines, bowels, lungs, muscles, nails, and all sorts of other parts will suddenly quit working the way you think they should. Formerly pleasant foods will now curdle your stomach; exercises you previously enjoyed will become impossible or nonsensical; your daily fare may well rack your stomach with pains for weeks on end. You might poop six times a day. You might poop once every six days. Neither situation makes sense, and it won’t be pleasant. Your relationships with other volunteers, even the ones you aren't married to, will begin to involve conversations with the following sentences: "I might have to go to Bangkok to get my penis checked out"; "I was bleeding from my ass"; "Seriously, it feels like there is something moving around in my stomach. All. The. Time."; "God, I smell so bad today."

You will look in the mirror as little as possible, because what you see staring back at you will be: shiny and sweaty with unplucked eyebrows, a strange sunglasses tan, and frizzy hair. And that's just your face. If you are unfortunate enough to find a full length mirror, you'll see a size XL body in an XXXL polo with a mismatched skirt and long-ago-faded Chacos sitting below that head. Wait, an XL body? Yes. Because it's Thailand, and you are officially now too big to fit into anything that doesn't have an L somewhere on the label. Even if you don't catch yourself in a mirror, you'll find that changes in your body size, shape, weight, or color are not off limits for general conversation. In the same day, you will be told that you are both fat, and thin. Sometimes, you will be told that you look like crap (not beautiful) and should re-do your hair. Sometimes your eyelashes will be fawned over. Sometimes you might overhear people telling other people that you usually wear that shirt with a skirt, and it looks much better, and please excuse the fact that you are wearing pants today. In America, we have this idea that we can kind of hide in our bodies. If we need to hear someone comment on it, we elicit a compliment by fishing for one. Then we feel better. And we can rest securely in the knowledge that no one, unless they are a total asshole, is going to come up to us and say, "Today, you are ugly. You are fat. You have gained weight." It's kind of nice in America, isn't it? If someone told you that, right after you said hello, it's nice to see you again, you would probably punch them in the face, right? In Thailand, you have to smile while they pinch your love handles. See, even your relationship to your body (and everyone else's) is culturally constructed.

Of course your relationship to your family and friends will change, too, when you choose to live abroad. You will feel pain and guilt and confusion at missing certain events. You will feel glad that you are not there for others (and the subsequent pain and guilt for feeling glad about that). You will find that everything that they think you are doing doesn’t resonate with what you feel like you are doing, and you aren’t sure whether this is your problem or theirs, or something in between. Others around you will suddenly insist on referring to themselves as your “mother” and this will become something of a giant annoyance, because you have a mom already, thankyouverymuch. You will feel a desire to connect your family at home to your family at site, and it won’t make any sense, because they could never understand each other anyway, and you wouldn’t consistently want to broker their relationship. You will stop receiving long emails from your friends telling you how much they miss you, and it will become something of a faith thing to believe that they do, indeed, still miss you. You will stalk facebook photos of your friends' new babies, and wonder how their lives have changed since you last saw them, and how you will fit into those lives now that they revolve around the little people. You will miss people so much that it hurts, especially when you see beautiful and powerful things that you think only they could understand. Even when your close friends or family come to visit, something will be different, and you won't just be on one side of the cultural divide anymore. You will straddle it, uncomfortably, wishing you could unlearn everything you know about Thai culture, or American culture, for that matter, so you could just sit easily and be where you are. You will become very scared about going back to America, because you'll realize that you don't really understand how to relate to people any more. You'll resonate with another piece of wisdom a PC staffer once quipped, "You know, you guys get pretty weird after two years. Really pretty weird. You might not think so, but you do." 

You'll develop a relationship to water and electricity that is far more accepting of their inconsistency than you ever would have been at home. You will get used to doing dishes outside. You will live with ants in your floor and lizards in your ceiling. You will only scream at snakes if you are currently running them over with your bicycle. You will learn that the only fences that make good neighbors are the ones that can be climbed over easily for the purposes of sharing food. You will remember being apprehensive, scared even, about talking to your neighbors at home, and think that this was a really really silly way to feel. You will get used to your neighbors walking into your kitchen and asking what you're making for dinner. You'll get used to them watering your plants when they think you are sleeping, or showing up to look for a particular green in your miserable garden. You'll never have enough to give back to them. You'll never quite feel comfortable invading their space in the same way they invade yours.... but you'll start to think about going home, and your chest will tighten because, really, who's going to walk into your kitchen and ask what's for dinner? Who's going to bring you a bunch of bananas, a coconut, a second dinner? Who will give you unsolicited advice about what to do with the pigeons on your roof? Or notice that you left your bike outside, or your door unlocked? Who is going to line up outside their houses to cheer you on when you finish your run? Who's going to time that run for you because they have nothing else to do but wait on their porch for you to finish running and then tell you that you've been gone for over thirty minutes already!!!???? Not in America, they's not. 

This has been more or less a rambling post, for some reason written in the second person, which wasn't an experiment I planned... But I've been thinking for some time about how culture dictates our relationships with everything. With our concepts of everything. What is a party? What is a job? What is work ethic? What is responsibility? What is learning? What is family? What is important? How many people fit on a motorcycle? The answer to all of these questions is embedded in the contexts of cultures - to be taken out of one context and dropped into another means that the limits of all of my original answers have stretched and bled into the answers that are so obvious in this culture, and yet so different from my original assumptions. At the core of it, your relationship to yourself must change when you come to live in another culture. You must realize that you are constantly negotiating the things that make you you, that these assumptions that underlie your identity are neither givens in the new culture, nor may that be particularly important to the people around you, who will define you according to their assumptions, their cultural norms. It is impossible to be the same person in one culture and another, because although there may be a few things that are essential to each of us, we are also a constellation of relationships--between ourselves and those around us, between us and the world we live in. 

I don't know if I love or hate this fact, but it's left its indelible mark.