Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Best of America Welcomed Me

Pete (left), and Tom who I met at LAX
After arriving in Los Angeles at 2:30 p.m., following a ten hour flight from Samoa, I cleared my way through customs. I had already missed my connecting flight on Southwest, but proceeded to the ticket counter to look into another flight. Southwest was very understanding and put me on the next available flight which was scheduled to depart at 6 p.m. for its four hour flight to Chicago. After checking my bag, I headed through security for the second time in 12 hours and then entered a part of the American fabric: the concourse of gates in the domestic terminal of LAX. Walking about, I was smiling at everything I saw. Suddenly I was thrust back into what I had left for the past 14 months, and I had many observations: the toilets flush themselves, the water at the bathroom sinks is run on sensors as well, and I even jumped a little when I accidentally set off the paper towel dispenser. Everything was easier here, compared to Samoa. Walking to my gate, I noticed the building was very clean, the people were all dressed in fashionable clothes and walking with a sense of urgency that Samoans never match. I even had to laugh when I saw two Starbucks within 150 yards of one another! I knew I was back in the U.S.A.
So excited at what I was seeing, I made phone calls to my parents and sister. I then decided to call a friend of mine, Katy, who had served in the Peace Corps in South Africa and had told me before of her experiences about first arriving back in America and the reverse culture shock that came with it. We had a good talk and then I went to get something at McDonald’s. After being handed my bag of food, I realized that I didn’t have my laptop with me! I had left it in its bag back at where I was on the phone, right there in the hallway of the concourse. I rushed back and discovered it was gone! My heart sank.
At that very moment I started glancing at every person walking with a computer bag—suddenly, everyone looked suspicious--but in an airport the size of LAX, and with 90 percent of the people having a computer bag, I very quickly felt as if I was being put into a trance. A part of me wanted to yell at everyone to stop! I had only slept for 30 minutes after being awake for over 24 hours and the thought of someone stealing my computer after serving my country for 14 months, made me suddenly build an anger towards the America I had just been oohing and awing over on the phone with my friend.
I finally decided I needed to find someone who could help me. I spotted a Southwest employee near a gate and ran up to him to tell him what had happened. He seemed half confused at the situation I was in, probably because I presented myself in such hysteria. The man said he didn’t know what he could do, considering he had just gotten off an airplane after being on it for the past couple of hours—I realized he was a flight attendant. He did tell me where the police were.
Walking towards the police I continued scanning the crowd. Everyone was walking as if they had a stiff wind at their backs, pushing them forward with momentum. I called Katy back, as if she could help me living 3,000 miles away. Making it to the police counter, I explained my situation to a group of 3 officers—I think I hung up on Katy at that time. They started asking a number of questions: can I see your ID? Can you tell me where you were standing? How long ago did this happen? What color was the bag? Was anyone near you? How long were you gone? What time is your flight?
Then one of the police officers, during my time of panic, took time to make a point out of what I had done wrong. He said: “you were standing, talking on the phone, and had the phone in one had. What was your other hand doing?” I didn’t respond. He said, “why didn’t you have your computer bag in the other hand?” Well the simple answer was that I had set it down. I obviously knew I had made a mistake, but he was almost saying “shame on you.” I said, it was my fault, I made the mistake, but now I just want to try and find the computer. Time continued to feel as if it were moving slower and slower. Another officer asked me to go back down to where I had made the phone call. On the way he said, “don’t you know you aren’t suppose to leave bags unattended in the airport.” Yes, of course I know that. I’ve flown all over the country and the world and had never had something like this happen before. In a polite way, yet with firmness in my voice, I said, “I didn’t leave my bag there on purpose. I wasn’t trying to have my computer stolen. I walked away forgetting it was there. I made a mistake.” I explained to him how important that computer was for my work as a Peace Corps volunteer, and that I would never want to lose it.
While standing at the place of my huge mistake, I was trying to recreate exactly where I was and how I was standing for the sake of the officer who kept asking me. While I was doing this, a man walked up to us and asked if we were looking for a bag. He had just found one that had been left and was getting ready to turn it over to the police if no one came back in five minutes. I said that I had left my bag there. He walked over to the row of black leather seats where he and his friend were sitting. There it was, resting on the chairs. I walked over and reached out to touch it with my right hand, as if to ask its forgiveness for having left it alone and having been so foolish. The officer said that I owed the two men a huge thank you. Indeed I did.
With the four of us there, I thanked the two men for having taken the bag and watching over it. After thanking them, I felt this instant guilt inside me, for having doubted everyone I had been glancing at in that airport concourse. As if entering a confessional and bearing my soul, I started an apology: “I have just gotten back from serving in the Peace Corps for 14 months and was so furious and felt betrayed when I thought the computer was stolen. I’m sorry for having thought the worst of my fellow Americans." At that moment my emotions overcame me and I started to cry. I felt so proud to be an American. I felt proud of those two men for having represented what I had always hoped America was. I didn’t feel at all embarrassed to be crying in front of three men and a gate of passengers waiting for their flight. I was elated. The one man, whose name I later found out was Pete, said, “We Americans are still looking out for one another. Welcome home. Welcome back to America.” I continued to cry.
The police officers work was done and he thanked the men and I thanked him for his assistance. I said I had learned my lesson and would be more careful. After I took a few deep breaths I offered to buy the two men dinner or a coffee, but they kindly declined. But I couldn’t just leave them; I suddenly felt this connection to these two strangers. I wanted to slow the moment and take a moment to visit. I asked them if they minded if I sat down for a few minutes.
We introduced ourselves and made some small talk. I asked them about their jobs—Pete is an aerospace engineer and Tom a mechanical engineer. I praised them both for their abilities as scientists. They asked me some questions about my service in Peace Corps. I mentioned to them how students’ test scores in Samoa are low in science and how I wished that the children could do better in that area, as I know it is important for any country. They asked where I was headed, how long I was going to be visiting. I still had to eat the meal from McDonald’s that I had been carrying all over the airport for that 30 minute ordeal. But before I said goodbye, I asked them if I could write about them here on this blog. We exchanged contact information and I gave them this blog address. I thanked them again and we said our goodbyes. A few minutes later as I was eating, I realized I had forgotten to get a picture of them. I darted back over—with my computer bag—and asked for a picture.
My flight ended up leaving about 45 minutes late. It gave me plenty of time to sit there at the gate and listen to the public service announcement stating: “Due to security measures, and for your safety, do not leave bags unattended and do not ask others to watch your bags.” The same message played on repeat. Each time it felt like a knife in my back being twisted. But each time it reminded me how lucky I had been that night.
Looking back on that night, I was able to see how my Peace Corps experience has helped change me. If this had happened a year ago, I might have just thanked the men and been on my way. I would have been grateful, but I’m not sure if I would have had the initiative to sit and learn more about them. After living in Samoa, where building relationships is such a huge part of a volunteer’s success in the village, I now realize that I’ve come to value this kind of friendly conversation, that causes one to slow their pace in a busy world. The relationships matter, they make us better communicators and listeners.
Tuesday night I was faced with a situation that tested ordinary Americans who did extraordinary things. I would never want to relive that fiasco again, but in a way, I’m happy I was able to see it unfold, because it was the best welcome back to America. It was hard proof that this country, despite its enormous size, can act as one family, looking out for another’s brother, or sister. Samoans proud themselves on being hospitable, friendly and caring, and I have found that to be completely true throughout my service there. Yet I’m so proud that America still has those same types of people who care for one another just because it’s the human thing to do. It’s the American thing to do. Thank you Pete and Tom for showing me once again, why I’m so proud to represent our country as a volunteer overseas.

Waiting at the airport in Samoa after our plane was delayed to leave by more than 3 hours.

Leah, from Group 82 was layering to try and keep warm!

Getting ready to board the plane in Samoa at 3:15 a.m.

The exterior of the Boeing 767

A real dinner on board the plane. Breakfast was just as big!

The first sights of American soil after crossing the Pacific Ocean from Samoa.

Corina and Cassie outside the international terminal at LAX.

First picture with Mom and Dad at Chicago after a long journey.

Bundled up and wondering what happened to all the coconut trees.

Final destination. Home for the holidays!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Jet Plane

Leaving the house this morning at 6:28 a.m.
to start the trip back to America!
The journey home to Michigan has begun! I left my house this morning at 6:28 a.m. to come into town on the bus. I’m in Apia today, until tonight when I leave Samoa for the first time in 14 months. I’m boarding an airplane and jetting across the largest ocean in the world on a 10 hour flight to Los Angeles, California. Then it’s another four hour flight to Chicago. Then it’s a two hour drive from there, before I get to sleep at home for the first time since October 4, 2009.

Last night I took one final walk through my village for 2010. I went to a few houses to wish people a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. A bunch of kids came out and followed me down the street and asked when I was leaving for America. I ate at my neighbor’s house yesterday for a going away dinner and they had invited the mayor of the village, and his wife over for the occasion.

After saying my goodbyes I went back to my house to finish the last of the packing. I kept thinking to myself how much easier it is to pack for a month visit to Michigan, than a two year stay in Samoa. My stress level was very low as I went about the packing, but perhaps some of the “care free ways” of this island life have rubbed off on me the past year. I think that’s a good thing.

But just as I have come to live a relaxed life, I’m about to be thrust back into the rollercoaster life in America. For example, my flight arrives in Los Angeles at 11:40 a.m. on Tuesday but I have to make my connecting flight before it leaves at 1:55 p.m. That may seem like a good chunk of time, but here’s what I’m up against: I have to wait for the plane to taxi to the gate, deplane, go claim my luggage, go through customs, travel from the international terminal to the domestic terminal, recheck my bags on my next flight, go through security and then make it to my gate before they close the door to the plane! That’s a lot for someone who’s been living the slow life for 14 months. I’m keeping my fingers crossed though.

Once I make it to my final destination, I’m entering a whole new climate. The temperature in Samoa right now is 82. The temperature in Michigan: 15. The heat index in Samoa: 90. The wind chill in Michigan: 3. That’s an 87 degree temperature difference based on how the weather feels to the skin. My body has certainly grown use to the heat and humidity, considering I get chilled when the mercury dips to 80 degrees! 76 degrees in Samoa feels like a late October day in Michigan where I’m ready to bundle up. I haven’t seen snow since April of 2009, that’s 20 months without the slushy, slippery mess. At this moment, I hear reports about a large snow storm that has just passed through the Midwest. As much as I have missed the change of seasons, I haven’t missed the snow. But at the same time, I’m looking forward to a White Christmas, and think the snow will be exciting (at least for a month).

But among all the things I’m looking forward to, nothing compares to seeing my family. I was fortunate to have my sister visit me this past July and share that time with her, and my life here in Samoa. But other than her, I haven’t seen any family, the very people who raised me and supported me for 25 years! I wrote about what it would be like to be with them, back during my hardest days of homesickness. They have continued on with their lives, but they’ve continued to support me through phone calls, letters, packages, and most importantly, their prayers. This week we are reunited in what will be one unforgettable moment after another.

As much as I enjoy looking forward, I thought today might be an appropriate day to look back, and see what life was like one year ago today: December 13, 2009. Following are a few excerpts from my journal entry on that day.

“It’s 12:24 in the afternoon and I’m still homesick like you won’t believe.”

“I wrote a letter to Mom last night. I cried during most of it.”

“I’m trying to adjust, pray, and stay active, but whatever I do, I can’t feel that groove.”

“I feel so separated from my family, friends and traditions. I know it’s all just a 14 hour flight away, but I feel so trapped here.”

“I can’t forget I’m not in this battle alone. There are volunteers in this country and around the world dealing with similar situations.”

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and if I back out now, there will be huge consequences for the rest of my life, and that is a scary thought, perhaps enough to keep me grounded where I am.”

And I’m happy I stayed grounded, right where I am. Looking back 365 days is amazing, as I see how much has changed and how much I’ve come to love where I am. Last night as I was lying in bed, I just thought how grateful I am to God for leading me through those tough days, to the place I am today. Right now I’m thinking about my journey home, excited to see family and friends, but at the same time, I’ll be looking forward to returning to Samoa in 2011. Goodbye from Samoa. See you in America!

With 10 Peace Corps leaving on the flight tonight to L.A., this is what the Peace Corps office looked like this afternoon!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pineapples In December

I’ve now lived in Samoa for two Decembers. And that’s given me two Decembers to realize that December in Samoa will never feel like December in America. December in the United States has all kinds of cues that lead a person to know it’s almost Christmas. If I were brought out of an underground bunker after loosing all sense of time, and dropped at a Wal-Mart store in America, I could easily figure out it was December in a hurry. There are Christmas candies by the door, along with poinsettia plants wrapped in red, green and silvered papers. There are three or more aisles devoted exclusively to Christmas decorations. There’s someone out front of the store ringing a bell and 25 cashiers wearing Santa hats. There are major food brands plastering pictures of Santa onto their packaging and some that even change the contents inside that packaging: M&Ms become green and red, Little Debbie’s take on the shape of a Christmas trees. And if that all wasn’t enough, there is Christmas music playing over the speaker system in the store!

Those are all signs of December in America. If you love them or hate them, it is a part of the American fabric, and a way of knowing that December is upon you. But America is an exception. Sure, Christmas is celebrated all over the world, but in other places, it’s not being made known to you by advertisers, the way it is in America. So I asked myself, if I came out of that same bunker and was dropped in Samoa, how would I know what month it is, and that it is in fact December? What cues would lead me to know, it’s two weeks away from Christmas? Here’s what I came up with.

If I were dropped in Samoa I could tell it’s December based on the price of pineapples at the market in Apia. Pineapples come into their peak season starting in December, and thus the price drops significantly. A large pineapple in November can cost as much as 15 tala (about $6.19 U.S. Dollars). However, that same size pineapple can drop to 6 tala (about $2.47 U.S. Dollars) just a few weeks later in December. So was the case, this past week when I walked through the market. I knew the season was just around the corner and I kept holding out to buy one for the cheaper price, and it finally came down, just like it did last year. It’s as predictable as the inflatable snowman display at Wal-Mart, just another indicator in another country in the month of December. I’ve bought two in the past week and plan on getting one more before I head home for Christmas. Pineapples here are so sweat that as I’m cutting them up, it’s hard not eating half of it before I put it away in the refrigerator. I’ve also enjoyed mixing the pineapple with bananas and freezing them for a chilled desert.

Another way of knowing that it’s December in Samoa is by the number of unfamiliar faces appearing in the village. This of course, is preceded by the caravans of rental cars that come streaming into a normally quiet village. Most evenings when I go for a walk through the village I can easily identify most faces, but once December roles around I start seeing all kinds of new faces. This is because most Samoans have large numbers of family members who come back for the Christmas holiday from overseas; countries such as New Zealand, Australia and the United States. Within the past week I’ve met about 10 new family members in one family alone who have come in for a visit. Many of them are great English speakers so they enjoy speaking to me in English, and get a kick out of hearing my Samoan, so we have our bilingual conversation before we both go our own ways.

And of course, the third sign of it being December in Samoa is the rain. The rainy season officially starts in November, but I’ve found it’s like an old rusty machine that takes a while to get moving again. The engines were fired in November but now that it’s December it in full operation and dumping it in buckets at times. The rain normally comes at night and is weird on the dreams; I always feel half awake and half dreaming as the pounding rain disorients me. But I love it when it rains so hard here in Samoa, it almost makes me feel like I have this bubble around me, protecting me from the rest of the world.

Samoa may not have all the Christmas decorations and hustle and bustle before December 25, but as a person lives here and comes to know the routines and traditions of this country, or any country around the world, they can certainly come to know that it’s December and a time for family and friends!

My first pineapple for the 2010 season!

Cutting up the first pineapple for the year.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Prize Giving

I remember how the end of the school year felt back at home while growing up. It was always a nostalgic time with classrooms being disassembled after a year’s worth of time with friends and teachers. The warm days of early June reminded teachers and student alike that their summer vacations were just days away. There was always an end of the school year assembly where certificates were given for accomplishments made. My parents and grandparents came and took lots of pictures and gave warm hugs for another year completed.

And now having lived in Samoa, I’ve found that the similar traditions take place for the children of this island nation in the Pacific. Although Samoa lacks the change of seasons, and is perpetually hot, I was still able to sense a change of mood at the school as our year ended and the kids prepared for their advancement to the next year.

Samoa’s schools celebrate prize giving their last day of school, although it’s an event that is a few weeks in the planning. Prize giving is a chance for parents to come and visit the school and see their children receive gifts from their teachers. Although teachers in Samoa see the parents of their students every day in the village, either while playing bingo, going for an evening walk, or stopping by the local store, they hardly ever discuss a student’s progress and teacher parent conferences don’t exist here. So prize giving is probably the one day of the year where teachers, parents and students truly connect in a meaningful way in terms of accomplishments related to school.

Prize giving is something I began hearing about a year ago. Volunteers who had already experienced it warned us about it well in advance. But now having lived through it, I think it was a great event to wrap up the school year. When I asked other volunteers in the office to describe prize giving at their school in one word, here’s what they said. Jenny C. from Group 82 said “wild.” Tiffany, also from 82 said “superfluous,” while Corina, also from the same group said “Christmas.” Lisa, from Group 79 summed up the event with the word, “emotional.” My word would have to be “thoughtful.”

Our school began preparing for the event a couple weeks before when the teachers taught the students, years 1-8 dance motions for a Samoan song. Then the older years, 7 and 8 did a dance on their own. Dance and music are a huge part of Samoan culture, so this was a great way for the kids to unwind after 10 months in the classroom. Watching the smiles on their faces as they learned the dances was exciting to see. It also taught them about working together, since it was choreographed, and the younger kids were having to watch the older kids. After listening to the same two songs play over and over and over and over for two weeks, I was one song away from scratching the CD. But now looking back, I realize that whenever I hear those songs, I’ll always remember those kids and our first year together. Just today on the bus into town, one of them was playing on the radio and I just smiled at the thought of our time together.

Food is a huge part of social gatherings in Samoa. Between the help from families in the village, and the teachers, we were planning to feed all the family members who attended the prize giving. I didn’t want to be left out, so I offered to bring a fruit salad and popcorn. Also, the night before prize giving all the kids came up to the school with palm fronds to weave traditional Samoan baskets that the food would be served on. They had probably over 150 baskets! The next morning the food began arriving in huge pots that you would see used in a kitchen of a college campus’ cafeteria. We were busy organizing all the food as it arrived and placing foil in all the baskets from the night before.

For prizes, the teachers go all out. These are people who don’t have a lot of money but splurge for the kids on this one occasion. Many of the kids who receive prizes were receiving bowls and bags of chips, cookies, or candies. I had made certificates for my year 7 English class since they were the kids who I had taught the most throughout the year. I gave awards for the top grades on the final exam (ranking students based on test results and making it public is very common for this culture), as well as for attendance, overall best homework throughout the year, as well as a certificate for the student who washed their hands the most in our hand washing competition. I gave an award for the student who was most improved. That one went to Neueli, who could barely read English at the beginning of the year, but now is doing a wonderful job and is always excited to be in the classroom!

Also, I had a competition with students form years 7 and 8 for good manners. Beginning back in late August when I started the event, I kept track of their manners each day. We had talked about good and bad manners and so this was very helpful for overall classroom management. If they had good manners at the end of the day, they received a mark next to their names. Over the past few months they would come into my room to check their progress and I could tell they were taking it very seriously. Perhaps it was because of the reward: a free trip into the capital to visit the public library and then have lunch at McDonald’s and finish up by getting a double scoop of ice cream.

At the end of November, I counted up who had the most marks next to their name and it was Kolly from year 8. I got permission from my principal who was on board with the program and then spoke to the student’s parents who were also excited for Kolly, who was making his first trip to McDonald’s (and the library). On December 1st we had a great trip and spent about an 1 ½ at the library looking over the books. It was great to see his reaction as we walked in, and especially to hear him read English books with such ease in the children’s section. He had a great hamburger with his Happy Meal and then filled up with his ice cream. I had taken pictures throughout the morning and then made a point of stopping to have some printed off to give to him, knowing he would take them back to the village and share them with all the kids and get them excited for next year’s competition.

Back to the actual day of prize giving, the dances went well and plenty of food was eaten. The principal spoke and gave an overview of our school year and what had been going on in the school. He mentioned our new photo copier and the re-painted library with donated books from New Zealand. I gave a thank you in Samoan to all the parents and teachers, for their welcoming me into the community and looking out for me during my first year.

As the students started heading out the door at the end of the day, a few students brought some small gifts up to me. Luisa gave me a traditional Samoan wooden weapon that her brother had carved. It was beautiful. One of the last students to come up to me is one of my favorites. He handed me a piece of paper that was folded up to create an envelope. On the front it had my name and it said to “open up.” I put it in my pocket, wanting to enjoy reading it later in the day once things had quieted down. But just him giving it to me was enough to bring a couple tears on as I said goodbye. Our school year was ending, although I’d probably see him later that evening on a walk through the village, it was an emotional moment just thinking of his accomplishments and how we had both matured over the last year.

After saying goodbyes to the principal, teachers and school committee, I walked back to my house, changed out of my sweaty shirt and sat down to read my card. I opened the envelope and unfolded another piece of paper written on a piece of graph paper. I read it. “I love my best friend Kyle. Thanks. Saulo.” Below that was written the date, Saulo’s class year, and then the funniest part of the whole card, the expiration date! I started to cry. I was crying thinking about how I had almost left Samoa for an easy way out when things were hard, when life was tough. There were days when I didn’t feel a connection to any of those students. But now I was holding proof in my hand of what hard work and dedication would result in: helping change someone else’s life. That piece of paper alone made every challenge I’ve faced worth it. It confirmed the fact that I had indeed made the right decision by staying here in Samoa, to do the work I was asked to do, to do the work I said I would do, and to do the work those students needed me to do. Although the card had an expiration date of 2020, I’m hoping that the memory of our time together will last Saulo, and the other students for a lifetime.

The certificates I made for year 7 English students.

Some of the food before serving it at prize giving.

With my teachers (in green), principal (in blue), and school committee members (in white) after prize giving.

Students and parents at prize giving.

Monthly manners chart, with Kolly's name at the top.

The food in the ipu kuagiu, or Samoan plates.