Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Technology Re-Entry and an Identity Crisis

As the end of the trip neared and we all stressed throughout our State Park stay in Virginia, reflections of the trip continued to barrage me.  Our experiences seemed even more distant and absurd with each day back in the United States, and above all I feared that I would slip back into my home routine.  Sitting inside on the computer, watching movies, eating ice cream, losing touch with the ambition and curiosity I had spent all year trying to foster.  
In Virginia thankfully, still with the group, I could work with a clear head and try to focus on what I learned most from the trip: interconnectedness.  What a large and vague word that is…oddly it took a lot of journal writings and thinking to find what I learned most from the trip, and that what I learned most was not necessarily about the world or global issues, but myself.  That I am not independent, that I rely on others on a day to day basis for support, motivation, food, resources, more than just the members of the group but those around the world who make my clothes, grow food, etc.  In such an individualistic country and culture, it became hard for me not to place individualism and independence as the pinnacles of character.  But more and more I learned that I needed to become aware that I could never truly be independent, and needed to learn that I could grow from relying on others.  But as with many lessons, TBB doesn’t solve the problem, and I continue to have to reassess what independence means to me and how I interact with others according to my definitions of such terms.  Nothing is solved, I just reach a new set of questions or experiences to redefine my previous solution to a problem.  As a student and learner searching for concrete answers, that was probably the hardest lesson to learn:  for the most important problems/issues, often there is no solution.  All my life I was told that learning is a journey but never really understood why before TBB.
After an elegant graduation ceremony in the Capitol building, speeches, food, tears and hugs with the group, we left and the program ended.  Home didn’t hit me until I actually left the company of the group, and felt the deep silence of being alone.  I had to reintegrate myself with my family, my house, my culture, my “old life” and self.  I stayed silent for the whole plane ride and car trip home, bursting out when I saw such trivial items like a plate of fruit or my house and garage.  I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t open up, and I could no longer rely on the group for support like before.  Seeing a plate of fruit meant “where did this come from?” and seeing my garage meant “why do we have so much stuff we don’t really need?”.  TBB taught me critical consciousness and now I would have to experiment with how I could fit into my life.  The scariest part was that my “self” I had evolved into over the trip wasn’t who I was the first few days and weeks of being home.  Thankfully I came to realize that I hadn’t lost the group, and the cliché “don’t be sad that it’s over but happy that it happened” became more true.  I understand now that as I think of TBB I know I have not lost the group, but gained a new family I can rely on at home.
          Being home has meant many things.  Up and down moods, boredom, sloth, fatigue, apathy, and I realize now it will take months to really acclimate back to US lifestyle.  I look more at my values with each action, which means that though I feel more conscious of my choices, when I choose to ignore my values the cognitive dissonance becomes more severe.  As I think about my lifestyle now I don’t really know where to quite begin.  I need to refigure my values, apply them to my lifestyle and become comfortable with my way of life again.  I may have been comfortable before but now seeing how I have lived I don’t know if I want to continue living the same way.  People keep asking me what my favorite country was or my favorite experience, and though I answer that my favorite countries were Ecuador and China, I have no idea how to offer a favorite experience.  There really was no favorite experience.  The culmination of all these events and experiences changed who I am now, and I feel that I can’t easily convey such a massive year in a simple conversation.  I have to redefine myself and reincorporate my TBB self into my day to day life and actions.  All the opening up, interconnectedness I experienced with the group I now must apply again.  I never realized before how comfortable I was with the group until I see now how inwards I have acted in the past few weeks.
          Certain activities and quirks frustrate me.  I spent what seemed like an hour standing in the supermarket staring at the food as I struggled to find the mere five items I needed.  Trips to the movie theater have left me angry and tired rather than excited and satisfied like before.  Looking into my closet and at my room I scowl at all my clothes I never wear that just take up space uselessly.  I visited my cousin Peter’s school and as I sat in the foldable plastic chairs in the cold gym, I took the time to count eight people on cell phones.  And still I cannot find how to incorporate the lessons I learned from the trip to motivate myself to act now.  I do feel myself slipping into old routines, and though I realize that change isn’t linear and I may regress, I find myself attacked by pangs of pure indifference and laziness.  Periodic apathy over the trip has become more frequent now and I need to rediscover how to combat such feelings.  It’s scary.  I need to relearn how to talk with my family, and have been unusually quiet in comparison to TBB, very uncomfortable in big groups of people and shocked by stores and malls.  All very exhausting, but thankfully with time many of the confusions and frustrations become more clear and easier to sort out.  Exercise becomes a bit more regular, structure slowly returns.  With time, incorporating my TBB self into day to day interactions has been cyclical and very dependent on time of day and circumstance, yet in moments it shines through unhindered.  I realize progress will be slow, but somewhat certain.
          Reengaging with technology has been a major challenge.  I expected so much of facebook to make me feel better the first week, so much time spent checking posts from the group, sending texts, and making phone calls, but with all of the reliance on technology I relied little on other people around me for help.  Thus I secluded myself more.  In an attempt to understand my situation I went more inward when I had learned the whole year that most often what had helped the most was to reach outward.  The importance of engaging other people.  After a year of being with people constantly, facebook doesn’t quite seem like enough, a phone call or text not as satisfying anymore.  Face to face, personal conversations remain the most satisfying way of communication for me, but if I rely on such a small setting I limit myself to the connections I could make using technology.  Talking with my Dad he told me that technology, phones, etc allow me to have those conversations with others that don’t need to be next to me to have meaning and purpose.  I do know he’s right, but through my love for the small community feels of Ecuador or China, I must try and incorporate technology into my life without letting it invade my personal time.  My Mom shares such feelings, that technology can take time away from one’s day, can take away the 100% attention that I feel others deserve from me.  But then not answering a call or text also becomes taking away attention from a friend, and balancing how much time I spend with such devices/connections remains a challenge.  A big help in trying to understand such a struggle came from a TED talk by Sherry Turkle called “Connected but Alone”- it’s pretty awesome.
          Overall the questions I have been asking myself on TBB continue.  Who am I?  What are my values?  How do I want to travel?  And unfortunately none of these questions have answers, and as I go through these struggles thankfully I learn more about myself every day.  My expectation that TBB would make sense of the world for me has certainly not come true, and each problem “solved” just reveals a new set of questions to ponder.  TBB gave me an environment to try out a new me, a me that I would want to become in the future.  Now I just need to bridge the gap.  My progress embodies my asking these questions, and continuing to ask myself these questions while not forgetting the past year immersing myself in the “home routine”.  And the biggest question of all that continues to persist and drive me insane:  how do I want to live?  Hopefully it will continue to persist and pester me for a few more years at least.     

The Big Apple and A Bigger Bagel

         After a week with my head in the clouds in Cambodia, we returned to the US to reconnect with our home culture and our families in New York.  A rough fever on the 13 hour flight didn’t make me feel too great, but nonetheless the girls sang in excitement as we approached New York.  The weekend was chaotic as I didn’t quite know how to act around my parents, what to say, what to do but sleep.  I had my first good steak in a year, saw “Spiderman”, went to a fancy lunch with the rest of the TBB families, had a great weekend looking solely at what we did.  Our hotel was incredible, an atrium with statues and stone floor, but it all didn’t quite fit.  My stomach couldn’t take the steak I had eaten with ease before the trip, the hotel seemed absurdly big compared to the modest hostels I was accustomed to.  My first meal in New York was a bagel with salmon and cream cheese, but the first thing I noticed about it was the size.  It was massive.  After hounding food over the trip from the rest of the group, I barely ate that weekend and had little ambition to see any parts of New York.  Commercials appeared excessive and foreign, and with so many people and lights in the city I felt constantly lost and distracted…a space cadet’s worst nightmare.  Everything around me just felt too complex, too complicated, and why did everyone go so fast everywhere?  Everyone was in a hurry, and I struggled to make sense of a lot of what I saw.  Going back would definitely prove harder than leaving. 
Throughout NY and DC we continued to visit different organizations and the confusions continued.  I committed myself to asking questions at meetings like Planned Parenthood, Iris House, the UN, Global Financial Integrity, but after immersing ourselves in a country and a service project, I couldn’t grasp many of the organizations’ purposes, and more importantly how those purposes related to work on the ground.  With such short meetings, I couldn’t understand actual work that the organization accomplished- it was all general, all statistics, all abstract ideas and motives and reasons that had little meaning compared to the detail we went in with each country.  I could no longer nod my head in satisfaction that an organization fought poverty or helped empower others because such words no longer have a set meaning or definition.  Development has become more broad, and thus harder to understand in an office when the actual work does not happen in that setting.  I expected to feel satisfied with such examples of change in the US, and I did feel hopeful, but generalities no longer mean as much as work on the ground.
          In DC we had the chance to learn how to lobby with an organization called RESULTS, a chance to do our own research on bills and budgets, to voice our support to our actual representatives in our home states.  I had no idea that anyone could really do that!  But looking through the bills and acts I understood the incredible difficulty of policy.  I didn’t know what to support and even if I did find a bill or appropriation ask that interested me, I couldn’t begin to understood how the language of the bill translated to action.  It was too large scale, too sweeping for me, so disconnected from the real implementation. 
My fellow Connecticut resident Katherine and I set out prowling the streets of DC in search of a bagel before our meeting with staff of Joe Courtney, Jim Hymes, Richard Blumenthal, and Joe Lieberman.  I felt a bit stiff in my suit but thankfully I fit right in with the citizens of DC.  I guess there are a lot of important jobs there or something.  We were off to lobby for the Education for All Bill, and surprisingly got through security in all of the buildings, it was pretty easy really.  They didn’t even ask who we were seeing or if we had an appointment…US security.  I felt very intimidated looking at all the flags and plaques of the representatives lining the stone interior of the building, the immaculate carpet in the office, the tv showing live broadcast of voting on a recent bill in the House.  But all of the staff agreed with our points, agreed that we should support education, and in many cases our representatives already supported education.  I’m not sure if I really felt that fulfilled because the meetings were so short, and though the staff did take notes they have many meetings a day with many different issues to try and solve.  Did I make an incredible difference?  Probably not, but at least I could have the chance to, and never before did I realize I could.  We met another Connecticut couple with a man lobbying against budget cuts for science classes in school, and even being so close to DC, I never had interest in such political procedures.  I probably won’t in the future either, at least for a job, but unfortunately I need to realize that change can happen in that environment, and politics is a vital part to making change anywhere else in the world. 

Pools and Leisure in Cambodia

It has been quite a while since my last post, but since I have been back in the US after a trip to Cambodia, I haven't really felt like I have been "abroad" anymore.  Oddly, even though I was still travelling, I didn't feel as motivated to blog, take pictures etc. because it felt like I was finally home.  In a gray area between being home yet still having to visit organizations and work on my presentation of learning for our DC portion of the trip.
After the end of China and moving to our last village called Caicun, another farming village outside the city of Dali in Yunnan, we took a plane over to Cambodia for a week of poolside leisure before jumping into our last core country: the United States.  We stayed in an eco-friendly hostel much like in Costa Rica, owned by a Swiss German couple.  Very personal feel, banana smoothies by the pool, very much different from Indian slums or a South African township.  Almost too much leisure as time seemed to lag in the Cambodian heat and humidity.  It was a tourist trip, and after little experiences such as a cooking class and pottery introduction, we made sure to hit the biggest tourist destination in Siem Reap: Angkor Wat. 
Angkor Wat’s beauty truly goes way back and although it looks monotone, as I looked more I saw many shades of whites, grays, blacks that endured centuries, and the depth and intricacy of the stone carvings.  Unfortunately as a tourist destination everyone can see the sites, so many were somewhat crowded and I felt as though to experience the site fully I needed more solitude.  In such majestic temples I wanted to wander on my own but as part of the group I needed to keep up and we couldn’t roam as much ourselves- not to mention the crowds of other tourists looking for pictures too.  It is almost a shame that we visited at the end of the trip as I felt that my overall energy was waning, anticipation to see parents, summarize our learning from the trip in our final presentations.  I expected to be full of vibe, fully awake in the presence of such amazing temples but I really wasn’t, and much of the responsibility falls on me.  After such a long trip travelling, so many sites, the extraordinary became ordinary and I couldn’t wrap my head fully around the site’s aura. 
Around town I preoccupied myself with tourist oddities- fish eating at my feet, looking at artwork, cooking class.  The entire town has been transformed for tourism- markets, shops, land mine victims selling books for the travelers.  I even saw a man jumping through a ring of fire on the side of the street in the hopes of money from foreigners.  Our floating village tour didn’t feel real, genuine, as we stopped to see crocodiles sitting cramped in a stagnant pool, waiting to be sold.  Shops littered the central docking area as tourists scattered; one woman pointing at different objects to bring back as souvenirs, with seemingly little care as to what she was even buying.  I felt the incredible awkwardness of sitting on a boat knowing that we paid to drive and see a lifestyle that has now become a way to make money.  And with only a day to visit, trying to “understand” a culture becomes near futile, a mere excuse.  I always came into a conflict with myself of expecting to see “traditional” clothing, culture, etc, when in many ways I have no idea if such tourism actually helps the people at all.  I was careful not to point the camera at the little kids’ faces for sake of decency, careful not to disturb someone for a shot of “poverty” to bring back home.  It is such a delicate issue for a tourist, how I want to travel and how I want to affect others while I try and make my own experience.  And as I sat looking into the eyes of children holding snakes around their necks as they floated in metal bowls down the brown river, asking tourists for a dollar in exchange for pictures, I couldn’t help but feel sad.