Monday, June 9, 2014

Cultural Exchange: I Am Not A Tourist

So many things have been on my mind lately. It’s like every day is your own personal enlightenment when you come on these trips. Each day I learn so much about this beautiful land, God, and mostly myself. I have come to a lot of realizations that I would not trade for anything, and maybe this post may not be interesting to another person out there but a reminder to myself of some things that really have changed my thinking

.1. Development – mostly of myself and not Malawi.
 I have always loved development and humanitarian work. Anyone who knows me knows that. My first experience in Kenya was vastly different than the one I am having now. I was 16 then and seeing that kind of poverty was a difficult and jarring experience despite one that I will always cherish and love and think about daily. I came back from that country kind of bitter about a lot of things....mostly of Americans and that it all seemed so unfair. I got caught up in what I feel like many do when they travel to these countries – feeling like we need to find a way to help. There is so much injustice and sadness in the world. Questions of why so many lack when we have so much excess? It was hard for my young mind to wrap my head around. Many years of study and lots of different experiences in different countries has helped me to understand much more. There is an incredible amount of poverty and hunger and violence and very awful things, but there is also an amazing amount of goodness. And although many lack in comparison when it comes to temporal welfare in terms of what we (as Americans) may believe a person must have to be happy or comfortable, it is simply not the standard and many times not the necessity.
      I remember driving around Nairobi overwhelmed by what I thought many lacked and thought, “this is so sad....look at how little there is.” Now I understand. There is little in terms of “things”, but I can tell you that these beautiful people often do not lack in happiness and that happiness comes from the outpouring of gratitude for what they do have. They also do not lack the spirit of God and goodness. They do not lack the ability to help one another. They know who they are. They are incredible. The media can paint such an awful picture of Africa - the protruding bellies, the flies, the orphans...they fail to capture the real Africa. The part that my soul delights to be in – the generosity and great attitude that I wish I could bottle up and give to so many in America, the part of our country and culture that maybe we could work on. This is the Africa I wish I could paint. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot that of good to be done, a lot that can be and should be fixed – but often we hyper focus on the wrong instead of the right. And Africa, especially Malawi, is getting a lot right.  
2. Expectations – lose them
      Something I have found myself doing on this trip is letting go of a lot of expectations – of people, places, etc. I have really realized that when our expectations fail to be met, that is when frustration comes. This might be a “duh, Chelsea...” moment, but just something I have really grasped on this trip. For example, having internet. Nothing like not having internet to make you realize how much you use it....that’s a side note. But I came with the expectation that I would absolutely and rarely have internet, so when I got it, it was a pleasant surprise! Lots of really funny things have also happened and I keep finding myself saying, “I don’t know why I expect anything less – of course this ridiculous situation would happen to me.” And we can laugh about it. I don’t want to lower my expectations of everything and every one, but I realize I expect a lot out of people and out of situations. Not everyone I work with or spend time with is going to have the same outlook I do on life, or be able to handle things the way I think they should be handled. But expecting someone to be at a certain point in life will only bring frustration. Changing those expectations slightly has really helped me to have a little more patience and a lot more understanding in lots of situations. I am learning to drop some of the unrealistic expectations I have for life, myself (which is the area that needs the most work), and situations – there is a lot of peace that comes with this.

3. A Tourist – I don’t want to be one.
      I am sure this one could be pretty confusing considering I love to travel so much. However, I am realizing more and more how much I don’t like being a tourist. Don’t get me wrong, I really, really, love seeing beautiful things in beautiful places and hitting all of those places on the map that you absolutely have to see when you are in the country. However, I would a million times rather be living with the people, like the people in the country and be a foreigner learning one on one from them rather than watching from afar. My happiest times in places have not necessarily been with a tour guide having people treat me like a tourist – but washing dishes with the hardworking and incredible women with no verbal conversation because of the language barrier. I love this cultural exchange of ideas and mutual respect – I am not here to teach anyone anything, but learn from their ways of life as I exchange understanding of the way I live. You want to learn about Malawians? You do it by jumping in with both feet and living life in their shoes. It’s going to take some cultural faux pas. It is going to mean getting laughed at by 30 kids and stared at by pretty much everyone you walk by. You’re going to look dumb. But you will learn so much in the process - it’s like drinking from a fire hose. How happy it makes me, and how much love I feel for each person I interact with during the process.

4. Perspective – get a different one.
      One thing I have loved about working in the group I am in is how beautiful and different each person’s perspectives are. Many have a different major and different life experiences to form many awesome perspectives. It has taught me a lot to stop being stuck in the way I see things and stop to hear and see things a different way. How beautiful it is that we are all so different – thank goodness. I think it is funny to see us all put in the exact same situation here and see us all react so differently. I have learned so much and am continually being able to change my perspective and perception of a situation...this really enhances your experiences ten fold. I feel so blessed to be working with incredible students.

         5.     Opinions – you don’t have to agree.
       Another really beautiful thing I am learning is to appreciate lots of different opinions and ideas. I     guess throughout my life I have always had a hard time really forming an opinion and being OK that mine might differ from yours. I guess I had this idea that I couldn’t have a strong opinion about something without offending another. I just never, ever, wanted to be that person that acted like “I want everyone to have an opinion and voice it, as long as it agrees with my own” – so I just would not voice my own unless I was 100% sure it was the same as mine. This would take care of that awkward moment where I wouldn’t see things eye to eye with another person. However, I am at that happy point in my life where I finally see clearly who I am and what I value and I am OK with knowing that it’s alright to not agree with everyone else...imagine that. I can tell now that what I was really having a hard time was not that people had different opinions, but when we tear down another just because they don’t agree. I am happy knowing that I can appreciate different lifestyles, different opinions, different frustrations and still have my own. All people really want is a listening ear and a mutual respect. Isn’t that amazing?

Sometimes it takes me 25 years to figure things out – and that’s OK.

All I know is that my soul is happy and this is where I should be.

As they always say in Malawi, “God is good”.