Suj in Canada

Recently back from Malawi after 3 months of working with WASH Catalyst. Currently missing those mandazis…

Trying to Understand Instead of Trying to be Right

“Echo chamber.”

It’s a word that has been reverberating around social media more often in recent years, and especially in light of the (fairly) recent US elections.

“a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition”

 

“official sources often go unquestioned and different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented.”

[Wikipedia “Echo chamber (media)”

When it is used, it feels akin to an accusation, conjuring up the image of a cave full of bats who don’t know what else there is to the world outside. That there is even a world beyond the chamber. It kinda feels like being called ignorant and people don’t like that. I don’t like that. It’s not a good feeling.

The uncomfortable feeling of being accused of living in an echo chamber is not dissimilar to the reasons why we end up surrounded by only our own opinions in the first place. Defensiveness is a reaction that causes us to retreat into ourselves, or in this case, into our little groups of same opinions, where we feel safe and comfortable. And sometimes, that’s okay.

Sometimes, we don’t want to be “on” all the time, sorting through facts, opinions, and biases. We need that safe place where we don’t have to justify our feelings to others or feel like we have to defend our values tirelessly. Educating others is not an obligation and those who demand it are not helping anyone, really. We all need a break sometimes.

However, when we do venture out into the world and encounter people of different opinions, it would do well to remember that,

“I don’t have to be right all the time.” 

Maybe “different opinions” is too weak of a term to adequately describe the tensions that we are increasingly encountering in our daily lives. And I’m not even claiming to be an authority on what is “the objective truth.”

But I do know that when I argue with someone, it is usually like talking to a wall because we’re both trying to convince the other of our own version of “the objective truth.” Yet who is to say that my version is more true or right than the other person’s version?

I think that in times like these, when every conversation feels like thrashing against an immovable wall, it is important to remind ourselves that it would be more productive to try to UNDERSTAND someone else’s point of view, their values, their upbringing, and why they’ve come to believe in something like that – rather than trying to wonder at how you can convince them otherwise.

Why do we talk about echo chambers like it’s a bad thing? Because it implies that we stopped talking to each other because it made us feel uncomfortable to disagree. It calls out our egos on an inability to admit when we might be wrong. It redefines conversations as what they actually are – a competition for who can yell the loudest instead of a dialogue for understanding our fellow human beings.

It’s a problem. I have it too.

So the next time I enter into a conversation to with someone who disagrees with me, I’m going to try to remember these 5 things:

  1. How can I better understand this person’s point of view?
  2. It’s okay to admit that I was wrong.
  3. It’s okay to disagree.
  4. A debate doesn’t have to be an argument.
  5. What would Daryl Davis do?*

* Daryl Davis is a black musician who befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan in America. His story is a much more compelling testament to the challenge of engaging in dialogue with people who disagree with you. 

 

There is a famine in Africa… again.

Two weeks ago I learnt that my host father in Malawi was facing some financial difficulties.

This week my friend told me that his mother in Malawi said that there is a food shortage in the country.

Today I realized that the two were related. But I don’t think I would’ve cared about the latter if it wasn’t for the former. 

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Actually, Malawi isn’t the only country in Africa that is currently facing a food shortage problem. Many other countries including Ethiopia are affected as well. The relatively poor harvests of last year are partially to blame as are the irregular weather patterns that bring floods and disease. Perhaps the government also bears some responsibility for the sufferings of some of its citizens because they manage the apparently abundant food reserves yet some people are feeling the strain of last year’s poor harvests. That is not to say that everybody in Malawi is on the brink of death – some people are managing just fine. However, food insecurity as a country is reportedly one of the worst in the last few years.

However, none of this is reflected in the mainstream media in Canada or the United States. I mean, sure, food shortages aren’t exactly domestic news material and there is so much going on in the world internationally that something like this is probably difficult to slip in among the crowded boxes of an 11.75″ X 21.5″. Yet that is exactly the problem. A man dying of starvation in Malawi is not “new” news. Why is that? Is it because it’s “just another famine in Africa?” Or is it because the famine is not severe enough to be a famine but is merely a food shortage?

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One of my former colleagues from the Chikwawa District Water Office challenged me today when I inquired about the food shortage. He asked me if I was asking because I wanted to donate. My immediate internal reaction was defensive.

‘I’m still a student. I don’t have a steady income and a ton of loans. Besides, doesn’t donating just create systemic dependence?’

I skirted around the uncomfortable question with some unsatisfactory response about not having an income or knowing where to donate to which he said something along the lines of ‘If you ask, you will find a place.’

And that made me uncomfortable because, in some ways, he was right. If I really wanted to donate, I could probably find a way. So instead of saying “I can’t donate,” a more honest response would be “I don’t want to donate,” as uncomfortable as it may be to say that.

I don’t want to donate. 

My reasons are legitimate, for me. I DO have student debt and I DON’T have a secure income at the moment. I DON’T WANT to risk being financially insecure in the immediate future so I’m being selective about my spending habits.

Yet I think I need to acknowledge that I’m not going to contribute financially to this problem out of CHOICE and live with the uncomfortable feeling of that decision, regardless of any moral judgment.

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I’m not really sure if there was a point to this blog post. I just felt like I needed to organize my thoughts because I had a lot of strong feelings about the issue this week.

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For people who wish to donate or help 

in some other capacity, I strongly urge doing research so that you can have the most positive impact. From just the news articles I’ve seen after a preliminary google search, it seems like the World Food Programme (WFP) and Unicef are trying to alleviate the situation. I’m not too sure what kind of methods they are using for this particular issue but it’d probably be a good place to start.

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A view of the beautiful gardens in Chikwawa

After Malawi: 10 things that did or did not happen but that I thought would

Before I left for Malawi, I made a list of 10 things that I thought might happen. Some of them did, some of them didn’t, and whole lot of other things occurred in between. The following is a recounting of my list with some anecdotes of what actually did happen.

  1. I totally offended someone

Offended

The thing is, I’m pretty sure I did. But the other thing is, I’m pretty sure the people I offended either didn’t speak enough English to convey their annoyance to me properly or were too polite to say anything about it.

  1. Loneliness was an abstract concept

bunk beds

I did feel homesick for the first couple of weeks but between the buzz of village life (where you are never, EVER, alone) and the constant whatsapp/facebooking with homies in Canada and across the continent, I never felt alone. In fact, I probably felt more lonely prior to coming to Malawi, when I was a sad little University student holed up in her room with only a tub of ice cream and Gilmore Girls on Netflix…

  1. Gonna save the world.

What happened

Actually… nope. Didn’t save the world. Wish I had been wrong about this one too but come on… 3 months to save Africa? Let’s be realistic (plus I was only in one small district in Malawi). What I did accomplish was a lot of self-growth and many little wins like getting a project rolling at the District Water Development Office where I was based, stopping my host family from using a plastic bag when boiling their yams (which I really hope they won’t start again after I leave), and telling everybody I met that homeless people exist in Canada. Really proud of that last one.

  1. Internet withdrawal was kinda hard (but not really)

no internet

I had a good enough connection to be on whatsapp and facebook messenger all the time. Streaming videos was not possible but streaming music through google play was definitely possible (and good for late night dance parties). For those odd times (like OSAP applications), when I had to use mildly fast internet, I was forced to go to the local print shop where I ended up making a friend (yay!). Didn’t miss Netflix tho. Surprisingly…

  1. People were friendly and nice…

Forced Hug

So nice. So unbelievably friendly. Everybody greets everybody and gets super appalled when I try to explain that people just walk by each other without saying hi in Canada if they don’t know each other personally. Like whut? You don’t greet strangers?

  1. I stood out like a sore thumb.

Sticking Out

One of the most uncomfortable feelings is going out on a busy market day and feeling overwhelmed with the amount of attention people (vendors, children, random passerbys) are giving you because you’re white. To the vendors, it means you automatically have money and are therefore a prime customer. To everybody else, it’s like being an amusement park attraction. On the flipside, I never have to greet my friends first because they always spot me from a mile away since I’m like that bleached spot on your black dress pants.

  1. The biggest danger was not Ebola.

Ebola

It was actually the absence of electricity. The number of scars on my body from walking into things at night are countless and come attached with really embarrassing stories.

  1. Food was bland for the most part…

meh

Or just really salty. Or sweet. And for a country that can’t handle a lot of spice, the chilli sauces available are like a dream. I think I’m bringing back a bottle of Nali for myself.

  1. My toilet was the least of my concerns.

elmo dancing on toilet

Hot water or a refrigerator were fonder memories.

  1. This was the most important and incredible thing that has happened to me since birth.

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Word.

Learning to be alone again…

Today has been the first really normal day since I’ve returned to Canada. And it sucks.

I’ve been unpacking and cleaning all day without seeing a soul except for the brief encounter with one of my roommates. This was my norm before I left. I treasured these moments of solitude when I could think and dance and just do whatever I wanted in the privacy of my own space.

But now.. It’s different.

When I first arrived in Malawi, I fought so hard to find my quiet place, to take some alone time away from my host family. I needed it. To organize my thoughts, to take a breather from the culture shock, to be myself in the presence of only myself…

Near the end of my placement, I hardly ever took any alone time. I’d grown used to the routines and become comfortable in the communal space where you are only ever alone in your mind. I now realize that I dearly miss the community, especially since nothing like it exists in my Canadian cultural norms.

So now what?

Instead of turning to netflix as an emotional handicap and substitute for being alone, I think I might just finish cleaning my room first. Then I’m going to order some takeout and maybe read a book and knit.

It’s lonelier, for sure. But I think I just need to accept that I’ll always love that part about village life in Malawi and try to rediscover the solitary activities that are different, but are also of value.

There is no such thing as the perfect environment. You just gotta work with what you’ve got… Or at least that’s what Malawi has taught me this summer.

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Today’s Reverse Culture Shock: I found myself frowning at the bus stop the other day and forced myself to smile. But it just felt awkward and out of place. In Malawi I had always tried to smile and be approachable but I’m finding that my norm here in Ottawa is to be as unapproachable as possible. The same seems to go for everybody else. But it’s funny because nobody would ever approach anybody else anyhow, regardless of a smile on their face or not.

There and Back Again…

We landed today. Especially in the midst of story sharing with my fellow JFs, Malawi already seems like a distant dream. Did that really happen?

At least I have the photos and WhatsApp messages to remind me that it was indeed very real.

But now that I’m back in Canada, I’m starting to afford an outsider’s look on my placement. What was my impact? Did I actually work with my stakeholders in mind? In what state did I leave my partner, the Chikwawa District Water Development Office?

Canada poses many questions of its own as well. This is the donor side of the world and I’m finding that I am questioning the coherence of the marketed work here with the actual work across the ocean. EWB certainly does not escape scrutiny.

But right now, I’m too jet lagged and haggard from the 24+ hours of travel from Lilongwe to Toronto to dig too deep into these systemic issues.

So until the next time…

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Oh Canada

I will remember you…

We numbered 7 in my send-off party. Since I only had 3 pieces of luggage plus a helmet, I really felt the love from my friends and family.

The 10 minute walk to the main road stretched into a ridiculous 15 as our rambunctious group paused and posed every so often for the unofficial village photographer – my host brother.

Nobody cried. We were all smiles. Yet it will remain in my heart as both the happiest and saddest moment of my short time in Chikwawa.

I already miss them all.

Before we left the house, I remember giving little Bridget the biggest hug – worrying that she’ll remember me and have abandonment issues, worrying that she’ll forget the brief encounter from her 6 year old mind.

In the morning, one of my newest friends gave me an ice cream cone that he had specially bought and kept from the day before. Just for me. I was touched and ecstatic that he knew me well enough to give me the perfect gift. I was also disappointed that it was not a gift I could keep to remember.

All these moments, the feels, the look, the smells, the sounds… I wish I could preserve them in a capsule forever because I’m so scared of the wear and tear that they’ll undergo with the passage of time.

In a global era, keeping in touch is possible. But what about when my friend doesn’t have a phone, an email account, or a home address?

Having to say goodbye for probably the last time to people who have become so special to me seemed to underline this particular development frustration that I have with Malawi. The lack of communication or information infrastructure to connect Malawi to the world.

But today isn’t the day for such musings. Today is a day for goodbyes.

So goodbye. I’ll miss you all.

**I realized after originally posting this that it sounds like none of my friends have phones. Most of them do and they use WhatsApp. My host parents do not and I have a few friends who are in their teens who do not yet have phones. The home address thing is pretty universal for my friends, however.**

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Host mom and bff/neighbour posing with my Osprey gear

On the Subject of Sanitation…

Disclaimer: Even though I am working in the WASH (Water and Sanitation and Hygiene) Sector in the Malawi, I know very little about the technical aspects since the project I am working on is about managing finances. Therefore, the most I can do is to pass on the personal knowledge that I’ve acquired from my firsthand experiences and in conversation with people.

(ODF) Open Defecation Free

This is a term I’ve heard around which means that a community is free of open defecation (aka people pooping in the bushes). Personally, I’ve never actually seen any human excrement anywhere other than in a latrine so I think everywhere I’ve been in Malawi have been ODF. Animal excrement is another story.

CLTS (Community Led Total Sanitation)

One of the places in Chikwawa where I have collected data is a place known for its CLTS. This means that the community has taken great initiative to have total sanitation. ODF is a given and they not only have latrines but may have upgraded latrines (the definition of which is contentious) among other sanitation achievements.

Hand Washing

Washing hands is a big thing here. Before every meal, people always wash their hands. But the thing is, culturally, people wash their hands with only water. This is an aspect that I’m still struggling with in my village life because I have a sensitive stomach. My host family uses soap for other things but only washes their hands with soap before a meal if I suggest it. From travelling around and talking to people I’ve realized that it is a pretty prevalent cultural norm despite knowledge of hand washing hygiene.

Today’s Culture Shock: Part of the process of helping a community become ODF involves the activity of “triggering.” It’s essentially a shaming activity whereby human defecation found in the village and some type of food are displayed for the community. Flies travelling from the poop to the food is supposed to help foster understanding that open defecation leads to the equivalent of “eating your own shit.” Regardless of how you feel about this shaming process, it does work, indisputably.

Safe Drinking Water

I drink tap water in Malawi. I don’t think I’ve yet been to a place where my only water source has been compromised. My untouched supply of aquatabs can attest to that. Some rural villages may have issues of salty borehole water but even salty water can be safe to drink if it is diluted enough. The only complaint I have is that water is available inconsistently because it is frequently turned off but that’s another issue.

Today’s Culture Shock: As the dry season is coming to an end in Malawi, the levels of the Shire River are getting lower. It also means hydro electricity is in a bit of jeopardy and so the rationing has begun. The country is exclusively reliant on hydro which means that power outages have been more frequent than usual. Also meaning our tap runs dry more often as well…

Becoming “white”

In Canada, I identify as being Asian. In order to not get lost in the multicultural rainbow of the Western world, I’ve clung onto that identifier for 18 years. I am first and foremost, Korean – somewhere lost between generations 1.5 and 2.0. More broadly, I am Asian – East Asian. Everywhere I go I am drawn to my fellow cultural mates. We speak similar languages at home, eat food that smells weird to others, and obsess over the same trends across the ocean. Although we have grown up in Canada, much of our experiences have been shaped by the culture and values brought over by our parents from the old country.

Most of all, I do not identify as being “white.” In fact, the label of “white” in immigrant communities displaces the other identity and all the values and cultural nuances that come with it. In my experience, to be “white” is to reject your family’s culture. To embrace being “white” is to be ashamed of the other identity. As long as I am fully ethnically Korean, I can be Korean-Canadian but not Korean and white. The colour of my skin demands a choice.

As an Asian in Canada, I am part of the minority even though by sheer number alone, certain “minority” races may be a majority. And being a minority means suffering the disadvantages of not being the majority. So we are taught to work hard. Work hard for your parents, work hard for yourself because no matter how hard you work, the colour of your skin may work to your disadvantage. You have to get as far ahead as possible so the net result works in your favour.

But in Malawi, I am white.

Mzungu means “white person.” Everywhere I go, it’s what children and adults call me when they don’t know me by name. The connotations are bigger than skin colour because in conversation, generalisations about “white people” seem to include everybody who is not a dark coloured race.

Exhibit A: “You white people have so much knowledge that we, the Africans, do not.”
Exhibit B: “White people rig the system so that we are always dependent on you.”

But even if I dispute that my skin colour is not as “white” as someone of European descent, I guess I am still “white” compared to the average Malawian.

Fast forward 3 months later, I’ve gotten used to being called “white.” The kid who calls out “mzungu!” as I pass by on a bicycle ultimately has no malicious intent. But I hated it the first time. Because I’m not white. To claim that identity had too many negative connotations for me as someone who grew up in an Asian immigrant community in Canada. Furthermore, I didn’t want to be associated with the history of “white people” in Malawi, in Africa. My ancestors didn’t pillage and purge the cultures of their colonies on this continent. My ancestors weren’t even colonisers. We were the colonised.

Except in the end, colonial history really doesn’t matter in this context and I was the one who was ultimately afraid of the negative connotations to my newfound identity as a “white girl.” In fact, most foreigners who come to Malawi probably don’t even have direct ancestors who were colonisers. And even if they did, it’s not as if they should carry the sins of their ancestors. It was unfair of me to guilt a group of people under a generalised label just because of their skin colour (even if I only did it in my mind). Especially when I am clearly unsettled at being the subject of such generalisations (ie. Mzungu).

However, carrying the “white girl” card is certainly a special thing here in Malawi and the associated privilege should not be taken lightly. I can claim the most comfortable seat on the minibus while everybody else is squished 5,6,7 to a seat meant for 3. I can also walk into almost any government office in my district for a chat with people who are far more qualified and busy than me. There has not been a single day that I have not been reminded of this privilege whenever somebody called out “mzungu!” However, it is privilege that I realized I needed to challenge and claim as my own. As much as it belongs to the identity of a “white person,” it also belongs to me since “mzungu” is what I am to everyone else. The two identities are one and the same and I’ve finally accepted that.

In a world of labels and categories, the names that other people call me don’t necessarily have to be the ones with which I identify, personally. In fact, adhering to labels at all – whether given by others or by myself – is limiting. I can be so much more when my potential isn’t confined to a box because the inside of a box, no matter how big, is such a finite space. But what Malawi has taught me is that it is also important to be aware and reflect on labels that are seemingly foisted onto me by others. Yes, I can be more than my labels, but I do not exist in isolation of them.

As EWB would say, it is all a part of a system. ^_^

In conclusion: I spent 3 months in Malawi as a white girl. I’ll be returning to Canada in a couple weeks with a severe identity disorder but I’m sure it’ll all sort itself out in the end.

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I've actually gotten quite tan in Malawi

Today’s Culture Shock: Mostly in the cities, there’s a fair number of Chinese businessmen and Japanese aid workers (JICA). So sometimes I also get called “China!” or end up being greeted in Japanese.

Muyende bwino!

On my way to Lilongwe for the JF huddle this weekend, I stopped in Blantyre for a night.

After being the only mzungu (white person) in Chikwawa for a while, it was an interesting experience to be surrounded by other non-Malawians at the guesthouse.

I stayed at Doogles, which is known for being an expat location and true to its reputation, it was teeming with mostly development workers from the UK, America, Japan…

Talking with some of the other lodgers, it occurred to me that even though EWB’s work in Malawi is facilitation and not as a donor or implementer, I was essentially the same as so many of the peers I met that night. University students spending a few months between studies at a developing country. Working in the international development field. All of our projects sounded so innovative and hopeful. But isn’t it always like that on the surface level? What kinds of ripple effects are we actually leaving behind? Or rather a tidal wave since there are so many of us?

I actually felt a bit out of place being in such a Western setting again and spent most of my time speaking to the Zimbabwean bartender rather than to try to be social with the other azungu (mzungu plural). Perhaps this is what reintegration is going to be like? I don’t know if I’ve ever believed in reverse culture shock before but yesterday made me wonder… Maybe it is so very real.

Anyways. I’m at the bus terminal to board the coach to Lilongwe. These were just some thoughts that were running through my head last night.

Today’s Culture Shock: Rastas (Rastafarians) smoke weed. Some people also smoke weed and chamba. Chewing chamba is also a thing. The guard at my office snorts Tobacco. Some men smoke tobacco. Women usually snort tobacco rather than smoking it apparently. Chewing tobacco is not really a thing. And nobody seems to understand when I ask them about getting “high.”

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Random unrelated monkey picture from Salima

Useless Talents are, Nevertheless, Talents

There have been countless times in Malawi that I’ve been grateful to my lucky stars for the bag of useless talents I’ve managed to acquire during my 22 years. Case in point: I cooked impromptu pasta yesterday. Translation: I boiled some linguine and made sauce using cans of whole tomato and whatever vegetables I could find seasoned with curry powder. It was delicious. My host family now thinks I’m a cooking guru. I owe my thanks to the cooking lifestyle belonging to University student poverty.

The following is a list of my other skills, similarly useless but rather useful in Malawi:

– Awkward turtling like nobody’s business
– Having grown up with a love, and thereby immunity, of questionable street food
– The ability to hold my hands in an awkward, vertical stretch, behind my back
– Knowing the partial choreography of a handful of Kpop songs
– A short stature
– Being able to have a superior sense of balance
– And having a superior ability to stretch in every which way
– Knowing how to pretend I’m Japanese
– I can do the cup song
– Having hands that move like an eel despite a body that fails to imitate
– Spinning like a ballerina
– Remembering the ONE set of Irish footwork Ariana taught me in grade 9
– The ability to spin any long, straight object like a kungfu master
– Likewise, I can spin my pen like a true Asian
– Watching too many Korean dramas
– Asking obnoxious questions
– Knowing how to braid my hair
– Ability to eat corn cleanly off the cob in rows
– Remembering how to do laundry using the stomping method
– Keeper of the magical 9 times table finger secret
– Speaking (a bit) of French

***Disclaimer***
Upon my return to Canada, I will NOT be able to demonstrate any of these useless abilities by request

Today’s Culture Shock: Many people wash their hands all the time… Without soap. It isn’t necessarily a matter of being able to afford soap. Everybody I know bathe every single day and you need soap for that. And people know that you should wash with soap. Restaurants generally have tons of soap by the sink. But especially in the villages, washing hands with only water is a cultural thing. And it’s difficult to break people’s habits.

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The pasta I made with my useless skills