Sometimes, I just want to disappear

As we get older and move into the next phases of our lives, it is inevitable that we grow apart.

I am at that crossroads.

Recently graduated from University, my friend groups have scattered across the country and around the world. Some of us are still in school, others are embarking on the frightening task of being in the real world. Getting careers. Houses. Adult things.

I feel like I’m in between – in limbo. Stuck. I’m making real money and living a real adult life… But teaching in Japan is just temporary. This isn’t a career.

The longer I’m here, the gap between my relationships grows. I live a temporary life while others are moving on with theirs. At one point, we all converged and shared the bond of shared experiences. We gruelled through mini theses and endless nights studying (procrastinating) together.

But all of that has ended. And now I am here. A million kilometers away in a foreign land. The tightly knotted bonds from that lifetime ago (because it was a lifetime ago) are fraying. I struggle to hold on but I also know… it is inevitable. Because we are all at a crossroads.

Life goes on.

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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.

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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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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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.

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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Living in the Temporary

Canada has been permeating my thoughts quite frequently these days. Something about the combination of post-MPR fever and knowing that my placement is over in a month causes me to dream of that taste bud burning Korean food that I’ll have as soon as I can get near Bloor street again.

Yet I know that when the time comes, I’ll miss Malawi very much. My experience here has been memorable and the connections I’ve made are hopefully lifelong.

EWB is currently hiring LTFs and seeing all those postings is making me realize that if I had the chance, I think I’d like to come back again and work for a longer period of time. Like a year. Which is crazy because 3 months had seemed so long in the beginning.

But then again, do I actually want to come back for that long?

I’m wondering if the safety cushion of knowing I only have a month left, of imagining and looking forward to all the Canadian things I miss, is actually the thing that lets me think I can handle more when I can’t. At least at this moment.

Timing really does make a difference. The closer the expiry date of my time in Malawi draws near, the more the days seem to move like molasses. I doubt I’d be counting the days if I were to leave a year from now.

That’s why starting tomorrow I avow to stop counting the days. It’s all relative anyways and before I know it, I’ll be on the flight back. So I’m going to try harder to be in the present. In the now with the people I may not meet ever again.

Today’s Culture Shock: I can’t quite remember the last time I’ve seen my face. Mirrors are such a rarity around here. Especially anything bigger than a hand mirror. Which is why I’m reluctant to wear my new dress out in public. I don’t actually know if it looks as good on my body as it does when laid flat.

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Glass Half-Full

This past weekend was the Mid-Placement Retreat. It officially marked my halfway point in Malawi. Has it really been that long?

The last few days filled me up with so many ideas, dear memories, and now I feel myself overflowing with inspiration and motivation.

Their sources are each and every individual with whom I had the privilege to interact, chat, and share a good laugh. Especially the Long Term Fellows (LTFs). Not that they were especially more awesome than everyone else.

The JFs inspire me as peers. They motivate me to do my best in my current capacity. The venture leaders inspire me in their level of commitment and capacity to manage people at heights that I couldn’t even dream of reaching at this moment. People who did not fit into any of the categories inspire me to be accepting and more adventurous in my efforts to connect with people.

But the LTFs… To me they are the people who I aspire to become more like in the future. The near future as I wrap up my Bachelor’s in the coming school year. They are incredible – commitment only surpassed by the passion that fuels their work ethics. At the same time, I can still relate to them. Recent graduates. Young professionals. The difference is in their choices after University. The experiences that fashioned them at this same time of my life.

When I first came to Malawi, I was looking for some answers. “Is development work what I really want to pursue? Can it be more to me than just a degree?”

The cosmos haven’t sent me a sign and as far as I know, my tea leaves mean little more than compost. And that’s okay.

Because the path to the supreme awesomeness that is an LTF seems to begin with what I am doing here in Malawi. And continuously fuelling that growth by reaching more and more outside my comfort zone. And maybe one day, hopefully someday, I will emerge into the light of a new day as a beautiful butterfly!  (I just built it up so much that I didn’t know where to go afterwards…)

But seriously. Halfway point. I’m still growing. And I’m glad to be here. ^_^

Today’s Culture Shock: People complain less here. They still complain about politicians and how the government should do more but when it comes to minor inconveniences like standing on the bus for 4 hours, people don’t really make a fuss (or they do and I just don’t understand it).

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Salima. Lake Malawi. MPR. At sunset.