Friday, December 22, 2006

I had an experience just before leaving Majuro for Christmas at home with my family in California that I'd like to share with you. It inspired me to be a little more kind and generous this Christmas Season:

Before leaving Majuro, I had a goal to visit as many of the families in our branch as we could, especially those who have health difficulties or who we haven't seen at church for a while. My sweet friend Mary agreed to go along with me again. Her help was priceless because not only does she also have a great love for these people, but she's able to communicate it beautifully in Marshallese (something I'm not yet able to do). During the week she is the head of housekeeping at the resort, and spends exhausting days on her feet. Visiting on the weekends and evenings means that she is willing to spend more time on her feet instead of relaxing. Yet as we were walking between houses she told me that "I will go, I will do" is her favorite line from the scriptures, and it certainly characterizes her attitude about life. So I baked massive quantities of cookies (I'm no expert, but I've become a decent cookie baker of necessity. I've found that cookies really help to make people smile and know that we care) and we tramped up and down the island both Saturday and Sunday visiting nice people.

We had several more families on our list to visit as the sun decended on Saturday, but we ran out of time and had to go to a meeting at the church. When we arrived at the church we found that the meeting had been postponed (Marshallese time) so we took the opportunity to visit 3 more families. I was so grateful we did. One of the families we met was the Kamo family, and when we visited them, Hemila (the mother of 2 beautiful girls) greeted us with a smile. They live in a one room little house on the Oceanside of the island. We gave them cookies and my phone number in case they should need to reach me. When she heard that I was leaving on Monday, she took a box and pulled from it a beautiful and ornate necklace and bracelet that she had made. She put them around my neck and wrist (this is a Marshallese tradition, to give the one leaving gifts so that they can share with the people they visit). In the conversation that followed with Mary (which I didn't fully understand until later when Mary explained it to me in English) she explained how grateful she was for my phone number and our visit because last week she had tried unsuccessfully to reach Mary by phone. Two months ago her husband had a stroke and was now unable to provide for thier family. Last week she had run out of rice to eat and was in a desperate condition. She had sent her handicrafts with a friend to beg the shops in town to buy them, but there was no guarantee they would, and with Christmas approaching, life was looking pretty bleak.

When I learned about the situation, I was so impressed with the generosity of this lady. Here she had very little to feed her family for the coming week, yet she was so generous toward me to give this beautiful jewelry that she had spent many hours making (and possibly could have sold). We returned to her house after the meeting and asked if she had any other handicrafts I could buy from her for Christmas gifts. Unfortunately most of them were with her friend still, but she did have a couple pieces there which I bought. She said in Marshallese, "Thankyou so much, my family will now have something to eat for Christmas". Her husband was also awake this time and he was just as kind and generous as she was. The whole experience just transformed me and made me resolve to be a bit more generous this holiday season. Hemila taught me about being generous even in the thick of personal trials, and Mary taught me about being generous with our time and energy and love. I have been reminded that giving money is not the only way to be generous. We can be generous with our time, with our patience, and most importantly with our love. I believe that this is the true spirit of Christmas.

I'm so grateful for these two lovely ladies who reminded me what is really important during this stressful, crazy time of year. I hope that any of you who read this will be uplifted by their examples, too. Merry Christmas everyone!

Monday, December 18, 2006

My name is not Michelle! But it doesn’t bother me that much that everyone here thinks that it is. In a prior post, I commented on the fact that many Marshallese people have last names that sound like first names (like John, Henry, William, Joel, etc…). Well, I guess that I’m not so different. I was talking with the president of my branch at church and after 3 months of knowing me, he finally figured out that Brittany is not my last name. He has been thinking all this time that my name is Michelle Brittany. About half of my students have figured out that my first name is Britt and that Mitchell is my last name, but the other half still call me Michelle. It gets to be a little confusing, but that’s ok. At least now I don’t feel so bad if I accidentally call William John “John William” from time to time.

These last 4 months in the Marshall Islands have been a wonderful opportunity for self-discovery. I have found that I am more comfortable living within a culture that is not my own than living surrounded by my own culture. I think that most people are in their comfort zone when surrounded by their own culture and traditions, but for me it’s the opposite. I experienced this same feeling when I lived in South Africa, yet I never really figured out why I’m more comfortable and I have less anxiety when I’m living outside my culture rather than when I am surrounded by it. It’s not that I dislike my culture. There are many wonderful things that I really like about being an American of British/Irish/Scandanavian descent. I think that what it comes down to is this: when I am surrounded by people who look and speak like me, I feel an overwhelming pressure that comes from being compared to others and found lacking. There is a stressful need to distinguish myself in some way, to choose the road less traveled and forge a new path. But when I live abroad, I don’t feel any of this pressure. By just being myself (genuine and sincerely me) I am different and unique, and for the most part, I feel that people accept me as I am. For example, in South Africa I was the only white girl in town living in the maid’s quarters of a Zulu family (quite possibly the only one in the whole country). Granted, my South African family, the Nxumalos, made that granny flat extremely comfortable for me and were overwhelmingly generous to me. When I went to volunteer at schools in places like oSizweni and Emalahleni I was the only umlungu for miles. But I was THEIR umlungu, and I felt loved and accepted my most people, without the need to change myself. Now I live on a tiny island. There are a few others here from the states, but most of the time I’m surrounded by a diverse array of wonderful people from the Marshall Islands as well as other parts of Micronesia, Polynesia, Melanesia, the Phillipines, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and the list goes on. I love being surrounded by people who are so different from me because I learn countless new things from them. If I lived in an environment where everyone looked, spoke, and acted just like me, not only would it be boring, but I would feel very uncomfortable. This conclusion complicates plans for the future, though. If I am most happy and most comfortable living outside my culture, does that mean that I should stay away from America? I love America. It is a land of immense beauty and opportunity. I also love my family very much. I want to take care of my parents when they get old. Luckily that's still a few years off, but in the meantime I’m really enjoying being here and learning, not only about the people in this corner of the world, but also about myself.

This week is final exam week, and I’m glad for a little break coming up. My students have been coming to class 5-days-per-week this semester, which is a pretty grueling schedule for all of us. They got a bit lazy at the end and slacked off. On our last quiz for one class, 6 students got A+, none got B’s, 5 got C’s, and 10 got below-passing grades. I was exasperated and in class we had a conversation about characteristics of good students (ie: good attendance, diligence in homework, willingness to ask for help when necessary, etc…). Then I told them that if they made corrections to their tests I would give them back ¼ of the points they lost. I was very gratified to see that many of the students who had scored very low on the quiz put in the time and effort to correct their mistakes and learn from them. I was quite surprised, however, to run across the quiz of a student who had scored 100% on her exam. There was one place on her quiz that I had corrected her grammar slightly, but the rest of her work was impeccable! She had carefully re-written the sentence and submitted the corrections to me. I was so impressed. Here is a student who not only did all those things that we discussed in class, but also took the time to correct her quiz even though she didn’t stand to gain any points for it. Well, to all those other educators who say that Marshallese students lack ambition and dedication, I submit this example. It flies in the face of all the negative stereotypes that some people try to perpetuate. I have many students who are hardworking and determined. They need strong support and guidance to find a career which they will enjoy and in which they can make meaningful contributions. Because their experience is so limited, they don’t have any concept of how many choices they have and what a vast world awaits them. I feel that this is my job as an educator: to help them see the possibilities that await them.

Next semester I will be working with Risi, one of our guidance counsellors, to put together a campus organization called “2+2”. It was an idea suggested to us by Mike Hartman, our Regent’s Professor who has established a wonderful student leadership program here at CMI. The purpose of the 2+2 club will be to form networks of support for students who are preparing to transfer overseas to a University to finish their Bachelor’s degree (2 years at CMI + 2 years overseas). There are a lot of challenges facing our students as they transfer to a University. One challenge is living at least 2,000 miles from home, in a place that is completely unlike everything that you are used to. The cars overseas drive twice as fast (the speed limit here is 35 mph most places), and even the layout of small towns overseas are overwhelmingly complex compared to the two roads we have here in Majuro. They will have to survive in a place where no-one speaks their language and most people speak in English very fast with accents that they may not ave been exposed to. They will go from knowing everyone on the island to knowing almost no-one around them. They will go from a culture in which people are outdoors with each other most of the time, to a culture where people spend most of their day indoors. Not only that, but most people surrounding them will not have even heard of their home in the Marshall Islands, even though they have grown up inundated by American culture and influence. It will take a lot of courage for them to make this leap, but I think that many of them are up to the challenge, and we can make a lot of preparations before they leave CMI that will make their adjustment smoother, such as writing entrance applications, applying for travel documents, choosing an appropriate University, forming support networks of several students going to the same University. I’m really looking forward to getting to know students and helping them explore all the ideas they have for their futures.

Yesterday the Relief Society had our first enrichment meeting. We made Ametama (coconut candy…elukuun enno!) and Marshallese handicraft Christmas Ornaments. I’m a complete failure at most crafty things, but I was really excited to watch and learn. I am amazed at the amount of time and effort that Marshallese women put into their beautiful handicrafts. I’m also amazed at how much can be done with Coconut fibers. In addition, my college roommate Lindsay sent a box of wonderful clothing that her baby has grown out of, and many of the women said they have friends and neighbors who could really use some clothes for their children, so they will help me to share these wonderful gifts with others this Christmas season. Thanks Lindsay, these things that you sent are wonderful!! When I showed my friend Mary, she said that the clothes were so beautiful that she would like to have one more baby just so she can dress them in one of these beautiful outfits (her 7 children are now in their late teens and twenties).

I’m collecting ideas for January’s Enrichment activity. We’re going to work on some Welfare and emergency preparedness projects. We’ll all bring clothes that need mending or clothes that we are no longer in need of and mend them together. I’ll bring my machine and some sewing-by-hand supplies and we can mend clothes together and re-distribute un-needed clothing and shoes to those who need them. We will also purify and store extra water and supplies in a closet at the church in case of emergencies, whether they be natural disasters or just family crises, we can really help people in our church and also in the community. In February I’d like to have an Enrichment activity on nutrition and health. Diabetes is absolutely RAMPANT in the Marshall Islands because the quality of food that people eat is so poor. Everyone consumes too much sugar, candy and white rice, and almost no fresh fruits or vegetables or whole grains. Ramen is considered a very desirable meal here. Because of that, the hospital is overflowing with patients who have Diabetes. While there are public health initiatives to treat diabetes, not much is happening to prevent it and change diets. Part of the problem is that most fresh food is imported from overseas and therefore is very expensive. But just switching from white to brown rice and eating oatmeal instead of sugary cereal (which costs less anyway) can make a big difference. Later on I’d like to start composting and gardening projects with the sisters so that we can grow some of our own vegetables and/or fruits. Wow, the possibilities are really great!

This morning during our story-hour at Alele museum, the Christmas parade sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce went by. It was comprised of two large flatbed trucks flanked by police officers. One of the trucks was decorated with Palm fronds and had both Santa Claus and the RMI national band playing Christmas Carols. Others were throwing candy off the truck to the kids below. The whole parade was over in less than 5 minutes, and there were hoards of children chasing behind the trucks with shopping bags, trying to pick up as much candy as possible. It was definitely a one-of-a-kind experience.

I’ll be flying home on Monday for 2 weeks in California and then I’ll be back here in the New Year for a new semester. I’m going to be teaching 2 Algebra classes (I’m really excited about the changes we’ve made to our curriculum, and can’t wait to try out some new things), and also 2 Survey of Math classes, which is a wonderful, useful kind of math. We’ll investigate finances, statistics, probability, geometry, and other cool stuff. I’m really looking forward. I’m off now…I’ll write more in the New Year! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Yesterday when the nice college custodian (who is a Marshallese man about my dad’s age) stopped by my office to empty my wastebasket he was wearing a red T-shirt and saying, “HAPPY CHRISTMAS!” to everyone. I thought, “but it’s only November 29th!” It was very sweet anyway. He’s probably as close as we get to the Marshallese equivalent of Santa Claus.

Speaking of Santa Claus, the largest local grocery store, Payless, has this almost-large-as-life ri-belle (white) Santa Claus right next to the front entrance and checkout stands that sings Christmas songs while he swivels his hips. It is absolutely ridiculous looking and the “Ho ho ho, let’s sing some Christmas songs together” would make me crazy if I were working there. But the ladies checking my groceries take it all in stride and actually sing along with him occasionally. It’s a great opportunity to practice their English, I’m sure. The funniest thing is how ABSOLUTELY mesmerized the Marshallese children are with this crazy Santa. There’s almost always a group of 5-10 children dancing with him in the front of the store while their parents are happily shopping without them. It’s just such a funny, cute, ridiculous sight. One of those experiences that makes you smile, shake your head and say, “Only in the Marshall Islands!”

We have had some giant storms this week where the rain has just come down in torrents. The wind is very, very blustery, too. The students in my Math 70 class told me, “Congratulations, you’ve now experienced Marshallese Snow!” Very cute. Another student in the class asked me how my skin got to be so white (darn, just when I was thinking that my tan is coming along alright). I told him that I stayed in a place that doesn’t get very much sun (Michigan), but once I stay in the Marshall Islands for a few years I’ll look like them. He believed me until the others started laughing. Luckily also just before the largest of the storms arrived my landlord got my window (almost) fixed. At least the plexi-glass was in the frame, but it still banged loudly against the frame when the wind blew, waking me up at 2am every morning. But I was just so happy not to be wet. Then on Friday my lovely friends Barry (our Human Resources Director) and his wife Beth (an English instructor at CMI) came and brought wooden wedges that we tucked in, and last night I had my first quiet night sleep in a long, long time. It was HEAVENLY!

Well, I’m glad that it has been raining, because the temperature has cooled just a little bit. It’s still sunny enough to get a tan if it’s clear on the weekend and I go snorkeling (I did in Enemanit last weekend), but not so blistering hot. Speaking of Enamanit, it was gorgeous!!! The college staff prepared a wonderful picnic/bbq for us and we went swimming and snorkeling. The fish out there at Enamanit were amazing!! It’s a small island in Majuro Atoll a bit farther-flung from civilization, so the marine life is much richer there. There was one coral outcropping that was tall enough to almost reach the surface of the water, allowing me to swim with all the fish that like to play there without having to dive down very deep. For the most part, they don’t seem to run away very much. The variety of colors and sizes of fish is absolutely amazing!

Johnny, the college accountant also brought his outrigger (traditional Marshallese) canoe. They can pick up an incredible amount of speed in that boat with just a sail. It was such an enjoyable afternoon.

Later that night I went to Long Island to watch the Young Women/Young Men talent show. The young men from our branch did this really great choreographed dance to “Cotton-Eyed Joe” (one song I NEVER thought I would hear in Micronesia). It was like a country line-dance/riverdance/aerial tricks combination and it was pretty impressive. Our young women did a Samoan dance that one of our missionaries taught them. I didn’t realize it, but I guess here it’s acceptable for bystanders to jump onto the dancefloor while other groups are dancing. It got pretty crazy. A couple of our young men joined the young women from another branch doing some hula dancing which got pretty out of control and pretty funny. Another regular entry in Marshallese talent shows is skits in which boys cross-dress as girls. I must admit it was pretty funny, yet a little weird to see in a church talent show.

This morning while I was running I saw the Holy Ghoat again. I haven’t seen him for several weeks, and was wondering what had happened to him. For those of you who don’t know, the Holy Ghoat is the only goat we have on the island and he’s white and hangs out in the graveyard. Last morning when I saw him he had a cute little white dog following him around. What was funny was that they matched each other quite well. I think that dog thought that the goat was his mother. I wish I had had my camera with me because it was a pretty funny sight to see this little white dog follow the big white goat around.

Last Sunday we had a women’s devotional, and so the branch president rented an industrial sized pickup truck for the weekend and handed me the keys, so I was taxi-driver for the evening. Thirteen ladies jumped in the back and two up in front with me, and away we went. I was so scared to drive it because it was big and bulky. It's also illegal to ride in the back of a truck in America, so I had this sense that I was doing something wrong, even though the police here could care less. But it was great fun. The sisters in my branch are so cheeky and fun. The sisters from the other branches were looking at us like we were crazy, but we have such fun together. They are a lively bunch, and I'm glad to be with them. We were making jokes about the directions to different sister's houses (there are no street signs or numbers here). The directions to Martha's house: "Turn right at the first Breadfruit Tree, Left at the second", and to Mary's house: "Take a left at the little brown dog, right at the black dog, and then when you see the dog with only 3 legs, 'this is the place!'". This weekend we had a district conference, but luckily I was just a rider, not a driver. It was raining like crazy on our way home and our driver was super-fast (my wut almost flew off my head in the process). Here's a few photos of the crowd in the pickup truck:

Well, that’s about all I can think of for now. I’ll try to write again once more before heading home to California for the Christmas holiday. I can’t wait to see all of my family in one place. And best of all, we have a new member of the family, Grant, who is my adorable baby nephew who I’m looking forward to meeting and playing with. I’ll fill you in on all that later. Gotta run.