Sep 25, 2015

China/Rwanda Early Comparison.

“That was the thing about the world: it wasn't that things were harder than you thought they were going to be, it was that they were hard in ways that you didn't expect.” 
Lev Grossman, The Magician King

Today is day 7 in my new little town of Kibungo. 

So much has happened, it's like riding a rollercoaster each day. I know that things will settle (at least hope they will) and I will find my routine, my people, my ways of living as a pseudo camper in my house, and my food routine. 

Coming from seven years in the capitol of the richest province in China to the most rural area of Rwanda has been so fascinating. I think this is what I was going for. Actually, I'm never really sure what I am going for, ha. I'm just going. 

After witnessing the obsessive capitalism and fast growth at the cost of a middle class in China, witnessing a similar "everyone in the city has money and education and everyone else doesn't" situation here in Rwanda is disheartening as well as fascinating. I've been able to make ties to situations I've encountered and things people have said here that would make total sense in the Chinese context as well. Families in Kibungo are separated so that the children can go to better schools in the city. Saving face is also incredibly important in Rwanda, so much so that I have to remind myself to "be Chinese" when I go into my office and have to confront my supervisor over a delayed meeting or house issue. 

One of my first jobs in the language center was to write a handbook for my units of speaking and listening. The idea seemed to be that the reading and writing teacher would write his handbook and we would compare our goals and strategies. I was given a 55 page handbook from a previous Rwandan speaking and listening teacher and was told to edit it to fit it to me. Well, the entire thing was copy/pasted and made actually no sense in our Kibungo context. It told students to talk to foreigners and practice english while ordering coffee. The only problem - there are no foreigners here and there are no coffee shops. It also told students to join the ILAC and take salsa classes and watch American movies. But, there is no movie theater, no salsa classes, and what does the "ILAC" stand for? I had the teacher look it up --- The International Language Association of Canada. We are not in Canada. Good copy/pasting, guys. Plagiarism: the devil of the Western academic system and the darling of the developing world. 

I wrote to my colleagues about my feelings over these handbooks and completely re-write my own while wearing a headlamp (no electricity) and sitting on my couch. (sidenote- the problem with headlamps in the house is that all the bugs fly at your face!) I am concerned about their reaction to my reaction. Maybe I should have just said the handbooks looked great. But I want to encourage real academics and help the betterment of the language center and our students. How to do this? Blend in and tell them "good job" or encourage growth in the form of originality and logical thinking? I'm not sure yet. It feels like China here. A logic-free zone. I encountered this feeling of "do I push for change or do I settle for what is already established" zillions of times while in China. And it looks like that will be the way of things here, as well. 

Another disappointment is that I was really, really hoping to join an African church. I had visions of swaying with the ladies and clapping my hands and really living. I watched Youtube videos of the churches in Kibungo and was so excited. But, I have since learned that I teach 15 hours a week - only on the weekends. 4h on Friday nights, 8h on Saturday (WTF), and 4h Sunday morning. No African church swaying for Jessica. I will continue my church-less ways like I had back in the Communist country. 

I am noticing that my expectations are not matching my reality. In good ways and bad. My supervisor is fabulous with responding to emails, something that is non-existent in China's business culture. Because of this, I expected some sort of camaraderie or better business practices. This is not what I am finding as reality. Maybe I will be as disconnected as my foreigner life in China. 

It is interesting to realize that things I lamented as "China issues" might in fact be "developing world issues" and perhaps there is not as much difference between capitalistic, advancing China and rural, modern-amenity-less SubSaharan Africa. This is something I want to explore more through observation. This is all comparison on a very deep level. On a surface level, however, the two countries could not be more different.

In China I had a "don't look in the kitchen" rule while eating out. It was adapted from the early rule of, "the dirtier the kitchen the more delicious the food." In Rwanda - totally different story. Just this afternoon I was trying to find a new place to eat lunch and was following a sign that said "restaurant." I couldn't find which door was the actual restaurant, and while searching I passed the kitchen. It was immaculate. As is everything here in Rwanda. This place is CLEAN. After some searching, a lady with one arm (genocide is everywhere) led me to the restaurant and I had another of the usual buffet meal of beans, potatoes, etc. Also, customer service here is surprisingly advanced. While in China, customers are ignored or worse. Here, I am greeted, asked how I am doing, brought the check without asking, and people shake my hand on the street in droves by children and adults alike. It is polite here. So refreshing.

In China, they waste like maniacs (no offense!). Plates of food are leftover at big meals to show opulence and nobody takes the leftovers home (and risk looking like a pauper). My first time by myself at a buffet meal here in Rwanda, I noticed people piling Mt. Kigali onto their plates. It's a one-plate rule, no seconds allowed, so people were piling high the potatoes and beans. "Ugh food waste," I thought to myself, my brain still in China. But nope - they ate it all. No waste. I later learned this is because most people eat once a day. And you gotta get your money's worth at an expense (2$) buffet. Fascinating. I assume that there is less waste here because there simply can't be any. There isn't enough to go around in the first place. I currently have a stale 1/4 loaf of bread on my table and am about to go away for the weekend. I am aching over what to do with this bread because I don't want to eat it but don't want to be seen throwing it away (all trash ends up outside my house to be burned - so I will be found out). It's just so different here in terms of waste. 

Another welcome difference is the idea of "chaos." I have been in several different situations where people with me described it as chaotic and I was like, "what's chaotic?" After China....this place is practically gentile. The streets are orderly, people don't run into each other on the streets, and normal voices are used in the market. Definitely not chaos when compared to Asia. 

Despite these early challenges mentioned above (which of course were expected), I am finding a lot of peace here. Even though Rwanda is the most densely populated African country, it seems there is no one in my town. It's quiet, there are few cars, and I never hear honking or yelling or clanging or fighting like in China. I go to bed at 8:30 because that's usually when my daily gigs of internet run out and the electricity shuts off and there's nothing else to do. This difference was expected and is welcomed. I find myself living in a sense of relief despite the challenges of lack of running water or school communication or not knowing when my electricity will be on. 

I guess in coming to Africa I was looking for something different and I am finding that it is not that different at all on a deep level. I don't have the background of country-hopping that many other Fellows or Fulbrights have. Instead, I stayed in one place and made it my home. This perhaps is a hurdle to overcome as I mentally compare the two experiences, rather than having the experience of starting over many times in a new place. 

This one thing is true, however: I would take teaching in water-less rural Africa over doing a PhD in fancy, modern city China any day. 

But perhaps they are not as different of experiences as I thought. When you're an "other," you're an "other" no matter where you are. 

(Just some random thoughts so that I can look back on this page and reflect on my early observations after my feet are on the ground a little more.)

Wall hanging in my house in Kibungo straight from China walmart - like literally bought there. 

walk slow. xoxo. 

Sep 24, 2015

Things that make all the difference.

Yesterday was a gigantic day in the advancement of my quality of life. 

I made a friend. 

Rita was introduced to me by the Public Affairs Officer at the Embassy because she has participated in some Embassy initiatives to advance women's initiatives in the STEM field. I contacted her and she invited me to lunch. It turns out she lives very close to me and is the Vice Chair of the university directly behind mine. 

Thanks goodness. A friendly, female, young, fluent in English human. Jackpot! 

We sat in her (incredibly nice, with running water) home and had lunch. Fries, rice, peas and carrots, and beef. We drank cold apple juice from wine glasses.

Rita works in Kibungo and commutes the 2 hours to Kigali where her family lives. This seems to be really common with the working folk I have met. No one wants their children to go to school in the countryside. So they live with one parent in the city while the other parent commutes several days a week. It was so lovely, and I felt so happy to have a potential true friend. Having one person to chat with, ask questions, and share a meal with is a ginormous plus.

Later in the day I was using the wifi in the library and a student came in with a baby strapped to her back! She saw my happiness and handed me the baby. Her name is Philimone and she is 4 months old. I told the student to call me whenever she goes to the library and I can hold the baby for her while she works!

Baby Philimone and her mom getting their study on...

Outside the library...

After the work day, I ventured out to the Catholic church for dinner. I missed the market day because I was in the office all day. I arrived before the food was ready (its a buffet...common here) and chatted with some folks outside. It turns out one of the staff at the restaurant is a student at my university but she is much higher level than my students will be. I ate boiled bananas in tomato sauce for the first time (surprisingly delicious) and stuffed myself full of more starch. Starch is the name of the game around here.

In other news, Mushu's fan club is growing. He has to go outside to greet the university workers every morning. And the cleaners bring their kids into my house to play with him. He's a great sport. And is probably handling this life change better than I am.

The neighbor kids also come to see Mushu through my gates.

A new friend, a good meal, a happy cat, and a baby snuggle. These things make all the difference in my life satisfaction. I'm looking at the small things, and the small things are bringing me great joy.

walk slow. xoxo. 

Sep 23, 2015

the internal water war.

Chances are, you don't know about the global water crisis. 

I didn't either...until this week. 

Water. It's such an important thing. Plants, animals, and humans all need it to survive. However, 1 in 9 people do not have access to safe, clean drinking water. 37% of these people live in sub-saharan Africa (my neighbors). 1 out of every 5 deaths of children under 5 is because of a water-related disease. In developing countries, 80% of illnesses are linked to poor water and sanitation conditions. Less than one in three people in sub-saharan Africa have access to a proper toilet. 

These are my neighbors and this is my semi-reality. 

I am waging an internal war over water. I am not a peace corps volunteer and my contract has minimum standards that include running water. Yesterday, a crew of friendly folk took over my house for 5 hours giving it a facelift - I got a toilet (!!!), a mirror, a fan, an outside light, and a shower head that shines with it's newness. The only thing is, the shower head is all for show. The bucket remains and no water comes out when the nob is turned. 

I was told this morning by my supervisor that because it is dry season I will have no water and must use the jerrycans (big plastic tubs). Perhaps there is hope for water in the rainy season, he said. This is vastly different than what was said to the embassy when they approved my housing. And I am not sure if I should just accept my bucket-bath fate or be like, "hey - I have a contract and it doesn't say this...." 

Last night I really, really needed to wash my hair and have a good body scrub so I boiled 3 kettles of water and mixed it into a bucket of jerrycans water. While leaning and scrubbing and dumping water, I thought about that this is the reality of everyone around me. And here I am showing up with my cat and my exorbitant amount of luggage and my chocolate from the Amsterdam airport, asking for things that people around here just don't have. Maybe the fellowship was errant to think that the contract could be fulfilled in this town. Maybe I need to take a reality pill and suck it up. 

Do I push for water? I already live with spotty electricity. But why am I special? Why should I live with anything nicer or better than my co-workers and classmates? That is intensely unfair and shows a huge character flaw of my own. I don't deserve any better, I am just used to better because I come from a developed society and I have never dealt with water shortage as a daily reality. 

It's a war in my head. I want to take a shower so, so badly. I want to wash my hands in a sink. 

But maybe I need to lay it down. I already live eons above the living standard in my area. Damn that contract and it's false hope. And shame on me for needing to overcome such deep rooted feelings of privilege. 

Water. It's a war. And for 663 million people, it won't ever be won. 
(source for all facts:

To donate to a clean water project, visit: My university, INATEK in Kibungo, Rwanda,, would also benefit from direct donations for a water storage facility. 

walk slow. xoxo. 

Sep 21, 2015

"What do you want with Rwanda?"

When I received the match for the posting in Kibungo there was an ominous paragraph at the bottom of the paperwork. "High risk for malaria," "power and water shortage," "most underserved province in Rwanda," were among the notations. In true Jessica form, my response was, "Whatever," and I agreed to go forward with the match.

Four days later I received the official offer and my first response was, "Oh no." I'm a brutally tough cookie, I've travelled the world, and yet living and working in a place is much different than traveling and I am not getting any younger or more easygoing. 

In training last week in the modern, super nice city of Kigali, the Embassy office kept making references to me being, "sent way out," or "learning to make do." I reacted with my usual, "It's fine, I'm excited." 

And then I was driven 3 hours away and dropped off in my new house. And I cried. 

There are minimum standards for living as described in our contract and my house does not meet those requirements. I am wrestling with my response because I knew I was going to the boonies. But I would like the contract to be fulfilled. 

It seems that everything comes to a halt on the weekend, so I was left alone all weekend to explore, unpack, and practice chatting with the townspeople. My house is in a high-traffic area (comparatively speaking), and people just walk up to my gate and look in my windows and watch me. This has freaked me out a bit, but I am assured by my supervisor that they are just curious. This morning, a team descended on my house and I think *fingers crossed* that things will be better soon. Some of my requests include: a sink, running water, a toilet seat, a fan, curtains that cover the whole windows, an inside door that locks, and the rats in my ceiling to be taken care of. When I asked about the rats, they replied that Mushu could take care of it. I was like, "no," and they laughed at me saying that, "he is a special cat." 

Besides the house, my impression of Kibungo is a great one. My university is organized, clean, small and quaint. Everywhere is a hill in Rwanda and houses dot the hilly landscape around the campus. It's one of the most picturesque places I have ever been. There is only one road approximately four miles long. If I go out my campus and turn right and walk 15 minutes, I reach the "city center." If I turn left and go for about 20 minutes downhill, I reach the junction where the road from Kigali enters. If cars turn left they head to Uganda, right they head to Tanzania. I am about 20 miles from the Tanzania border. There are very few cars, or any forms of transportation for that matter, but every once in a while a truck can be heard traveling by heading for the Tanzania border. 

Saturday one of the university cleaners took my to the market. It was so amazing and intense. I need to learn my numbers quickly. She doesn't speak english so she would type prices into her phone. Someone tried to charge me 10$ for a Chinese made cutting board, so I need to get my negotiating language skills up to par real fast. 

Yesterday I walked both directions outside my house hoping to become more familiar and comfortable with the city. As I walked through town, I noticed little packs of children, mostly girls, following me. I slowed down and spoke to them in my crappy kinyarwanda and soon I had a little posse. A big old redhead marching through town with little friends. haha. I wanted to invite them over to see Mushu but we were walking the opposite direction. One of the little girls in the first posse spoke great English. She was pointing things out in town to me, 'bank,' 'post office,' 'police,' and at one point said, "We are in charge of you." hahaha. I was like, "Ok, someone has to be in charge here." haha. 

While we were walking she also asked me, "What do you want with Rwanda?" It took me back for a second because I found that to be a very existential question and wasn't sure how to answer. What DO I want with Rwanda? "I want to be a teacher in Rwanda," I said to her. That was the simple answer. But since then I have been mulling over the question. What do I want with Rwanda? I guess I want to know Rwanda. I want Rwanda to show itself to me. I want to learn about reconciliation, resilience, and faith from Rwanda. I also want to leave knowing I did my best as a Fellow, whatever that looks like. 

I'm not too sure yet what exactly my time here will look like. I'm trying to piece together the puzzle in front of me. How do I greet people and where do I get things to sustain myself? How do I teach Rwandan students and what are their needs exactly? How can I get involved in other projects and how do I make friends? Time will tell. 

Yesterday as I went through town I tried to get the names of each shop owner (I'm telling you, this place is tiny). Janet owns the shop with milk and Grace owns the shop with cereal and birthday hats (random). Jean De Something has the used goods shop where I bought a mirror and Judithe has the shop with tomatoes and eggs and pineapples. Most people speak some english and I've run into a few people with great english. English seems to be more widespread than in China, especially for a rural area. But to have any depth of conversation, I need to be getting my kinyarwanda up to speed. I bought an avocado and some tomatoes yesterday in kinyarwanda and did a little happy dance. Progress is fun. And being able to talk to people is even more fun. 

I like my little town. My little town in "underserved" East Rwanda, worthy of an entire paragraph of warning, yet a place I can tell I am going to be very glad I chose to come to. 

Have some pics:  

walk slow. xoxo. 

Sep 20, 2015

The time I moved with my Chinese cat to the boonies of Rwanda.

I'm not sure how to make a well-rounded, well-written blog. What story do I hone in on?

Do I tell you about finishing up orientation in Kigali and having a VIP lunch with the US Ambassador to Rwanda? How she was inspiring and talkative and interesting and chatting with her over baked chicken was fun and surreal?

Do I tell you about the fabulous other Fulbright ETA's and English Language Fellows who are in Rwanda and make me happy to not be "alone" here, even though I am the only one in the Eastern Province. And how we had Indian food and Ethiopian food in Kigali and had my first taste of Turbo King beer on a rooftop eating pizza.

Do I tell you how tickled I was that Mushu got to ride in a US Embassy vehicle (how many cats get to do that??) and we drove 2 hours through the countryside to my new home Kibungo.

Do I tell you that I arrived to a home with no toilet seat, running water, fans, internet, fridge - nothing and how I cried for an hour on my couch because

Or how about how I pulled it together and realized that things will get fixed and my house is beautiful and I have a new appreciation for how every drop of water counts. That I pour water from jerrycans into buckets to wash my hands/face/teeth and that I flush my toilet with the same water.

Do I tell you how I was having coffee on my porch this morning as a stream of curious folks walked up to the barbed wire fence around my house to talk to me in either broken english or kinyarwanda. that my house feels more like a community freak show than a haven. My house is in a high foot traffic area, and word has gotten out about the white girl with a white cat.

Should I tell you how I had a constant stream of people in my house today to fix things, clean things, squeal at mushu, and mime with me over basic communication. How my cleaning ladies took me to the market and we saw someone getting handcuffed and they had to type prices into their phones because they don't speak english and my kinyarwanda is only 6 days old. My first market purchase consisted of milk, 6 eggs, 2 apples, a bunch of small bananas, and 2 avocados.

Do I tell you how a "crazy person" was sitting outside said barbed wire fence staring into my house and the school campus guards had to shoo him away. How I was told repeatedly to keep all windows locked and I am having trouble feeling 100% comfortable in my own home.

Should I tell you how the streets are friendly and people say hello in a nice way, rather than an annoying way. How I feel a curiousness but a welcoming presence from the locals and appreciate a population that says hello to strangers on the streets, much like we do in America. It's so refreshing. I am used to keeping my head down or not saying hi (thanks, china) and I keep having to remind myself to look people in the face and greet them.

Do I tell you how I keep speaking Chinese to everyone because of second language interference? How I am a redhead wandering around Rwanda speaking Chinese to people and they don't even know it?

Do I tell you how Mushu is the greatest goodwill ambassador of all time? How he is chill and calm and has been friendly to all the rough face patting and poking from Rwandans who have no idea why this red-haired chick just showed up with a cat and keeps it in her house! I was told, "we don't keep cats inside!" by a teacher who speaks english. But the vibe, though inquisitive, is very happy! They giggle and laugh and think it's hilarious. One cleaning lady was calling his name and he came right to her! I was holding him on the porch while having a little chat with randoms and I just leaned to Mushu and kissed his head as is my habit. The crowd went wild! That was NOT something they had ever expected or seen. I didn't even realize I had done it until they went nuts. Hilarious.

I can't decide which story to elaborate on. The challenges? The excitement? The inspirational moments? How about I just let you know I'm here. I made it to Kibungo. I moved to the countryside of Rwanda with my cat.

No photos tonight because of internet speed...I'll try to upload some soon. This place is really gorgeous. And hopefully sooner rather than later it will feel like home.

walk slow. xoxo. 

Sep 17, 2015

Day 3 going on 333.

We've been here not very long and yet with 12 hour days, it feels like we've been here forever. Jet lag is still an issue and our training is long hours each day, including immigration paperwork, kinyarwanda class, cultural training, and lectures on the Rwandan classroom culture. 

Tomorrow is another early morning (7am hotel pick up in an embassy vehicle), but I wanted to check in to let the blog know that everything is going super well, Mushu has adapted to hotel life, and I am looking forward to finally leaving the hypothetical world and entering reality on Friday when an embassy vehicle drives Mushu and I two hours out to our rural site and dumps us off. The more days go by, the more excited and anxious I am to get to my site, meet my coworkers, and get going on my projects. 

There are a few kinks to work out - such as my schedule being 50 hours a week not including class prep time (I'm not superhuman, though they may think so), and I still haven't found any cat litter or cat food in the city and that needs to be dealt with before heading out to the boonies. 

Today was exciting because the Fulbrights and the Fellows got our yellow embassy badges! Which means we are able to access the embassy and all it's perks. I will be living far out, but this still feels like a special accomplishment. We also were given a security briefing by the Regional Security Officer which was very interesting to hear how the American government views security issues and Rwanda in general. (The basic gist - hold onto your valuables and don't be an idiot). 

It feels special to roam the halls of the embassy with my fellow fellows and I feel more prepared for this experience than anything else in my past. Maybe even a little too prepared. A little ambiguity and adventure never hurt anyone. I look forward to being unleashed and sent out to my permanent post so the real fun can begin and I can unpack my bags, wander the streets, and start making a network. 

Kigali morning

the US Embassy

Rwanda English Language Fellows and our Tanzania-based boss (left) 

kinyarwanda class 

african food in africa - finally!!!

Things are going well. I will update you once I am in my town and not in a state of limbo here in the capitol!

walk slow. xoxo. 

Sep 15, 2015

We're here, we're doing it.

After wrestling with my fan for 20 minutes because it obviously has electricity but won't turn on, I decided to give up, take off my pants, and sit here and write this blog before jet lag gets the best of me.

Mushu is sitting on a luggage in the corner of our hotel room, looking at me with disdain because I took away his food for the night (we woke up with ants all over the place because I left his food out last night). 

Jet lag, a broken fan, ants...who cares...we are in Africa! 

I am thrilled. 

Last night at 7pm local time, Mushu and I finally ended our long journey across the world and landed in Kigali, Rwanda! 32 hours of travel was hard on baby cat, but we made it and both of us are in great spirits today. 

We were greeted at the airport by two officers from the U.S. Embassy in Kigali. I was some-what embarrassed by the exorbitant amount of luggage I brought (more than I brought home after 7 years abroad...) but after talking with several people about my town I will be living in, I am glad to deal with the luggages now and have the things later. 

We piled into a van and were driven to a hotel downtown where 3 of us are staying (me and two Fulbright ETA's). Mushu quickly adapted to our spacious room, and I found all of the workers to be gracious and curious about Mushu. If anyone opposed to the cat being in the hotel, no one said it to me in English! haha. I got a decent amount of rest amidst the exhaustion and jet lag. I was just so proud/thrilled/excited that we did it. I moved with my cat to Rwanda! 

This morning I woke up and wandered down the hall to partake of the complimentary breakfast. On the way to the restaurant one of the hotel managers approached me and called me by my last name (I had never seen this person) "Are you Grinner?" He asked. "Ya, Good morning," I said. "How is your cat? Is he ok?" I was happy to hear that people had been discussing Mushu. Because I have found that the less surprise I bring, the better. I responded that Mushu needed some water because our one bottle from the plane was gone. The manager quickly went to the kitchen and gave me a bottle of water. Thoughtful. 

I sat to a breakfast of fruits, toast, boiled egg, and coffee. 

The same manager came to chat while I was enjoying the luscious fruit. His three questions were in this order: 1. What state do you come from? 2. Are you married? 3. Why not? 

I was better at answering this question in Chinese using Chinese humor (我爸爸说了我太年轻!哈哈! My dad says I'm too young haha!) But in the Rwandan context I'm really not sure what to say yet. So I said, "I haven't found someone yet to marry." That seemed to suffice. My heart ached a teeny tiny bit for the love I just walked away from, but it's a question I'll have to get used to all over again in another context, I guess. At least no one is calling me fat to my face, like in China. 

The restaurant was only patronized by businessmen and me, so it was a fun game of catching random people's watchful eyes as I ate. One interesting thing I noticed was that the television in the restaurant was tuned loudly to an english morning news show. One man came in, looked around the room and then asked one of the workers something in kinyarwanda. She took the remote and changed it to a french speaking news program. So, though the government has ruled that  Rwanda is now Anglophone, the public must be still grappling with the change in their own personal lives, or avoiding it altogether. (Which means I should have continued high school french...dang). 

I spent the day with two others. We went to a supermarket and got our phone sim cards and activated them. We had lunch in a beautiful coffee shop and had dinner at a place called Africa Bite. If you ever find yourself in kigali - go there! It was buffet style Rwandan cuisine and I was so happy to be eating African food in Africa. After years of enjoying it in various forms in China, I was finally in the motherland chowing down on some good old African food - potatoes, boiled bananas, peas, goat, was the highlight of the day for sure. We ate outside under the stars that seem to hang over the hills. Good conversation with intellectual people, a belly full of warm food...I couldn't help but smile to myself on the taxi ride back to the hotel. 

Earlier in the day, during the afternoon while trying to decide what to do next - an awesome feat in a city you've never been to where you don't speak the language and have no idea where you are - I said to my mates, "We're here we're doing it." You see, my sister and I adopted this phrase during a backpacking trip in Prague and Vienna some years ago. It always stuck with me in interesting times and my new friends quickly picked it up. 

"Is this goat?"
"Who cares - we're here we're doing it." 

"Should we take a picture with the fake elephant outside the supermarket?" 
"We're here, we're doing it." 

"Is this a good place to kick a soccer ball with locals while waiting for a taxi?" 
"We're here, we're doing it." 

And that was just day one. 

Now I'm off to slumber without a fan and with a cat who has to wait until morning to eat. 
But we don't care. We're here, we're doing it. 

We moved to Rwanda. (yes!) 

walk slow. xoxo. 

Sep 13, 2015

JFK Airport Wifi Sucks. And other travel thoughts.

Well, the day has come! That ridiculous list of things (see prior post) and I have started the 32 hour journey to Kigali. The flights are not actually that bad - 3 hours to JFK, 7.5 hours to Amsterdam, 8.5 hours to Kigali. It's the layovers that are a doozy. And lovely, generous JFK airport only gives 30 minutes of free wifi....during my 6 hour layover. So go the joys of travel.

Everything went well getting ready. My usual night-before panic set in and I stayed up all night mulling over whether or not to bring my third, overweight luggage. It just feels like now I am one of "those people" who traverse the world with way too much crap. In the end, I brought everything with me and the lady at Delta only charged me 75$ for the overweight extra luggage. I thought it would be 300$! So that was a fabulous start to this little jaunt around the world with my cat.

Speaking of cat...Mushu is currently passed out with his eyes open while I sit here at Shake Shack in Terminal 4. He has a puppy pad and a Delta blanket and seems snug as a bug. For now, at least. He awoke about 2 hours into our flight to JFK and started meowing at me, which made me nervous for the many hours to come. But thankfully his kitty valium kicked in and he is in peaceful slumber for a few more hours, hopefully. It will wear off in Amsterdam at which point I'll decide whether to give him some more or not. I probably won't because at that point in the game he should be able to handle the stress on his own. After this trip, Mushu will have "set paw" on 4 continents! Asia, North America, Europe, and Africa! What a little trooper.

I had such a great 7 weeks home in America. Decompression was necessary after the hell of a semester (entire experience?) last year. I feel that this transition was smooth, logical, organized, and life affirming. Which is so reassuring after years of chaos.

I am just utterly amused that I am flying to Rwanda today with my cat. Who would have thought? Well, I kinda did. ;)

Thanks to my rockstar parents for the hospitality and generosity this summer. I really don't deserve how amazingly good to me (and my sister) that they are. Gems, those two.

miss these boogers already. 

Mushy the traveling Chinese kitty - drugged out of his mind.

We are 6 hours in - 26 to go! Plans for the remainder of our JFK layover: download more seasons of Walking Dead, paint my nails, brush my teeth, let Mushu out in a handicapped bathroom stall, and drink another liter of water. Wish me and Mushu (and the people who have to sit next to my stanky bum) luck! We're moving to Rwanda today!

walk slow. xoxo.

Sep 10, 2015

Buried in Things. (Packing for Kibungo).

I've spent 1/4 of my life abroad.

I know what it's like to buy a year's worth of tampons, coffee, and face cream. For years I have "stocked up" on cat treats, $.99 cat toys, face cream, boxes of tea, sports bras, and hair spray. Packing to go abroad is old news. 

But not this time. 

"Rural" (meaning not in a capitol city) Africa is throwing me for a loop already and I'm not even there. I've been bemoaning the task of packing and finally this week got my act together. You see, I've been to 33 countries, most of which I showed up with just a backpack, some hand written notes in sharpie on a scrap piece of paper, and my passport and visa card. It just works nicely that way, being underprepared. It's an adventure and really allows you to experience a place and allow it to care for you. 

But for this trip, I am having to pack while thinking of the big picture - What does my university need? (speakers, a projector, books). What will my office need? (scissors, a stapler, sharpies). What can I do to prevent malaria? (Off wipes, bug spray, malaria pills). How can I keep my cat happy? (friskies treats, puppy pads, and a plastic litter box). What can I bring to my community? (stickers, phonics flashcards, bananagrams, art supplies). It's a whole new world of thinking. And I have to be organized - which is NOT my forte. I like to wing it. But winging it will not help me in 3 weeks when I'm sitting in my house in Kibungo wishing I had thought things out a little better. I feel (intrinsic) pressure to do a good job and doing a good job means being prepared.

I will be living 2 hours outside of the capitol city of Kigali, where living is "easy" and most everything can be purchased for a price. I know that most of the things I am bringing can be found there, but I am not sure how soon or often I will make the journey so I want to be prepared initially to make a smooth transition until I can scope things out. 

There's always a contradiction in my head when packing like this - en masse. I know that I should buy 100 bottles of pepto, tylenol, dayquil and nyquil. But I also know that there is a hospital in my town and that they care for the Rwandans and they can care for me. I know I should take my malaria pills, but the thousands of Rwandans who live in high risk areas don't take the pills because they don't have access or the cost is too high and how can you take a pill like that for an entire life? If they don't - why should I? You have to trust a place to care for you because it cares for its own. But I also have access to the greatest shopping mecca known to mankind - Target - and so I am being responsible and preparing like an American going on a safari. Not like an educator that wants to integrate as much as possible. 

It's a little embarrassing, but here is my packing list to help anyone who might be making a similar move to a rural area abroad: 

work clothing, lounge clothing, gym clothes, maxi dresses, nice dress, jeans, swim suit, scarves, socks, underthings, leggings, sweatshirt, raincoat, bandanas, running wristlet, money belt
Chacos, Birkenstocks, running shoes, flip flops (for the shower), rain proof sandals, Toms flats
For the Office/Electronics: 
stapler w/ extra staples, scissors, notecards, paper clips, planner, extra cords for all electronics, external phone charger, kindle, waterproof phone case, convertor, headphones, external hard drive, laptop, unlocked iPhone  
For School: 
portable projector, Bluetooth speaker, tripod, work bag, dictionary, thesaurus, teaching materials, adult coloring books, markers, sharpies, crayons, backpack 
pepto, benedryl, cortisone, neosporin, bandaids, day/nyquil, tylenol, malaria pills, vitamins, probiotics, eye drops, cough drops, bug spray, Off wipes, malaria pill prescription, baby wipes, sunscreen, tooth paste, toothbrushes, floss, diva cup 
makeup, nail polish, nail polish remover, face wash, toner, face moisturizer (day/night), face mask, eye cream, hair spray, hair conditioner, argon oil, deodorant, mini perfume bottles, tweezers, nail clippers, glasses, sunglasses, contacts, vaseline, razor w/ extra blades, baby powder, hair ties, brush, jewelry, ear plugs, mini-everything for the first week in a hotel
For the cat: 
plastic litterbox, sandwich bags of food (for the first week in a hotel), treats, puppy pads (for the first week in the hotel), international health certificate, import license, toys, ear mite drops, nail clippers, fur brush, flea medicine, collar/leash/harness
For the house/kitchen: 
duct tape, alarm clock, can opener, corkscrew, measuring spoons, spices (cinnamon, vanilla extract, Mrs. Dash, ground pepper), batteries, rubbermaids, plastic hooks, quick dry towel, hair towel, sleeping bag, 10000 boxes of peppermint tea, coffee (just enough for until I can find some), french press, photos of family, nostalgic magnets, Florida postcards (to give away), world/USA maps, nalgene, flashlight, lint roller, clorox wipes, cash 
Personal development: 
Chinese textbook, Chinese character practice paper, kinyarwanda dictionary, kinyarwanda notecards, a few paperback poetry books, Bible, selfie stick, digital camera, stickers (to give to kids)

To buy on the European layover:  chocolate from duty free. :) 

Wish me luck as I (probably unnecessarily) drag this crap around the world...

walk slow. xoxo. 

Sep 7, 2015

So....why Rwanda?

It's been said to me a million times since June.

"You speak Chinese, just completed a PhD in Chinese Philosophy, and you are moving to....Rwanda?"


The truth is, I have been plotting and scheming this move for awhile. A side bonus to my time spent in China was the realization that I really, really like Africans. African men, african food, african dancing and music and culture. There are 54 countries in Africa, all unique and different, and I grew a desire in the past few years to visit this place where all these amazing people in my life came from. 

I see Africa as the anti-China. While I grew bitter from the sometimes oppressive society in China, I watched my African friends exhibit an infectious liveliness and easy-does-it approach to life. I describe my upcoming time in Rwanda as a gift to myself after 7 years in China. 

I first heard of the State Department English Language Fellowship at a Thanksgiving dinner in 2012 in Shanghai. One of my Concordia students was talking about a program where you could, "keep living the dream," abroad but be paid USD and receive significant assistance from Washington, DC. I went home that night and googled the program, stashing it away in my mind a a possibility if I ever decided to cheat on China and move to another country.

Spring semester this year brought many surprises and challenges. I knew my time in China was winding down, and knew that I wanted to move to Africa, but wasn't sure how it would work. I remembered the Fellow program and applied after Chinese New Year. Through the months of almost constant change that followed, I had one thing in my life that did not - my desire to be a Fellow in Africa. While in the application process, the applicant can choose a region or continent, but Fellows are placed where the vetting committee most sees a professional and personal match. So basically, I could have ended up anywhere in the world. (And I was totally fine with that and actually enjoyed the surprise factor).

In late June, I received word that I had been short listed to a rural posting in Rwanda. I got the match on a Thursday, had an interview with the US Embassy on Monday, and on Tuesday sent my verbal acceptance of the offer. It just made sense. This was my next step, a way to shake off China and get a little living back into my life. Living in Africa will also help to tie together my research on Sino-African relations. I have the Sino side, now it's time for the African side.

I will be working at the Institute of Agriculture, Technology, and Education of Kibungo, serving as a teacher trainer and helping to start a TOEFL testing center. The Eastern Province of Rwanda is the most under-served in the country, which makes it a thrilling and worthwhile place to spend the next year (or more) of my life.

A few weeks ago I attended orientation in Washington DC with the other 160+ Fellows who will be serving in over 60 countries worldwide. I teared up at the first meeting..."These are my people!" I thought. It was amazing to be surrounded by people who truly care about education as a tool for diplomacy, poverty alleviation, and the overall, abstract greater good. English educators are so interesting. And a conference room full of them was fun to witness. It was interesting to see who was going where - the graceful older women heading to the West Bank, the energetic folk in Southeast Asia, the Spanish majors heading to South America, and the diverse crew heading to Africa. I appreciated meeting everyone and sharing stories, ("You spent 3 years in Morocco? Cool! You taught refugees? Awesome! Your husband is Egyptian and you live in Zimbabwe? Fabulous!") It was confirmation that there is a population who chooses to live like I do.

I'm so proud to be a part of this mission of the State Department, so proud that our country invests in education worldwide as a form of diplomacy, and so proud that I followed my heart to Africa even when it's full of unknown and meant an entire upheaval of my Chinese life.

Mushu and I will be touching down in Kigali in exactly a week. I am so, so thankful for this opportunity. I waited so long to find a way to Africa. This move comes with a hearty lesson on patience, life's timing, growing through hardships, and that it is almost always worthwhile to take the risk.

So, that's the short version.
I didn't choose Rwanda.
Rwanda chose me, in a way.

walk slow. xoxo.

Sep 2, 2015

On Leaving.

(Consider this blog reborn, at the request of my mother. I will continue on without an excuse for 2 years of truancy.)

I could never imagine leaving China. I just couldn't picture it in my head. 

For seven years I made friends and acquaintances and then attended their going away parties and hugged their necks goodbye without being able to understand what it really would feel like to leave. I remember discussing this phenomenon of being the "ones who stayed" with a dear friend. "How do people just leave?" We wondered. And then one day about a year later, she left. 

And I stayed. 

And stayed. And stayed. 

There is strength and power in perseverance. After 5 years in a heart-breaking and high-blood pressure inducing Phd program, I surely have learned the art of gritting your teeth and taking it. I have bent my head and agreed to unfair criticism more times than I can remember. I saw it as proof of inner strength. 

But there is also power and dignity in choosing what is best for you. In standing up and saying, "This is not serving me anymore, and I have the ability to walk away." 

And so, one day in June, I decided to leave. Two months shy of my seventh China-versary, I bought a one way ticket out.

Leaving China was everything and nothing like I had imagined all those years. It was peaceful, not some heart wrenching, dramatic affair. I spent time one on one with those I love and who love me. Those I may never see again, but who will always be with me. It was my childhood dream to live there, and was truly my first real dream come true. I can feel China in my heart. I "get it." Which is something only someone who has invested significant time and energy in a place that is not their own can say. 

When leaving, I gave most of my earthly belongings away. But I brought home with me lessons that are etched into my being. 

China taught me that my body is able to withstand so much more than I used to give it credit for. 36 hours on a bus? No problem! 

China has also taught me that you don't always have to know what time something will start or end or what you are eating. Just exist and just eat...all will be fine. Until it is not fine, and then things will be fine again soon. It's just how life goes. 

China taught me that America is not the center of the universe. And our ways are not always compatible with the outside world. There are other ways, and they are equally valuable. 

China taught me that cultural religion is something to be aware of. That people are not in control of where they are born and where we are born dictates so many things about us, including how we practice religion, how we interpret religious text, and what worship looks like. 

China taught me that everything is relative. Problems, ideas, personal opinions, the concept of pets, standards of cleanliness, business manners, ways of dressing, perception of time, ways of going about daily activities - it's all relative. 

China taught me that language is the most important facet to understand a place or a people. The concept of a heart language is real and should be recognized for anyone choosing to interact, serve, or live among those of another culture. The language we use to express ourselves has so many nuances that are easily missed by those who do not share it. 

China taught me that big life hurdles are not big hurdles for very long. There is always another big hurdle on the horizon. 

China taught me to be a better listener. For an entire year as an english teacher, I thought my student's understood me because they shook their head, "yes," when I asked, "Do you understand?" It wasn't until the final few weeks as their teacher that I realized - these student's don't understand me! The next year, I changed my methods. But I still regret that I was such an airhead in the classroom that first year. 

China taught me not to be afraid. There are really very few tangible things to be afraid of in life. The intangibles shouldn't be scary either. We all fail. We all feel lonely sometimes. Nobody really knows what is going on. The unknown is only unknown until you know it. So no fear. 

Along that same line, China taught me to be tough. To bargain to the point of screaming and to always assume someone is lying to you. (reasons #48975498 I need re-entry counseling, haha). 

China taught me the value of hot water, personal space, and physical comfort (by taking them away). That no one deserves accessibility to various methods of cooking, the other-worldly convenience of pre-packaged foods, and that it's a miracle to have safe drinkable tap water for free out of a faucet. These things are not necessary for survival or even to thrive. And when you have access to any or all of the above, you should never stop being thankful. 

China taught me that anything you buy online can be fake. I don't even trust Amazon! (and you shouldn't either.) 

China taught me to be observant. To always be watching what people are doing, how they are talking, and what the traffic patterns are like. China taught me not to be a pansy when crossing the street. 

China taught me to focus on making projects sustainable by involving local people. I haven't been an active player in the orphan ministry in years because - hallelujah! - they don't need me! It's all being covered by local groups and is flourishing more than it ever was when under foreign direction. 

China taught me that sometimes the goodness of a stranger can save your life. So, never pass up the chance to BE that good stranger. You never know when you will need to rely on someone for information, safety, or a ride. Luckily, there are amazing people on this earth who will offer those things to you in times of need. We really are all in it together. Most of the time. ;) 

China taught me that no matter where I go, my family is close to me. 

China taught me to look at the big picture in life. In seven years I travelled to the beaches of the Philippines and the cities of India. The temples of Burma and the icebergs of Iceland. I completed the Great Wall Half Marathon and started an orphan program. I wrote 200 pages of a dissertation in Chinese and taught over 1500 Chinese students English. Yet, the days felt entirely normal - going to the market, ordering noodles from street vendors, going to the bar with friends, and riding the bus to Walmart. The normal, mundane days added up to seven incredible years. I hope to always look at my life this way, it takes effort to remember to see the big picture in the middle of a regular afternoon.  

China taught me that it's ok to let go. To unclench your teeth. To face the unknown with the expectation that good things are to come. 

I'm not entirely sure who I am without China. It's the context that I know, it's the language that I dream in most often, and it's my comfort zone after all these years. I never imagined what it would feel like to leave, and then when the time came, it felt like peace. 

Goodbye, China. Thanks for the memories and the lessons. 
Onto the next, wildly surprising chapter. 

walk slow. xoxo.