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. 

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