What I learned in PST (and other cultural notes)

“Good teachers know that discomfort and pain are often signs that truth is struggling to be born among us” -Parker J. Palmer

 

Eleven weeks ago, I stepped off an airplane in a place that I knew very little about. I was quickly greeted by some other Americans that I immediately trusted with my life, stuffed into a car, and hauled off for a few hours through twisting and unfamiliar country roads. I was disoriented, to say the least. But these were only the very first moments in what would prove to be an incredibly challenging, awkward, rewarding, and memorable experience. Also known as PST.

Today, I write as a newly minted Peace Corps Volunteer. By assuming this new title, I claim to have no new special powers, knowledge, or insight compared to my former Trainee self 24 hours ago. But what I can share are my observations and lessons learned after living in Madagascar for 3 months. Throughout the whirlwind and often mind-numbing life of a Trainee, I’ve managed to keep my eyes and ears open just enough to take in the delights of life in Madagascar. In my own words…

Spoons are very underutilized in America. At the Malagasy dining table, the spoon tends to be the main utensil. It’s effectiveness is remarkable. Especially with a rice-based meal, using a spoon to pile food together for each bite is your best option. A fork can help collect different pieces of the meal from your plate, but the spoon is the real superstar.

Convenience is relative. What’s easy for you in America can sometimes be impossible or extremely difficult in Madagascar. Things that many of us take for granted in America, such as clean drinking water coming from multiple faucets in homes, are far from the reality for the majority of Malagasy people. I’m learning to appreciate and be mindful of these differences.

Peace Corps Trainees love snacks. From the first full day of training, we had 3 square meals each day and both a morning and afternoon snack. It was a nice perk at first, until we got accustomed to it and became unknowingly distraught when snacks were not provided. The joke started by our group getting a laugh anytime snack was explicitly stated in the daily schedule, as if we were children being looked after because we couldn’t fend for ourselves, and then we became dependent on snack. It quickly turned into a major question of the day, we now each have our favorite types of snacks, and we would even get snacks packed for us to take if we were out on the road traveling during the normal snack time. It’s probably something I’ll go to therapy for many years from now.

Making plans in person is worth the effort. For the first few weeks of training, none of the trainees had cell phones that worked in Madagascar. So we had to make plans with each other in person, which probably sounds like a really simple thing to do. And it is, but I came to really appreciate the ability to look someone in the eye, set a time and place to meet again, and follow through on it. We had to trust each other just a little bit more, even after knowing each other for only a few weeks.

No matter how many teeth you’re missing, you should still smile. Be thankful and proud for what you have, and spread joy through your smile every single day.

Chickens. Everywhere in rural towns. Everywhere.

Every single butterfly is a work of art. The colors, the patterns, the grace. I have yet to see a boring butterfly in this country.

Washing your clothes by hand can destroy your knuckles. I still haven’t perfected the skill yet, maybe I never will, but inevitably I walk away from washing my clothes with one or two more wounds on my knuckles from rubbing the wet clothes together. I’ll either master the technique or form sizable calluses on my hands.

If you let one student go to the bathroom during class, pretty soon half the class will ask to go as well. In the first couple of days of our teaching practicum, some of us learned this lesson the hard way. Malagasy students are very formal about approaching the teacher to ask permission to go to the bathroom, but without proper regulation, it can quickly get out of hand and all of a sudden a class of 60 students dwindles down to 25.

I’m a white man, so I must be French. In the eyes of most Malagasy people I’ve encountered, Caucasian people are almost immediately seen as French. Until I open my mouth and dribble out a few rudimentary Malagasy words, I am almost always greeted with a “bonjour monsieur!” Madagascar has a long history of French colonization, many French people (and people from other nations) live here today, but this stereotype seems to be deeply rooted.

Malagasy people point with their lips. If a Malagasy person wants to draw your attention toward something in a fairly discreet way, most likely they will use their lips to point in the direction they want you to look. It’s similar to what many Americans do when they nod their head in a particular direction. Try it out next time you’re sharing a meal with someone and you ask them to pass the salt, just point with your lips.

Despite the amount of rice in Madagascar, putting it in a salt shaker to prevent clumping is unheard of. I suggested this to my host mother one day and she looked at me like I had 7 heads. In most cases, the salt shakers are so clogged up because the moisture binds the salt together. But sacrificing a few dry pieces of rice is not an option.

Malagasy students are incredibly meticulous about copying things from the blackboard. Usually they have at least three different colored pens to write with, rulers to draw straight lines and make grids, and their handwriting is almost uniform. It’s amazing to see, but unfortunately it usually takes them much longer to write down simple information because they want it to look perfect. Due to lack of resources in many areas, typically there are no textbooks for students so the notebooks that they write information in become their textbook.

Clean is relative. Clothes, dishes, homes, bodies. They are usually free of obvious dirt and debris, but I’ve noticed that few things in this country are as clean as they are in America. I’ve quickly come to modify my standards of acceptable cleanliness and manage to maintain my health at the same time. Your clean is probably not my clean anymore.

Everything I come in contact with tends to have a light dusting of chalk. Teaching with a blackboard means tons of chalk dust everywhere. It starts on my hands, gets blown around the classroom and sticks to everything else, and it eventually ends up on my clothes and consequently everything else I touch until I get the chance to wash off.

Sometimes making a fool of yourself is the best way to get your point across. Whether I had to teach a new concept in class or pantomime an action to overcome a language barrier, sometimes I have to swallow my pride and get laughed at because I’m being perceived as ridiculous. I believe that it can show some compassion and humility.

I hope that through sharing these experiences, I have been able to shed a little bit more light on the truth that is my life.

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2 thoughts on “What I learned in PST (and other cultural notes)

  1. Oh Mikey. You are living it but you make me laugh!! I realize how much I take for granted. Fork and spoons. Washers and dryers, paved roads and running water if which we are all too aware of with our drought. Our hills are so brown that it’s really scary now and we all know what that means sept/oct with the winds. Our worlds are different now but you are living the 3rd world life and will have a new understanding of. ” back to the basics”. I hope you are settling in and have at least the basics. Nana sent you a package last week and I will send you one in 2 weeks. Anything special you need? Snacks? Soap? Toothpaste? Hand gel? Anything ? Never forget how much we live you and can’t wait to hear from you and how you are settling in. Xoxo

    Sent from my iPhone Sheila

    >

  2. Hi Michael,
    Can not imagine what your daily life is like without all our modern conveniences. I am so proud to know someone like you. What you are giving to these people is just amazing. I love to read your thoughts. I hope you save them all and write a book when you get back. When Sheila sends you a package, I would like to put some things in it for your class. I hope that will be ok.
    Thank you for giving back and paying it forward for other people. It takes someone very special to make a commitment as you have.
    With love,
    Stacy

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