it’s not a goodbye, guyana

I’m sitting in my classroom at the primary school and outside my door are kids running about on the field.

Falling.
Laughing.
Dancing.
Jumping.
Yelling.
Pushing.

We’re celebrating Phagwah (or Holi), a Hindu festival of colors. The teachers have provided seven curry, the kids are ready to throw powder. I’m just happy to be here.

I’ve caught myself tearing up on my drives back and forth to Georgetown lately. Everytime I recognize how beautiful Berbice is with it’s rice fields and coconut tree forests or when one of my favorite soca songs play on the radio and I remember the people I danced with to them.

I like that I had a “normal” life here. Well, as normal as it might get for an American. One where I woke up in my own house, cooked my own breakfast, sipped on tea in while getting ready for work, washed my clothes in buckets, sat on verandas to gaff, said good morning and good night to my neighbors, went out for beers with friends after a long day, endured painful waits for cars and buses and boats and people, did nothing for days at a time, walked to the market every week, attended weddings and birthdays and dinner parties, paid my bills late and had my electricity cut off, participated in holidays and celebrations in my community, invited people into my house and into my life, and did so everyday for two years.

When I applied for Peace Corps, I half expected my experience to reflect the travel documentaries I love so much. But with how my time here unfolded, I can say that the things that made this experience extraordinary weren’t something I could film, record, or take a picture of. They were the kind of moments that while they were happening, you realized they were special. The kind of moments that could not have happened anywhere else. Moments that are strong enough to leave an impression in your memories, that when you think of them, you know those moments are irreplaceable. Moments you just have to keep to yourself. The ones you just had to be there for.

I had many of those moments.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be starting over again. New town, new home, new strangers. New adjustments, new problems, new lessons. I am filled with excitement and anxiety. Many of you are curious about what’s next for me, but I don’t have any big plans to share with you. There’s a lot pressure to figure something out, but I’m just trying to come back to the US–with Mango, of course–and settle in.

I’ve moved around a lot in my life. From California to Texas to Arkansas to Guyana. You’d think I’d be better at saying goodbye by now, but I decided a long time ago that it’s okay to be an emotional wreck in airports. Leaving people you love never gets easier.


Thank you to my host family.

I wouldn’t have survived without you all. You were my safety and my security in Guyana. I owe any and all the success I’ve had here to how you loved me the last two years. You really treated me like family and welcomed me into your lives with wide open arms. You have been the best part of my service.

Thank you to the friends I’ve made in Guyana.

In a time when I was losing my identity to just being a volunteer, you helped me feel like myself again. Your company saved me in so many ways. I’ve never had friendships like this, even in the US, and I’ll continue to keep them close to me.

Thank you to my fellow PCVs.

We’ve had some good times and some really bad, but we made it to the end. I’m thankful to have done my service with and beside you. We’re all off on new adventures in new places and I wish you all the best.

Thank you to Guyana.

You’re beautiful, generous, and an undiscovered treasure in this world. But you are also one tough-ass country and you made me stronger.

Thank you to you.

My friends and family at home who have taken the time to read all my blogs, emails, and messages from Guyana. Your interest and support has been affirming to me that I’ve got a good team of people on my side. You’ve been understanding and compassionate towards my experiences, and I appreciate how much you’ve cared. I don’t take it for granted.

I’ll be back someday, Guyana.

Love always,
Mel

guyana gold

I was told guyana is rich in gold

it’s in the quiet mornings and still nights
when the choir of crickets and mysterious creatures
sing to me hello and whisper to me goodnight

it’s in the kids I teach
miss! miss! miss!
is there health club today?
god, i love their little faces

it’s in the warm bake
the ones that grandma makes
fresh from her over
sweet, soft, and salty

it’s in the forest of coconut trees
the black mirrored rivers
something I’ve never seen

it’s in the days I have to myself
to read and cook
quietly alone in my little home

it’s in practicing peace and contentment
mastering the art of doing nothing
relax you poor american
allow yourself to be ok with boredom

it’s in the calls I get
the letters, emails, and care packages
friendly reminders that I’m loved and remembered

it’s in the friends I’ve made
the fun times we’ve had
dancing and drinking
laying in beds gaffing
sleepovers and game nights
cookouts and cricket

it’s in the stars
I had never seen so many
the galaxy shining so clearly
the universe wrapped around me

it’s in the process of unlearning
letting go of a past self
embracing who I am now
entering a world different than mine
learning to appreciate it
respect it
equally as my own

it’s in what I’ve seen
what I’ve touched
what I’ve felt
what I don’t understand
what I can’t explain

it’s in the reasons I’ve stayed
the reasons I’ve grown
the reasons I’ve changed

I found my guyana gold
and I’ll never be the same.

depression and anxiety during my peace corps service

it’s new years eve so naturally I am feeling reflective.

in april, a group of volunteers and I were robbed. luckily, none of us were home at the time, but it was still a shocking experience seeing 10-15 backpacks ransacked and ripped apart on the floor. I headed into that weekend with already high levels of stress having just said goodbye to someone I love and hearing  bad news from home. the robbery was the cherry on top of my impending panic attack.

it seemed clear to me in that moment that I needed to go home. whether for good or for a short period of time, that much I wasn’t sure of yet, but I needed to leave. sometimes perseverance isn’t a matter of pushing any further.

I replayed the events in my head and concluded that my mental health was suffering long before the robbery even happened. we brush on the subject of mental health during training sessions and sometimes in casual conversations, but we don’t often talk about what we do about these conditions during service.

coping strategies are obviously limited on different degrees depending on where your site it, but limited in some way for all volunteers. for example, I can’t indulge in mint ice cream or go on a run outside in my community when I’m feeling stressed. so what did I do?

I boarded my flight back to guyana with a greater focus on making changes in the things that I could control in my life and becoming more aware of what makes me feel good and what doesn’t. It was a learn as you go process, but this is how i dealt with depression and anxiety during my peace corps service.

GOODBYE COFFEE–I love coffee. the smell, the energy, the life and light it brings to people in the morning. coffee was my love language until I realized it was causing unnecessary stress in my life. I listened to a podcast from Simple Roots Radio called Is Caffeine Harming Your Hormones? (give it a listen!) and started wondering if coffee, my sweet sweet coffee, was impacting my mental health. i’ve gone cold-turkey before on a coffee detox and ended up miserable, so don’t do it. I started the process with black tea and after a couple weeks I transitioned to green tea. truthfully, neither of these options were helpful in the morning, but taking coffee out of my diet helped me get more sleep at night and I started noticing that my body was producing more energy on it’s own. which is crazy bc even with coffee, some days I didn’t want to leave my bed. It made me realize that depression isn’t just caused by trauma. You’re not just sad bc of hurt feelings. Food/drinks effects your hormone balance and your hormone balance effects your mental/emotional health too.

SHAUN T–I can’t remember where I read this or heard it, but I learned about a doctor who prescribed his/her patients with an exercise routine before considering any medicine to support their mental health. I gave it a try and committed to shaun t’s max 30 (thanks jami for sharing these videos and mutual feelings for this man). my goal wasn’t to lose weight or get those abs I’ve been wanting since 2010–those reasons weren’t enough for me anymore. my mantra became “any exercise is enough exercise” and it worked. I no longer worried about working out my hardest as long as I was making the effort to work out at all. and with it, I gained a greater acceptance for my physical limitations. it was two months of my life that I sweated in the middle of my living room and laughed and screamed at my laptop every time my arms gave out. i can’t say I get a high in life from exercise like he does, but i do have a clearer mind and more consistent moods these days thanks to those god-awful power jacks.

BREATHING–I learned more about the benefits of breathing through simple yoga and meditation at home thanks to yoga with adrienne videos. I started with her TRUE 30 DAY Yoga Journey and was completely transformed. mindfully connecting to my breath helped me understand my emotions better. I learned that none are final and that the goal is never to stop myself from feeling them. breathing in is an acceptance of what I’m feeling and breathing it out allows them to pass. I became better at liking where I am in life, whether high or low, and being kind. a strength within rose out of me.

COUNSELING–i’m not ashamed to admit that i’ve been in and out of counseling throughout my peace corps service. unfortunately, there are limitations to what peace corps can provide you in terms of supporting your mental health, but don’t hesitate to advocate yourself for this service when you need it. i’ve been through multiple incidents throughout my peace corps service and each time, i asked for counseling to help cope with PTSD. it didn’t solve all my problems, but it did help some. i’ll be the first to say peace corps is not some hippy dippy experience. some serious shit happens, but as volunteers, we can all mutually agree that our tolerance for it is abnormally above average. that being said, you always… you must… do what’s best for you.

UNPLUGGED–i was off of social for about eight months. i recognized how it shaped what I thought of myself, others, and the world. and while i still believe that it has it’s benefits, it wasn’t serving me well. i didn’t like how i branded myself and my life to be something it wasn’t. i didn’t like comparing myself to my friends and family who are getting married, having kids, traveling, eating, and doing. i didn’t like the amount of time i spent coming up with a clever caption for a photo i took a millions time just to get the right angle. it was exhausting and toxic, so I quit. though I am back from my hiatus, I do feel less concerned with the person i want people to think i am and more okay with the person i am already. i take less pictures of the things i do after learning more about the valuable art of being present. It’s made my time in guyana, my relationships, my experiences, my love for myself and others all richer without a number of likes to measure their worth.

though i think the conversation about depression and anxiety has a long way to go, it is changing and i’m incredibly thankful for it. i’m glad people are being more transparent about their story and opening spaces for others like me to share theirs.

my revelation on depression and anxiety is that the condition is caused by many things out of a person’s control–have it be genetics, changes in hormones, grief, chronic stress, abuse, or any combination of sorts. it doesn’t help to blame ourselves for something we didn’t ask for. but what we can do is recognize what we can control. things like what we eat and drink, the people we are surrounded by, the information we fill our minds with, our daily habits, and what we feel and think and say to ourselves. took me a long time to understand that things don’t get better when you wait on circumstances to change. They get better when we make the changes.

there is no perfect recipe of how to deal with depression or anxiety, whether you are a peace corps volunteer or not. these are just a handful of changes I’ve made lately in my life that have made a significant difference in my well-being. feel free to try them and let me know how they work out for you.

we’re all just a work in progress.

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anyway, i’ve got less than 100 days left in peace corps.
cheers to that, everyone!!!!!!!!!!!!

love always,
mel

here

last week, i spent five days hiking through the amazon with eight soulful women up to kaieteur falls.

it started off with a long bus ride on the lethem highway. during the day, you can see how the red road digs its way through the jungle. each dangerous dip and sharp turn was accompanied by a mix of soca, madonna, enrique iglesias, and everyone’s favorite early 2000s r&b/hip hop classics. just another day in a mini bus.

after a quick break, we took another drive through a small town towards the potaro river where we waited in the rain for our boat to take us across to our first camp site. the river is so different in the night. the water is dauntingly still, it was like gliding across liquid glass.

the next day, we took a long boat ride through the potaro river onto amatuk where we would rest before hiking up to kaieteur falls. the sun revealed the living jungle beside us, how it traces along the river. and then there were the mountains that overlook guyana and the mysterious things that inhabit it. i’m far from home.

at the bottom of the mountain, we had a couple warm up hikes where we fell into creeks, bruised our butts on broken branches, unintentionally swung on vines, and constantly slipped on rocks. as we were leaving the first waterfall, i stayed back to take in my surroundings again and was delighted by the company of two blue morpho butterflies dancing together wildly in the wind. i wish i could’ve joined them.

at the guest house, conversations ran deep as we often share our pains and frustrations with service when we get together. but this time with a greater acceptance of the things we’ve seen, experienced, and have survived from. we’ve all lived our own hard life here in guyana but have found strength, resiliency, connection, healing, growth, knowledge, empathy, generosity, understanding of ourselves, understanding of others, and even love because of it. we sense the end is nearing and we feel relieved in a way, but also sad. it’s the final chapter of this book.

finally, we begin our hike to kaieteur falls.

roy, our tour guide, tells us to remain vigilant towards snakes on the ground.

“ok yea, got it. watch out for snakes.”

*side note: everything on the ground resembles a snake.

we step into the breathing green jungle–the layers of giant leaves i’ve only had the pleasure of painting are now brushing against my sweaty skin, the symphony of sounds singing in my ears from the life hidden in the trees, no barriers or beaten path to follow–it was such an unfamiliar world to me.

a few hours later, the canopy of leaves begin to open up and the soil beneath our feet suddenly turns granite. legs are burning, chest is tighting, it was no walk in the park. we’ve reached the top. roy pauses and tells us to close our eyes.

ready? he said.

hand by hand, we’re safely led out to the ledge.

one, two, three.

the excitement overwhelmed us all.
i’m certain none of us had ever been in the presence of anything so beautiful
especially this city slicker

~ the fog and mist kept teasing us
only giving us a glimpse of kaieteur
until it hid him completely
but even the little that we saw was incredible.

we headed back to the cabin to finally put our heavy backpacks down and get out of our sweaty, smelly clothes. we’ll have better luck tomorrow.

though we were sore and sleepy after dinner, we couldn’t wait for the next day and decided to walk to the falls.

i thought it was magnificent before, but the darkness only brought out it’s majesty more.

i remember standing there wondering, how do I make this last?
my first instinct was to take a picture, but my screen only showed black.
it was like the moon only wanted my eyes to see it–how it illuminates kaieteur, brightening the masses of water that jump off the mountain and down into an uncultivated valley.

the moon put it all into perspective.

exist in this moment
breathe in what you see
breathe out what you feel
accept where you are
lean into it
be here.
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love always,
mel

projects and progress

With four months and something days left in my peace corps service, things are coming down to the wire. I’m not sure I used that expression correctly, but either way, I’m in the middle of my project to increase health promotion at the primary school level and time is starting to run out!

Let’s back track for a moment. I don’t work at the hospital anymore, by choice and by circumstance. I won’t go into details as to why but things just weren’t going well there so I turned my attention towards what I could do for the kids I taught at the school.

Alright, back to what I was saying about my current project. I started applying for a grant via PC’s Small Grant Program in May. I spent a few months putting it together trying really hard to involve my counterparts in the process. By the end of August, we had submitted our application and waited for PC Guyana and HQ to give us the green light. It took a couple weeks from that point for us to get approved and funded. After that, we waited patiently-ish for the check to arrive in Guyana (only 2 weeks ago) so we could start the implementation process.

My project consists of 3 parts.

PART 1: Starting a health club

Last school year, I taught HFLE alongside two fabulous teachers. Together, we started the health club at the school and so far it’s been great. Unfortunately but understandably, my partners have not been able to participate in many of the meetings. Nonetheless, over 40 students have attended at least one health club meeting! We’ve so far touched on topics such as self-awareness and self-esteem, body image, and friendships.

My favorite one so far has been our meeting about friendship. The goal was to allow the kids to practice getting to know each other and how to give a gift to someone based on the person’s interests… not theirs. I had the kids partner up and interview each other with questions like “What’s your favorite color? number? animal? food? game?” Afterwards, I had them make friendship bracelets for one another based on what they learned about their friend. Inevitably, beads bounced everywhere… but they loved it so I wasn’t that vexed.

Although the health club has been loads of fun, it’s also been really hectic… With little space and limited supplies, my kids are scrunched up and eager to get their hands on what’s there for them to use before it runs out. But even so, they are enjoying themselves and it makes me super happy when kids run up to in the middle of the week asking “Is there health club today?”

Sadly, I don’t know that this club will continue after I leave.. but at least for now, the kids are getting to experience it.

 

PART 2: Developing the Kid’s Learning Center

The purpose of this room is to connect education to technology. We currently have 4 computers with no practical benefit to the 700+ students at the school. With the new renovations and the addition of a projector, we’re hoping that more students will be able to experience the use of technology in their lessons.

I’ve run into a quite a few bumps in the road getting this room together. Starting off with the construction of the furniture. Alongside the local carpenter I hired for the project, we collected the prices and the materials to build the new furniture. The furniture is meant to maximize the space within the room. He constructed 3 long and thin benches with matching desks and a computer shelf  to fit in the back of the class. With this furniture, we are able to fit a maximum of 20 students comfortably at a time. That’s almost 3x’s more than before. The furniture was built in two days and painted in three, thanks to the local carpenter and my amazingly generous friends.

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We’ve worked almost 2 weeks straight on this part of the project and hopefully by the end of this weekend, it will be completely finished. Initially, two men volunteered to paint the room… but after much thought, I decided to give the task to women.

Even though it is typical for a male to do this kind of labor, I felt like it was an opportunity to show young girls AND young boys that women can do a man’s job. Maybe it will prove that these tasks aren’t limited to a single gender or maybe help break some of the stereotypes that restrict girls from learning specific skills.

At least, that’s the hope. I’m also prepared for the criticism and critique of close-minded individuals who will turn their heads and say they could’ve done better. But I’m also confident that this opens up an opportunity for girls to see themselves not only capable one day, but equal too.

PART 3: Teacher Development

My project is centered around helping the primary school support health promotion and equipping the staff to empower the youth, specifically girls, to take ownership of their health.

This portion of the project has also been challenging. Today, a workshop my colleagues and I have been working hard to put together fell through. That’s just how it goes sometimes–things don’t work out and you have to move on. However, my headmaster and I quickly came up with a solution and I think it will work out for the best. Cross my fingers.

Using the newly developed Kid’s Learning Center, I will hold a workshop series on gender equity. For three days, there will be an hour set aside when school gets out to work with the teachers. I’ve hired a private contractor for the Ministry of Social Cohesion to facilitate a session to help bring awareness to teachers on gender inequity in Guyana. The following two days, my fierce friend and I will continue the conversation on gender stereotypes/norms, how it impacts the health of the student, and how teachers can implement gender equitable practices into their classroom.


 

On paper, this all looks perfect.

But in reality, nothing up to this point has gone smoothly or according to plan. Which, at times, has left me feeling deeply disappointed and hopeless with volunteer guilt. It doesn’t always feel like these projects matter when you look at the greater needs of a developing country or when you’re not sure if your project will be carried on after you leave. That’s just the truth. But I’m taking a shot at it anyway, hoping that my aim towards sustainability is a step forward somewhere for this little corner of Guyana.

Love always,
Mel

happy international girl’s day

Today, I did a fun activity with the girls in the health club centered around what it meant to be a girl. I had a poster with different cut out photos of women I found in the Peace Corps magazines I get. I loved it because there were real women inside. No gimmicks, no sell, no photoshop, no reason for them to be anything else but a total woman. In the middle, I wrote “GIRLS ARE…” and I allowed them to paste words to finish the sentence.

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GIRLS ARE…
Strong
Smart
Willing
Love
Brave
Doctors
Beautiful
Scientists
Dancers
Kind
Mothers
Helpful
Police Officers
Awesome
Librarians
Lawyers
Powerful
Healthy

And my personal favorite…

Anything.

The boys were a little confused to find out our activity was focused on just the girls. I reassured them that next month we will celebrate international boy’s day and most ran off to play during lunch. One boy stayed behind though and participated in the “GIRLS ARE…” activity. I was happy and relieved this young boy didn’t take this opportunity to say something mean, but actually wrote more than a few nice things about what he thought about girls. Gave him a fist bump for being a true gentleman.

It was a fun and frazzled hour trying to make sure the girls had enough art supplies to share and make their posters as beautiful as they are. Their papers created a world that appreciated and adored their intelligence, their bravery, and their abilities. Where they were praised for their brains and their beauty. It was enough to make anyone cry. I felt sad knowing my girls are headed into a war zone for their rights, but hopeful that they’ll become who they want to be and continue to believe they are more than just a pretty face.

I wish everyday could be like International Girl’s Day, where we’re celebrated for being female rather than castrated, shamed, hurt, controlled, manipulated, abused, assaulted, isolated, underpaid, mistreated, and blamed for being the opposite sex. But this is the world we still live in and the fight to change it is far from over.

speaking creolese

I get asked a lot what language people speak in Guyana.
Let me just say that it’s a little difficult to explain.

If you didn’t know, people in Guyana speak Creolese; which to the best of my knowledge, is essentially a spoken language formulated by a mix of others that have influenced the country through out its history (via colonization, immigration, trade etc). There is no single Creolese language. Depending on where you are in the West Indes/Caribbean the mixture changes.

In Guyana, Creolese is British English based with hints of Awarak (indigenous language), Hindi, Dutch, and Afrikaans. It was challenging to understand and speak at first, but I’m comfortable enough now that I don’t have to think about it too hard anymore.

I’ll do my best to give you an understanding of Creolese, but I don’t think that I could do any justice explaining how its grammar or spelling works here. Here are some of the phrases and expressions I hear/use the most to get around Guyana and how I would translate it into American English:


oh shucks // oh shucks, me forget to call she!
kind of like oh shit, but more polite; used when you forgot something, when you learned some new gossip about someone’s auntie, or when you realize the time gone by

jus’ now // yea yea jus’ now my friend.
used when you want to say “hold on” or “wait” or “I’ll get to it eventually”. There’s no telling when though, but just when I’m ready. That could either be in 2 seconds, 2 weeks, months… years

w’em deh (wa-uhm-deh) //  w’em deh gyal? I ain see you for a long time nah.
this means what’s up? what are you up to?

leh we go //  come, leh we go
when you’re getting people together to leave at one time

me nah no // me na no, he gone out since the afternoon.
I don’t know

don trouble wid he/she/it // don trouble wid he, lef him dere.
don’t even bother, you’re wasting ya time

me nah able // me nah able wid dat. 
I can’t dude, I just can’t.

w’happen (wuh-happen) // w’happenin dere?
what happened or what’s up

don tek stress // nah man, don tek stress. it gonna happen!
don’t worry about it, let it go

go long/ go on so // HELLO, GO ON SO!
you’re telling someone to go away or to be somewhere other than here

pickneys // dem pickneys be showin’ off bad.
children

fuh truth // fuh truth, da sun hot bad.

yous problem // mel, yous problem gyal
basically when you’re being ridiculous and making others laugh

please for *insert item* // please for a banks (local beer)
when you’re asking for something

you gettin’ fat // look at he belly,  he gettin’ fat
usually means you look good or healthy… or that you are indeed getting fat–don’t take it personally

catchin’ a ting // ehhh she catch a ting nah!
you’re seeing someone *winks

up the road, over the river // she livin’ up the road or over the river
depending on where you, this is how you give directions. if you’re from east berbice, this means up the main road of new amsterdam or over the berbice bridge to region 5

come // come jeremiah! or come nah man!
get your ass over here or “ugh seriously”

how you do // good night, how you do?
how are you?

alright, alright
usually said as someone is passing by; kind of like you guys are acknowledging that you see one another by don’t want to ask how you do or say good day

pull in da corner
my host mom says this to me when cars are passing by and she doesn’t want me to get hit by one of them

push ya body // why you so slow, push ya body
hurry up, get movin’


 

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I’m sure I’m leaving out some other common phrases/expressions, but these are just the ones off the top of my head that I use pretty often. Try them out! Don’t fret if you don’t understand it or get the accent right away. You get the hang of where the he’s and she’s and me’s and we’s go in your sentences and people will start to say, “You a proper Guyanese now!”

 

Love always,
Mel

 

hey chinee gyal

QUICK DISCLAIMER: This is a telling of my own personal experience as an Asian/Pacific Islander American Peace Corps Volunteer and not a generalization of the experiences of Chinese Guyanese or other A/P PCVS around the world.

 


For all those who are curious, I am Filipino American.

I don’t always know how to start or have this conversation with others. The one about stereotypes, racial slurs, and micro-aggressions towards Asian/Pacific Islanders. It’s sensitive and I’m always afraid to say the wrong thing (god knows I have before). But I hope what comes out of this blog post is helpful and insightful for those who read. And if not, ignore it and we can move on.

Phew, ok. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s start with some fun facts.

There are 6 ethnicities represented in Guyana. Ameridian (indigenous), Afro-Guyanese, Indo-Guyanese, Portuguese Guyanese, European Guyanese, and Chinese Guyanese.

How this came to be was a mixture of colonization and the immigration of slaves, indentured servants, and refugees.

Chinese immigrants began arriving in Guyana around the 1860s. Most of them came as refugees and indentured servants that worked in sugar plantations after slavery was abolished. Over time, Chinese immigrants contributed greatly towards infrastructure, technology, retail, food culture, and even politics. I recently learned that the first president of Guyana was actually a Chinese Guyanese man by the name of Arthur Chung. Ain’t that something?

Now, these are just historical facts and they don’t explain the social constructs that developed over the last century when it comes to how Chinese Guyanese people are known and treated today. Upon arrival, I was told that most Chinese Guyanese live in Georgetown, make all the money from their small businesses and restaurants, generally keep to themselves, and that there were no racist behavior towards them.

I can’t tell you whether Chinese Guyanese feel discrimination the way that I do as a Filipino American, but I do wonder.

For me, living in Guyana has only amplified the stereotypes, microaggressions, and discrimination I have already experienced in the US.

Most of the time in Guyana people assume:

  • I must be Chinese… no possible way I’m from America or that I’ve descended from any other Asian country.
  • I can’t speak or understand English so I’m treated like I’m incompetent.
  • My skills are limited to making fried rice and selling cheap clothes.
  • I’m obviously related to Jackie Chan and therefore I share his ass kicking DNA. Don’t they know who Manny Pacquiao is? (just kidding, not funny)

Sometimes they’re joking, sometimes they’re just being jerks, but most times they don’t know any better.

Even so, listening to things like this during my Peace Corps service (and also my whole life) has taken its toll on my self-esteem and my identity… often times making me feel inferior, muted, limited, and reduced just because I’m simply not any of those things. Yet, they follow me like a shadow.

Being Chinese is not shameful. There’s nothing wrong or unworthy about not speaking English or cooking for a living. Its the assumption and the treatment and characterization behind those words that I can’t get over.

Just after one look… Why am I suddenly being treated lesser than? Why is the ability to speak English a measure of my intelligence? Why are you looking at my work as if it is less worthy than yours? Why am I being treated like a joke to you?

This might not be your intention, but it’s often how I perceive and have internalized these comments.

For these reasons and more, I think it is really challenging to be an A/P PCV. I have run into situations where I don’t fit the “idea” or “image” of America/Peace Corps and I feel as if it was a disappointment to those I work with. Or when my presence and input are disregarded next to a volunteer of a different skin color.

I feel sick sometimes not knowing what to say or do about it.

On a good day, I try to kindly correct people and educate others on who I am, where I come from, and how certain things are offensive to me. This is definitely done with someone I feel would actually care. And believe it or not, it does make a difference.

On a bad day… well, I don’t always handle it gracefully. I have yelled some inappropriate (but totally appropriate) language at a group of men who were yelling “chinee gyal” in my ears as I passed by… who then proceeded to laugh at my disdain. It was humiliating. I try to remember that I am more than what they say or think but sometimes the anger and sadness just spills out of me.

I don’t know that there is a perfect way to deal with the kind of harassment and treatment A/P PCVs go through, honestly. But here’s what helps me:

SELF-VALIDATION–I can’t change everyone’s opinion or beliefs about Asian//Pacific Islanders. I can, however, remember and remind myself that I am and will always be more than the stereotypes, racist comments, and micro-aggressions that get thrown at me.

TALKING TO OTHERS EXPERIENCING SOMETHING SIMILAR TO YOU–I admit, I’m not the best at this. I’m still processing how this experience is impacting me so I don’t always open up. What I do know is that sometimes there isn’t an easy solution to a racial issue, but it does help to know you’re not alone.

PERSEVERING–there’s so much in the world that is out of my control, so I focus on controlling my own actions. I quickly learned that in Peace Corps. But I’ve also learned that with time and patience for yourself and others, things get better. Its hard not to take things personally, but I try keep my head up high and focus on my goals as a PCV.

I was once asked how one could be an ally to Asian/Pacific Islander American volunteers and my response is this: acknowledge that not all Americans experience the same privileges overseas, recognize our accomplishments have come with adversity, and give others the space to speak for themselves.

That’s been a big realization for me. Even though I experience very unique challenges and hardships as a A/P PCV in Guyana, others do too and I have no idea what that feels like for them.

This experience is tough for all PCVs, no matter what the color of your skin is, but we find a way to keep doing what we came here to do.

I’ve learned a lot from this part of my service. About myself, about others, about how people are perceived and treated based on presumed beliefs. And although it’s made my service hard, it hasn’t stopped me from doing great things.

I hope to learn more about how I can continue being part of this conversation because it’s an important one to have. With everyone.

Thanks for reading.

Love always,
Mel


References:

https://www.stabroeknews.com/2013/news/stories/02/05/why-the-chinese-came-to-guyana/

https://guyanatimesgy.com/guyana-celebrates-165-years-of-chinese-arrival/

happy one year, guyana

A year ago today, I took my first breath of tropical air in Guyana. It was humid and heavy but still, I was full of excitement and wonder thinking about what my life was going to be like here. How far away will I be from the Amazon? Will I see monkeys in my backyard? Are the stars brighter out here? What things will I do? I filled my mind with wanderlust and curiosity based on things I’ve seen on social media, but mistakingly solidified them with stiff expectations.

When my service began, I was flipped upside down. I became bitter by disappointment only to later realize how fragile my dreams were in the first place. How fragile, perhaps, I was too at the time.

Around July/August time, this journey had left me bedridden for weeks. By anxiety, by depression, by uncertainty. This might surprise some of you due to how easy it is to fabricate my life with only the good parts of my service, but it’s true. I was thrown way beyond what I could handle and I wasn’t sure if Peace Corps was such a great idea after all.

I thought about going home. There would’ve been nothing to be ashamed of if I did, but part of me hoped and really wanted to believe that something good would come out of this, either for my community or myself. I decided that if by the end of my first year I still felt miserable, I’d go home. Now that I’ve completed half of my service, I’m glad to have stayed. Since then, I’ve developed diet education materials with a dietitian; I’ve discovered I’m not that terrible of a teacher; I’ve had the adventure of a lifetime enduring a 24hr bus ride through untouched parts of Guyana;  I got to be a part of a moving Camp GLOW for over 60+ girls; I spent New Years in Suriname; and have had plenty of good memories in between that outweigh the bad.

The last 12 months have been both overwhelming and ordinary. Living in the second most developed town in Guyana, I can’t say my lifestyle has changed all that much from before. I live in a crowded town comfortably (or uncomfortably depending on the day) with running water, reliable electricity, and wifi at my leisure. Perhaps the things that have changed the most are myself and my perspective.

I’ve seen stuff I probably won’t ever share or find the words to explain back home. With less things to distract me, the realities of death and devastation and danger are harder to dismiss. Still, simplicity and serenity and solitude continue to brush beauty alongside life’s disasters and remind me there’s some good left in the world. Some good left in humanity.

In many ways, I’m not the same person I was when I started this journey. This place has shaped me to become more vocal, resilient, and creative and perhaps a little less defensive, presumptuous, and naive than before. I’m learning to listen more and to be less interruptive; to be gentle in my ways and less judgmental; to think before I speak, just a few of many things I wasn’t very good at in the US.

Being a stranger in a strange land has a way of humiliating and humbling you. You quickly realize you don’t in fact know everything (you silly American). In the process, I’ve lost a lot of my pride but gained something truly transforming within–something more compassionate and understanding of things peculiar.

Peace Corps certainly isn’t always what you think it is. Everyday isn’t full of something altruistic. Often it’s quite the opposite–projects don’t work out, people are being really difficult, resources aren’t available, no opportunities are present, or maybe you just don’t have it in you and washing your hair is the most decent thing you’ve done all week. I wouldn’t consider that saving the world, but sometimes that’s the greatest good you can do.

I know I won’t end diabetes or high pressure or bad habits in my community. I realize this now, but I’ve learned the value of trying without any expectation of the positive impact it might have. Sharing our ideas lead to conversations, and hopefully those conversations lead to some change.

Now that my feet are more familiar with the ground they’re walking on, I’m less exhausted. Immersing yourself in a new culture, whether you agree or disagree with its norms, is tough. There’s really no way to prepare for it besides purging yourself of all your expectations, letting go of what you know, and allowing yourself to learn something new. It’s frustrating and nothing is quite ever figured out, but despite how this country has scrapped and scrubbed my soul, it’s slowly becoming a part of who I am. I know that I’ll miss this part of my life when it’s over.

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So if I fail to do anything else the next 15 months, I hope that I at least run full speed this second half savoring every moment with more warmth, more laughter, more love. For others and for myself.

Happy one year, Guyana.

 

 

 

Love always,
Mel



PEACE CORPS COUNTDOWN: 15 months left of service

miss mel! miss mel!

When things were really slow at the hospital, a dear friend suggested I teach HFLE (Health and Family Life Education) at the school she works at to make up for some downtime. While teaching HFLE is becoming the forefront of every health volunteer’s service in Guyana, none of us exactly signed up to become a teacher. With that said, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

You’ll find that other volunteers work at secondary schools and teach like 4 to 5 different classes, but I’m pretty happy (and busy) just teaching my 2 classes at a primary school.

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I didn’t really have any teaching experience prior to Peace Corps so I didn’t know what kind of teacher I was going to be. I did know, however, how I am around children. Back in the US, I really didn’t like working with kids. Ironically, I was a part-time nanny and a volunteer for a program called Kids Can Cook… it was wonderful but also terribly awkward. Now, if they are less than a year old and our conversations are limited to raspberry sounds and funny faces–that I can do all day.

Luckily before I started teaching, I helped a couple Education volunteers put on a Music Camp and Literacy Camp at their own schools. During that time, I learned a lot about the kids in Guyana, how to interact with them, class management, lesson planning, and other technical skills of what makes a good educator a good one. I imagine those kids could sense my fear as I followed behind the lead of other volunteers. But by the time it was the start of the new school year, I felt a little more ready to take on a teaching role on my own. Just a little.

HFLE consist of 4 major concepts: Self and Interpersonal Relationships, Sexuality and Sexual Health, Appropriate Eating and Fitness, and Managing the Environment. They aim to teach healthy habits to the youth in hopes of preventing/reducing the development of health problems as an adult. Unfortunately, HFLE isn’t always taught –even though it is part of their curriculum. There are several reasons: the stress of other subjects tested on standardized tests that take precedence over everything else; the negative sigma and shame surrounding many of the topics that need to be discussed; lack of resources and training; and sometimes, just because teachers don’t feel like it. It’s why Peace Corps Guyana is working with teachers towards fulfilling this gap.

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The first term I taught (September to December) focused on Self and Interpersonal Relationships where I taught about self-awareness, managing healthy relationships, puberty, diversity, and supporting mental health. All of them were lessons that helped build my relationship with the students as we learned a lot about ourselves and each other each passing week. I lucked out with some pretty awesome, well behaved kids and they made teaching really fun.

Now that the holidays are over, the second term began last week and we hit the ground running discussing sexual abuse. While I wish everything was easy and some humanitarian fairytale with only rainbows and butterflies, we were no longer drawing flowers and ice cream cones to talk about the things we like. A student I knew was raped and murdered last term, and in his memory, this was an emotional lesson to plan for. I started asking myself, “what difference does it make?” And to be quite frank, I don’t know if it will make a difference. And that’s an honest fact that many volunteers struggle with facing during their service. But I’m learning that despite the sorry feelings I have for myself and my own helplessness as a volunteer, trying anyways at least opens up the possibility of it.

The lesson was uncomfortable for everyone–the kids, me–but it was important. As a kid, I don’t think I would’ve liked talking about pedophiles and scary people who want to hurt me. But as an adult, I wish someone did. Having this conversation with the students, walking them through how to recognize when their bodies are alerting them of an unsafe situation, and practicing how to communicate their boundaries with both their voices and bodies made me realize that I may never know if it’ll make a difference in these kids lives but I can hope, like my teachers have in the past, that at least one of them is listening.

When I think about how I’m a teacher (mostly by default) today, the time and effort my past teachers poured into me, into the class, and into their work inspires me to do the same–to be not only an effective teacher, but a good one to my kids too.

I’m new to this teaching thing, but I’ve gained a lot from the experience so far. I can’t say this is something I want to do for the rest of my life, but for now, I’m loving it. Becoming their teacher gave me back some of the hope that I felt was lost in the first year of my service. Plus, I am now “Miss Mel” and hearing it being shouted from across the street (instead of the other degrading things I sometimes get called) has made me feel a little less lonely and whole lot more like a person.

I can see now why teachers do what they do.
Kids certainly have a way of making everything worth it in the end.

 

Love always,
Mel



 

special thank yous to all educators out there.
to my friends who are starting their teaching careers and the teachers I’ve had in the past.

thank you, thank you, thank you.

mental health fair

PEACE CORPS COUNTDOWN: 17 months left of service



New Amsterdam is home to the only psychiatric hospital in the country, which is currently treating around 200 patients. In commemoration of World Mental Health Day (Oct 10th, 2017), the National Psychiatric Hospital (NPH) and the Public Health Office of Region 6 held events all throughout the week.

Guyana has one of the highest suicide rates per square mile in the world. I’ve learned that mental health continues to be a scary and difficult topic to discuss, leaving many people isolated and ashamed of seeking help. This negative stigma exists in all parts of the world, but in Guyana specifically, mental health is viewed as a hopeless case in most communities.

That is why the NPH, other PCVs near and far, and I worked together to organize a mental health fair in New Amsterdam during Mental Health Week. Together we created an interactive mental health booth where community member could learn about coping mechanisms, self-care, and the aspects of healthy interpersonal relationships.

Our goal was to engage people in an activity that gave us an opportunity to strike up a conversation about mental health and break down negative stigmas. Like other illnesses and issues, mental health deserves positive attention too. When I began planning the health fair, I encourage the team to be as creative and colorful as possible to help mental health become approachable.

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For coping mechanisms, PCV Jami (Cumberland, Region 6) and Yinka (Bathe, Region 5) focused on promoting stress management. They had set up a space where people could make their own stress ball and coping fortune teller to help them during hard times. These activities fostered great conversation about stress and how there are healthy ways we can deal with it.

For self-care, PCV Leah (Talorgie, Region 6) had created a “healthy snack pairing” game where if they participated they could have a sample of some whole wheat pumpkin muffin or some yummy bean dip. PCV Becca (New Amsterdam, Region 6) helped prepare the dip and created a lovely “Self-Love Calendar” that people could take home to practice self-love.

For healthy interpersonal relationships, PCV Sarah (New Amsterdam, Region 6) and Stephanie (Suddie, Region 2) asked community members passing by what a healthy relationship meant to them and left open a blank poster for them to write down their thoughts. This activity was a great conversation starter and allowed people to share a little part of their hearts with us.

And special shoutout to PCV Connor who travelled all the way from Region 9 (12+ hour bus ride) to help us execute the whole thing!

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The primary school students from St. Therese’s and All Saints even contributed to the cause by creating a banner during my HFLE session on mental health that says “We Support Mental Health: A Happy and Healthy Future is in Our Hands.

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In my lesson, I had each student write one way they could support their mental health (hand) and one way they could support a friend in need (heart). The purpose of creating the banner was to show my students that they weren’t alone if they were struggling with something. I wanted to give them a visual of what a supportive community looks like. Over 90 students participated in this project and it was beautiful! The banner was later displayed at the Mental Health Fair for other to see.
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I loved the process of putting this event together and getting the opportunity to connect people to the betterment of their health. The health fair was later broadcasted on the local news where Dr. K (the Doctor in Charge at NPH) and I had the chance to talk about our initiative. I was confused when little cameras were suddenly pointed at my face and they handed me a mic. Gosh I’m not going to lie, it was soooooo weird to see myself on TV!!!! When I watched it later that night, I thought to myself “Dear God, woman! BREATHE! Stop talking so fast!”
Needless to say, it was the coolest experience I’ve had in my service so far and I hope to do something like this again.

 

Love always,
Mel

family, food, and other fun things

Want to know what a “casual” party in Guyana looks like?

The planning doesn’t take long. It’s someone’s birthday, engagement, retirement, or day off and you decide to have a party the next week. This is kind of how it goes:

First, you cook all day. You wake up to the sound of soca music and the whole family starts prepping all the food that needs to be cooked for the party. It’s an exhausting affair for the people hosting it, but a good time for everyone that comes.

From 9am to 4pm, you are in the kitchen cooking all Guyanese foods. So much of this hits home. Around 4pm, everything is pretty much done (hopefully) and you must bathe before you go socialize. To be honest, I don’t always do this and I get by with a little bit of help from lavender essential oils.

When people start arriving, you start serving the “cutters”. You can call these appetizers or food you eat when you drink. While people start rolling in, my host mom and I are scrambling to figure out where we put everything and how to properly arrange it on each plate. We try to make sure everybody gets a piece so of course there’s no left overs.

“Cutters” usually consists of the following:

CHANNA–also known as chick peas fried up with onions, garlic, celery, sometimes a little bit of carrot, and topped with lots of sour and maybe some pepper sauce. “Sour” is a mango based dip that you pretty much put on everything.

STUFFED EGGS–also known as deviled eggs in the US. My host mom and I boiled, peeled, and scraped the eggs this morning. You’ll find them in an assortment of colors like pink, green, and often times blue. You make about 1 egg person you think will attend. It’s not often people eat more.

BLACK AND WHITE PUDDING–first, let me tell you that it’s not pudding or even remotely close to it. It’s seasoned rice inside a sausage casing. The difference between “white” and “black” is that the blood they cook a set of rice in makes it black. “White” pudding is of course not as good and without the some animal blood. I wish I could tell you which animal.

FRIED FISH–pretty self explanatory. You dip it in a mayo, ketchup, and pepper sauce mixture and enjoy the night.

BAKED PORK–I don’t usually eat the pork, but it’s always there at parties.

CHEESE STRAW–You’ll find one or two of these in your take away box or in a large container for people to take as they please. It’s made of cheese, flour, margarine, mustard, and pepper sauce. Don’t hate it until you try it because they’re weirdly addicting.

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And all the while you’re eating these things, you have this:

GT BEER, MALTA, SHANDY, RUM–pick your poison. I usually start with a couple beers and work my way to a rum and coke by the end of the night. After an entire day of cooking, this comes as a refreshing reward for the good times about to unfold.

Yes, the party is mostly about the food… but what good party isn’t? We invite friends, family, and neighbors to eat, drink, dance, and lime the whole day. It’s a loud symphony of people laughing, music blasting, some people arguing, and lots of joking. There’s no real start or finish to a party. People come over some time in the late afternoon/early evening and go home when they want it to. Typically when food comas hit and you catch grandpa falling asleep at the table.

When the night is finished, we have take away boxes that we send our guests home with. It’s quite the assembly line in the kitchen as we fill each box with cook-up, chicken, cheese straws, a tiny (and I mean tiny) set of salad, a square of mac and cheese, a folded piece of roti with curry inside, and if you’re lucky… some extra black pudding. Everyone gets one so don’t even try to refuse it. We don’t care if your belly is about to explode, take the box and be merry.

Today was actually my host dad’s birthday and you can bet that the day has played out just as I described. I’ve managed to escape the chaos for a little bit to write this out and share with you what it’s like to lime with people you love in Guyana.

I have to say, aside from the food and fun I’ve experienced here, loving and being loved by my host family has been the best part. Not only are they loving and amazing and understanding, but I can appreciate how comfortable we are to give each other a hard time about everything and argue aimlessly around the grill with each other. It’s what families do.

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So with that said and a glass of rum in hand–cheers to family, food, and other fun things. Happy birthday, Jamaine!!!!! 🙂

Love always,
Mel