Category Archives: Personality and Perception

Managing Expectations

Our precious cargo.
Our precious cargo.

We crossed the ocean with them.  We flew over the Mediterranean and the Maghreb with them.  We took them in a bus to a boat and now up a dusty dirt road, into a women’s organization in a rural area that was lucky enough to produce a Mama Benz.  Benze as in Mercedes, meaning that this badass woman Mire is constantly on television, and is really rather running the show in Benin’s two major cities.

We cram into an area too small for 25 yovos and about 60 partially-inflated soccer balls, nevermind the twenty or so Beninoise women who were recieving us.  As we pump the soccer balls and hear the excited screams of children too poor to go to school but clever enough to know we have soccer balls, a welcoming speech is made.  I almost spit my warm water when I hear this:

Thank you so much for coming, and for bringing all of these wonderful soccer balls.  But the river is quite big, and perhaps next time you could bring a boat?”

I am too stunned to translate it immediately.  But I do, and good lord are we all alarmed.

Children wait below the balcony, hoping for a soccer ball.
Children wait below the balcony, hoping for a soccer ball.

The list continued.  Money, food, medecine, everything.  But the image of 25 kids splitting a boat into pieces so we could fit it into our checked luggage and then reassemble it in West Africa really showed how much we were misunderstood.

Lori handled the rather imperious requests in a polite but assertive way, explaining that we were not an aid organization or in any way charged with the duty of dispersing funds (not true, but for their purposes it was, and you best believe they found out we gave other groups grants.)

Whenever someone tells me they have been perfectly clear about their intentions in the developing world, I always pcture myself lugging a massive wooden canoe, haggling with the gate agent about how much it costs to check it.

193No matter how clear you are, there will be expectations.  This is because every white person before us had shown up with money.  This is because in a small country, it doesn’t take long for everyone to find out we have money to spend on certain projects.  This is because our wealth is incomprehensible to many others, in the same way their poverty is incomprehensible to us.  If we have ipods, how can we not have the $60,000 they need to buy a machine?  Don’t we have enough money to not only live in America but to leave it at will, to go to school enough to speak in foreign tongues?

In this respect, I think our Capstone did some irreversible damage to the reputation of gringoes.  We are hardly alone in that, but the precedent is set.  Worse, I think we were all collectively far too naive about the expectations we were walking into.  Just because we were perfectly clear doesn’t mean it came across as we intended it.  If every group is perfectly clear that they are not giving away food or money, but then proceed to do one or both of those things, it is natural for people to assume that, “we’re not giving you food or money,” is gringo for, “just wait a few days and Santa Claus will be here.”

To think that our actions and words are the only ones that contribute to what is expected of us is a rookie mistake.  It is one of those mistakes that I can’t help but feel is the difference between the business mindset and social sciences mindset, for better or for worse.

Ego Goes Both Ways

Normally when I travel, yoga is a daily occurrence or more.  It calms me down, helps me sleep better and often attracts friends.  This past week, however, I did a few stealthy backbends and that was about it.  And man, was I suffering because of it.

In yoga, one of the internal (eternal) quests is to shed the ego, something I have a lot of trouble with.  This means no mini victory dances when I get twistier than the tiny chick in lululemon pants.  In fact, I’m not even supposed to compare myself to lulu. Generally, not wearing my glasses and closing my eyes helps, but there’s still that little voice that makes me keep going when my flat feet are killing me, because I don’t want people to think I’m too terrible to hold a warrior I.

This past week, I saw the harm of my ego cutting the other way.  I was uncomfortable joining in the small ragtag group doing yoga in the middle of breakfast.  This is totally unlike me, as there are pictures of me doing yoga pretty much everywhere: airports, bars, hotel rooms, parties, restaurants, the Sahara dessert.  I laughed, gave some superior advice from afar, and watched the group of newbies look confused and redfaced. Meanwhile, my back was aching for a good chataranga.  Given how easy it was to be “one of them” (gooba-gabba!) once I allowed myself to do it, I wonder how much of that otherness I was feeling was self-induced.

By one of them, I mean a part of this new segment of NU’s population.  For them, I am (or was) an unknown quality.  All week people told me they thought I was a freshmen, they didn’t know my name, or they thought I was 19.  This is not the perception I am used to.  I am used to being a leader, intimidating, respected.  Even among new groups, I tend to emerge as a talker and a an asset early on.  Not so in this shark pit.  Do they make shark pits?  Whatever, this group is so weird and intimidating it needs its own expressions.

I have no problem looking dumb/silly/whatever.  I do, however, have a problem having people think I care about looking dumb.  Key distinction, of course.

Presumably, they no longer think I’m dumb or a non-factor.  Actually, it didn’t take long for the people I spent time with to start making the same friendly jokes I always hear about my vocabulary.  And once I had the chance for some good one-on-ones I could feel my words becoming more important to my audience.  I learned a whole lot from everyone else of course–there was never any question about that.  I was all brandy-new to the school of business, this professor, these field studies and this social group, so I was constantly learning and reevaluating.  I think I just missed feeling like my presence created learning for others as well.  I guess SEI is like a really big family–you have to be very loud or very patient.  And in a loud family, even the quiet ones are raucous.

So next time you see people dancing or doing yoga or laughing or really any little thing you love to do, don’t  hide yourself  away.  Put your ego aside and join them.  Somebody may even learn something.

The Secret Can Shove It

Here’s a great link on the dangers of la-la positive thinking, as demonstrated by Eat, Pray, Love and a great feminist take on the whole thing.  Thinking positive is good, but the philosophy only works if you’re already a person of privilege.  White, western, educated women can think their way to a positive, successful life because by and large, they already have it.  Your parents worked for it, your country paved the way for it, and your skin color certainly didn’t hurt.

But what about people with (and I hesitate to say this, but it seems necessary) real problems?  Hungry people can certainly stay upbeat and do the best they can, but that won’t make them less hungry.

It is the complacent who let themselves be oppressed, which is one of the better arguments for why dictators should bother to feed their people.  Keep ’em fat, happy and reading the Secret and suddenly their problems either don’t exist or are solely their fault.

Not to be ridiculous, but the Holocaust didn’t happen because Jews were pessimistic or cranky.  People don’t have cancer relapses because they stopped writing in their daily affirmation journals.  Louisiana and much of Southeast Asia could absolutely not have used positive thinking to clean up after a natural disaster.  They used their damn hands.  Should you count your blessings?  Of course.  But the mindset that all things can be fixed with positive thinking also implies that the opposite is true: people with problems should have fixed them with optimism and “positive energy”.

And in case you’re in a sleepy haze of dreaming your way to health, wealth and happiness, here’s something to get angry about.

Something Worth Celebrating: National Coming Out Day

Instead of some long-dead jerk who didn’t really discover America (he DID land in Cuba though!) and even if he had, was clearly second-best to the vikings, let’s celebrate something real, something American.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

That’s really what this is all about.  I don’t care what your politics or your religion are, everyone deserves to be happy.  They deserve to get promoted or hired based on their skills, to adopt if they’re fit parents and so choose.  To go on dates in public and not feel glares or hear slurs.  To go to school and learn, not hide from bullies.  If you have a problem with that, I think you’ve misunderstood America and what we’re doing here, and I’d kindly direct you to re-read some of our most important documents.  Or might I interest you in a stint in North Korea?  I hear Kim Jong-il isn’t a big fan of tolerance or civil liberties either.

For National Coming Out Day, I encourage you to post on facebook, twitter or your blog encouraging our friends, families and neighbors to be comfortable in their own skin, whatever that may mean to them.  You should also look at the It Gets Better Project over on youtube.  Far too many kids have been bullied and lives have been lost.  Show people you Give a Damn.

And finally, a plea: if you’re cruel to people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning, trans, intersex, in transition, or a myriad of other things that simply don’t fit the standard view of normal, you’re only hurting yourself.  Inevitably, there are people in your life who are in those categories.  Do you know what happens to gay teenagers whose families don’t accept them?  They find a new family.  They lead happy, successful lives where they build their own tribe out of friends, coworkers, boyfriends, girlfriends and spouses.  But they won’t feel comfortable with you.  They’ll limit their time with you, because pretending around you and limiting who they are, will suck.

So don’t drive loved ones away, and don’t spread hate.  Learn more, and make sure everybody, no matter how different or special or marginalized or weird they are, feels welcome here.  Because that’s what every good, patriot American should do, right?

Happy coming out day!

Why We Stay Home

There was a lot of backlash over what “Nomadic Matt” wrote on HuffPo about a month ago, and a whole bunch more backlash on post by Mike Barish on Gadling.  And I can understand why–there are a lot of assumptions inherent in both pieces, and people don’t like feeling judged.  I’m not mad at Matt, I just think he got it wrong, and I appreciate the thoughtfulness with which Mike considers paths that are different from his.  When I stay home, I’m not “choosing money” (or even long hours).  I choose my parents, my boyfriend, a hometown (and city) that I love.  I choose First Communions and first steps, 80th birthday parties and free movies in the park. 

Matt writes of the elation that comes from a new world around every corner.  One of the things I have noticed in myself, and one of the things I’m most proud of, is that I have more wonder and whimsy in my everyday life because of travel.  I am a little jaded to “the big reveal,” to the simple notion of being in a different country or or on a different continent, but I find joy in all the tiny wonders, beauties and mysteries around me, no matter if I’m in Boston or Benin. 

I feel sorry for Matt–his home is not special to him.  For me, Boston is still a place with new neighborhoods to discover, shows to see, books to read and people to meet.  Boston is also where I learn.  I learn about me, and about other cultures and places and languages.  I think part of my love of home, and lack of Travel Constantly Bug, is my travel style.  I don’t care about the Full Moon Party in Thailand, and I don’t want to spend only a couple of days in each place.  I don’t want to just party, meet people in hostels and move on.  It works for a lot of (vocal) people, but it’s not the only way to do the travel thing.  When it comes down to it, That ain’t my style. 

I dislike that Matt painted the world as full of either full-time travelers and those who choose money/monotany.  I am not at home because I am too poor, too boring or too unimaginative.  I’m not home because I love money, or even because college is making me.  I am home precisely because I choose to be, because I love it.  Everyone who knows me knows I don’t generally do anything I dont feel like doing.  I certainly could be abroad now, on co-op in Egypt or France.  I could be applying to another semester abroad in the spring.  But I’m not, and I don’t regret it. 

We all have different priorities, Matt.  Please don’t assume that mine are flawed just because they are different from yours.

The Meritocracy Myth

I love the idea of meritocracy, don’t get me wrong; everyone gets what they earn, no more and no less.  I just wish we lived in one.  And I wish we didn’t have such a flawed, fanatical sense of what it means to live in a meritocracy.  I would even posit that we hold the meritocracy–the sense of getting what you deserve and deserving what you get–closer to our collective American heart than the democracy.

Meritocracy leads to False Entitlement

The problem with the idea of a meritocracy is that we act as though EVERYTHING is given based on merit.  If someone wins the lottery, falls in love, gets a good job or is thin and attractive, they say, “What did I do to deserve this?”  Most people eventually determine that they “must have done something right.” This ignores luck, familial ties, social/institutional advantages, gender, race, geography and genetics.  This then leads to thinking that if you have something, and it’s because you deserve it, then those who don’t have something must be lacking because they don’t deserve it.  Inevitably, this leads to major judgments (often of the moral variety) of those who are overweight, single, homeless, unemployed, less educated, poor, you name it.  Of course, for most Americans, this whole thought process takes place in less than a minute. 

We’re Not Really a Meritocracy

A meritocracy is great, but unfortunately we don’t really live in one.  Age, height, attractiveness, gender and race all have significantly more to do with your successes or failures than your actual hard work (or the other guy’s).  I think the people who don’t believe in this, in institutionalized and sub-conscious racism, sexism, elitism etc are the ones who have a hard time believing that quotas and Affirmative Action can be a good thing.  Instead of looking at facts and our flawed system (and minds), they cling to the emotional narrative of the hard-working white man who is constantly bypassed for promotions in favor of women and minorities.  Never mind that this man (your son, father, husband or friend) may not actually deserve the promotion, the person must have been less experienced, less educated, less deserving and with less seniority, and they must have “gotten away with it” because of their minority status.

If we let go of that emotional narrative, and see that white men by and large have the most advantages of anyone in our society (especially if they’re tall, have their hair, and are attractive), then we can see that perhaps other people deserve a chance.

I leave you with this, from the talented and blissfully succinct Jessica Hagy:

Play around with her site (link above) for more gems.

Why I Travel: A Sense of Clarity

Reflecting on Pico Iyer’s Why I Travel, the many ensuing responses, and the current political climate in the US, I thought I would try my hand at it. 

I’ve noticed that often, people try to hijack my travel experience and use it to reinforce their world view.  “Oh, you must have loved Cuba–but I bet you’re so happy you live here with all this stuff and where we’re all FREE!”  Or, “Oh wow, you must have loved Cuba, getting to see how awesome a country is even though it’s not capitalist and America’s trying to keep it DOWN!”

I generally don’t feel comfortable responding in the affirmative to either statement.  The “you must really love our wealth/infrastructure/freedoms” people are right, I am happy to live in a country with pillowtop matresses, good water pressure and wings whenever I want them.  But their statement almost always contains an inherent pejorative of wherever I’ve just been, a sense that it was a lovely/educational dalliance, but now I was back in the REAL world, the good one.

On the other hand, the business about seeing places so different from America, without our “rampant consumerism, corrupt politicians and danger around every turn” does ring true–a little bit.  There really are other ways of carrying on life and a country, ones that are far less selfish and just as succesful.  But these views tend to put the rose-colored glasses on for foreign countries.  And let’s be honest, if I won’t wear them for my own country, I’m certainly not going to wear them for anyone else’s.

I love travel because it sorts the wheat from the schraff.  I get to see other communities where people don’t have the same assumptions as we do here, and see how successful they are in carrying out their lives based on their own values and assumptions.  I get to compare different ways of respecting or interpreting civil rights, and see what I like about different the approaches.

Traveling helps me better see the world for what it is.  To see past the stereotypes, politicians and social constructs that have been ingrained in me (or others) for the duration of my life.  To discover best practices on everything, from recycling to child-rearing to dating to cooking.

Travel doesn’t make me hate America, and it doesn’t make me overwhelmingly happy I live here.  It just helps me see and understand the truth about every community I interact with, including my own.  And the hope is that someday, this aggregate knowledge will help me in my dream of developing communities into places that are better at recyling or child rearing, dating or cooking, no matter where on earth I end up doing that.