Thursday, November 24, 2005

City of God-Ghana

Like Many cities in the Global South, Accra has a a "shanty town"...or Ghetto as they're known back home in the States. This little part of Accra is called Jamestown, the first British Settlement in Ghana. Jamestown is home to the dispossed, marginalized, voiceless, ignored, and discarded. It's were the bruden of Neo-Liberal policies weighs the heaviest and where the exploitation of the Global South is the most visable.

Jamestown, like many of the "Ghettos" here in Ghana, has been ignorned by the government. There is a lack of running water, lack of housing, lack of sanitation-which leads to health issues. And as if to let those living in Jamestown that they don't matter, sweage is allowed to be dispossed on the coast next to the Jamestown, contaminating the water that many of the citizens fish from.

Logically, the lack of jobs and capital causes frustration, desparation, and sadness. This is what one would expect from Jamestown. Yet on my one visit there, and must stress it was only one visit, I didn't see faces of dispair. It's not like people didn't have anything to be sad about, but it seems like there was just more to be happy for.

Music blasting from sound systems filled the air with sweet rhythms, causing the little ones to gyrate, hop, skip, two-step, shake their buts all up and down the crowded street. The smell of delicious sweets, meats, and home made dishes let all know that dinner would be ready soon. As the sun set, people came out to fill their buckets with water so that they could take bucket baths over the drainage ditches that line the streets. While some might see this as humilating...and even embarassing, nakedness was clearly nothing to be ashamed of in Jamestown, and it even inspired playful water fights. Life in Jamestown, although difficult, is not sad. No, it's colorful, magical, and beautiful...the way that life can be when people can be when they're at their best. Children laugh easily, friends share readily, families give love freely. This is how Jamestown makes it, while it waits for the government to pay attention to it and give it's people the respect they deserve. Although the government has turned it's back on Jamestown, God surley hasn't. Like many of the people say, by the grace of God, they live on.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Bloggin' Ghana

Well I have been guilty of the worst sin one can commit in this community of traveling students…and that is not contributing to the blog. So to repent…I am going to give a through update…the trouble is where to start.

Since my last entry…I’ve left the United Kingdom for a warmer, sunnier, and more tropical climate. The Blackstar state of Africa, or Ghana, is perhaps one of the most beautiful countries I have visited…and being that I’ve only seen a handful…my word doesn’t mean much. However, that said, I am part of a long line of travelers to have ranked Ghana high on their favorite places list…including W.E.B. DuBois…who loved it here so much he decided to spend the last few years of his life in Accra.

Ghana is a difficult place to explain. Like many countries on this continent, Ghana has a long complex history. So I want to say here that I don’t claim to be any authority of Ghanian culture, history, or life…because I’m still slowly taking in the sights and understanding it all my self.

Being here has been powerful. For one, it has placed a lot into perspective for me. I think there is a tendency to clump African countries into one group…as if all countries on this continent have the same culture, language, and history. The truth is, there is so much diversity within regions, countries, and even towns and cities, that when that generalization is made…it can misses a lot. Ghana in itself has a great deal of diversity within its borders. Although everyone is Ghanaian, there are a number of tribes within the different regions, and there is even a great deal of religious difference. For example, just in the greater Accra region, there are a number of languages spoken. Aside from English, people within Accra also speak Twi, Ga, and Ewe. This diversity in language has to do with the diversity of tribes that lived within Ghana before it became a state. As you can imagine, it makes things a little confusing, but I have four months here and I intend to get it down, because I have no excuse not to. I think the first step is pronouncing “Twi” correctly(it’s like chu-wee…but a lot more complicated)…and then maybe I’ll finally get “Tro Tro.”

It’s been a challenge, in short. Aside from battling the local diseases that “Oboruni’s” (white people/foreigners) get, like Malaria and stomach parasites, I’ve also been struggling to get used to the city. Unlike other cities on this continent like Lagos or Cape Town, Accra is very much still developing. It’s a city of vast urban sprawl…expanding a great distance in all directions. Although it has a city center, it’s a lose interpretation and really doesn’t centralize anything. Also, as a developing nation, commodities that I’ve taken for granted are hard to come by. Clean and safe water is something that most people don’t have, waste management is handled in an unusual way, and public transportation is not nearly as convenient as hoping on a 6 train downtown. That said, it has been interesting to see the ways that these things are fulfilled.

Large containers, called poly tanks, can be found in central areas of some of the “shanty-towns” that don’t have running water. These containers are filled with water, and for the equivalent of 5 cents, people can fill buckets for bath and cleaning water. In the evening, people fill up buckets and take their bucket baths over the open drainages, very much in public. Although this isn’t something you’d see in the “developed world,” it’s everyday reality for people here. What’s interesting for me is to see the way communities resolve a commodity that is normally provide by the municipality or state. It’s also interesting to see how tight knit the communities are. One would never dream of dressing down on the corner of a New York City street to take a bucket bath, but here it’s a natural, and even communal event. Everyone takes a bath on the street at sunset together; it’s one giant extended family gathering. Truly an amazing thing to witness.

The lack of waste management does create a huge problem within the city (and country for that matter). There is no municipal trash collection, and sewage disposal is far from sanitary. Most people resort to burning their garbage, because they can’t afford to pay the few private trash collection agencies (that end up taking the garbage somewhere out of site and burning the garbage for you). As for the sewage disposal; sewage trucks take the human waste to a beach area near Jamestown (one of the “lower income” “shanty-towns”) and dump the waste into the sea. Yes, this does cause health problems in Jamestown, and I wouldn’t recommend swimming in the beaches near that area.

Public transportation is solved by an intricate system of Tro-Tro’s, Joining Taxi and Drop-in Taxi’s. The cheapest (and more social) option are the Tro-Tro’s that are small vans that seat 9 people comfortably and 15 people for a more communal experience. This is my favorite choice because you normally get very close to your fellow commuter and get to meet some colorful people. However, this is not the safest option. Most of the Tro-Tro drives act like the roads of Ghana are the American Wild West and push the limits and rules of the road in every possible way. Sometimes, both the passengers and drivers lose out; the Tro-Tro’s have been known to flip over. It’s a risk, but normally this is a safe way to travel throughout the city, although it’s not recommended for long distances because of the cramped conditions and safety issue. As for taxi’s, they’re more expensive and less fun, especially when you have to bargain with the drive so you don’t get ripped off (although I secretly like these interactions as they bring out the best in both me and the drivers…especially if you approach the situation with a little humor).

I have to admit that it was a bit of a shock to see how underdeveloped Ghana is, and I say this at the risk of sounding like a tight ass American tourist. Yet, once you learn the different social rules and norms, and learn to let go of the comforts and convince of America (or whatever other western world you just landed from) you really begin to appreciate the humor, warmth, and kindness of this country. In many ways, it makes some of the more annoying things, like traffic, rude taxi drivers, and the constant “Oboruni!!” calls, less annoying. And lets face it, there’s traffic, rude taxi drivers, and call outs everywhere, in fact it’s more likely to happen in New York than in Accra.

In addition to Accra, I’ve been to Kumasi, which is a beautiful city in the interior of Ghana. In theory, Kumasi should be a four-hour road trip north from Accra. In reality, it’s about eight hours; one hour out of Accra (because of traffic) about six hours travel time (because of poorly paved roads) and one hour getting into Kumasi (because of traffic). Despite the long journey (which is also very social and communal, like the Tro-Tro), the trip immediately pays off when you step into Kumasi. It’s a slower paced more centralized city than Accra. It’s easier to manage because it’s not so big and the people seem to be less intense and friendlier. It could be compared to the difference between New York City and Philadelphia. Although there isn’t much to see and do directly in Kumasi, a trip to the central market on market day is enough action and adventure to fill your trip. It’s supposedly the largest Markey in West Africa, which I can easily believe. Once you jump in, you have no choice but to move forward. The market is divided into different sections that sell different things: sunglasses, bras, underwear go together; meat, fish, and poultry are grouped the same way; and spices, herbs, and things of that such can be found in the same area; and lastly the fabrics, crafts, and art goods are in the same vicinity of each other. This of course is a treat for all the senses. You smell thing you’ve never smelled, ranging from sweet, foul, spicy, to flavorful. You see animals in their worst way; skinned goats, tied up ducks, mutilated chickens. People call out to you to buy things or just to see if they can get the foreigner to turn their head in their direction. Music blasts from all directions. Colorful cloths, fabrics, beads and crafts are placed within eyesight to draw in the wandering customer. It’s truly Ghana at it’s best.

I also had an opportunity to watch Kumasi’s futbol team play a qualifying match for the national premier league. This was also a treat for the senses, but also an amazing display of community solidarity. It seemed as if the entire city came out in force to support Kumasi. It was an intense match, and to be honest much more entertaining than the English style of play because players seem to be more aggressive, take more risks, and seemed to add some style to their dribbling. In the end Kumasi won the match on penalty kick and the city was loud with celebration for most of the evening. I left Kumasi with a Kotoko (the name of the team, I think it means porcupine) jersey, some tasty highlife and reggae records, and a sense that I would come back soon.

Back in Accra things are becoming increasingly familiar. I’m slowly finding little pleasures in the way of life here and beginning to appreciate and enjoy my time here. By some divine manipulation of fate, I’ve met with the other Watson Fellow here in Accra…completely by accident. Although us fellows shouldn’t be socializing too much, I have to admit that it’s been a blessing to share sometime with Bennett. Meeting him has comforted me on some of my difficulties, has helped me to see the hard times in a more humorous light, and has given me a new friend in this truly global adventure. He’s a kind soul with a good head on his shoulders, and it makes me excited to meet the other Watson Fellows come August. So far I can say that two fellows are truly amazing individuals, as I know Hilary personally and have become fast friends with Bennett. I can’t imagine what the other fellows are like. It’s difficult…most of the time, however chance meetings with blessed individuals always makes it easy to find things to laugh about. Ghanaian’s have a much better sense of humor than most people I’ve come across. I suppose when life is this busy, this active, this colorful, this flavorful, there is very little not to laugh and be happy about. People here seem to find the little slices of paradise to help navigate through a country that has seen some rough days. Although the quality of life is not the best, the value of life here is high. People know how to enjoy themselves, despite the difficult things they have to work through. It reminds me a great deal of Cuba in that respect.

As for me, I know that things will probably get more difficult before they get easier. The holidays are coming soon…and as much as I try to suck it up, I can’t help but miss the nice crisp fall air, Mom’s delicious thanksgiving dinner, the warmth of home, the laughter I share with my Jacqueline and Daniel, and the comfort of knowing that so many people love you as you are. Although I know this is always going to be there for me, I wouldn’t mind a little of it right now. But despite the lingering feeling of homesickness, I know that I have been blessed. The things I see here are some of the most real, tangible, beautiful, and vibrant things I have ever witnessed in my life. It makes me appreciate the things I miss so much more and truly humbles me to a point were I now understand that despite the hardships my family has gone through, nothing really compares to the reality that many people face everyday. This, I would never trade, for anything.

So, I hope this update repents for my sins. I promise to be a more active traveling bean blogger from here on out. I’ve been struggling with things, but am slowly starting to feel like my self again…or maybe feel like a new person. In either case, my creative juices are flowing again and I think I can say that I will contribute some more to this project. I miss my friends so much. Hilary, I’ve been praying for you. I saw how the hurricane hit Guatemala and it’s made me worry about you a little. But I know you’re strong and I know that you’re at the exact places you’re suppose to be…so I pray that you’re creating small miracles along the way. Nicole, I here Kiwi Land is a wicked place to be, and I hope that you’re having as much fun as I’ve been told you can have there. Live it up four the four of us. And to Jackie…my love, well…you know how much I miss you. I’m excited to share my adventure with you in January and excited to create our own adventures, but until then…know that siempre estas en mi corazon. Before I leave I wanted to ask the group if it would be ok to invite a new traveling bean to the mix. Bennett is a cool dude and I think you’d all very much like him. He’s comes from the same stuff we do, and I think he would love to be apart of this community. If it’s cool with all…I’ll speak to him and let him know how to join. Till next time…love to all.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Ethnic Asians: Not American Enough

Last month Fulbright had a mandatory conference --which was a lot like a mini-vacation-- in Gyeongju, which is on the north eastern coast of Korea. We were supposed to have a workshop titled, "The Korean-American Experience vs. Non-Korean American Experience." I protested to the title, saying that it was polarizing and misleading --clumping the experiences of all Korean Americans, effectively essentializing and stereotyping them. So it was changed to emphasize a broader discourse of difference. Still, a large topic of discussion was how some of us have been treated differently and have received certain expectations and hardships simply because we are Korean America --i.e. look Korean. In retrospect, considering the so many instances I have found myself in, I sort of wish we had that workshop or could have it again, using the original title, because I could use a place to vent and reason the various, at times contradicting, and most of the time confusing situations I am in.

For example: My host mother once told me that she had to deal with people in our building thinking that I was her husband's younger lover. Why she had to tell me, why they would think that her husband's younger lover would be living with him and his wife and always hanging out with his wife is topic for another blog; however, what I want to share is she later on hinted that if I were white, she probably would not have had that trouble to deal with. I couldn't help but notice the resentment in her voice. In other fall-outs we've had, she has mentioned something to the effect of, if I were American (not even white, just if I were American...hmmm....AMERICAN DOES NOT = WHITE is all I wanted to say), we probably would not be arguing or it would be different. She has stressed that it gets difficult for her sometimes because when she looks at me, I "look so Korean" she expects me to behave like a Korean person. Whatever that means. I have still yet to determine whether there really is specific Korean behavior, whether she is using it as an excuse, both, or maybe something else.

Example #2: Two mornings I caught the elevator the same time as an older man in my building. The first time, he noted that I lived on the 20th floor. Yes I do. Are you not Korean? No I am not, I am American. Oh. The second time we met, So you're not Korean? You sure damn look Korean. Are your parents Korean? Yes they are Korean. Well you said you were American. I am, I was born in America...and at this point I rather be American than Korean because I can't stand the way Koreans are passive aggressive, condescending, judgemental, repressive, sexist, patriarchal, hierarchical, and so on. I didn't say the second half (I don't know how to say all that in Korean and besides, I know better than to generalize like that...I know that is just how I feel sometimes...), I just simply explained that I was born in America. He then answered, Well then you're Korean...but his voice faded as he heard himself say it because he was puzzled himself whether I was Korean or American.

Example #3: I was interviewed for the school newspaper. For my picture they wanted to include some shots they took of me during a workshop I lead for the other English teachers here. However, they are afraid that I am unidentifiable in the picture because, well, I look Korean just like all the other teachers. Imagine that. So, I was asked for antoher picture, perhaps one with "my friends" in it or my family. So I showed a picture of my brother, his two kids, and me from graduation. The teacher's reponse, "Well....they look...Korean." My reply: "That's because they are." She didn't know what to say. I wasn't trying to prove a point...I sincerely don't have any other pictures. If I had a good picture of me and Hilary, I would've given that because I'm sure that's what she was looking for. I didn't have that picture, so I didn't have the opportunity to just relinquish this time. I was forced to push the issue. Then I told her, well you know I just don't really have many pictures with other white friends. Then I continued on with whether that mattered because in America not everyone is white. She knew what I was saying, but she said the people putting the newspaper together needed something different.

In the end...I found a way to settle it, get the picture. ha. no pun intended.

The examples are endless. Truly...I just don't want to list them all.

It's interesting to juxtapose these experiences against what I went through in Cuba. I remember, Kristofer and I telling people he was Puerto Rican and that I was Korean instead of saying we were from America. I mean...many times people did want to know our ethnicities, but we also weren't being up front about our nationalities (though they figured it out anyway). But as I continue to live here, and though I can "pass" as a national Korean --my accent is almost perfect when I saw the everyday important things (greetings, polite phrases, etc.) I almost don't want to get by that way.

Sometimes, passing feels like relinquishing my English words and tongue, my walk, my posture, my big "bahng bahng" (like a car horn...y'know my butt...that's what my host mother said to me once, "Whoah, Jackie! Bahng Bahng!"), my laugh (a lot of times I hear students surprised and mocking my loud though it is unbridled in comparison to what they are used to) up things that are hard to control, but that people remind me of and comment on all the time. Passing doesn't even necessarily mean giving up being "American." Passing doesn't even mean conforming all the time. Passing sometimes seems to mean fading away in the background so that people will stop noticing me, asking questions about me because they are used to knowing about other peoples' lives by decoding certain clues and behaviors.

A thought just came into my mind: why did the man have to figure out who I was? If I were slightly younger looking, he would not have paid any attention to me. Because I do not fall readily into any category --my sexual capital is ambiguous: I am not a young girl or a married woman, but am somehow different and noticable. Thus, he had to ask me questions in order to catalog me and place me accordingly. This has also happened many times. I am sick of feeling like a tempting harlot just because my age is ambiguous and because I do not conform to the way many women look here (aka: my big butt, "smaller face", lack of make up and thus "natural look", upright posture, direct eye contact**). You'd think I had a big, red S on my chest.

I should probably retitle this blog...I have no ideas...I'm sick of categorizing, labeling, stereotyping, fitting, squeezing, ...just know, this is one aspect of my life here. Not a big just seems big when I am tired or annoyed.

**these are all details that others have pointed out many many times.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Power of Now

Although I have touched on this idea a bit elsewhere, I feel the need to bring this idea to light, for it has made me such a happier person in only a week's time.

I feel that our society (specifically that of the United States) has created a generation of people who are so obesessed with the idea of "success". Although success is really a very relative term, to be defined differently from one person to the next, I think it is safe to say that we can deem "success" the financial stability brought about through job security and the assurance of a progressing paycheck. Fair enough?

That being said, I have recently released myself from this trap. Who remembers being asked, as young as age five, the seemingly innocent question "what do you want to be when you grown up?" I certainly do. And from that moment on I have always had the utopian plan--nice house, big back yard, happy family, fantastic job. Security at it's finest. Though, how many "successful" and secure people are truly happy? As I sat and watched a dinner party recently, I was amazed to see that very few of the seemingly successful people looked truly happy. After a discussion with a new friend I also realized that most of them weren't really happy and it was pretty much all an act. (Funny what you find 9000 miles from home in a place where everyone is supposed to be carefree.)

Why do I bring this up? Because it all relates back to the way we perceive our own lives. I will use myself as a stark example, proud to admit that I have improved upon my life. For years I have obsessed over the future. Will I pass this test? Will I be accepted to the college of my choice? Will I win States? Will I make nationals? What should I major in? What should I do for a living? Should I go to New Zealand? When should I come home from New Zealand? What if I don't have enough money? What if I make a wrong decision? The two questions I should have been asking myself is "what if I were to die tomorrow? Would I have died happy?" The answer before, would have been "no" for one big reason: Because I was so constantly worried about the future, I was not allowing myself to enjoy my current position in life.

Moving on. Another immense issue that has crept into my life has been my intense obsession with my past. I have been a very lucky person, I will not deny that, and I become so hung up on the fantastic things from my past, that I have a terrible time letting go of them. I would long for the little things about my home, pine away for my friends, think longingly of hometown, my college, my teams, my accomplishments and past jobs; everything that had nothing to do with Now. I should have been dwelling on the wonderful people I was meeting, the cute new place I was living, the little nooks and crannies of my new town, and the cool new sports I was trying. My need for the comfortable happiness of my past also kept me from the fantastic new present I was experiencing.

So we have the past, through which one defines oneself. We also have the future, which one is constantly focused on. There is no room left for the present. Consider this amusing concept: A person works hard to get to point A. Constantly thinking about Point A and how wonderful it will be once she arrives there. Finally, with Point A in her grasp, she expects to be happy. But she is not. Because she is already focusing on Point B. She doesn't even take the time to enjoy all the hard work that has gotten her to Point A. She just begins ot obsess over the next step in life. What good is all the crappy walking and waiting if one doesn't even enjoy the ride once one gets there?

OK, you may be asking yourself "where the hell is this girl going with all of this 'Point A, power of Now, past, present, future'" nonsense? My point, although simple, is not always obvious: we must enjoy the present. We much revel in the moments of our current life. We must stop worrying about becoming the next CEO of Chubb, the most reknowned academic in our field, the richest member of the country club, the person with the flashiest car, the couple with the perfect-looking family, the girl with the plan, the guy with all the answers. It is OK to let go of the past, remembering it when appropriate. It is also OK to rest the future on the backburner of our minds and live for the moment. So you don't know what you want to do with your life? So what? Try something different. Move somewhere new. Explore, adventure, inspire. I have already lived 22 years of my life (nearly 7 of them in a constant state of worry and remembrance) and I've personally come to the conclusion that I will not be spending the next 22 constantly worried about where I will be while only remembering where I have been.

I hope some of you can take from these ideas all that I have taken from them. Like I said, I have been happier, more energetic, more confident and mentally stronger than I have been in years--and I wish that for all of you.

Enough of the lessons. I hope the Traveling Beans of this world are doing well. Have we ever established what TYPE of beans we are other than traveling? Garbonzo, black, refried? Come to think of it, I have not had Mexican in quite some time. I could go for a good quesedilla right about now.