Friday, May 29, 2009

Currency conversion at 1:1

Have you ever had such a strange and vivid dream that while waking up, you’d need to concentrate on remembering where you were while blinking your weary eyes open?  That only the wash of familiar surroundings would erode the action-packed emotions experienced in the dream?  We experienced this every morning for the first week after April 18, the day we returned to Vancouver after spending eight months on the continent of Africa.  Our African memories were so vivid, yet so out of place with the comfort and familiarity of home.  We’re no longer fresh off the boat, so I think our Ebola quarantine must’ve expired by now.  Apologies to everyone whose hands we’ve already shaken.

Although everything in Vancouver is familiar, it seems strangely distant.  It’s like 8 months of our Chinese-Canadian histories have been scooped out from our memories, and replaced with strange African experiences.  Experiences such as coping with cold showers, walking in our carpeted homes with shoes on, depending on a schedule or others for transportation, 2 hour bus rides that cost only $4 and taxi rides costing only $0.30, sharing a living space with other people, and driving on the left side of the road.

Living in Africa wasn’t a challenge, as many people would assume.  It was more like walking through a museum to avoid tipping over ancient artifacts, in how we carefully controlled our social movements.  At our schools and local community, we were always aware of the thin line between friend and tourist, limiting our actions and how that may affect our experiences within the community (I never took out my PDA in public, rarely used my laptop outside my office, used the cheapest-looking cell phone possible, and wouldn’t take out my camera in front of students until the final days). In public areas, we averted our eyes from street vendors working the major intersections so that our curiosity wouldn’t be construed as interest to buy, and said “no” countless times to hopeful vendors who wanted us to buy their souvenirs (“I give you special price”).  When we did need to buy things, we’d constantly need to haggle over the unlisted prices for everything from oranges to cans of tuna while mentally converting currencies once a price had been agreed upon.  In Johannesburg, we’d casually glance over our shoulders every few minutes to be sure of the intentions of those watching us, even during the day.  And although all the countries we visited were English speaking, slowing down our own speech and adopting the local accent helped others understand us.

We’ll miss the intimacy of living with the people that we worked with, pedestrians making eye contact and smiling or waving hello to each other, being able to instantly befriend someone you meet on the bus, and eons-old chiefdoms thriving in their spirit of community and family.  For the locals, there are few things more honourable than having a white person (that’s what they called us) visit their home.

They say that when a romantic relationship needs to go long-distance, it’s harder emotionally for the person who gets left behind.  We can imagine that this truth applies to our departure as well.  Our hearts fondly go out to all the full-time teachers and pastors who dedicate not just a few months, but their lives to the service of God’s kingdom and the children of Africa.  Although we were happy to live in environments that were new and unique to us, we did it fully knowing that we had support from the local pastors and missions organizations, and our family, church and friends abroad.

As teachers in Africa, we faced many challenges.  Africans have prioritized learning below that of knowing.  They have little patience for the former, as evident in the teaching styles of the local teachers who focus on memorization as a means of knowledge, and the college-age computer students who would prefer getting a certificate stating they know Excel rather than actually knowing Excel.  The children had exceptional memories when it came to stories, music, and dance, but teaching them analytical thinking was difficult.

Since they are not motivated for learning in itself being a goal, connecting with children emotionally was another technique for teaching them. However, this was challenging as well.  In Ghana, the large Muslim family unit (a husband would marry multiple wives and have many children) would cause children to distance themselves from adults, forming a certain distrust of adults.  Having to say goodbye to past short termers who became their friends never to return further diminishes any trust they have for foreigners.

For most of the students, English was a second language, and it formed a barrier to their learning.  Without any proper ESL classes, students had to translate for each other.  Much like some ESL students in Canada, some would feign the lack of comprehension to get easier work.  Dora formed a buddy mentoring program between the older students and younger students whose express purpose was to communicate only in English and build their confidence in the language.

While in Africa, we developed a stronger sense of our own culture.  We met only two other westernized Asians in our 8 months.  All other Chinese were from either mainland China, running small businesses, or from Hong Kong as part of the Ghana ministry.  Everywhere we went, we’d be asked where we were from.  The answer was never short, as “Canada” was never a satisfactory response, so we had to explain our heritage (“our parents are from China, but we were born in Canada”).  Old Chinese martial arts films were the basis of their Chinese education (we saw a group of kids watching such a film in Tanzania) so kids everywhere would show off the language they learned (“ching chong chang”) and their kung fu skills (kicking and punching through the air) as we’d walk through their villages.  In Canada, we fit in as nearly everybody is typically from somewhere else.  Contrast this with Africa where the furthest that half the young adults in the computer school have travelled is a few hours drive outside the town where we taught school.  Few have ever been outside their country.  Those who have were usually from a different country (like Nigerians immigrating to Ghana, or Zimbabweans escaping into South Africa).  Without much chance to experience another culture by travelling, the culture that comes to them instantly grabs their attention, and we embraced this, using it as an opportunity to talk to people and allow them to share their stories.

Spirituality, largely absence in the western world, is very much alive in Africa where the spiritual world is recognized as having significant impacts on their everyday lives.  This is true regardless of the religion.  In Ghana, we heard about a family that was broken up because of a curse by a fetish priest.  We sat in church services where individuals proclaimed to be healed of pains in their legs or stomach.  A “prosperity gospel” preached in many churches promised that prayer and faith would result in an easy and rich life.  There were satanic churches in our community that introduced dangerous suffocation-inducing games to our school kids.  This religiousness zeal underpinned society in rural Africa.

What’s it like to be back?  It’s as easy as putting on your shoes after a day in rental inline skates or skis.  It’s always easy to return to comfort, to forget the small blisters and calluses while remembering the unique once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

On Sunday, May 31 at 10:45 (we start promptly at 11am), we will be giving a (1:30hr) presentation at our churchduring the English Sunday School (Vancouver Chinese Alliance, 3330 Knight Street).  At or around 7:30pm on Thursday, June 4, we’ll also be sharing at the prayer meeting also at our church.  We’ll be giving a slide show and sharing more about the culture of a continent few have experienced, and answering any questions about our experiences and how we can support Africa.

Many thanks to all our supporters over the last eight months, without whom this trip would have been impossible.

Tim & Dora