Saturday, October 29, 2011

How to be in one place at one time

I was recently asked, "Annie, is it possible for these foreign students, who do not speak a word of the local language to live in this community and manage to communicate with people?" I honestly believe that half of communication is just being mentally and physically present. Anyone can do this, but few put conscious effort into it. Am I really here? Do the people around me really feel like I am 100% here? In an age of multi-tasking, we are used to stretching ourselves across different times, places or responsibilities. Sometimes the hardest part is to just be. You share a lot in common with someone when you are physically present, sitting with them, eye to eye, without saying anything. Maybe the words around you make no sense, but you are there, and this is half the battle.

I was at a birthday party. I love celebrations, but at this point in my life I dreaded the large gatherings because I had a hard time following a fast conversation. I kept turning my head right and left, trying to look at the ladies who were speaking, trying my best to piece together words in the hopes of understanding what they thought was so funny. While they were laughing, my eyebrows moved towards each other as if a scowl could help me comprehend this new language. One of the ladies noticed that I was the only one not laughing, patted my leg and said slowly and definitely, "Annie, you will soon understand. You are here. Listen and you will laugh with us soon." So, I continued to attend the birthday, wedding and baby parties, looking forward to the day when I would laugh at the jokes and chime in with my own. About six months later I was attending another birthday party and I had my "ah-ha" breakthrough moment. The ladies were laughing again and this time I understood.

"The other day I saw the funniest thing," the story began, "two cows were running down the street with their ropes broken. I knew the cows belonged to our neighbor..."

And then I understood where the story was going. The week before I was in the banya doing my laundry when my host-family's cows broke free from their ropes and ran out into the street. I immediately threw on my dress and ran out into the street without shoes or a headscarf over my hair. I was yelling at the cows in English, cursing under my breath as I realized that all the neighbors had come out to watch me try to herd the cattle.

"And instead of Rahat, guess who runs out onto the street? Annie! Annie was running around without shoes, up and down the street, yelling Masha, Dasha at the cows. Cows don't know their names!"

As the women around me started to giggle, I could feel my face turn hot and red. I understood the story, and now I was aware that everyone was laughing at me. What progress!

"But," the storyteller interjected. "She caught the two cows as they were eating Baygul's flowers and led them home. See, she understands our language, and she can catch our cows!"

The lady sitting next to me turned to me and said, "You are now Turkmen and you can never go home to America because you don't have cows there!" With that everyone, including me, laughed. They laughed at this new Turkmen Annie, and I laughed at the absurdity of thinking we don't have cows in Idaho!

If you take it a step at a time, focusing on where you are right now, at home or far, far away, your energy and presence speaks for itself. This aspect of communication is cross cultural and transcendent. Don't be too hard on yourself if you struggle in the present, because with time communication becomes easier and the bridges of cultural, linguistic and philosophical differences can be crossed, even if they think cows don't exist in America.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Baclayan Basket Project

This project is what has kept me busy for the last three months, and what will continue to bring me back to the Philippines for many more years to come. I wrote this article on the project's developments for Stairway Foundation, the sponsoring organization.

For years now, Stairway Foundation (SFI) has been reaching out to the local indigenous Iraya Mangyan in an effort to help uplift the community from poverty. In 2009, SFI purchased some land in one of the local Iraya communities called Baclayan. During the time of purchase, we observed a community that was struggling on many levels. Because of this, Stairway Foundation has since started several community development to partner with the community in creating positive and sustainable change, especially for the young generation, the children.

Stairway Foundation volunteers recently jumpstarted a long-term project in Baclayan that focuses on working with the local basket weavers. Basket weaving has been a part of Iraya Mangyan culture for many generations. Traditionally, girls learn to weave baskets when they are 7-8 years old, beginning with simple pieces and working their way up to complicated designs. Both men and women know how to weave baskets, but it is more common for women to use basket selling as a means of livelihood. For many years, Stairway Foundation has invited the women of Baclayan to come to SFI to sell their baskets every week. SFI has become one of the most consistent purchasers of baskets in the community, but the Foundation was looking for a more in depth way to work with the Iraya women to help them learn practical business and marketing skills in order to more successfully sell their baskets at large.

The first goal of the project is to create a community of empowered women who possess self-esteem and a desire to change their community. Volunteers conducted several life-skills sessions in the hopes of identifying local women leaders, who can become future life-skills trainers. There was a noticeable change in the women, a “sparkle,” as one person described it. They became more outspoken, gregarious and assertive. They displayed a keen desire to learn more about smart marketing practices, and to use their creativity to create new products to give them an edge in the market. They took great pride in the new knowledge and skills that they were acquiring, and have expressed an interest in teaching more local women what they have learned.

The second goal of the project is to have a community of women who have the capacity to successfully market their baskets. A volunteer facilitated sessions on product diversification, organizational skills, and marketing strategy, with the long-term goal of capacitating the women with the ability to market and sell their baskets domestically and internationally by themselves.

One very exciting development that happened was the creation of new product—hand-woven earrings. By using their creativity and innovation, the women designed several styles of earrings, from hoops to circular spirals. The women attended a short training on attaching the metal earring hooks and rings, and soon were producing large quantities of beautiful earrings. All of the earrings were quickly bought by customers, amazed by the craftsmanship and detailing.

In order to start labeling their products, the women learned how to create tags for the baskets. They first attended a training to learn how to make hand-made paper from banana stem fibers and indigenous cogon grass. While perfecting their paper-making skills, they participated in the design stage of a tag, creating a label that features a photograph of an Iraya woman and the story behind the basket.

Although this project is very long-term, and will hopefully develop for many years to come, it is off to a successful start and has already generated positive feedback from the women. Stairway Foundation is dedicated to working closely with these talented artisans, capacitating them with valuable skills and knowledge, thereby putting them in a more empowered position to stand up for their rights as women and as Indigenous Peoples.

My Summer Months

I was so busy in the Philippines with work and playing at the beach, that I did not have time to update my blog. What began as a two-month committment extended to a six-month period of volunteer work at Stairway Foundation, Inc. Despite not writing on my blog, I was busy writing several pieces for the Stairway Foundation website.

Stairway Foundation has a residential program for former street kids from Manila. I had the opportunity to care for one of the Stairway boys after jaw surgery. Having gone through jaw surgery myself, I was eager to help him in any way I could post-operation. The following is the story that I wrote about this incredible little boy:

"A New Smile, a New Voice, a New Taste"

A big part of my summer was working with Stairway Foundation's local scholarship students. Click here for a description of the program that I wrote for the website. I was in charge of preparing a curriculum of tutorial sessions for students struggling in English and Math. I taught several groups of students in different municipalities. At the end of the summer, we invited 25 of the most motivated and active scholarship students to attend a leadership camp entitled, "My Right to be a Leader." The following is the article that I wrote about the summer camp experience:

"We Should Not Judge Other People, and Discriminate Them." -Stairway Scholar

Stairway Foundation is located in Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro. The property faces the ocean and backs up against the mountains that rise straight from the sea. It is a place of not only beauty, but serenity and acceptance. Life sometimes takes you exactly where you need to go, even if you don't know it yourself. I learned this lesson when I stumbled upon Stairway completely by chance, not knowing what I was getting myself into, and found a truly magical place where I could connect with people, learn a lot about myself and dive into work that is extremely meaningful to me. I hope that everyone has the opportunity to stumble upon their own oasis.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Year of the Rabbit

In my opinion, the monkey, ox, rooster or rat can't beat the rabbit in cuteness or cuddliness! After the ferocious year of the Tiger, 2011 will be more quiet, reflective and possibly more tame. I personally could use an uneventful year. In Chinese mythology the rabbit represents longevity and is thought to derive its power from the moon. The rabbit symbolizes graciousness, kindness, good manners and a sensitivity to beauty. Although the rabbit may seem timid and overly deliberate at times, the rabbit is very self-assured and occasionally conceited. But this rabbit doesn't look so narcissistic...

This year is my first Chinese New Year in Taiwan. I love holidays, and I love learning about holiday customs in new countries. I believe that one can learn so much about a culture from paying close attention to holiday traditions.

The Chinese New Year preparations began well ahead of time, as people shopped in Di-Hua Street, a narrow side street converted into the central lunar new year shopping area.

All of the specialty foods enjoyed during the New Year are sold in jam packed stalls below fluttering lanterns and lights. In the days leading up to the New Year, Di-Hua Street is so crowded that one cannot fight the crowd, but must be pulled along in all directions up the road. It is a frantic mix of smells, sounds, hip-hop dancing vendors, samples in tiny cups, and excited people. Bags of snacks, fruit and gifts are brought home, distributed among friends and family and enjoyed over the holiday.

Being a neophyte, I was anxiously waiting around on New Year's Eve for something 'holiday like' to happen. As the sun set, food was prepared and set in front of the Buddhist alter as an offering to the ancestors. For our own dinner, we enjoyed various dishes eaten in the traditional communal way, when everyone takes some from one plate. After our meal, more dishes were prepared and set out on a table near the window. This offering of food, fruit, flowers, desserts and money was set out for the Gods.

Incense were lit at 11:15pm when the New Year begins according to the Lunar Calendar. When the incense were half way burnt, we went down onto the street to burn the paper money as an offering to the Gods.

In a metal container, we folded the money and set it on fire piece by piece.

When we were back inside, the bang and crack of fireworks had already begun. According to a Chinese myth, the New Year Monster does not like the color red or the sound of fireworks. In order to scare off the monster, people hang bright red decorations on their houses and light off fireworks during the week of celebration. For the last four days there has been a constant bang of fireworks as everyone plays their part in scaring away the monster.

Because everyone is enjoying a week of vacation, shops, restaurants and businesses are closed, and there is a general feeling of relaxation. People are at home with their families, enjoying this rare time together. On Tuesday everything will open again, and the quiet streets of Taipei will transform back into the thriving metropolis that it was before the New Year holiday.

New Year Blessings

On doors...

In elevators...

At 7-11...

From Amnesty International...