18 November 2004
Yesterday evening, I had a phone interview with Michael in New Jersey
about the teaching job in China. "So, how do you like Nambia? Has
everything been OK?" he asked, friendly, but perhaps fishing for
hints of unease, resentment, cultural conflicts. "Namibia?" I
replied, emphasizing the second syllable. "It's been great-I've
really learned a lot here." It sounded clichéd, I realized, after I
said it. But it was true, and the only way to really summarize two years
in one sentence.
Later, when he asked us if we preferred to live in downtown Dalian or
suburban Dalian, (they have a school in both places) I asked what the
difference was. "Well," he said, "in downtown it's really
crowded and you can't ride a bike because you'd probably get run over,
whereas in the suburb you could ride your bike to school, but it's about a
45-minute bus ride to downtown." I could only think, there's barely
two million people in all of Namibia, and there's what, 6 million people
in Dalian? I can't even comprehend that right now. What's the difference
between living on the edge of 6 million people and being right smack in
the middle of them? We opted for right smack in the middle. "We're
looking for a change," Zac said.
When, in recent weeks, I told my learners about my prospects of going
to China, they had one of two responses: either, "Miss, you like
traveling too much." Or "I heard China is too overcrowded."
I would reply with yes, to both. Then they would say something about
low-quality products in China, since all the "China Shops" in
Namibia are a step below Odd Lots/Big Lots. John's response was a little
different. He said, "You are lucky. You will learn a lot living in
different countries." "Yes," I replied, "I am
Let's focus on that statement. I have been lucky in so many ways, but
mainly I was lucky to be born in America, and, the logic goes, everyone
else was unlucky to not be born there. And so I like traveling around,
with my luckiness coursing through my veins, while I surround myself with
others who are not so lucky. Why? I used to think I was helping them-I'm
sharing the luck I've been given with those who are not so lucky. A very
noble thing. But not really, because I have a choice in the matter, and
any suffering, I must always remember, is voluntary. And because I am
choosing to do it, because I have other alternatives, it can not really be
Tuna is the one who taught me that. I was having a really bad day of
teaching grade 9 last year. It was a bad day in a series of bad days, and
so I broke all my principles and decided to teach them a little math. I
brought my lesson to a halt, although it was not moving in the first
place, which was the problem, and commanded, "Take out your
calculators!" Noting the change in my tone, they complied. I wrote a
number on the board. "This is how much money I would make for 1 year
of teaching in America. Now, multiply it by ten to convert it to Namibian
dollars." In a separate column I wrote another, much smaller number.
"Now, this is how much money I make in Namibia per month. Multiply it
by twelve and subtract it from this number." I circle the product of
the first equation. They click away at their calculators. "What did
you get?" A girl says a number. It's wrong. I call on another
learner, who gives the correct answer. I write it largely on the board.
"Now multiply this by two, for the two years that I am here."
They do. "This," I say triumphantly, "is how much money I
am giving up, losing, by being here."
I had a different mentality at that time. I still believed I was
sacrificing myself for the good of Africa. I wanted them to feel guilty.
They had been behaving so badly, I wanted them to feel like they owed me
something, gratitude at least, for being so benevolent and giving up a lot
of money (not to mention ice-cream) to come here and teach them. How dare
they misbehave and give me a hard time? They were supposed to greet me
every morning with choruses of "Thank-you, O Great American, for
coming to rescue us from ignorance."
They were kind of quiet then, and I imagined they were chastened and
would be perfect little angels the rest of the year. But then Tuna raised
his hand. "Yes, Tuna?" He stands up, "Miss, did anyone make
you come here?" "Well, no." "I mean, you're a volunteer,
right?" I nod. "So then you chose to give up that money.
It's not our fault." And he was right. I was lucky to be able to give
up two years and a lot of money. I was trying to show them my sacrifice
but in the end, with Tuna's help, I just showed that I was privileged.
My attitude towards my job here changed after that. I quit expecting
people to be grateful just for my mere existence at Ekulo. I realized I
had to work hard like everyone else and if I wanted gratitude, I would
have to earn it. It was a good thing I learned that lesson well in advance
of year two, where I paid my own way back and worked for free. The only
acknowledgement I received was the principal mumbling at the staff meeting
that, "Mrs. Arcaro is not with the Peace Corps anymore, she's not getting
any money, so we must not overload her" in defense of my light
But at that point, I didn't care. I didn't come back for the teachers,
I certainly didn't come back for the principal, and I didn't come back for
gratitude. I came back because I was lucky: lucky to have encouraging
parents, lucky to have a husband here, lucky to have learners that I liked
and wanted to return to. I remember when I was going through all my
close-of-service stuff with The Peace Corps in DC last December, my final stop
was an older woman whose purpose was to provide me with pamphlets about
future career opportunities to make sure I didn't become a bum. She was
the only kind person in that place, the only one who seemed to care.
Seeing that I was miserable, she tried to console me by saying, "You
know, you are lucky, because you are sad that you are leaving. That means
you had something back there. I see a lot of volunteers, and they're not
all sad when they have to leave."
My learners were more enthusiastic about my return than the principal,
although they didn't quite know what to make of my working for free. I
don't think they really believed it. One day Selma said, to challenge the
veracity of my unemployment, "If you're not getting paid, why aren't
you at home sleeping? Why are you teaching us?" Because I want to.
Because I like teaching. Because I like you. She was still not convinced.
Why would anybody work if they were not getting paid? Surely I was lying.
Actually, in some ways it was kind of fun not being employed. It gave
me a sense of freedom that I would toy with. When I felt like doing
something unconventional, I would joke, "What are they going to do?
Fire me?" The learners would laugh, but nervously. I had disappeared
once, it could happen again. Whenever I would get angry at the principal,
I would have fantasies of shouting at him, "I don't work for you. I
work for myself!" But, to my credit, I never did. It was my choice to
come back, I would remind myself. It's not his fault the Peace Corps kicked me
out. But just that it was there, that it was within the realm of
possibility, made me feel powerful in my unemployment.
Yes, Michael, I learned a lot in Namibia. I used to think the main
difference between developed countries and developing countries was the
amount of stuff. If a developing country's citizens accumulate enough
wealth, the country is classified as developed. I don't really know what
the official definition is, but to me, the main difference is in the
amount of opportunity available. As Americans, we have so many choices. My
learners, as Namibians, have very few choices and opportunities. So that's
one of the things I learned. I am lucky.