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18 Nov 04

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 clich├ęd, 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 lucky.”

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 considered suffering.

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 teaching allocation.

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.


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