Saturday, October 27, 2012

Vacation in the USA (that's what good Americans do, anyway)

I was recently in the great country to the north for reasons I have decided not to share here. Maybe its age. I just want this one for myself. I want to savor it and not share with anyone or have to go through a reflection-draft-revise-edit-publish-areyousure? process, carefully choosing my words as I do with some of my more personal posts. The reasons and outcomes will remain raw and perfect this way, untouched. Thank you for understanding.
That said--all my stories unavailable for sharing, having been tucked away for safe keeping--I do still have some wonder to share with you from my last two weeks abroad.
An unexpected joy blossomed in me during that trip which I am more than happy to share with you. The world needs more happy-happy-joy-joy, after all.
Bits of inner monologue during my first two days back in the USA went something like this:
Ooooh! Warm water to wash my hands. Yes! In the shower too!
Man, this lettuce is delish.
Look at them all stand in a line!
Wow, I'd forgotten how much better the bread is here.
It's so nice to drive a car. And by myself! And at night!
The power hasn't gone out yet. This is awesome.
I just ran four different errands in under two hours. What do people do with all of their extra time?!
I know the names of all the plants, the trees, the roads and the towns. Cool.
Dance like nobody is watching. No, really, they aren't. Dang, I love the anonymity here.
And, quite frequently:
Good grief, it's cold here! But I sure do love wearing these boots and not sweating profusely.

You see, dear reader, I jumped right in. I fully basked in being somewhere where I knew what was going on--and most of the time. I was climbing Maslow's Hierarchy like Tenzing Norgay. And friends would say things like, "I wish I could do what you're doing!" I never managed a coherent, thoughtful response to this, but always thought first, Then why don't you? (because I believe people should chase after their passions) and a close second, But your life is so wonderful here! (because your life really is wonderful there).
I had left the island where I had been feeling helpless as of late. My son was being bullied at school with no end in sight. The power started going out more frequently and I was no longer finding gratitude for the forced breaks, but frustration. My daughter had abandoned her creative and sometimes disturbing drawings for the same picture of a house with a sun and flowers over and over again like a brainwashed robot. I was struggling to manage the responsibilities of a new job which required me to be online (which requires electricity) with all the household-kid stuff and finding more and more that I wasn't in a place where it is possible to fulfill those responsibilities to my personal standards. And it kept raining on the damn laundry. At least my husband was still cheerful and really, really good looking.

Then, sometime in the middle of day 3, it hit me. But it wasn't a cliche ton of bricks, it was more like a cliche fire kindling within, making itself known, gently. Without any painful burning sensations. This is why people vacation, but never live where they vacation. It's just really, really nice to visit. Everything I care about and am passionate about is on the island. I love it here. I really do. I want to spend as much time here as I can possibly manage--and not in a vacation kind of way (even though I talk about the warm, breezy hammock on my back patio a smidge too much). And, true to form, after about day 10, like all of my "vacations", I was ready to go home again. I missed it. Life at home is just enormously more exciting to me and pregnant with the kind of potential that gives me heart palpitations which make the other stuff worth it for me. By day 14, I was aching to go home, but so grateful for everyone I'd spent time with and all I had done. I felt like a new woman. That's what vacation does, right?

So for my good 'ol USA dwellers, here is a helpful vacation comparison chart if you're not completely convinced yet:

Me on Vacation*
You on Vacation
(forgive the broad sweep of assumptions)

I appreciate all the familiar flora & fauna. “Pine trees! Lush (wet) grass! Deer!”
You post pics of lizards you find on a daily stroll, and are surprised by the enormity of the palms
“Driving here is a total breeze. I almost forget I’m driving. Wow, that’s dangerous.”
“Driving here is insane. I’m constantly worried about my safety. Wow, this is dangerous!”
“Ah, all the music is so familiar. I can sing along to all these songs.”
“The music makes me want to dance. I have no idea what the lyrics are saying.”
I eat out more often than at home.
You eat out more often than at home.
I visit family, old friends and run in to people I know everywhere I go.
You make new friends, likely temporary ones and enjoy seeing all new faces.
I enjoy the anonymity of looking like I belong to that place.
You enjoy being different, or settle in to being just another tourist, depending on your particular vacation style.
“Everything is splendidly organized here. And people dutifully wait in lines!”
“Everything is a bit chaotic, but I really dig this carefree approach!”
Clean lettuce, apples, strawberries, tasty bread and a culture of flavored drinks: bubble tea, coffee, intense smoothies are all such a nice change.
Mangoes, pineapples, avocados, papaya and other tropical delights are consumed in copious amounts. After all, this stuff just doesn’t grow back home.
I gain 3 pounds in two weeks.
You gain 3 pounds in two weeks.
I eagerly return home, gratitude on my lips, vowing to go back again someday. “What a wonderful vacation!”
You eagerly return home, grateful for a splendid vacation. “What a rockin’ vacation!”

*The titles, coincidentally, are interchangeable with You at Home, Me at Home.

Okay, one little story from the trip:
The kids and I almost missed our New York to Santiago flight because we got pulled aside in security and questioned rather intensely. A particular item in Max's carry-on seriously concerned them. They ran it through a couple scanners, consulted other security gurus, made us wait anxiously while they went to a back room with it, swabbed it in front of us, and interrogated away. While I was slightly amused, Max understood how they could be concerned about an item of such power and import: his Harry Potter replica wand.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

International Pioneering with Children in Tow, Part 3

Part 1 can be found here: "I know many people who, if they're not seriously considering an international move are, at minimum, curious how we made ours. So, I've laid it out for you here, Cliff-Notes-style."
Part 2, here: "In all my efforts to hone my inner type-A and succeeding (I thought), the proverbial foul substance still hit that fan. And quite forcibly, I might add."

With a week before departure, my passport had yet to arrive. 
"But, Rebecca, don't you travel quite a bit? Didn't you already have it?"
Yes, dear reader. I did already have a passport. But I wanted more! So the joke was on me.
Josh and I had decided that we didn't want to carry around our passport books all the time, so we applied for our passport cards. How convenient! we mused, Little cards that fit in our back pockets. Our "helper" at the post office insisted that we send our passports with our applications. Odd, since you can have a passport card without getting a passport book, but we went with it. A mistake we have since repeated on smaller and larger scales--just going with it. Check back later on that one, we're still learning.
Everyone's passport books and cards had arrived. Except mine. We kept our cool and made a few phone calls. We were promised return calls that never happened. We called again. And again for good measure. It usually takes just one competent, experienced person to turn the whole thing around. We found her one night, days before scheduled departure, working a swing shift on the phones. The problem, she explained in so many words, is that my name is too long.  Surely, these great United States would have created a system whereby names that surpassed a certain number of characters were given a special process. You know, like using your middle initial instead of the full thing. But I'm a total lay person, so shouldn't comment on the subject. 
Long story with a long name short: My passport book and card arrived a day late and way-more-than-a-dollar short. And, though their timing sucked, they ultimately decided to just use my middle initial, Q (named after a powerful woman, scholar and poet, who fought fiercely for the emancipation of women in Iran well over a century ago).
Josh and I got to work. We hadn't made a plan B. Apparently, those can come in handy. Let's just say that we made up for the lack of alternative plans. Having put the kids to bed one evening, we worked through plans B-Z. Until 4 am. My favorite one had us buying a cheap used car, driving it cross-country and taking a boat from Florida. Although it promised adventure, frustration, excitement and exhaustion (all things we're excellent at), it wasn't actually going to be the most economical choice--a significant factor. So the plan we went with, plan O for obvious, had us just changing our dates. Simple as that sounds, we had to buy four more tickets, pay for change fees and we ended up with vouchers to use at another time. What a mess. But that money we'd saved was already coming in handy.
And then, you ask? 
The rest is Peanut-Butter & Jelly, baby. Then, we jumped.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

How We Did It: International Pioneering with Kiddos, Part 2

Part I, in case you missed it, is here.

Okay, you want details? Here goes.
Having covered all the big ideas, we got down to the nitty-gritty: our last two months in our home country. This is the part where I wish I had had a smidge more type-A personality in me. C'est la vie. I did enjoy making lists with little boxes next to them. I usually ended up writing lists of things I already accomplished, then checking them off and smiling at myself.

T-6 Weeks
We happened to live 8 miles from my parents' house, which happened to have room to spare. Ta-da! We moved in with them at T-6 weeks for three specific reasons (in no particular order). We saved a whole month's rent money right off and were sure to get our deposit back with time to spare. We got most of the huge, stateside moving tasks (getting rid of furniture, craigslisting all unnecessary but still valuable things, etc) out of the way early. And we were able to spend more quality time with some of our family. Win, win, win.

T-4 Weeks
Since we're both educators, our jobs had clean end dates with goodbye parties already built in (every year!). With the school year over, we were able to focus our energies elsewhere. Having rid ourselves of most of our things, moved out of our place and finished with our contractual responsibilities, we were free to do as we pleased, mostly. We made a USA bucket list that included things like taking advantage of the last week of our museum memberships and spending a weekend at the coast (sans offspring). We spent time with both sets of parents, completing all kinds of house/yard projects that they needed done, knowing we wouldn't be able to help out on a random weekend anymore. We went to birthday parties, kiddy playdates and goodbye parties. We stopped by unannounced. We hung out at parks. We ate at our favorite restaurants. We grinned widely at strangers passing by. And we did it all like it was going out of style.

T-2 Weeks
Packing, packing, packing. Or something like that. When I thought a suitcase was packed, I'd tape a note on it summarizing it's contents (Proud Type-A moment, I know). The notes helped me find some sanity when Husband would come in with a few more books or his beloved snowboard (no, not really) or a vacuum cleaner (yes, really) and tell me he really wanted to bring them along too. There were moments in this process where I took a deep breath and went to talk to Josh:
"Honey," I'd start, gently, batting my eyelids in the sweetest way I know how.
"Yes, dear?" he'd smile, half-expecting poetry or confessions of immense gratitude for how amazing he is.
"I'm going to douse everything in lighter fluid and just throw a match. Mmmm-kay?" and I'd smile. Very sweetly.
Then he'd laugh like I was joking so I knew it wasn't a good idea. He's a good, thoughtful husband like that.
When I finally had all the suitcases packed--yes, I--the packing wasn't finished. I wanted to do this job all by myself for a couple of reasons:
       1. I like to be in control. I don't need to be per se, but I definitely like to be. Except if we're in a car, plane, train, roller-coaster, submarine. Then I like to be a passenger.
       2. Ummmm... nope. Control pretty much sums it up. I wanted to be sure everything got into it's proper place and since I had never done it before, I was not confident in delegating anything. Control.
After suitcases, I packed storage and boxes. You see, people were planning on visiting us. They still are. And they still do. Who doesn't want to go to the Caribbean? We were moving to where people actually like to go on vacation. Kind of (we're not exactly close to the ocean).
So I packed boxes and numbered them (doesn't it sound so organized?!). #1 went to the first people who were visiting, #2 was brought by the next visitors and so on. It's worked out quite well. We now have a collection of about 600 books in our island-side library (Yes, we want to start a community library and currently enjoy offering spontaneous "mobile story time" now. More on that in months to come.)!
Next? My dear madre allowed me to take over a few closets and some space in her home (My loving padre lives there too, but doesn't really care about that stuff). If you've requested space at the inn that is sometimes my parent's home and have been forced to the couch or living room... well, that's my fault. But it's for a good cause (like not paying for a storage unit).

Then you'll never guess what happened. Or maybe you will since you're likely smarter than I am. In all my efforts to hone my inner type-A and succeeding (I thought), the proverbial foul substance still hit that fan. And quite forcibly, I might add.

To be continued.... (cruel, I know. But necessary since I haven't written it yet.)

Part III can now be found here.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Never Ask How Much.

Unless you already know.
There will never be a Dominican version of The Price is Right because they all know how much everything is. That's just no fun. I've never heard a Dominican ask how much something is, unless its a rare good like the Taekwondo shoes Max's teacher brought back from the States on a recent trip. The baffling thing about those shoes is, nobody ever asks what size they are. Wouldn't you want to know that first? I digress.
Anything you'll find in the supermarket, colmado or side of the road? They already know how much it all costs.
It's happened more than once that I come home, pleased with a purchase only to be deflated shortly thereafter.
"Josh! Look at these mangoes," I'll beam, holding them in the air.
"Those are huge! How much did you pay for them?"
"Ummm... 20 pesos a piece," I say, realizing I have no idea how much they're supposed to be.
"Oh. You know that's double what they're supposed to be, right?"
They always see me comin'. Or it could be that I ask out right, tipping them off to my complete ignorance. I've tried handing them a largish bill, then waiting for change. The thing is, I don't know if they give me correct change--which can be tricky because its not uncommon to be terrible at simple math here. Yes, even if you own your own fruit stand.
So, to educate myself and give others like me an idea of what is a fair, just price 'round these parts, I sat down with my neighbor and asked. These are the prices that this shrewd Dominican, Don Ramon, pays. Don Ramon scolds me every time I pay more than I am supposed to. When we break down and go to a big grocery store, we sneak the bags into the house so he won't see that we very likely got ripped off in some way or another. He's all about the deals and I don't think he understands the hurdle that is my complete handicap: my face. I give myself away every time. Apparently my face says, "I'm not from here. Please ask ridiculous prices for any goods I may express interest in and I will happily pay while smiling at you like you're a fair and honest person." I know, my face can say a lot. And, I might add, has a pretty good vocabulary too.
The list of items that we regularly purchase (in pesos, per piece, unless otherwise noted), according to the American equivalent of a couponer:
Mango - 10
Avocado - 10

Chayota -10
Pineapple -20
Bananas - 3-5
Plantains - 8
Garlic -8

Papaya -15
Rice -18 per/lb
Beans -25 per/lb
Flour -22 per/lb
Sugar -18 per/lb

Pepper - 5
Loaf of Bread - 100 (don't worry, it's all crappy bread)

And that's how Don Ramon rolls. And how much you've been ripped off. Or how pleased you can be with your economic shrewdness.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

There Are Things to See and People to Meet, So Let's Get Off Our Rumps and Use Our Feet (by Josh)

I really need to get a new phone.  It's not that I want to do anything fancy, and I appreciate the value of having a phone that NO ONE would ever want to steal. Yet, almost every day, while I'm out and about, I see something unusual and I think, "Man! I wish I had a camera right now!"  My friend Melanie has the right idea, and clicks away with her Blackberry every time she sees some new oddity.
For example, #1 on my photo wish-list is Posture Man.  I'm always impressed by the street vendors who walk all over creation with a bucket on the head, selling anything from avocados (aaaaaaahhhh-wa-kataaaay!!) to toilet paper (¡Papel, papelllll, tengo papel de bañññññooooo!), but this guy takes it to a whole new level.
I noticed him one day as I was walking to work and had to do a double-take. This guy RIDES AROUND ON A MOTORCYCLE, both hands responsibly at the controls, balancing a BUCKET ON HIS HEAD. It's not a tiny bucket, but a wash-basin really, almost 2 feet in diameter, full of fruit or candy or something. I'm not exactly sure what he's selling because I've been too amazed to call him over, and have had the chance to share my admiration with other folks on the street who are just as blown away as I am.  He has a lifting girdle on, like you'd wear while working at a warehouse, and with absolutely perfect posture rolls around town on his motorbike vending his wares. He's gotta have abs, and nerves, of steel.
But that's just one example. The other day a traffic cop came into our office to let us know that anyone who had a car parked near city hall needed to move it, as there would be an "event" starting soon.  I thought no more of it because I ain't got a car.
On my way home, however, I busted up laughing when I saw just what this official event was.  They had blocked off a major street, right downtown, for a stickball game at rush hour between a bunch of young adult men.  They seemed to be having fun, but the folks who had to find a detour (none provided) weren't too pleased!
Next, on the same walk home, I heard a horn that seemed to be stuck. I turned the corner and saw a crowd of onlookers surrounding a group of men trying to figure out how to turn off the horn of a Honda Accord that had t-boned a defenseless gua gua van. The worst part is that these vans always have their doors open, with buckleless passengers sitting right at the door, but it appeared that the sliding door was the only serious victim. Meantime, cars and motorcycles are racing around the curious looky-lous who are filling the intersection. I laughed again as I dodged crazy motorcyclists to continue home.
I thought about why it is that I seem to see so many interesting sights here.  Is it because this place is oh-so-different from my previous surroundings?  Is it because there are just more amusing things taking place at any given moment in the D.R.?  Finally, I decided that neither or these are the case, chiefly because of another phenomenon.
Now, I grew up in small towns.  In fact, many people I know attended high schools whose student body was larger than the entire population of one of the towns I've lived in.  So, it isn't a big surprise to me to see folks whom I know around town.  However, I currently live in a city of over 200,000, but I see people I know more often than I did in Toppenish.  Reflecting on it, I realized the same was true when I lived in Varna, in Bulgaria, which is an even larger city.
The difference? Cars vs. feet as the chief means of transportation. 
On any given day, between dropping kids off at school, picking them up, and commuting to and from work, I probably walk a minimum of 2 miles. Since most of the other folks here can't afford a car either, we see each other a lot. Then there's the matter of housing.  Were my home to be less materially inviting (ah, internet, cable and ceiling fans, the sirens of my life), I'd see even more great people and weird occurences, because I'd be sharing the common outdoor life most of my neighbors share with each other. If you think about it, that's how it used to be in the U.S., but over the past 25 years even architecture has changed to conspire in keeping us apart and shut away.  How many new homes do you see, in any given subdivision, that have porches conducive to neighbors and friends chatting outside?
It's also gotten me thinking about past discussions with people about the need to learn how to moderate our technology-laden lives.  I really don't think it's ludditism to advocate teaching children how to use technology responsibly, putting away their phones to speak with and listen to those who are in front of them.  Some have claimed that they wouldn't be talking with each other anyway, but I think the example around me is proof that, lacking certain distractions (though not lacking them by choice), people spend more time with each other, chillin' and conversing. 
The next step, as I see it: rid ourselves of idle talk (whether in person, texting or listening to it on TV) of all sorts and make those conversations meaningful, leading to not just words but joint actions, and gradually changing our communities into better places to live, one annoying stickball game at a time.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

When Is 'Hug an Immigrant Day'?

"Sometimes I think you have to march right in and demand your rights, even if you don't know what your rights are, or who the person is you're talking to. Then on the way out, slam the door."
Jack Handey

Yeah, it's like that.

Being an immigrant makes me feel really stupid sometimes. And then lonely. Like I need a hug. But then I get over it remembering why I'm here and how awesome it is to live here. Really. Let me pull a few snippets of conversations I've had this week:

"How was your weekend?" fellow Taekwondo mother asks.
"It was relaxing. We mostly stayed in our neighborhood. Though the holidays can be a bit rough because there is a cafeteria across the street from us and they like to play loud music," I responded. A saint was recently celebrated, so work & school were suspended for the day. I trust that there are other activities than the ones I witness to celebrate saints: drinking & provocative dancing. But that is currently the extent of my knowledge.
"How late do they play their music?" she's concerned.
"Usually until 2 am."
She gasped, "You should call the police."
"Wait, what? What will they do?" I'm entirely confused. I thought this was something you just made peace with, otherwise someone surely would have done something about it by now, right?
"They come and make them turn down the music. Two in the morning is ludicrous."
I agree.
"Oh," I said, slightly doubtful, "I had no idea they did that." And I'm still skeptical. What I really want to know, however, is can the police make them play a wider variety songs? The 15-or-so in their repoitoire is getting a bit old. My kids know all the words. And I have no idea what most of the lyrics mean. You see? Stupid.
"Hows it going?" a friend who I ran into at the park asks.
"Yeah, good. It's been extra hot at our house today since the power has been out since 10 am, though," I respond.
"Oh. You don't have an inversor?" An inversor is back-up energy provided by several car batteries and is a bit costly.
"No, you?" I ask.
"Yes, but we're in a 24-hour electricity zone," she says.
"Then why do you have an inversor?" I'm confused.
"For when the power goes out. It goes out for maybe three hours twice a week," she informs me.
"Oh. Ours is about the same. But that's not 24 hours is it?" I raise an eyebrow, fairly certain I remember how many hours are in a day.
She just smiled. I'm not sure what that means.
You see? Stupid.
I asked another mother of small children who her kids' dentist is. She gave me his phone number. That was easy enough.
I called the number. Turns out it was the dentist's personal cell phone number. I've never had that happen before.
I was able to finally connect with his office and make an appointment for the kiddos on a Tuesday at 9:30 am. We'd just keep them home from school that day. Afterall, they hadn't been to the dentist in a little over a year. Yikes.
Josh took the kids to their appointment while I had my weekly work conference call.
The following is a phone conversation while they were still out:
Me: "Hey, how was the dentist?"
Josh: "We got into his office finally. He looked at me funny and then asked which of us was here to see him. I told him you made appointments for both the kids."
Me: "Yeah?"
Josh: "Then he said he was an orthodontist and doesn't usually put braces on kids."
Me: "What?! I used the word dentist with every single person along the way, including him. An orthodontist?"
Josh: "Yeah. So, I'm at an actual dentist's office now who Mr. Orthodontist recommended. Can you take the kids tomorrow at 5?"
Me: "Sure thing. Thanks, love."
You see? Stupid.
"So, apparently I'm the class president," Max tells me as we're leaving his school, headed home.
"What does that mean?" Do they do that sort of thing in 2nd grade?
"I don't know," he shrugs.
"Well, being a president sounds like a lot of work. What do you have to do?"
"I don't know," he shrugs again.
He came to me a few days later.
"Mom! You were right. Presidents do have more work. My teacher gives me more homework than the other kids."
"Huh," is all I've got. Really?
We have a lot of conversations like that. Or the other way around where he asks me and I respond, "I don't know." It's the reality of being in a place where it's not as easy as picking up a brochure and learning about any given topic. I can't help but think I'm doing my children a bit of a disservice by not knowing more about how things work here. While other parents here are wisely answering their youngin's questions, I'm pulling out the "I don't know" card willy-nilly. Maybe it'll mean that they'll grow up to be comfortable with ambiguity, which is not something Americans are generally good at in the first place. I'm slowly letting go of the need to know the who, what, where, when and why of every situation I'm in. Don't get me wrong, I still ask or analyze with Josh. I'm just not as frustrated when clear answers aren't available. They're usually not. Or at least not to me.

But what will more likely happen is what I saw in lots of immigrant families I worked with in the US: the kids are showing the parents around. Soon enough, my kids will know more lingo, what certain gestures mean, why you should do certain things in certain places and not in others, and any number of things that I can't even imagine because I am an immigrant and always will be. I can be bilingual, but I will always struggle to be bicultural. My kids, as current trends suggest, will have both in the bag in no time at all.