Here

Why am I here?

Throughout my three months here in Senegal on SST, I have gotten this question from a wide range of people in a variety of forms. My place here doesn’t fit into any of the pre-existing, easily understood boxes; I am not a traditional exchange student, I am not a missionary, I am not moving here permanently. My answers to these queries of my reason for being in Senegal have never quite satisfied my listeners, and have not satisfied me either.

Why am I here?

Why have I spent the last 3 months in a foreign, developing nation where both the languages and culture were previously unfamiliar to me? In my first week or two, my only answer was that I was fulfilling a graduation requirement and expanding my worldview. I vowed to continue to ponder this puzzle, and while I am still thinking, I believe I have arrived at much more of a response. 

I am here to be. I am here to be a listener, be a participant, and be open to learning and growth. It is difficult at times to accept that I have the privilege to live a different life for 3 months and then return to my comfort. It is difficult to accept that I have spent this much time here but have not done anything visibly constructive to help this land that has welcomed me.

I have come to realize that there there is value in projects and action, but being able to act wisely and conscientiously first requires understanding. And wisdom and understanding are only gained through time, experience, and thoughtfulness. SST has opened this door of understanding wider for me, helping me to see and think more clearly without biases and assumptions. 

I have learned the value of seeing with my heart, turning the world inside-out so that it can be right-side up. I have found that all the reasoning and logic in the world mean nothing if they are not joined with caring for others and looking with love. All the cultural differences — religion, food, homes, dress, language — become beautiful in their diversity when you learn to connect with the intangibles of a place, such as hospitality, love of family, and emphasis on community.

Moss Lotus: Two Poems by Julia Kasdorf

When Julia Kasdorf traveled to China for SST in 1982, she recorded her experience with what would soon be a nationally acclaimed gift: poetry.

While there, she tried to capture a sense of the place by writing poems, much the same way she took photographs. Many of her poems, she said, refer to plants, one of her abiding interests, or history.

“In the fall of 1982, when my group was there, the Cultural Revolution was still very present in peoples’ experience,” Kasdorf said. “[T]he class I taught with Janet Lind at Sichuan Teachers College was among the last group of students who had had their education disrupted by that event, so we had students who were 16 and one who was 46 years old, all in one senior class of students studying to be English teachers.”

Many of her poems were informed by that teaching work. The following two are from her book, Moss Lotus, published by Goshen College’s PinchPenny Press in the 1980s.

‘Tangerine Woman,’ “is a portrait of a vendor who sat at the college gates selling nuts in cones folded of homework papers,” Kasdorf said. “She had had her feet bound before the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China in 1936, when such practices were outlawed.”

In ‘Underground,’ she imagines “the purge of ornamental plants, which were outlawed during the Cultural Revolution because they were seen as vestiges of the bourgeois era.”

Kasdorf is an award-winning American poet; her three collections of poetry, most recently Poetry in America, have been awarded a 2009 NEA fellowship and a Pushcart Prize, among other honors.

My Sister’s Room

Out of my two families on SST, I connected the best with my study family, but especially with my little sister Julia. She was seven and speaks just about zero English, but despite the language barrier, I connected with my little sister almost immediately.

I was her jiejie (or “big sister” in Chinese) and we quickly became the best of playmates. We would sing Disney songs together, play with dolls, and practice her English on the weekends through games. Our greatest achievement together was building a Disney lego castle, which is pretty difficult when you are working in two different languages. Julia was — and is — the light of my life.

A Life in the Present

As I watched the microbus pull away, I felt the sinking feeling in my stomach again. This was a feeling totally new to me, and not easy to define. It bordered on the lines of terror, curiosity, and helplessness. Throughout my time of study I had briefly greeted this feeling, but now it had decided to skip the gut and go straight for the chest. The pressure was rising into my throat and I was on the verge of tears. But I held it together; trusting that these strangers I just met will take care of me. Either way I didn’t have a phone or computer or any way to escape even if I wanted to since I had no idea where I was or where I was about to go. So I followed them blindly, surrendering to my fear and helplessness.

We passed by my host mom’s daughter’s house in El Crucero before heading to the rural community where I would be living for the next six weeks, called Santa Julia. As I tried to catch bits and pieces of rapid campo Spanish, I discovered they were trying to decide how to transport my gigantic gringo-sized suitcase. Finally I saw my host dad, a flaco, offbeat war veteran nicknamed “El Zorro” (“the fox”), zip up on his motorcycle as my host brother propped my suitcase on the back and hopped on as well, sandwiching the suitcase between them. That wasn’t even the best part. An older gentlemen on a horse trotted by and hoisted my barrel of purified water behind him, continuing down the path like this was perfectly normal.

Looking back, I see this was a humorous insight into Nica culture lesson No. 1: Strangers will go out of their way to make sure you get where you need to go. And without much thought or planning, things always seem to fall into place. This insight continued to ring true my first day in the campo as my host mother, Lola, and I started the trek on foot to Santa Julia.

Three Little Letters

SST. These three little letters carry almost 50 years of memories for thousands of people. These three little letters evoke a wide range of emotions for many in the Goshen College community. When I hear these letters, a smile instantly comes to my face.

In the spring of 2013, I travelled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for three months. It was my first time out of the country, and I was more than a little anxious about what I was getting myself into. As I stepped on the plane with my fellow classmates, I had no idea that I was about to travel to a place that would eventually become a second home for me.

The first few weeks were hard for me; I have a hard time with transitions. However, after the first few days with my family, I started to feel at home. My host family was a little unconventional in that I did not live with host parents. I lived with a brother who was close to my age and a sister who was ten years older than me. I immediately felt like I was part of their family. Although there were times of homesickness and tears, my host family gifted me with many times of smiles and laughter.