Embracing Discomfort: Portraits of Peru

When Shina Park went to Peru, she had three things in mind: build relationships, hone Spanish-speaking skills, and immerse herself in a foreign culture. In short, she said, she traveled to get lost.

But several weeks after her arrival, she said, I felt genuinely lost and disconnected from all things familiar. The transportation system bewildered me, I couldn’t extend beyond small talk with my host father, and I was shivering in my bed at night. It took me a while to figure out the kombi routes and to muster up the courage to ask for more blankets at night. How was I confronting my fears and embracing discomfort? I wasn’t, really.

But then I looked up, observed my surroundings, and took photographs of what I saw. During this process, I forgot about my anxieties. I no longer cared for them. To have been consumed by my anxieties would’ve been my loss, as I would’ve missed Peru. Although the following photographs do not wholly encapsulate Peru, they are few glimpses of what I’ve discovered there.

Unpacking the Power of Privilege: An Interview with Judith Martin

Judith Martin wanted to go everywhere and see everything.

She grew up in a conservative Mennonite family with Amish grandparents, and often wondered as a child what was beyond her familiar borders.

“I even wore a cape dress and covering when I attended Lancaster Mennonite School and was always curious about the world,” Martin said. “I wanted to move beyond the confines of my family and church.”

And she did. She taught Bible school in Puerto Rico and went to France and Algeria for three years with her husband through the Teachers Abroad Program.

The experiences were so transformative, and Martin, now professor of communication at Arizona State University saw similar changes happening to other Americans she was with. “I became this huge [study abroad] cheerleader.”

At a CIEE (or IEE) conference in the 1980s, she met Henry Weaver, former Goshen College professor; after years of research, they would eventually write Students Abroad, Strangers at Home: Education for a Global Society with Goshen professor Norman Kauffman.

Her passion for international work led to a job in study abroad administration, teaching positions in ESL, communication and international studies, and Martin’s current position in intercultural communication. She taught pre-departure and re-entry classes for years to help students prepare and debrief, and now works to help students recognize white privilege and interracial relationships.

“It’s all connected,” she said. “Whether we study intercultural or interracial communications, the overall frameworks are the same.”

She also succeeded in moving far beyond the circle of her childhood expectations. Her father supported education, she said, but to teach a woman wasn’t compatible with some of the strict guidelines in the church. “He had no idea what education would do for me,” she said. “Education in itself is transformative but international education? People are really changed in a good way.”

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.