Sunday, April 04, 2010

Nostalgia for a Life Less Ordinary...

I've been thinking lately about a piece of advice I got shortly after Peru, which I blogged about near the beginning of my stay there: don't compare your new country to your old. Don't come with the expectation that things will be "the same." It's a whole new ball game, and should be treated as such.

Ironically, I think I and quite a few other former interns with the mission have struggled with following that advice in coming back to the States from Peru. (Note that it's been nearly 2 years since I got back from Peru, and I'm still talking about it!) Frequently heard comments: Living abroad was such an adventure. You never knew what was going to happen next. The people were so warm and friendly. The food was so good. There was a real sense of community. We were doing something meaningful.

These are all true, and I've struggled quite a bit to adjust back to the insulated, consumeristic American lifestyle. People here have the same need for adventure, and friendship, and meaningful work, but they seem too burdened down by their mortgages and distracted by shoppertainment to do much about it.

However, it always strikes me that there is a disparity between the exciting, challenging experience Americans have while volunteering abroad and the experience of ordinary people who live there. One illustration of this disparity is the expat publication Living in Peru, which I still read for the Westerner's take on Peru. From reading this newspaper, you would think that life in Peru is one big adventure, with fashionable shows and restaurants to go to every week (all in Lima of course), robust economic growth and endless business opportunities.

Now this is true if you're an expat or upper-class Peruvian living in Lima, which is presumably the main readership of the publication. I've met several of these business types while at various pituco functions in Lima (like the Rotary Club breakfast at the Marriott Hotel, or the UPC conference on Latin American economies), and I bet they easily make 20 times the average Peruvian. They could easily rave over 4-star hotels that charge $200 a night while the average Peruvian would be lucky to make that much money in a month.

I think part of what me and my friends have found hard about coming back to the States is that, while we lived on a fairly modest budget in Peru by US standards (my standard hotel when I stayed in Lima charges me $15/night!), we were actually quite wealthy by Peruvian standards. We had means. We could go on vacations and fly instead of take the bus. We could live in upper-middle-class apartment complexes. We could eat whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.

Here we are ordinary citizens. We are the ones struggling to make ends meet. We are the ones with limited options, who might feel shame when we can't find work, or just find our work mind-numbingly boring sometimes, compared to being subsidized to create our own job descriptions to make the world a better place!

In Peru, as a foreigner, doors open for you all the time. Everyone wants to be your friend. It's partly Peruvian culture and a sense of community in a still-traditional society, but it's partly that you're Donald Trump and everyone else is Joe the Plumber. You're automatically a VIP. Even if you're not trying to be one, or take advantage of your advantages, it's fun to be treated so well. Ironically, living in a less-developed country and being exposed to the harsh realities of poverty from a safe distance can be another way of living in a bubble.

As much as living in the real world again sucks sometimes, I think it's a good spiritual discipline to be ordinary again. I grew a lot in Peru through the many ways I was pushed outside my comfort zone; I've grown more slowly now that I'm back to ordinary life, but am appreciating that this is also because it's a harder kind of growth. I think a few years ago the only way I knew to be bold and step out in faith was to leave my life and go to a foreign country. Now I realize this was the easy way out. The harder call is to stay - and be bold and step out in faith in my own neighborhood.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Seattle vs. Trujillo vs. New York?

A while back I blogged about the surprising similarities between Trujillo, Peru & New York City, probably all the more striking for being unexpected.

I came to Seattle with the opposite bias - ie I expected it to be a lot more like New York than it actually has turned out to be. So with those expectations in mind, I will now compare & contrast the differences between all 3...

Size (population):
Seattle - 600K. Trujillo - 750K. New York - over 8 million.

Demographics: Trujillo is made up of a small number of upper-class wealthy neighborhoods and a large number of poor ramshackle ones full of rural migrants. New York has gentrified greatly from a gritty dangerous big city with a few powerful and wealthy people, to a booming city flooded with immigrants (rich and poor), and a large influx of middle-class yuppies seeking fun and career advancement.

Seattle has gentrified, but is still essentially a small middle-class city with a hippie demographic ringed by more conservative suburbs. There are poorer neighborhoods in south Seattle, but compared to Trujillo or New York they're far less visible and less of a stark contrast from the rich neighborhoods.

Also, Seattle & New York are both filled with highly educated types. In Trujillo, on the other hand, many university students are the first in their families to go to college.

Culture: Trujillo & New York are both filled with people caught between the traditional (Catholic & Jewish cultures, ties to tradition, ethnicity and family) and the postmodern. For example, I have many friends in New York whose parents are still grief-stricken when they decided to date outside of their ethnicity or affiliate with a different religion. By contrast, Seattle is pretty thoroughly postmodern. People don't seem very connected to their families or to any traditional culture or religion. There is a sense of free-floating individualism, and a looking down on any lack of progressive-ness. It feels almost counterintuitive to say this, but compared to Seattle, New York is not as postmodern or liberal.

Lifestyle: Most people in Seattle live in houses and drive cars. Some people live downtown, but not many. On the whole it feels surprisingly suburban. By contrast, even Brooklyn and Queens feel much more urban, dense, and less car-dependent. Trujillo is a mix of houses (many of them informally constructed) and apartment buildings, but only the richest part of town feels "suburban" and has privately-owned cars. New York and Trujillo both have boisterous public transport systems that the vast majority of the population relies on.

On a related note, in downtown New York or Trujillo, it is difficult to get away from the traffic, noise, and hustle & bustle of the city. You're more or less going to be in contact with crowds, horns and strangers on a daily basis. In Seattle, there are a few demographics who take the bus (college students, the poor, the very environmental, some commuters), but I'd say most people commute alone in their cars, hang out in their homes, and generally don't have much contact with the general public aside from rock festivals and the occasional excursion downtown. It is a far more individual lifestyle, and you don't necessarily encounter people outside your circle of friends / demographic very often. It feels like a very clean, quiet, private town.

Style of communication: In New York, most people don't have any trouble telling you exactly what they think and why; it's just more efficient that way. :) In Trujillo, people love to talk and chat and joke around and talk some more. They can be quite direct, but also non-confrontational, since the point is not efficiency but relationship. They also wear their emotions on their sleeve much more than either New York or Seattle, which are much more jaded and cynical. In Seattle, people tend to be more passive-aggressive; they will be pleasant and positive, but will hastily clam up or get awkward if you are too direct. There is more of a veneer of niceness than in either New York or Trujillo.

Strengths: All three are centers of commerce & culture, a good place to move to to get a job or education. New York has a level of activity that I think is unparalleled except in other mega-cities like London or Tokyo, and it's also probably one of the most diverse cities in the world.

Seattle is a beautiful city, since it is built right on top of forests, lakes and Puget Sound, and Mount Rainier is always visible on a clear day. It is probably one of the best places to be based if you're a lover of the outdoors, with easy access to islands, mountains, waterfalls, skiing, hiking, etc.

Trujillo has some of the charm and feel of a small town while recently acquiring some of the modern conveniences of a fashionable city. It's one of the fastest-growing parts of Peru, and has one of the best climates, known as the City of Eternal Spring. It's close to killer beaches and some of the most significant archaeological digs in the world. You can still get a cab or an authentic Peruvian meal for under $1, and people are still open and friendly in a way they've ceased to be in the capital city of Lima.

Weaknesses: It's easy to feel trampled over in New York. The mad crush of tourists and newcomers, the fierce competition for apartments, jobs, or advancement of any kind can make you feel about as significant as an ant. It's a tough place to maintain friendships, work-life balance, or perspective.

Seattle can be a chilly city, both weather-wise and socially. Overall, a lot of Seattleites seem like gloomy existentialists. It's also pretty badly planned, with one or two major arteries bottlenecking downtown and a mediocre public transport system that many uber-environmental Seattleites won't ride.

Trujillo is small-town enough that it can feel provincial or stifling. Many motivated young people live with their parents because they can only get sporadic or low-paid work (although the economic situation is improving). Many wish they could go to the States, or Europe, or Lima to achieve much more than they could at home. There is also a rising rate of crime, a perpetual layer of dust covering everything, and (compared to Lima or other more modern cities) a low level of public sanitation, utilities, roads and services.

What drives people:
New York: Career.
Seattle: Not sure, actually; people aren't very driven. Personal space / leisure, maybe.
Trujillo: Advancement; moving a step beyond your parents' place in the world.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Disasters, and What we Can and Can't Do About Them

I've written before on this blog about some of the disaster zones I've been in (9/11, Hurricane Ike, the earthquake in Southern Peru). But I have a feeling these are all small potatoes compared to the truly big ones: the Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and now Haiti.

My experiences are enough to give me an idea, maybe, of the sheer scale of a disaster rendering insurance, or gov't aid, or even an outpouring of support from around the world, "nice" but somewhat impotent. I think of the firefighters and volunteers who poured into Ground Zero after 9/11, the hospitals and ambulances ready to leap into action. Even in one of the biggest and most well-resourced cities in the world, not a single survivor was rescued from the smoking ruins. Just cleaning up the debris took over a year, and cost many of the workers their health in the process. A reminder of how small we are in the face of something truly big.

Being part of a relief effort after the earthquake in Peru was more encouraging because we got to DO something, however small it was. The missionaries and folks we worked with in Peru had it right - yes, take up an offering right away and use some of it to send down some blankets and food immediately, but then after a while, when everyone inevitably begins to forget about the victims (called "damnificados" in Spanish - talk about a vivid word!), use the rest of the money to figure out what reconstruction looks like, and what part you can realistically play in it. (We ended up providing some very basic sheet metal roofing to over 1000 families - in most cases a step up from what they had before the earthquake.)

In fact, when I came back from Peru, I thought about getting a job in faith-based development or disaster relief. I even applied to a position at World Relief in Baltimore, but I was clearly underqualified - disaster relief jobs all seemed to require lots of experience in gov't agencies. Maybe it's my personal experience, or just the chance to use my organizational skills to help people who need it the most, but I would like to try it someday... surely we need more than lifelong bureaucrats running these things!

Anyway, this has turned out to be a rather introspective and self-absorbed blog. But my prayers are with Haiti, and I am confident from what I am seeing and hearing in the news that there are lots of good people on the ground trying to deliver aid - not nearly enough to meet the demand, of course, but then that would be impossible.

Final Note: Much has been made of the comments that Haiti is being "judged" somehow for its voodooism. From what I understand, what the Bible actually says about misfortune is very close to what we observe in reality - ie it can result from our own actions, or from injustice/mistreatment at the hands of others, or for reasons that we just can't see at all. I guess you could say in Haiti's case it's all of the above (the "fault" lying with a gov't which I'm told was pretty terrible).

I was really upset when people jumped to call 9/11 a "judgment" on New York's "sins"; many of those who died were firefighters who rushed IN to a towering inferno to save people's lives, and many more were working-class people who were not exactly robber-barons.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

What I've Learned

I recently went on my first visit back to Peru since living there from May 2007-May 2008. One of my best friends there was getting married, and I had promised I would come back for his wedding!

It had been about 18 months since I left, so I was expecting to find a lot changed, and I did. The gritty street boys' center in Lima that had first brought me to Peru had moved out to a lush suburban property, which will totally change the way the boys grow up, the kinds of kids that end up there, even the experience that future mission teams will have there. A couple of the older boys who had previously been living there were now living on their own for the first time, and struggling; one got arrested in Lima the day before I left. In Trujillo, three of the seven missionary families I had known were back in the States/Canada. There were a whole bunch of new interns I'd never met, and of course all of the old ones I'd known were gone. A few of my Peruvian friends were engaged; a few more had gained some weight. :-)

I thought it would be a little sad visiting with so much changed, but it wasn't. Instead I was thrilled to be back. I slipped right back into the Spanish, the rattling cab rides, the mix of dust and humidity and Latin music everywhere. Perhaps even more than I remembered, Peruvians were warm and friendly and accepted me instantly. It may have helped that I was so thrilled to be there; I'm sure during my year of living there, I was not always the easiest person to get to know as I battled homesickness and stomach bugs and a frequent feeling of being underequipped and overwhelmed. I guess comparatively speaking, a 12-day visit was a piece of cake. (I did get a little sick, though. I got a great piece of advice for my next trip: to take probiotics in advance, and give your stomach a headstart.)

Not surprisingly, being back made me think - about why I'd moved there, and how I'd changed while there, and how I'd changed since being back; about my job hunt and my goals when I came home; about my subsequent move to Seattle and my search for a new home.

Here's a few things that I think I got right, and wrong, along the way.
  1. I think everybody on some level needs to be part of something bigger than themselves. It's why so many people get unhappy or "in a rut" despite having perfectly good jobs and marriages; it's what got me hooked on "missions" in the first place, and gave me the courage to go abroad; it's why I love my current job at Redeemer.
  2. It's also true that being adventurous and wandering off the beaten track comes with plenty of sacrifice and hardship. I was pretty unprepared for all of the challenges that came my way, both in living abroad and coming home afterward to unemployment and lack of health care. I grew a lot, and don't regret any of it, but it was definitely more than I bargained for.
  3. I left New York partly to escape some things about it that were hard. I moved to Peru and wound up with even harder challenges. I've moved twice since then, and have finally got it through my thick skull - you never fully escape your problems, they just change. Ironically Peru, the hardest place to live, is probably the closest to my heart. At the end of the day, it's not about how hard life is, it's about how much you're learning and growing and who you're doing it with.
  4. In other words, sometimes we don't know what's best for us. Sometimes it takes God leading us somewhere we don't even want to go (I didn't initially have any interest in Peru or Latin America!) to find out who we really are. In general, I find that when I am trying to engineer my own life, I am stressed out and unhappy. When I accept a "calling" I wouldn't have chosen for myself - which usually means doing the right thing even when it's hard - I feel less anxious and more like I'm where I should be.
I'm sure there's a lot more to glean from the past few years. But this is some of what I've been realizing.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

The American Dream isn't always a sure thing...

New York Times, January 2, 2010

In the Shadows, Day Laborers Left Homeless as Work Vanishes
by Fernanda Santos

Carlos Ruano was down to his last $50 when his landlord kicked him out in September because he could no longer pay rent. He sent the money to his wife and children in Guatemala and spent the night riding the E train, which has a nickname among his fellow day laborers in Woodside, Queens: “hotel ambulante,” Spanish for roving hotel.

Mr. Ruano, 38, who had drawn his living from 69th Street and Broadway for six years, has been on the streets since. He and other hard-luck day laborers have slept wherever they can: in the emergency room at Elmhurst Hospital Center, in unfinished buildings abandoned by bankrupt developers and under bridges along the freight railroad tracks that slice through western Queens, where dirty mattresses and work boots lay on the rocky ground one recent morning.

“The only reason we don’t go hungry is because there are people who offer us food,” Mr. Ruano said on a snowy Saturday as he clutched a cup of soup from a group of Pentecostals feeding day laborers at a park on Woodside Avenue.

With their isolation and day-to-day existence, the laborers are perhaps the most invisible and hardest-to-reach victims of the recession, advocates and city officials say.

No one knows for sure how many have become homeless since the downturn brought construction projects to a virtual standstill and sapped them of jobs that once paid as much as $200 a day. Most of them are illegal immigrants who may be on the streets one day and off the next, depending on their work.

The rules of the shelter system do not suit them, they said. They might be placed too far from the job pickup site or miss curfew if a job runs too late or is too far from the shelter.

Afraid that their immigration status might be exposed — outreach workers might ask for identification, though the shelters are open to everyone — they say they would rather sleep outside.

“We’re still learning about this population, about their needs,” said Robert V. Hess, the city’s commissioner of homeless services.

To the day laborers clustered on and around 69th Street from Broadway to Queens Boulevard, the downturn came on suddenly: There was work one week, and then there was not.

And for what little work there is, they have more competition — from men who used to be steady hands on roofing, painting and other construction crews and men who lost their full-time jobs in restaurants, at landscaping companies and in garages.

With more people at the corners, day laborers said, contractors will hire whoever agrees to work for the lowest pay.

“We’ve all learned the meaning of the law of supply and demand the hard way,” said Roberto Meneses, 48, a day laborer from Mexico who has been trying to organize his peers under a fledgling group called United Day Laborers of Woodside.

They have had to adapt just as fast as they had learned to install drywall and unclog pipes. One man said he spent 20 days picking apples at a farm near Buffalo in November to earn some cash. Others started to make do with one meal a day. Many are no longer able to send money home.

Ignacio Sanchez, 50, who has a wife and three children in Mexico, said a week before Christmas that he had worked once since the beginning of the month. Rodrigo Saldaña, 41, who has a wife and five children in Ecuador, said he had not worked at all last month. Both said they had spent nights sleeping on the train or by the railroad tracks.

“Do you want to know what the worst part is?” Mr. Saldaña said. “My wife says I’m lying when I tell her there’s no more work in New York.”

Early last month, homeless-outreach workers from the city met with organizations that serve immigrant communities to hear about their work and to ask questions: Where could they go for free immigration advice? Can an illegal immigrant who has no ID get a new one at a consulate?

“There are a lot of practical issues that are very unique to the undocumented, to day laborers,” said Valeria Treves, executive director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment in Jackson Heights, Queens, one of the groups that attended the meeting. “But these guys also have incredible emotional needs.”

Sipping coffee at a Colombian bakery on Roosevelt Avenue, Mr. Saldaña, Mr. Sanchez and Carlos Orellana, an Ecuadorean who has worked for 14 years as a day laborer, told of the sadness of being far from their children, whom they have watched grow in pictures that come with the occasional letter from home.

At least there was a sense of empowerment while they were able to provide for them, they said. “We were the men of the family,” said Mr. Orellana, 40. But now that they have no money, all they are left with is disappointment and shame, he said.

By the railroad tracks, the ground was sprinkled with the instruments of coping: empty beer bottles, a tattered Bible, a crumpled picture of a young boy. A toy skull hovered over a mattress, dangling from a string tied to the tip of a rod, in a sight at once funny and macabre.

During the day, the place was empty. The only noise came from the hum of passing cars on the streets above and the rumble of the 7 train, visible in the distance.

“That’s how we live,” Mr. Orellana said.

His eyes cast on the tracks beneath his feet, Mr. Sanchez interjected, “This is no life.”

Sunday, July 12, 2009

En Casa Latina

This Saturday I started volunteering at Casa Latina, a nonprofit community center in south Seattle which serves the Hispanic immigrant population with English classes, a free clinic, and most importantly, a call center for day jobs. The Casa's basic model of empowerment is to provide immigrants with a community that speaks their language (including Hispanic and non-Hispanic volunteers - I've never met so many Americans fluent in Spanish in one place before, outside of Peru), equips them with education or resources, and gives them access to day-labor that will hopefully lead to more work and enough regular clients (ie employers who call them back on a regular basis) that they can support themselves and their families without having to go through the Casa's day worker program anymore.

It's a pretty good idea - using a trustworthy organization to obtain work and advocate for unprotected workers - except that day labor is not exactly recession-proof. This Saturday we only had about 5 phone calls; normally Saturday is the busiest day of the week, with employment for most of the 30-40 workers who come in early every morning to wait for work. According to one of the staff I talked to, the workers themselves are no longer just undocumented recent arrivals, but people who've been here for years, had jobs, and lost them. A lot of them have also migrated north from California after that state's economy took a nosedive. (Washington is doing slightly better.)

I will be working every other Saturday morning as a day work dispatcher. Every Friday, workers go flyer neighborhoods offering services from weeding to painting to building; phone calls come in asking for 2 people to come over to help with an all-day move, or for one worker for a few hours to do some gardening. Once I take down the info, if they've requested a drop-off I reserve the Casa's van to transport the worker to the job, and then I file the job under the correct date so that it can be "dispatched" from whatever pool of workers is there that day. Work is usually granted by raffle unless specific skills are needed.

The worker's waiting area is a little warehouse just over from the office building where we take calls. This Saturday it also featured stations for getting your blood pressure checked (by UW med students), your hair cut (by an enterprising new member of the Casa's women's program), or getting a snack or a 25 cent cup of instant coffee (from a "tienda" that is formally run by the women's program). Even on a slow day with little work, there was at least a spirit of camaraderie, and it feels great to be in a Spanish-speaking environment again. I even met two Peruvians, one of them a half-Chinese guy from Chiclayo who was there as a medical volunteer, not a day worker.

I hope to report more as I get to know the immigrant community here.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Things I love, and don't love, about living in Seattle

I moved here a few months ago. Now that I'm telecommuting I can live anywhere, and I decided it was time to reconnect with my West Coast roots. However, I'm new to Seattle, and here's what I've found so far:

Things I enjoy:
  • Fewer people. You can actually get a table at Barnes & Noble! The rents are lower, there's room on the sidewalk, and you feel like you can breathe.
  • Nature. Even while driving the freeways, your view is of water and trees.
  • Summer weather. I don't think I've had such a long stretch of sunny, dry days in the 60's and 70's since growing up in Southern California.
  • Food. Great seafood, great produce, and if you ever get a chance, try something called a marionberry pie...
  • Good music. Haven't seen any great live bands yet, but even the radio stations are head and shoulders above what I've heard in other towns.
  • Relaxed fashion. People are very dressed down. I feel right at home in jeans and sweaters.
  • Eco-friendliness, &
  • Social justice. After living in Peru for a year, it's nice to live in a place that is conscious of eating local, buying & selling used stuff, and supporting causes around the world.
  • Great walkable neighborhoods. Fremont, Wallingford, Capitol Hill, Greenwood... there's an endless list of little neighborhoods that feel like the Village or Cobble Hill.
  • Proximity to Vancouver, Portland, and California.
  • Seattle Public Library. Tons of people use it, and it's got everything, so you literally almost never have to buy a book again.

Things I don't:
  • The weather during the rest of the year. I got a taste in March and April, and it was pretty demoralizing to be cold and wet all the time.
  • The homogeneity. Seattle ain't New York.
  • Traffic. Seattle has very few main arteries, and they are full of bottlenecks.
  • Public transit. Again, Seattle ain't New York.
  • Distance from everywhere but the West Coast.
  • Lack of directness. There is an odd awkwardness to social interactions here; people are friendly, but afraid to disagree with each other. For this New Yorker, this is a real shame; you learn so much more about people and life when everyone feels free to disagree and still be friends.