In less than 48 hours, I will be residing abroad, sleeping in a new place. A strange place. And yet, I am the stranger in this place. Mexico will become my new home (for at least three years) but “home” will have to be a concept that is constantly underpinned by this idea of being foreign. A concept that will entirely be in quotation marks. Something true and yet untrue.
One of my life-long dreams has been to live in another country (especially one in Latin America). Though I am of Asian descent, I have always felt an inherent desire to know more about Latino culture (there is a chance that I am of Spanish descent… a DNA test would probably confirm or deny this). I have always wanted to be fluent in another language, but alas my learning styles (and fortitude for language) has challenged my attempts at this in an environment where English is the primary language. Many other reasons have put me on this trajectory. And I am so grateful for them.
But it does not mitigate the fact that I am afforded an opportunity that allows me to take a position for much less pay. Allows me the ease of obtaining a work visa to teach and to be a school administrator in another country. Allows me the internal resources-emotional, psychological, financial-and external resources-family, close friends, and business associates whom gave me this opportunity.
Two years ago, I went on a service trip to Nicaragua through Outreach360. We worked with youth in a neighborhood in Jinotega teaching English and Spanish literacy. The organization also helps with community health projects among other initiatives. I appreciate the program because it gave me a more global view of living. I was really touched by how earnest the children were for learning. They wanted to learn English; it was not some Western moral that imposed upon them (though I suppose there is a case for systemic oppression here). But in the moments, these children were seeking modes for bettering themselves so they can provide for themselves and their families. It was evident (although cursory) how these children not only improved their situations but also impacted their families and community positively as well. Although the country director was Canadian, she worked extremely closely with a Nicaraguan woman who served as second-in-command for the program. The program was very sensitive to its place within the community, working to ensure their programs were value-added.
Several of my friends have been talking about the concepts of service, charity, and philanthropy. Most of these require individuals to acknowledge their privilege; however, the mere acceptance of these statuses does not automatically result in one’s best intention. An individual who goes abroad to help build houses for the mere status of marking it off of their “I’m-a-good-person” list has not really made a truly positive impact. Furthermore, the imposition of our own values comes so naturally that it is difficult to participate in another culture without attempting to find some level of comfort. Many of these efforts to cope can be at the detriment of the more global picture.
Now, this does not mean that service, charity, and philanthropy are not merited and greatly needed. It also does not mean that an individual who serves or gives does not get some individual benefit. Persons who want to serve or travel abroad to help the global community and to expand their own world view can have very meaningful experiences. Just be cognizant of your attitudes and behaviors in these experiences. Be cognizant of the privileges you have in the very ability to travel or serve. As well as other privileges you have. Acknowledge these privileges and use them to help fight systems of oppression. Use them to help build partnerships rather than positions of power.
The school I am working for has a administrative and teaching staff that is a mixture of Mexicans and non-Mexicans. Some staff speak only Spanish while others have basic (like in my case) proficiency in the language. This results in tricky modes of communication to ensure all messages within the organization are consistent and clear. And while this is clearly a challenge for the school, I believe it provides a richness that other institutions may not have. The executive director not only promotes professional development but also she actively provides opportunity for training and growth. She does this in order to develop a sustainable infrastructure in the school’s home country by providing training to local persons and environment for them to hone those skills. I’m excited to be a part of this venture.
All these things I recognize. I know about concepts of privilege and oppression. And I pledge to work actively to continuously acknowledge my privileges, unpack my invisible knapsack, challenge systems of oppression, and strive for a more global community. But it will be hard at times; I will make mistakes. But with each of those, I will reflect and make efforts to do better. To be better.
And I hope you can do the same in your travels whether abroad or at home. Whether on vacation or in your daily commute. Wherever you may go.
For more information on the “Unpacking the Invisible Backpack”, check out this article by Peggy McIntosh: http://www.isr.umich.edu/home/diversity/resources/white-privilege.pdf