Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Understanding Big Chairs

Laura:  What are we going to do when it's not socially acceptable to drink a cold Castel on the beach at 10 in the morning?

I have been back in village for a week now after the whirlwind of COS conference, and I have never missed Americans this much in my entire life. My fortunate circumstances that have allowed me to live in different places also at times gives me severe identity crisis. The first 12 years of my life, I was a Taiwanese. No doubt about it. The 6 years that followed, I successfully transformed myself into an American. I did such a stellar job that in college, my Asian friends were surprised when they found out I spoke fluent Chinese and grew up in Taiwan. Talk about being bien intégré. For the past 6 years, however, I've traveled. I've utilized that integration skills to put myself in the life of an English, a Cameroonian, a French. I avoided hanging out with Americans too much to get the full experience. However, my time with my fellow volunteers last week made me realize that I am in fact, American, and I miss them.

After our conference in Yaoundé, a group of us took vacation and went to Kribi, one of the popular beach towns. One evening, we were out in a very chic pizzeria that is designed for expats. The restaurant had these really wide and comfortable chairs. Being the luxury starved volunteers that we are, a conversation went on for a good 10-15 minutes about how big and comfortable those chairs were. Then it occurred to us that once back in the States, people will look at us strangely if we ever went on a rant about how big chairs are.

Several times throughout the week, we went dancing in clubs and had a fantastic time when American music came on. That kind of bond and excitement won't exist Stateside when all the music played are, well, American. I will miss a group of 15 Americans going bunkers on the dance floor to Lady Gaga's Bad Romance while Cameroonians are trying to figure out what is going on with us.

Our bus ride back from Kribi was bizarrely hot. All of us were packed in a bus like sardines, which is normal, but the humidity was unusually high that all of us were literally sweating bullets. I did not know my body was capable of sweating this way. We would all sit in the most relaxed manner possible, and there would be sweat dripping down our bodies as if someone was spreading water on us. It was pretty disgusting. To make matters worse, Cameroonians hate having wind blowing on them during bus rides, so even though we are all dying of heat, they would try to close the windows. You throw in the crying babies, or loud mamas who break out in songs because they wanted, then you have yourself a fantastic ride. I decided in that moment in time, amidst all the sweat, that I will NEED people in my life who can understand this.

During our COS conference, we had a RPCV panel who talked to us about life after the Peace Corps. The recurring theme was that people will not really be interested in your experience. They won't care. I got a glimpse of that this summer while I traveled back to Taiwan. I carried a photo album with me to show people my life here, and with few exceptions, most people really just aren't that interested. I am terrified of going back to a place where no one can understand the intense two years that I've just experienced. But when I looked around my beloved friends who were on that hot bus, I felt more at ease. At least, they will.

Over the week, there were several conversations among us discussing our plans for the summer and trying to find a way to meet up. We then pointed out how we are so eager to see each other Stateside even though we have all just spend two years together. We came to the conclusion that we need to talk to each other about the big chairs that we will be sitting in, and freak out about other minute details of American life together. I will miss these amazing people who are likely to be lifelong friends. Nothing bonds you more than being tossed in a strange place together for two years.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Beginning of an End

After the successful distribution of books, I headed to Yaoundé for Close-of-Service (COS) conference with my fellow '08-'10 SED/ED volunteers. To celebrate having endured Cameroon for nearly two years, Peace Corps put us up in a nice hotel in Yaoundé. While one of the nicest hotels in Cameroon, in comparison to the US standard, Mont Fébé is nothing but a high-end Holiday Inn. However, for us luxury-starved volunteers, any lodging equipped with hot shower, air-conditioning, swimming pool and food that includes chicken is five-star rating!

Our first night, we were invited to the Country Director's house for dinner. LaHoma is our newly-arrived country director who is incredibly smart and full of energy. I can already tell that Peace Corps Cameroon will go places under her leadership. The first night after we arrived to Cameroon as a group, we also were invited to the previous Country Director's house for dinner. That was back in June, 2008. Two years later, we are so much more comfortable with each other and it felt like a big family dinner. Also, as a group, this might have been the most clean we have all been. The girls all took the occasion to put on nice dresses, did our make up and hair. Boys were looking sharp, some even put on a suit! The whole process felt a bit like prom!

The week was filled with paperwork and explanation of the process to end our service. I received the COS date of July 23rd. It's later than I had hoped, but so many people were trying to Early COS that I simply didn't want to hassle to fight for an earlier date. Besides, I am not sure if I am really ready to leave any earlier. I have moved around the world a great deal, but this is the first time that I am truly sad about leaving a place. Likely because the chance of me ever returning is slim.

One of the events for the week included a trip to the US Embassy. Now, I worked at the US Embassy in London, and the Embassy in Yaoundé totally kicks London's butt. It is HUGE. I suppose land in Yaoundé is slightly cheaper than that of London. I was also extremely impressed with the selection of American food. We all gorged ourselves on burgers, chicken salad sandwich, tostata, meatball, philly cheese steak, etc. After the delicious meal, we had several talks from RPCVs about career option. One of them talked a great deal about a career in the Foreign Service, which piqued my interest a bit. Something I'll think about, but I'm not jumping up and down about that career just yet.

Oh, funny side note. The toilets in the Embassy had automatic flush, and it scared the crap out of me - not literally though. But seriously, I was amazed that there was even a clean toilet, and now one that flushes by itself?! Also, people pointed out those fancy shades on the big windows. Two kind of shades that you pull on depending on how much light you want in. WHAT? Most of us just have fabric nailed over our windows for curtains. If you are really lazy like me, you just let the sun shine as it pleases.

Anyway, the week was wonderful and it was so good to be with all of my PC friends who have become my family here over the past two years. Siobhan once described the relationship between Peace Corps volunteers as second cousins. We may not all know each other, but if we are traveling and need somewhere to stay, it's safe to say that there is another PCV who will lodge us and feed us. PCVs are second cousins to one another, but those who are in the same stage (training group) have status of first cousin or even immediate family. As I sat during the conference and looked at the faces around me, I was comforted to know that after this experience, I am just one video chat or a phone call away from one of my loves to reminiscent on details of life here.

PS - Lady Gaga's Bad Romance somehow turned into the theme song for our COS week. Also, we watched Trace TV around the clock and now I am playing Trace's top 15 on repeat! I am already having severe nostalgia over the week.