Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Letting Go

Today is my penultimate day in Vanuatu. On Friday I board an early flight to Sydney in order to embark on a long spiritual journey across Southeast Asia(Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia). My last days in my village were filled with kava, family meals, and farewells. The process of selling the items in my house was onerous. I felt like every other sentence out of any villager's mouth was an inquiry about what I was selling, for how much, and what I could give away. One woman wandered into my house while I was selling a mattress without my permission and laughed at me when I reprimanded her for it. But still, I was sorry to be leaving. Leaving, I feel a strong sense of accomplishment and relief. Peace Corps would not be in Vanuatu if the country was perfect. The culture of Vanuatu turned out to be far more frustrating than I thought it would be going in. The lack of accountability, constant "yu go wea?" inquiries, and complacency for assimilation to the status quo have been arduous to handle. However, I must believe the culture can evolve and learn to ameliorate these circumstances. I have been impressed by the resourcefulness of many people I have met and hope this resourcefulness can be combined with responsibility in order to construct a better Vanuatu. I have often said, "If there's one lesson Ni-Vans can take from volunteers, it's that you are responsible for your life and the lives of those you care about." Ni-Vans, like people from any other culture, cannot hope to succeed so long as they refuse to do this. I am quite happy to be leaving, since I am leaving these frustrations behind. Still, leaving Vanuatu requires letting go, delegating my various projects and knowledge to them, and hoping they can prove themselves. It requires confidence in the people of Vanuatu. It requires a leap of faith. Many of my friends have opted to extend another year. I did not even consider this option because I knew I wanted to find work in Istanbul. I wonder if some of those who have extended have done so out of fear of returning. I understand the trepidation. Beginning a new chapter in one's life is daunting. I also understand not wanting to delegate the projects we have invested so much energy, time, passion, and resources in to a culture with no system of accountability. But this is what all Peace Corps Volunteers must do at some point. We must let go. It's a necessary risk, and one that I must believe will be rewarded. In Buddhism, it is said that the greatest gift one can give another is one's true presence, just being there. No material possession could ever compare. I have to believe that I have made an impact just by being myself in a culture centered around conformity. We can't accomplish anything through affectation. We must be authentic to who we are, and hope this authenticity will initiate change in the world. I hope the nation of Vanuatu will ruminate on its position in the international community and try to learn from other countries. This will be difficult, being such an isolated nation, but not impossible with today's technological advancements. I hope Vanuatu will recognize the value of diversity and allow more space for it. I hope Vanuatu will accept the importance of responsibility and learn to reward constructive behavior and punish destructive behavior. I hope Vanuatu will learn the appreciate the efforts of volunteers and work in solidarity with them, instead of expecting them to do all the work while they maintain full control of the work, as my headmaster did and has happened to many other volunteers. I hope Vanuatu will learn the art of confrontation and venture into the 21st Century instead of hiding from the spotlight, which I saw time and time again. (This could be one reason why so few have heard of Vanuatu). If not, I am not opposed to Peace Corps leaving Vanuatu, but I can't get bogged down by that mindset. And now that I am about to leave, that challenge is becoming easier and easier. Instead, I must let go. It's up to them now. As the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh says, "Looking with the eyes of compassion, offering a peaceful step. These are gestures of peace and nonviolence we can offer every day. Speak peacefully, walk peacefully, think peacefully, and your peace will radiate out in all directions."

Saturday, September 28, 2013

HIV/AIDS: Defying Expectations

Two months ago, I facilitated an educational workshop on HIV/AIDS with another volunteer who specializes in health education and Collette, a health worker who works at the dispensary in a neighboring village. When I met her, I knew I was in the presence of a woman of true courage and conviction. Collette lives in a Catholic village in a country where families typically have four or more children and abortion is still prohibited by law. Yet, Collette defies the status quo by teaching about unwanted pregnancy and HIV/AIDS. Even the Peace Corps employees were shocked when I told them this. First, we separated the men from the women, who appeared in numbers twice that of the men. Then, we gave an overview of HIV/AIDS and how it is transmitted. Then, we facilitated them in an exercise where they organize various activities in terms of low-risk, medium risk, and high risk, which included male and female condom demonstrations. In order to train them to decline risky activities, we facilitated them in role plays that engaged them in declining needle sharing and unprotected sex. We ended the workshop with a game in which the participants supported one another by holding them as they tipped toward the ground. This demonstrated that HIV-positive people needed to be succored, rather than ostracized, by their communities. At the end of the workshop, we were all rewarded with straw baskets. This, for me, was a positive sign in change in the culture: That the culture is learning to reinforce positive behavior by rewarding it. The workshop was such a success I am recommending Collette as a counterpart to a volunteer in the next Peace Corps group.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Painting a Legacy

Last Saturday, the youth at Rensarie Secondary School and I completed the last designs of my mural. As I stand at the wall, I am amazed that the project has come to fruition after so much struggle and betrayal. This project was inspired by my experience working on a mural in Harlem, New York with a group of eleven teenagers from the neighborhood, all of whom came from low-income families and attended schools where arts programs are vanishing. However, as enthralled as I am just to have been a part of that project, this new mural was special in the way that I was the primary planner and designer, unlike the Harlem mural, which was designed by a teaching artist.

            I remember creating PowerPoints about art history for the youth at my school so they could choose their favorite artists and art traditions from different cultures and how enamored they were with the paintings and sculptures they viewed. After the lesson, they chose their favorite artists and art traditions so I could create a design based on their preferences. I remember, just after the Training of Teachers on Santo, coming to Wilco to procure price quotes on paint, chalkline, buckets, rollers, and other supplies, then sitting at my computer stressed over budget calculations for the Peace Corps Partnership Program, then vexing about whether or not the funds would be raised during my vacation in China. I also remember how frustrating it became to find people who knew sand-drawings so they could be integrated into the design—the one component of it I couldn't design myself. However, I never expected that the primary setback to the project would come from my own school and the same people who signed off on it in the first place.
            Even though my school approved the schematic for the design, they recanted their approval after we began painting and demanded a world map instead. It wasn't about a lack of consensus over the design. My project was being exploited for my headmaster's power play. When I tried to explain to him that he already gave me approval and that the youth chose and enjoyed these designs, I would be accused of extortion and fabrication. In fact, when I asked the school headmaster why he approved my design, his answer was, “I was tired when I said that.” Disillusioned, I struggled to find a way to cultivate the project's integrity. I felt capitulating to their demands would be unscrupulous and unreasonable, and working with them would prove arduous. Then, a volunteer friend offered a perspective I had not considered, “Paz, if [your headmaster is] too difficult to work with, just take your paint and go somewhere else.”
            Finally, after several meetings and negotiations, I convinced both the staff at Peace Corps and at Rensarie Secondary School to allow me to take the project there. Suddenly, I was being treated completely differently. Teachers were lauding and applauding me and my design. They were suggesting palpable images they would like to be included, all of which were easily accommodated. The youth took full responsibility for the project and painted until sunset. We completed the mural in five days, which I never dreamed would happen. And, while I hesitate to use the word “resplendent” for my own work, I don't think the staff at Rensarie would be as reluctant based on their reactions. Besides, the work is not just mine. It is also that of the youth who contributed to it and took ownership of it. In fact, they have invited me back to paint a tamtam image in the remaining white space in August. Of course I accepted.
            The theme of the mural is “Solidarity Between the City and the Village.” The right side represents the city, and the left side, the village. It was inspired by the fact that I came to Vanuatu from New York City, and no two places on the planet could be more different. Still, we can collaborate together, and this mural stands as a testament to that. The winged being at the zenith is an Ethiopian angel design watching over the school. Just below the angel is the bird of paradise, a poignant symbol for people from Papua New Guinea, as one of the teachers at Rensarie came from there. It is flying over Rensarie's symbol, the canoe and star. The green valley and tree trunks are inspired by the abstract British landscape painter David Hockney. (Hockney is also known for his homoerotic paintings, but I didn't need to mention that!) The triangular, tailed symbol is one of the adinkra symbols from the Ashanti culture in West Africa. It is two connected crocodiles that must work together to find food and is a symbol of community mobilization and synergy. Next to the Vanuatu map is an image inspired by contemporary African American painter Faith Ringgold of young people soaring over a cityscape. One of the buildings is labeled “Art Students League,” the school in New York where I received my arts training, whose stellar teachers helped me to enhance my skills tremendously. Beside that are two sand-drawings: seven pigeons and a heart. Below the cityscape is the Eiffel Tower and the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Chinese character above the puzzle pieces can be translated as “community” or “fellowship among men.” The black wave line, puzzle pieces, and stick figures are reminiscent of the German artist Paul Klee. The four-armed woman in the center is Kali, a Hindu Goddess of Rebirth and a symbol of mobilization and gender equality for feminists around the world. (While in India, I was blessed by the swamis at one of her temples, which is among my favorite memories of my travels there.) On the bottom left corner are two more sand-drawings: a fish and a turtle in front of a backdrop inspired by my artist friend, Deqa Abshir, a Somali artist from Kenya. Above that are divers performing the nangol, which I had recently seen. They are diving above a Giverny bridge and water lilies inspired by Claude Monet. The kangaroo represents Australia, where one teacher received her education. There are also two more sand-drawings: a gecko and a breadfruit leaf. Next to the land-divers is another adinkra symbol: a sun hovering over a moon, a symbol of harmony. The word “interbeing,” bamboo image, and circle are inspired by the Japanese art of Zen brushstroke. Interbeing is the Buddhist teaching that we are not separate from one another; we can see all other beings within us and ourselves within all other beings. The quote at the bottom comes from my favorite playwright, Tennessee Williams, from his play Camino Real: “Make voyages! Attempt them! There's nothing else!”

Monday, June 10, 2013

Diving Into Manhood

I have just returned from the island of Pentecost for the nangol (land-diving), a rite of passage in which young boys climb onto a tower with vines tied around their ankles and dive, similar to bungee jumping. Boys are kept in a nakamal for a week and forbidden to eat certain foods before hand. They are also trained to dive. It is a rite of passage into adulthood. It is inspired by a kastom, and some would say misogynistic, legend in which a woman was being chased from a man attempting to rape her. She tied a vine to her feet and jumped off a cliff. The man chased her off the cliff and fell to his death, while she survived. Supposedly, the nangol represents the men now outsmarting the woman. The most beautiful aspect of the nangol, however, is the kastom singing from the language of South Pentecost that accompanies the diving. Men shift back and forth while singing the song while boys jump from different levels of the tower. It is a unique cultural tradition practiced only on Pentecost Island.

Tanna: Shaking the Earth

I have returned to Vanuatu from China after being held up in Brisbane, Australia for two days. During my last few days in Beijing, I wanted to stay there. I was not looking forward to my return, and not just because my house there does not have electricity. Being in China, I realized how much I thrive in urban environments and how frustrating certain aspects of Melanesian culture can be. I did not want to go back to the invasive questions and the irresponsibility in the culture. I realized how tired I am of hearing people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s use excuses for misbehavior and breaking integrity that 8-year-olds would use in most countries, such as “I was tired” or “I forgot.” Chinese culture, as with most cultures in the world, attempts to hold people responsible for their actions. While no culture does this perfectly, Vanuatu does not even try very hard. Law enforcement is a joke here. Villages have no system of reprimanding or castigating people, even for transgressions such as murder and child molestation. They rely on volunteers to conduct projects exactly the way they want them to without listening to the volunteers' viewpoints and then expect the volunteers to do all the work themselves. I have heard stories of people committing arson in villages and rationalizing it by saying “I was angry.” I believe this is an aspect of the culture that must change is the Peace Corps is to remain in Vanuatu. If it is does not change, Peace Corps should make its exit. I also realized that while I had no interest in quitting in the Peace Corps early, extending my service is out of the question. My new plan after I finish the Peace Corps is to move to Istanbul, Turkey, one of my favorite cities, plus a major international transportation hub that spans two continents, making international travel there relatively easy, especially compared to Vanuatu. But I digress. When I returned to Port Vila, I met with my brothers and the next day, boarded a flight to the island of Tanna. This had been the one island I always knew I wanted to visit. We were greeted by Morris, the bungalow owner, who taught us some words in his vernacular language and took us to his bungalow in the middle of the Imayo rainforest. I was so happy to meet a ni-Van man who not only was very kind and hospitable, but also ran a successful business, proving that Melanesians can take responsibility for their choices, communities, and families. We saw a beautiful kastom dance and a waterfall, but the highlight was certainly Mt. Yasur, the active volcano that borders the rainforest. When it erupts, the whole ground vibrates and feels like the earth is shaking. It is unnerving and a totally unique experience. I have now seen two volcanoes here in Vanuatu, and both are experiences I will never forget. I will also never forget how kind and trustworthy Morris was, always available for whatever we needed during our four days at his bungalow. I hope others will learn from his example. I have always said that if there is one lesson ni-Vans can take from volunteers, it is that we are responsible for our lives: our choices, our communities, our families, our world. We cannot pin our responsibilities on anyone else. Now I see that ni-Vans can learn it from each other as well.

More Modern Art in China

Perusing the modern gallery districts in China, the 798 Art District in Beijing and the M50 District in Shanghai, I have learned about many new wonderful artists. These artists range from abstract photographers to traditional Chinese painters and hanging scroll painters to oil portrait and landscape painters to mixed media artists. My favorite was Lee Sun-Don, a Zen monk living in Taiwan who is also a classical pianist and composer and owns a gallery in Shanghai that displays his paintings and plays his music. Below are just a few names I would like to spread the word about:
Gho Wan
Wei Yei
Gong Huotong
Dang Bao Hua
Tung-Jung Hsu
Lin Zhong Lu
Wang Tianliang
Jenny Gu
Alan Chen
Lee Sun-Don
Ma Sing Ling
H. Leung
Yu Gang Huang
Chang Fa Liu
Qin Shenxian
Long Fang Zhong
Li Zijuan
Cheng Yong
Luo Dan
Feng Bin
Sheng Wanqing
Ma Haifeng
Wang Xiaobo
Yang Yongsheng
Wang Ting
Bian Jing
Gao Xiaowu
Ou Yangchun
Zhang Hui
Wang Jun
Lu Shanchuan
Ma Jian
Xue Zhang
Zhang Lin
Wu Yiqiang
Zhao Bo
Yu Aijun
Tsai Yushan
Ma Han
Yang Maoyuan
Su Xinping
Wen Zhongyan
Zhang Xiaogang
Song Junho
Fu Xuming
Gao Ping
Yan Min
Bi Jianfeng
Ko Kangchaol
Wang Quiren