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Monday, February 1, 2010

What I Learned from My Trip to Haiti - 1985

My week-long mission trip to Haiti in 1985 was an amazing experience. Other than Canada, it is the only country to which I have been able to travel.

As many of my regular readers have probably figured out about me by now, I don’t fit into the normal mold for female humans, perhaps sometimes for the human race. That, combined with what were probably unreasonable expectations on my part, led to a week in Haiti in which I was torn between the amazing adventure of the whole experience and feelings of being in junior high, with all its angst, all over again. This is a really long blog post, but several of you asked for this, even after being duly warned.

Parts of this story I’ve never shared before. Let me be clear that I am not looking for sympathy here. Things just were what they were. But all of these little incidents are a part of how I was forced into rethinking a number of things.

First of all, we were told that all the women would need to wear skirts any time that we were around the Haitian people. I really hate skirts, and I didn’t even own enough everyday ones to take. As I have mentioned, I didn’t have any extra money. I had some spare doubleknit fabric around and made a couple of extra skirts. Of course, these were skirts, but completely inappropriate in 90 degree heat. Not only was I uncomfortable, just because they were skirts, but they were too hot. The other members of the team all recognized instantly that I was off the scale on Lin’s dork-o-meter. One lady said she didn’t care what we had been told and wore pants all week, making me feel stupid for following the rules. Other women had light cotton sundresses and I got plenty of odd looks in my brown doubleknit.

I still don’t know how... I’m often oblivious to how other people react to me... but I got labeled early on as some sort of geeky person who didn’t fit. One comment I remember... we were riding in the van on the way back from a village and I thought I was participating in a conversation in a normal way. One of the younger adults turned to me and said, “Oh, I’ll bet you are one of those people who knows all the verses to the Star-Spangled Banner, too.” They all laughed and turned away. Well... um... I do know all the verses to the Star-Spangled Banner. Older and wiser now, I would probably join in the laughing at myself and just continue in the conversation. But back then I didn’t have that much moxie. I just felt ostracized.

It became abundantly clear early on, that I was not gifted for helping with the kids. Now, this is something that I should have known about myself before going to Haiti. In fact, I did know it. But I’d never really been in a situation where there were several women all oozing the mothering instinct that I only have in limited supply, over the same group of children. I was quickly shouldered out of those types of jobs. And I was much more comfortable with the construction jobs and organizing of supplies, anyway.

The day that the other lady and I stayed behind at one school to paint was also interesting. Although she is doing an alphabet in the picture I showed you, how the bulk of the day worked out was that she painted a wonderful mural of Jesus and the children on one wall, and I painted alphabets. This was fine with me. Although I have artistic ability, I am not fast. She was! She used a rather impressionistic technique and in that one day painted the whole wall with life-size figures. I was rather awed. But I felt that the alphabets were important too, and I am precise and fairly fast doing lettering. The part of the day that shocked me was when the rest of the team returned, everyone just oohhed and aahhed over the mural and not one person said one thing about the alphabets.

The last day we all went to a nice restaurant to eat. But the problem was that we hadn’t been forewarned that we needed spending money for an extra meal. I had only been able to come up with $20 spending money for the whole trip and I had spent most of it at the Iron Market, and paying for my share of a pizza the night before and I suppose a soft drink or two during the week. Anyway, I had $2 left when everyone decided to go to this restaurant. Again, at this stage of my life, I would probably just say... o well. I don’t have any money, you all go ahead. Back then I was continually embarrassed at my lack of extra money. So I went with the group. The only thing on the menu that I could afford was a cup of coffee. So I had that while everyone else ate a full meal and dessert. I’m sure that no one except me even remembers that.

Finally, I had brought with me several (10 I think) sets of kids t-shirts and shorts that I had made to leave with the orphanage. On the last day we were there I took them to the staff and asked if they could use them. I thought their reaction was very strange. They just said something like, “Oh, yeah, just put them over there.” Not even a thank you.

So, by the end of the week, I was just a cauldron of mixed emotions. Hey, I’m an only child. Although I had learned long before the Haiti trip that I am not really the center of the universe, I still wanted recognition for doing good things, and I didn’t get much of it. So all the black thoughts about that conflicted with my conscience– knowing that it’s not really about me, all the way home and for a long time afterwards. And somehow, I had thought that the team would be more of a team because we had our faith in common, rather than just another bunch of people where I knew that I don’t fit in.

Part of the problem too, was my expectations. I’ve never been good with people. My ministry talents are in support- doing all the stuff behind the scenes that needs to happen in order for someone else to work with the people. And yet, I guess I thought that in a country that was so needy, that my compassion for them would somehow turn me into a people person for a week.

So, what did I learn through all this?

First, I learned that just because you care about someone a whole lot doesn’t make you instantly great at showing it. Although I cared a great deal about all those kids, others were clearly better at expressing concern than I was. Looking at this from the opposite angle helped me to deal with some of my relationships in life back home. It helped me to understand that my mother probably really did love me, but just didn’t have the skills herself to demonstrate it in ways that spoke to me.

I learned what has become one of the items in what I call “The Shark’s Wisdom Tooth,” a list of life principles. I’m sure that reflections on this trip contributed to several of them. But the particular one I have in mind is: Just because someone doesn't say "thank-you" doesn't mean they are not thankful.

I’ve become much more content at being a dork in the general population. I can usually find a small cadre of people who can deal with me, but I am much more comfortable in my skin even when not part of that small group.

Also, I learned that I needed to start giving myself an allowance. That (lack of) dinner was the last straw. After all the years of pinching every penny so that we could continue in the ministry in which my husband had invested his life, I was just becoming bitter because I never had enough for a cup of coffee with a friend or any little treat. Hubby could do all of those things because they were parts of his job, but I never had anything. So I began giving myself $3 a week. It was small, to be sure, but I’d always been frugal, and after that I no longer had to wince and turn down invitations for those cups of coffee. If I saved one or two week’s worth, then I could even consider buying a jigsaw puzzle (now that you know how much I like them), or yarn for a craft project. It was a great weight lifted, and for only $3 a week!

Probably the biggest lesson was that it is ok to not be a people person, and that ministry in construction or sorting eyeglasses is still important. Nowdays, this may seem so obvious that it sounds silly. But many of us were raised in a spiritual culture where the only ministry that was valued was that of working directly with people. So I had always sort of believed that my talents were second rate on God’s scale. I thought a trip to Haiti might “cure me.” Instead, I came away knowing that whether anyone else valued alphabets, t-shirts, or organizing things, that I had performed a service that was A-OK, and I never needed to feel second-rate about that again.

Some of you may be shaking your heads at how dense I was at age 37 to not know these things. Well, I never got an A in social skills. Other subjects, yes... topics with emotional or interactive components, no.

So, there you have it. To me... an amazing week with some life-changing revelations to go along with the unique experiences. I think that I need to write Ella Mae another thank you note for her investment in my life.

See Why I've Been Interested in Haiti Since Childhood
See Sloppy Botanizing in Haiti - 1985
See Reclaiming Haiti's Environment
See Poverty in Haiti - 1985
See Interacting with Haitians - 1985
See Tasks on the 1985 Haiti Trip
See A Trip to Haiti in 1985


RNSANE said...

Well, Joan, I think you had a great deal to offer in Haiti! So often, it is the quiet, behind-the-scenes person who is able to get the most accomplished, really. ABCs are the basis for learning to read and write - and children need these desperately. Without an education, these kids will never have any hope of a life better than they know now.

You deserve an allowance, that's for sure...and it's good that you earn a bit of an income from your writing and blogging. I think it was pretty sad that others were able to enjoy a dinner out and you had to get by with just a cup of coffee.

Unknown said...

I really want to comment on this because I so admire you for making it all public. And for finally accepting the way you are and being happy with it. We all have to do that for some reason or other and it's rarely easy. Taking part in that trip at all was a very selfless thing to do, and I'm like to echo the sentiments of Rnsane in that you must have left lots of benefits behind for those Haitians.

Secondary Roads said...

Reading that was, at times, a bit like looking into a mirror. Thanks for summoning the courage to share these experiences and insights.

Jen said...

It seems to me this was a very valuable experience for you. I wish I had learned some of those lessons by the time I turned 37. Thank you for posting such a personal experience.

Joe Todd said...

I can relate in a lot of ways. At age 37 I thought I knew it all but in retrospect I knew very little.Reminds me of the song "I wish I knew then what I know now". Was over at NCT and then checked out the bears den cam and photos preety neat.. Have a good one

Ann said...

I'm with secondary roads. I saw a little bit of myself in there also. I've never been much of a people person myself and have often felt like an outsider. I truly enjoyed your story

Sharkbytes said...

Thank you all for your kind words!

Carmen- I actually started a sewing business that same year, bought a van and went back to school. Ended up with a masters, but still too unfocused to get a "real" job. Ha!

Jean- Thanks for your comment. It wasn't all self-less... I really embraced the "adventure part of it.

Chuck- Ah! I knew there was a reason we were buddies.

Jen- Well, in some ways I've always been mature for my age, and in many others very immature. It seems to me that I should have known these things before age 37.

Joe- Yeah... we always seem to think that we are pretty smart at any point, but we probably aren't.

Ann- Hmm... I hadn't picked up on that about you. I bet Duke thinks you are social enough!

RNSANE said...

I love it, Joan...reminds me on my son, Shawn, who finally got his electrical engineering degree from San Jose State at 34-years-old..but, to date, has never worked a day in the field though, as an Air Force reservist, he does repair the computer systems for the C5 and C17 cargo planes!

Lin said...

The more I read, Sharky, the more I would love to just sit and chat with you. I think we have a lot in common. I like your insights on the trip--from learning that you aren't always going to be acknowledged, to how you fit in (or not), to being comfortable with what you can do for others and the acceptance of yourself and your mom. There's a lot of lessons learned there.

I see my son as being a lot like you and sometimes it makes me hurt that he isn't as socially suave as the other kids. I know it hurts him sometimes, but then other times, I think he likes not being in the crowd. He is going to be a good adult, as he learned acceptance of who he is early on and moves ahead knowing what he is like. It's a lesson that takes a long time to learn.

I like your Haiti stories.

Sharkbytes said...

Carmen- Ah... you do understand.

Lin- Well... it's not outside the realm of possibility. I get to the Chicago area occasionally. Colin sounds like a great fellow. High school is really hard socially. In college even I found a sub-group of people that I fit in with. It is actually possible to be social when you find people who want to talk about the things that interest you. I bet he will be a great adult!

Duxbury Ramblers said...

Hi Shark, just caught up with you, I feel we have a lot in common, I was reminded of a conversation I had a long time ago - a pastor at our church once pointed out that there are Martha's and Mary's both important in God's work, I was always a Martha helping behind the scenes and happy to do it :)

Great blogs I have throughly enjoyed them, a wonderful word of witness.

Lin said...

Sharky--I'll be expecting your call the next time you are in the 'hood! :)

Sharkbytes said...

Don't hold your breath... but the next time I come that way I'll give you a shout.