Well, Hello There, Culture Shock…

Today was…. Amazing, scary, overwhelming, gratifying, exciting, encouraging, demoralizing, and exhaustive. Amongst other things, of course. Welcome to stage two of the culture shock cycle.

When you study abroad, they teach you about the culture shock cycle, which generally occurs in four stages:

  1. The Honeymoon: The world is fantastic and new! How have you never known that this exists or that is used to do such?!?!  Everything is full of wonder and you can *not* absorb enough of your new environment.
  2.  Negotiation: Also known as the What-the-hell-am-I-doing-here phase. For some this is a short pit-stop, for others it is a longer journey. Most people characterize it by the irritability that one experiences when the wonder starts to fade a bit. One travel blog I’ve read actually characterized this stage as “Depression,” rather than “Negotiation.” Not to say that’s where I am, exactly, but having to start the “grown-up” part of my trip has served as a rather swift kick in the pants.
  3. Adjustment: Things start to make sense now and you’re piecing things together that used to send you running to the nearest paper bag to hyperventilate for a bit.
  4. Mastery: Hey, lookit you! Your new environment is starting to feel a bit like home, things are beginning to feel natural and did someone just ask you for directions around the plaza? Yes, yes, I think they did! Well done, you!

Because my trip is relatively short in terms of experiential service programs, I won’t be cycling through them the same way as someone who made a long-term commitment might—my cycles are more likely to be smooshed together and overlapping. That being said—I have a renewed sense of amazement at my friends who have made the decision to join the Peace Corps or leave the country to teach for more than my little month. I take my hat off to you (or would if I wore one)—you have truly made a great commitment towards building a global community.

My first day at school was… Not quite what I had expected. I teach two three hour classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Nuestra Senora de la Luz, a technical school in a barrio called Cienfuegos. Three hour classes are really something else, especially when you consider that my students’ ages range between 6 and 13 in my morning class and 8 and 13 in the afternoon. Mad props to one room school teachers, because that kind of planning is crazy crazy.

My morning class went really well—the students loved being introduced to Around the World and writing on the board to show off what they already know. I was really impressed with the students’ patience and willingness to sit through my instructions—especially when I realized half-way through talking that I had no idea how to say an essential vocabulary term. Oops… The kids are really sweet and warmed up to most of the activities very quickly, though some things I think we’re going to have to back up a bit first.

Highlights and surprises:

-Kids come up to you as soon as they finish an activity to have you check their work and for praise—no one waits in their desk until others have finished

-Dominicans have a limited sense of personal space—Your tummy, arms, hands, and back will all be poked and prodded for attention until you set some “americana” boundaries

-Recess at my school is 20-25 minutes long and we don’t have a playground. We just release the kids into the street to either go home, to the store, or for a walk and they (more or less) come back when you call them. Which you have to do, shouting “Ven” from the front porch until you start seeing your students come back into view. I have learned to delegate this particular task to some of the more… enthusiastic younger students.

-Several kids ran to the office after dismissal and told the secretary how much they liked class. I got hugs from a couple of the kids and many of the older girls didn’t want class to end! For me, that last part really affirmed that I made the right choice to teach middle school.

-Talking during instruction/moving/getting up and walking around during work time are all normal classroom behaviors for our school, as many of our students have never been to a formal school.

-We do a lot of coloring—I can already picture my UNC professors going into cardiac arrest. The books the school uses are written at an elementary level, which is fantastic for the little kids and far too simple for the older students. Students complete a basic (and usually insufficient) activity and then color. My plan is to slowly wean some of the older students off the coloring and toward some higher level thinking activities.

All in all, it was a good and challenging morning. I felt confident in my teaching abilities, positive about my developing language skills and excited for the next step. And then the afternoon class happened. Do you know why our schools get out before 3:00? It’s because no one in their right mind would try to make an 8 year old learn grammar at 4:00 in the afternoon in 98 degree weather. For three hours. Even using games, songs and movement, that’s a lot to ask of a kid. And their teacher. It destroyed me. I haven’t felt that out of place or defeated in a classroom since- well, maybe ever. The regular teacher forgot to leave the materials for the afternoon class (which is slightly ahead of the morning class—which they also forgot to tell me). Everything I had planned had already been completed the week before and I had no copy of the materials to improvise with. I made out pretty well the first two hours but I was so lucky that there was a compassionate 13 year old in that classroom who took pity on me around 4:00 and helped lead vocabulary games until the end of the day. The little ones were all over the place and the 9 and 10 year olds were sniping at each other. She helped run all the games and keep the little ones together—I would not have survived without her.

I’m not going to lie—my first step after school was to scout out a chocolate bar (no easy feat here, as chocolate melts too fast to be carried in most places). I pulled myself back to the apartment, put on a happy face for my host mom, and then boarded myself in my room for the next hour and a half. Though I’m not particularly proud of it, I’m going to own it: I threw myself a pretty little pity party. I lay on the bed and pondered through a bit of an existential crisis (you spend a lot of time in your own head when you travel to a county that speaks a language you’re not completely fluent in), pouted despondently, listened to my music, and researched signs of culture shock (hence the beginning of this entry). I was in the throes of debating my usefulness in society when a rather subtle orchestral version of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” popped up on my iPod. Message received. It was enough to make me put down the research, change out of my gym shorts, and go out with the other ISA students, where I had an absolute blast. I’m so thankful to have so many positive influences in my life.

Tomorrow I’m going to re-work my game plan for my afternoon class; I already have a few ideas I think might work better. But for tonight, I feel hopeful. I’m going to try to internalize the lesson here and go to bed.  You can only do what you can do—then you have to let it go. You can pout for a bit but you can’t let the things that scare you stop you or you’re always going to be scared. You have to own it, learn from it and try it again.

In case you’re interested, these links proved especially helpful:

http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/lisalew/cuerpodepaz/1128460200/tpod.html This is an entry from a Peace Corps volunteer here in the Dominican as she realizes some of the impacts of culture shock in her life.

http://thoughtcatalog.com/2013/6-tricks-for-a-more-enjoyable-existential-crisis/ As the link suggests, here are 6 Tips for a More Enjoyable Existential Crisis


Acción Callejera


Welcome to Acción Callejera, one of my two placements while here on the island. Though I begin teaching tomorrow at the technical school, today I began work with Acción Callejera. An organization after my own heart, Acción Callejera (essentially, Street Action, in English) works with impoverished youth who either work or live on the streets.

I volunteer during the first half of the day, which means that I work with a group of 11-13 year old boys who spend their mornings here with the organization and their afternoons and evenings working on the streets, usually peddling candies or water to drivers in traffic. These boys are… ENERGETIC! And so absolutely curious about the world– they want to think and learn and absorb everything they can.

Today there was a particularly intense debate about a math worksheet concerning the difference between 933-88= ? and 933-188=? The boys knew the difference between 88 and 188 but wanted to dissect the borrowing process. In the Dominican instead of borrowing and carrying numbers in the top number, they write them below the top number. The result is that a problem like 933-88 looks like 933-188 after the borrowing has been completed. It was amazing to watch the boys discuss the solution and the process to figure out why the answers are still different even though the equations 933-88= ? and 933-188=? look the same after borrowing. It wasn’t enough to know the answer, they wanted to know why.


I am so excited to continue work with them and learn from their curiosity.

Hello all!

Greetings from the Dominican! Much to the chagrin of my mother, this note is coming almost a week after arriving week here and there is so much to tell! The first few days of my program have been a whirlwind of sights, sounds, smells and experiences. After leaving Denver at midnight, I finally arrived in the Dominican about one in the afternoon—it was a long day of travel, but worth it to see the island’s coast come into shape. Side note: Baseball is a big deal here and we passed seven or eight fields on the way to the airport- about one per major population center we flew over.

DR1 002
Holy postcards, batman!

So far life seems to move both slower and faster at the same time. Lunches are scheduled two hours at a time (which is probably the only way to accommodate the plethora of amazing food we have for afternoon meals), meetings are much more informal and the Dominican definitely functions on a Latin American schedule (where 15 minutes late is actually 15 minutes early). Well, except for my mother. Just like my real mom, it makes Janet super nervous to arrive somewhere late, which is why we spend quite a bit of time waiting in the ISA garden. And why I intend to have a fully functional botanical vocabulary by the time I come home.

But I must confess that part of my delay in posting is due, in part, to a realization that there is so much to describe about this city that I could not have been fair to it until now. Not all of my first impressions of the Dominican Republic have been positive and while I simply cannot enumerate upon the kindness of my family and the people I have had the pleasure to meet so far, there are lots of things here that are frustrating or scary or both. I wanted to make sure that I gave the Dominican a fair view before posting here. This is such a multi-faceted part of the country that trying to describe its first impression is more like describing someone’s ear instead of their face- it’s a small (and possibly misleading) part of something much more complex.

Though there are some monuments and museums in town, the north part of the island where we live in Santiago is not built much for tourism. Marleny, one of the girls in the office says that there used to be a great deal of colonial houses and buildings but they were all destroyed by an earthquake in the 1500s. Whoops. I live in a very nice neighborhood called an “urbanización” with my host mom and sister and another exchange student in a medical exchange program from Columbia (the university, not the country). Interesting fact: houses and apartments in Santiago do not have glass windows and none have screens. Two (out of nine) of our windows have glass, which seems to be a status thing here. The other windows have Venetian style blinds that fit very snuggly together when closed (don’t worry mom—we live on the third floor!). It takes some getting used to but there are very few bugs and it’s actually cooler in the apartment this way (there is no air conditioning).

DR1 005
This is my bedroom—no glass in the windows!

One of the things that has surprised me the most about the Dominican is the amount of litter all throughout the country. Almost no one recycles on the island and trash is either hauled to dumps to be burned or left on the streets. Or in the river. Or in the ocean. Or in the forest. Or, well, you get the idea… It’s been hard to fight the urge to pick up bottles on the beach or in the park, which would mark us clearly as “americanos,” but even if we did, there would be no place to put the waste as there are very few trashcans in public spaces. More to come on this later, as it plays an important role in the community I am teaching in.

On a more positive note, the people here are so ridiculously kind and understanding that it’s been easy to use and experiment with Spanish. My host family in particular goes out of their way to talk with me and gently guide my grammar as they sit patiently, waiting for me to explain through charades that Red Rocks is a natural amphitheater or that I ate such-and-such-today-and-what-is-that-called? Many of my sentences end with “and-was-is-that-called?” It feels very much akin to being four again.

These were briefly referred to as “I-ate-a-red-caramel-like-candy-at-the-beach-with-coconut-inside-on-a-stick-and-what-is-that-called?” Complete with charades and just short of an interpretive dance. Apparently the rest of the country just calls them “memelos.”

So far, I’ve toured around the city a bit, visited one of the schools I’ll be working at, traveled to the mountains to see a coffee factory, swam in a waterfall, galloped on a horse, learned to cross the street by myself (which is absolutely terrifying here), eaten to the point of bursting, snorkeled on a beach and met some fabulous people.

DR2 009 DR2 026 DR2 045 DR2 040

More to come later, but please know that I am safe and happy and learning loads!