Posted on May 12, 2013
Above: Circa 2009, Elsa and Marcos after receiving a present from their Nana — it didn’t take much to make them happy.
The other day Karan and I saw something on the news about the Dominican Republic. We saw a picture of a rainy, flooded street and it brought back a rush of memories for us both of living there. We felt wistful.
When the moment passed I said to Karan in a quiet voice “I know you miss living there.”, to which he nodded silently, and I said “Me too.”
So why do we miss a place with so many problems, problems which are as clear in our memory as everything that is good? I know my reasons, I wrote about them long ago in my post Life in High-Definition Video but I was curious what Karan’s reasons were. The first, and really only reason he gave was “People are happy.” How true.
It is a conundrum that is not unique to the Dominican Republic. The poorer the country, the less they have on average, the happier the people seem to be. I remember this as a child when I visited Haiti. The children we are all smiling, flashing their brilliant white teeth against their dark skin, playing with sticks and scrap metal. Most of the children had no shoes, dirty clothes and swollen bellies from lack of proper nutrition. As I child myself, I only saw smiling faces, children full of joy and it made me happy.
Dominicans, by contrast, have more than Haitians and it is “happiness quotient” is therefore a little lower. Within the Dominican Republic, it is the upper class, the privileged, who complain more, who dwell on the negative. But the poor, who have the greatest reasons to be unhappy, find joy in every day things from a cool breeze which relieves from the blistering midday heat, to their favorite song playing on the radio.
The United States is a far more privileged country than the Dominican Republic or any other third world country and our unhappiness reflects this. We don’t appreciate that we have running water, electricity, maintained roads, public libraries, good schools…no, we don’t even think about these things and instead complain about any glitch or bump in our day. This goes back to my theory that all Westerners should live in a third world country for at least 3 months to give them some perspective.
It just seems that, on average, the less one has, the less one needs to make one happy and by contrast, the more one has the more one needs for that same happiness. The people in poor countries do not dwell on the difficulties of their life, difficulties that in many ways they are powerless to change, instead, they celebrate the little things in their life that are good. We can all learn from this.
Although as American, I am privileged compared to someone in the third-world, by American standards, my upbringings were far from privileged. Yet, for the most part, it was a happy childhood. Both parents were artists, divorced, and broke. There was lots of turmoil, little money and in the mix was the problems with my legs which kept me in the hospital most of my youth. But although there are memories that are painful, there are others that shine and those are the ones I cherish. People used to say how awful it must have been to have to spend so much time in the hospital. But all I had to do was look to the left or the right and see a kid, a fellow patient, who was worse off. This perspective is not because I am so much more empathic than others, it is because I saw, literally, children who faced much greater challenges than mine and I thought to myself that I should be grateful.
My experiences continued to draw me to challenges, to people in situations far worse than mine and that is, in part, why I moved to the Dominican Republic.
In my time living in the Dominican Republic, I went from a somewhat privileged life where I had a big apartment in the central part of town. One room with air-conditioning (a real luxury there) nearly 24/7 power and water. Then times got tough and the peso lost nearly all its value, trading from 25 pesos to $1 when I moved there to 50:1. I billed in dollars so all my clients put their projects on hold which effectively took away all my income. I was pregnant with my son at the time.
I moved, out of necessity, to “que lado”, the eastern part of the capital. The house was nice but it was in a “barrio”, poor neighborhood with dirt roads and burning trash piles. My first week there the power was out for 3 days straight. When the power went out there was also no water as the pump didn’t run. I had to heave 5 gallon buckets of water out of the cistern. I was 6-months pregnant and the father was never there. I was alone in a foreign country, pregnant and vulnerable, with limited power and water, in a neighborhood I didn’t even dare to walk around.
But because I was pregnant I kept my spirits up. I wanted to bring my son into the world with joy in my heart. Life was tough and lonely there but I reminded myself that I had chosen to move to the Dominican Republic and I needed to take the good with the bad. I reminded myself once again to be grateful for what I could — the beautiful baby inside me.
I lived there for a year and a half. Ever so slowly business picked up, life got better and finally I made just enough money to move back to the center of the capital. Oh did I appreciate the little things then. Even if the power went out, there were places to go with light instead of the entire neighborhood plunged into darkness. I could walk to places…in many ways life was so much easier.
But compared to my life now, it was still very hard. Now I live in a very nice town, in a nice apartment complex with a community pool. If there are problems in apartment there is a maintenance crew who come immediately to fix it. In the Dominican Republic I had one apartment with a filtration problem and when it rained water would drip down in to the electric switches and flames would burst out. Forget about maintenance, there wasn’t even an ambulance you could count on coming if you got electroculted. I’ve come a long way.
I have always lived by the motto “Happiness is a choice” and I truly believe this. Even before my experiences overseas I have tried to seek happiness in everyday things and let go of what makes me unhappy. I consider my time in the Dominican Republic to be a gift because I never take anything good for granted anymore. I miss their simple pleasures.
Posted on December 15, 2012
Photo above: The church where the Christmas concert was held.
In the past two days I have experienced great contrasts. Yesterday ago I heard the horror of what happened to those children, those sweet innocent children in Newtown, Connecticut. I choked back tears as I read the news, imagining it could be my own children, and then realizing it was impossible to imagine. I could only send love and sympathy.
Today was a new day, a fresh day, and my son had his Christmas concert with the Jacksonville Children’s Chorus. This was not a school holiday show but a professional show and I was excited. The show lived up to my expectations and more. As soon as the first group of kids came out to sing, I was overcome with emotion. It wasn’t until the song about peace and an end to war that I thought of those children up in heaven, then I let the tears flow, but just hearing those beautiful voices brought the emotion, one of pure joy, that these children had such potential, such spark and such dedication.
The world is beautiful and ugly. There is no perfection anywhere, but there is a question of priorities. In my small slice of this world, I like to observe and I write down these observations here, in this blog. So my latest observation is this: I think we have our priorities crossed. I spent nearly 3 years trying to have my family together in this country — a family which is law abiding and has followed all the required steps, the infinite number of steps in the complicated immigration progress. So how it is that we make the process for a foreign family member to join his/her family in the United States so complex, with multiple background checks, interviews and evidence collected, yet the process to obtain a gun is so easy. Don’t we have this backwards? Shouldn’t it be far easier for families to be together than to be able to kill them?
I know I’m simplifying things but I am just talking about my small slice of the world and it is just what I see. Today I saw beautiful children, including my own son, singing their hearts out. My husband got to see it too and I was grateful that he now has his visa, even his green card, so he can do so. But he missed many other moments, so many moments, all because of the complex process. I know, I know. There are bad people that want to come to our country and we need to protect it. I don’t want bad people here any more than any of you do. But it does not take 3 years to do a background check.
With family-based immigration, you have a U.S. citizen that is accountable for the immigrant. That immigrant can be tracked and monitored. While we may never know from any application who is good or bad, my point is that it is not that complex to keep tabs on the person who enters the U.S. via a family-based visa. The process is complex to prevent fraud but what is the real danger with fraud since a background check is always performed anyway? It is that the person may take someone’s job or even government benefits but not that they may walk into a school and kill, kill, kill.
It is a tangent I know but I just think that if we are going to make a process complex it should be to get a gun or any other weapon which could kill many people. That is what should take years, require several background checks, evidence, an interview and expensive fees. Simple as that.
Until then I will just love my family and be grateful that we are all together at last.
Posted on December 7, 2012
Above: Supermarket aisle in America [Source]
Whenever I return from traveling to the Dominican Republic I always see the United States with an outside perspective — fresh eyes. My first impression is always one of amazement regarding vehicles and traffic : the condition of the cars on the road — compared to the Dominican Republic, all the cars in the U.S. seem brand new; how polite and orderly traffic is — drivers stay in their lanes, turn signals are used, road signs observed; and how the roads are well maintained — no giant holes that can take a hubcap or blow a tire. My next amazement is with supermarkets: how many products are offered, how wide the lanes are — makes you feel like dancing in them, and how polite the other shoppers are. Even though I have lived in the United States nearly my whole life, I always have these observations after being away in the Dominican Republic because the contrast is so great.
This time, however, I was not only able to observe my home country through the my own eyes as an outsider, but also through Karan’s eyes, a true outsider. Karan knows virtually nothing about the United States. He has never been here before now, not even for a visit. He knows some of its history from school because, unlike the United States which virtually nothing is taught regarding the cultures on the Asian continent, Indian schools do teach some American history. But even though he knows some of the historical figures in American history, he has no context or timeline so it is all jumbled together. For example, one time he asked me if Benjamin Franklin was a president before or after Bill Clinton.
His knowledge of popular culture is also very limited. He does not know who Marilyn Monroe or Elvis are, nor does he know the names of most current stars. India has a very strong popular culture, with a plethora of movies, so he tends to stay within that. His knowledge of America, therefore, is based on what I have told him and some movies. Therefore his impression of America before he arrived could be summed up in two phrases:
- most Americans change their personal relationships often
- most Americans like fast food
Neither statement is false per se, but certainly America is much more than that.
So I have watched Karan closely as I have shown him just a tiny speck of America, my neighborhood of Ponte Vedra Beach and bit of Jacksonville.
His first observation of Ponte Vedra Beach was how quiet it was. He has spent his whole life in third-world countries where there was constant hustle and bustle, commotion, chaos. Here it is very orderly; he said it felt like a resort. But in some ways he felt it was almost too perfect and well-behaved. He missed some of the chaos and I have to agree with him. He probably missed more than me, having grown up in it, but I have also felt that despite the comfort of being here, it is like eating a nutritious meal with no flavor — you know it is good for you but its not much fun to eat.
Part of the calm in this area of Ponte Vedra Beach is the it is not very ethnically or economically diverse. Most people (outside of us) are quite well-to-do and the majority are white. Everyone is nice and polite but there is a lack of spice.
Last weekend, however, I got to show Karan a completely different part of Northeast Florida.
I had a giant, old tube television that died while I was away. It was too big to put by the dumpster and the responsible thing was to recycle. We live right next to the county line between Duval and St. Johns County in Florida so I looked online for the closest place to recycle the television which turned out to be across town in West Jacksonville. Karan loaded up the television and we drove the 30 miles to get across town. When we got off the highway it looked like we were in the impoverished South of the picture books. The paint on all the buildings was faded, businesses were boarded up, trash was scattered and everyone we saw was black.
In Ponte Vedra, to see a black person, or asian, hispanic, etc., is notable — it is that rare. But the Westside was the mirror opposite. Ironically, we didn’t fit in to either neighborhood.
So we drove to the recycle place with the giant television in the back and that is when I saw the sign: “for Duval County residents only”. “Oh no!” I thought, I can’t drive all the way down to St. Augustine with this television. I pleaded with the guy to take the television anyway but he said he couldn’t.
We drove away but I was determined to find a place we could just drop it off. We pulled into a convenience store where several guys where hanging out in front, all black, and we asked them where the nearest Goodwill drop-off was. “Whatcha got to drop off?” a guy asked with two gold teeth. “A giant television.” I said and Karan got out to show it to him. I explained that it wasn’t working right but before I could say more, several people had gathered around and there was a bidding war of who would take it off our hands, finally ending with one guy who had a van parked right there. I backed up my car and Karan helped the guy load it in the car. The guy now says “It works okay right?” and at this point, after having said over and over that there was a problem with it and being ignored, we both just decided to stay silent and let the guy figure it out. Since it did power on he could probably get it working anyways and worse case he could take it to the recycle place around the corner that wouldn’t let me drop it off. Problem solved.
We waved goodbye to the group who were happy about this unusual interracial couple who bestowed this enormous “gift” out of the blue — a woman that did not fit in their perception of white and a “black” man who was not black like they were. I’m sure they will remark on this day for sometime forward.
We then drove across town to our next stop, the St Johns Town Center which is a massive collection of stores spread out like a small, densely packed town.
I know a lot of Americans like to shop but I am not one of them, at least not like this. I like yard sales, thrift stores, consignment shops. I like them for the prices but also for the random discovery of a true find. But the St Johns Town Center is retail consumerism at its finest and honestly, you couldn’t pay me to go there if I didn’t have to, which unfortunately I did have to that day.
My laptop was on the fritz so we brought that into the Apple store. The place was buzzing with people and salesmen walking around with iSomethings in-taking why people were in the store. It was a tech explosion. Quite a contrast from the rundown streets we were just on.
So in a few hours we visited three very different parts of this area I now call home. The one closest to Karan’s initial impression of America was our last stop at the St Johns Town Center, There he saw American commercialism in full swing.
It was just one day in America, so much more to see, so many more impressions to have.
Posted on November 11, 2012
Above image from newsone.com
Like most people, I have my political views which I share with my friends. I am normally low key about politics but this year has been an exception, with polarizing language used in this election pulling me into a more active involvement. But now it is all over and time to get back to work. No matter who you voted for, it is time to roll up our sleeves and attend to business.
It is no secret that my political leanings are liberal, being married to an immigrant certainly shifted me that way if I wasn’t already there. But, in many ways I consider myself conservative in what, is to me, the true sense of the word. I am fiscally conservative in that I don’t want money spent needlessly and I also don’t want government deciding how I live my life. These two elements of conservatism used to be a pillar of Republican values. Of course I diverge in what I think is needless (tax breaks for oil companies and military buildup) or how I think government is invasive (regulating reproductive choice for women) but that is another matter…
My point is this. The voters made a clear choice, a referendum, on what they want but there still are all the other voters that didn’t get their choice left behind. Unfortunately, instead of uniting and trying to progress together, many people have resorted to the blame game.
Americans love to lay blame for all sorts of things: why they are in a bad mood, why their team lost the game, why their marriage is failing, why their job sucks, why their candidate didn’t win. Of course blame is not just an American quality, rather a human one, but we Americans seem to revel in blame far too much. We complain a lot about everything and it seems that the more one has, the more one complains. If you don’t believe me, go to a Third World country for a while. Daily living there is so so much harder than anything we face on a daily basis yet you will see more people happy and smiling.
India has a particularly interesting approach to the concept of blame within the Hindu faith. They believe that the fate you are born into is determined by God. They call this your caste. Western culture has vilified the caste system as horribly oppressive and to be sure, by American standards the caste system makes it very difficult to advance beyond your caste. The caste system, however, does have its positive aspects and that is because Indians see their fate as predetermined by God, they don’t complain about it, in fact they strive to do their best because that is their way of honoring God. A street sweeper works diligently to be the best street sweeper and so on.
I am not an advocate of the caste system, just illustrating a point. Even in miserable conditions, the choice is ours how we perceive our situation what action we take. The reality is laying blame on others for our misfortune is a cop out, an easy way not to take responsibility for our life and change it for the better.
I speak from direct experience. I have led a challenged life, one which could have easily caused me to feel sorry for myself and blame others. At the tender age of 3 months I was hospitalized for an overdose of vitamin A, given to me by my mother in an attempt to cure the flu I suffered from while my father ignored us both. The result nearly killed me. I was given a complete blood transfusion, predicted to die in childhood and had over 18 operations on my legs that still left me with a limp. I could blame my parents, the doctors who operated unnecessarily, the woman who wrote the book which said vitamin A could help with the flu but no warning on dosage. I could blame all of them and more but I choose not to.
I decided early on that I was not going to be a victim of any kind and that what had happened to me did not define me, did not limit me, did not take away my power. Have I forgiven those who hurt me? No, not necessarily. I personally don’t feel that is necessary. What they did was wrong, some of it intentional, some not, but it is not my role to forgive. Instead I just see it as what it is: something that happened, something to deal with, something to overcome, something to move beyond.
I have met so many people who have experienced challenges in their lives. Some have lost loved ones, suffered diseases and much more. Everyone has reason to blame something, someone, but it does us no good.
As a country we need to move beyond this dialogue of blame. Women are not to blame for rape, immigrants are not to blame for our debt, gays did not steal the election, Obama is not to blame for our problems. One man, one president, can not do it all. He is not to blame for all the problems nor can he take credit for all the successes. As individuals, working together for what we believe in, we have far more power to change than any one president can but first we have to stop the blame, stop the hate, on both sides.
Blame does not solve anything. The United States of American is slipping behind on a global level. We need to be smarter and more productive. We need to unite and use the ingenuity we were so known for in the past to make us a leader again. And on a family level, let’s get involved in the education of our children, both on an academic and social level. Teach them the skills so they can have a bright economic future no matter what and show by example, that by having compassion to all races, creeds and lifestyles, one becomes a better person.