Friday, March 20, 2015

Thou Shalt Pay Bills: A Look At Our Transnational Budget

Before we left, I wrote a post about our family’s budget as we made various transitions (from one to two kids, from one to two parents in graduate school).  Now, I would like to share what our budget is like since we’ve been in the D.R.  Our income while we’re here includes my research fellowships and my partner’s part-time job. Our expenses include bills here in the D.R. as well as bills in the U.S.  One thing that has made this possible is that childcare is so much more affordable in the D.R. (about $900/month per kid in the U.S. vs. $70/month per kid in the DR).  

The combined total for bills in both countries is about $1800 per month. Notably, that does not include spending on groceries, household items, or entertainment.  I would estimate that we spend $450-500 per month on food for a family of four.  Here are our stats for a typical month (all prices are in US dollars):

DR Bills
Rent (3BR apt, suburbia): $550
Neighborhood fees: $40
Preschool/Daycare (private): $70/month per kid = $140 for 2 kids
Electricity: $40-50
Cleaning/Laundry Savior: $150
Phone/Internet/Cable: $55-60
Gas for the car: $50

Total – about $1035

US Bills
Car Payment: $350
Health Insurance: $250
Student Loans: $150

Total - $750 

Monday, March 9, 2015

A One-Way Ticket Back Home…and some feelings

We bought our plane tickets back to the U.S.! The official date is May 20th.  We’re still a few months out from leaving but we found tickets at a good price so we bought them---ahhhh!  Logistically, we planned on returning before the toddler turns 2 – children under 2 fly free and the little one turns 2 on June 9th. Most prices in early June were about $460, so out of curiosity, I started checking prices for each date going backwards, and the magic happened on May 20th: one-way tickets at $285 each….with no layover!

This is the miraculous part: there’s a direct flight from Punta Cana to Charlotte, NC.  Here’s why it’s miraculous:  We came here with 2 adults, 2 children, 9 pieces of luggage, 2 car seats, and a stroller. If there were layovers, we’d have to collect all our luggage in the connecting city, get everybody and everything through customs, and re-check it all for the next flight.  What in the entire world would that have been like? I don’t have to find out because we found a direct flight! Wepa!  Now, we live in La Romana which is about an hour away from Punta Cana, so we’ll have to get ourselves and our stuff to Punta Cana in a rental car or something similar. But I’d much rather do that than have two flights.

So, that’s certainly a load off…but now I’m back at the itchy place – transition. Emotionally, I’m everywhere. I’m happy to be heading back home. I’ve really missed it.  But I’m anxious about selling all our stuff (again…including a car this time) and there are a lot of uncertainties at this point (again) – my husband is looking for jobs so we’re still not sure where we’ll be living yet.  You would think I’d be more used to uncertainty, or that maybe it would bother me less…but I still hate it just as much as I did before!

Also, I’m sad to leave my people here. I’ll miss them dearly. They’ve let me into their lives and I feel an incredible responsibility to represent them accurately and appropriately.  I’m also sad because I will leave knowing that most of them don’t get a “happily ever after”. And I feel guilty because I am so ready to get back to my nice American life with its poverty neatly sequestered “over there”. Life is hard for my respondents and there doesn't seem to be much of a silver lining. I can escape back to my American life, but they have no escape.

I can only hope I do good work for them. As they say: Everything has a time and a season.  It’s time for me to get ready to come home.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Writing Without Fear

What is holding me back from writing without fear? I feel like I live without fear – I make big, international moves, do academic stuff with screaming kids in the background, drive a car in the D.R…all these things are terrifying, and I do them anyway. But there’s something about writing…

I qualify most of my sentences. I condition my arguments.  I don’t use definitive language.  My writing is wrought with insecurity.

Maybe I'm scared to stand behind a statement that could make people argue with me.  I'm not really that into conflict. I generally talk animatedly about controversial issues when the person I’m speaking to agrees with me.  If I sense an argument brewing, I back down making a general statement about how we can agree to disagree. Unfortunately for people like me, ALL academic papers start with “I argue that….blah blah blah”.

What is it about academia that triggers this palpable uncertainty in my ability to make a firm argument? I mean, no author has all the data and every author makes the best statement they can with what they have.  What makes me feel like what I have is somehow not enough? If theirs is enough, then why isn’t mine?

A very wise professor once told me the key to liberation and owning your voice is to “run out of fucks”.  Of course, in my insecure, planificatory manner, my response was, “so when would be the best time to run out? While I’m a grad student? After I get a job somewhere? Or after I’m tenured?”   The response: “Yesterday”.

I think about how my race, gender, and socioeconomic background matter. I’ve gotten along because I don’t make waves, and I've been doing emotional acrobatics to make people comfortable for most of my adult life. But good research is provocative, challenging, definitive, and it makes people engage, push, and take sides.  I’m feeling more ready lately. I might be running out of fucks.  It’s a little scary…but I think I like it.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Water Water Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink

One day this week, I went to my field site and the water pump was broken.  On the inconvenient end of the spectrum, people’s dishes piled up in the sink and laundry piled up on the floor.  On the more urgent end of the spectrum, kids tell mothers they are hungry. And mothers reply, “we are all hungry”.

Since the pump is broken, they can’t cook. You need water to cook rice and boil beans.  Even if you cook with purified water, you need water to wash the dishes you will cook with.  And you wouldn’t go crazy using your purified water because you need it to drink. The water from the pump is undrinkable.

On a normal day, people spend the morning hauling water back and forth from the pump to their homes.  There is one pump that provides water for the entire community of about 100 families. People carry water using buckets, old vegetable oil jugs, bleach containers, anything with a handle. They have to get all the water they need for the day early because it usually runs out by the afternoon.  At about 7am each morning, the running water at the pump starts.  By the afternoon, it stops. 

This water is used for bathing, laundry, cleaning, washing dishes, and sometimes cooking. I would guess that maybe 3-4 houses out of 100 have running water in their homes when the pump is working, so the vast majority of people are hauling water each day. 

One woman teases me playfully saying, “Trini, you don’t know how to haul water!” I defend myself, saying “I can do it. I’m strong!” But the truth is, I have not had to spend my life hauling water each morning. I am probably not strong enough.

They spend this morning, when the pump is broken, wondering if it’s just later than usual or if it will be out for days.

Water is something we take for granted in the developed world, and I just wanted to reflect on the importance of water as a basic need for so many things that we do each day. 

What would you do if one day, the water just stopped running?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Practicing Vulnerability and Asking for Help

Why is it so difficult to ask for help?  We Americans value independence, persistence, and determination but we are rarely honest about the impact of this value system.  People are praised for seemingly individual achievements when really, none of us can claim success independently.  We achieve long-term goals by cultivating persistence, but we gloss over the moments when we felt defeated.  Determination means you push through adversity, but should it come at the expense of our own self-care?  

Why does asking for help feel like failure?

Maybe it's because we fear being someone's disappointment.  But when we show our struggles to people who care about us, they are compelled to show you theirs.  They want to tell you "You are not alone in this life". Give people the opportunity to support you.  Don't make their decisions for them. Let them decide how to lift you up.  Even Dr. King needed to surround himself with people who built him up when he felt weak. (Selma plug!)

Maybe it's because we don’t want to admit imperfection. Maybe imperfection is a sign of weakness. But if we are more transparent about the struggle, then we can begin to see systemic trends that make life harder for some than others.  (I’m thinking of micro- and macroagressions against women and people of color, the LGBTQ community, parents in the workplace…perhaps you can think of other examples).  How can we advocate for change if we keep suffering in silence?

Maybe it's because vulnerability is uncomfortable. It is definitely difficult to let other people see your cracks. People ask how you are doing and they want to hear that you’re ok and things are good.  They can walk away and remain amazed by your awesomeness.  The problem is, this places the ability to do awesome things squarely on “awesome people.”  You hear an amazing story and think “I could never do anything like that.” When really, we all have the capacity to do amazing things. 

Nobody wants to be a Debbie Downer. But carrying the weight of life around while wearing a smile is exhausting.  When you feel like wallowing for a while, it is isolating and lonely when you don’t know that others before you have also wallowed on their way to success. So be vulnerable with someone today. Choose a person who cares about you, and tell them that you are lonely, joyful, in love, or in pain.  Give people a chance to surprise you. 

*Note: I’ve been reading, thinking, and talking about vulnerability a lot lately, and this book sparked my interest: Brene Brown “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are”

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Emotional Labor: When it Hurts to do the Work

This month, I have learned about the importance of taking a guilt-free break.  My research is on mental health among Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent in the D.R.  I’ve completed almost 60 in-depth interviews with people (a research assistant did 20 interviews).  In addition to questions about perceived discrimination, I have been asking people about depression and anxiety symptoms, coping strategies, and general life stressors.  I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that this work would have an emotional impact on me, but I was.

I was caught off guard when I started to feel my own feelings.  I mean, can you imagine feeling guilty for feeling guilty? Yeah, I went there…But here is how it started:

First, I felt the pressure and responsibility of being the “only one I’ve ever shared this with”.  Then the urge to help fix the situations that burdened people.  Then inadequate and ill-equipped to listen therapeutically…because I’m not a therapist. Then helpless, when it became clear that a major problem is poverty and I am not equipped to solve poverty in my remaining five months.  Next came the guilt of my own privileged position.  Then I dreaded going to my field site and decided I would never choose a research topic like this again.

I was overwhelmed.  So I started to talk about it.  I reached out to friends and colleagues who have also worked on emotional topics.  I wrote about it.  I read articles about it.  And I started to feel less alone and less guilty.

It also helped me to do “non-academic” things. Many of my respondents used “avoidance coping” – doing other things to take their minds off of daily stressors. (Note: I also felt ridiculous because I was asking them to talk, in depth, about things they would rather avoid thinking about.)  Anyway, avoidance coping is my thing, but I usually use work to cope with personal stressors.  In this case, the work was the stressor.  So I started reading fiction, painting, doing yoga, and watching Netflix.  The work was still there every day, but at least there were moments when I could completely not think about it.

So, this break was a good one.  In hindsight, I would have planned my research design with a break in mind, or maybe small breaks throughout the year to recharge.  Either way, I feel much better after a little distance.  

(Note: If you’re looking for a starting point, Arlie Hochschild and Sheryl Kleinman are sociologists who write about the emotional labor of fieldwork. Also, I bet social workers have good insight on this…)

*photo credit:

Friday, December 5, 2014

Pain and the Process of Healing

My research in the D.R. is on how discrimination impacts mental health. I’ve been doing interviews for a few months now and, although it feels like an obvious statement, many things impact mental health. Respondents do talk about discrimination, but they also talk about poverty, job loss, family tensions, marital conflict, and the death of loved ones – things that connect people across the globe as fellow human beings.

In the wake of highly publicized police brutality, the past month has been an emotional one for many of us.  People are deeply wounded and many feel betrayed by a system – a country – that is supposed to protect everyone’s right to life.  There are so many necessary conversations, and I think a conversation about healing is one of them. 

I shared a previous post on the tragic loss of our dear brother. I wrote that I wanted to bring my family back to this place “in search of healing”.  And I’m realizing that maybe healing is not a destination.  Maybe it is a continuum, a constant process.  When I reflect on how far I’ve come, I no longer have nightmares and flashbacks about the day.  I no longer feel broken, like my world was ripped from under my feet.  I no longer feel bitter when someone refers to ocean sounds as “soothing”.  But sometimes, I imagine the most tragic outcome possible when I’m away from loved ones.  And I still have to swallow negative thoughts when I find myself anticipating the worst. And I still have to reign in my fears that joy is only temporary.

A fellow blogger and friend recently wrote about how motherhood changes your body and mind in a way that makes it impossible to be the person you were before.  Not only that, it's an unrealistic expectation to think that you can go back to that person.  That’s how I imagine healing to be.  I will never be who I was before.  Nor should I try to be.  But I’m still healing.  

The point is, it's a process.  We may never know what it looks like to be "healed", and I imagine that there's variation in what people/communities need for their own healing.  I needed to stare my tragedy in the face in order to begin my healing process.  Maybe not everyone needs that.  But I did.

I asked one of my respondents how she copes with sadness when it comes up for her.  She told me that sad feelings are “passengers”, they come and go but they are always there.  My heart broke for her.  Some of us live in a continuous state of sadness, anger, worry, and fear – and have been for years…decades…centuries.  I’m still hurt, sad, angry, and afraid as black lives continue to be lost because of injustice.  But maybe we have to stare the pain in the face before the process can begin. It’s scary, uncomfortable, and difficult.  But maybe it’s one way for healing to begin...and maybe we can begin to see ourselves as fellow human beings sharing this world.