Friday, May 15, 2015

Reflections on an Unforgettable Journey

I want to live an intentional life.  On purpose. With purpose.

My husband and I had so many reasons why we wanted to uproot our lives and bring our two boys to live in the Dominican Republic. As our time here comes to a close, I have been reflecting on our purpose here and how amazing it was to see all of our goals accomplished.

First, the mission of Fulbright is cultural exchange and community immersion through personal and professional relationships.  As a Fulbright student, I am proud to say that we represented our country abroad and we learned more about the Dominican Republic. We had the chance to meet and share our lives with so many people: through work, the kids’ school/daycare, soccer practice, our neighborhood. It was truly amazing.

My husband was fortunate enough to find work. He was able to have an important professional experience that will shape his future career.

Our goals for the kids (4 years old and almost 2) were that they learn Spanish, make friends, and that they learn about and appreciate a culture that is different than their own. Both boys did all of these things, and I am so proud of the way my sweet four-year-old has grown here.

For my own research, my goal was to collect data for my dissertation. I did over 50 interviews, 10 months of ethnographic observations, a community census, 3 presentations of preliminary results, and submitted a 20 page written summary of results and policy recommendations.  More importantly, a participant told me I made her feel important.

We also had personal goals for this journey.  The last time my husband and I were in the D.R., we lost his brother in a tragic accident.  We wanted a second chance to return to a place of heartache so we could find peace and joy. Not only did we find more healing, but I was also reminded that even in difficult times, we are blessed to have so many arms wrapped around us.

I can't say enough how grateful I am to those who made this experience unforgettable.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

What’s different about our poverty in the U.S.?


There is something different about poverty in the D.R. and poverty in the U.S. – but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.

These two pictures show places that are directly across from one another in my neighborhood. The place on the top is a large, fancy house in a fancy neighborhood. And the place on the bottom is an open field…where I think a guy has created a home.  I walked past this place for 3 months before I noticed that it was more than just a field of rusted cans, plastic bags, and chickens. 

First, I noticed that there was a rusted sheet of zinc propped on its side, and smoke rising from behind it – a kitchen I think.  Then I saw an old plastic chair under a tree and palm tree leaves spread on the ground –a bed?  Most days at lunch time, he has guests – the guy who rides the bike selling ice cream and a motorcycle taxi driver.  Sometimes, there’s a bowl of fruit or plantains on the curb – income?

I have two points.  First, for a long time, I didn’t see this person or his home because I didn’t have to. I went from point A to point B focused on my own plan. My own destination.  Second, poverty in the D.R. is “in your face” in many places whether you want to see it or not.  Young boys with torn cloths and worn faces carrying tin cans and shoe-shining kits ask to clean your shoes. Or to wash your car windows. Or to watch your car while you get groceries. Or they just ask for a few pesos.   

I mean, it’s interesting that this guy lives (or spends an extensive amount of time) in this field in a nice neighborhood and the neighborhood association hasn’t mobilized to get him kicked out. Granted, there is still segregation in Dominican neighborhoods, but here, the rich and the poor have to interact.  Or, I should say, the rich have to interact with the poor (the converse may not be true…).

So maybe limited interaction between the rich and the poor makes U.S. poverty different.

Maybe our poverty in the U.S. is neatly sequestered in dilapidated communities that we don’t have to drive through, ever. Maybe our poverty invokes feelings like guilt and blame – or just blame. Many Americans believe in individual causes for poverty: the poor are just not working hard enough. Maybe our poverty is too closely connected to criminalized, pathologized black and brown bodies.

One reason why certain white people can condemn the protests in Baltimore is because they have NO ability to empathize with black people living in high poverty/highly policed/low resource/low income communities.  But I guess my question remains: why can’t people empathize? What is it about U.S. poverty that renders people unable to empathize?

Friday, April 17, 2015

The 20-Second Hug...When You Might Be Falling Apart

The average time people spend on a hug is way too short: about 3 seconds.  But according to researchers at UNC’s school of medicine, it takes at least 20-seconds of hugging until scientists see a rise in oxytocin, sometimes called the “love-drug.” And, the positive effects of the hug may be more pronounced for women. After this past week, I’m a convert. 

I’m standing in the kitchen blinking back tears while getting dinner ready for the kids. They’re playing outside with neighbors and my husband is on duty.  I put grapes in a bowl while the throbbing pain in my head reminds me that I do not have it together.  I turn on some gospel music and take slow, regular deep breaths to keep my insides from shaking. “I need you to make a way. As you have done so many times before, through window or an open door…”

Breathe. Chop onions.

“Mama!!” The preschooler comes charging in. “Go wash your hands, baby, dinner’s almost ready.”

My husband gets both boys clean and seated at the table. I make plates and avoid eye contact. Eye contact would signal that there’s a problem.  We can’t deal with this problem right now.

The kids are eating at the table. My husband and I are standing in the kitchen. He pulls me toward him, folding me into a hug, and I finally let the tears stream down my face. Quietly. My back to the dining room table.

To the kids, it looks like Dada is just giving Mama a really long hug. He is. It probably lasted 120 seconds while he fended off child requests. “Mama! I need some milk….Mama! I need more rice.  What are you doing, Mama?!” My husband answers – his arms still around me, my face still against his chest – “I’ll get you some in a minute. Tell me what you did at school today.”

My mind is a whirlwind of worries: What if I’m late to my presentation? Can I even do it in Spanish? Why are they always calling “mama”? They do have a daddy. What if we can’t sell this old car? Did I do enough with my research? Will we have enough money when we go back? Where will we live? What if he doesn’t find a job? What if he settles for a job he doesn’t like?

I breathe. And just stand in this 120 second hug.

*photo credit:

Thursday, April 9, 2015

5 Lessons Learned Living in the D.R. with Kids

We’ve learned a lot during our time here about what it means to live in a different country with little ones.  Cultural adjustments, like learning Spanish and trying new foods, were surprisingly smooth sailing.  We threw the kids into 100% Spanish school/daycare head-first and they have both thrived (they're young - 4 and 1 - and I think kids are more adaptable than we think).  At home, we speak mostly English and cook mostly American foods (though I will have to learn how to make sancocho and habichelas con dulce).  Here’s what’s worked for us as we got used to our new life in the D.R.

Lesson 1: Connect with family often
Although watching family gatherings on a computer screen can make the kids feel like they’re missing out (especially during Thanksgiving and Christmas), it usually made everyone feel more connected.  I think we talked to family members Skype or Google Hangout about 4 out of 7 days per week rotating through grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  We also put up pictures of family around the house and talked about them with the toddler to make sure he knew everyone’s names….little people sometimes forget.  Homesickness came and went in waves for all of us, so get your life boat ready.

Lesson 2: Climate Considerations
The Caribbean has hot, humid weather and bugs we were not used to handling.  Because of the weather, we started using baby powder on the toddler to ward of diaper rash and fungus growth – even though we never used it in the U.S.  We are vigilant about sunscreen at the beach but less so in everyday life. Bugs-wise, the kids sleep with mosquito nets and we sweep and mop most days to combat the ants looking for the delicious crumbs my toddler leaves after every meal. 

Our smartest investment was having screens put on windows.  Most houses/apartments don’t have screens and I would say none come with air conditioning.  So the windows are always open to keep a nice breeze coming in, which is giant “welcome” sign for flies, mosquitoes, moths, and other UFOs. My preschooler is particularly terrified of moths.  They flitter to and fro in a very unpredictable pattern. He spent several days cowering under his mosquito net and suppressing terror while eating meals. Nails, wood, screen material: RD $7700/US $180.  Peace of mind: priceless.

We learned the hard way to clean out the car seat more regularly. One night, the belt from the car seat was closed in the door…all night long. In the morning, we found a swarming army of ants who had stealthily marched from the parking lot to the inside of the car using the handy ramp provided by the car seat.  Needless to say, they thoroughly enjoyed their feast of cracker crumbs and raisins. 

Lesson 3: Have a daily/weekly routine and a calendar
After uprooting them from everything they know, the kids (especially the preschooler) seemed to find comfort in knowing what came next. School/daycare Monday through Friday, PE at school on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, soccer practice after school on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, smoothies on Fridays…anything that marks the rhythm of the week.  We also posted a kid-decorated monthly calendar on the wall where we marked holidays, birthdays, and special events. Having something to look forward to put a smile on the little ones’ faces.

Lesson 4: Try some traditions
If there’s something your family does every year for Halloween or Valentine’s Day, try to do the same thing in your new setting.  If not, make some up! If you can share your traditions with your neighbors, even better! The preschooler loved taking heart-shaped candy to his friends at school and hunting for Easter eggs with his neighbor.  If there are traditions in your new country, try them out. It’ll be fun for the kids to be the experts when you bring some traditions back to friends and family in the U.S.

Lesson 5: Be tourists
Don’t forget to do the things that make it into the family photo albums! We visited beaches, hiked in the national park, visited caves, got a day pass to a resort, took boat rides, and held starfish.  Time flies when you’re making memories :-)

What's worked for you and your family?

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: