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?