Monday, May 30, 2011

Raising Oliver: 6 Lessons Learned

AKA: Everything I know about parenting I learned from my Peace Corps pet^

(^I know my mother is sarcastically thinking, “Oh, great! What skills you have. Maybe my grandkids will pee all over the house, too!” – Don’t worry, Mom! I promise we’ll get it together before then.)

I’ll put it out there that for better at times and worse at times, I might be a bit sensitive and a worry-wart (especially when it comes to cute fuzzy things, e.g. I distinctly remember getting a chocolate bunny for Easter when I was 4 and crying my eyes out over the idea of eating it.)

So having a pet in Guatemala has been a great training ground for me for the emotional challenges of larger life including, I would think, actual parenthood. While the stakes are a lot lower here (pet versus human child), the risks are, I'd argue, a bit higher (callous neighbors! poison! millions of ferocious street dogs! flash floods! i could go on...) So it is a legitimate "training-ground", in its own way.

So, what am I in process of learning about parenting?:

(1) If you love them, you have to give them some degree of freedom.

This is obvious, right? But not something that comes to me instinctively. I would love nothing more than to keep Oliver locked up inside my house all day, and in fact tried for quite some time. The problem is that he is clearly not meant to be an indoor cat. He gets antsy, whiny, and poops in my bed. So it doesn't work for me, and it doesn't work for him.

This clearly applies to humans, too. We've got to get out and face the real world, to some degree, at some point. A life with good health, positive relationships, and material security, but with no freedom, variety, or adventure, is probably not a truly happy one.

(2) Related to #1, You can’t protect them from everything, and maybe that's a good thing.

My heart got torn out of my chest one night when Oliver was wandering outside at my old house and got into a fight that left him shaken, with a deep wound on his arm. But he probably learned a good thing or two about street fights, I'd imagine.

(3) Enjoy them while you can!
It seems just yesterday Oliver was a tiny 3 lb. bean bag curled up under my arm, pawing my stocken feet, living contentedly enclosed in a 150 sq. ft room, and rabidly chasing anything that moved. I could cut his nails, put him in a 10" x 10" box and carry him to the moon and back, wear him as a mitten, etc. Now he's about 20 times that size, eats like a horse, and would rather see me bleed than play good-naturedly or let me pick a measly flea off his neck.

(4) You're not going to win all the battles.

OK. So Oliver wants to pee in the corner of the bathroom while I'm peeing? That's fine. At least we're restricting it a little bit. The kitchen and my bedroom are still sacred, pup.

(5) Sometimes you have to make them do things they don’t like, for their own good.

Antibiotics via that gross powder suspension. Vaccinations. Bus rides to the vet. Nail clippings. Bathing. Flea combing. Not all that controversial until you're on the sharp end of 10 claws powered by an irrational dragon-cat. Or, I imagine, an irrational screaming toddler.

(6) Let's hope my kid doesn't have discipline issues, because I am not going to be the one to solve them.

See #4. Really doesn't bother me enough to do anything about it. At all. I'm unfortunately prone to slow reaction times and forgetting to enforce the household rules. Maybe when the time comes we can work out some sort of good-cop compensates for spacey-cop routine with my boyfriend.

At the end, though, what can I say? Perhaps like real parenting, having Oliver in my life has been totally worth every stress. Thanks, my little love!

This post is particularly time-appropriate, since my own parents will be setting foot down in Guatemala for the first time this Wednesday, for 12 days of vacation (including my 25th birthday!). Having your kid in Peace Corps must feel at least a little bit - or way worse - than letting your cat roam the Guatemalan streets; so thanks, Mom and Dad, for supporting my decision to join Peace Corps! I'll look forward to posting about our trip, and perhaps we'll see a snazzy guest post from each of them about our adventures.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Intercultural Communication, 101

I think that in any town, region, or country, you are bound to find a variety of people, and thus, a variety of communication styles. Even so, people in my town happen to err on the side of being more 'indirect' than not on the direct-indirect spectrum, and my formal counterpart himself tends to have the most indirect of local tendencies. I myself tend to err on the direct side, and since we come from opposite perspectives on communication, I think our time together has led to lots of personality-expanding learning experiences for both us.

Some days I feel as though my counterpart and I have come to our own sort of peace: he is more direct with me, and I'm more indirect with him, without being too timid or too pushy. Other days it still seems as though we are communicating from different planets using walkie-talkies that someone's little brother accidentally dropped in the toilet.

In my first three or six months I was in a flexible, more passive mindset, open to getting my bearings and learning “when yes means yes and yes means no” (in the wise words of our training director). Now that I’m in my last year, I'm going to admit that I hear the clock ticking: I'm impatient, stir-crazy, and antsy to get something substantive done. It's still crucial to remain flexible, but in this context, attaining fluency in “indirect-speak” has been on my mind more than ever.

In that spirit, I present to you a sampling of common phrases, translated from "indirect-speak" (What You Say) to "direct-speak" (What You Mean):

What You Say (WYS): Yes, that is totally necessary. I agree.

What You Mean (WYM): The idea may interest me right now in this particular second since you happen to mention it, but the honest truth is that I would probably watch paint dry for 24 consecutive hours than follow through on what you’re proposing.

WYS: “Yeah, that’s what I’m looking at, that seems good to me, we’ll do that.”

WYM: “It seems that I genuinely agree with you, since I am nodding and making eye contact with you, but in reality I’m actually mentally planning which fields I’m going to be planting potato in next weekend, I’ll get back to you on that idea next year, if I remember.”

WYS: Let’s have a meeting on the 13th.

WYM: Actually, let’s plan to have a meeting on the 13th, but it’ll actually be held a week earlier, and we’ll call you between two days and two minutes before to let you know.

WYS: Okay, we’ll leave at 9 tomorrow.

WYM: If I’m feeling punctual, I’ll roll in around 10:30.

WYS: Yes, I will be there tomorrow.

WYM: I would really love to be there tomorrow, however, since I already have six other obligations for that same time, it will be difficult for me to actually arrive. However, I hope you will accept my agreement to be there as an apology in advance for my absence.

WYS: Yes. I’d love to.

WYM: Probably not.

WYS: Yes, that’s fine.

WYM: No, not likely.

You also have subtle differences in communication. Aside from downright fibbing and an aversion to saying no, local (and you could argue, generally, Guatemalan) language is simply more formal and protracted. For example, instead of “Could you pass me my pen please?”, you have to say, “Could you do me the big favor of passing me my pen?” or “Will it be that you can pass me my pen?” or “I don’t know if you could do me the big favor of passing me my pen?”

Another clear example: the ubiquitous “welcome” and “acknowledgements” that must be given at every public forum, lest people be put off by the informality of it all. What in the US would be, “Thanks everyone for coming”, turns into: “Before everything else, I just would like to thank everyone for their presence today, anticipating their valuable efforts in carrying out this small project which we are carrying out, and which I am sure will prove to be quite valuable for us.”

Obviously, there is a lot of room for indirect-communicators to be perceived as long-winded and pointless, and for direct-communicators to be perceived as downright rude. And then you also have the other side of indirect speak: What You Say is What You Mean, but the listener is reverse-translating into Oblique Speak, converting WYS/WYM into What He or She Understands. I’m getting better at recognizing such situations, but this has happened to me several times when I forget about cultural differences, and chatter away to people as if I were at a sorority social, thinking they will appreciate my friendliness, e.g.:

What You Say/What You Mean: [to a person who is arriving late]: Gosh, you must have a lot of work to do today!

What He/She Understands: I am personally offended by your tardiness, explain yourself.

WYS/WYM: “Don’t worry, there’s no rush, we’ll be here until 5.”

WHSU: “There is a rush, be sure to get back to me by 5!”

(If there really was no rush, you wouldn’t say anything at all. That’s the assumed baseline state of existence.)

Communication is something I love and have always felt fairly good at, and so it came as a surprise to me how frustrating and tiring it could be. I realize now that my cross-cultural exposure was low before coming to Guatemala, and the challenge was something I really needed to grow as a person. All part of the process of identifying and stretching my limits...