But knowing is still better than not knowing

And so here is my long overdue blog post.

And I can’t believe I’m already reaching the t-1 month mark…

For the last ten days of March, eight of my friends, along with one of my directors, and I visited Uganda from border to border, east to west and back.

Upon our return last Sunday, I moved out of my homestay the following day and have moved into an apartment with six of my American friends (in a neighborhood we are familiar with near our homestays) and have finally unpacked and got through the weeks of overdue/dirty clothes waiting to be washed. May I also just add that I have been the most focused and busy this past week since my arrival in Kenya?

Just two months ago, even up until last week, although living in Nairobi and learning Kiswahili has been so rewarding and exciting and culturally-new, many times I honestly felt feelings of dissatisfaction and academic boredom, dare I say uninterest. Although the program is officially a health and development program, many times I wondered what exactly health/development related had I learned since being here. I wanted more for the program, of my days, and of myself. And many nights I went to bed unstimulated (as nerdy as that sounds).

And with that semester-long sentiment, going into my ISP (independent study project), which now is day #7, I honestly was not expecting much. Not that I wasn’t excited and passionate about my personal research topic, but more so because I think I honestly had forgotten what it means to PUSH myself and be academically stimulated since being abroad.
The way that I’ve been learning here and just spending my semester has been super informal: with the bus drivers, or my homestay parents, talking with my classmates on our 30 minute walks to and from school… A total “outside the classroom” experience – not by writing papers and sitting in lectures and reading powerpoint slides…and so going into my research has been an interesting transition.

And so last week was a lot of final preparations for my research:

Monday – meeting with the NGO (KSMH) I’m working with; meeting up with staff after being away in Uganda and checking up with progress; compiling a list of eligible fathers for my study with the AWESOME help of the staff; contacting parents and scheduling a general schedule for the week
Tuesday – final group meeting with all of the students and our academic directors regarding the research period as now we are all scattered around Kenya on our independent research projects.
Wednesday – literature research, revision of my proposal, finalize interview questionnaire, last minute meeting with my academic director
Thursday – field visit; interviews with seven fathers; leaving my house at 7am and returning at 8:30pm.
Friday – field visit; 7-5pm

The interviews have been quite stressful especially since I’m not 100% sure what exactly I’m trying to conclude or focus on in regards to my topic but they’ve been so informational and I’m so thankful for each and every one of the fathers who I have met last week and I truly wish for all the best for them and their families.

(I think now would be a good time to briefly talk about my project…?)

Last thursday was my first day out in the field with this whole interview thing. I remember thinking every little detail was super important and wasn’t as flexible as I wished I could have. It was definitely a checklisty type of interview, from which I got the information I wanted but wasn’t able to really go past my notebook and recorder and meet the father and sit and soak in and see him as a person.

But Friday, I think all the underlying emotions from Thursday’s interviews that I had not yet processed and the interview of that day caught up with me, there I was emotionally exhausted, frustrated, burnt out, hopeless, and confused.

During my fourth interview on Friday one thing led to another and at the end of a wonderful, maybe one of my best interviews, I lost it when he asked me at the end something along the lines of…”So with this research what you do for us in Kenya?” I lost it and didn’t know what to say. I told him to continue being a supportive father and it will not go unnoticed and unappreciated…but then I just lost it. Tears streaming down my face, unable to look at him directly in the eyes. A combination of my own personal life + empathy + desperation + helplessness for the father was too much.

And so I thanked him at the end in my tears for inviting me into his home and then excused myself to get some fresh air outside. It has just raining.

I came back in and another neighbor at that time had come to the home for the next interview and was waiting for me. I was still frazzled and not in the right state of mind and completed the fastest interview I had done in about thirty minutes. After him, I asked my coworker if we could go home because I didn’t think I could continue for the day and we took the best bus ride home. Why was it the best? I’ m not too sure.

On the bus ride back I was struggling with the question, “What exactly is research? What am I doing right now? Why is a twenty year old able to just do this and that it’s ok that I’m entering peoples homes and families and then leaving them, forever, after an hour?”
I think it has a lot to do with my immaturity, lack of understanding in the real point of research and instead wanting to bring some instant change, with my youthful/get all/proactive attitude. It’s just frustrating to know and hear about the realities and to not be able to do anything and then move on to another family and hear about it and move on to another and another…and another…and end the day at sunset having spoken with seven families…it’s almost like a sick joke. A punishment. How many until you snap again?

It’s hard. I want to meet all these fathers and their families and bring change to their lives but how? And how do I explain what this research is for? What will it bring to them, those who have participated and opened up? Yes I have been saying that it is a personal interest, especially being the brother of a sister with an intellectual disability. Yes I have been saying that I am a student studying in Kenya and will write a research paper about my findings and share it with my program. Yes I have been saying that hopefully organizations and institutions will read my research and learn more about the realities and voices of fathers with children of disabilities in Kenya. But what does this all really mean?

Not to make this about me, but it’s also hard to hear at the end of the interviews: “God bless you” “Thank you so much. I am so happy” “you are the first person who I have ever told my family story to” “I know you will return and bring change to Dandora” etc and then what do I say after that, after the interview, on my way out with notebook in hand. I’m sick of saying “Asante sana (Thank you)” with an overly enthusiastic smile to compensate for my lack of immediate help that I so desire.

Sometimes not know is better than knowing?

random thoughts

A part of studying abroad, being and living abroad, is letting things go.

The things I came to Kenya with; the expectations I had; My dependency on things and people back in the States.

At least for a moment in time – and begin to just live.


Today (2/27) my phone was stolen. iPhone 4S. Taken from me, belong to me, in a matter of less than two minutes unattended in a fabric stone on Biashara Street in Mombasa, Kenya.

How it actually happened is not really something I want to type through, but thankfully I was safe. Anyway after causing a scene in the busy marketplace, my friends and I headed back home and for the rest of the evening I was just emotionally exhausted.

I tried not to let it mean so much to me, but after fighting against myself for so long I couldn’t help reminding myself how all my homestay pictures, Shirazi village homestay pictures, newly added Kenyan contacts of friends and family, all of that was taken from me in a matter of a couple of minutes.

Many times I forget that I’m not in the States and need to have my guard up, especially about my expensive belongings here in Kenya. After some more time, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m thankful it was just a phone and not my computer or a situation involving harm or force. Now writing this entry weeks after my phone my actually stolen, I can also add that I feel a lot more free without my phone.

It’s unfortunate but also funny how a stolen phone has become, in a way, something I’m thankful for now.

An Entry from Sunday 2/26 9:40pm in Shirazi Village on the coast of Kenya

Being sick makes you vulnerable, which is many times necessary. Too often I find myself feeling entitled abroad – I come from the states, so I don’t deserve to be sick. I carry around Purell and actually wash my hands before and after I eat. I brush my teeth; I change my clothes every day. Therefore I shouldn’t get sick?

And when I get sick, which I shouldn’t, I deserve to whine about it and be a spoiled American, because aforementioned, I don’t deserve to be sick in the first palce.

Times like now I find myself whining and complaining about this horrible fever, diarrhea. But then I remind myself that my sickness is a biological response to something foreign entering my system.

So yes, I could choose to complain about what I may have just eaten or drunk. But I think it’s cool to think about it in the sense that I’ve done something right along the way to get me here – breaking away from comfort/tourism and having lived a little bit like a Kenyan?

This is study abroad.

Traveling to the coast tonight

Some Friday afternoon reflections…

This week was pretty crazy. I had my first case of giardiasis/amebiasis or intestinal parasite…ever…after a life of constant traveling. But on the fourth (of the five days of medication) and feeling much better!

This week we had two assignments due which made the week go by much faster, and tonight we are heading via overnight bus to Mombasa, a city of Nairobi on the Coast.

I will be gone for two weeks but will be back in March!

Ching Chong

After finally getting into a familiar school day routine, I also have become very confident in navigating through the streets to get to school. However on Friday on my way back from school, I encountered an incident that has since shaken me and has caused some anxiety for me on my walks to school, which I thought I had mastered.

Friday afternoon I was walking back home from school, at maybe a five minute walking distance away, when I saw group of kids (who looked like they were around ten years old and were also going home back from school) up ahead. I did not make much of them until I noticed them all slowing down, turning around, and pointing and laughing at me. I continued to walk at my New Yorker pace, and the kids parted the sidewalk to let me walk through them. And so I did. But as they surrounded me, I heard “CHING CHONG CHING CHONG” and more kids were laughing. I turned around and said “Nini?!” One of the kids responded “China”, but his friend next to him nudged his arm. I said in my broken and slow Kiswahili, “Mimi si China. Hapana CHING CHONG.” I noticed a couple of the kids faces when I said that in my aggravated tone of voice, and their expressions turn from smiling faces to confused and even embarrassed. I walked away.

Literally down the road, I saw another group of kids maybe three minutes later all shouting “How are you? How are you?” I ignored the chants, but then heard “CHING CHONG” again. I asked the boy, this time trying really hard not to explode, “Nini CHING CHONG? If you don’t know what it means, don’t say it.” And again, I walked away.

I walked home from there furious, emotionally exhausted, and unwelcomed in Kenya. But a couple hours later, I was still thinking about it and didn’t know what to make of what had happened. I didn’t know if the kids were being friendly and just wanted me to play with them. I felt as thought I couldn’t be mad at them because these kids do not know better and most of them probably have never seen a “Jackie Chan”-look-alike before in their lives. Instead these little school children simply wanted attention and thought I would respond favorably to their excitement.

But at the same time I was just as convinced that they were making fun of me and more broadly, Asian culture. I thought about the way the Kenyan children were referring to me solely based on my appearance and shouting “Ching chong”, which to my own knowledge does not even mean anything in Chinese/Japenese/Korean. I couldn’t help thinking that their childish remarks were even a form of discrimination and racism.

But after struggling between these opposing explanations, I think the kids thought it was funny and are not necessarily as innocent as they are when saying these things. I think they know it isn’t right and especially saying “CHING CHONG” is some kind of joke that makes one another laugh. I noticed after that event that I only get referred to as “Ching Chong” or “mzungu” or feel bits of anxiety walking around when I am walking through Olympic and around Kibera. I think there might be some correlation between these remarks and levels of education or socioeconomic status, which might be an interesting launching point for my ISP.

I think a lot of my evaluation of this experience has to do with bottled up emotions throughout this week and since being in Kenya. Especially since I am thinking of doing something relating to race and race perceptions in Kenya, I have found that I have been particularly sensitive to such comments all week. I think my experiences here are also very much influenced by my cultural background of being born and growing up in America, where racial diversity and racial understanding and racial socialism is much different. In America, for school children to say such a thing would be extremely unacceptable. And coming from such experiences and expectations, encounters here in Kenya and in Africa are very confusing for me.

pb and chili sauce

In no way am I saying I am an expert in this whole homestay experience. In fact, I have only made it out alive once before. However from my previous adventure in Tanzania, I have learned, deciphered, and become aware of the many different cross-cultural dynamics of residing in another family’s home especially in another country.

But with that said, I find myself confused and even disappointed again.

Being overseas, especially in a developing country, traveling with a US passport is quite a handful. Not necessarily because every local wants that hand in marriage solely to get a foot into the USA, like the US embassy may say, but more so because of the connotations and assumptions associated with being an American: money, power, opportunity.

It is very clear that because I am an American living in my neighborhood of Kenya, locals think I have money and can and will provide: little kids trailing behind me on my walk back home, unashamedly asking me to sponsor them, taxi drivers insisting that I need a ride and would never choose to voluntarily walk, it goes on.

And yes as impersonal and these people may be to me, I am finding that even those who I consider the closest Kenyans I know here can have this same perception of me. In Tanzania, I personally was never in such a compromising situation with my homestay family. However during my summer abroad, I had heard of awkward, and even horror, homestay stories and was well aware of the events that could potentially occur to me.

However in just the five days that I’ve been in my new Kenyan homestay, I am realizing how even one of my own family members has this perception of me. I can’t say this is exactly what it is, especially since it’s only the first week, but I guess I will share a story and see what happens next?

The other day on my way home from school, I bought a jar of peanut butter and chili sauce to bring back and share with my family. By family, I was thinking those members that actually live in my home: aka mama, baba, and myself. My parents have two kids as well – one son who is married with a two-year-old daughter who lives about ten minutes away, and another son who is in university but comes home on the weekends (to hang out and babysit and entertain me) – but neither lives at home. But more so the past couple of days, J, the older son has been coming over every night and hanging out with me which has been nice. And I truly believe we are becoming better friends with the days. But yesterday he noticed the peanut butter and the chili sauce on the table and was really excited about it. I said he could have some whenever he’s over and I thought that was the end with that. But then from the living room I heard him squirting the chili sauce and scooping out the peanut butter into separate plastic bags, and I very amiably laughed and told him to stop and just take them and that I could buy more tomorrow. But he insisted that he didn’t need a lot and that it was ok. I said that it was no big deal and told him he could just take it but he said he doesn’t use either in his home and wouldn’t finish it anyway. So once again, I just thought that was the end of that. However, around five minutes later he got ready to head home and from the corner of my eye I saw him snatch the two jar from the table and throw it in his bag. I tried not to make a big deal out of it and very amiably walked him out and said goodnight. But for the rest of the night I didn’t know what to make of the situation.

Even today I’m not sure what it means, not that it even needs to be analyzed. I can’t help taking it personally, and another part of me is disappointed in myself for being too easy?

But I think it’s a good reminder that just because I’m abroad in a place where “people have less”, it doesn’t mean that people don’t want anything and shouldn’t want anything. Enough with this. Gonna buy another jar of peanut butter tonight.

Kuku means chicken in Swahili

I don’t know about you, but I’m rather awful at multitasking. Responding to an email while trying to listen to a friend. Eating while watching a tv show. Listening to music while trying to study. All = Neither bird killed with the stone.

And now this might be a stretch, but I think my inability to multitask may be at least partially responsible for my lack of communication and updates while abroad. To my defense, I was without internet my first week abroad. SIT has this overwhelmingly, intense orientation week of just meeting people/activities/rules/academic deadlines/more rules/activities in Nairobi (but directionally clueless the whole week)/more rules/moving hostels/Swahili lessons/it/goes/on/and/on…but finally this past Saturday we moved into our respective homestays and now I have finally gotten into a comfortable, familiar routine.

It goes a little something like this, in case you’re curious?

7:00am – my alarm goes off. But actually, I wake up at 4:30am to the roosters outside my window. To whom they belong? I still have not been able to conclude (as they cross property boundaries and just scamper up and down our little street when I’m out the door for school). So from 4:30am – 7am I’m in and out of not-REM sleep, waking up to baba (father) getting ready at 5:30am to hit the road before rush hour downtown Nairobi traffic, and then mama around 6am to get the house prepared before her full day at work.

7:30am – Kenyan breakfast. Consists of chai (tea), bread and butter (I bought peanut butter today at the supermarket for our family…is that culturally insensitive??), and fruit (banana and oranges).

7:50am – Meet my three other classmates/neighbors living in the same village as me and head over to the SIT school, a walk which takes 30 minutes – say, Collegetown Starbucks to Africana center? …minus paved roads, add a whole lot of dust, busy traffic, charcoal exhaust from trucks, and 70 degree sunny heat at 8 in the morning…But that’s the spoiled American in me off on a rant…

8:30am – Swahili class begins. My class of four students meets outside with a whiteboard set up on a chair and an overly enthusiastic Kenyan language teacher; there are five teachers who rotate among the classes every day.

10:00am – Tea break…because, that’s just what we do in Kenya and every other country that was once under Britain’s rule

12:00pm – Swahili class ends and lunch time. Two options: 1. Order lunch ahead of time from a Kenyan restaurant/café/kitchen next door for about $3 USD for a full meal…or go into town (not Nairobi the city itself but a more busy area of the neighborhood) and get local Kenyan food off the streets for a full meal at $1 USD, like I did today

1:00pm – The afternoons are set aside for guest lecturers, visits to NGOs and organizations, health and development seminars, or discussions.

7:10pm – The sun sets, so I try to get home before then.

8:30pm – Dinner! Rice, meat, beans, potatoes, cabbage, banana stew, just to name some from the past nights

9:00pm – Watch Kenyan news in English on ch. 2 (KTN) with family

10:00pm – Go into my room and read/journal/study…only to do it all again the next day!

This hourly breakdown of my day seems monotonous and oh-so-predictable, but I don’t know how to explain how much it isn’t! I guess I could end with something exciting that happened today…

Today’s my older sister’s birthday and I was able to celebrate with my family via skype in a café in town!

Oh and I finally contacted my Tanzanian host-brother from this summer today and am working on the logistics of my visit to Tanzania hopefully soon!

4 Months in Under 50lbs

I haven’t updated my blog since New Years Eve, forgive me?, but I am back and ready to attack and also leaving in umm… four days… wait, WHAAAT?? Yeah crazy, I know. But it’s finally hitting me now as Cornell’s spring semester has begun, and I am…here at home…not at school…weird.

But getting back to fact that I will be “Next Stop Nairobi”-ing in t-4 days, all I can really say right now is I HAVE SO MUCH TO PACK…ok fine…I NEED TO START PACKING!!

But to give myself some credit and hopefully some motivation to actually begin packing tonight, I have been accumulating a list – in my journal, on my phone, on the back of napkins in restaurants – everyday, everywhere, this past week. In a nutshell, the only on my mind all day, every day is packing.

However, the other day as I was thinking about the things I need to bring (which let me just say right now is extremely difficult for some who has to prepare for every possible, imaginable situation that might arise), I was reminded of one of the activities during our bloggers’ training session. During this orientation, one of our icebreakers was to share with each other something that we were wearing or had on ourselves at the moment that we think is culturally meaningful and might spark up a conversation if we were hypothetically abroad right at that moment. So my peers shared one after another (a necklace, nose ring, shoes), and finally it was my turn. I remember not having an answer at this moment, but looked down right then and saw my bracelet from Tanzania this summer.

For those who have never seen it, my bracelet is a beaded handmade bracelet representing the Tanzanian flag. I got it sometime in July while I was there and haven’t gone a day without it.

I remember sharing with the group how I think it will be an interesting item of mine during my time in Kenya because I’m sure all Kenyans will recognize it as Tanzania’s flag since the two are neighboring countries. And I’m anticipating questions about why I, a Korean-American, am wearing a Tanzanian-bracelet when I’m in Kenya. Haha! But then I can share how this past summer in Tanzania was simply put such an eye-opening, enjoyable summer and if it weren’t for that I wouldn’t be in Kenya! Such an awesome story, just waiting to be unraveled right around my wrist! Wow funny how rethinking about my bracelet makes me feel a little better now about the stress of packing – at least I got one thing check off!

So this is me, days before I depart – a bit stressed but thankful for the reminders of why I’m going and the countless things to look forward to. I hope to post again before I arrive in Kenya, but until then I’m just curious and want to leave you with this:
Say you were somehow transported in the blink of an eye (just go with it, I know) to another country in exactly what you are wearing right this moment, what item/accessory/clothing would you choose to share a little about yourself?