Givology Benefit and Life Updates

For friends I abandoned for weeks, emails I did not return, phone calls I did not make, I apologize. I am aware of my tendencies towards one-pointedness (sometimes to the detriment of many other *important* parts of life).  The object of my attention in this case, for much of February and the first half of March was the Givology $10,000 for 10 Schools Benefit Auction. As the newly elected Givology NYC President, this was the first significant project to pull off, and without any standard planning lead time to speak of. 

Without diving back into the weeds of the fits and starts and challenging moments and sleepless nights, suffice to say this was a huge learning experience, and the largest (one-time) event planning that I've helped direct (though one month of 100 people in Taiwan was also a stress, of a different kind). Luckily, the results made all of the sweat and effort more than worth it-- the event raised over $10,000 and there were 300-350+ guests in attendance. In addition to these great numbers, we built invaluable new channels of awareness and support for Givology and our partners. 

In addition to Givology happenings, it has been a huge month for me personally, and I am only now beginning to process the inevitable changes soon to come. I have decisions to make about grad school-- Harvard, Stanford, or Columbia, exciting projects to work on with inspiring people at StartingBloc NYC Institute in May, and perhaps a trip or two abroad back to Asia before the fall at a TBD grad school studying International Education Policy/Development.

Below is my post on the event on Givology's website. While I came up with ten reasons to join Givology (NYC), I still return to one primary sentiment about the support at the event, and everything else happening in my life- total and complete gratitude.

Givology post

On Friday, March 11th at about 5:59pm, remaining bid sheets were printed, powerpoint slides were tweaked, and speeches were finalized. By 6:01pm, we began to welcome a stream, and then a flood of press and guests into the $10,000 for 10 Schools Givology Benefit Auction at Hudson Bar in Manhattan. By the peak of the event, the entire venue was packed with people bidding, drinking, mingling, laughing, and learning about Givology and our partners. After weeks of work, it was a beautiful, even miraculous sight for us to see.

The event was a total whirlwind-- I underestimated the number of friends’ faces I would see and overestimated my ability to be in 10 places at once. While I hoped time would slow down even just a little bit so that I could really savor those three hours, luckily with amazing photographers and videographers present, much of it was captured (and more to be available on the interwebs soon!).

The Givology New York City Chapter had worked for weeks to plan the 10K for 10 Schools event, and it was easily the most logistically demanding and complex event that we have hosted to date. A 50+ item silent auction, live auction, two rounds of raffles, ten featured partners, a press gathering, guest of honor, hundreds of lively guests, and a venue with very strict labor union laws created a situation that required serious planning and project management. This was compounded because of the size of our core team-- 12 dedicated volunteers, including 10 full-time working young professionals and 2 students. This truly speaks to the dedication of our team, and ability to rise to the occasion. Looking back even now, it’s so amazing that in just a few weeks with a dozen volunteers, we were able to host the benefit auction, raise over $10,000 and garner the support of 300-350+ guests.

We are SO grateful and appreciative of the generosity of the 10K for 10 Schools sponsors and attendees. In the weeks leading up to the event, I made dozens of cold calls to businesses throughout New York soliciting auction item contributions. I was often so pleasantly surprised at how open and willing business owners were to extend their support to Givology, even if they were not familiar with us. It provided an excellent way to hone my pitch, and begin to build a strong network of new supporters and businesses aware of Givology's work and mission.

I joined Givology just under six months ago and have found in it, and the planning and execution of this event in particular, the wonderful sensation of being part of something much larger than myself, and creating a wave of impact that I can’t even begin to measure. Especially in New York, you live among millions of people, yet it is easy to lose one’s way. Joining the Givology NYC team, members are empowered to give, learn, have fun, and regain confidence that purposeful and dedicated volunteering can harness crowdsourced potential to create global impact.

We hope to continue to grow the NYC Chapter, and create a model for other Givology chapters to follow suit. In keeping with the 10 theme, here are just a few reasons you should apply to join the Givology NYC Chpater, and Givology global if you are not based in New York.

1. Create Impact Support 35+ global grassroots education partners, transforming the potential of thousands of children and villages
2. Join a Community Givology is a growing and diverse family, all committed to positively transforming the world through education
3. Have Fun Our philosophy is that philanthropy should be social
4. Engage in Local Activity with Global Reach Experience New York in an impactful way that transcends all global boundaries
5. Take Ownership of Projects Givology is flat, enabling anyone to initiate and execute their own ideas
7. Use your Skills for Good If you are more than your day job, Givology is the perfect way to give back and contribute to social good
8. Gain New Skills Want to learn about something by actually doing? Members’ roles and responsibilities are based on background, interests and team needs-- help with fundraising, PR, marketing, social media, sponsorships, recruitment efforts, and much more
9. Expand your Network Givology members work across all sectors and study all disciplines, members meet and build relationships with people of different backgrounds, ideas and diverse talents
10. We are 100% volunteer, 100% passion, email the NYC chapter recruitment coordinator danielle.wu@givology.org to get involved!


Looking Back (to 2003) and Moving Forward

While digging through my hard drive archives for stories for grad school applications, I discovered the final paper I wrote in Nicaragua in Fall 2003, during my gap year before college. 
It's my account about living in the northern Nicaraguan city of Estelí, teaching in a pre-school/Kindergarten and in a prison. Also, it was my first extensive time abroad in a developing country. Seven years on, after reading this, I guess it's no shocker I'm hoping to enter the realm of international education. For stories of (18-year-old) me as as the queen of the prison volleyball team, godmother to prisoners' unborn children, and dreaming of kidnapping my pre-school students, read on :). This reminds me, I've really got to start speaking Spanish more again.

Y Así Es La Vida: From Los Pollitos to Los Presos

Nicaragua is not a neat, packaged deal. It’s not organized or easily understandable. But I wouldn’t give one day back of the time I spent there. The only way to approach it is to expect the unexpected, go with an open mind and let go of all reservations and prejudgments. It is a land of glaring contradictions- helplessness and hope, passion for protests and pleas for peace, faithfulness to God and faithlessness to spouses, and corruption with money and candor with words. I spent two months living and working in the city of Estelí in the northern mountains of Nicaragua. It is difficult to capture the essence of Estelí in words, the rhythm of the people. For me it is more like a long series of images- the central streets lined with vendors all selling the same exact merchandise, bikes carrying whole families, taxis honking, packs of stray dogs, children with no shoes and empty stomachs waiting for a kind stranger to give them just enough money to buy their next meal, 6-year-old shoe shiners looking for business, and families sitting and talking in their doorways watching Estelí go by. Further from the center of town the images of poverty grow even stronger- the tiled floors turning to concrete and earth, houses giving way to smaller shacks made of wood, metal, and plastic to keep out the rain, the streets carved out in earth and rocks, mothers and children carrying huge pails on their heads, or selling fruit and vegetables door to door. Through daily life in Estelí and working in two internships I came away with many friendships and invaluable lessons about education, justice, and faith.
I at first tried to dedicate myself to three organizations, in reality this was not the best idea as I was working seven days a week and not able to spend enough time in each. I cut Proyecto Miriam out of my schedule- a women’s organization that functions primarily on weekends. I realized that my ability to participate was limited and I could help, learn, and participate more with my other internships.
            I never had any intentions of working in a pre-school, but from the first day of my second week in Nicaragua when I entered the community pre-school of Los Pollitos, I knew it could be no other way. The building of the pre-school was built by a group of Germans and until last year, an international organization provided funding to allow a wonderful all- day program where the kids were provided with breakfast and lunch. However, the funds were cut off and so it now runs like many Nicaraguan community pre-schools: from 8-11 and with virtually no funding from the government. The teachers receive a small stipend depending on how long they’ve worked as a teacher; the maximum is 200 Cordobas a month, roughly 13 U.S. dollars. The families of the children who attend must pay 10 Cordobas a month, or 60 cents, in order to pay for the electricity and water bills. Since the loss of funding, they can now only hope and have patience that more help will eventually come, even if it is just to maintain the minimal supplies the school requires.
Los Pollitos is made up of three amazing women, each in charge of one age level of the 52 kids that are enrolled. My only real frustration I had was the rate of attendance of both teachers and students. For the smallest reason one or two of the teachers wouldn’t make it to work, so we were often left very shorthanded. At least I did feel my help was definitely needed. Some kids only came once or twice in the whole time I was there as well. This was either because their parents worked and couldn’t or didn’t want to make the effort to bring them, they couldn’t afford the 10 Cordobas a month, or it was one of the many teacher strikes in the other schools so since their siblings weren’t going to school they didn’t either. Overall, my time at the pre-school was wonderful. I built great friendships with both teachers and kids and helped in all daily activities from singing, drawing, writing their first letters of the alphabet, playing, and giving hugs and kisses to those in need of extra TLC. The kids treated me just as another teacher, and my favorite part arriving in the morning was being attacked by all these little kids screaming ‘‘Profesora Julia! Profesora Julia!’’ and then dragging all of their little bodies clung to mine inside. There is nothing like the innocence of children and how much unconditional love they give.
I also developed good friendships with the teachers. I visited their houses, talked to them about just about everything, and got to know their families. Their hearts were so big and even though they had nearly no possessions, they wanted to give so much. The only other difficulty I had was dealing with the phrase ‘‘regálame.’’ While I heard this is everywhere, it was especially strong in the pre-school and even with the teachers. I did end up giving away a lot of my stuff, but in the end, their need for money and certain things will never disappear.  I realized the most I could do was give them as much of my affection as I could, the things I gave them will end up breaking or be unusable in the end, but I hope that our friendships will last much longer. They were so warm, welcoming, and happy to have me I never had a bad day in the pre-school and felt like I left with many more friends.
The difficulties Nicaragua faces involving poverty did rear their ugly heads nearly every morning in the pre-school. All of the kids come from very poor families on ‘the other side of the Estelí river.’ The fierce injustices of poverty brought children everyday that had not eaten since the morning before, malnourished, not bathed, wearing the same clothes day after day, and stomachaches from parasites. So many kids there will never experience the joys of childhood, the careless and worry free lifestyle that are a part of your first years of life. These kids will always worry about when their next meal will be, how they can also help keep reales in the house and food on the table, and what tomorrow and next year will bring.
Since I only had contact with the kids in the confines of the pre-school, I tried to do the most I could by bringing either a little bag of fruit from my breakfast or bought bread or bananas on my way there. Some of the kids also started to confide in me about their situations at home. A large percentage only have single Moms and have terrible memories or none at all of their fathers. Some even told me about the various types of verbal and physical abuse or lack of attention and love they receive at home. For example, I got to know two sisters- Bellen and Diana, ages 3 and 5. They would sit on my lap and tell me how their father had come home drunk again like always and got into a fight with and hit their Mom, how they hadn’t eaten since breakfast the day before and they were always hungry. Diana told me how she felt alone, unloved, and that she didn’t have a family and would show me her new wounds from where her Dad had hit her with a belt. I felt helpless, I wanted to get those girls out of that situation so badly, nobody, and especially little kids of those ages deserve to face those types of situations. Even when I asked about what type of intervention there was with the Ministry of Families, the situation seemed more helpless. As usual, the government provides only a temporary fix and offers no real solutions for the kids. There was no real explanation the teachers could give me, they would just say, ‘‘Y así es aquí en Nicaragua.’’ On the last day of classes for the year and also my last day, Diana made me cry. She begged me to take her and Bellen back to my home and away from her parents. For now, I can only hope there is a guardian angel watching over them and the rest of my pollitos.  
My other main internship was with ANPDH (Assocasion Nicaraguense Pro-Derechos Humanos), an NGO focused on the legal side of human rights, with a concentration on penal justice. The organization consists of four human rights lawyers who work without receiving a salary, and after losing funding after September 11th, now rely wholly on the support of the Catholic Church. Their main purpose is to ensure that established human rights laws are not being violated and to receive denunciations and counsel the victims properly and make them aware of their rights and the laws so that they receive justice. Although I at first spent nearly every morning in the office, I lessened my time commitment to two full mornings and three mornings for about an hour (after my pre-school finished class). On a whole, I had the most difficulties with communication during the first week and from then on was able to understand and communicate in Spanish with most people. My boss Roberto was the one exception. He talked 100 kilometers a minute and would sometimes cover his mouth with his hand to make it even more of a challenge. This caused some amount of misunderstandings and miscommunication in my time there. The organization accomplishes quite a lot and helps a considerable number of people fight to correct the injustices committed against them. Yet my role in this was rather limited and my designated tasks never materialized, perhaps because of my part-time commitment or their loss of funds. Either way, I was often frustrated with my lack of productivity in the office. However I wasn’t doing too much less than some of the lawyers on a daily basis. My actual duties consisted of helping the group solve the daily crossword puzzle (I once even got the last tricky one, even though it was a cognate in English), reading every section of La Prensa (the Nicaraguan newspaper), talking with my co-workers, playing with the two little girls who lived in the building, and talking to families and victims who were waiting in the office. My supervisor and the boss, Roberto Petray handles between 85-90% of the cases, so the other three also passed much of their time like I did, bored. I think they also lacked some confidence in me because I was the youngest intern they had ever had, 18, so it was difficult to make them take me seriously some of the time. When they were able to obtain the use of one of the cars of the Bishop, my schedule would vary. Weeks before, Roberto had told me how we’d be taking a trip up north, but as I was leaving one day he told me they’d be picking me up at my house at 5 the next morning. We spent the whole day bumping up and down on the road (although it doesn’t deserve to be called that) to San Juan de Rio Coco and Qualili. On the ride there, I talked to the woman whose case we were going to deal with. After having beaten her, her boyfriend had kidnapped their kids and refused to let her see them. She had gone to the police, but as she was illiterate, poor, and without a lawyer, they did nothing. Five minutes after arriving from our four-hour trip the police had agreed to go arrest the father and bring the children to the mother. Unfortunately, the law is only executed when there is actually pressure on them. Y así es. Since I didn’t spend too much time in the office, it wasn’t until the end that I felt like I had finally formed good friendships with them, which made it harder to leave because it felt like we had just gotten a good thing going.
Although some of my criticisms of derechos humanos are severe, it is not to say that working there was a waste of time. I was able to talk to people with serious injustices against them, many of them involving crimes of the police. For example, one young guy came into the office after being shot in the side by the police. He even showed me his new scars from his surgery and the plastic bag he had taped to his stomach with the contents of what they had taken out of the side of his abdomen.
I also had the opportunity to visit various levels of the system, including the courthouse. I watched my first murder trial in full and was horrified by the injustice of the outcome. Two men were tried for the same crime of slitting a man’s throat, both were on the scene but only one in reality could have committed the crime. Both were found guilty and sent to jail. The system here seems to work that the accused is guilty until proven otherwise or until the judge is given enough money. Everything I saw and heard about the injustices and corruption of the system shocked me, it is so completely in your face and so obvious that it goes on every day, and yet people are so used to it, un-shocked, and take it all in stride as a part of their reality and daily life. One day I came home for lunch to find on the local Estelí channel a student protest only about 2 km. from my house that quickly turned violent. I watched in horror as the police fired guns and threw grenades of tear gas at students who started throwing rocks back at them. One grenade, probably originally aimed for an escaping protester, had landed on the grounds of Los Pepitos, a school for disabled children. I was in disbelief watching police ‘maintaining order’ by creating violence. Marlene, my home stay Mom could only responded to my shock by saying ‘‘Así es la vida aquí.’’
            The dynamics and perceptions of the organization were confusing and slightly contradictory. In my time working there, I came to realize how human rights organizations fit into Nicaraguan society. I had always perceived the basic philosophy of human rights as to right the wrongs of the world and bring justice to those don’t have it. But like everything in Nicaragua, nothing seems to be impartial or for pure good or evil. Many people, including my home stay family, had distrust in human rights. This was primarily due to its strong relation with the Catholic Church and its political leanings. Although my co-workers tried to profess they had none, it quickly became clear they had very strong beliefs. Estelí remains of the strongest Sandinista towns in the country, and so it was especially interesting working with a very strongly minded anti-Sandinista organization that in actuality is principally interested in fighting the corrupt Sandinista sectors of the system. A very unfortunate reality in nearly every establishment, governmental and non, is the presence of corruption. Since the Catholic Church does not have the best record, I couldn’t help but question ANPDH´s nearly 100% reliance on the Church as this would mean they would need to directly respond to the Church and Bishop of Estelí and as a means of survival. The building of the office, also serving as my boss’s home was a gift from the Bishop of Estelí, and for all work related travel they only used the luxurious new vehicles of the Bishop the driver to go along. Nevertheless, I have also seen the good of the church and ANPDH especially in the jail, but this is a conflict of interest I am still trying to grapple with, and definitely not the only one.
            My most unique work experience in Nicaragua was my time spent teaching English in the jail in Estelí to prisoners and learning so much more from them. Through ANPDH, which has many clients and some of my own students as clients, I taught five afternoons a week for two or three hours. Before coming, I had never intended to teach English and certainly not in jail- but it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my time in Nicaragua. The jail, amusingly named La Puerta de Esperanza, is home to 660 prisoners, 27 of which are women. They represent all varieties of crimes committed, ages from minors to seniors, and are another example of the government’s lack of support. The prisoners wear their own street clothes, receive minimal food, living space, and rely on outside support for many things needed to survive including medicines. However, they do relish a large degree of freedom within the jail on the condition of good behavior. There are a number of work opportunities in carpentry, metal, and artisan workshops, and the prisoners can also complete their education from elementary school to high school within the jail and some even receive scholarships to study in a University outside of the jail. Most see their families two or three times a month, can have conjugal visits, and there are a number of sports teams from soccer and volleyball to handball and boxing. Both the Catholic and Evangelical Churches have a strong presence in the jail. Church groups often came to bring food and have donated many facilities to the jail. I found that many prisoners often attach themselves to religion and God as a method of surviving the isolation of jail, many prisoners I talked to have become 100% more religious in their time in the jail and their hope rests in God. In this way, the Church does do a good service because many of them are barely surviving on a grain of hope for the future after being abandoned by their families and friends when they went to jail.
I will admit my nerves were on end on the first day, not because I was scared of being there, but because although I was supposedly just visiting and they put me in a classroom, students filed in, and I taught English for the next 2 hours. Otherwise, I passed my time there getting to know my students, their lives and situations, and doing my best to teach English without guidance from anyone and very limited resources. My biggest challenges were creating a permanent teaching plan or schedule and working with nothing. For the first month, many of my students had sports practices or familiar visits and would be coming and going during the class, so the class size fluctuated between 2 and 12 men. I was also given no direction, no knowledge of their English skills, and no books or other resources to use to teach.
I can honestly say I never felt intimidated or in danger by being there even though security is very minimal. Some days I let myself in because the guards were off socializing, I never saw guards for the at least two hours while I taught, and they were actually more disrespectful than my students. The few times they did pass my classroom outside, some guards would stand and give me air kisses or whisper the usual machista comments as I passed by. But unfortunately as they are the ones with the power, they have the means to abuse it. The one time I did feel more powerful was when new ping-pong tables arrived as a donation from a U.S. religious organization, and I was able to finally beat them at something. We had a mini ping-pong tournament for a couple days before class started, and my students were pretty impressed with my ping-pong skills, but I was eventually taken down by a funcionario with a mean slice serve. 
My students were very friendly, so grateful to me, attentive, respectful, and eager to learn it was really a pleasure for me to be with them every day. I got to know quite a few of them very well, and I learned about the ins and outs of the jail from them. They have their own inner-prison culture with phrases only used in the jail, sign language, sayings, jokes, pastimes, and the currency of the cigarette. They were open to letting me into their world, and overtime as I gained their trust and had chances to talk to them individually; we developed friendships and really good interactions in and outside of the classroom. By the end of time there, two of my students had asked me to the godmother for one of their children, one already three years old but won’t be baptized until his Dad gets out of jail, and the other to be born in May, 2004. I was so ecstatic that they wanted to give me that privilege and as a proof of our camaraderie, and certainly gives me more reason to come back in the future.
 In the end of October, I went to the largest jail in Nicaragua in Tipitpa, a town outside of Managua. It was the biggest annual gathering of prisoners to compete in their own jail's sports teams of basketball, volleyball, handball, chess, ping-pong, and boxing. What could only be described as a block party with music, there were about 1,000 prisoners wandering around watching and participating in games, and a much smaller number of civilians and guards. Some of my students on the Estelí volleyball team had asked me to be the madrina/reina of their team, so although all the Estelí teams more or less bit the dust I rooted them all on proudly wearing my Madrina del Equipo del Voleibol de Estelí banda.     
While I did not ignore the fact that many of them had committed serious crimes of kidnapping, armed robbery, rape, and murder, I still saw them as people with needs, wants, and even with their acute errors, capable of having good hearts in the end. As teaching goes in both directions, my students taught me a number of invaluable lessons as well, perhaps the most important being to never underestimate a person or to judge them solely on their faults. I got to know them as people, and as Nicaragua has taught me, even the bad have some good and even the good have some bad.  
I initiated individual recorded interviews with my students and other prisoners I met. The lives and experiences of the prisoners I interviewed became an invaluable part of understanding more about Nicaragua and especially the system of injustice that exists. I heard first-hand accounts of stark injustices- rights violated, money buying freedom from the law, guilty going free and the innocent in jail for years, and the complete corruption of the system on every level. It helped me meet and get to know many interesting people with really remarkable pasts. Many of whom were heavily involved in the war Nicaragua endured in the 1980s. Some prisoners I met are paying time for a crime they didn’t commit or more time than the law sets because of their ideology or bad relations with a public official, and others are paying a very small debt to society for the crimes the committed, as the maximum penal sentence in Nicaragua is thirty years. Many of them have noble aspirations for the future and I thoroughly admired their strong hope even through their current situations.
They accepted me wholeheartedly and we often spent a good part of the class laughing and joking around. We celebrated Halloween together by playing musical chairs, pin the tail on the donkey, listening to music, and eating food and candy I had brought. In one letter from one of my students he wrote- ‘‘Cuando yo este libre siempre celebraré Halloween como una fecha especial para recordarte que estuvisteis con nosotros.’’ For the Despedida party we danced to Reggae music, played Chubby Bunny (game where you stuff marshmallows in your mouth, really hilarious), ate cake and other food, and they each stood up individually to thank me and give me letters or little presents. I was so appreciative they were so sincere about everything, that while I’m sure I taught them some English, I was happier to leave and be remembered for being me and being their friends. The time I spent in the jail was a learning experience about the so-called justice system in Nicaragua, peoples’ capacities, extremes, mentalities, and hope. I came to understand the harsh truth there is in the saying that poverty is the biggest crime. Nonetheless, I left each day with a smile on my face and hope that just maybe with a lot of work people and society can change for the better. 
My home stay family was also an integral part of my experience in Estelí. Marlene is a single Mom with three kids- José Miguel age 5, Grisell age 7, and Ana Elisa age 12. Her husband is living illegally in California and occasionally sends them money but it seemed their relationship was on the rocks. I felt slightly odd and even kind of embarrassed living with a family that was really in the middle-upper class, and so unlike the people I was working with on a daily basis.  Although I did spend a lot of time out of the house, I spent a fair amount of time with the kids playing UNO, playing school, and watching José Miguel dance. He would get up on a table in the living room only wearing a sheet around his waist and move his little body like I’ve never seen. His little laugh was just contagious. Other times though, there was unfortunately a lot of negative energy in the house. Marlene could usually find just about anything to yell at the kids for, from Grisell getting an 89 on her math test and only being second in her class to Ana Elisa walking around without her chinelas. The kids were difficult when Marlene wasn’t home though and didn’t respect me, so I had to try to protect the house and them from complete destruction. The tone of the atmosphere fully depended on the mood of Marlene, which was usually only up when we had company or the kids were out of the house. However I did have fun with the kids and joked that they were my little diablitos. I also had really good long conversations with Marlene sometimes lasting hours when the kids weren’t there about Sandinistas, poverty, and life in Nicaragua.
My time in Estelí was focused on my internships, but through living and being absorbed by the city, I got a good feel for Nicaraguan culture. Passion and vivacity is always in the air. No matter what Nicas do, they never go in halfheartedly. They are proud of who they are, and are always open to share their ideas and perspectives. So nearly every day, I was able to have so many amazing and really interesting conversations with people because they’re so open to talking about everything. I often got into political arguments with people as well, and sometimes while playing Devil’s advocate I was accused of being a socialist, imperialist, and atheist. Everybody has really interesting stories because Nicaragua has such a rich history and recent conflicts that many adults clearly remember and were involved in. Since I talked to all sorts of people with Sandinista, Contra, and other ideologies and backgrounds, I heard about 1,000 variations on the history of Nicaragua in the past century. This was beyond confusing. People told me told me there was no food or freedom during the Sandinistas, others said life hasn’t been as good since the Sandinistas left power; I heard so many contradictory histories that my mind became so jumbled. I ultimately decided I would probably never know exactly what happened in Nicaragua, the truth, the real history because history is merely based on whose mouth it is coming out of. It will never be impartial. 
The greatest difficulty I faced with the culture was the machismo and the fact that I’m a white female. Maybe I felt it more strongly because I spent about 2 hours a day at least walking on the streets to and from my jobs, where the machistas mostly strike. The constant whistles, the comments, and the occasional touching eventually REALLY got to me, but there was nothing I could do. It was almost just as unfortunate that it was just absolutely impossible to have men as friends, even when they started off just ‘wanting to be friends,’ they always ended up wanting much more than that. My prisoners tried to explain to me that I should take it as a compliment, and tried to justify infidelity that Nicaraguan men fall in love with nearly all women like love at first sight, and isn’t it better to give love to more than just one person? I personally thought their definition of love was completely skewed. It’s a cultural barrier that I will never be able to cross. And as much as I longed to hit all men on the streets upside the head with my Nalgene full of water, I remembered the penal code for visual facial wounds and restrained myself. Not only on the streets did I feel the machismo, but I had so much sympathy for all of the women of Nicaragua for having to put up with these men as fathers who desert their families, husbands who commonly commit adultery, and people who lack common respect for anything and anyone. After talking to women who have stayed with their husbands through their other sexual escapades, mistreatment, or temporary desertion I recognized yet another sad reality of poverty. These women would rather face the mistreatment than face life without a roof or a little bit of an economic supplement.
While I don’t think there is one fix-it solution to solve all of the troubles Nicaragua faces, the largest step the country could make forward would be to improve the education system. It needs to be free and compulsory as the Constitution of Nicaragua dictates. However, the hardest thing to change will be the mentalities and priorities of the people. Right now, education is not a priority. So many people just fail out without caring and realizing they are throwing their most valuable opportunity out the door and are cutting themselves short in life. Not only is education the door to freedom, but a way out of poverty, a way to gain independence, and the most important: the way to learn how to use your own mind and think for yourself. My prisoners even half joked that I knew Spanish better than them because they had never really been taught correct grammar or spelling. Knowledge of other types is also equally as important: for example, knowledge of your rights. Many prisoners I talked to weren’t exactly sure what their rights are, and if they don’t know, it makes it even easier for the authorities to abuse their power. During my time in Nicaragua I realized the extreme importance of education especially for developing countries, and I also have become so much more grateful for all of the education opportunities I have received.
Education is one of the many things that Nicaragua takes a laissez-faire approach on. Many students drop out young, and the requirements for many jobs except professional ones require little or no education. For example, to be a police officer, you need no education, and so many are completely illiterate. This lack of education translates directly into lack of respect, creating even more problems in the country. If someone did not receive a basic education, they lack the understanding of the importance of self-respect and respect for others. If people don’t respect one another, they won’t respect the law, creating corruption and further poverty. Many of the crises Nicaragua faces flow in a cycle and build on each other to create further problems and an over elaborate web of causes and effects to bring it to where it is today and placed as the poorest country in Central America.
Nicaragua presented me with a number of challenges, rewarding experiences and unforgettable memories. Estelí is a virtually perfect location with endless opportunities to absorb oneself into Nicaraguan culture, meet many interesting people, and make a difference by directly helping numerous amounts of people. I took advantage of all of these opportunities through my time with Los Pollitos, ANPDH, and La Puerta de Esperanza.
One of the lessons I learned is the supreme importance of education as a door to free thinking, respect, and possibly even out of poverty. If the education system in Nicaragua is not changed and people remain with very limited knowledge of the world around them and their own rights, the other troubles of the country have no hope of disappearing. I also began to understand all of the injustices in Nicaragua. The corruption of the justice system, the abuse of power, violation of rights, the injustices of machismo creating single mothers, and the overall injustices of poverty. Nicaragua taught me most of all to have faith. Not necessarily in a God, but in people, and for the future. No matter what difficulties Nicaraguans face, they continue on, head into the wind without guidance, but having continuous hope and faith that tomorrow will be better than today.


Cycles and Causality

I had mentioned in a previous post that this trip to Asia was seemingly the completion of a cycle I had begun five years ago. In the summer of 2005 I made my first trip to East Asia, and participated in the Woodenfish program. In the interim years I studied Chinese, Buddhism, returned to Asia and lived in China. Now in 2010, I returned to Taiwan and the Woodenfish program, for which I was doing program coordination (for a nice summary of Woodenfish from a participant's perspective see Justin's blog post, sorry I'm lazy on summaries). At the start of the summer, I left wondering what this path has meant for my personal development and will continue to mean in the future, how do I continually find myself on a plane bound for Asia? I'll begin with an anecdote of a smaller concentric circle formed during this trip, and then my conclusions about the larger 5-year cycle, and some realizations during the program and meditation retreat.

Smaller concentric circle completion: In my summary post of the travel to Asia in June, I mentioned a kind flight attendant who was determined to compensate me for my willingness to change seats for others, and consequently shift from an aisle seat to a middle seat for the nine-hour flight. She was extremely congenial and impressed we could converse in Chinese easily, but honestly I didn’t think much of it. While I refused her offer of ice cream multiple times on the flight, as I was deplaning, she handed me a gift bag.

Fast-forward two months to the first leg of my return flight, from Taipei to Anchorage. Six hours into the flight, exhausted and in a sleepy zombie state in the darkened cabin, a flight attendant began to pass through the aisle with a tray of water and cups. Without looking up at her, I reached out for a cup. She looked down at me and said with excitement, “shi ni ma/is it you?” I blearily looked up at the voice. Our paths cross again. It was the same flight attendant from two months ago. She knelt down to get a better look at me, almost as stunned as I was. She recalled every single detail of my flight, “you are almost sitting in the same exact seat!” she exclaimed, “do you want ice cream?!” My mind was reeling. After all that has been happening recently, in some totally bizarre way, this was only the most logical way I could return to the US. I responded, “you remember me?!” She said, “Of course I do! In 20 years, you were the nicest passenger I’ve ever met.” That really had to be an exaggeration, or is just a serious tragedy (but maybe a reality? re: Jet Blue guy). She left to return the water tray, and returned with a chocolate Haagen-Dazs ice cream for me. I told her about my travels to mainland China and my stay at Fo Guang Shan in Taiwan, she enthusiastically listened while other slightly confused passengers looked on. She couldn’t stop smiling, and neither could I. Finally, she said, “you’ve changed since I last saw you, two months ago your energy and spirit was much lower, it seems you’re now much happier and more spirited now.” What a perceptive China Airlines flight attendant.

Despite my now chronic sleep deprivation and accumulated exhaustion, if I could peel off those layers, what I would likely find is a happier, slightly less-selfish, slightly more well-intentioned self. It's amazing what a few weeks of intensive, constant service to others will do for you. Although we can never act selflessly, the repetitive thoughts and actions I carried out for the benefit of others and myself in the nurturing and rather conducive environment that is a Buddhist monastery was likely the most ego-less state I've been able to reach so far. And it felt great. But I guess that's my ego talking :). I was active in body and mind this past month pushing past previous limitations, and found that as Aristotle said, "happiness is activity." Doing, cultivating, contributing, serving, all a happy me.

As for the larger circle/cycle: It's formation is still slightly wobbly and undefined. However, the nature of my questions have changed based on something important I realized and took to heart throughout the program, and especially during more intensive meditation in the retreat. This new way of seeing and analyzing situations is in fact not new at all. It actually predates anything remotely Buddhist, the law of causality, 因缘, cause and effect.

It's almost so elementary that it shouldn't need explanation, obviously cause and effect explains how things happen! However much I've studied karma and causality, one of the fundamental Buddhist teachings, it's easy to intellectually comprehend something without really, deeply seeing life as a function of it. It's not that I was enlightened (still far from it), but rather that I really, really thought about causality and how and why things happen, and suddenly the hows and whys in life began to make a lot more sense, including habit formation (good and bad), relationship habits, and life tendencies (me and Asia and Buddhism, the US and aggressive foreign policy, New York politicians and prostitutes, it works with everything!) to name a few.

Why did I come back to Asia? Cause and effect. Through various activities and investments of time, energy, and thought, Buddhists and Asia became a part of who is the current me. Nothing more, nothing less. Through over-psychoanalysis or questioning the cosmos for deeper meaning, one will only find more mystery. There is a Buddhist saying, that if you wants to know your past lives, look at your present condition. And if you want to know your future, look at your present condition. To my logical mind, this makes total sense. Even better, causality holds infinite explanatory power about the past and present, and provides some rough ideas about the future. What do you want the future to look like? Do something now to create those conditions that will make it possible. Matters that were before of great importance to me now (what is the best/right career for me) seem like I was just thinking about things the wrong way and asking the wrong questions. It's hard to explain, but my mind has shifted a bit, and I'm seeing the world, and my place in it differently, more fluidly, and at ease. And I think it's for the better.

And then of course, all of these cycles will just keep churning in the greater cycle of samsara, that thing we call life and death. I have no clue what's in store for me, but I know if I keep doing what I enjoy, following the causes and conditions, contentment will follow, and for now, I'll take solace in that.


Be grateful to causes and conditions that help you achieve everything.
Follow causes and conditions that lead to natural results.


Parables in Ch’an, and the experience of Western intellectuals in a contemporary Taiwanese Buddhist monastery

The ultimate teachings of Ch’an or Zen practice are conceived of as beyond words and the grasp of language. As such, it is often through parables and analogies that one can begin to infer the ultimate teachings imparted through Zen teaching and practice. One popular analogy to understand the relationship between Ch’an and language is that of the finger pointing at the moon. Just as the finger provides direction towards the moon, the finger is not itself the moon. Similarly, the written, conventional teachings of Ch’an do not in themselves contain the ultimate teachings. Teachings of Ch’an can only provide the path, while it is the practitioner who must travel the path and realize wisdom (prajna) themselves.

For me, one attraction to Ch’an practice is the emphasis on self-cultivation-- that through meditation and mindfulness practice, a natural attainment of higher mental states and awareness occurs. Another draw is that Ch’an masters are an eccentric bunch, and within the confines of language, they try to teach their disciples through humor, and even mockery. So I just want to share a few examples of some quintessential Ch’an stories recounted during the program that were also relevant to us as western-educated folks in a Buddhist monastic setting. These probably aren’t completely accurate, but you can get the gist.

Story #1: A scholar was meditating across a river from a Ch’an master. The scholar felt inspired to write a poem to demonstrate his mastery of meditation to his master. In the last two lines of the poem he wrote, “Eight winds from all directions blow, I sit on a golden lotus unmoved.” He sent the poem via courier to the master across the river. Upon his return, the scholar asked the courier what his response was, the courier handed the scholar what the master had written, one word, “FART.” The scholar was so infuriated and insulted by this response that he jumped into the boat and rowed across the river to see the master himself. The Ch’an master was waiting on the shore, expecting the scholar. The Ch’an master said to the scholar, you are hardly unmoved if even a fart will blow you across the river.:)

The story demonstrates how quickly and easily the ego is provoked, either inflated by praise or insulted and defensive by criticism. It is only the truly practiced one who will be unmoved by both. 

Story #2: A scholar and a Ch’an master were sitting in meditation. Curious about how the master would respond, the scholar posed a question to him, “what do I look like when I am sitting in meditation?” The Ch’an master gave it some thought, and responded, “A Buddha.” The scholar was smugly satisfied and continued on his meditation. Shortly after, the Ch’an master asked the scholar what he looked like. Thinking he had to come up with something witty in response to prove his attainment, he said to the master, “you look like a pile of horse shit.” The Ch’an master did not respond. The scholar, thinking he had finally outsmarted the master excitedly returned home that evening and told the story to a girl. The girl, more perceptive than the scholar, told him after his account, “You fool! How you perceive others is a reflection of your own mind. What the master told you about how you appear, that is only a reflection of his own mind. And what you said of him, that is a reflection of your own mind.”

Both of these stories poke fun at the scholar, who is likely intellectually well developed, but is consequently full of hubris and a ‘know-it-all’ attitude. This situation, meeting of scholar and Ch’an master, is also especially relevant to the Woodenfish program, wherein critical, intelligent Western students meet and study with actual practitioners or masters. For many students, including myself, a Buddhist monastery like Fo Guang Shan is a place where, in order to cultivate anything new and meaningful within, our ingrained cynicism needs to die, or at least go into hibernation. Another parable often thrown around during Woodenfish is the story of ‘emptying your cup.’

A scholar went to visit a Ch’an master. As the master was speaking, the scholar interjected with his own opinions. The master began to serve more tea, and poured so much additional tea into the scholar's cup that it spilled out over the cup onto the table. The confused scholar tried to stop him, "What are you doing? The cup is full, there is no room for more tea!" The master responded, "Like this cup, you come with such a full mind of its own opinions, there is no room for anything new. In order to taste my tea, you must first empty your cup."

I can be a pretty cynical person, and dropping that veil through which we evaluate the world, and actually emptying your cup can be a constantly trying task. Cultural and intellectual superiority complexes prove to be more of a hindrance than a tool of objectivity. Trying to outsmart the master is usually just asking for a total fail, and it's only when we can drop the cynicism and cultural baggage, and open our eyes/ears/mind that a worthwhile and meaningful experience can occur. When many western students first arrive and see the large edifices of Fo Guang Shan and its seeming extravagances or oddities, ie the Pure Land cave, it can be difficult to know what to make of the scene. The cynic will first naturally question the monetary channels of development, and the intentions out of which such a massive establishment was created, and how it is sustained. At the most critical level, the cynic will refuse to consider that anything valuable or legitimate could come from something they first view as superficially contradictory to what they’ve studied and come to know as "Buddhism." The western critic/cynic may posit, this is not any kind of Buddhism I have ever studied, and since I have studied everything, this is not Buddhism. Except it is. The only one on the losing end of this sort of analysis is the visitor/intellectual critic, and that is truly a shame.

At the other extreme, total abandon of rational thinking and lack of careful analysis is an equally reckless position. Therefore a middle way of sorts should be sought. An approach that strikes a balance of constructive and contextualized analysis is important, and also very challenging. Cultural and temporal contextualization (for Woodenfish, that means Taiwan, 2010, Humanistic Buddhism) must situate observations, as well a generally open, respectful, and humble self. In terms of lived Buddhist experience, searching for origins or seals of authenticity, or trying to find the "real" Buddhism, is completely missing the point. For Buddhists, the concept of expedient means explains these very different paths to enlightenment. We all are moving in the same direction, but based on our past and current situation, will respond better to different teachings and different practices. It is not the inherent quality of a teaching or scripture that will aid in one's spiritual advancement, but rather the intention and diligence of the seeker in properly utilizing and interacting with the teachings. Rather than looking outward to criticize what others do, it's always most important to look inward at one's own actions, and one's own mind.


First Update, Mainland China

I was unable to go online for awhile and then was frantically busy, so I will work my way through updates of this summer. First for a brief rundown on my last weeks throughout mainland China. Surprisingly, my best internet connections throughout the three week mainland program were at the Buddhist temples we stayed at, while I was completely unable to get online during the last week in a so-called five star Chinese hotel at Wutai Shan. However, it was a great excuse to cut the technology chain, and just be active and enjoy a new part of China. The 'Buddhism in China' program was divided into two segments. For the first segment of the three-week trip, our group visited Buddhist temples throughout Jiangsu province, more or less west of Shanghai. We traveled through Suzhou, Wuxi, Yixing, Yangzhou, and Nanjing, and stayed in hotels and temple complexes. During the second segment of the program, we stayed at Wutai Shan, a sacred Buddhist mountain area in Shanxi province to the west of Beijing. In Wutai Shan, we merged with a group of scholars from Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS) and entrepreneurs interested in studying Buddhism. While we were going to have some courses, much of the time was instead spent exploring the numerous temples covering Wutai Shan.

Venerable Yifa and I both reading Obama books, on the train Beijing to Taiyuan,Shanxi Buddhism in China, July 2010

Throughout the various places we traveled, I continued to experience much of what I had throughout my Fulbright research-- rampant temple construction/reconstruction. I was told that approximately 6,000 Buddhist temples are under construction or in the works throughout China, and I believe it. It often felt that we were following not in the footsteps of Buddhists, but migrant construction workers, or maybe both. We visited some rather famous and well-known monastery complexes where many of the great Chinese Buddhist masters and scholars and translators had practiced and taught. In some cases, the temples were only partially destroyed, rather than completely under reconstruction. Usually the icons or structures in harder-to-reach places were spared the axe. Or in a creative example, a large pagoda within one Buddhist complex we visited was not destroyed because someone had placed a Red Book (Chairman Mao's quotations) at its peak.

From Buddhism in China, July 2010

From Buddhism in China, July 2010

As China now tries to somewhat redress the near total cultural losses inflicted during the Cultural Revolution, revival of Buddhist heritage is a central component. Therefore, temple construction is to some extent a necessary investment if one is to continue to propagate Buddhism. However, many of the temples under construction or recently constructed don't exactly seem built to last. Rather the goal is to build them as fast and cheaply as possible, and let later generations worry about the consequences. Sound familiar re: environmental degradation? In addition to shoddy construction, the relationship between a) construction of physical temples and b) actual re-integration of Buddhism into Chinese culture is a weak correlation at best. Yet with a little reflection and strategic planning, it should be obvious that long-term investments come not from grand architectural blue prints, but from investment in human capital, ie education.

In Yangzhou, we had the good fortune to meet Venerable Master Hsing Yun, the 80+-year-old founder of the Taiwanese Fo Guang Shan order. Born in mainland China, he left for Taiwan while he was still young, soon after the Nanjing massacre. Already ordained as a monk in mainland China, he continued to practice in Taiwan and eventually established himself as a prominent teacher, establishing Fo Guang Shan (Buddha's Light Mountain) in 1967. It is only in recent years that he has been able to return to his place of birth and begin to spread Buddhism there as well, although with definite restrictions. He has had a huge impact on the development of Taiwanese Buddhism, especially his form of Humanistic Buddhism which has modernized Buddhist teachings to meet the demands and complications of modern, lay society and with emphases on education and service.

Yungang Grottoes, From Buddhism in China, July 2010

Meeting Master Hsing Yun in mainland China was a unique experience and one that never would have been possible even 10 years ago. Recent developments and allowances continue to show that China's opening may be slow, but it is certainly moving in the right direction. Fo Guang Shan is now in the process of constructing a primary base in mainland China in Yixing, where Master Hsing Yun was first ordained as a monk, called Da Jue Si. While the money will come from Fo Guang Shan, the land ownership must still be leased, and the abbot of the temple must be from mainland China as well. Below is video footage from his lecture to our program participants in Yixing, including some interesting commentary on the development of Buddhism in mainland China and his thoughts on the United States.


Main shrine at 高旻寺 in Yangzhou

Eating the Seasons

Before I left for Asia, I was in the throes of a super-foodie phase. Living in New York City, a global capital for finance, art, culture, and food, I had opportunities to dabble in work for a financial-services based company, visit art and cultural centers such as the Rubin (which was less than a block from the apartment), and most relevantly to this discussion, eat my way around the city, and simultaneously, around the world. In the past few months, I drooled over food/photo blogs, walked through the Union Square farmer’s market and specialty markets throughout the city, and in the kitchen, experimented with new dishes and treats for friends. The New York culinary and foodie scene has reached a state of constant hyper-development, mediocre kitchens are killed off by sub-par reviews and high rent, making way for new ideas and new chefs.

So I admit upfront, I’ve been swept away in the food tide. I at times felt like a pilgrim making voyages to other parts of the city to taste highly acclaimed dishes, like to Chinatown for legit liang pi, Upper West Side for cookies and babka, and the East Village for ramen or arepas. Believe me, they really are that good. In addition to ventures outside, I hosted meals at home. I had different groups of friends over for brunch, lunch, or dinner, picnicked in Madison Sq. park, and finally had a rooftop get together the weekend before my departure. This is all to say that food has been on the brain, and still is even though I’m not in New York for now.

In my past few weeks back in China, I’ve aggressively worked my way through different food groups I had missed since I left last year. Unfortunately in the US, Chinese food is abominable- westernized, greasy and rather homogeneous. The Hubei, Schzeuan, beef and broccolis, and buffets shame the richly diverse and tasty cuisine of China. Since my return, I’ve been feasting on dumplings, noodle soups, Xinjiang’s delicious Uigher food (always loaded with cumin and spices), North Korean, Sichuan provincial standards, hot pot, dim sum, jian bing and other street foods, and ‘home-style’ dishes like yu xiang qiezi, the favorite Chinese eggplant.

Uigher government restaurant in Beijing, chuar stand in 三里屯

One of the most noticeable differences to me recently has been how seasonally in tune cuisine is in China, whereas in the US, most people realize it’s BBQ season, but it doesn’t often get more nuanced than that.

Eating with the Seasons
In American supermarkets, it’s difficult for the uneducated eye to determine what produce is in season. Just looking at the aisles in any large supermarket is bound to induce vertigo. The options are international and seemingly infinite, kiwis are flown in from Chile, cherries from Australia in December. Unless you consciously make an effort to exclusively shop local, we all consume produce cultivated in areas we will never visit during seasons we are not experiencing. When one’s local grocery store becomes a microcosm of globalized production and trade, seasons are more or less irrelevant.

However in China the situation is still a little different. While large grocery stores and imported foods and produce are becoming more ubiquitous, by and large, most people still purchase produce from wet markets or straight off the street. The natural cycles of cultivation and harvest and cooking seem to make more sense that way. When a fruit or vegetable ripens, it’s harvested, and shortly there after, sold. When I was just in Beijing, I knew cherries were season because they were plump, cheap, delicious, and carts of cherries were on virtually every corner. Down south where I am now, one of my favorite berries is in season, in Chinese, 杨梅 yang mei, the red bayberry, but I'm not sure you can even buy it in the US.  I also realized that some variety of pumpkin is also very much in season as we’ve had pumpkin soup, rice and pumpkin mashup, and other varieties on the same theme. Watermelon is also plentiful, and last night five of us bought a melon after dinner at a fruit shop, had it sliced on the spot, and were even given stools to sit out front and enjoy it on the spot.

In early June in the States, my favorite ingredients in season were asparagus and rhubarb. I made asparagus quiche and asparagus and goat cheese wrapped in prosciutto and then a strawberry-rhubarb crumble and a homemade strawberry rhubarb pie. While I wish that I could enjoy rhubarb all year round, I find it more off putting that we’ve become so disconnected from harvesting seasons to make no distinction between the wildly different cultivation of even summer and winter. Food becomes all that much more precious if we enjoy it seasonally, with the knowledge that it’s for a limited time only each year. 

For the rest of the summer, I’ve traded in breads for bao zi, froyo for bean mountains, and my favorite berries of the straw-, blue-, and rasp- variety for yang mei, lychee, mango, watermelon, and more.

breakfast of bao zi and yang mei

Zong zi 粽子, an extremely popular seasonal food (glutinous rice with filling typically cooked in bamboo leaves, cousin to a tamale) made only around the time of the Dragon Boat festival were my 4th of July burger. In the temple, veggie burger. 

I’m more than okay with this trade off. At least as long as someone saves me a few slices of blueberry pie and a barbecue or two are still left in the summer by the time I get back. 

"Bean mountain" shaved ice with fruit, peanut, or red bean

We all received cucumbers at a temple's vegetable garden we visited in Yangzhou

Venerable Chuan Jie with her cucumber :)

More later on fake meats and waste.