Drumroll Please...

A big thank you for everyone who participated in our Spring 2010 Photo, Journal, and Video Contest, "Beyond the Classroom"! We were so impressed with each of your inspiring, moving, and often comical entries that helped remind us all why we love doing the work that we do. Please find below the winning entries (which we had a hard time choosing), and congratulations to the winners!

Photo Contest Winners

1st Place, Fei Ji, American Samoa '08, "Take it All In"
During the first week of training, the volunteers hiked up one of the main mountains, Mt. Alava of the island of Tutuila. At the top, we all had to pause and drink in the view, absorbing the new experiences headed our way. (The person sitting down is Brandi Cutler, American Samoa Field Director).

2nd Place, Katrina Liebst, Rwanda '09, "Muzungu!"
February 28, 2010 - Kigali, Rwanda - While sitting in a car this group of children approached the window to take a look at the muzungu (white person) who had unexpectedly entered their neighborhood.

Honorable Mention: Sam Cortina , Marshall Islands '09, "Yokwe"
 In Marshallese, the everyday greeting and welcoming you use is the word “Yokwe,” which translates to “Giving you a rainbow.”  In this photo there are two Marshallese children, Annel and Arisa (my host brother and host sister) playing in the lagoon on Ulien Island… and thus they have been given two rainbows.

Honorable Mention: Amanda Joy, Guyana '07, "Gifts from the Rain Forest"
taken in Orealla Village in Region 6.

Video Contest Winners

1st Place, Quincy Carroll, China Hunan '08-'09, "Ningyuan"

2nd Place, Kevin (Kenji) O'Brien, Chile Ministry Semester '09, "Kenji's Patagonia"

Journal Contest Winners

1st Place, Tegan Swanson, Marshall Islands '08, "Where the Light Is"

Saturdays are usually busy.  Saturdays are for things like bread making and sweeping and trying not to get too pink when I sit on the shore.  Doing the dishes.  Doing the laundry in my bucket, and trying not to attract a crowd.  This Saturday, I am washing my guams and bleaching the jaki (which is forever moldy) and staving off the rain with murderous thoughts of soggy clothes, when my nine-year-old niece brings the baby over on one skinny little hip and announces that it is time for lunch.  Lunch means leftover pancakes and the sashimi that Romi brought to our house after breakfast.  Lunch means sitting in the shade and drinking lime and talking about how much rice to buy from the boat on Wednesday.  Wilpina says that we are going to a birthday party.  “When?” I ask.  “Now,” she says.  On Namdrik, now means in twenty minutes, means probably after dinner, means maybe by the end of next week.  But what harm does it cause?  Now is everything and nothing.  Now is nonexistent on Namdrik.

Four hours later we finally leave and the sky opens its mouth, inhales all the air from above the ocean, and releases everything over our heads in a downpour hard enough to carve holes in the earth.  Now we are running down the road in the middle of a rainstorm.  By the time we are halfway to Adma’s house we are already drenched, so we just keep on going.  She is standing in the doorway when we burst into the yard, shrieking and covered in mud.  The birthday girl is sitting in the corner, wearing her favorite muu-muu and staring wide eyed at the bag of candy her grandmother has left on the table.  Women start to clap and someone finds a ukulele and then we are singing.  Hollering, actually, above the rain on the tin roof.  The storm stops and everyone sings louder. 

Adma picks up the bag and switches on the radio, starts swinging her hips.  Back and forth, up and down, around and around the room she goes.  Everyone knows what to do – if you want candy, you have to shake it, too.  In the middle of a particularly popular dance move, I feel something warm against my arm.  I turn and suddenly I can see nothing but Belisa, boisterous and howling and large, waving a pair of fledgling chicks in the air.  They are shoved unceremoniously into my arms.  Dance with the chickens! someone shouts.  Now she has bao, she can get a boyfriend, someone else hoots.  Everyone is already laughing when Doreen bursts into the room with an iron pot on her head.  After this there is no controlling us.          

The choir is collecting in the yard outside of Romi’s house, the babies and their mothers sprawled out on cardboard jakis in wait.  At two in the morning when the moon is new it makes every palm into a sleeping giant, every teenki light bobbing on the shoals a sea-monster.  When the moon is full and unobstructed, it is like moving through water covered in silver and left to evaporate in a dark room.  I blink and try to take photographs with my eyes and I am so filled with light that I feel like a shutter.  We ekkatak under a halogen lamp which spills into all the blackened corners of the island.  It is strung to a sputtering generator and hangs like an industrial chandelier from the branches of a breadfruit tree.  Big Gretel tunes her guitar and then comes the high soprano of Netty and the bass thrum from Micah and Liton, and when Romi swings his hand into the air we all take three steps back.  Then we dance, rosy and warm in the dark. 

The morning comes slowly through the trees from the lagoon side, crawling between the pandanus roots and pooling in the corners of our mouths. The days bleed together because we are always singing and dancing in the street, and you can’t hide from the daylight there.  We wander away when ekkatak is done, and I am so tired that I am home before I even know that I’ve left.  Something moves on the beach behind my hut and then I see Ekner in his aviators, Ekner of the white hair and the flaming yellow swim trunks, wading in the shallows with a net full of fish.   Even this early the bugs are terrible, and I lie down below the window, mosquito coil smoldering in the corner.  These days the air is still and thick around my skin, swirling and parting as I move – an arm, or a kneecap, or an eyelash – but it always settles again, just like the smoke clinging to the ceiling. 

Jaki: pandanus reed mat
Bao: bird, chicken
Teenki: flashlight
Ekkatak: study, practice

2nd Place, Ellah Ronen, Ecuador '10, "No Language to Speak Of"

It wasn’t until we were pulling up to the house that he’d mentioned anything. It wasn’t until that moment that I had ever thought it possible. I was the one who couldn’t speak. I was the one who had moved across the globe to Portoviejo, Ecuador. For the past three months, I had been struggling to be understood, begging to understand, fighting for some semblance of a normal conversation between myself and the people whose home I had interrupted.

To set my story, I should mention that a few days earlier I had gone for a drink with a friend after a day of teaching at the Universidad Tecnica de Manabi. I had gone for a drink with one of the few people in the city with whom I could speak, in English, and be understood. It’s not that I didn’t want to speak in Spanish, I did. But sometimes, in a place where you are unsure of everything, including your words, you just want to feel the familiarity of something as simple as the sounds sashaying off your lips (instead of the staccato of broken syllables that can’t seem to find any sort of rhyme or rhythm as you force them out of your mouth and into the open air). Over drinks, he mentioned that he had family in the nearby campo. He revealed, as well, that they cook some of the best food he’s ever eaten. Aside from my avid curiosity, the promise of good, true, ethnic Ecua-food was irresistible. I weaseled myself an invitation for that weekend. And there I was, in the truck, pulling up to the house, excited, anxious, and na├»ve.

I was met with a flurry of greetings and arms and cheeks while stepping out of the truck, and the faint after-thought of what I heard as, “he doesn’t speak” from my friend, while being enveloped by the immediate warmth one can’t help but feel from the people of this country. “He doesn’t what?” I asked myself, convinced I must have misheard, the languages all jumbled in my head must have misfired, or crossed signals, or he had misspoken. Then, again, I heard, this time without any sort of static or interference, “he doesn’t speak” accompanied by a pointed finger. “He doesn’t speak?” I confirmed, and he nodded. Well at least I won’t be the quietest one here, I thought to myself, just a close second. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been wrong since moving to this country, I wouldn’t be able to rightly call myself a volunteer.

Segundo may not speak, but can he talk. At 40 years old, he has a wife and two kids, and the expressiveness and confidence it takes to make yourself understood. After forty years on the compound, he’d only recently begun learning sign-language a few months earlier and it had become the challenge of learning a second language, not a first. He and his family had developed their own method of communicating, with signs, gestures, and perhaps simply being able to read the wants and needs of a person who you are close to without any words being said at all.

I immediately felt at ease when he brought me a bag of mandarins to welcome me to his home. He took out his notebook of sketches,  in which he had the most pride expressed with a puffed-chest and a smile, he taught me the latest signs he had learned himself (three fingers to your cheek for water, a fist circling your heart for love). He explained to me how he had picked the coffee beans, dried them, and ground them in order to make the coffee he served me with the same pride and care one might expect from a Cordon Bleu chef. My conversation with Segundo flowed more freely without a single spoken word than most of those I’d had with my faulty Spanish and within the confines of grammar and structure. And only then, I finally understood.

I was here in this foreign country, with a strange language, in order to teach Ecuadorians how to better communicate with more of my own compatriots. However, English actually has very little to do with any of that. English is simply a medium within which to transfer meaning, a method of strings and ties through which we can organize our thoughts and pursue connections. In truth, true understanding has very little to do with the shapes of the words we choose to speak, or even the signs we choose to make. Understanding truly comes from the bond we have as a people, as a species, a single voice united within the discord of culture. In English, in Spanish, in silence- I can make myself understood….I just have to be willing to understand, myself.

Honorable Mention: Frank Hoban, China Hunan '09, "The Easiest 400 RMB I Ever Made"

“Oh, by the way, the race is tomorrow at three,” explains my teaching liaison, Richard.  We are heading out for duck neck, cabbage, small fried fish, rice, and beers with some of our basketball buddies—the perfect pre-race meal.  Tomorrow is the “First Annual Teacher’s Race” in celebration of China’s National Day.

Having run cross country and track in university up until a few months earlier, I expect this to be an easy win for me and think very little of the poor nutritional value added by this evening’s forthcoming meal.  I eat and drink, but I feel little more than a slight buzz since the alcohol content of beer in China is rarely over 2.5%/volume.

I go to sleep at 10:00 PM and wake up at 8:00AM.  I feel well rested, and a sense of nervousness is approaching.  The race is a foot race (approximately 6,000 meters) with all the teachers, staff, and school leaders.  There will be about 300 people, and although the Chinese very rarely run, or exercise at all for that matter, I fear that there will be that one thirty-year-old who has been secretly training for this specific event.  For this reason, I sweat out the four and a half hours leading up to race time.

At 2:30 PM, Richard, some of his friends, and I depart for the race.  It is perfect running weather.  Approximately sixty degrees Fahrenheit, low wind levels, and cloudy; I couldn’t be happier.  A light drizzle ensues, and I think that this couldn’t be setting itself up any more perfectly.  Running in the rain is fun; racing in the rain is extraordinarily pleasurable.  I have always mused that this is because when it’s raining, the pressure is off—there is always the excuse of running poorly because of the weather.  A major cop-out, of course, but still…it has always been a way for me to ease my inevitable race anxiety.

We approach the area of the race start, and I begin to feel foolish for ever having worried.  I notice the plethora of sandals, jeans, khakis, button-down shirts, collared shirts, and anything else that the average person would sport to a night out on the town…or to teach, since most of the teachers had just finished their Sunday lessons (yes, they teach on Sundays).  I have arrived wearing basketball shorts and a t-shirt just to warm-up in, and the second I reveal my Nike running shorts, white racing jersey, and matching white headband, an abundance of “Oooohhsss” and “Aaaahhhhs” meet my ears.  I pin my tan canvas racing number onto my singlet and finish doing some strides and other warm-up exercises.  Everyone else huddles in lanes separating different ages groups as if they are about to embark on nothing more than a leisurely walk through the park.

Don’t they understand this is a race?  Why don’t they want to win?  Maybe they just don’t know how to warm-up, I wonder.  All eyes are on me as I bounce up and down and shake out my legs.  Richard approaches me and says, “The most important thing is just to participate.”  That may make sense to them, but in my fifteen years of racing experience, I have learned that racing is about winning!

But this race is designed just to get the teachers to do some physical activity.  Each teacher who participates receives 300 Yuan (approximately 44 US dollars) which is a relatively high amount of money.  In America, we pay to run races; but here, we get paid?  I can get used to that.  Usually though, if you win a race in America, you receive a trophy, medal, plaque, money, gift certificate or some sort of prize much more significant than what everyone else gets.  But here, the winner would only receive an additional 100 Yuan (approx. 15 dollars)—a very small bonus prize.  So yes, the importance was merely on participation. 

And that is one of the things that I am coming to understand about China.  It is unusual—of course.  But, there are some great surprises.  Running a race and making money?  I like that.  Watching everyone cheer for me as if I am an Olympian for running three minutes slower than in one of my average races…well, come on, who wouldn’t want that?  Winning by four minutes and fifty-one seconds after enduring pre-race stress…well, that’s just ridiculous. 

The bottom line is:  China is full of surprises.  Life in every country is different.  And life in China is…well, it’s China.  Never had I imagined running a race next to a person in flip flops.  But now, how can I go back to my homeland where paying a registration fee to run a race is the norm?  That idea now seems pretty foreign to me.

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