Perhaps being born in Okinawa, Japan back on September 7th, 1970 foreshadowed the international lifestyle that I would eventually lead after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1992. Armed with my double major degrees in Biology and Mass Communications, I left my comfort zone of life in the United States to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in the East African country of Tanzania.
I taught biology and math in Mwanza at Nganza Secondary School and West African dance after school. Fully aware that I’d immersed myself in a life-altering experience, I wrote extensively in twelve legal pads that I had brought with me. Without a plethora of time-saving devices, I ironically had a tremendous amount of time on my hands to write, read and observe the world around me. I wrote very long, descriptive letters to my friends and family about my experiences and only a few short stories, most of which I lost along my travels.
Readjusting to life in the States in 1994, also known as “reverse culture shock,” was truly harder as I’d heard it would be. The shock of seeing mostly fat, pale (even Black people looked pale when compared to the beautiful deep chocolate skin of the average Tanzanian) Americans alarmed me—as much as my appearance surprised people who had known me before. I now sported knotty dreads whereas before my hair had always been either pressed or permed. Growing up as a very skinny child with a loud, energetic voice had earned me the nickname “Tweetybird,” but with twenty extra pounds, I evoked images of “Big Bird.” (Thank God my relatives never thought of calling me that!) As a matter of fact, people were surprised that I had gained weight since they thought that “all those Africans were starving.” I also marveled at drinking water straight from the faucet, good roads, good driving, hot showers and the concept of “on time.”
I went through three dead-end jobs in two years: administrative assistant, bookstore sales associate, preschool teacher. The last job I actually enjoyed even though I received very few benefits outside of an hourly wage. At least I was back in a classroom setting albeit with three-year olds, who happily learned, among other things, a Tanzanian children’s song in Swahili. Yet, I was a fish out of water since the only other people who worked at the daycare with undergraduate degrees were the supervisor, the assistant supervisor and a former kindergarten teacher who taught the four-year olds, but had the ambition of starting her own daycare. Again, I documented my experiences in a series of journals and wrote a few haunted dream-based short stories.
In 1996, I moved to Seoul, South Korea to teach ESL. Teaching ESL was a hugely profitable business and I worked for one of the biggest ESL companies. Oh, they touted themselves as a “school,” but they were all about the business of teaching ESL. Most of my students were college students whose parents wanted them to learn English and businesspeople whose companies paid for them to learn English. The best teaching aspects were that every month I had a new set of students, I tried out a variety warm up activities, I had very little marking, I didn’t need to invest a lot of time/energy disciplining the students and I was paid very well. Sounds ideal, right?
Eventually, I tired of being “an insignificant cog in the money-making ESL machine” as I had begun to complain to friends and family through a newfangled thing called The Internet. I had banked quite a bit of money, but I knew better than to return to the States without setting something up, learning from the “mistake” I’d made after leaving Tanzania; so I applied to the University of Denver’s Combined License and Master’s Program (CLAMP) while still living in Seoul. I didn’t realize at the time that since my return address was in South Korea, the university assumed that I was a foreign student and wanted to know my English proficiency scores! The funny thing about that was I had indeed lost some of my native English proficiency since I had spent a significant amount of time speaking very slowly and monosyllabically. When I called the university and explained my situation, they told me just fax a copy of my birth certificate. I called my mother who lived in North Carolina and asked her to fax the university my birth certificate. Unfortunately, my birth certificate showed that I was born in Japan, which did not prove that I was an American citizen! After consulting with the university again, they agreed to accept a faxed copy of my passport.
I returned to the States in April 1997 just two months prior to the Asian market crash. I had a much easier time readjusting to American society since I relocated to a place where I had never lived before: Denver, CO. After driving from NC to CO, I swore I’d never drive such distance in a short amount of time again, which is PRECISELY why I have made a similar drive five more times since. Among the possessions packed in my heavily burdened car were the twelve legal pads and a growing number of journals that I was going to one day all type up, a scatter-brained science fiction story that would later cause me physical pain to read when I’d rediscovered it, and various ESL and science teaching materials.
Prior to moving to CO, I had only lived in Southern states: VA, AR and NC. In all three places, I never had to go very far to see another Black person. So, part of my adjustment, besides the altitude which zonked me until my body had finally made enough red blood cells to handle the low oxygen, was not seeing a single Black person for the first three days. Thank God for Latinos or else I would not have seen another brown-skinned person during that time. I had never known that would bother me. I felt better a few months later when I was hiking in Boulder and a Black woman approached me about where I got hair products. She was new to town.
Since I had saved up money, I could afford not to work fulltime the first year I was in CO, working a few crappy part-time jobs. After receiving my secondary science teaching license, I then continued with my graduate classes and landed a teaching job at a predominantly Black and Latino middle school. I was in heaven! I brought all my science materials and proceeded to decorate my room. About a week before school began, I discovered in passing that I was the math teacher on my team rather than the science teacher. That turned out to be one of the best “bait and switch” things to ever happen to me. I had always been good at math, but explaining mathematical concepts to hormone-crazed thirteen-year olds in an entertaining fashion was a real challenge.
On the first day of school of my third year there, I enthusiastically wrote on the white board, “Welcome to the BEST math class you’ve ever had so far!” I had established the reputation of being a creative math teacher. Even among teachers, math was viewed as the subject that allowed little creativity—until they heard about what I was doing in the classroom, that is! My students played math games, they completed math projects, and they even studied what I called “math philosophy,” using geometer’s tools (ruler, compass and protractor). Most of these exciting lessons I generated since it was easier to create those lessons than to find ready-made.
Upset with the results of the 2000 presidential election coupled with the impending breakup with my boyfriend, I landed another teaching job in Alexandria, Egypt. I was enticed by the small class size, good pay and travel opportunity. That turned out to be the “workingest” school I ever taught at. The downside to working at such a small school meant doing far more work in addition to teaching four levels of math at the middle school and high school levels. Yet, I managed to trade off one of my math classes and pick up a drama class during the second semester of my second year. I’d proven myself as a decent drama teacher since I wrote and directed an original work based on Shakespeare called “What’s Shakin with Shakespeare?”
After two years of life in Egypt, I had felt my usual outspoken personality shrink. Even though I was not a Muslim, I was still a woman and I tired of all the attention. I swore to never again live in a country were men couldn’t readily and openly fornicate with their own women.
So, I got another math teaching job in Monterrey, Mexico. Talk about the cure for a shrunken personality! Not only were young Mexicans openly making out in the parks, but one didn’t have to go too far for a drink and mixed sex entertainment such as dancing. (Oh, I had taken belly dancing classes while in Egypt and hung out in mixed company with other foreigners, but in Mexico, I actually made Mexican friends.) I happily explored Monterrey and nearby places since, for the first time while living in a foreign country, I had a car.
As a matter of fact, I busied myself doing so many wonderful things, that I hardly sent emailed letters to people in the States as I’d done in Egypt. Besides, I felt that Monterrey was so Americanized that there wasn’t much to report. In addition to teaching middle school math and science, I taught an after school belly dancing class. As far as my own “schooling,” I formed a women’s drumming circle and took private drum lessons. And as fate would have it, on my way to try out a salsa aerobics class, I saw a sign for capoeira classes.
I’d heard of capoeira when I lived in Denver, but couldn’t fit it in my schedule of West African dancing, belly dancing, yoga and bartending on the weekends. I figured now was my opportunity to check it out. I was very self-conscious since I was easily the oldest person in the room, including the teacher, at 33. Naturally uncoordinated, I struggled through the first class and concluded that it wasn’t for me. That night, I slept like a baby for the first time since moving to Mexico. I became an avid capoeirista for the next three years.
During the five years that I was working outside the States, the infamous educational law known as “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB), cynically referred to as “No Teacher Left Standing,” had taken affect. When I attended my next international job fair, recruiters didn’t know where they could place me at their schools. Most, if not all, of those schools were accredited through the United States, which meant that they had to comply with the educational laws in the States even if they were located in a foreign country. My teaching license was in science yet I had only taught one year of middle school science since receiving my teaching license. The best thing that I had going for me was my collective and varied years of teaching experience. I had a lot of confidence, had done my research and had a long list of criteria and questions for perspective schools. I was not going to settle for just anything.
In contrast to the first job fair I’d attended where I attempted to sign up for as many interviews as I could, I only signed up for four. I gambled that out of those four interviews, I’d get a job offer and since I had narrowed my list down to those schools, I’d confidently accept the first one that made an offer. As fortune would have it, all four schools offered me a job, but the superintendent from the school in Tegucigalpa, Honduras had contacted me first. I readily accepted the opportunity to teach IB (International Baccalaureate) Biology, which had the added bonus of the school paying for my IB training in New Mexico.
Although the superintendent had warned me that Tegus didn’t offer the same “cultural” and “social” opportunities as Monterrey, I still found (eventually, during my second year) a painting class, a belly dancing class and a drumming class. Plus, during my first year, I worked so much that I didn’t have much time to socialize. I also did not have a car for the first three months that I was there. I had to save up some money to buy a relatively good car.
I really enjoyed teaching IB Biology the second year since I’d made many constructive changes and the school had finally bought computers for each teacher. What a time-saver to type up all lessons while using the Internet to research. During my second year, I really took advantage of driving out of town during the long weekends and used the general lack of social activities (compared to most capital cities) to greatly expand on what became my first published novel, Tribe of One.
And like magic, on Halloween Day 2008, I was dressed up as Storm from the Xmen (for the umpteenth time since I’d already assembled all my homemade costume) and conducting parent conferences when one of the hippest, divorced, Honduran mom’s let slip that she longed to return to the States since there were no suitable men to be found in Tegus. Although I had acknowledged the scarcity of older dateable men, to hear an educated, articulate, outgoing Honduran woman say it, helped me make my decision to relocate to the States.
When Obama won the presidential election, my family all clamored for my return. After eight years of living outside the States during the Bush years, they reasoned that with a Black president, it was now safe for me to return. Although excited about the historical election, I was ready to take a break from being the foreigner once again. Besides at 38, I was average Honduran grandmother age. I certainly didn’t feel like anyone’s grandmother and if I had any ambitions of being anyone’s girlfriend again, I needed to return to the land of older, dateable men.
I’d finally paid off my pricey University of Denver grad school bill and had saved up a small bundle by the time I left Honduras in June 2009, nine days before the coup. Although I had not landed a teaching job yet, I had made up my mind to relocate to Austin, TX. After being outside the States for eight years, I knew that I could not live happily ever after in some culturally-deprived, Podunk town. I didn’t want a very big city and it had to have jobs, affordable housing and a happening scene. That last part wouldn’t be too hard to find, compared to Tegus.
Relocating this time around, I had to buy a cell, a car, and rent an apartment—in that order. It was a strange experience to not have a number, a car and an address. I had to get all those things in order to get a job. I couldn’t very well fill out a job application and leave those things blank. The cell phone was the easiest thing to find since I had researched cells before leaving Honduras. I even knew which car I wanted to buy before stepping back onto American soil, but the challenge, despite my credit rating of 825, was the temporary absence of a job.
The recession I’d heard so much about on the news while eating breakfast in Tegus was suddenly real to me. At 38.7, I had to get my father to cosign for my car. I was embarrassed. Yet, I loaded up my car and took my fifth cross country drive from VA to TX. By the time I rolled up in Austin, I was actually driving like an American again rather than a Honduran. I quickly found an apartment after one week of staying at a friend’s house, who was out of the country at the time, but had another person staying at his house. I thought it was genius of my friend to have weird guy staying at his house to make sure didn’t overstay my welcome. After all, I was unemployed at the time and would have enjoyed a rent-free place for a few more weeks. Turns out, weird guy was merely supposed to let me in the house, not stay there himself.
Nonetheless, I moved into the cheapest place I could find, which turned out to be on the Northern edge of Austin. With my luck, I landed a teaching job on the Southern edge of Austin and passionately hated my commute for the next year. During the two months that I was unemployed, I worked on three paintings and three stories a day. I made time within my creative schedule to visit the library and take advantage of the free wi-fi along with the other unemployed people.
Before returning to the States, I had had one telephone interview with a high school assistant principal. I ended up not getting the job since I wasn’t fluent in Spanish (although I should have been after living in Spanish-speaking countries for 6 years), but that assistant principal did me the huge favor of passing along my name and number to another assistant principal, who eventually called, interviewed me and offered me a job.
Austin, another happening town, had almost too many things going on. In the beginning, I only did what was free or nearly free, which turned out to be salsa class and capoeira. My capoeira skills had suffered in Honduras since I couldn’t find a consistent class. Since living in Austin, I have enjoyed taking both samba and tango lessons, listening to all the live bands and recently launching my writing career.