Saturday, January 5, 2013

Lucky Number '13 (hopefully!)

1 January 2013

Today is a momentous one. After years and years of trying, I finally entered into my uncharted territory. If you’re expecting a profound statement about cultural diversity or work, you’re about to be massively disappointed. But, I finally achieved a ridiculous life goals I set for myself years ago on a bored Saturday afternoon: I beat Spider Solitaire on Difficult Mode. I attribute this win to my friend Ali who sent me a text this morning to wish that 2013 brings me all that past years have refused me. First choice? Maybe not, but it still feels weirdly exciting. Thanks, universe!

The last time I wrote, I was not in the best place mentally. Things have gotten better, but I’m still glad that I wrote a blog post from that perspective. I always feel guilty talking about the negatives because I don’t want people to think terrible things about Cameroon or the Peace Corps, but it’s also unrealistic to paint a picture from only the rose-colored glasses side of life. It’s liberating, and I’m going to try harder to keep things balanced. Consider that my New Year’s Resolution if you’re into that kind of thing.

With it being the opening of 2013, it seems high time to have a chat about holidays and parties, especially considering that last night I went to the strangest New Year’s Eve party of my life. Last year, I arrived just before Christmas and New Year’s and I spent both of them with Americans in towns that weren't my own.  This holiday season, I’m a year in. Nowadays, I can actually communicate, I’m more socially adept in the Cameroonian context, I spent both holidays “in village,” and have apparently gained a reputation in government circles for being tougher than a boulder. After a full day of grinning ear to ear because of all the wishes of “Bon année!” and “Bonne fête!,” it’s time to address some of what I’ve learned the past two weeks.

Ten Things I Learned This Holiday Season

1)       If you ever are invited to do a  Secret Santa exchange with a group of Cameroonians, especially social heavy-weights (“Grands,”) acceptable gifts include Chanele No. 5 Paris Parfum from the People’s Republic of China, gaudy silver and pastel blue clocks, tee-shirts, and porcelain plates. Giving bottles of wine or baked goods à la America would be a social faux pas.

2)       You can bake some pretty killer cookies without an oven. Sugar cookies baked in a skillet? Don’t mind if I do!

3)       If you are at a New Year’s Party hosted by a priest, expect to be awkwardly herded into Mass just before midnight, and no, it doesn’t matter that everyone at the party is already buzzed. Also, you’re going to have to read a confusing French Bible verse with words you’ve never seen before in front of everyone. Good luck.

4)       Normally, at Cameroonian functions, you can expect everyone to be a half hour to an hour late. This is not true at the holidays: everyone will be about 3.5 hours late. This gives you sufficient time to eat all the fish heads, chicken necks, and hunks of cow fat…or the many other actual delicious things on the holiday spread. Your choice.

5)      Complaints about holiday weight gain are not just an American thing. In a country that generally views weight-gain as a fantastic thing, even Cameroonians are complaining about the weight that they’ve put on. I may have gorged myself on American food while other volunteers were in Batouri to celebrate with us, but at least every Cameroonian in town feels the same way about themselves. Zero guilt. This was a well-celebrated season!

6)       There is no direct translation for “reindeer” in Cameroonian French. Rudolph is now a red-nosed antelope. Luckily, Cameroonian Christmas music is actually only church music, and the only New Year’s music that I’ve heard repeats “Bon année, Bon année, Bon année-o, Bon année!” the entire song. I may never get it out of my head ever again. Pray you never have to celebrate a new year with me in the future.

7)       When preparing to go out to a Cameroonian party, you need to leave your American self behind. Cameroonian women who are “out” in the social world are divas. You have the option of wearing something uncomfortably tight, low-cut, leopard printed, blinged out, or any combination thereof. The more make-up you wear, the more respected you will be, as evidenced by the trend of plucking off your eyebrows and replacing them with a thin line of painted on liquid liner. Your hair should be a perfectly coiffed expression of your personality.* Shaving is considered a violation of all that is natural, normal, and beautiful. Reason number 484856 that it’s difficult to make female friends in this country.

8)      There is always room for another surprise. Always. Stop trying to prepare for it, because there’s always going to be someone who does something, someone who has something, or something that just happens for no reason. You can’t control it, it just is what it is.

9)      In “Happy New Year” text messages, it’s customary to wish two to three specific things that you hope for each person. My wish this year for all my workaholic friends in town is tranquility. For all you on the other side of the planet, I hope that 2013 brings you peace, conviction, and the strength to make it through all that life throws your way.

10)    You get what you pay for: you can treat your friends like bad Chinese sandals that last for two weeks, or you can treat them like a rare pair of American tennis shoes that will survive everything the world has to throw at you. When you treat someone like family, you’ll get it back when you need it the most. You’re only as alone as you let yourself be. This holiday season, I’m thankful to have everyone back at home as well as a family of volunteers and Cameroonian friends to help get me through it all.

So, lucky number 2013. I’ve got a good feeling about this one. After all, if I’ve finally won a round of Spider Solitaire on difficult, who knows what magic tomorrow may bring?

*My hair was done today by a team of 6 different 2-7 year olds. I’m pretty sure about a quarter of what I used to have was ripped out in the process. If my hair is an expression of my personality, my personality must be chaotic and going in all different directions. I work with the best kids on this side of the Atlantic, it’s official.

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