day fifteen: cardboard houses and china girls

“de donde eres?”

where are you from?”

it’s a question that i’m used to by now.

i went to switzerland for my junior year and was asked this practically every time i introduced myself. equally familiar was the look of confusion when i said “the united states” and the insistent questioning “but where are your parents from?” “…your grandparents?”
i got the question so often that i wrote my college essay about it.

i don’t look american — whatever that means – i guess. i’m third-generation chinese-american, fluent or semi-fluent in four different languages and none of them mandarin or cantonese, recognizable as asian in foreign countries but easily marked as US-born by how i dress and walk and move in a myriad of “not-really-chinese” ways.
but especially here, where people stay in the same town (even the same house) for generations upon generations and where half the people in the local community are related to my host family, it’s hard to explain all that in limited spanish.

my nicaraguan friend Jennifer tells me, patiently: “it’s because when they ask where you’re from, they’re asking about… (she stops, hesitates, and switches to spanish) …tus raices (your roots). pareces china (you look chinese). you need to explain.”

so my answers end up layering, one on top of the other. i was born in the states, my parents were born in the states too, no, not the same place i was born, yes, two of my grandparents were born in china, yes, i’ve been, no, i don’t remember much, it felt like a foreign country, yes, english is my first language, no, i cannot speak chinese…
i feel clumsy in this explanation, almost guilty about the complication of my heritage.

and even then, i’m still left trying to answer the inevitable questions nicaraguans have about chinese life and cuisine and culture. what is the food like? do they eat bread? do i eat chinese food at home? can i say something in chinese? what do the dragons (the word for “dragon” here is león de china, literally “chinese lion”) represent?
i do my best to respond to everything, hesitant, painfully aware of the fact that my chinese-ness is inadequate to answer fully. 
somehow, this makes my american-ness seem inadequate too.

this week, i go to help out with one of our children’s projects in Los Martinez.
when i enter there are dozens of kids laughing, reading, playing, and doing homework — our big project for today is building a cardboard house, and a group of girls instantly pull me into their circle to help them cut and assemble boxes. not all of them have their own (some of them only have pieces of cardboard) and so we’re basically constructing new boxes from scratch. as i build one little girl’s house, she asks me if i’m chinese. i laugh and tell her my standard answer — i’m american, but my grandparents came to the US from china.
but she doesn’t seem to get it.

why don’t you speak chinese? she asks me. what is chinese food like? is it true that you eat with sticks? when are you going back? 
i laugh again and tell her that i speak english, that chinese food is good, that yes, i know how to “eat with sticks”, that i’m going back at the end of the day to La Mariposa.
she shakes her head and asks, again, but when are you going back home?
ohhhh. i tell her that i’m from a state in america called oregon and i’m going back home in two months. but she still isn’t quite satisfied.
no, your other home, she insists. in china.
i shake my head, laughing, as another boy tries to explain to her that la extranjera is an america girl, not a china one — she is, in fact, not from the place that she looks like she should be.

home’s a funny word, isn’t it? 
home is both the house i’m staying in here and the college i go to in Pennsylvania and the place where i grew up in Oregon. but for this girl, and for a lot of nicaraguans, the question about my home and where i’m from has to do with who i am, where i belong.
and if you’re going to count race, language, heritage, migration and immigration history, it’s an even messier question… one that even i’m never quite sure how to resolve. that answer’s layered, as well — a constant buildup of what one of my friends at BMC calls “diasporic blues”.

where do i belong?
at this point, even i don’t have a good response.

meanwhile, at the project, the boy has finished explaining and walks away, satisfied that he’s clarified things. but i’m watching the little girl, who looks from the cardboard house in her hands to me and then back to the house again.
she still looks puzzled.

me too, kid. me too.


days thirteen and fourteen: mombacho explorations

this weekend we went to mombacho!

i stood at the top of a volcano

and wandered through a cloud of fog

and laughed my way through forest paths

and ducked under branches heavy with flowers

and stood quite still and breathed in the mountain and the blooming and the sunshine and the calm

over and over again.

day eleven: small beasties creepy crawlies 

in case you think my life is solely picturesque…

nicaraguan houses are much more open than most american and european ones — which is lovely most of the time. there are large windows and you can hear birds and frogs from your room and everything is quite nice.

that said, i’m never going to be quite used to the bugs.

when i got home one night, there was a dark spot on the wall in the corner… i turned on my light to reveal a four or five inch spider hanging out casually in the corner

it was not a Fun Experience

also after i panicked for a good amount of time my host dad heard and came in. it ran around and then he hit it and then it ran more and i screamed and he hit it again and then it twitched lifeless on the floor for a good two minutes and then, satisfied that everything was now alright, he left me with a giant dead spider in the middle of my floor

i finally wiped it up and threw it away but even that was scary

i’m never walking barefoot again.

day ten: how to do laundry in nicaragua 

i actually wrote this a while ago, but only recently managed to type it up… don’t worry, i’m washing my clothes regularly. 


step one: get your clothes dirty. a couple hot days and lots of activity (kneeling in the dirt to play with your host sister, for example) should do it… make sure your clothes actually ARE dirty, because 1) water is precious and 2) this is a lot of work!!

step two: assemble your materials. in addition to dirty clothes, you’ll need soap, a clothesline and clothespins, and a bucket or so of water (and a bowl to scoop the water with). you’ll also need a washing table, which your family will probably have — it’s made out of concrete, with three sections in it: a shallow one with a raised ridged area in the center, another shallow one that’s flat on the bottom, and a narrow one that’s much deeper (some tables only have the deep and the ridged one, but that’s all you need anyway). don’t panic! this is just as intimidating as it looks but if your host grandma can do it so can you. (that’s a lie. your host grandma is way better than you at probably everything. but it’s still important for you to learn to wash your own socks.)

step three: put water in the deep section. this will probably be collected rainwater (or, alternately, water from a spigot outside) but either way it’s non-potable. that means DON’T DRINK IT. just in case you were planning to.

step four: lay your clothes in the shallow ridged section and wet them with water. rub the flat cake of soap along the fabric, pressing down (usually it’s brightly colored, which is convenient because then you and your host grandma can both see how bad you are at this and how many spots you missed the first time). now use your hands to scrub your article of clothing vigorously along the ridges, working bubbles into the cloth.

step five: rinse well with more water and repeat as needed. wring your clothes out carefully and hang them up to dry (you’ll want to pick a sheltered place, otherwise when it rains you’ll just have to start the drying process all over again. not that i’ve done this, or run out in the middle of a rainstorm to save my clothes, or anything.) 

congratulations! you did it!

(as a reward for your hard work, here’s a picture of the washing table at La Mariposa. there are some nice lil chickens here too!)

day nine: la mariposa and a lil’ blog redo

…and on the ninth day, 

the blog was revamped!

in case you haven’t realized, i’m really, really passionate about what La Mariposa is doing. yes, they’re a quality school and eco-hotel — but they also have a consistent commitment to environmental and economic justice, they place a critical emphasis on cultural awareness and global citizenship, and they’ve done a LOT in the local community in the past twenty years or so. 

i’m excited to spend my summer here, and i’m thrilled about the work i am (and will be) doing! 

anyway, part of that work includes redoing the blog and producing regular work… so that’s what i’ve been doing this past week or so. updated content is to come, but in the mean time, i played around with the design of the blog and added some features to make it more accessible.

here’s the before:

and the after:

and you can check it out right here!

(also, no, i wasn’t paid to write this. i’m just obnoxiously enthusiastic.)