I thought I could evade the inevitable 4th month depression of Peace Corps Service, but it crept up upon me and attacked. Extreme highs and lows can only be expected when you live in a foreign country, struggle to integrate culturally, learn a new language and maintain a job, but all the lows rarely funnel into the same few weeks.
Two weekends ago, Ukraine celebrated women’s day. Our school had a four day weekend and my good friend Lauren Hosp came to visit me in Romny. She was my first guest since arriving in Romny three months ago and I was excited to share my beautiful new home with her. It was great to see Lauren again and her visit was surely a high on my emotional roller coaster but I soon came crashing down.
That weekend we were cooking dinner and I decided to fry some cabbage, potatoes and onions. I poured some oil into the pan, heated it up, but when I was tilting the pan to spread the oil around, I looked away and Shzzzzz, the hot oil doused my right hand. There was no pain at first, it felt like warm water, but it gradually got worse. To make matters more difficult, while Lauren was doing dishes, a pipe broke under my sink and my kitchen flooded. We cleaned the mess, found the problem and finished washing the dishes in the bathtub.
The next morning I awoke to find my hand covered in more than ten blisters (on my palm, in between my fingers, and on top), the largest being about the size of a quarter. Although this is sure sign of a second degree burn, I still did not realize how much I damaged my hand and I did want to ruin the weekend so Lauren and I set off to the Bazaar. I bought an assortment of jarred vegetables from the babushkas, which cheered me slightly. We then ate at the local pizza joint, made friends with the local Orthodox Priest and visited the famous monument of Taras Shechenko.
It was soon time for Lauren to leave and so I walked her to the train station. I still didn’t feel much pain in my hand, but a gradual nausea had come upon me throughout the day and I developed a splitting headache. When I returned home, there was no way I could focus on planning my lessons, much less physically write a plan, so I called my school and told them I had to stay home the following day.
On Tuesday I felt good enough to return to school, but I soon lost that good feeling. At school I was greeted by a few gasps and questions as to what happened to my hand, but the questions quickly stopped. Throughout the week I became greatly disturbed that nobody asked how I was or helped me cope with my handicap. There were many strange glances and many awkward interactions, but never any words of sympathy or condolence. I decided nobody cared and became very sad, but mostly insulted. To make matters worse, I learned a Teacher Training Workshop I had been planning for a few weeks, fell through and was no longer possible.
The Peace Corps doctor requested that I visit his office in the capital that Friday so he could see my hand, check for infection and teach me how to wrap it properly. I made the five hour trip Friday morning, spend two hours in Kyiv then took a six hour bus ride that same day to the city of Sumy. In Sumy, my low fell lower.
My reason for visiting Sumy was to judge the essays submitted in Sumy Oblast for the International Creative Writing Competition hosted by Peace Corps volunteers around the world. I enjoyed seeing Sumy and meeting other volunteers, but none of the six essays submitted from my school (written at my English Club) took first place in their respective form levels despite being a specialized school. I returned to Romny with my head hung, a useless right hand and mentally exhausted.
After a long and inspirational talk with Breno, who has the biggest heart in the world, I decided my depression was unacceptable and I need to fix it. I confronted my counterpart on Monday and asked if it was a cultual taboo to ask about another’s health. She responded with a resounding, “No”, and when I asked why she hadn’t asked about my hand, she gasped and apologized. She explained that Peace Corps told them at the beginning of our service that Americans consider medical conditions very personal and to never ask an American about their health. She had also shared this information with all my colleagues in an effort to avoid any awkward cultual moments. I laughed/cried a little inside and explained that all Americans are different and that that logic was simply not true when dealing with superficial, accidental health problems. We then laughed together and she has since asked me profusely about my hand.
Cultural Lesson #1:
Never let imagined cultual differences replace honest conversation.
I started this week on a new foot. My hand is healing perfectly, my counterpart’s husband was able to fix my kitchen sink, and we were able to figure out a way to have the Teacher Trainer workshop!
I recently finished reading the autobiography of the great Nelson Mandela. Although his lifetime of oppression, opposition and working against all odds is in no way comparable to my situation, his illustration of relentless optimism keeps ringing in my head. Mandela claims, “part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair.”
This weekend I’ll be participating in my first camp!..(designed by Peace Corps Volunteers for Ukrainian students) It will be taught entirely in English but with the theme of Ancient Greece and we will focus on developing leadership, team building and project design skills.