The first time I ever stepped foot in my country of service was two years ago. I was spending the summer there, living in a room full of girls at the orphanage that my future in-laws had started nearly 12 years prior. I had just completed graduate school and was anxious to get out and use my training in counseling in this setting. I was soaking up the culture and was passionate about understanding the lifestyle of the people here. I ate whatever I was served, I took ice-cold showers, I shopped in the local market and learned to stomach the odors and gory animal parts that lay across the cold tables in the ‘deli section.’ We traveled on cheap buses and bought food off the carts of local vendors. This is what international work should be like, I often thought to myself.
My husband was raised here, so he has come to know many global worker couples and families over the years. That summer we would occasionally run into them and subtly evaluate their lifestyles—the nice neighborhoods they lived in, the supermarkets they shopped in, and the American-style restaurants they preferred over the local cuisine. As we dreamt of our future together that summer we strategized ways to preserve our connection to the local people. We will live among the people. We will shop at local markets, not the fancy supermarket that had come to town. We would never eat at the Burger King or the KFC that had recently been opened. No, we were going to live like the people we were working with.
And so we returned to build our life here. As we were looking for a place to live, security became a concern—we wanted to live in a neighborhood where we would be safe. I wanted to live in a place where I would have the freedom to walk alone, and that was not in the area where the orphanage was located. Break-ins happen frequently there and we are high-risk targets simply because we are Americans. We wanted to reduce our risk, and thus we began looking for a home in a neighborhood where other global workers had lived before. The small, solar-powered hot-water tank on the roof of our home was an enticing indulgence that we would never have in the area where we work.
I still frequent the local markets and enjoy that connection with the women selling their goods and the camaraderie with other patrons seeking the best quality at the lowest price. I have made a game of having my national friends guess the prices of my purchases and gaining great satisfaction in my ‘gringo’ bargaining skills when I have paid less than they would expect. But with time I have been enticed by the ease of loading my goods into a shopping cart that glides around the store rather than hauling my bags of potatoes, fruit, rice, etc. from one vendor to the next. I have strolled the aisles of the local supermarket, basking in the joy of convenience. I have secretly hoarded four Betty Crocker brownie mixes into my cart, knowing they will sell out soon and may never return again. Set prices ring up on the screen; I make one simple transaction at the check-out stand, and I am happily on my way out to catch a taxi.
I look back on that first summer I spent here and am ashamed at some of the judgments I made about the global workers who were living here at the time. I always thought that living here permanently would be just the same as living here for a summer, but somehow life within the glass-shard-protected walls of our orphanage compound, cold showers every day, never walking alone, and devoting an entire morning to shopping at the markets has settled in on a new level. I understand why these families made the choices they did, and we are now making similar choices ourselves. We still do not eat at Burger King or KFC, but we did order a pizza from Domino’s the other night and cherished that taste of home. Perhaps it was a taste of humble pie as well.