Living this weird and unique life split between being a young expat and a den mother is not always easy. Sometimes it does get frustrating to share a room with more people than I did in college or be so far away from the expat action. On the weekends I propel myself into the city on a quest to make friends and blow off steam that builds up over a week of living at my job. This weekend was no exception. I shared a lovely, three-course French dinner with friends on Friday, hit the gym on Saturday, went out Saturday night and took in a little rugby after doing some shopping today. It often happens that I'm more exhausted ending my weekend than beginning it but it makes me very happy.
Coming back to the dorm after seeing my friends today I felt a familiar jolt that could no other be but culture shock. The problems that exist for the girls who live within these walls are completely different from those of my Western peers. The pace of life is different in the dorm, as are the social expectations and communication styles. As my tuk tuk nears my residence and the smiling security guard swings open the iron gate, I have to change the way I relate to everyone around me. I don't mind. It's fun to be two different people. But the amount that life here varies from life that young Westerners live along the riverside in their air-conditioned apartments is vast.
As this weekends schedule was no exception, neither was my reentry today back into dorm life. I sighed as I hauled myself out of the tuk tuk but as soon as I saw my girls chatting and snacking I was filled with delight. They are such wonderful people. Any time I feel a tinge of envy that all my friends can go to trivia on Wednesday nights and enjoy the all-you-can-consume wine and cheese on Thursdays at the Intercontinental Hotel, all it takes is a sweet smile or silly joke from one of my students for me to be singing a different song, one in which the lyrics are about how lucky I am to have this job.
To get home today I squeezed myself out of a local sports bar bursting at the seams with disgustingly beautiful French men and enthusiastic Kiwis with painted faces. It was a drastic change in scenery when I turned away from the teaming masses of Europeans to face teddy bears and Korean pop music. I was not the happiest of campers to be barreling towards another workweek but the girls all welcomed me back warmly and were buzzing about their weekends. After chatting for a bit, one of the girls pulled me aside into her room, telling me that she needed help. She explained that she had heard about a scholarship to study abroad and wanted to apply. Unfortunately, she needs to take the TOEFL which costs $40, a whopping fee for someone from such a poor family. The US Embassy will give her the money but only if she earns it by writing an essay. We talked about the best way to appeal for the funds then at the end she looked at me with a heavy heart. She said “well, if the American Embassy doesn't give me the money then I'll just ask my parents.” We had talked before about her extraordinarily stretched financial situation. Her parents are rice farmers and her father is gravely ill. All of the meager funds her family manages to glean goes to revive him, a wonderful and loving role-model for his children. I knew they'd never have the money. So carefully I told her that if the Embassy doesn't give her the money then I will. She looked confused. “But, that is your money” she protested. I told her that it was indeed my money and I wanted to use it to help her. I explained that I'm happy to have some money and that I want to share my happiness. All of a sudden her eyes welled up with tears. Her voice wavered thinly as she tried bravely to thank me. I gave her a hug and told her firmly that we are in this together. Then I left to let her get cracking on the appeal letter.
I honestly did not expect her outpouring of emotion upon hearing my offer to fund her test. I suppose I am still naive in that $40 seems like a small chunk of change for me and I assumed that it would be for other people, as well. Who knew that $40 could bring a confident, motivated young woman to her knees in such a way? It is such a negligible amount for me; my friends and I spent close to that on Fridays fabulous French feast. But to her that money means the world and is quite literally her gateway to it. It was a good exercise in perspective. If she gets this scholarship or not is immaterial. The important things are the fact that she knows she can at least try and the way I fell in love with my job all over again.