[Note: You don’t have to read this entry, as it is on the feelsy-ier side. But a few people had asked if I could share the letter I’d written to myself before leaving for Colombia, and I didn’t mind sharing, so here it is]
So here we are — the year that you’ve simultaneously never had waited for and then later waited for for a long time is just hours away. So many emotions, thoughts, and whatever mental preparations have gone to anticipate the year ahead. By the time you read this again, the year will not be ahead but behind, although I hope the aftermath, or the imprint of the year, will be with you for a long time.
Here’s what I want for you this year: love, service, and courage. And I hope these things are planted, nurtured, and harvested with God.
First and foremost, I hope this upcoming year is full of love, in the love you receive and the love you give. From and for your students, your host family, your WorldTeach cohort, the Colombian people, and the country in general. I hope everyday is a challenge to love and be loved a little more than you expected. I hope you love what you do because of the people you serve, whereas the past three years, you loved what you did.
Second, I hope you surrender yourself to the mission of service. Give sacrificially, in terms of your time, patience, and effort. Give out of love. They go hand in hand. Without one, you can’t truly experience the other and I hope you experience both.
However, in order to truly serve, I think you’ll also have to cast away things that are currently in your life to make room. Think less to nothing about:
- How you’ll use what you do for your benefit and your future plans
- What you think of others
- Yourself. I need to write this twice because recent years have been so saturated with me — what I want, what I deserve, what I need.
And I think what will flow naturally from actively practicing love and service will be courage.
There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear. I hope this year surprises you in how much you’re capable of. I hope you never forgo an opportunity to muster courage and get out of your comfort zone, from big to small things. I hope you have enough courage to express how much you care for your family and to teach your students without measuring your day-to-day effort to the anticipated end-result.
In small things, I hope you speak Spanish all the time so you can be fluent this time next year just like you always wanted to be! I hope you explore your home country for the next year and try things you’ve never tried — from food, to kite surfing, to maybe even salsa dancing. Even if you suck. Just to challenge your biases.
What does “capable” mean anyway? Limits are broken as soon as you cross them. Maybe we just need to cross as many as we can to become limitless.
In all these things I hope you do it with God. I’m actually so excited for this opportunity to just hang out with God, as it is much needed after years of self-worship. And I’m also excited that your seeking of God will be coming from a happy place, rather than during hardship as you usually do. You and God haven’t talked — or maybe you haven’t let Him talk — in a while so I hope this is a time for an overdue catch-up.
I’d like you to respond to this letter a year from now. I hope you come back changed. Just completely transformed. How could you not after living everyday just soaked in love, service, and courage? How have you changed? Are you fluent in Spanish?? Have you finally overcome your lifelong fear of everything, and your tendency to worry? They say it takes 66 days to build a habit. You have a chance to do it and then affirm it 5 times over. I don’t think I’m asking too much to ask you to come back changed in some way for good. I hope I see you and say “You’re someone I’ve always wanted to be.”
This year is a privilege. You don’t have to go to Colombia to practice all these things I just outlined, but now you get to. In an environment that is so conducive to fostering these things, without distractions of technology, rat races, and comfort zone. Let me know how you took advantage of it.
Love, your (hopefully) less loving, more selfish, and definitely more cowardly self.
— — —
I am happy to inform you that I am definitely less cowardly than when you first wrote this letter. Not only do I now fearless attempt salsa, but I have also made my debut as MC and rapped an entire Eminem song at a bar (to the astonishment of many Colombians. And myself).
About whether I’m a more loving, less self-centered person, who knows? Although I can certainly say I tried.
You wrote that letter right before going into orientation and well before arriving in Cartagena. You have no idea what’s ahead of you. You know it is going to be hard and gritty, but you’ll see soon that it’s harder and grittier.
It will first be about the physical: heat, mosquitoes, and the endless chores just to keep a tidy living space. Then the culture shock. You’ll talk like a 5-year-old for a long time with your limited Spanish. Also, for a year, not a single day will pass by without hearing some comment or jeering for being Asian. Men will either talk to you too much or never talk to you because you’re a woman. But you’ll manage, because all of this is temporary for you.
Then you’ll get anxious about teaching. About how difficult it is teaching in Colombia, how terrible of a teacher you seem to be, and never knowing whether it is really the former or the latter.
But as you get to know the city better, you’ll realize many of the students actually have a hard time learning English, because they don’t know how to learn in general. And they don’t know how to learn in general, not because they are not interested, but because they can’t stay interested. And they can’t stay interested because there is too much noise, not just in the classroom but in their everyday lives in “magical” Cartagena: broken homes, negligent parents, hyper-sexuality, abuse, drugs, crime, gangs, expensive education.
In this downward spiral of an uphill battle, you’ll think about how you never had to worry about such things, and rethink however much you’ve accomplished in your life. Suddenly, grammar and pronunciation will seem trivial, and you will focus more on helping students be interested in their own future. You will develop a complicated relationship with the city of Cartagena, the consequence of being a voluntourist.
And when you finally leave, you’ll feel both a bit broken and a bit restored, filled up yet emptied by the things you’d learned. But what is odder is that nothing you “learned” is new. You knew you were privileged. You knew aftershocks of being born into a place of privilege — or not — extends further than you know.
There are two words in Spanish you will come to love: saber and conocer. Whereas there is only one way to say “know” in English, in Spanish there are two. Saber is to know something like a fact. Conocer, to know something like a person.
Tú lo sabías, pero ya lo conoces. You knew it, but now you know it. Familiar concepts you’d studied and discussed over morning coffee — sexism, poverty, social mobility — will suddenly feel new because, well, before you did not know faces, names, and neighborhoods. Just facts.
You hoped to love and be loved more than you expect. In Colombia, you will strongly doubt you’re doing this, as it will be uglier than you’d anticipated.
The thing is, you can’t claim to love what you don’t know fully know. To claim so seems ignorant at best and patronizing at worst. And knowing fully, as in conocer, as in knowing something like a person, will sometimes mean driving you bonkers in the process. You have to both bother and manage to still care ferociously. Then maybe it’s love.
Maybe to know is to love.
You said you wanted to get closer to God this year. I think I uncovered something fantastic about how God loves us. And how He asks us to love others. To know your neighbor as yourself.
So yes, I think I loved and have been loved this year. Not perfectly, but certainly more than expected. Because I’ve gotten to know more than I thought I would, and, despite whatever grievances, I still believe in everyone’s potential endlessly.
It’s funny how you close the letter by demanding transformation. It seems so unimportant. I have changed, I guess. I do speak Spanish quite well now and also cook some. I’ve changed in a way that someone with bad vision got glasses. Does that count?
And more importantly, what’s the “So what?” to all of this?
I think I’ll go occupy myself with that next.