I’m home!

It’s a little strange to be in a familiar place again. I got so used to being around people I had only known for a few months, being in completely new places, figuring out directions by asking strangers, and constantly doing knew things, that I got used to the unknown. And now being in a place that I do know is kind of strange, and kind of scary. It’s like nothing has changed, but so much has changed. I’m not really sure if I’ll ever get back into my “normal life” again, but eventually this will feel like my routine again.

We got back to the US three weeks ago. The first week we met with different organizations in DC, including the World Bank, NRDC, United Nations Foundation, and Peace Corps. It was really interesting to learn about the same issues we’ve been discussing all year from a much higher up point of view. So then there’s the question, what work is more effective? Bureaucratic foreign aid or grassroots projects? How can they most effectively work together?

Then we were in Westmoreland State Park in Virginia, where we stayed in cabins on the water for two weeks. It was a cozy two weeks with lots of self-reflection, home-cooked food, hikes and journaling.

Our last weekend in DC I presented my Presentation of Learning, called “This I Believe.” I wrote my POL while we were in the cabins, but it’s a culmination of (almost) everything I’ve learned this year.

It really was an awesome year and I learned much more than I could’ve imagined. I met some amazing people, went to some incredible places, and made memories to last me a lifetime. Technically, this is the end of my “adventure”, but I know there’s still a lot more to come. I have a couple more things that I want to write and post in the next few weeks, so I’ll keep you updated!

Here’s my project, and if you want to see some of the projects that my friends made too, you can find them here.


“Hi, I’m Zuzu. A name I’ve always thought fits who I am pretty well—fun, quirky, and original.

But over the course of this year, my name, like the rest of my identity, has changed over and over. In Ecuador, I was Susu, because that was easier for my host family to pronounce. However, as the kids in our neighborhood liked to remind me, it sounded a lot like “chu-chu”, the word for dog in Tsa’fiki, the indigenous language. In Thailand again I was Susu. But I soon found out that “su-su” [peace signs] was slang for “don’t give up”. This became a mantra in itself, especially with the inevitable homesickness of being halfway around the world on Thanksgiving. When we got to India, I became Juju—thankfully, because I learned that in Hindi “susu” means pee. And when we were in South Africa, I tried to go by “susu” once again, but that was too similar to “sho-sho”, meaning good-bye in Xhosa, to be a name. I became Zuzu again, though not without frequent questioning as to why a white girl had such a Xhosa name.

I learned to adjust my name, and who I was, depending on which community I was living in, and learned to embrace each new identity.

During six months of traveling, living out of a backpack, many bucket showers, hand washed clothes, and re-wearing all of the same outfits, we sometimes joke about being a “real person.” How much we didn’t look like “real people”, how much we missed being a “real person”, and how normal it would feel to be a “real person” again. “Real person”, of course, meaning wearing jeans and clean clothes, being in a city, showering in hot running water, wearing my hair down, having my phone, and having internet. But the irony was, that while I was in rural Ecuador, with no service for our shared Nokia, no Instagram captions, no continuous texting conversations, and no constant selfies—or a mirror for that matter, was the first time I had to be a real person. There was no “perfected” social media for me to hide behind, and the only way to get to know the strangers that I was going to be spending the next year with, and my indigenous host family, was by telling them about myself. It was up to me what to say, what to share, what parts of me were most important— who I was. For the first time in a long time, I was my only comfort. I was my only rock to hold onto; the only normal thing in my life. It was up to me to define my own identity, to decide who I was.

So, sitting there inside my mosquito net, cranking my headlamp, with rain clattering on our tin roof, I would journal. At first it was awkward. I didn’t know what to say to myself. I wasn’t really sure who I was talking to.

But over the past six months, I’ve started to figure that out. My journal became a place of comfort. A place where I could reflect, talk about what was happening everyday, and what I thought about it. I started to figure out who I was, who I wanted to be, what I believed in.

But writing out what I believed was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I mean, I had been so many places, had so many discussions, fallen asleep so many nights while journaling, and had learned so much—how could I not know what I believed?

It’s such a simple question: who are you, what do you support, and what ideas do you have?

But every time I re-read what I had started writing, I thought the opposite.

Before I left on this gap year, I had many ideas about development, the world and myself, but none as fully formed as the ideas I have today. I knew I wanted to “make the world a better place” and I knew there were many different ways to do that, but I had no idea where I would fit into that big picture (spoiler alert—I’m still not sure. I just have more of an idea of what I don’t want to do.)

This isn’t the same as what I believe then, or what I believed a month ago. Trust me, I wrote five more of these “I believe” statements, that I’m not reading today, because I decided I didn’t agree with them anymore. This isn’t the same as what I’ll believe next year, next month, or next week. I’m not the same person I was before, and I know I’ll continue to change, to grow, and to think about things differently. Every day is a new chance to figure out who I am that day and who I want to be the next.

So, this is who I am today and this is what I believe.

I can’t pick sides very easily. It’s hard for me to value one point of view over another. And I believe that’s a good thing. Once your hear both sides of a story, once you humanize and validate two perspectives on the same issue, it’s hard to prefer one over the other.

While we were living in our host community of Don Jiang village in Thailand, we would go the organic rice farms with out host parents every day and help them harvest rice while learning about their culture. Most of our parents were in their 50’s and 60’s, and they had lived in this village their whole lives. They grew up helping their parents farm the same plots of land, and their grandparents before them. The average work day meant the entire village coming to work on one family’s plot in the morning, going home for lunch, and returning in the afternoon. Each farm was tended on a rotation, timing perfected by hundreds of years of practice. Everyone in the village worked side by side every day, dedicated to the rice plot as if it was their own. They would pool their rice into one motorcycle shipment into the nearby city of Chiang Mai, and split the profits. And this is how life had always been.

However, instead of young adults working next to their parents, with young grandchildren strapped to their backs or hiding in the tall reeds, there are now a total of three people in the village under the age of 40. All of the children of these farmers went to other villages nearby to go to school, and have since moved into Chiang Mai to go to university, to get a paid city job, and to avoid the back pain and dark skin that comes with farming rice. They have moved away to get an education and to decide for themselves what kind of future they wanted.

Seven months ago, I would have sided with these young adults going into the cities. Everyone deserves to pursue an education, to think for themselves, and to choose their own path in life, right?

But why does that need to result in the loss of tradition? Who am I to say that a western education in a school with English classes is better than the community living and parent teaching that has existed for centuries? Why do we consider a corporate job more fulfilling than growing the food that sustains us all?

So now, what will happen to this traditional way of life? What will happen to these organic rice farms once the community becomes too old to work anymore? Will their children give up their careers in the city to return to the farms? Or will all the land be bought up by an industrial farming company, who will produce more rice at a lower cost with chemicals and machines?

What right do I have to decide which of these two stories is the “right” one? Who am I to decide what’s best?

I believe that good intentions can’t fix everything.

In any context of course, good intentions are a crucial component. When buying a present for your friend, giving advice, or helping your elderly neighbors, good intentions are your motivation. But “good intentions” can also mean feeling empathy for a homeless person living down the street from you, and then not helping them in any way.

And of course, on the scale of global development. Good intentions mean you actually want to help, that you want to make a difference, and you have the best interest in mind for the people you’re going to “develop”. 

But you need more than just good intentions. Good intentions on their own don’t mean anything.  To have a lasting positive impact, you need communication, sustainability, mutual respect, cultural understanding and useful skills to contribute. Without these, development can become an imperialistic agenda in which a powerful western country makes decisions for their developing counterpart, assuming they know what’s best for those with less international influence.

When Mara and I came into our fourth grade class in India as volunteers, we had good intentions. We hoped to help students learn English, to prioritize creativity and to give individual help to students who needed it the most.

But regardless of what we taught those sixteen students during that month, we left no impact on training of permanent teachers or the class curriculums. We couldn’t speak Hindi with our students, we didn’t understand the nuances of Indian culture, and we had no qualifications to teach a group of students. The organization we were working with assumed that we would know what was best for the students to learn, and we had no contact with the teachers at our school. 

If volunteers are helping that school system, then that’s damaging because it makes the system dependent on volunteers. That then causes neglect and lack of training for local teachers, plus an inferiority complex compared to American teenagers. And if volunteers aren’t helping the school system, that means this is all a waste of time and the school would be better off without us. In that case, would the only reason we’re here be voluntourism? That we’re here for the profit of the organization hosting us, whether or not that money is in turn donated to the cause we’re working for? That the organization is playing on our selfish desire to “do good”, reassuring us that we’re making a difference in the lives of these children, and doing more than just playing games?

Why does development need to depend on the “good intentions” of foreign volunteers? Why does it need the approval of a developed country? Why do developed countries have power over economic decisions in developing countries?

I don’t believe in using small words to define big ideas. 

This year we’ve talked a lot about development. About identity, oppression and empowerment. Behind each of these words are hundreds of beliefs, millions of stories, and billions of people. And I don’t believe that those can all be encapsulated into such a small word. There is much more complexity to each one that I’ve learned needs to be explained or acknowledged whenever they are used. So, whenever I use the words developing, developed or any thing related to the two, it’ll be in quotation marks.

The binary of “developed” and “developing” divides the world into two categories that can never be regarded as equals. It implies that all “developing” countries face the same challenges, and assumes that the goal of all countries is to become “developed”. It also glorifies “developed” countries and considers any “undeveloped” or “developing” country to be incomplete or unfulfilled until they reach equal economic status as “developed” countries.

I also don’t think that labeling wealthy western countries as “developed” is an accurate description either. The term “developed” implies that it is finished, that there is no aspect of society that needs improvement. In the United States today, not everyone has the freedom of comfortable shelter, nutritious food and clean drinking water, or the opportunity to be gainfully employed. The label of “developed” glosses over these issues, and prioritizes “progress” of the wealthy classes over attention to those living in poverty. I don’t believe that the United States, or any other “western” country, can be considered “developed”, because they aren’t finished. They shouldn’t be idealized, they shouldn’t be the model for “development”.

So how should development be measured? How can a relationship of equality and mutual respect exist between developed and developing countries? Where does empowerment come from?

I believe that I’ll never be done learning.

The more I live, the more I travel, and the more I study, the more I’ll learn.

Because I believe a lot more things. I believe that society can be oppressive. I believe that education comes in many different forms. I believe that there are many definitions of “development”. I believe that environmental and economic sustainability should be equally important. I believe that success doesn’t need to be measured in terms of wealth.

But in order to fully understand these other beliefs, I need more life experience. And the more I learn, the more questions I’ll have. I hope that I’ll never be done questioning.

So, this isn’t the final version of me. There’s much more to come. And I’m excited to see what’s next.

2 thoughts on ““Home”

  1. Robert McKee

    I saw the video of your speech last week. My hearing has become a little ‘undeveloped’ in
    my old age so it was good to read this written version. It seems to me that you have learned
    all the right lessons from this trip. It keeps me curious about what you will learn (and pass on)


  2. Robin

    Fantastic Zuzu! I love your presentation. As with all learning, the more you get, the more questions are raised. Learning there is no black and white is so very valuable.
    Can’t wait to see you!


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