Monday, July 25, 2011

Dancing the Iraqi Rumba

If you’re like a lot of Americans, your only impression of Iraq is based on the skewed sketches we get from the daily news reports about war.  This weekend, I was reminded once again how little I actually know of the humanity and beauty of the Middle East.
Late in the afternoon, women in head scarves toting mummy-wrapped babies and drink-filled coolers ambled into Ed Benedict Park with their kaftan-clad husbands and flock of lively but well-behaved children.  The Iraqi Village had arrived!  Most of the Iraqi families at the expo have come to the United States within the past two years, making them one of the newest immigrant groups in East Portland.  Although several spoke English, they mostly relied on smiles and gestures as they invited us to dance with them.  The Iraqi women remained seated, adhering to tradition, but clapped along to the infectious music as the men clasped hands and began a grapevine-like shuffle around the stage. 
After a few minutes of enchanted observation, my newfound Mexican friend and I, along with several others from the lawn, joined the chain.  We tagged along as the confident elder of the group steered us in a wavy oval, smiling in a jovial and satisfied way as he spun his kerchief like a lasso, and found ourselves unable to stop grinning.  The little girls formed their own disjointed ring and gazed in adoration and delight at the adults, who were now cracking up as one of the men came around the circle shimmying his chest in everyone’s face. 
Later, as the guitarists played on—Gypsy Kings, love songs, Iraqi-infused rumba (“rumba music has the rhythm, Iraqi music has the passion”)—I watched one of the littlest girls being tossed in the air by one of her relatives, a young man in his 20’s.   The open display of affection, the rubbing of noses, the squeals as she flew up and was caught in his arms, were so universal that I couldn’t help but wonder at how familiar they seemed.  My friend leaned over and whispered “mira las preciosas… que lindas, casi parecen Latinas!” (“look at the precious little girls… how cute, they almost look like Latinas!”).  
Having not spent much time with anyone from the Middle East, I’ll confess that I had no idea what to expect from the Iraqis who live in my neighborhood.  What I discovered, however, was that they are family—like everyone else I have met.  If we don’t speak the same words, at least we can appreciate a good rumba, hold hands, and shuffle around a circle together, smiling.

East Portland Expo: Multiculturalism Alive and Well

Native American Dancers
This weekend, people from all over the world came to Ed Benedict Park in East Portland to celebrate being neighbors.  There were booths with information about different organizations in the area, vendors from Cambodian, Russian, Thai and Mexican restaurants, and tents set up to be “villages” from different parts of the world.  Center stage were the performers—dancers, musicians, artists, people—who defied the hot afternoon to exert themselves in sharing a little of their heritage with their neighbors. 

Some of the many countries represented on stage were India, Russia, Thailand, El Salvador, Mexico, China, Nepal, Iraq, Argentina and the good ol’ USA.  There were Bollywood dancers, Native American dancers from the Pacific Northwest, Russian Dancers, a Mexican ‘Ballet Folcl√≥rico,’ and a plethora of Indian dancers. 

Some of the highlights were Guru Smitha’s traditional Indian dancers, whose precisely coordinated movements drew attention to the intense training required to be able to control every movement of your body in expressing a song.  As the guru said, “there are rules for everything in this dance; hand gestures, feet, even when to blink your eyes.”
The Lion Dance, traditionally only performed on the Chinese New Year, had the crowd in hysterics with the antics of the two exquisitely ornate lions, who pranced around onstage and off, pretending to pounce and playing fetch with one of the drummers. 
The Lion Dance
Iraqi men joined hands with each other and their neighbors to dance in circles around the stage, grinning and laughing in the festival atmosphere while the two Iraqi guitarists accompanied with invigorating dance music and poignant love songs.  
Iraqi Men

Russian Dancers
Several bollywood dancers demonstrated their moves and taught audience members a dance to Jai Ho, which was performed with enthusiasm by all in attendance.  Some girls from Russia brought everyone cookies to eat while they danced and sang "Kalinka."
The day concluded with the crooning of several Sinatra songs, while neighbors from all cultures danced together, coming together in a vibrant expression of multi-cultural acceptance and appreciation. 

“We can promote peace through art!” proclaimed the emcee, and everyone agreed.   

Imitating the big girl bollywood dancers

Thursday, July 21, 2011

This Is A Test

The most recent lapse in updates, you may have gathered, was due to the fact that I was preparing for the GRE.  The Graduate Record Examination (I didn't know what it actually stood for either, until recently) is one of those standardized tests that supposedly measures your ability to perform well in a graduate school setting, but--like other standardized tests--has more to do with your ability to take multiple choice tests and write concise, formulaic and logical argumentative essays under strict time constraints. (Hopefully there is more to graduate school than that!).

Ordinarily, this is something I am quite capable of, and would not have worried about. The extreme state of mental vegetation that set in around the time of graduation and a two year absence of math in my life suggested that this time, I should probably worry.  So I set up a schedule (which I followed for about 2 days before scrapping) and started studying.  There were practice tests, online quizzes, vocab lists, sample essay questions, more practice tests and vocab games.  In short, a lot of practicing to take a test. 

What did I gain?  A renewed appreciation for triangles, a couple new words in my vocabulary, and a good enough score to get into a graduate school of my choice (I hope!).

But what did the test measure?  The ability to perform a few select tasks that are only distantly related to my field of study. 

It does not measure how I handle a stressful day, what I learned from living in another country for 4 months, or how I treat children, bugs, pets, other people, and myself.  It does not decipher whether or not I will comfort someone who is hurting, work hard to accomplish something worthwhile, weed the garden, drive responsibly, send birthday cards, let my neighbor borrow a cup of sugar, or think about the consequences of my actions.  It does not have anything to do with how much I know about the history of our country or our country's history of meddling in foreign affairs.  And it most definitely does not measure my ability to learn new things and use what I have learned to come to thoughtful conclusions that might alter the way I live my life. 

In short, it does not say anything about who I am as a person or how intelligent I am (intelligence is more than a good vocabulary and an understanding of statistics) or whether or not I am a decent human being who is kind to others and to the planet. 

Kind of a relief, eh?

Yet this is the test that is used to determine who is allowed to continue their education, and therefore who will be most likely to educate the next generation, run the country, and make decisions that affect the future of the world.

An interesting thought.

*Yes, I do know that there is more to getting a job or finding oneself in a position of political power than taking a standardized test.  I also realize that standardized testing does a fairly decent job at measuring basic intellect.  However, I am also of the opinion that as an assessment of ability, a standardized test will never tell the whole story of what a person is capable of.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Visit

My friend Alissa came to visit during the week after 4th of July.  We took advantage of the beautiful weather to take a trip to the gorge:

The gorge

and to take a 25ish mile bike ride around Portland.
Lloyd center from near the steel bridge

In general, a great time to make a bridge between my life in Michigan and my life in Oregon and a wonderful time to spend with a friend.
Alissa and Me at a waterfall

Multnomah Falls

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Plan I Didn't Plan

There have been times in my life that I was completely certain that I was in control of my future--stepping into the unknown, forging my own way--and was completely exhilerated by the sensation. 

This is not one of those times.  Don't get me wrong, I have definitely stepped into the unknown in the past few weeks, but it is becoming increasingly clear that I am not in control.  Case in point: the interview.

I went to church my first Sunday here with a friend of my aunt's, who happens to be the wife of the pastor and introduced me after the service.  He asked my aunt later if I was looking for employment--she passed on my resume.  I recieved a call inviting me to interview for an administrative position at the church. 

Good so far, right?  It gets better.

I had not a clue how to prepare for a formal interview: my neighbor, Le, invites me to help her with a teaching assignment that involves her guiding me through the interview process and giving me a mock interview.  She then proceeds to help me rework my entire resume, prints off several copies for me to take to the interview, and lets me borrow her boots.

I was not sure what an administrative position entailed and was, frankly, a little bored by the idea of sitting in an office making phone calls every day: the position turned out to be support staff for the worship and arts pastor and the refuge pastor (read: cool people.  musicians. people with passion and incredible vision).  It calls for a lot of creativity and flexibility, involves a variety of tasks--including working with artists--and would be something new every day.

In short, this sounds like the perfect job, and I had nearly nothing to do with it.

I have not heard back yet and may not for another week or two, but it is clear to me that God has begun a good work in me, which means that according to Philippians 1:6,  He will "continue His work," "perfect it," and "bring it to completion."  In other words, He will continue to act intentionally in my life, bringing about this plan that is obviously far cooler than anything I could have dreamed up, and--best of all--will not abandon me (even when I think I have my destination figured out and go trekking ahead in the wrong direction)!  How cool is that?

So totally exhilerated!