Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A great week with my parents

The Eiffel Tower at night
Hello world! I have had an eventful few weeks and all of my updates will probably take more than one post! Lots is changing over here, but all for the better. The cafe that I had been working at since I moved to Carmarthen closed unexpectedly a few weeks ago, so I haven't been working now for nearly a month. I was lucky to have already been in the search for a new job, and with perfect timing I actually had another job offer within a few days of the cafe closing, otherwise I would have been incredibly stressed. I am still in the process of sorting out paperwork before I can start my new job (references and background checks and such), so I'll save details of the new job for a later post. But the plus side of losing my cafe job was that I was unexpectedly free to go and meet my parents in Paris before they came to visit us in Wales, so I planned a very last-minute trip to see them! I arrived in Paris last Monday, June 30th, and that evening my parents and I ascended the Eiffel Tower. We went up just before sunset which was pretty neat as we got to see the view from up top in both daylight and darkness. When we came down the Eiffel Tower had just begun to "sparkle". I have a nearly identical photo to this one that I took last time I was in Paris, but I just think that is such an incredible view! The following day we did a lot of walking around Paris, taking in all the views of the various monuments for free, and we also did a boat tour on the Seine River. This was the first time I've travelled in a foreign country with my parents and I really enjoyed getting to explore with them!
My parents and I outside the Louvre

The following day we took a day trip to Versailles. I have to say I wasn't as impressed by the palace as I was the first time I went, but I am so glad we got to see the gardens! That was something I missed out on last time and they are incredible, if only for the vast amount of ground they cover. I also enjoyed hearing my dad's stories about his time studying in Versailles, and we took a quick detour into the town to see if we could find the house he'd lived in while there, which we did! We also went to see some gardens inside of Paris called Luxembourg Gardens, which I thought were even prettier than the Versailles gardens. I read that Luxembourg Gardens were inspired by the more "dreamy" style of English gardens, so I guess that means I prefer the English style gardens!

Luxembourg Gardens, Paris
My parents and I then flew back to Cardiff together, where Josh picked us up, and the four of us spent the weekend galavanting around Southwest Wales! The weather wasn't perfect but we were still able to take in many of the sights--sheep, Oystermouth Castle in Gower, Cenarth village and falls, the National Wool Museum, Llansteffan Beach, the National Botanical Gardens, and a private tour of Ffynone House courtesy of Amber and Greg. Plus it was great to have my parents able to see where it is that I've been living for the past two years.

Josh and I at Oystermouth Castle
My parents headed off to Cardiff yesterday and are on their flight back to the US as I write this! Josh and I have begun preparing to move out of Carmarthen in order to move closer to Swansea, where he now works, and to the place where my new job will be. I will save updates on the move and my new job for when I have more details, as we're still working them out, but it will be a busy few weeks coming up and I am looking forward to all of these changes!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A day at the Palace

As some of you may know, I've been volunteering for the British Red Cross for over a year now. I'm a volunteer as part of the 'Gofal' program, which aims to enable isolated older adults to engage with their community. As a volunteer I assess the needs of incoming clients and provide short-term support towards the goal of increasing their confidence, independence, and quality of life. I've been an active volunteer in various ways since high school, and when I moved over here I wanted to continue that tradition. I wanted to volunteer in some way with older adults, and to be honest I found the British Red Cross opportunity by accident. Like many people, the first thing that comes to my mind when I hear of the Red Cross is first aid, emergency response, and foreign aid, so I wouldn't have thought to look them up for the type of volunteering I was interested in. In fact, alongside of all of these things, they have a strong focus on supporting independence in the community to people who are isolated or people with health and mobility issues. When I saw a flyer in their shop advertising their need for volunteers to work with older people, I jumped at the chance! I am so glad that I have become involved with them, because they are a fantastic organization to volunteer with. Their motto is 'refusing to ignore people in crisis', and I love this because it focuses on the individual and the fact that anyone can have a personal crisis that leads to a need for help and support. 

On Thursday, June 12th, I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of attending a Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace! The British Red Cross was founded in 1864, initially as an organization to be responsible for advancing the rules laid down in the first Geneva Convention. The British Red Cross played a huge role in caring for British soldiers during both World Wars, and this royal garden party was to honor 150 years of service from the British Red Cross. As a special tribute to the role that the BRC played in World War I, there were nurses dressed in WWI-style nurses' uniforms, and one of the cakes served was an original WWI-era recipe!

All staff and volunteers were given the opportunity to apply to be selected to attend, and I applied and was chosen by ballot to attend the party along with 6,000 other volunteers and members of staff. One of the local offices arranged a bus to take everyone from the area who was attending, and there were about 30 of us going. We couldn't have had a more perfect day for it--it was 80 degrees and sunny, and I felt like a celebrity walking through the gates of Buckingham Palace. There were, of course, many tourists around the gates of the palace and looking through at it, and I'm sure they were all quite curious as to why we were being allowed to enter! The front facade that you see from outside the gates is actually just a massive gatehouse of sorts, and beyond that there's a big courtyard. After walking across the courtyard we entered the palace and got to walk through a few rooms to get out to the gardens in the back. The last room you passed through before the gardens had a line of Yeomen on either side--the Yeomen is the actual name of the Beefeaters, and the ones in the palace were all retired military men so they were wearing the uniforms you see below. They spent much of the garden party marching around in formation for no apparent reason other than, I think, our entertainment!

Prince Charles and Princess Alexandra with nurses

I'm sure you've all been waiting for me to post a picture of my selfie taken with the Queen, which I'm sorry to say did not happen. The Queen was not in attendance at our party, probably because she'd just attended a Royal Garden Party on Tuesday for Prince Philip's 90th Birthday! Our Royal Family guests were Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, who is also the honorary president of the British Red Cross, and Princess Alexandra. I actually had to look up a Royal Family Tree when I got home, and the Princess is a first cousin of the queen! I only got to see them from very far away, but it's still cool knowing I was there with royalty!

All the food served was absolutely delicious! My friend John who had attended a garden party before told me that I had to try the cucumber sandwiches, and though I was skeptical as to how cucumber sandwiches could be made to be exceptional, he was right! The trick is mint leaves. Aside from those, my favorite delicacies were these gorgeous strawberry tarts, and the iced coffee, which I'm sure had a hint of a chocolate taste to it. I had thought there might be some speeches or something during the party, but it really was three hours of wandering around the gardens and socializing, while enjoying the entertainment. There was a military band playing at each opposite corner of the garden, one was the Parachute Regiment Band and one was the Royal Marines Band.

I am so glad that I went to this event, not only because I know I will never again have the chance to go inside Buckingham Palace, but because I had the chance to meet fellow volunteers and staff of the BRC and to connect with people who share my similar values regarding helping people and working in social care. Although we were told we were forbidden from bringing cameras and from taking photographs on cell phones, the second part of that rule was not being enforced inside, and I saw SO many people taking pictures. I was tempted, but I refrained until we were on our way out, at which point I decided if the Beefeaters were going to kick me out, it would just get me out of the crowds faster (but they didn't). So here's me in all my splendor in the courtyard on my way out of Buckingham Palace!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

On being "me enough".

Note: I wrote this entire post nearly two months ago, but I've taken this long to put it up because I had been trying to finish and polish the poem at the close. I've decided to post it now with the current version of the poem, but really it's still a work in progress :) Let me know what you think!

A few months ago, I started drafting a post about identity. Specifically, about how my own awareness and sense of my racial and ethnic identity has changed since I was younger. But I couldn't quite get the words to come together the way I wanted them to, so I set it aside to finish some other time. Then a few weeks ago, this story erupted on the Facebook page of Latino Rebels, one of my favorite social media presences covering news affecting Latinos and media representation. To summarize, if you don't want to click the link, Mexican-American actor and Battlestar Galactica star Edward James Olmos criticized Jennifer Lopez and a few other actors of Latino heritage for the fact that they have not, in his eyes, done enough to embrace their Latino heritage. As I understand it, he believes that these individuals only "use" their heritage when it's convenient, while not doing enough to try and change stereotypes of Latino culture. However, nowhere that I can find did he ever say anything about her "lack of 'Latino'-ness". Yet this is what the headline said, and this is what most people who read the article seemed to react to--the headline, which portrays a completely different message. While I could see the perspective Olmos was coming from with his comment, I was incredibly upset by the response of the online community. So many people seemed to agree with the idea that an individual could be considered "not Latino enough", citing factors such as skin color and Spanish-speaking abilities as indicative of one's level of "Latino-ness". While there were plenty of people as appalled as I was by the comment, there were just as many who seem to believe that a person's ethnic and cultural identity is something that other people have a right to judge, and that it is something that can be measured and ranked. Following this social media frenzy touched me on a personal level, because that feeling of not being "white enough/Latino enough" is something that I have struggled with, and it took me quite a while to come to terms with how I define my own identity.

I remember the first time that I experienced real confusion over "what" I was. I was in primary school, and I came home from my first day of standardized testing and asked my parents what I was supposed to mark on the demographic section. I knew (or at least I thought) that I was white, but I also felt that I should mark "Hispanic/Latino", and was uncertain whether I should mark both. But other than that incident, I didn't think much about my culture or heritage. Growing up, I didn't question the unique blend of both my parents' beliefs and experiences which shaped our family culture. There was no denying my Irish heritage, through not only our last name but our stereotypically large, boisterous, close-knit family whom I wouldn't trade for the world. And I knew that Grandma had spent much of her early school years in a French-speaking school, due to her Canadian heritage. Meanwhile, we received presents from los tres reyes magos on January 6th, a tradition my mother had grown up with, and I loved asking questions and hearing her stories about growing up in another country. All of these stories and experiences, from all sides of my family, were parts of me, and I didn't see them as in conflict or feel the need to choose one side over another. This began to change when I went to college.

At the University of Iowa, I received a scholarship awarded to students seen as bringing diversity to the student population. I attended various cultural events hosted by the Center for Diversity and Enrichment, who sponsored the scholarship, and everyone of Latino heritage that I met seemed "more Latino" than me. Many were first-generation Americans who had grown up speaking Spanish at home and in a household that had surrounded them by their parents' culture, be it Mexican, Dominican, or Peruvian. People sometimes seemed surprised to find out that I spoke very little Spanish, and I felt like a fraud. Rather than embracing my mixed heritage, I felt as though I didn't belong anywhere. While I felt "not Latino enough" to call myself Latina, I also found that I didn't look "white enough" to others, as I was often questioned about my heritage based on my appearance. This is something I don't remember experiencing nearly as often in Peoria as I did in Iowa City. This may be because I was younger and less aware of it, but I also did feel when I began attending the University of Iowa that I saw far less diversity than I had at home.

A particular pet-peeve of mine is the tendency for people to ask "Where are you from?" and expect me to respond with details of my heritage. Once, at a winery outside of Iowa City with Allison, the bartender asked us this. Knowing that people come from all over the area to do winery tours, I replied, "Iowa City." The bartender laughed condescendingly and said, "No, where are you from originally?" "Illinois" was still not the answer she was looking for, because she was asking the wrong question. So many times when people ask "Where are you from?", what they mean is, "You look somewhat exotic--why is that?" While I don't mind discussing my heritage with people I'm close to, when this question comes from strangers, I often have to bite my tongue to keep from replying, "Would you be asking me this if I looked 'white enough'?"

I've become even more aware of these questions since moving to Wales. I've had to explain to people what Latino means because it's primarily an American term, and that it is what I consider the appropriate term for my maternal heritage. I've been questioned as to whether I'm considered white, because of my Latino heritage. In applying for jobs and completing equality monitoring questionnaires, I've found that even with over a dozen options offered, the only box I'm comfortable ticking under "Ethnic Origin" is "Other (please specify)", because Latino is not an option and it feels false to claim only my "whiteness". My write-in answer is White Latina. I know some Latinos who would not call themselves white, and that's a personal choice, but to me, to choose one over the other is to deny the role that either of my parents played in raising me, and to deny the cultures that have influenced me.

If ever you look at me and wonder
where I’m from, and you will, look closely.
You will see that I wear my father’s dimples;
he taught me to laugh easily and often,
even at myself. I thank my mother
for a mouth that cannot keep silent,
and a heart that cannot keep grudges,
no matter how stubbornly I may try.

Abuela forged herself a suit of armor
through a lifetime de luchando, for her family, her country,
herself—and though I am not quite bold enough
to wear it into battle, I am growing into it.
And I have boxes full of coins that I
count to remind me of my worth. Each sheqel,
lira, and peso sent by Papi to his “little treasury”
whom he believed deserved the world.

Grandma and Grandpa built us a family tree
with roots so strong that even on my limb
far across the ocean, the wind still carries me
the love and strength of our connections.
So do not ever try to tell me that I am not enough,
because I am made of more inheritances
than I could ever count.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Job hunting!

Well, I’ve been so quiet the past six months or so on the blog that even my father recently asked me if I’d still be writing in it! I know I tend to give him less credit than he deserves for his internet-savvy-ness, recalling the time ten years ago when I found him in front of the computer on the Yahoo! homepage and I had to show him how to type an address in the URL bar. Now he emails me videos and sends me links to possible job opportunities! Still, considering that my parents talk to me regularly and therefore know more than most about what’s going on in my life, if even he’s missing my blog, it’s a sign that I’ve definitely been absent here.

I’ve thought about writing a post often, but simply can’t find the drive, or don’t feel like I have anything interesting to say. That’s difficult, because I’m “supposed” to be a writer, right? Simply choosing to do my Master’s in a field other than English and Creative Writing shouldn’t have sapped all of my creative juices, yet I feel that it has. I haven’t written anything creative other than blog posts in over a year, something that I find it quite embarrassing to admit (but less so knowing that some of my friends are in the same boat). Obviously I’ve accomplished other things in that time, but I don’t like the feeling that I’m disconnected with the creative part of myself. I still have lots of ideas and inspiration, but rarely the mood or motivation to bring them to fruition.

I know a lot of this is stress related. I started applying for jobs back in August and until January I had not received a single interview or even a positive response. I initially attributed this in large part to the limitation of my visa status, as prior to approval of my spouse visa, any potential employer would have needed to be willing to sponsor me, which is an expensive and complicated process. Despite knowing that this was probably the main factor in making my search difficult, by mid-January, having applied for nearly twenty jobs and not having received a single response, it was difficult to not let it get to me, and it did. I was getting extremely discouraged, and started experiencing a LOT of self-doubt about my skills and abilities and just generally letting it all affect my sense of self.

Then in mid-January I got invited to my first interview and I was thrilled! While I didn’t get the job, on my train ride home from that interview in Cardiff, I got the call telling me my spouse visa had been approved. This is a HUGE deal. On the phone with a very professional UKBA officer, who confirmed my contact details and very calmly told me my application had been approved, I nearly cried with joy. Not only does my visa have no work restrictions, which should make my job hunt a lot easier, but it means that I can finally stay here with Josh long-term without worrying about getting kicked out of the country. I’ll have to reapply in two and a half years, but when reapplying you’re almost guaranteed to get approved again. For the first time in our entire relationship, I feel like we’re NOT living on “borrowed time”, counting down the days/weeks/months until one of us will have to leave. That is such a huge weight off my chest.

Since then, I’ve also had another interview with an organisation that I’d applied for jobs for pre-visa and not heard back from, which confirms my suspicions of visa status affecting my job hunt. That interview went splendidly—in fact, I was told that I was only “a tiny bit away” from getting the job! 
Now, nearly getting a job is no accomplishment—it certainly doesn’t bring in paychecks—but it’s progress! The more interviews I have the more comfortable I’ll be with them, and I’ll be applying for more jobs with this organisation soon and have a better idea of what to expect if I do get the job!
I’m really feeling positive about the fact that I’m getting interviews now that my visa has been approved and I have no work restrictions, and I spent the morning working on applications for 4 jobs that have just come up, all with organisations I would love to work for! I also passed my driving test on Thursday, which means I will soon have my UK driver’s license, which will make me much more marketable as an employee. 

The other really positive result of getting my visa is that Josh and I could FINALLY plan a visit to the United States! We will be leaving in ten days to spend two weeks seeing family and friends I haven’t seen in over a year and a half! I could not be more excited, and we have been practicing by playing a heck of a lot of cribbage :D So there you have it, a long-overdue update on what's been going on with me. I would be lying to say nothing has happened in the past few months, but sometimes I forget the good things that have happened due to what feels like stagnancy in my job status. It takes time though, I suppose, and as you can see there has been progress!