Beauty & Body Image: A Jamaican Perspective

During my first six months in Jamaica, I put on twenty pounds. I would be lying if I said that hasn’t bothered me immensely. The growth of two pant sizes resided in the back of my mind, interfering with every decision I made, from what to eat – or if I’d eat at all – to whether I’d go swimming with my friends at the beach. I grimaced at my reflection when I dressed every morning, and felt my self-esteem slip lower and lower.

Debenhams_Look4_057cflatAt the same time, I began to witness a movement among women on the Internet. It was becoming more common for girls to discuss their distaste with their bodies, in the hopes that they might inspire change. Upworthy.com hosts a slew of videos covering this topic, ranging from the damaging effects that flawlessness in advertising has on young girls, to inspirational messages about loving yourself regardless of your size or body type. A department store in the UK recently put out a catalogue featuring regular women (as opposed to size zero models), and Dove is constantly pushing for natural beauty.

More importantly, my friends were talking. It was becoming easier for them to accept who they are – body image and all – and were pushing for all girls come to this same understanding. They shared stunning videos of women reciting slam poetry, or time lapsed images of what photo editing can really do to a model before getting plastered on a billboard. In my newly acquired pant size, I joined the fight.

As I tried to come to terms with my new weight, I began looking at the women around me. In good company, Jamaica is a country where their women are preferred a little thicker, and where, generally speaking, women don’t have body image concerns. In fact, when caught complaining about my additional weight, I was often told that I was too skinny when I first arrived.


My favorite line came from a robust woman who heard me whine that everything I eat goes to my rear, and that I wish I could lose some of its roundness. Her response? “No no, if you lose that, you lose everything!”


Then a few weeks ago, a miracle happened; I lost weight! Suddenly, my pants were all a little loser on me, and I wasn’t so repulsed with my reflection. I was elated. Ecstatic. There was a new spring to my step. I felt a little more like me again. And I realized…

How wrong was that!? I’ve been me the whole time, but only at a certain weight did I feel good about myself. Never mind my intelligence; never mind my altruistic commitment as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The only thing that seemed to matter was that I was down a pant size. And then I thought… what would the women in Jamaica think if they heard my self-debasing mantra?

So I asked them.

Over the last three weeks, I spoke to as many women as I could about this “trend” in America and other consumerist countries. I explained how companies that sell beauty products or clothes use photo-editing techniques on their models before they publish images on billboard, magazines, and commercials. I detailed the ways in which this image of flawlessness is being pushed on women of all ages, and I discussed the haunting fact that girls as young as twelve are ending up in the hospital, malnourished, with eating disorders, and despising their bodies.

I then asked them what they felt when they heard this, and what they would want to say to these young teenagers. If they had a daughter, I asked them to consider how they would react if it was their child who suffered from this kind of personal debasement.

Many of the women said they were appalled, but mostly sad. They lamented that it’s not fair what the industry is doing to them. My Supervisor, a mother to three boys, commented that girls at twelve are impressionable, and if she’d had daughters, she’d urge them to love themselves for who they are.

The three most common responses included:

  • “You need to love yourself for who you are.”
  •  “It’s more important to be healthy than beautiful on the outside. Real beauty comes from within.”
  •  “God made you this way for a reason.”

Then I shared this image.

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Loud and outspoken by nature, these Jamaican women hollered! There were whoops, and cries, and, “Laad almighty, why dem so skinny???” I talked to fifteen women and every single one of them said they’d like to feed the Victoria Secret models. After they got over how scrawny the models were, they admitted the girls also looked sickly and ill, like “air-brushed cancer patients,” as one woman put it. Certainly not healthy, which is what they thought when they looked at the Dove women.

Finally, when the shock of the picture had worn off and their exclamations noted, I asked them what their final thoughts were. The general consensus was that beauty comes from within, and that it’s more important to be healthy than skinny. A few said they would pray for the twelve-year-olds with eating disorders, and those without children promised that if they ever did have a daughter, she would be raised to believe that she is beautiful, regardless of her outward appearance.

I consider myself a sensible individual, one that often doesn’t buy into something as trivial as a number on a scale. But even hearing these things – the respected opinions of these Jamaican women – isn’t enough to change my attitude of my self-image. It is not an easy fix. Decades upon decades of strategic marketing, promoting an image of flawlessness that is impossible to achieve, has engrained in women of all ages a self-fulfilling prophecy of personal discontent.

We live in a revolutionary new world; one where technology and Internet communications allows us to join forces and fight battles we otherwise never dreamed of fighting. The idea of positive self-worth is certainly one that should be high on our list. If we’d all just take a moment to look around, we’d see that evidence of manipulation is insurmountable. We’re at the mercy of fashion tycoons. They dictate how we feel about ourselves by force-feeding us a standard of perfection we could never attain. And they’re single handedly destroying generations of females.

Consider this: if children learn by observing their parents, and their mothers regularly shame themselves, then what kind of message are those mothers sending to their granddaughters?

How can we save ourselves?

I believe that we can take a cue from some wise Jamaican women, and we can treat ourselves with the love and respect we deserve, and teach our daughters to do the same.


5 Inspiring Videos that have been April-Approved

Amy Poehler on Body Image:

Girls & Body Image on Common Sense Media:

Dove Real Beauty Sketches:

TED Talk with model Cameron Russell:

Slam Poetry – Fat Poem:

 

 

 

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Miss Teacha

Growing up, my sister and I were like most children; we played pretend. Among our favorite scenarios were house, treasure island, and The Three Musketeers (inspired by our love for Leonardo DiCaprio after seeing Man In The Iron Mask and Titanic). The only game we wouldn’t agree on, however, was school. I’d make Devon be the student, using stuffed animals for classmates, and have her ask questions and complete assignments. Of course, my only living student did not share my enthusiasm, and the game always ended abruptly.

Years would pass, and as I began collecting a variety of experience working with kids, my mom made an unwavering prediction. “April,” she’d persistently prophesize, “you’re going to be a teacher when you grow up.” Every time I heard this, I would reply with the same answer; “No, I won’t.”

But what’s that old saying, again? How does it go?

Oh yes: Mother is always right.

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While the Peace Corps has provided me with a large number of firsts, this is not the first time I’m playing the role of teacher, and if I’m to be perfectly honest, I had my “ah ha” moment a long time ago. I’ve worked as a camp counselor, a horseback riding instructor, a gymnastics coach, a religious school youth group leader, and a substitute teacher.

But even in all my prior experience, there’s still so much about this role that is new to me. For example, instead of following lessons left behind by another teacher, I am writing the lessons. I am no longer a faceless substitute, swooping in for a day or two at a time and having to relearn all the student’s names. Nay, I am the full-time teacher, and I get to spend an entire year with them.

Now that I’m a teacher, I catch myself repeating lines I heard from my own school days. Things like, “I’ll wait until it’s quiet,” or, “Sound it out.” I feel a sense of divine power when I give out stars for good behavior at the end of class time. And certain mysteries, like, how did she know which student wrote the test answers on the desk?, have suddenly become clear. (Just match up the handwriting; it’s so obvious I don’t know why I never thought of it before!)

As rewarding as being a teacher is, it’s also a lot of hard work. I write all my own lessons, make up activity pages, and have to grade homework and spelling tests. Consider the amount of prep work I put in for one class, and multiply it by the five different levels I’m working with. Some weeks I don’t sleep.

Classroom management is also a challenge, particularly in a culture where corporal punishment is still widely practiced. Though I’ve implemented a behavior system with rewards and consequences, it’s sometimes still difficult to maintain control without at least brandishing a ruler at them. This is one part of my job that will not miss when I leave Jamaica. I would never hit a student.

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But the pros far outweigh the cons, and for someone who was reluctant about being a classroom teacher up until the very moment she became one, I’m having a pretty good time. I’ve laughed at my student’s jokes, and cried with them during times of hardships. I cheered for them when they ran the Jamaica Day Marathon and shared in their pride when they passed the Grade Four Literacy Exam after three tries.

I’ve gotten to know my students, both academically and personally. I know what they are capable of, and know where they are challenged. I can tell you that the troublemakers are the sweetest ones at heart, and I always know when someone gets some extra help on their homework.

I think the most beautiful thing about being a teacher is watching your students grow. Overnight, they’ve become taller. I look at my sixth grade boys and I suddenly see young men. My third grade girls now move with the grace of young ladies, rather than the clumsiness that comes with being a child. I’ve witnessed improvement in their self-esteem, and of course, their reading ability.

We only have a few weeks left of school. As I begin wrapping up the year and thinking about the next one, I also find that I keep asking myself one question: is this the career for me?

Mom predicted I’d be a teacher, and she wasn’t exactly wrong. Whether I’m in the classroom, in the middle of a riding arena, or on the gymnastics floor, I’ve been teaching. Every job I’ve had has included the transfer of skills from instructor to pupil. Now that I think about it, I can’t imagine having a job in which I am not working with kids.

Children are so impressionable! They see the world through a different light, and if we listen carefully, there is so much that they can teach us. Children are creative; they believe in miracles and magic, and they don’t know the meaning of hate or prejudice. Most importantly, there is nothing more incredible than witnessing that moment when a child finally learns something new. Their face lights up. Their eyes grow wide. The smile overcomes their face and you can literally see the joy and excitement pour out of them.

And there is nothing more rewarding than that.

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Newfound Adoration

Screen shot 2013-11-16 at 4.08.53 PMLet’s face facts.

Geographically speaking, I didn’t go anywhere. At 180 miles away from my hometown, I am closer to my family now than I was when I went to college. I’m in the same time zone, with the same flora and fauna, and the same tropical climate. Even the color of the water is the same – that crystal blue that’s so clear you can see straight down to the bottom…

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that while my fellow volunteers are fawning over sandy beaches and discovering the joys of year-round tank tops, I’m sitting over here, nodding my head and saying, “Been there. Done that.”

It should also be a no-brainer that when asked where in Jamaica I’d rather live, I replied with, “The mountains.”

So the Placement Gods got it right this time, and stuck a city slickin’ beach bum in a rural community, deep in the heart of the Blue Mountains. At 2,000 feet elevation, with the clouds on a gloomy day settling in around me, I am as far from my norm as I could possibly be. More to my delight, while other volunteers were growing accustomed to a winter without snow, I was gifted with a brief reprieve from 80-90 degree weather.

I remember the first time I drove to Cedar Valley. I was about halfway up the mountain when I realized the air outside the vehicle had changed. It was thinner, and even in May, had a slight nip to it. Later that evening, I curiously stepped outside to feel the temperature. The night was brisk, and instantly, goosebumps rose on my flesh. I knew, in that instant, that I would experience a winter.

But allow me to digress a moment, and bring you back to my college years, when I attended a university in New York. I’d never experienced a winter before, and after four years of “seasons,” I was very much through with that nonsense. I yearned for my sunny home state and the ability to only require a sweater when seeing a movie.

So why, for crying out loud, did the idea of winter in Cedar Valley excite me so much??
Answer: It was the summer without A/C that did it for me.

I couldn’t wait for the excuse to wear long-sleeve shirts and sleep under a thick comforter. Or to snuggle up in a big sweater and baggy sweatpants with a mug of hot cocoa. At school, the wind blew through the valley and into my concrete classroom, where I shivered and some days felt my helpless fingers grow numb.

“Numb? What? Come on, now. It’s not like it was snowing or anything.”

No, but spend your life in the land of eternal sunshine and even sixty degrees feels like Antarctica.

And I loved it!! I was reminded again of how good it feels to sit in the sunshine and bask in its warmth, rather than spend day after day trying to escape it. I enjoyed walking to school in the morning, and not arriving a hot sweaty mess. I could actually wear my hair down. And the view from my rose-tinted window (aka: facebook) allowed me a chance to be thankful I was in Jamaica, and not in New York.

But the joy was short lived. Eight weeks later, and it’s summer again. Away goes my comforter. No more sweaters or baggy sweatpants; instead I just get sweat. My hair has returned to its permanent ponytail state. Before I know it, it will be that time of the year when your only option is to camp out in front of your fan.

On the plus side, I’ll welcome the cold showers again.

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Dorothy

When I arrived home for the first time in nine months, I stood in the center of my childhood bedroom and looked around. Aside from my closet – vacant of my clothes, but overflowing with my sister’s – my room was exactly as I remembered it. Everything was in its place; from the tiny trinkets that sit on my dresser, to the piles of paper shoved in a corner, to the post-it notes around my room that were relevant at the time. It was eerie feeling. Old memories flooded back, reminding me of what I thought and felt the last time I was here. Time came to a stand still, and I silently asked myself if the last nine months really happened.

During the next few days, as I moved about my house and the city I know so well, I asked myself the same question. Everything was consistent no matter where I went. Familiar foods filled the pantry, the landscape of my neighborhood was static, and even the billboards appeared unchanged. Behind the wheel of my sister’s car, as if I’d been driving my whole life, Jamaica seemed so far away. Surely, it must have been a dream.

Ruby-slippers-wizard-of-ozThen, slowly, realizations began to flood my mind. Everything looked the same, and for a short time, felt the same, but there was one glaring difference that couldn’t be denied: I was not the same. A timid girl lived here before – a girl who dreamed of great adventures, yet panicked at the idea of failure. A girl who possessed incredible potential, but lacked the confidence to tap it. A girl who took so much for granted.

Everywhere I looked, my perspective changed, but some things stood out more than others. There was a developed appreciation for supermarkets and the wide variety of choices available (21 different kinds of Oreos, 16 flavors of coffee creamer, and an entire isle devoted to breakfast cereal), a recognizable advancement in the use of everyday technology (I barely remembered how to use a Smartphone), and the overwhelming joy of not having to be home before dark. I also learned that going to the movies is a beautiful thing, and one should never, ever skimp on popcorn.

But the most notable difference was my feelings on the subject of moving out. After college, I came home. For reasons I’ll keep to myself, I felt as though I had unfinished business, and that I wasn’t quite ready to live on my own. Prior to departure, that initial reluctance transformed itself into the overwhelming fear the Peace Corps wouldn’t work out, and I’d end up back in Miami. Once in Jamaica, I transgressed, and for a few painful months, all I wanted was to return, never to leave home again. Never in my dreams would I have imagined that nine short months would prepare me for my inevitable independence. Surely it’s more complicated than that…

And yet for every day that I was home, feeling a little more like a guest and less like a member of the house, I couldn’t wait to get back to my own life. They say home is where the heart is, but what happens when your heart keeps questioning the things that make it beat? Is it possible, or even normal, to love your home and want to leave it at the same time? Will I be able to find the balance between chasing my adventurous dreams and accepting what is safe and familiar?

WizardOfOz-700x1010As I enter this next segment of my service – indicated by the block of time before I’ll visit home again – I have to remind myself of a few things. The first is that nothing at home really changed, and it’s not likely that things will before my two years are up. If I were to quit and go home now (those feelings still occasionally plague me), I can safely assume I’ll fall right back into my old routine and experience the same feelings of suffocation that drove me to join Peace Corps in the first place. The second thing I need to remember is that I have too many good ideas for projects to stop now, and the only way I’ll learn from them, is to actually do them.

Finally, there is this: When I began this journey (which sometimes feels like a lifetime ago, and other times feels like yesterday), I didn’t know who I would be when I finished. I still don’t who I will be, but I do know who I am, and I know that I’m not done yet. I’m not satisfied with my short list of accomplishments; I want more. I don’t think I’ve learned all the lessons I’m supposed to learn, and at this point in my service, I’m still not the person I want to be.

Unfortunately, you can’t speed up time. You can’t rush the growing process either. I have eighteen months left of service (oh yes, I’m counting), which means that I get another eighteen months of overcoming challenges and obstacles, and learning from them. This is quite possibly the truest test of my character; will I make it to the end, or won’t I? How I handle this determines how I handle the rest of my adult life.

And if there is one thing that I do know about myself – something I’ve proven over and over, and over again – it’s that I am one determined son of a b****. If I want it, I don’t stop until I have it. I hate quitting, and if ever I’ve stuck it out and made it to the end, I’ve always been proud of myself.

But I Didn’t Get Married

Every year around Christmas time, I get a little reminiscent. I begin looking back and remembering where I was a year before. I think to myself, what is today’s date, and what was I doing on this day last year? It provides stunning clarity, and helps me see just how far I’ve come. You’d be surprised how much you can accomplish in a year.

In honor of the New Year – a period of “personal growth” – I’ve decided to include a short list of my top thirteen moments of 2013

Visited 3 cities and 5 friends in 7 days, then visited Chicago for the first time a week later
Got dumped
Moved to a Jamaica
Learned to speak Patios (Patwa)
Adapted to a new culture
Integrated into a community
Made serious headway in the cooking department
Finally taught myself to French Braid my hair
Killed a spider
And several cockroaches
Hiked 30 miles in 30 hours
Adopted a kitten
Read 14 books

My next two weeks will be spent in America. After nine months abroad, I look forward to going home and celebrating my birthday with my friends and family. I’ll write again after the New Year.

Happy Holidays!

The Modern Day Pilgrim

Naturally, one of my favorite floats
Naturally, one of my favorite floats

My mouth is watering. Or at least it would be, if I were in America. Bombarded all month long with reminders that Thanksgiving has finally arrived, I would eagerly be awaiting that traditional Thursday morning when Mom and I would cook the turkey in our pajamas while watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I would’ve already purchased a bag of marshmallows to coat the top of Nana’s sweet potato pie. The green bean casserole would have been made the night before, and a box of Mallomars would be stashed away, hidden, so we’d have them all for dessert. Some time around noon, after most of the work has been done, my sister would finally roll out of bed and monitor our progress with disheveled hair.

My Thanksgiving was ripe with tradition. Accompanied by a delicious, once-a-year meal and surrounded by friends and family, there’s no wonder why I count it among my favorite holidays.

But over the years, in small doses at a time, Thanksgiving began to change. A divorce cut our guest list in half. Black Friday began earlier and earlier, until it eventually spilled over to Thursday, causing our family (who would not, under any circumstances, wait outside a store at 4am) significant distress. And the Radio City Rockettes were losing their luster.

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Luster or not, my eyes still tear up when these girls start kicking!

And then one fateful year, I joined the Peace Corps, and all tradition flew out the window. While it’s difficult for me to think about missing Thanksgiving, it’s even more distressing to imagine my family, who must feel as though my departure was like the having the rug swept out from under their feet.

I suppose it makes a Thanksgiving-less November easier to deal with when I consider that my oven will not host a turkey this year. Or that I am not missing out on sweet potato pie.

Still, I feel an overwhelming sadness for them, and a crushing sense of pressure. While on the one hand, I feel honored that my presence carries that much weight at the dinner table, I am afflicted by the knowledge that my choices and decisions have made such an impact. For my family, Thanksgiving has drastically deviated from the norm.

Although tradition has slipped and family unity does not count for much this year, no one is going to be sitting home alone and feeling sorry for themselves, least of all me. This year, we’ll all be venturing our separate ways, but we’ll be in the company of close friends. That definitely counts for something.

My plans include celebrating Thanksgiving with my government-issued friends – who are beginning to feel a little more like family – in the style of a potluck dinner at a cottage on the beach. I doubt we’re going to have a turkey, but there will be a pumpkin pie. I know at least one volunteer is making stuffing, I am responsible for cinnamon poached apples, and of course, the essentials will be present; namely wine.

North+American+Wild+TurkeyIt will be different to celebrate a traditional American holiday in a country that is not my own, without my family, and with friends I only met a few months ago. But I don’t think any of that matters. These friends have been become my crutch, my anchor. Though some of us are at different stages of our service, and all of us come from different backgrounds, we all have one thing in common; we’re Peace Corps Volunteers. We’ve made sacrifices to follow a dream and achieve some good. We knowingly traded our comforts for something unknown and wild. We’ll all be thinking of our families this Thursday, and we’ll all feel a little homesick, but I think it’s safe to say that the choices we’ve made are worth the things we’re giving up. I wouldn’t trade my Peace Corps experience for anything in the world. I am exactly where I want to be at this point in my life. And in the spirit of giving thanks, I can be grateful for just that.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Phenomenon of Perception

Screen shot 2013-11-16 at 4.08.53 PMLast October, when I received my long-awaited invitation from the Peace Corps, I had no idea what to expect. Jamaica. I knew very little about the country, except that it was too close to home to be called an adventure. Regardless, I googled as much as I could about the island, scoured my Welcome Packet for clues and attended PC events to talk to returned volunteers, all in attempt to learn more about what the next two years would hold for me.

Finally, I found a Facebook group. It was created by one of our own, and designed so that Group 84 could connect with one another prior to departure. It was reassuring to know that I was filled with the same sense of wonder as everyone else.

The Facebook group also allowed us to connect with PCV’s already on island. At last, we were able to get answers to some of those burning questions:

What is your life like?
What do you do?
How do you live and work?
What should I pack!?!?

We took their words as gospel, and personally speaking, I idolized them for their insight. After all, these were seasoned volunteers, accustomed to their lives as PCVs, and I was just a newbie.

Months later, in training, I mentioned this to one of them, and he replied, “Nah, you’re just looking at me with freshman goggles. You’ll be where I am in no time.”

Fast-forward a few more months, and a new Facebook group has surfaced. The incoming Group 85, back in America, receiving their invitations, and looking to us for help. Suddenly, we’re the experts! I was a freshman one morning, and a senior by the end of the day. Within a week, I answered questions about packing lists, my daily school schedule, shopping in the market, and church going (or my lack thereof). I also assured one concerned PCT that she can find peanut butter in Jamaica!

Talking to the new group has me thinking about Shadowing – a three-day segment of training where PCT’s visit a currently serving volunteer at site. My days in shadowing were spent in doubt, unsure whether I wanted to stay. My PCV was understanding, and played Devil’s Advocate as she posed questions to help me see things from all angles. Even though my turn to host a PCT is months away, I find myself examining my life in Jamaica and wondering what questions or comments she’ll have. Will my deep bushy lifestyle excite her, or turn her off? How will she feel about my frigid showers? Will she greet it with enthusiasm, or shiver afterward and hope hers are a bit warmer? Will she be ready to dive head first into her service, or will be she testing the waters, like I was?

I’ve come a long way since my own Shadowing experience, and everyday I thank myself for sticking it out and staying in Jamaica. Needless to say, my attitude has dramatically improved! And now that I’ve taken my off freshman goggles, I see my world through a new light. My morning commute to work – which takes about 45 minutes – has allowed me to better integrate. I know exactly which drivers come and go, at what time, and in what order. I pass the same mothers as they walk their little ones to school, and their children, who at first were very shy, now eagerly wave hello. Community members greet me with, “mornin’ teach!” and a few people have gone out of their way to let me know they have respect for me, which, in a small rural community, and for an outsider like me, is a pretty big deal. And let’s not forget that I can finally speak Patwa.

Recognizing these things also makes me think of a topic we discussed at ESC. There are four stages of cultural awareness that each volunteer passes through during their service.

1. unconscious incompetence
2. conscious incompetence
3. conscious competence
4. unconscious competence
.

Simply put, a volunteer might not even realize there is a difference in their behavior, versus that of their local counterparts. Then, they realize the difference, but are not sure how to emulate it. Next, they make small attempts to adapt and fit in, until finally, they are so well integrated, they don’t even recognize the ways in which are one with their community.

When I first arrived in Jamaica, I was at stage one, and understandably so. I was in stage two by ESC, and now I am moving slowly into stage three. I’ve discovered that there are multiple strains of pumpkin and yam, and I have my preference for both, and that I enjoy eating chicken neck over chicken back any day. I’ll declare myself in stage four the day I fail to realize I’ve eaten a chicken foot.

Cultural awareness aside, there are many other ways in which my perspective is changing. Although the last few years have left with me a heightened sense of maturity, I catch myself making small changes in my personal life everyday. Call it growth, if you will. The obvious is a set of new skills; a confident approach when killing cockroaches and $(KGrHqR,!qIFEj6ehwQEBRvjJs,ZO!~~60_35spiders, the ability to French braid my hair, and an acquired resourcefulness in the kitchen. More subtly, I’ve learned not to sweat the small stuff. Acceptance and patience are also new friends of mine. You see, from the day I landed in Jamaica, I feel as though I lost a great deal of control in my life. From being unfamiliar with everything around me, to recognizing the ways in which I am different, and stepping far outside my comfort zone, I eventually learned to throw my hands in the air and just go with it. Everything seems to works out in the end.

Dun’ worry. Be happy.