I was in high school when I was in South America and I lived there for three years. We moved to a country called Suriname, or former Dutch Guiana, so we learned Dutch, not Spanish.
Suriname, is just barely north of the equator, so it was very hot and tropical. Even though I loved the winter and I really missed the winter, you got used to it being 95 degrees all the time with no air conditioning. The culture shock was difficult and trying to get along and learn a new language but I remember having a lot of fun.
I spent a lot of time feeling out of place but it was natural to feel out of place because I was out of place. It wasn’t like in Dubuque where I felt out of place a lot because I’m sort of a nerdy person. In Dubuque there wasn’t a good explanation for that, whereas in South America I could totally be out of place because I was not from there.
I came from lily-white Iowa and everybody that we worked with was black because Suriname is a Caribbean country. Most of the people who were there were descended from slaves. So the first thing, that was really different from Iowa, was being able to tell people apart because I had not seen a lot of black people in my life. I was talking to a group of young people, who later became my best friends, but at the time I was like “are you brother and sister?”, and they were like “no!”, because they didn’t look anything alike, but in my eyes I couldn’t tell yet.
Suriname is a Caribbean culture and also it’s a very lively culture. And I tend to be an introvert and I tend to be quieter. And so they would joke all the time and they would joke with me. And at first of course I didn’t even understand what they were saying.
Early on we went to a youth camp and we were preparing snacks for everybody. It was at least one other woman, a young teenage girl, and I. We got together and we were peeling oranges.
The way they peel oranges is they take a knife and they just spiral cut the whole peel off the orange and it leaves a lot of the white part of the orange so I don’t really like it anyway. I’m not sure why they did that, like maybe they thought it was germy or maybe that’s just what they’ve always done but I didn’t know how to do that. I’ve never done that in my life because we just always cut oranges in pieces and we just suck it out of it peel. We never cut the peel off so I was trying to do it and they made so much fun of me. I mean not even friendly fun, it was like “oh my god you are the stupidest person in the world” and I could understand enough by then to know that that’s what they were saying.
And I was laughing and they were laughing, but they were like really insulting. And that’s how they always were. At first I felt really bad but after long enough I realized that’s what they are like all the time. They are always insulting, and they say nice things too, but I guess they see it as it is. If they think you’re stupid they’ll tell you. If they think you’re nice they’ll tell you. I think that was hard at first being able to tell those norms and like is this okay? Do they hate me? Am I you know, I don’t know is there something wrong with me? So experiences like that were different.
I took school by correspondence. So I got together with a couple of other missionary kids and every day we would study in the morning together and then I would do the rest of my studies in the afternoon or in the evening, at home. My dad’s church had a big vibrant youth group of Surinamers and that was where I really tried to make friends and get to know people and the language and stuff. And that was really interesting to me, getting to know people from the country. It was a really interesting experience and it felt like it was the excitement that I wanted in my life.
It was great and then I came back to Iowa to go to the University of Iowa.