Review — I AM ME BECAUSE OF YOU by Karen Lawrence with Jennifer Nelson (Kyrgyzstan 2004–06)

i-me-you-180I Am Me Because of You: A Daughter’s Peace Corps Journey through the Eyes of Her Mother
(Peace Corps biography from letters and phone calls, with photos)
by Karen Lawrence with Jennifer (Lawrence) Nelson (Kyrgyzstan 2004–06)
Beaver’s Pond Press
2015
364 pages
$24.95 (paperback) — email iammebecauseofyou@gmail.com to purchase

reviewed by Catherine Onyemelukwe (Nigeria 1962–64)

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I Am Me Because of You provides a valuable resource for the parents of Peace Corps Volunteers, though for those who are frightened to know what lies ahead they might want to wait until their offspring has been in the country a few months before reading! For those less nervous, the book can be a guide to the ups and downs of following a Volunteer through training and deployment.

I love the cover of I Am Me Because of You. The dusty gold with the brown edges and snapshots superimposed on a world map, made me curious about where this story took place. I knew it was a Peace Corps story — the subtitle A Daughter’s Peace Corps Journey through the Eyes of Her Mother — told me. But the title and subtitle also left me puzzled. Where did this happen? Whose story was this? And who was telling it?

Reading the foreword cleared up my confusion. The mother is Karen. Her daughter Jennifer, or Jen, was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kyrgyzstan. During the 26 months of Jen’s training and service, she sent email messages to her mother and a group of others who followed her time away. She also had frequent phone conversations with her family. Her mother took notes during the calls. The book is the result of these exchanges with a few segments of explanation and reflection in between.

This approach allows the reader to become immersed in Jen’s life and her mother’s reaction to it. Karen begins the book by telling us that she was reluctant to let her daughter go. She makes the sign of the cross every time she passes Jen’s bedroom in their house. Indeed, their Catholic faith is a source of support. Members of their church form a circle of care, receive Jen’s messages, and send her “care” packages.

We meet Jen through her emails. She reports briefly on her two days of staging in Philadelphia and then more fully the nearly twelve weeks of training in Kyrgyzstan. A good part of her learning is the study of the Russian language. I would have liked more explanation of why Russian is still the language decades after the end of the Soviet empire.

Jen loves her first host family who are Turkish. Her descriptions are lively and convey the pleasure she is deriving from their company. But again I would have liked information on why there is a Turkish family in Kyrgyzstan. I also sometimes lost track of what Jen’s work was, and where she was. A map and clearer description of her assignments would have been helpful.

Jen’s descriptions of cultural practices and her insights into how different her life is from those of the women of her host country are a highlight of the book. She provides a lesson on hospitality, Kyrgyz style. “In Krygyzstan, hospitality is a matter of pride . . .. Being a good guest means eating food and drinking tea; lots of it . . ..  As a good host, you sit your guests at the appropriate places of honor.” That place is the spot furthest from the door.

Jen is usually seated at the place of honor during lunches at her work site, an office of all women. Sometimes she feels uncomfortable in this position because there are many older women present who should get more respect that she. But one day she ends up sitting in a chair close to the door.

I couldn’t have guessed just how different my lunch would be by simply moving six spots around the table. I did not exist to the rest of the table and not once did people tell me to drink or watch what and how much I was eating. I was not even alive to the women as they passed their teacups to me without making any eye contact of breaking stride in their conversation.

It was definitely a relaxing meal where I felt for the time that I blended in with the group, but it was also shockingly despairing . . ..  So many women live every day in this invisible role of unmarried daughter or daughter-in-law and go about their business unseen and unheard.

Although Jen’s mother is a reliable narrator, I found her fear and concern somewhat tiresome. But Jen didn’t seem to feel her mother’s protective instincts were too much, as she tells us at the end.

Jen herself does a marvelous job of telling us about how she grows through her experience. She says, “I’ve stopped questioning, internally and audibly, and have lost the ‘urge to explain.'” After listing some of the customs she has learned to accept, she says, “I’ve come to realize that seeking ‘understanding’ often distances me from simple knowledge and participation. In my mind, being an active member of the community is much more important than thinking I’ll have everything figured out if I just stand back a little bit longer.”

I wondered as I read whether the reference of the book’s title, I Am Me because of You, was to Jen’s new friends and host families during her Peace Corps time. Were they the ones who made her who she was? Or was it to family?

Jen provides the answer in the last paragraph when she is talking about her own son. She says, “. . . my mom and dad taught me that true parenting is part educating and part empowering. I am me because of who they are.”

Reviewer Catherine Onyemelukwe taught German at Federal Emergency Science School in Lagos Nigeria, and English and African History at Awori-Ajeromi Secondary Grammar School as a Peace Corps Volunteer. She met Clement Onyemelukwe, Chief Electrical Engineer of the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria during her second year of service. They married in 1964.

As a new mother, she taught at the American International School in Lagos. She founded and ran a fashion company, co-founded Nigerwives (a group for foreign women in Nigeria married to Nigerian men) and was president of the American Women’s Club in Lagos.

After living in Nigeria for 24 years she returned to the U.S., earned an MBA at Yale, worked in nonprofit management, and now speaks, blogs, and writes from her home in Connecticut. She and her husband celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Nigeria in 2014.

Catherine can be reached via her website, www.catherineonyemelukwe.com. Her memoir Nigeria Revisited My Life and Loves Abroad is available in both print and digital formats on Amazon.com.

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