Culture Shock. Or, Singles Ward in Salt Lake City.

My time in Central America is over and now I am onto the next adventure in Salt Lake City (SLC), the land of the Mormons. During lunch with my aunt Laura who I am staying with I told her that I wanted to go to a Singles Ward while I was here. A note for all non-Mormons who may be reading this, this particular blog is filled with Mormon jargon but I will try to clarify. A ward is a congregation of about 200 people that meets together in a church on Sundays. Who is in the ward is determined by the geography of where you live. Just to give everyone an idea of how many Mormons there are in SLC I will draw some quick comparisons between here and Victoria where I grew up. In Victoria I always thought of the ward boundaries like this: 1st ward was for the people who lived in Victoria, 2nd ward was for the people who lived in the suburbs, and 3rd ward was for the people who lived in the boonies. In SLC you can find 34th wards, or 367th wards. While driving, especially in the suburbs, it is common to pass at least one Mormon church every five minutes.

Now that I am an adult and am not married, I have a special group that I go to church with called YSA (or young single adults). In both Victoria and Montreal, there are not enough people (roughly 200) to make a YSA ward, so we have what we call “branches” which are basically tiny wards. Usually around 35-45 showed up on Sundays to my YSA branches. In my neck of the woods in Canada, the YSA never really tire of complaining about the lack of people (and by that they mean other Mormons) to be friends with and date. However now I am in Mormon land, the state where places are named Brigham City, Zarahemla, Bountiful. It is a place where Victoria Secret banners make the news because the advertisements show too much skin.

So I asked my Laura how many people she thought would be in my YSA ward (it was even crazy for me to use the words ward and YSA together).  After some consideration she said, “not sure, maybe 600?”

Woah. Is that even possible? One thing that everyone should know about Mormon churches is that usually if you regularly attend you have what is called a “calling” which simply means a job of some sort to do to help the ward or branch function. I asked Laura how there could possibly be enough callings for people and she replied telling me that there were lots of committees. Lots.

With all this in mind, I walked into what is soon to become my first YSA ward. I saw people my age everywhere. I mustered up my courage and asked what room the meeting was going on in.

“Which ward are you going to?” asked the guys.

“The singles ward”

“Ho ho,” they knowingly laughed and then informed me that three YSA wards met in that building. So in other words, while there wasn’t 600 people in my ward, there were over 600 young single Mormons in that building at that moment. They told me to go upstairs and that one I was going to had already started. When I cracked open the door to the chapel, I had a horrifying moment where in the midst of everyone singing in this big room I didn’t see any empty spots on the cue. Feeling eyes on me I quickly made room for myself at the back. While I listened to the talks, I counted over 170 people in the room.

At the end of the first hour, the bishop (or leader) of the ward announced that he wanted to meet all the new people today, and that, indeed, there would be a special meeting where all of us new people would introduce ourselves. There were just under 30 people in this meeting although not all of us were newcomers. I initially wanted to sit at the back but we sat in a giant circle instead. The bishop, his two counselors and secretary plus their three wives made up the first eight people. Then there were people from the Relief Society (the women’s group in the church), the Elders Quorum (the men’s group), plus representatives who various committees who in their mutual introductions told us about the many activities to seduce us into being happy about being there. There were people from the service committee, activities committee, welcoming committee, and family home evening committee.

Family home evening is supposed to be a special time on Monday night that church leaders have asked us to spend with our family. Since many young 20 somethings live away from home, YSA wards and branches hold family home evening for it’s members and it usually consists of a gospel lesson, an activity, and a snack. The bishop informed us that several YSA wards would be gathering tomorrow to have family home evening (or FHE) together. Several wards? The idea of several wards, or in other words over a thousand YSA gathering to have what is meant to be “family time” sounded a bit odd to me. Besides, the logistics of a gathering like that are crazy; how would they provide a snack to so many people? And what activity would they play, a giant game of human knot?

My final hour of church was spent in Relief Society, the meeting where the men and women split up. The girl next to me informed me that they had a “big” Relief Society in their ward. I wondered what that meant to people here. By this point nothing could surprise me. When everyone finally filtered in she was a little disappointed at the 60 or so people that turned up, telling me there is usually over 90. As I sat listening to a lesson on perfection, I recognized that apart from my terror at being in an entirely new social situation with no one I know, I was also completely and utterly culture shocked.


Everybody look at my pants!

Before I came to Salt Lake City, my Dad told me that I might be required to wear skirts and dresses at my new job researching for the Mormon Church. I immediately dismissed this idea because of its ridiculousness; we live in the 21st century after all, how could any workplace not let women wear pants? I even got angry with my Dad for even suggesting such a thing and I made a little scene. When my Dad and I recounted it to my Mom later, my Mom immediately said that of course I could wear pants to my new job. Feeling validated, I let the topic slip.

Once in Salt Lake City, at Sunday family dinner, the topic of pants in the workplace came up again. My relatives toyingly watched me strongly react to the idea of not being allowed to wear pants. However, even among my relatives there was no consensus of whether or not I could wear pants to work. They told me that I might be told to wear my “Sunday best,” which of course for women means no pants. I started to get worried.

I had a plan. I was going to wear pants and a white business-esque shirt. If someone told me that I had to wear my “Sunday best” I would simply tell them that I wear my pants to church (see giant internet battle over the “wear pants to church” campaign in Utah). That would shut them up. Plus, I thought, I would definitely be able to wear pants. In the car ride over to my first day of work, I asked my aunt Laura, “do you really think that I won’t be able to wear pants?” She assured me I could.

The first thing that I noticed when I walked into my first (out of four) orientations that day is that not one of the women was wearing pants. Even all the other new female hires were in dresses and skirts. That’s when it started to sink in that truly, my workplace does not allow women to wear pants. Politics aside I was honestly looking forward to wearing the business look . I thought maybe if I looked formal in my dress pants people wouldn’t immediately think I was an 18 year old like people normally think when they see me. I found it strange that the dresses and skirts that women were wearing were not in the least bit businessy; I realized the objective for women in this workplace was not to emulate a business atmosphere but instead a church one. I can’t say that I have ever started any other of my work orientations off with a prayer, the woman who said the prayer even cried during it.

So a new game begun – when would someone tell me that I wasn’t allowed to be wearing the pants I was wearing? I waited and counted the minutes. Surprisingly, I managed to get through two orientations, which by definition are formal sit downs where the HR teaches the new employees about the workplace. I even began to think that the people around me might be too embarrassed to point out my pants and I might get away with it. At 1:34 exactly, my supervisor, the woman in charge of women’s history told me that I could not wear pants. The irony was not lost on me.
I pretended I was surprised. “Really?”
She told me she tried to complain about it but to no avail.
“Wow.” I tried to let her know through my facial expressions and carefully chosen words how crazy I found this. I said, “I guess I can just throw away all those pants I just bought before coming here.”

I went to my new desk blood boiling and fuming. Just to get something straight, I don’t hate skirts or dresses and I don’t mind wearing them to work. But the notion of women wearing pants is symbolic. In the late 19th Century women fought for the right to wear pants right along with the right to vote (we are talking about the 1800’s here guys!). Sometimes I complain about my church being stuck in the 60’s with how it deals with women’s issues. But in the 60’s both conservative women and feminists wore pants. I want to write a letter to the leaders of the church and tell this how humiliating this rule is, and that as a member of this church I feel embarrassed both for myself and my church. I want to write a letter to the Prophet about how crazy I think this rule is but I can’t quite seem to form an argument in my head that doesn’t sound totally ridiculous. “Dear Church, Why don’t you let women wear pants to work?” just doesn’t seem quite right to me.

Now before anyone starts to try defending the church’s position, let me just say that church dress or not I think that this rule is ridiculous. Women wear pants to church and that is fine. My granny was the firmest believer I ever met and she always wore pants to church. Not to mention that the notion that women must wear dresses and skirts is a North American culturally constructed concept. In South India men wear what look like skirts all the time and no one thinks twice about it. Telling women they can’t wear pants is totally unacceptable, no excuses.

Unfortunately I am not really in the position where I can say or do much about this so I have to bite my tongue and also try to refrain from being rebellious. Nevertheless I have come up with some ideas with how to subvert of this rule. If you haven’t already abandoned this blog post because of my feminist rants please read on and vote for you favourite!
Any other ideas? I want to hear them!

Can you see your garbage?

I love Candelaria, it is beautiful. However, unfortunately, Candelaria much like the rest of the developing world has garbage everywhere. Garbage on the streets, on people’s property, the beach, and in the canal. Unlike Canada, none of this garbage is organic waste. Composting programs are not needed because there is an abundance of pigs, dogs, cats, chickens, and cows that are sometimes literally waiting at your table for your scraps. One of my first days in Candelaria, I found that some bananas had gone very bad in my bag (as bananas in bags do). I didn’t want my host family to notice that I didn’t eat my bananas so I sneakily put them near behind my little casa and sure enough the next day they were entirely gone. The visible garbage is mostly pastic; chip bags, water sacs (they have water bags instead of water bottles here), plastic bags etc.. The first week I was in Candelaria I had a fear of giving over my toilet paper scrapings (you don’t flush used toilet paper here, it collects in a bin next to the toilet) because I thought I might see them flying past my window. What a terrifying thought!

I asked Jorge what happened to the garbage here, was it collected? No, when the people want to get rid of their garbage it gets burnt. True, if you have plastic or glass bottles or even metal you can get money for it. In fact, there is even someone who comes by every once and a while to the town trading chicklets for plastic bottles. How cool is that? But more often then not, I see these recyclable things that are absolutely not flammable (like coke bottles, glass, metal cans etc) struggling to burn among the used toilet paper.

One of Jorge’s, the program director of the volunteering project here, ideas for the volunteers was to help teach the kids the importance of respecting the environment. He wanted to organize an activity where the kids helped to clean the street (because there is only one) of Candelaria. As much as I liked this idea, I couldn’t help feeling a little frustrated by it; Jorge’s property was chalk filled with garbage and I felt that ideas of waste management and environmental respect needed to start here first before it went to the school. We talked about how in Candelaria, there was no culture of sustainability. For example he said grudgingly, that when he brought spare bags to the grocery store the people in the streets would laugh at him and call him an old lady (I’m not sure why old women are associated with sustainable pactices but all the power to them!). He explained to me that people here choose grocery stories based on how many individual plastic bags they are given for their vegetables.  I asked Jorge he wanted help cleaning up his property, and he gladly accepted the help and the motivation.
The next day,  I knew we had a big task ahead of us and I was anxious to get going. However, Jorge insisted it would only take an hour and therefore (much to my frustration) we started an hour before sunset. Finally, Jorge, Mira, Kati (two other volunteers that were here for a week), Jose Manual, Alejandra, and I got going on picking up and sorting the garbage. I’m not going to lie, it was a nasty job. Here is a list of some of the things I happened upon:
– several single shoes
– assorted beer cans and rum bottles
– broken glass
– a pile of used toilet paper scraps
– lots of broken tiles
– cds
– copious amounts of plastic bag items
– used diapers (unfortunately lots)
– and other random things such as such as a casing for a motorcycle
It was a dirty job and we worked until the mosquitos descended on us like a cloud of heavy falling rain. Although I was pretty disgusted with the work, I felt equally exhilarated that we were able to fill over six big bags with garbage. I kept imagining how beautiful the property would look if it was filled with gardens.
When I got back to my homestay to take a shower, I told my homestay mother what we had done. She said something approvingly and confirmed that she hated having garbage and littering. My eyes wandered to the garbage lying close to the house and she quickly said that it was her neighbours. Just as she finished telling me this, her 14 year old son finished a bag of chips and threw it on the ground. 
It is true that Canada does not have the same littering problems. We do not see our garbage like Candelaria sees theirs but like Candelaria our garbage stays in our communities. Instead in Canada, the US and many other countries of the like, we use much more but don’t notice it because we hide it.We do not have a visible garbage problem but we have a big problem with overconsumption and waste management. In Candelaria, I became afraid of buying anything with wrapping because it would just turn into litter. Anything wrapped was just future garbage. I found myself choosing to have fresh fruit smoothies instead of drinks that came in bottles, and getting those fruit shakes for there so I did not have to deal with the ‘to go’ cup. I exclusively used my metal water bottle for hydration. Suddenly I was that downer that wanted to give kids fresh fruit instead of candies (don’t get me wrong I am not against sugar by any means!).

As the doom and gloom of the garbage situation became to impede in I found myself thinking of gardening. Last summer for the first time I had a big vegetable garden and started my own vermicompost. My home became a mini ecosystem where I could eat mz own food and the waste and by products from that food went into my compost and the compost went back into the garden where I could grow my own food. It was so satisfying.
The day before I left Jorge and I finally acted on the resolution to do something with our bags of garbage. Together with the children, armed with stuffing sticks, we began to stuff the plastic and styrofoam garbage into the plastic bottles. It was tough work, and again it was pretty nasty. But it was empowering because those we managed to, if you can believe it, stuff 3 big bags of garbage into 5 or 6 big coke bottles. The product of this method of garbage containment has recently become the basis for some NGO’s to use as a building material for houses. Jorge wants to use it to build gardens.