“To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.” – Martha Nussbaum
This post is dedicated to Aracelis “Sely” Ayuso and to all of the people who care about her.
“Livy, you look like a fairy. It must be your hair.” I let out a hearty laugh—a fairy? Really? Those were words I had never heard before. They came from the mouth of my smiling, 21 year-old coworker named Sely. We were standing behind the U-shaped counter of the bakery where we worked, where ten people at a time moved around each other through a chaotic, clumsy dance to serve coffee and pastries to the city’s elite. Every day, each of us had to wear a uniform meant to make us blend into this two-story, bustling place on 18th street. Day after day, I wrapped two aprons around my waist, wore a black t-shirt, and donned the dorkiest hat you’ve ever seen. Fairy attire, naturally.
Sely stood there in front of me and flipped my ponytail with a gentle flick of her wrist. “Yeah, it’s definitely the hair.” She continued, “I know you’re smart and shit, but if this medicine thing doesn’t work out, you should become a model.” I started cracking up again and told her that was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to me. We got back to stacking croissants in a perfect pyramid of butter-filled doom, and I was smiling.
This was the moment I thought about when I found out a few days ago that tragedy had struck. On July 12, 2014, Sely passed away due to a fatal subway accident on the platform of the Brooklyn-bound 4 train in Union Square. This jarring news weighed heavy on my heart, and I wanted to share the few glimpses of Sely that I experienced while we were working together. Some of us at the bakery only knew her briefly and in this context, like me. Her family and friends could say so much more, but this is what I know.
“Is that LIVY?” she would ask, with her head tilted, grinning.
While the rest of my coworkers and I usually would say hi to each other only once we found a break from the madness, she would always greet me this way immediately. It was like she was singing every time she said it, with a cadence so undeniably rooted in New York. It became a routine for me to tease her for shouting “cooaffee” instead of my Californian pronunciation of “coffee.”
Most days, she was lighthearted, silly, and kind of ridiculous. She always loved to talk about her adorable, three year-old daughter, Ashlynn. Sometimes she would seem tired, perhaps from things in her life I never knew anything about, but her spirit was always positive.
One day, however, her smile transformed into a look of concern. She had stepped off the counter to see if I was okay, because I had just stormed off and was pacing in anger. Five minutes after arriving that day, a customer had singled me out because of my ethnicity and my inability to give him a particular mug for his latte. His words dripped with entitlement, and for whatever reason that day I was just not having it. Of the 20 customers in line behind him witnessing this scene unfold, some glared at him with disgust. But not a single one spoke up to defend me. So I stopped what I was doing, and she ran after me. If it hadn’t been for Sely’s small gesture of compassion, I would’ve felt very alone.
There’s an essay by Rebecca Solnit, one of my favorite writers, in which she says, “The stars we are given. The constellations we make.” Sely was the kind of person who I would imagine as a star, a node that would branch off in all directions to form a network of connected, incandescent points in the sky. I am just one of what seems like many such points.
To me, remembering her means striving to live with the everyday kindness and disarming sense of warmth that she emanated.
This past year, I spent time volunteering with kids in Vietnam, traveling alone to Italy, and spending a lot of time making coffee. Openness is something that I keep returning to. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned through it all is that openness is not just a nice quality to have—it does something. It does work. It effects change. Being generous, kind, and present creates opportunities for human relationships to grow and for communities to be created.
Sely was one of several people I met this year who reinforced that lesson. It was as simple as the way she said hi to me.
I wish to send my thoughts and sympathies to her friends, family, and cutie pie daughter in particular. May her life be celebrated.
Last summer, I traveled to Vietnam to assist with an educational program that supports a group of both the brightest and poorest (we’re talking bottom 10%) 16-17 year olds from across Vietnam. My brother, friend, and I helped with the English part of their curriculum.
I realized that I never wrote about my experience there. I think that happened because these kids moved me in such an unexpected, deep way that I have been unable to articulate it. It wasn’t really about “empowering them,” whatever that means. We just became great friends. They changed me in a visceral way. In my gut.
“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” – Marcel Proust
I came back from Vietnam a happier person and am incredibly grateful for it.
P.S. I also had the best banh mi of my life in Hoi An.
Update as of 1 year later: turns out the kids have a serious Facebook addiction. We still write to each other. I hope to see them again in the near future.
I’d give you a favorite quote, but then I’d have to quote the whole thing.
Part of discovering what it means to be a “global citizen” requires a deep excavation into the inner, honest core of our own intentions, values, and biases. It involves digging far enough to unearth the true way we wish to orient ourselves toward the world.
Several young leaders are increasingly championing the idea of linking our own cores to those of others. I admire them for acting with confidence and conviction as they reshape the philosophical foundations of poverty alleviation. Meaning, they are pushing to end the era of pity-based charity, and are instead trying to transition to one of respect, sustainability, and collective responsibility. While this may be an ambitious undertaking, it is a grand vision that can be progressively realized.
Yet despite these efforts and my personal desire to exhibit humility, openness, and mindfulness, I fail sometimes. Fail is a strong word. I catch myself. Just when I thought I had learned the small lesson that we learn in kindergarten, not to make snap judgments or assumptions about other people, I got a little refresher during my time in Burma. It was one of those moments when I remember that I don’t know anything.
Under East Meets West’s Breath of Life Program, my family recently traveled to Yangon/Rangoon. Myanmar, or Burma, has one of the worst human rights records ever. But recently a number of good things have happened, at least at the surface level. The Burmese government held its first fair democratic elections, in which the leading opposition party (the National League for Democracy) won 43 of 45 seats. The United States announced that it would ease sanctions against Burma earlier this year. Hillary Clinton paid a visit and schmoozed it up. In spite of the recent government reform, journalists have published various pieces about the persistent challenges the nation still faces. Some say, too much, too soon.
I read things about Burma more than other countries. It’s actually really odd. I have no connection to this place. It started with the book, Freedom from Fear, which later led me to take up a bit of an interest in the story of a place that the international community seemed to have abandoned. In the process, I began to develop a narrative in my head. I envisioned a land of destitution, corruption, AIDS, instability, and violence that I hoped would somehow inch toward a better future for its people. Yes, I admit that it had become some kind of mythical creature that I wanted to understand. As you can see, this already sounds very problematic.
Next thing I knew, I found myself standing face-to-face with a group of Burmese nurses looking at neonates.
Because my mom was going for work, our family was able to visit one women’s and two children’s hospitals in Rangoon. They were all government hospitals. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I had developed preconceived notions about what a public hospital in a country with one of the most repressive governments in the world would be like. I didn’t even want my eleven year-old sister to come along, because I was afraid she’d get traumatized.
Turns out, I was very wrong. The health care was exceptional.
When we arrived at the first hospital, the Yangon Women’s Hospital, we were greeted by several doctors and nurses who emitted an immediate sense of warmth and kindness. The hospital was large and overgrown with mold like many other buildings in Rangoon. I was expecting chaos, for the halls to be lined with mothers in pain and kids without anything to eat. But no, everything was quite organized. They gave us a presentation on their region’s health status, the specific challenges, and how exactly they’d like to work together with EMW. We then toured the neonatal wards. (CUTE BABIES!!!) Everything was so sanitary that we had to remove our shoes and put on designated slippers before stepping foot inside the nursery. Charts lined the walls with details of each baby’s stats, and every room had at least a few nurses in it.
One notable quality of all three hospitals was the abundance of health staff. The nurses each had different color-coded outfits. The ones with red skirts were midwives, while green were another type of nurse. Something else that my parents pointed out was that each of the hospitals was run entirely by women. Wonder if that has anything to do with their success…
After spending more time with them, my parents could make the objective observation that the Burmese staff excelled compared to other hospitals in Southeast Asia. Whereas I could just feel that they did their job with pride and a commitment to high-quality health care. While everyone else from our group was talking or crowded around one bedside, I walked around to see what the rest of the nurses were doing. In the corners, they were attending to their patients when no other Westerners were watching, fixing the tubes and blankets and keeping an eye on the monitors.
Obviously, these hospitals still face significant obstacles that are far more complex than we could have understood in our short time there. That would probably take years to comprehend. These were not perfect sanctuaries. All in all, however, meeting some of the people behind Burma’s public health system inspired a lot of hope in me. I was reminded that a country’s health care is not its health indicators, WHO reports, or 10-page pieces in the New Yorker. Its life expectancy and infant mortality don’t really tell us anything. There are people working very hard, with no recognition, to deliver the highest level of care possible given their limited resources.
I wanted to share this story not because it’s anything new, but quite the contrary. It’s a complete cliche. American girl goes to poor country and mind is blown. What else is new. It’s these small moments that tap me on the shoulder and remind me to never forget to keep myself in check. To be aware of the ease at which I think I’ve grown out of certain things when I am really just skimming the surface.
I had spent so much time carefully thinking about how I wanted to (aka should) think about Uganda in preparation for my trip there. Put in the context of an adventurous journey to Burma, nothing seemed to translate. After all of this, I was ashamed of how much I had used my other experiences in poor countries to determine what Burmese hospitals would be like before even getting there. I am not immune to the cliche, or to the dangers that I myself often criticize.
The real take away is that there are some remarkable people in Burma’s hospitals. I’m honored to have met them.
Overheard in the field: “I have the courage to stand boldly before all of you because I want you to know that I will not die of AIDS.” – Zainabu, an HIV-positive woman from one of the groups we met with
Photos below: Visiting GlobeMed at UCLA’s partner in Anaka, testing school aged kids (14 and up) for HIV, immunizing babies who were born at home for TB, feeling a baby and helping with an antenatal home visit, meeting with HIV-positive women’s groups/youth groups