Episode 26 │ Honor Your Time (HAWAII/TANZANIA/D.R.)
Updated: May 4
"I think when people try to paint a picture of, 'Oh there's no point in you going back,' sometimes we have to question what is their motive behind that? Why is it that they don't want us to know where we come from and to return to our own land? Like, what is that?" (Meagan, Episode 26)
I was able to make Meagan Shokar's acquaintance thanks to my friend Irene Li from episode 4. They've known each other since high school, and Irene was gracious enough to talk up this podcast to Meagan so that Meagan was interested in being a guest too. Thank you, Irene!
While in undergrad at the University of Michigan, Meagan was considering going into global health, and that lead her to volunteer abroad with two different student organizations. The summer leading up to sophomore year, she went with an organization called MEDLIFE to Tanzania, where for two weeks she and other university students helped facilitate mobile health clinics and generally served as extra hands for local doctors. Meagan's duties included teaching local children how to brush their teeth. Then during the spring break of sophomore year, Meagan went to the Dominican Republic with MESO, and this largely pre-med/pre-dental program had her and other students assisting local dentists with supplies and minor procedures.
Eventually Meagan realized that her true passion was education, and concerns about the sustainability and impact of volunteer efforts abroad caused her to develop a more critical eye toward such programs. But she does credit those experiences with jump-starting her awareness of the assumptions we make and consequences we create when we show up to "help" communities in other countries. Going forward, she wanted to continue traveling in a way that causes the least harm as possible and allows for enjoyment that isn't dependent on the exploitation of local people. After all, "This is someone's home."
In 2016, after graduation Meagan began her teaching career in Hawaii (Hawai'i/Havaii), serving with Teach for America on "the Big Island" for two years. Hawaii had been her first choice, as she wanted to challenge herself and thought that moving to a such a unique place which she'd never visited before would be rewarding in the end. She was also intentionally seeking a diverse place that was different from what she was used to growing up in the southeast Michigan. It wasn't until college that Meagan began to conceptualize her own identity as a person of color and a brown woman in particular, and she hoped being in Hawaii would inform her in that way as well.
During those two years Meagan taught special ed in a high school, and in her spare time joined a halau (hula school), took karate lessons, and visited Maui and Oahu. She endeavored to put herself out there, but even today she marvels at how quickly and warmly she was welcomed into the local community even beyond her own efforts. The bonds she formed with her students still remain the most rewarding part of her experience, and having friendly relationships with her students' parents, her colleagues, the people who ran the school, and even her hula teacher made all the difference. These are the folks she loves, misses, and wants to see when she returns to Hawaii at some point. She'd even like to raise her kids there some day.
In addition to learning from the people around her, hula also proved instrumental in developing Meagan's understanding of Hawaii. Hula schools are often the source of Hawaiian cultural and linguistic knowledge in their respective communities, so students are educated not only in dance but also in Hawaiian customs and values, such as knowing one's ancestors, showing reverence to the land, and honoring one's fellows more than focusing on man-made things all the time. The emphasis on knowing ancestors' names and being able to recite one's lineage made Meagan realize how much she was missing out on, not being as familiar with her own heritage as she would've liked to be.
Authenticity and care.
Both sides of her family are Indian, but both sets of her grandparents also moved to England in their youth and most of her family was born in England, so for the majority of her life Meagan thought of England as her home, her "motherland" so to speak. With the mechanisms and history of colonialism on her mind more than ever before (as she learned, Hawaii was a sovereign kingdom that became a state less than 60 years ago), she decided to actively seek out ways to connect with her own roots. She finished her commitment in Hawaii this year and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, drawn by the large Punjabi community there. And over the recent Thanksgiving break, she insisted on having her parents take her to visit their family's land in Punjab, India.
Currently Meagan teaches high school English in the Bay while working on her Master's degree from Johns Hopkins University. In addition to going to Hawaii again, she'd also like to see more of Latin America. But for now she's taking a sort of rest period from international travel while she figures out where it makes the most sense for her to go and what approach would involve the most authenticity and care. Meagan can be found on Instagram (@ms.shokar).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Honor Your Time (HAWAII/TANZANIA/D.R.)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.