Peace Corps Experience
Today we received an email about an article a RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) wrote about the Peace Corps experience. Although everyone who enters Peace Corps has the experience of living on another country, not everyone gets the real Peace Corps experience.
There are several factors that prevent someone from getting the true experience, most of them are brought on by that individual volunteer. There is always a pull to go to the familiar, which means staying in close contact with your Peace Corps family, and failing to branch out to learn about your neighbors. In cities there are usually several expatriates. It is natural to gravitate towards them to have a taste of the familiar. We also have volunteers from Australia and Japan here and we want to learn about them and their countries, which can also be a barrier. When you are in the village, there is always the feeling that you don’t want to be in the fishbowl anymore and lock yourself in your house with your computer to watch movies and read books.
The main reason when it is not the volunteers fault to get a true grasp of the culture is when they are placed in the city. When you are around all those outside forces nonstop, and others want to assimilate to you and learn about your country it is very difficult to grasp fully where you are living.
I feel lucky being placed in a rural village, as it makes it easier for me to fight these forces and really come to love my village. It makes me only leave my village when it is truly necessary, and after spending too much time away, I begin to yearn for my village. I feel like a true part of the community as I spend so much time with neighbors doing many different tasks.
Does this make me Samoan? No way. Not even close. I do not do most of the daily tasks of a normal Samoan. Given the choice between doing the daily chores of a Samoan, and socializing and learning about people through different activities, I choose the activities.
Samoan women will spend hours a day weaving mats. That’s not to say that the mats are not needed, as they are used for so many different things, especially for presents. The house where they weave the mats is a great place to socialize, and I have gone there several afternoons, but I would rather branch out to other people. Another activity I see the women doing constantly is sweeping. I swear Samoans sweep the floor more than anyone I have ever met. They also will spend a long time preparing food, as it takes a lot longer to cook over the open fire than in a palagi kitchen. I am lucky in this factor as well, since my brother here is an amazing cook. (Hint for Billy (my brother) when I return home…A brother that cooks is a necessity!) They also go to church several days a week. I choose to only go on the weekends, Saturdays to my family’s church, and Sunday alternating in the village with the different churches.
Instead I spend my time, wherever seems right. Today I had to take a walk to the post office which is a little over a mile each way. Because of all the relationships I have built, my trip took me well over two hours round trip. Talking to my neighbors is a compete necessity, as is sometimes coming over to visit someone for a nice hot cup of cocoa.
I have noticed that the longer I am here, the more people want to include me in their activities. This can range from inviting me fishing, going to the plantation, or just joining them in a game a volleyball. Recently I was invited to partake in two gender specific roles and I felt uncomfortable. Although I wanted to experience it, it is not my role, and I had a feeling that if I were to do them, I might have lost respect in others eyes. One was drinking ava (known in many other countries as kava). Men are the only ones who drink it, unless you are at an ava ceremony. Ava has an unusual taste, and although I wish I could experience it more like my Peace Corps brothers, it is looked down upon for females. The second was joining the sa police. The police of the village make sure that people don’t leave their house during evening prayer. They make sure people do not distract others that are trying to pray. In some villages, they will even stop the vehicles. The village completely shuts down. This is another interesting experience, but I know it would cause my neighbors to talk.
I am probably not getting the most of my Peace Corps experience by missing some of the gender role activities, but I feel if I only found myself doing that instead of taking the time to get to know everyone I would also be missing part of the experience. It is a hard line to draw-how much of being a volunteer is enough and when is it truly appropriate to head to the city for a break, or dive into a great book.
I guess if I think it is enough of an experience doing my daily activities, then it must be. I have built so many relationships that truly make me a part of the community. I guess I am getting the true Peace Corps Experience.