Wal-Mart Revelations

I distinctly remember the first time in my life when I felt like a minority in my own country. This was sometime in the early 2000’s when my sister was living in Miami, and we were in need of some items for her apartment so we traveled a few minutes by car to the local Wal-Mart. In the twenty minutes that we spent inside, we were the only Caucasians, and the only ones speaking English other than our bi-lingual cashier. Yes, this is a rather stereotypical scenario, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to have some form of cultural awakening in Wal-Mart, or Miami for that matter. However contrived the scenario may have been, it made me cognizant of the ever-churning melting pot that is America. No longer a country of black and white, America has grown to embrace the full spectrum of color and culture. This realization about identity in America resurfaced recently when I found myself surrounded by 50 of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers in Indonesia. When we set foot on Indonesian soil for the first time, we were immediately seen through a magnifying glass. We were a motley crew to say the least, and it should come as no surprise that over the next three months, the two most common questions asked of us were “where do you come from?” followed by “what do Americans look like?”

I was one of a select few who had a relatively straightforward response. I was born in a fairly homogenous town in America, and my ancestry is confined to most of Western Europe. Other volunteers constantly had to clarify; “I am Vietnamese and Chinese, but yes, home for me is America.” In another exchange, I witnessed Indonesians boldly dance in front of a friend with their arms flailing about, saying dari India, dari India (“I’m from India, I’m from India.”) Politely, she corrected them “I was born in America, but I am Sri Lankan.” They’d retort, “Sri Lanka? Where is that? Ohhh, well you might as well be Indian!” I had to reconsider the implication of identity and movement and realize the expansive territory that comes with the two. In nations that aren’t as upwardly mobile as America, your identity is a static concept often dictated by your physical appearance.

As Peace Corps volunteers, we are often considered the lens through which others see our country. In some instances, we are the first Americans ever met. The way we inadvertently portray our country from what and how we eat, to our opinions of Obama, will color their own opinions of America. Yes, most have access to a TV in which images of America frequently pan across the screen, but there is a disconnect between that America and the America we are choosing to represent. My favorite question being, “Is Hollywood real?” Last week I was asked if I had medicine to cure someone with Downs Syndrome. I initially thought this question absurd, but after pausing for a moment, I realized that in popular media there is medicine for everything and Downs Syndrome doesn’t exist.

The more you travel and see the world, the more you’re sharpening and refining your senses, and your relationship to people and place. Home becomes a moveable ideal. In many ways this is a huge liberation from the way I previously viewed home; a de-materialization of sorts. In my early twenties, I seemed to place more stock in material investment than spiritual investment. When I first made the decision to move abroad to Thailand, it was brought to my attention that I had simply acquired more things than necessary. I began the purge of picking and choosing what I wanted to take with me, and since then have attempted to shift the focus away from the material and towards emotional and mental contentment. Home can be whatever is carried around inside you, so you might as well make it a place full of happy faces and beautiful places.

In many ways, it gives me a great sense of pride that I can say I’ve felt like a minority in my own country, and that I’m now in a country that affords me the privilege to travel and act as a cultural liaison to other countries. My views and opinions are the synthesis of many cultures, and the more people I meet and encounter the more my worldview expands and contracts, loses focus and refocuses. But, what I’ve learned from travel and life abroad is that movement comes at a price and that price is being able to reflect on your position in the world, and where you stand.

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Time to get integrated!

Growing up in an individualistic culture, nothing can quite prepare you for life in a collectivist culture. Ironically, the two times in my life where I’ve felt most alone have been in some of the world’s most densely populated places. Born and raised in America, you’re taught to be self-reliant, and the goals and achievement of the individual are emphasized over any particular group or collective. In Southeast Asia, the cultures emphasize the sense of self as a member of a larger collective. It is fundamental to take care of every member of the family. When I moved to Southeast Asia for the first time I asserted my self-sufficiency and independence, and was left feeling alienated and unsure how to successfully integrate. It took some effort, but gradually I learned to let go of this mindset, and embrace the vibrancy and collectivism surrounding me.

The first three months at permanent site Peace Corps imposes a mandatory community integration period. This time is crucial for relationship building and establishing a strong foundation within the community. It just so happens that our mandatory integration period coincides with the Indonesian school holiday, and also Ramadan. This means that our routine has gone from highly structured and being a part of the densest groups of bules (white people) in Indonesia to no structure, and being the only bule for a 200 km.. Moving to permanent site was difficult not only because it meant severing ties with friends and family, but it also meant mustering up newfound energy to start anew. Maintaining that energy for the next two years will prove to be the ultimate test. In the words of Winston Churchill, “success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” It will be a continual challenge to figure out, get used to, and become effective in unfamiliar circumstances amidst unfamiliar people.

I’m constantly reminding myself that my mere presence may cause a person to consider a new way of doing things. Simply by existing, I may call into question a plurality of behaviors, beliefs, and opinions. Why am I eating such little rice, and why am I not eating it with my hands? Is Hollywood real? Is it true that Barak Obama likes Bakso (a type of meatball soup that is very popular in Indonesia)? Did I ride my bike here from America? Today, I met with a teacher counterpart and his family. His wife and daughter kept motioning towards my face and smiling excitedly. They could not conceal their delight over my nose. Yes, my nose. My nose happens to be big and pointy like the nose of an Arab. They were happy to see such a nose in real life because it’s unlike flat Asian noses, which apparently “look like squatting frogs.” This story reminded me of another nose story that was relayed to me the previous week. The first time my friends’ parents met it was in the Philippines, where her father was serving in the Air Force. He entered the store where her Filipina mother happened to be working and all she could say to him was “you has a noses like Jesus Christ.” It was love at first sight, and they’ve been together ever since. (Keep in mind we’re dealing with a Muslim majority in Indonesia, and a Catholic majority in the Philippines).

The most important thing I can take away from the first few weeks in my new home is to embrace the ambiguity. The flux of day-to-day life is the time meant for exploration and observation. I’ve learned to say yes to all the invitations –well most. I’ve been asked multiple times to spend the night somewhere, but politely decline (that goes back to the collectivist culture mentioned earlier–the whole family sometimes sleeps in one bed). Saying yes to a social invitation in a collectivist culture goes along way. I’ll leave with some parting comments from our Director of Programing and Training, since her message is so apt to what we’re currently experiencing. “Before claiming that nothing is happening, take a step back and notice that people are making their livings, feeding their families, finding solace and joy in their faith, guiding and chiding their children, taking pride in their traditions, and may be truly uncertain about how to involve a foreigner in their lives. Show them that you’d simply like to be with them.”

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