19 January 2009
Let me tell you a little somethin’ about livin’ abroad. This is the most challenging part of it, while, at the same time, it’s the most rewarding. Let me explain.
While I was living with my first host family in Ceyranbatan, I got this question a lot. “Amerikada var?” means “Do you have this in the United States?” On any given day, I could get it about everything: cows, bananas, cars, roads, hospitals, mosques, whatever. And, well, the answer is pretty easy when it comes to questions like that: Yes, we do have those in the United States, or no, we don’t have those there.
Whether or not something exists in the United States is one matter. However (And, like always, many Peace Corps volunteers can attest.), what about those “What’s life like in the United States” type questions. Yeah, those are different.
When you’re plopped down in the middle of a different life, you make great adjustments without even realizing it. The fact that I need to take off my shoes every time I enter a home and put on a pair of slippers never struck me as such a huge change because I didn’t really have time to think about it. You integrate one step at a time, being careful not to embarrass yourself. However, on any given night, when I’m laying in bed with nothing but my thoughts, I can sit back, reflect, and think, “Holy crap, if I was back home, who would give a darn if I wore slippers or not? We don’t put our bread and turkey bones on the bare table in Texas. I can sit back and cross one leg over the other in the U.S., and no one would give it a second thought.” Before I know it, my mind is blown.
So what am I getting at here? Well, what if you’re in the middle of a dialogue with someone from a different culture? This person has not been to the United States, and her only real impression of the U.S. is you. It’s easy for her to go on about her own culture because, well, you’re in it. You’re living it every day, but once you begin describing the intricacies of where you come from, things can get a little sticky: “What do you mean your mother drives to work every day?” “You can buy what at the grocery store?” “Coffee shops?” “How many rooms do you have in your house?”
These are just a few examples, and explaining yourself ain’t always easy. Most of all, you don’t want to leave a false impression, but how can you do that when you’re describing to a person that lives in a village with muddy roads that all the roads in your “village” are asphalt? How do you tell people that teenagers in your community go to a high school in an adjacent town with two stories, a huge gymnasium, a library, and a football stadium? I had a gentleman tell me the other day that my village was good and his wasn’t. “Well, no” I thought, “That isn’t it at all. It’s just different.” And that’s the truth.
And here’s the end-all question that has put many a volunteer in an awkward situation: “How much money does your brother make?” My school director asked me that (more than once), because he knows that my brother, Clay, is a teacher. “I don’t know” is my answer, and I stick to it. To be honest, I don’t know how much he makes, and don’t care to, and we Americans also tend to believe that money is a taboo subject to bring up, especially with folks we don’t know real well. But let’s put ourselves in their shoes. Imagine a situation in…whatever country…in which one person makes two grand a month, but his neighbor makes three grand a month. That’s a heck of a difference. It would give one good reason to ask around, seeing where the good jobs are. I know that making a comparison in salary between my director, who works in a school with wood stoves in each classroom and sheep wondering around in front, and my brother, who works at a private school in Chattanooga, would be futile, but I don’t blame the man for asking. I just have to play it cool, being careful not to leave them with the wrong idea. A lady who speaks good English told me, “Our lives can be difficult here, but in America, you make much money.” Okay, I admit that contrasts may exist in salaries, but that’s not to say that two working class parents in Wimberley, Texas, making minimum wage and trying to raise their three kids, live an “easy” life.
So how do you answer these cross-cultural inquiries? Well, you tell ‘em like it is, no matter how hard that may be. It doesn’t help to beat around the bush, and, to be perfectly honest, that’s why Peace Corps sends U.S. citizens all over the world: to give people an understanding of America. For me, sitting down with local folk and verbally painting a picture of where I come from is beautiful. It gives me great pleasure to describe my hometown to Firuz and Aybəniz, and see their heads slowly nod up and down. Whether folks leave your side saying, “Wow, America sounds cool” or “Good gracious, what a weird place he comes from,” you did what you should do, and you should keep doing it as best you can.