Must’ve been about a year or two ago that I was talking with a friend of similar background. She’d grown up moving around Africa and had gone on to tag on an African Studies minor to a political studies degree just as I did at Georgetown. How she described her college experience has stuck with me. She explained that she felt she wasted her college degree defending Africa against basic and widespread ignorance, rather than actually digging into material that would push her own academic growth. Well, she didn’t say it quite like that, but that’s what I heard probably because that’s how I felt at Georgetown too. I didn’t start college wanting any kind of geographic focus. In fact, as an aspiring international relations professional, I was cautioned to not take up a geographic preference. That fell through quickly when I began to lose respect for the average Georgetown student who tiptoed around the ‘topic’ of Africa the same way that many majority group students tended to tiptoe around race issues. That tiptoeing drove me up the wall, I grew angry and I started spitting the word “Africa” into as many spaces on campus on possible out of spite. I grew so obsessed with wanting any kind of conversation about Africa to happen that I lost sight of trying to pursue a quality conversation that would result in my own personal academic growth. As a sophomore, I personally invited Bobby Bailey, a member of Invisible Children to talk about his new film about malaria. I was so pissed at how easy it was for students to get mobilized to ‘fight’ cancer, while malaria or AIDS garnered hushed tones, wide eyes and innocently inquiring questions. I didn’t even think far enough to think of whether Bobby Bailey’s presentation would be of quality, which it was not. So then I left the night angrier than before: the students who had shown up had left the session afflicted with pity for people who are affected by malaria. If you’ve ever had malaria, you don’t pity people who get malaria; you just think the world is stupid for how high the number of malaria deaths continues to be each year.
Another brief example of an event gone wrong was a conversation about the DRC with Robin Wright where she teared up, summarizing a recent trip she’d taken to Eastern DRC – where my Mom is from but I have yet had the opportunity to visit – saying, “When you look into the eyes of the women… You can see their suffering” or some demeaning shit like that. I went in supercharged with the injustice that conversations about DRC were not happening in proportion to their need as the biggest loss of life since WW2 and came out supercharged with the anger of the conversation that was held not being right. I wasted my degree in this way. An expensive degree later, I can’t tell you much more about African history that I couldn’t tell you after IB, and that’s not a comment on the quality of the African Studies Department at Georgetown. I take full responsibility.
Peace Corps has been similar. A year into the contract, I feel like I’m wasting my time, rooted to a single spot by the incredible cultural insensitivities on the part of American volunteers that show up in my Facebook mini-feed on the daily. It’s entirely masochistic.
Today it was something about being chased by a cow and snot being snot-ed out while their host mom was cooking dinner. The other day it was a Tumblr that alleged that female PCVs lose their shit if a boy comes by (the implication being that the boy is western since PCVs, especially on Java, the world’s most populated island, are constantly surrounded by people with boy parts). Weekly there’s something about a parasite that causes a volunteer to be sick (eh, if you wanna laugh at your own diarrhea I don’t want to stop you, but just think of the perception you’re building) or there’s a status where the volunteer self-identifies as a bule/mzungu and talks about the trials and tribulations of that ‘life’. HEY FOREIGN WHITE* PEOPLE: words like ‘bule’ or ‘mzungu’ refer to colonizers who orchestrated brutal colonial systems that crushed millions of people. Props to you for calling your historical privilege into the conversation, but when you do it trying to be cute, just don’t.
I get that these are meant to be attempts at humor and that many volunteers want to share their experiences creatively. You are wrong in thinking that I don’t find it funny because we have different senses of humor. At least I’m pretty sure you are wrong because otherwise you should know that your sense of humor is discriminatory, racist, and perpetuates ignorance. I think you’re better than that; you’re just not thinking about the consequences of your jokes.
Too often they reveal a superiority complex that volunteers take with them when they enter their communities. Superior to their community members who most of the time do not have as solid of a foundation about things westerners might take for granted like nutrition or hygiene because of their poverty. And superior to their friends and family circles who have to take them on their word of how wacky and wild living in an Indonesian village is, when it’s really not.
The worst part is the medium – blogs, Facebook, Tumblr. Peace Corps today is not my father’s Peace Corps in Zaire. Obviously, as I’m doing now, I can share my thoughts with whoever chooses to click on my blog. Peace Corps’ third goal to increase Americans’ knowledge of other countries is so much more within reach than it was in the late 1970s. And we’re fucking it up every time we choose to introduce Indonesians as people who don’t understand enough basic hygiene to not to mix snot with dinner.
Where before I was frustrated by how little people seemed to know about Indonesia (which is unfair… I didn’t know much more than it being the largest Muslim population before I landed here), I am now infuriated by the condescension of people who do make a commitment to a random community on Java for 2 years (which most twenty-somethings seem to think is a considerable amount of time) and then proceed to take advantage of that community, often linguistically shielded when they make comments in English.
I vented to a friend at school about that particular status tonight and he had a good perspective about it. He explained that in Javanese culture, when you enter a family, usually you try to keep the shit in the family and you don’t vent to strangers. To say that’s Javanese culture is just softening the blow: it’s a universal truth. It can be tough to manage different families that exist across the globe with social media. But sacrificing the family that’s physically right in front of you and is planning on feeding you that night; that is pretty heavy and it frequently pushes me to not want to be a part of the Peace Corps community. If your 2-year plan is to smile pretty for your community members and save clever funny moments whose main theme is developing country/rural community/poor people’s backwardsness to share with the internet world, you’ll be doing more harm than good. My friend was generous – he conceded that it’s a norm to not always use tissue to blow your nose here. He goes, “Most of the time, when I see people use tissue to blow their nose, it’s because they’re rich. Maybe your friend can just buy a tissue box for their host mom in a few days and find a joke to stress using tissue.” Ahh. Yes, basic human decency.
Peace Corps volunteer culture as I’ve experienced it looks to take care of volunteers who are not feeling the host country. Everyone crowds in and supports. That’s great. Everyone should do what’s right for their situation. Volunteers like each other (maybe not me after this post, but I’m ok with that) and 2 years joking and laughing together is great. But hopefully our jokes and laughter can be more inclusive and can be more thoughtful, particularly in the perceptions that volunteers actively create for their friends and families who are keeping tabs on their work in various host countries and who are getting an ‘in’ to getting to know countries like Indonesian because they have a human connection to these islands.
But just giving a connection isn’t quite good enough; the conversation has to be respectful, even when attempting to make a joke. Quit assuming that everyone deals with the stresses of volunteering in the same way. And don’t even try to make it seem like being on point as a volunteer is equivalent to never groveling at the feet of your host family and saying only good things about Javanese/Sunda/Madurese/Indonesian/Muslim/School/etc culture. Everything has its problems. You’re a good volunteer when you’re you and you’re able to use your judgment to promote a culture of peace.
Personally, I’m having trouble not wasting my Peace Corps experience away just as I did the African Studies degree because I can’t let (what should be) petty shit like this go. I didn’t imagine that cultural exchange could be so ugly and that people wouldn’t be more aware of their role in promoting stereotypes. If you’ve got any advice, I’ll gladly take it. I don’t think that this is stuff that anyone should walk away from or just not concern themselves with so that’s not an option. It’s like hearing a joke about rape and not going off about how unfunny it is. Humor builds norms and we’re all implicated in carrying forward a culture with healthy norms, rather than destructive ones. So, really, I’ve got no conclusion, just needed to scream a bit.