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Yo PCVs: Your Facebook Statuses Make Me Want to Early Terminate.

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.

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7 thoughts on “Yo PCVs: Your Facebook Statuses Make Me Want to Early Terminate.

  1. KP says:

    Hey Martine,

    It’s always interesting to me to hear your perspective of the Georgetown experience as being someone from Africa. I took 3 Africa-focused classes while at Georgetown and my English thesis was on African lit. In one, my history class, I definitely encountered some of the people you describe (although I also met some of the smartest people I know re. African issues). In the other two I experienced no frustrations. I am perhaps not a fighter and simply avoided being around people who annoyed me with their ignorance. At the end of four years I’d whittled down my friend group so hard, I really didn’t have anyone to rage against.

    Cultural misunderstanding, mistrust and insensitivity is so woven into the fabric of my upbringing in the “new” South Africa. We are all accused of it all the time. We all try to forgive each other all the time. (Or at least we’re supposed to) (white people definitely take advantage of this). I don’t expect people not to be ignorant. I try to stay cognizant of my own ignorance. I did spend a lot of time at Georgetown teaching people — and being anxious I wouldn’t do a good job — but that was something I assumed I’d have to do. When I go back home I find myself teaching people about America. It made me angry when someone at Georgetown thought South Africa was a geographic region and didn’t know who Nelson Mandela was. But it also made me angry when an incredibly well-educated relative back home told me Americans on the coasts are intelligent enough but the stuff in the middle is all morons. I guess my point is… an openness and empathy to understand the snot story can also be directed at PCVs acting in horrible ways (I’m not necessarily equating the two). I am more and more skeptical of my ability to change things (and people) that don’t want to be changed. But I do believe deeply in the power of a personal encounter and the power of a story that connects. People who are closed and don’t connect I just ignore.

    Also if I were worried about my reputation by association I’d be dead in the water. White Afrikaner here!

    Kylé

    • martinerandolph says:

      Hey Ms. Pienaar,

      As always so wonderful to hear from you and to hear your calm and wisdom when faced with issues that I lose myself in. I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve written. That the misunderstandings are on both sides. That the truth of the matter is that focusing on people that you disagree with means that you miss out on the people that you do agree with. And that, most importantly, “forgiving each other all of the time” is the key. I’m not sure how to be patient and uplifting, though, as you are. I feel like there are things that are obviously wrong or ignorant, despite people’s best intentions. I naturally blame people of privilege – particularly economic and educational privilege – as the ones (like me) who need to be working hardest to try to make things a bit better. You’re right, there’s a better way to teach and a need for more empathy. It’s just infuriating.

      • KP says:

        I should also add that it’s a whole lot easier to be this zen in writing than it is in practice, and that I’m guilty of my own rages. Circumstances the last few months have had me going to lots of fancy dinners and meeting fancy people all super wealthy from the corporate world and my first instinct is to positively hate them and everything they stand for. “Let them eat cake” attitudes throw me into a fury. Which is a little silly because of course to most of the rest of the world _I’m_ a fancy pants. So I do understand your anger being directed more pointedly at privilege. Big mystery to me is still how to make discontent useful.

  2. Alex says:

    Martine,

    “…and then proceed to take advantage of that community, often linguistically shielded when they make comments in English.”

    I think that is so well put. I’ve even experienced that happening in person, where a volunteer says some insolent comment in English because they assume those around them cannot understand. But unlike you, I’m not giving any specific examples, and volunteers who read that may just shake their heads in agreement without having to really question themselves or their peers. I think the reason this is getting so much attention is because of those specific examples. If you hadn’t given them, I think this would have just been “liked” and everybody would have agreed that racism is bad and moved on without having to take a moment and really question their own ways of thinking. I think it’s true that volunteers use the idea of their “sacrifice” being here as an excuse for a lack of compunction. Sometimes struggles, frustrations, or exasperations reveal patterns of uncritical thinking I agree are NOT okay and moreover seem ludicrous coming from such smart, educated, well-intentioned people.

    During MST, I was playing a game with some PCVs, and I ended up making a classist jab at community colleges in America, comparing them to “real” colleges. I didn’t even hear myself say it, but my best Peace Corps friend called me out without missing a beat. I was embarrassed and surprised, but the way it came out revealed something I didn’t realize was there. At my prep school, there is a huge joke about not getting into Harvard or Yale or Princeton and instead having to go to “Bunker Hill,” a community college you can see from the highway on the way into Boston named after its location in Charlestown. It’s so stupid. Could most of us “succeed” without all the opportunities handed to us? Of course not. Yet those trying were to be scoffed at? That’s such a dirty and backwards way of thinking, and I’m ashamed that clearly there was some of it in me. I felt defensive after I said that, and wanted to apologize and explain how that really wasn’t what I meant or believed, but once you put something out there, it’s there. I wanted to protect my ego and make sure everyone knew I was a good person, that actually one of my most valued friends went to community college, that one of my most valued friends currently goes to community college, but that’s still so selfish. All I could say was, “What? I said that? Oh my god that’s so classist and totally not okay. I can’t believe I said that!” Anything but admitting my fault would have been unconscionable.

    So I guess my point is that we can’t let each other get away with saying things that aren’t okay. And we also can’t let each other be defensive. Saying something racist isn’t the end of the world and doesn’t make you a bad person unless you’re intentionally trying to hurt someone’s feelings or put a group of people down for being different from you. I’m not sure I can say I’ve ever experienced a Peace Corps volunteer even come close to that. Peace Corps is a tool to help create a world educated in recognizing humanity in those who are different. If someone reads your blog post and then thinks to themselves, “Fuck! I hope I haven’t written anything Martine thinks is totally lame and racist/classist/sexist/homophobic/religiously insensitive,” then your post is invaluable because it makes someone really think about what he believes versus how he thinks versus how he expresses himself. That is what real critical thinking is, and that uncomfortable feeling of even just maybe having been wrong on some fundamental level should be craved and cultivated.

  3. Sarah says:

    Hey Martine,

    Sarah here. I’m still processing your blog and deciding what I think, but my first thought was exactly what Alex said, “Shoot! I hope I haven’t written anything Martine thinks is totally lame and racist/classist/sexist/homophobic/religiously insensitive.” I immediately did an inventory and I’ve said a lot of demeaning things about the Javanese or Indonesians on Facebook and I’m aware of it.

    That’s what I want to focus on, the AWARENESS.

    Why do we still write these things if WE KNOW that they are unfair to our Indonesian friends and Indonesian family?? Why write cutesy things such as, “No one here knows who Hitler is, come on Indonesia!” when we know:

    a) It’s not the individual’s fault per se, it’s a lack of a good education (who defines what a good education is, though? Must you know about Hitler to have a “good education?”)
    b) it makes the assumption that everyone should know about Hitler because all AMERICANS more or less know about Hitler
    c) we know that it will make an Indonesian seem stupid to an American

    The other day, I wrote a super mean text about an Indonesian bus driver to Brian, and as I was writing it I said, “Man, this is a super mean text.” So why did I still send it? I was aware that it was demeaning.

    Why doesn’t my AWARENESS of my meanness STOP me from being mean?? I don’t think I’m an inherently mean person…

    I think I sent the text to blow off some steam. We need to do that, but you have made it clear and I agree that it’s time we find a more constructive way. We can’t profoundly thank our host mothers for feeding and housing us and then write about how uneducated she is on FB. That’s not fair and it’s deceptive.

    It’s still actually not okay but at the very least more acceptable to blow steam off this way (aka send texts and update FB) when we are in the US because we are in a culture that is understood by those receiving our messages. But when we are representing another country, I agree, I have not been fair to the smart, amazing people I have met here.

    And with that, I need to go proof read the blog I was about to post about the fact that I rarely meet intellectual people here in Indonesia. Because I do meet them, but the intellectualism is manifest different than I’m used to in the US. I’ve still got a long way to go to truly be humble…

  4. Sabine says:

    I like the thinking in this post and the next. am very interested in what you are saying about knowledge/discourse on Africa at Georgetown and the language you have seen PCVs use to talk about their host communities. I will keep reading!

  5. Pingback: Not My Father’s Peace Corps: Service in a Digital Age | it's still raining here

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