Thursday, March 1, 2012

December - Integrated/still confused

-From December 4th: Yesterday Kerry, Shannon and I were out shopping (which is surprisingly tiring!) and when we were walking around centre ville they commented that they were so impressed with how I interacted with the sellers, that I was calm and friendly and patient. I hadn't thought about it. Their comments left me with this sort of realization moment, a mental question asking if maybe I'm more comfortable here than I usually give myself credit for. It was a really cool feeling, to think that even amid the fumbling for words and the cultural misunderstandings I can still navigate and feel like I almost know what I'm doing, to the point that even other volunteers notice.

-From December 14th: I've come to the realization that living in another culture means hiding a lot of yourself. Not necessarily on purpose, but I feel like I would have to live here for a very long time before I would feel even a little bit like “myself”. Right now it feels like there are two parts to my life – there's America Jess, and there's Burkina “Zess-e-ka”, and it's nearly impossible to bring the two together. I still feel much more attached to America Jess, still consider that to be how I define myself, but that makes it hard to admit that I really can't express much of my America personality to my friends and colleges here.

I think I came to Peace Corps expecting to struggle with cultural differences, but also to have some nice lightning-bolt moment where it would strike me that we're all human and not so different after all. It's true, no matter what your language or culture or comfort food of choice, we do have a lot in common with each other, which is pretty neat. But I didn't realize just how deep culture and cultural mores and expectations and reactions could run. It's why PCVs react badly to being called “nasara” or feel hurt when people constantly point out things that make us different – we come from a culture where obvious, unacceptable, or embarrassing differences are politely ignored. It's why Burkinabe say yes to all of our projects even when they don't want to do them or think it's a bad idea, because saying “no” in this culture is next to impossible, so rude as to be unthinkable.

There are so many times when my CSPS staff members will say something, or ask a question, or make some comment and I'll think “you really just don't get me, do you?” They truly can't understand when I explain to them that calling someone “the white” or “the black” or “the fat one” or “the old one” are so rude as to be totally unacceptable in my culture. In their minds you can use a racial identity as a put down, but it doesn't have the connotations as in the US – you can imagine our surprise in stage when we heard people telling us “oh, he's Bissa, he's my slave” “no, no, the Dagara are the slaves of the Bissa, she's my slave” and had to come to accept that this was a common form of joking and actually indicates a historical linking of two tribal groups.

Well, yesterday was a moment when Sali got to tell me “you just don't understand” and I truly didn't understand. For several months my Major has been talking about getting a laptop from the US. Upon discovering that Amazon-France doesn't ship to Burkina, we decided that since I was going home for Christmas he would give me the cash and I'll get it shipped to Arizona and bring it back. I'd printed several choices when I was in Ouaga, he chose one, and life seemed good. Then my midwife, Sali, decided she wanted one. Ok, I thought, bringing back two computers is kind of a pain but no worries. I told her that Major still had the papers of the different laptops, she should ask him for them and then she could choose. “Oh no, Major can't know that I'm asking you to bring me back a laptop.” “Why not” “He just... can't.” “But I don't understand, he's getting one, he's already chosen it, why can't he know that you're getting one as well?” She exchanges a meaningful glance with Koka, the woman who does twice monthly enriched porridge demonstrations for a local NGO. “Oh Jessica, you don't understand”

Nope, sure don't. She refused to elaborate further, so I told her I'd get the papers from Major and tell him it was for someone else. I really have no idea! Technically he's her boss, but they're about the same age and she's been here for much longer so she has a bit of a power advantage from that. I could understand if she was getting one and he wasn't, but they live next door to each other, see each other every day, she has no way to charge it except at his house or at the CSPS – it seems very unlikely that this will stay a secret for very long. The frustrating part was her complete unwillingness to even try to explain it to me. Maybe it's something she doesn't have the words for in French – that's usually my problem. I'm so curious to see what happens! (Follow up note - everyone now knows that they both have computers, Major found out within a few days of me getting back when she needed to charge the battery, and I never did get an explanation for why it had to be so secret at first)

-Although I didn't write about it (I was too busy enjoying it!) I did spend 3 weeks back in the US – Christmas with my parents in Tucson, and New Year's in northern California with Sunyata. The whole thing was amazing, and such a great opportunity. I ate more delicious food in those three weeks than I ever imagined it was possible to eat – chocolate, cheese, beef, wine that comes in a bottle instead of a box, ice cream, salads, curry, thai, I even tried (and enjoyed) mysterious new things like swiss chard and mustard greens and tofurkey. I went to museums, I went hiking, I walked on a beach, I went to dinner parties and shopping in stores that had an overwhelming abundance of options. The hardest part was leaving. I think I made a right nuisance of myself the last few days with my parents, crying for seemingly no reason all the time. All I can say is that I had expected to finish my vacation feeling ready to go back to Burkina, and instead all I felt was deep sadness and anxiety to be leaving, to be going back. Once I was back in the country for a few days it blew over and things were fine, but I had clearly underestimated the emotions that go into leaving and returning from service here.

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