Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Merits of Site-Rathood, The Merits of Patience

I have a site mate in my town. Peace Corps is a different experience when you have another volunteer nearby. I don’t feel as isolated as I did in my old village, where the only other foreigners were the Chinese road crew, whom I couldn’t really communicate with, and whose existence guaranteed that no one would ever grasp the concept of Pacific Rim immigration to America.

“But you look just like those Chinese of the road. You’re not American.”

“That’s because you don’t know what Americans look like.”

“But you must have a background in China.”

“No, my parents are from Taiwan.”

“Oh! How do you find Kenya as compared to Taiwan?”

“I don’t know. I live in America.”

Having a site mate also means it’s easier to be a site rat – to stay at site for several weeks without needing to leave. I used to take off for a bigger town every chance I got at my last site, if only to have fried fish and a milkshake made from real ice cream, or to meet up with other volunteers to blow off steam over cold beer. Now stress relief is only a text message away.

“U wana come over for dinner? I’m conducting a chow mein experiment. No guarantees on edibility.”

“Yeah…nimpo tomorrow morning?”

“Okay. What’s playing at the 5 bob movie house?”

It’s a nice feeling of solidarity. We speak American. We roll our eyes at each other when we’re harassed for money or when people stare as we’re walking around town. We try to make familiar food with unfamiliar ingredients. We speculate about where to find wireless internet, drool over my new laptop, eat popcorn and drink Trader Joe’s tea while watching DVDs, talk openly about our bowel problems, commiserate about cross-cultural frustrations, and spend Sunday mornings practicing nimpo while the rest of the country dies of boredom in church.

Having a site mate validates my perceptions and reactions to the confusing culture I live in. My neighbors might act hostile towards me for whatever inexplicable reason that they would never tell me about if their lives depended on it, but at least I have someone nearby who can say, “Yeah, I get that from people, too. I don’t understand it.” And suddenly I have someone to not understand it with. It’s great.

The difference is all in the immediacy. All this validation was available to me when I was living in my old village; it was just so much less accessible. I had to wait until the weekend, travel 2 ½ hours, and hope to run into someone who was also in town.

In addition to my site mate, there are two other volunteers who live within 30 minutes of my town. It’s like a Peace Corps Volunteer zoo, at least to all the people staring when we’re together, but the monkey house isn’t so far from the ostrich habitat and the hyrax exhibit and the snake farm, and I’m glad I can bust out of my cage whenever something gives me the urge to jump up and down baring my teeth, screaming and scratching my armpits.

More on the Disempowerment Thing. People may feel disempowered, but let them see their own abilities, and they just fly.

My first week at my new organization, my co-worker shoved a handwritten letter in my face.

“Can you type this for me? I need it right away,” he said.

“Wull, why don’t you do it yourself?” I said.

“You’re much faster. I don’t know how to type,” he said.

“Then this is your opportunity to learn,” I said.

“I don’t have time today. I’ll learn next time,” he said.

“Well who’s going to type your letter today?”

He looked at Carren, who started shaking her head. “Do you know how much work I have today?” she said.

I sat him down in front of my laptop and told him to start typing. He just stared at the blank screen.

“What do you want to do first?” I asked.

“I want to write the address on the right hand side,” he said. I showed him the Tab key. I also showed him the Space Bar, the Shift key for making capital letters, and the Return to go to the next line.

He wasn’t lying about not knowing how to type. It was agonizing watching him hunting and pecking for keys that I knew by heart, so I asked if he wanted to know anything else, and left him alone. An hour later I came back, and he was beaming. He had finished his two-sentence letter, all by himself. He was extremely proud of himself, and so was I. It was obvious that he’d had an incredible sense of accomplishment that day, and it was gratifying to see “sustainable development” at work, especially after wondering if I had been too harsh making him type the letter himself. Dr. Phil is a total cheeseball, but that day I had to say, tough love ain’t such a bad policy.


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