As ex-patriots enduring hardships, as fish out of water, as people trying to stay sane- as Peace Corps volunteers- we tell ourselves a lot of lies. We tell other people lies: Lies to get through the week, the day, the meal (do fried pig intestines count as a meal?).
But which is it? Do we tell little lies to make the day easier? Or do we forget who we are?
We talk in the Peace Corps about adjusting your standards as a volunteer and living with an altered set of expectations. For example, if I walk into my new site expecting a ceramic bathtub and air conditioning, I may be disappointed. If I walk into my new site expecting to bucket bathe and live without the luxury of a fan, the fact that I have hot running water becomes the highlight of the month. Lower your standards, raise your average. However, that little tactic for staying happy and sane can quickly become a slippery slope of floppy moral values and self-efficacy. "I could go without running water," becomes, "I never really liked deodorant anyway," which becomes, "It's alright if he doesn't have teeth- he speaks spanish." Hake! Now we're fishing low. But how do you ensure you're traveling far enough down the path of alternate expectations without slipping down the landslide?
Like Roxette said, listen to you heart?
(insert <3 emoticons, wink wink, smiley face, exclamation point!)
Listen- if I told the truth about everything to the people I live with I would have no friends. Having no friends in Paraguay means you also don't have any coworkers. No separation exists between work and home, between family and business friends, between peluqueria and class time (wait... what?). This is why we spend the first three months in site not doing anything. Anything, of course, being the very American notion of shuffling papers, sending emails and producing tangible, touchable evidence of our labors. What we are actually doing in those three "idle" months is making friends - which can be a heady task- and hopefully making people love and trust us, thus enabling a work environment.
Would people love me if I told them I was of the (shhhh) Judaic persuasion? Supported (quiet!) same-sex civil unions? Didn't like (what?!) beans?!?! Meat?!?!?! Paraguayan men climbing through my window at night?!?!?! Shut up! Of course none of that's true!
So we make tiny little concessions to sneak stealthily into this very contradictory but navigable culture- if you've got the right compass. And once we are established- once someone loves us- once we find our mother number two, father number 3, indispensable next-door neighbor señora- then we can start leaking out whole-truths, big juicy life secrets instead of the watered down half pint we've been feeding people.
That's how it was for me. And now? Now I laugh and tell people that beans and I are not friends, that I don't like to eat a lot of red meat because it's bad for the heart and that I don't dig on the overwhelming culture of infidelity spread among Paraguayan men (and women). And people get it. Because they're humans and so am I and it's hard to hold yourself back for so long and present an altered version of your personality just to please other people.
BUT- am I 100% here? Bragging about my political stances on medical coverage and welfare?
That would be a social and professional death sentence. Even though we've been here a year now and myself I feel integrated into my community- I have people I genuinely trust, feel relaxed, at home- I still do and say things that do not reflect the person I believe I truly am. This weighs on me.
But it's not possible for most of us to do otherwise.
Four days ago I was walking with a friend on an isolated dirt road, no one around, no traffic, no houses, no nada, and we threw an empty cardboard chocolate milk container into the bushes (guilt of physical tossing of container will remain unplaced). Neither of us said anything for a moment. Why? Because throwing sick trash into a lush green ambiance of tropical plants and fauna is normal. Then she laughed and so did I. Who are we?!?!
I've always been one to vilipend littering. Fiercely so and to the irritation of most everyone around me apart from my tree-hugging sister (hug on, Jin). But look around us. Imagine the image we are trapped inside of- and not just physically but culturally. We have just passed by a series of burn piles dotting the side of the road, still smoldering and letting off just a wee bit of toxic gas into the air we breathe. The flora is already scattered with plastic bottles and used diapers. Pieces of flip flops have been ground into the road, half buried under packed red dirt.
What are we doing throwing trash into the bushes? Integrating.
What am I doing eating more chipa so'o then is healthy for me (that equals one piece by the way)? I'm looking normal.
And what the hell am I doing peeing into a plastic bag on a campo bus full of strangers? What my mama told me to do. Relax.
We adapt. We figure out what things we can do without comprising our morality and what pleasantries have to be sacrificed to maintain our dignity. We lay down. Or we fight. But the choice is singular to each of us and the results may define our service. Or we may define it ourselves regardless of our circumstances.
Some volunteers worry they won't be able to find the road back to their starting point, their embarkation, their arrival gate- back to their original self- when service is over. What if you can't recover the parts of yourself that you sacrificed to get the job done? To get through the day. To finish the meal.
Sometimes it's hard to pull back the oppressed parts of my personality. Sometimes I feel so myself that I'm suddenly weightless and the world is good. And sometimes I can't remember who I used to be so how do I know which rope to grab on to anyway?
Well, so what if you arrive in a different place than that from which you began? So what? If you strayed from the path of yourself? If you picked.... the road less-traveled?
I think that's called finding yourself.
Just don't go crazy, lose yourself completely and kill a cow for eating your last pair of underwear.