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The Dancing Monkey (or how to treat an RPCV)

There were times during my service where I felt like a pet monkey, made to perform on command for the entertainment of others. The phrase “dance, white person, dance” was said to me on many occasions. Actually, I’m downplaying it. Almost every day someone asked/told me to do something to see if I could do it or to show me off to their friends. This included everything from speaking Wolof, digging, weeding, cooking, carrying water on my head, and of course dancing. After two years I had acquired enough Wolof “skills” to be very entertaining to all around. Sometimes I went along with it, knowing that I could show off for just a few seconds then everyone would leave me alone, impressed by my abilities.

One of the warnings to new RPCVs is that as they slip back into anonymity they will actually miss their rockstar status from village life, and this will add to the lost feeling that comes with re-defining yourself in the “re-adjustment process.” I, however, having come from a small town, haven’t entirely lost my rockstar status. Running into old acquaintances and friends, whether at the doctor’s office, the grocery store, or church, has so far continued to give me that regular, center-of-attention, feel. It may be nice to feel important, and have others publicly acknowledge the “bigness” of what I did, giving validation to my last two years, but the problem is I keep getting asked/told to dance.

Ok, not literally. I haven’t had to pull out any of my mad Senegalese dancing skills, and to be honest I’m pretty good and wouldn’t mind showing people what it looks like, but what I have been asked to do is show off.

Everyone around seems to be eagerly waiting to find out “What was the best part?” or “What was your favorite part?” or just seeking affirmation: “You must have had an amazing time!”

They want to know about all the positive life changing experiences I have had. To know how amazing the people were there. To hear how God stretched and molded me by having me live outside of my American comfort zone.

Those questions and statements are loaded with assumptions about what it is like when a middle class, Christian, American girl sees and lives in the romantic simplicity of the developing world, specifically Africa, for the first time. Something like this experience: (http://www.theonion.com/articles/6day-visit-to-rural-african-village-completely-cha,35083/)

I was warned about being asked these questions, and all RPCVs are told that we will be shocked by how much people don’t really want to hear about our experience. So 99% of the time, I answer the questions like they have a correct answer: Yes. It was amazing. It was life changing. I was stretched and grew in ways I never thought I could. – It’s not a lie. All these statements are actually true. But they don’t give truth to my actual experience.

To go back to how I started this rant- feeling like a pet monkey made to show off, there are questions to ask that don’t make me feel that way: “What was your family life?” “What types of work did you do?” “What were other volunteers like?” “What misconceptions did you have/were changed by your experience?” And, so that anyone who reads/gets wind of this blog do not individually ask me all those questions, I am going to try to post some real answers to these questions over the next few weeks. I have been home now for a few weeks, processing my experience, and I now feel more prepared to provide complete answers to those questions.

Which brings me to my last note, really some advice to anyone when talking to an RPCV:

  • If you want to know what really happened, ask them real questions about their experience
  • Be patient
  • Ask them to talk to your school or youth group about the country they service in/what work they did there/ what needs they see there
  • Don’t ask them to speak their local language on the spot in front of a group of people (unless they’re drunk, then its fair game)
  • Don’t ask them to “Say a little something” at a party or an event. “Coming home parties” are for seeing people you haven’t seen in a long time, not for the showing off.
  • Talk to them about the normal stuff in your life. We aren’t 180° We still want to know about your job, your new boyfriend, your 1st grader’s crappy teacher, etc. It helps us feel normal.
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