A Continually Changing Perspective

"We long for the security of familiarity when things are tough--
ordinary life to return to, 
relief from the situation we are in. 
When trials stretch out over time, we are also stretched."

I forget the book, article, or perhaps personal letter I hastily scribbled the above quote from. Currently stuck on my fridge, I've mulled over it time and again.

When trials stretch out over time, we are also stretched.

Isn't this what I longed for in joining Peace Corps? To leave the familiarity and comforts my middle-class American lifestyle offered? To make new friends and learn from a myriad of like-minded people? To gain a perspective on life, love, and worldview that living only outside of myself can offer?

Over halfway through service and, more or less, on the downward slope, many volunteers struggle with keeping a positive perspective. We can taste the prize at the end of the long, grueling journey: a return flight to ordinary life in America. Relief from a the hardships of poverty and challenges of living in a cultural norm so different from the one programmed in us from birth. We know that a road filled with potholes, bumps, and slides along the way still looms ahead. We, for the most part, have lost the bright-eyed perspective and newness of the community and culture we've been submerged in.

"Hey, whitey" rouses a response I wouldn't normally be proud of.
The screaming mother across the road is not exactly a pleasant good morning.
3,948 dead cockroaches later, I still dry heave in battle with them (no matter how clean my house is!).

The biggest challenge I personally face as a female PCV in Jamaica is the unwanted attention.

I was warned before arriving. I have had continuos, helpful training in how to avoid, ignore, or dissipate unwelcome comments. I have the undying support from our post's staff.

And the longer I'm here, the more I learn that it's not so much a personal thing as it is a cultural thing.

Yes, we knew from the start that Jamaican men are "fast" and "aggressive." I've never had so many men be so descriptive and detailed about exactly what they like about me and what they want to do with me. Sometimes it's the fact that they don't even know me more than the graphic words themselves that get to me the most. I have never felt the reality of being outwardly different as I have here in Jamaica.

Generally speaking, I have resorted to using culturally appropriate responses, oftentimes ignoring most unwanted and what I think as unnecessary attention.

Until recently.

Today I took a new volunteer to a nearby gem of a farmer's market. Knowing that we'd have to meet up in route, I tried to think of the best and easiest place to find her. Meeting by the bus park made the most sense, but it also meant no escape from attention. In fact, I was practically inviting it by standing on the corner of the busiest market day. Thinking ahead is half the strategy. I found a place to wait in the shade, and I intentionally stood beside a couple of older women vending imported goods at the Friday night market. I saw the two young(er) men right in front of them. I was crossing my fingers that the women would provide enough of a safety net for them to leave me alone.

The comments and questions started immediately. I greeted them with the appropriate cultural greetings, knowing I would probably be cussed out if I merely ignored them. They proceeded with what I wholeheartedly expected: "I like your shape. I like your style. Yuh fit. Yuh sport? Yuh beautiful, baby. How I can get with yuh?" I decided to be polite and answer as ambiguously as possible, letting them know I'm local and merely waiting in the shade until my friend arrived.

After imparting that knowledge with no avail, I played the husband card. "Suppose my husband comes and sees you?" I posed to the two of them. "Mi a vendor! He a see mi sell yuh tings." Surprisingly, these ones had respect for the fact that I had a husband. And I had answers to all their questions.

"Show mi yuh hand dem." (Meaning, Where is your ring?)
"I don't wear a wedding ring because I don't want anyone to thief it."

"Yuh husband a bredren?" (Meaning, Is he black/Jamaican?)
"No, we married in the states."

"Give me yuh eye glass. Mi waan see yuh baby doll eye dem." (Meaning, take off your sunglasses. I want to see your eyes.)
"True, the sun hurts them."

"Yuh tell lie pon mi. Yuh know dat 'husband' is like di cross to di vampire." (Meaning, You're lying. You're just telling us you have a husband to get us off your back."

Then my assumed allies, the women friends I nonverbally adopted, burst out laughing. When they laughed, I knew not to take the situation personally. Or offensively.

Jamaican men (at least in the more rural areas, and in my experiences) are generally, merely different. They say it how they think it is. They know what they want. They don't beat around the bush. They don't flirt or drop hints. They act (verbally) on their impulses.

And I think I've come to the living realization that it's okay.

That's what I encountered today. It's okay for them to tell me that they think I'm beautiful. Or that they are jealous of my husband. Or that they want a girl like me. It's how this culture functions. It's different from what I know and what I'm comfortable with. But isn't that part of the experience? Didn't I join PC--in part--to grow and to be stretched?

I will also take 2 seconds to express that there are, unfortunately, many circumstances in which too much information is shared. I have been victim of and have witnessed other women suffer graphic and inappropriate comments. That is not okay, no matter whose culture we're talking.

This is just one way in which my perspective is continually changing. For the better.

The end of the quote is:
"Hang in there--endure."


Anonymous said…
Just came across your blog by pure chance. Thank you for taking the time to hash out your thoughts. I am better for having read them (that's not too cheesy right?)....made me think, for once.