This is a guide for my family and friends about my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cape Verde, Africa. I teach English as foreign language to high school students in Boa Vista, Cape Verde. Also as a disclaimer, the comments expressed here are solely of the author and do not represent the United States Peace Corps, the American Government, or any other governing body.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A few years ago, there was a contest in the United States that asked people to write an exposition on American life and culture. I don't remember the exact details of the contest but I do remember that the winner was a returned Peace Corps Volunteer. It is not that Americans don't fully understand their own culture, but those who are removed from that culture for a time experience a type of insiders scoop to an outside opinion. There are several groups of people who remove themselves from Western culture for various reasons. Those in the Military, for example, are asked to leave their friends and families and serve an aspect of life that involves removing themselves from their culture, while remaining culturally aloof in the country they are serving. On a culturally similar level, people in foreign service travel to countries to serve a government and therefor live slightly above the norm. Now, I am not trying to be the poster child for Peace Corps service, you all know that this experience has had its taxing moments. But my point is the PC service allows you to live amongst people. I live, work, hang out, talk, joke, laugh with these people. The Peace Corps has three pillars of cultural immersion: 1. To help those within the host country help themselves; 2. For us volunteers to learn about another culture (and then in turn bring that knowledge back with us); 3. To help our host country to better understand our culture. What happens when you live and breathe amongst another culture while still retaining values and memories of your original culture, you blend the last two pillars of cultural immersion together. I have started to learn about me and my original culture. It's like looking at an older version of yourself through the eyes of someone whose life is nearly the complete polar opposite of your previous existence. It is in this sense that the winner of the contest was able to so completely evaluate and comment on American life and culture.

Yesterday I found myself browsing the Internet Movie Database. After looking at the nominees for the next Academy Awards and realizing I had heard of none of them (nor had I seen previews, nothing), I decided to get a better idea of the basic plot outline for a few of these upper echelon movies. Now, admittedly, the film industry (and on a slightly larger scale, entertainment as a whole), is only a part of Western culture, but a fairly significant part in my opinion. But what I stumbled upon were the top five movies currently playing at the box office (disclaimer: I am going solely by what posted so I don't know exactly how accurate it is or how often they update). Of course, having heard of none of them, I decided to browse each one for a plot summary. What I found made me (and Leland) laugh out loud. In first place was your typical potty-humored, Wayans brothers mock of every serious movie that has made over $100 million in the past year or so. In second, was (again typical) mobster, hit-em-up chaser movie with a lot of cultural slang and cool regional accents. Third came another cheesy, trying-too-hard to be funny Ben Stiller comedy with an excuse for lame comedy engulfed by an even lamer plot line. Fourth made us laugh the hardest: the predominantly African American dance-off movie, made with the same cookie cutter as You Got Served, Save the Last Dance and even Drumline. And finally, in fifth place came the staple romantic comedy about a woman trying to move on in life after tragedy strikes (yes, I know my idol Jennifer Gardner graced this one, but as lovely as she is, come on). I feel like the only thing missing from the list was a sleeper Sundance flick or a save-the-world before the hour and half is up type craziness.

Now, I understand that I have just garnered a flash, a glimpse if you will, of American life. But that is exactly my point. Because my entire world doesn't flow within American culture, I can step back and observe when and what I want. And having an insider perspective (having lived within this American culture for 20 years of my life) allows me to more objectively evaluate nuances within the culture. I can watch your life go buy with a filter, observing points that stand out the most. And because these points of culture tend to stand out so much (and because American culture has always been something of a fluorescent light to a bug) people in other cultures tend to pick up on these major points. So in this instance, I am not only gaining my own unique perspective on American culture, but I can also observe others observing American culture and therefor understand why they have the views that they do. If a Cape Verdean were to look at my list of five movies, for example, the would probably be interested in only two of them. Movie number two because of its gun-toting, shoot-em-up ridiculousness and movie number four because of the dancing contest and the fact that most of the cast is African American. They may even assume that all the actors are Cape Verdeans who are living in America.

Which brings me to my next point. The general outlook on life as well as areas of common sense are often astoundingly naive or just very different. For example, we have an African American volunteer her with us. When he arrived, everyone just assumed that he was Cape Verdean. Not that he was from the country Cape Verde, but that he was a Cape Verdean living in America. They just assume that all the black people they see in America were at one point Cape Verdean. That another African country has people living in the US is a concept a lot of people here don't understand. Another example: During my medical issues, I left for Praia on a Wednesday (missing that day of class) and returned the following Wednesday (missing that day of classes as well as all the days in between) and returned to classes Thursday. But because I returned in the middle of the week, my students denied the fact that I had been gone a whole week. "No," one of my students said, "It's only Thursday. You haven't been gone a whole week!" I argued with my tenth graders for five minutes, insisting that I had missed four classes and not two (as they had assumed because they seemed to have forgotten that I was gone for two classes the week before). Because I wasn't gone a named week, I clearly wasn't gone for a whole week. Even though eight days, to me, constitutes slightly more than a full week, no matter how you name it. It's these simple and minute observations that interest me. I often wonder where the foundation for this type of thinking came from. And then you see their ideas of America, that everyone is rich and the weather is perfect all the time (granted these views are not limited to Cape Verdeans, but probably a majority of similarly situated countries). But being immersed within this culture I am starting to grasp where these opinions come from. One cannot look at the representation of American culture in my magic list of movies and not gain some kind of crazy conclusion. So here are my own conclusions about a life I left behind and can now only glimpse when I get a flash of a cultural point that was strong enough to make its to my newly found cultural level and side of the world.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow Nadia this is the best piece of literature I personally have read in a long time! You write so beautifully. I was truly absorbed in reading your latest article - I am so glad that you have this opportunity to experience a different culture and at the same time be able to look at your own through a different perspective. Am I making sense? I am your dad, Nadia, and I am very proud of you.


DAD :)

03 February, 2007 03:05

Blogger DeAnna said...

Hey Nadia! I absolutely love reading your blogs.. it's like the Nadia I never knew. Also, it's funny that you mention people being preggers this time of year, because out one and only Chrissy and Eric Bauer are expecting! Yes it all came as a shock to us too, and she's only like a month pregnant, but you know she couldn't hold that secret for too long. So when you come back, it will really seem like life has flashed forward here.

05 February, 2007 18:37


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