Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Personal Identity and Double Lives of Peace Corps Volunteers

The chiva driver stops at the top of the gravel trail that leads into my site, I drag my grocery filled backpack off the truck, sit down on the bench to procrastinate the inevitable, and call my dad back home.  It’s not long before the tears start and I dread making the 40-minute hike into a village where I will once again become the only gringa, the only English-speaker, the only woman over 20 without children, and the only person who has experienced more than this little section of Panama. 

A year and a half later, I’ve finally learned to cherish coming home to my tiny, loving community, despite our many differences, but that doesn’t mean I don’t remember the anxiety or still occasionally struggle with my personal identity in and out of site. 

In these little bubbles that have been created for us, it seems that many other volunteers experience the same types of struggles with isolation, loneliness, and identity, and I don’t think it’s talked about near enough. 

Even now, I feel like I’m sometimes exhibiting a double life.  In site my people know me as Geli.  This person usually dresses in old clothes and has her hair in a ponytail, goes to bed by 9 pm without fail, makes tons of corny jokes, eats healthy foods, never wears anything shorter than knee length, is known for saving money, and is almost always cheerful.  Then there’s volunteer Abby, the out of site version of me.  She loves looking nice, going to the beach in an actual bathing suit, enjoys sarcastic humor, will eat chocolate at any and every turn, and doesn’t mind spending money to go out with friends or have a nice meal.  Though none of those characteristics are mutually exclusive, the way I exhibit them is. 

Typical Panama me- Casual outfit, no makeup, no fancy hairstyle.  If I'm wearing accessories, they probably make me look like a hippie (local jewelry, large tote bags, a dirty watch, etc.)

Typical United States Me- in a nice outfit with my makeup done, hair curled or straightened, and look completed with multiple accessories.

My people know me and love me.  But they love their version of me, the version that I’ve used to integrate into their culture without causing any more stress or drama than is necessary.  The poor farmers I live with make less than $10 a day, are married with children at an age younger than my little sister, have never traveled more than a few hours from their birthplace, and have only a few sets of clothes- all of them very modest and very plain.  Their lifestyle is so different than the type of life I lead out of site, and for them to see me in normal clothes, shopping for a new digital camera, or spending more on a meal or bottle of wine than they make in a day would drastically alter their perception of who I am, and not in a good way. 

I love my people, and when I’m in site, they’re all I have.  But the relationships you have with others are undoubtedly altered when you feel like you can’t be your whole self with them, and that’s one of the biggest challenges many Peace Corps volunteers will face early in their service.  Some will say that this anxiety is our fault and that only by showing our whole and true selves can we really connect with the people we’re serving. I would encourage these people to come into my site, wearing short shorts or openly talking about how much money they’ve spent on their things, and just see if any of the women will work with you.  For me, that’s not an option. 

This type of struggle isn’t just limited to my site- other volunteers see me so much differently than the type of person I saw myself as when I left the United States.  My friends here have seen me dirty, smelly, sick with a variety of illnesses and/or fungus infections, all while wearing moldy and/or ill-fitting clothes.  High school me would be dying right about now. 

Despite the emotional challenge this dilemma presents, maybe it’s a good thing.  Though I didn’t like having to compartmentalize myself, I am glad that this experience has challenged me physically, mentally, and emotionally, and I am especially happy that it has forced me to change my perception of personal appearance and ask myself which characteristics really make us who we are. 

A typical in-site look = top + bottom (matching is optional) + braid or ponytail.  No makeup or shoes required

Cute hiking/working outfits?  haha, no.  Bottom + top (again, no matching needed) + boots.  Bonus points will be given for being muddy and sweaty. 

Dressed up in site = top + bottom (matching preferred) + braid.  Shoes preferred, but makeup still not required.  

Me in a nagua, a typical Ngäbe dress, which is also the most unflattering piece of clothing I ever plan on owning.

Before Peace Corps, it had been almost 8 years since I routinely went in public without makeup.  This earlier version of me wouldn’t have felt “whole” or put together without all of the surface level things that I thought helped make me the person I was.  

I may have been one of the last people in our training group to quit wearing makeup anytime I left the house or to finally accept that my chiffon skirts and beautiful J.Crew blouses just weren’t meant for the campo, but growing into Geli, my scruffy, fun loving, in-site alter ego, has allowed me to do something that few people ever get to do.  I’ve spent two years being made to feel beautiful, complete, and loved by people who have never even seen me in makeup, nice clothes, or in possession of the fancy things we as Americans seem to value so much.   All of that finally had me questioning- am I really leading a double life as I had previously thought, or have I finally learned what truly makes me, me?

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