Our goal in Peace Corps is “integration”. To live like a local and become part of the community. There are several reasons for that.
One is safety. If people think we have a lot of “stuff” and money that places us at risk. It also places us in a different social stratosphere. It makes it harder for people to relate to us. And being white, foreign and English-speaking, we’re already hard enough to relate to. Living like a local also makes it easier to get things done. If people think you’re part of the community they are more likely to trust you.
Today, once again, it was in-my-face that I’m not living like a local. Teachers here get paid every two weeks. My teachers were paid last week. They were broke before payday and they’re broke now. I get a monthly living allowance. It is not a lot. Let’s just say that I earned more in 5 hours as a consultant what I earn here in a month. But it is more than teachers earn.
The other factor is that the teachers are typically the only bread winners in their families. They may support 20 other people. I just have to buy food for myself. One of my host sisters was telling me she’s the only one in my family in Apia with a job. So she is responsible for food, transportation, fun, etc. for four siblings either in university or looking for work. She is 19. She does not begrudge the responsibility. And she gives one brother with a knee injury a massage every night. I’d be telling him to get over himself and get a job.
We have interval every day for 30 minutes (or 20 or an hour or two, whatever). That is the time for eating. Today, the teachers ate rice. They offered me a bowl but I told them to eat mine. I had some ramen noodles that I pulled out of my cupboard. They were jealous. When was the last time your lunch was plain rice? I gave half my ramen to my 3 year old friend, the daughter of one of the teachers. They shared it. I was still hungry but knew that I had a ‘fridge full of food.
After school, I was talking with some of the teachers. “Do you have food in your house?” they asked. “Yes, macaroni salad. I had some last night and it is my dinner for tonight.” “Bring it to us.” “No, because then I will have no dinner.”
I showed them the text I’d received from Peace Corps that my monthly living allowance is delayed a week. No problem for me, since I live below my means (thanks, mom and dad, for teaching me that) but the other volunteers don’t. Many were dead broke last week.
One of the questions and challenges here is how far to go to integrate in the community. If you’re Jewish, do you still attend a Christian church every Sunday because that is fa’asamoa? If you’re a volunteer do you only eat what your fellow teachers eat? Rice, canned sardines, taro and breadfruit? Do you only take the bus when sometimes a taxi is almost as cheap and so much easier? Do you spend weekends at resorts, drinking beer and spending money on food? Do you stock pile food at Farmer Joe’s when you’re in Apia?
Those are questions we each have to answer. We each have to find our own paths. I’m trying to walk a middle line. I will never be viewed as a Samoan. I’m not. I’m an American. I’ll never truly live like a local. My friends will be eating boiled bananas or breadfruit for dinner. I’ll have tuna mac salad and an apple/blue cheese sandwich thanks to my bargain shopping. I just hope I’m living in a way that they can respect.