Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Relief and Confusion

Hello everyone,
I have left Paraguay. I'm in Colombia, looking for a job teaching English. It has been an intense time, so much to write about, but so little time to write. This below is something I wrote while getting ready to leave Paraguay. If I had more time, it'd be more edited, less rambling. The TANGENT is optional reading. More later.

Let’s be honest, there’s a certain relief of not being in the Peace Corps anymore.
I realized I could stop wearing this stone on my back, this huge, heavy stone called All The Sufferings of a Third World Country. Deforestation, pollution, diabetes, poverty. We’ve been worried sick about Paraguay. For two years! Peace Corps is kind of like an intervention. Paraguay is our little brother who can't seem to get his shit together. We say, "Paraguay, you really shouldn’t cut down all your trees. You really shouldn’t steal all the money from the people. You really should brush your teeth a little more often." We somehow feel responsible for Paraguay, although we can only control what we do, we cannot control what Paraguay does.
But we try.

What is it they say is the biggest mistake a woman can make? Thinking that she could change a man. One man. Here we are, as an organization, thinking we can change an entire culture. It’s exhausting. And some of us, yes, thinking we can change one man, as well.

We go to change a culture, but then the culture changes us. We change our names. Our names. For two years, I was Pauli. Part of Pauli’s job was to get people to like here. Professional People Pleaser. Pauli didn’t tell people she was ridiculously full and ate until she was in pain, just because it was part of the culture. Pauli got told constantly that she was fat, because that’s how they do it here. When people told Pauli they would help her, and they didn't, Pauli just kept on smiling, and tried again the next day, even though it was them she was trying to help in the end. This is why I decided not to extend. I didn't like the person Pauli became. I didn't like how Pauli let some people treated her. She deserved better.

You’re told to act like them, talk like them, live like them, to make friends. Nobody likes a weirdo. All this trying is just sad, like when parents try to use the lingo of their kids. We are entirely weird. I kept trying to picture us, and the best I can do is the foreign kid from the classic movie “Can’t Hardly Wait”. He walks around entertaining party-goers by totteringly repeating the phrase that someone has taught him: “Would you like to touch my penis?” Laugh laugh laugh. That’s us. I can’t even tell you the things I was have said in Guaraní.

We have to get people to like us, even if it means screaming obscenities into the campo night air. We did other things too. Vegetarians ate meat. Gay people hid their gayness. Atheists found themselves in front of a statue of the Virgin, in a group reciting something, more times that they would have liked.

We attended parties where they arrange the chairs in one large circle around the room. This arrangement is a formula for the most awkward parties ever, and that’s why I’m saying this, we suffered.

TANGENT: You walk in these parties, and it’s like everyone’s in a line, just looking at you. Once you sit, you have no choice but to talk to the person on your left or, OR, your right. This constricts conversations to two people, max. And when you turn to someone, you have to turn away from the person on your other side. It’s like you want to make sure you’re giving them equal face time. So you’re sitting there, and you are either talking currently, or you looking to your right and your left, and you’re stuck looking at the back end of two feather-covered scrunchies as both your neighbors are talking to others. You’re in a social vacuum, if both sides are turned away. That’s why it feels like everyone’s starting at you when you walk in, because everyone’s so bored with their two-person conversation, the only entertainment is those people entering.

And then they serve meat and everyone eats it slowly. People leave immediately after dinner and then others gossip that they’re rude. A drunk guy gets drunk and dances sadly. Maybe there’s a cake that looks like American birthday cake. But it sure ain’t the same once you taste it. You wait 25 minutes to get the guts and the language skill and the pause to add something to the conversation. You start talking, in a foreign language, a new one you didn’t know a year ago. You look each of the listeners in the eyes, as you start talking, to see if they’re looking at you like a human or like some toy they’re about to break. Then you try to complete just one whole sentence and someone just starts talking, interrupts, T-bones the conversation and runs off in the other direction. You resume just sitting there. No one seems to remember that you were talking. If you think about parties in the United States, with your friends, you might just tear up and excuse yourself to go to the latrine. :END TANGENT

We attend these parties, because we want to be liked. We love them in their own way, after a while. There comes to be people we love. And they love us. But there are things expected of you, as a member of their community.

Then you leave Peace Corps. You think about that person you were two years ago, leaving home. You’re not that person anymore. If you saw that person, you’d trip him and give him a nuggie and laugh. You think about the person you’ve been the last two years. Were you Pauli or Paulette? Were you a normal person or some exhalted stereotype of the Americana with golden hair? Were you hard-working, or lazy? Were you rich or were you poor? It depends on who you ask, where you are. None of them stick anymore. Nothing just is.

So now you’re not who you were in the United States. Putting your name back on feels like putting on an old dress that feels stiff and baggy. More importantly, who are you now? Am I a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer or just another unemployed 20-something moving back in with her parents.

You set out. Where to? What matters anymore? Is it money or freedom?

Now I’m packing to leave, to start again. Making two piles, one for the person I’m leaving behind, and one for the person I want to go and be, as if I were a costume designer. This belt says everything about how New Paulette views on the world. Into the suitcase. This t-shirt says that I went to Paraguay. Suitcase. This shirt is too stained for New Paulette. It would have been fine for volunteer Pauli, but this is New Paulette. Give-away pile.

We know tree as tree, but then in spanish it’s arbol, then in guaraní its yvyra raka. Then you have the funny realization that these are all just sounds me made up to mean the same thing. We must sound like cavemen, just a step up from grunting. But the thing is that the tree stays the same. The word doesn’t touch the thing.

All these labels I have for myself: Volunteer, College-educated, Money Retard, Young, Old, Big, Smart, Clutzy, Pretty, Ugly. They change every day, have changed with the space I'm in, the people I'm around, the look in their eyes. They don’t touch me, they don't touch me. I have to remember.


Janice said...

keep writing no matter where you go, I know a great story will be told and you will be the author. Love, Choicha Janice

Dwayne said...

It's been great following your blog. You have a great writing style. Thanks for your service to the people of Paraguay. And thanks for the Guarani lessons and podcasts you've created.