So you’re thinking about joining the Peace Corps

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Gao×wri   (noun)

Definition of gaowri

1: a foreigner, especially a white person

 2: a person who appears to be from Europe

 plural — guu×wur

Have you ever felt out of place? Have you ever felt out of place for 27 months in a row? This is, perhaps, the most salient, ever-present fact of existence for Peace Corps Volunteers. We are foreigners. We are unusual. We are the ones everybody in town vaguely knows about. We are the weirdos. Do you remember that person in high school who would walk around barefoot and rub mud in their hair? That’s us.

An anachronism is “a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists.” Anatopism is to space what anachronism is to time. The theater girl who rubbed mud on herself was an anatopism. That ‘jelly donut’ rock, which the Mars rover recently discovered, is an anatopism. In the Peace Corps, you’ll be one too. And, thanks to the internet, you’ll never forget it.

On my roof today, while reading about an ultra-high-speed magnetic rail project in California, I got a strong whiff of poison from a nearby burning pile of plastic. I read about cars that drive themselves in a place where people laugh at you when you wear a helmet. Ideas are different. Words are untranslate-able.

Of course, some people like standing out. Everybody enjoys it once in a while. Why do you think Dennis Rodman’s spending so much time in North Korea? You think he really gets along with the newest psychopathic dictator of DPRK? He wants attention.

Maybe the stares make you feel important. Maybe the experience imbues your day-to-day with more meaning, as you exist in opposition to the masses, to the hoi polloi. But nobody likes it all the time.

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And people stare. Children yell, “gaowri, gaowri, gaowri!” Maybe they throw rocks. Or try out a foreign language they may know. Or talk about you right in front of you, assuming you won’t understand. They may hear you’re from America and ask if you know their uncle who lives in Germany. Why do they do it? It’s because you look different. People will be slow to trust you. Appearance is everything, and yours will get you all sorts of attention and special treatment.

Me & neighbor girl

Her: “Mimoun, you’re looking very white”

Me: “I was in meetings all week so I never saw the sun”

Her: “I’ll tell all the girls in town who want to marry to come here; they love white guys like you”

Religion is probably going to be another separator.

1. People will bring it up inappropriately: I went to a school a few days ago hoping to gather students for a job fair. The Director told me I had no choice but to convert to Islam.

2. People will not be respectful of your own beliefs (or what they think are your beliefs): A man at the beach laughed in my face after telling me Christians must be stupid. How could Jesus possibly be the son of God?

3. People will use strange logic to prove you wrong: Last week a co-worker told me that Christians are wrong (and of course, everybody from America is Christian), because, in the Quran, Mary was told to eat some dates and drink from a spring in order to become pregnant. But dates only come in at the end of the year, so how could Jesus possibly be born on December 25th?

4. And everything about daily life will be positively saturated with the dominant religion: Today, before eating lunch at somebody’s house, we all watched the King do his prayers on television.

Me & person I’m meeting for the first time

Him: “You should convert to Islam”

Me: “Maybe some day”

Him: “In order to learn about the religion, you must have operation on your penis”

Me: “I don’t want to”

Humans are naturally social animals. We have evolved to live in groups: tight-knit tribes of people who hold similar beliefs, tell the same stories, and have the same narrative about our place in the universe. Humans were not built to be Peace Corps volunteers.

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“But what about ex-pats,” you may say, “don’t they always have a great time?” There is a difference between ex-pats and Peace Corps Volunteers. Ex-pats usually have money. They can manage to buy their way out of living like a normal citizen of their adopted country. PCVs, on the other hand, receive the average income. In places where unemployment statistics aren’t even kept, this isn’t a lot of ‘fluus,’ as we call it. So, not only is everybody constantly trying to rip you off, you actually have very little to spend.

Your personhood will be flattened and simplified. Upon meeting somebody, I am entirely reduced to his or her notions of the archetypical foreigner. Who knows how those archetypes were formed. I met a girl who learned English almost exclusively by watching youtube clips of Maury. In my own case, generally speaking, it seems that I am now Christian, rich, I eat a lot of pork, I have tons of casual sex, I drink a lot, I enjoy guns, I want to start wars in other countries, and I watch the television show WWE.

Me & another guest at somebody’s wedding

Him: “The Jews!”

Me: “What?”

Him: “The US Congress is full of Jews, I know”

Me: “Well, that’s not really the truth, nor objective”

Him: “You’re not Jewish right? You’re a real American?”

 Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 1.45.15 PM            Of course, many American volunteers don’t fit the mold. If you’re black, or of Asian ancestry, or Muslim, or Latin-American, or really short, or dark-haired, they’ll ask you why the Peace Corps didn’t send them a ‘true American’. I went to visit my Asian-American friend in a nearby town. I ran into his neighbor at the door, who assured me that I had no idea what I was talking about- the guy must be Chinese and love Jackie Chan. If you’re black, people might try to buy you, thinking you’re a prostitute. If you look Asian, people will pull their eyelids into slits and show you their kung-fu moves. Even if you look like them, you’ll get it: they’ll ask why you can’t speak the language. No matter what color or creed you are, you will constantly, always feel like the anatopism that you are.

*But that’s kind of the point*

The staring won’t just make you feel important: you will BE important. You might be the only foreign person they’ve ever met. Everything you say or do directly affects their picture of “the American.”

The Peace Corps has three major goals. Only one of them is to actually do ‘work’. The second is to “help promote a better understanding of Americans.” In the States, we enjoy a pluralistic society with unbelievable diversity. But everybody in your Peace Corps town will think that all Americans are just like you.

So the pressure is on! Don’t screw up, or they will hate us all! You are responsible for representing the stars and stripes. It is exhausting. But you can, if you work really hard at it, leave one hell of a good impression.

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