Saturday, November 9, 2013

Café au lait

The following is a story I submitted to the Minority Peace Corps Association for their collection of stories written about RPCVs of color.
Center Stage Taking The Peace Corps Oath
The reality of being a PCV of color had not hit me until well after the swear in ceremony. Even though I had been only one in a handful of hopeful PCVs of color in my 60 plus stage, I was distracted on making such a change in my life. I joined PC for the same idealistic reasons many others do, I wanted to make a difference. After my research on Morocco I figured that being of mixed ancestry would be easy considering the Arab and Berber mix of the country. I was inspired by RPCVs growing up, I remember my family and I opening the invitation package together after I had trekked out to the mailbox to get it on a cold Vermont winter night, and the happiness I felt. My family has had Peace Corps in its DNA (4 served to date).  Growing up I was brought with my brother to RPCV events in my home state of Vermont for years and I came to love RPCVs. They were very different compared to other Americans, either it was their dress, speech, eating habits, etc. I had great experiences living and working in Latin America and thought PC was naturally the next step. I was used to being different growing up in a mostly white state and family. I wasn’t even fazed anymore at noticing being the only person of color in a room. I was reminded from time to time of my otherness from people staring at me, getting pulled over for no reason multiple times (I’ve never had a ticket before), or people being so bold as to ask, “what are you?”  So the Peace Corps did not present a completely brand new paradigm for me. It was a novelty hearing my mostly white stage talking about the reverse for them, and now being the “minority” after just a few days in country. I never understood that being white was difficult. I even tried to ignore the comments some made saying it must be easier for me since I looked “Moroccan,” which in my opinion is a broad statement to make since Moroccans vary in looks drastically.
My host siblings Amina and Brahim during 1st year in site.
I remember my first week in site and the first look on people’s faces when they saw the new supposed PCV and the disappointment in their faces. I quickly learned that the residents in the small Berber town in southern Morocco were clearly not expecting a brown person. They did not have one before me either so there was no buffer. Many flat out told me I was not American, especially when I explained my family’s heritage. I was not hurt by the fact that people did not recognize my birthplace but by the fact that I had to explain myself to them, which was no different than being in America. Fact is to most Moroccans and with the whitewashed standard of beauty promoted in the country, I was not exciting/acceptable and it was a hard pill to swallow. White PCVs seemed not to have that issue as they gained celebrity status immediately. Then again I was used to this when having to explain my unique linage, in the U.S. or otherwise. This is what it is like to be in between. 

Dressed as a Berber Bride
I often had experiences where I was not given the same attention as white PCVs while in town. Apart of me was happy with this but on the other hand a small piece of me took this to heart and felt like something was wrong with me or I was not enough. If a white PCV friend was hit on or engaged in conversation and I was not, I felt snubbed. I would not call this jealousy but for a person who has had to come to terms with being different their whole life it is difficult to not internalize situations like this. 

Teaching my weekly health class.

Reality is there are so few global women that look like me that are considered “beautiful” in the public eye. Also I would say that during my first year of service it affected my confidence and self esteem a little. It seemed the only time someone was interested in what I had to say was if I was explaining my background or trying to speak in the local dialect - Shilha. I drove to improve my Shilha in the hopes of meeting common ground with people and make up for not getting the blond hair blue eyed genes from my family.

In village, people eventually got used to me and I believe some came to terms with me being different. I also think my experiences as a person of color in the U.S. and Morocco really helped me understand my identity more.
Finished World Map Project at the local school.
Ultimately the experience of relating those in my village and helping them to realize their own goals, like improving their health, helped me to realize that development was my calling and I had a knack for being able to relate to people quickly. I didn’t have the experience that my relatives had, as I was a ‘modern PCV’ and one of color, but like all Peace Corps volunteers I was changed for the better by my close of service time. 

i:  Café au lait was the name a cab driver gave me while I was passing through the cite of Marrakesh. It means coffee with milk. 

To read more on my experience check out my Peace Corps Blog.   

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