Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Fitting In

Throughout Peace Corps training, cultural integration is greatly stressed. We were warned over and over again about the differences between Moroccan and American culture and how we might greatly offend people here if we weren’t careful. This being a Muslim country, religious beliefs and their effect on behavior were emphasized. Fitting in is very important for a volunteer because the success of our job is based upon having the trust of our community. Largely agreeing with what Peace Corps had told us, I have worked very hard to fit in here in my community. This has meant a number of changes for me and the way that I act.

The biggest change for me is the way that I talk about religion. During PC training, I asked a Moroccan member of the Peace Corps staff what he thought about nonbelievers and how our communities might react to a nonbeliever. This was during a session on religion in Morocco, in front of thirty other volunteers. He told me that anyone who doesn’t believe in God is going to hell. End of story. It was at that point I decided I needed to be careful about how I talked about my own beliefs. So, despite not believing in God in any traditional sense of the word, I tell people in my community that I do. They are often trying to get me to convert, but I tell them how important my Christian religion is to me and how it would be a betrayal of my parents if I were to convert. Early on in my service, I briefly considered converting. My thought was: if I’m lying about my beliefs in order to be accepted, why not lie an even more acceptable lie? But somehow that felt more dishonest that pretending to be a Christian. When people talk to me about Mohamed (Muslims believe that Mohamed is God’s last prophet; he is the central figure in Islam) I agree with them that he is a prophet and that he is good. I say he is God’s last prophet. If I were to hold true to my lie of being a good Christian, I should probably reject Mohamed as a prophet. But saying that I agree that Mohamed is a prophet like Jesus is actually closer to my real beliefs than my pretend Christian ones, so I say it.

Another big change concerns interactions with the opposite sex. It’s way different here. I talk to women more than most men here, but still not very much. It’s difficult for me to tell how much of the gender divide is a result of social prohibition and how much is just a gender divide like we have in the States. If I want to have a conversation with a female, is that inappropriate? Or just abnormal? Being overly careful about gender relations has had the unfortunate consequence of me being rude to Moroccan women from outside of the community (I think). Educated women from bigger cities are more comfortable talking with men, but I never know just how comfortable they are. And I don’t know how my interactions with a big city girl should be different depending upon where we are. For example, in my market town the other day I ran into a teacher who is from Khenifra (provincial capital), but teaches in a very isolated douar in my commune. She was very friendly, but I felt weird talking her in a such a public space where people from my community would see. I think I might have been a little curt with her as a result. The other question that I struggle with is how to respond to questions about my relations with females in the States. Can I tell people that I have had girlfriends? And how should I change my answer based upon whether I’m talking to some teenage boys versus my host mom?

Besides that, there are lots of small things. I never play my music too loud because I’m afraid of people hearing it outside of my house. I spend more time than I’d like to in the local (smoky) hangout place because that’s what everyone else does. I am very careful what I say about Palestine and Israel. (One exception is dress: I dress much nicer than people here. I nearly always wear a collared shirt. The one distinctly Moroccan piece of clothing that I have – a jellaba – is a very nice one. Strangely enough, people are always telling me that I dress like them.) Generally speaking, I’m hesitant to upset the status quo. It’s like when I was eleven years old and I changed schools.

And like changing schools, the longer that I am here, the more comfortable I feel acting differently. I feel that my community has pretty well accepted me by now, so I don’t have to be so careful. I’m getting better at (although still struggling) discerning the difference between what’s socially inappropriate and just socially weird. For instance, I’ve started to have short, but frequent conversations with older women in pubic spaces as we pass each other in the street. Other men my age don’t do this, but there’s nothing wrong with me doing it. It’s just strange.

Despite becoming more comfortable, I still have a long way to go. There are some things that I will never be honest about. There are aspects of my behavior that I’m still careful about. I am holding myself back. And I think it’s unfortunate that I do this. By not completely being myself, I’m not having as honest of an exchange as I could. Not offending and fitting in is important, but I’m also missing an opportunity to be a positive example with some aspects of Moroccan culture, such as gender relations, that I don’t like. Additionally, as an outsider, there are some aspects of social life where I have much more freedom than a Moroccan. People think I’m weird and they excuse behavior from me that would be inappropriate coming from a Moroccan. The most obvious example is the work that I’ve done with the Traditional Birth Attendants. You’d never see a Moroccan man doing that, but nonetheless it’s been well received by my community, even males. The trouble in this cultural balancing act is figuring out the line between inappropriate/rude and just plain different. I have an ever-present uncertainty about the acceptability of my actions. I want to greet all females here in a friendly and open way, but I fear I’d be embarrassing the younger ones if I did. And I worry about angering the spouses of the married ones.

This slow, painful discovery of unwritten social rules has naturally made me think more about the expectations in the States and how they are so ingrained in natives’ behavior. How much of discovering these ‘rules’ as a child is explicitly stated by the parents and how much is inferred? I also wonder if after 20 years in my community I would ever feel completely comfortable with social expectations. Is there some sort of developmental period as a child where one absorbs these rules?

As much as I want to let loose, I’m going to continue to be careful. I’ll probably continue to make incremental steps towards a more normal Duncan as I become more familiar with life here. There are some volunteers who are bolder than I and there are others who are much more conservative; each behavioral pattern has its virtues. As you open up you may have a richer experience, but at the same time you risk ostracizing yourself. It’s a tradeoff. I’m really curious to see how I react to coming home in a few months for Zach’s wedding. Will I quickly revert back to the “old me?” Will I be able to talk to girls without feeling uncomfortable?


It’s still cold. We got over a foot of snow the other day and the road was closed for two or three days. I’ve been a little sick recently with some congestion, but hopefully getting better. My host mom is still out of town, so I’m spending lots of time with my host dad. It’s been good to get to know him in this way and I like him better for it. The end of February will make a year in country – it’s hard not to think about that and count the time that I have left. I hope all is well at home.

1 comment:

maryellen said...

second attempt at a post:

i love the distinction between being wrong and just being weird!

love, ma