I love meeting new people but hesitated a little to go to the Bay Area Peace Corps Bon Voyage Celebration – partially because I was tired from work and partially because I didn’t want to take MUNI all the way to the Marina. But boy, I’m sure glad I did! Here’s a summary of what happened (and info that could help future PCVs/inquiring minds):
Two former Peace Corps language instructors from West Africa (one was from Cameroon) talked about how language learning is much different in the Peace Corps. With three months of training, they focus on all aspects – reading, writing and listening – simultaneously, for hours each day. As well, their teaching methods are different. Getting called out for making a mistake while learning a language is frustrating; I know firsthand because my French teacher freshman year of high school would ALWAYS call me out on my mistakes in front of everyone, inhibiting my desire to learn French. Apparently (and I’m guessing it depends on each instructor), they’ll make note of your mistakes during class and let you know about them after class when it’s one-on-one to avoid embarrassment in front of your fellow trainees. I think that approach is more conducive to learning a language faster, you know?
Joe Lurie, RPCV and Director of the International House at UC Berkeley, conducted a really interesting workshop on cross-cultural experiences and related it to his experiences as an RPCV in Kenya during the late 1960’s and as current Director of the International House.
He kept reiterating a (I think…) Moroccan proverb: “The stranger only sees what he/she knows” (or maybe it’s, “The stranger only knows what he/she sees”) and used it as the "refrain" for his workshop.
I’ll bullet point some of his super interesting cross-cultural experiences (in Kenya and the International House) to give you a better clue of what he said:
• Individual vs. community: When he was in Kenya, a lot of Kenyans would come by his house and visit constantly. After several visits, he realized they never invited him to their own homes and asked them about it one night…many of his new Kenyan friends said there was no need to invite him because he was ALWAYS invited to their homes, without any verbal invitation. It just goes to show you how community-based many African countries (and other countries, for that matter) are and how individual-based our American society is.
• “Manners”: One thing that initially bugged him was the way many Kenyans would release their snot after coughing or if they had a runny nose – by simply releasing it wherever they were for all to see. One of his Kenyan friends explained it made more sense than what us Americans do: blow our snot into some tissue and put that germ-ridden thing back into our pockets.
• Greetings: In many African countries, greetings are exponentially more important than saying “please” or “thank you.” A simple gesture of the usual “hello, how are you, how’s your family” is expected for every person you encounter, even if you saw them ten minutes earlier. One of the former language instructors said that there was a break during one of his training classes and his students wanted to run to the post office and drop off their postcards. An hour later, they come back infuriated because the guy refused to give them stamps but served the other people in line. Turns out the class never greeted the guy and thus were unable to get stamps.
• Respect: Personally, respect is something that’s very much prevalent in my family. Respect for your elders is paramount, and the same goes for various African countries. Being called “auntie” or “uncle” is a sign of respect and being called “grandma” or “grandpa” is a huge honor because older age is considered “higher up on the totem pole.”
• Safe journey to guests: At the International House at UC Berkeley, a Ghanaian student and an American student took the same class, and they decided one morning to meet up before a test to study. The American student lives on the 8th floor while the Ghanaian student lives on the 2nd floor, so the American student decided to head down to the Ghanaian student’s room. After the study session was complete and she said farewell, the American student proceeded up the stairs back to her apartment, only to feel the presence of someone following her. It turns out that the Ghanaian student was, as a host, ensuring the safe return of her guest back to her home. In Ghana (and much of Africa), it’s customary to walk your guest halfway or all the way home to ensure their safe arrival. Imagine that!
A lot of people seemed so shocked by what was said, and I was a little bit, too…until I thought about it a bit more and realized that the African way makes just as much sense as the American way of living. In fact, I probably related more to the African way because the Filipino culture tends to also revolve around community, family, hospitality (particularly food sharing), and respect for your elders. Thanks, immigrant parents! =)
After, I met two fellow PCVs – one that’s completed all of his paperwork and is waiting for an invitation and the other who was training in Kenya but is soon going to be transferred to Niger because her skills match a program there much better. Since Niger and Burkina Faso are next to each other, we’ll try and meet up. Niiiiiice. So Jonathan and Lisa, if you’re reading this: what up!! Hahaha!