It’s been two years since I boarded that plane at JFK and headed to a part of the world I wasn’t sure I was ever going to see. 24 months of speaking a different language, eating new foods, and learning different customs. 730 days of new challenges. In some ways, I can’t believe that this time has passed so quickly. In other ways, it seems that I have been here for longer than two years. But as I near the end of my service, with only a few months remaining of my time here, I find myself reflecting on all the little lessons Madagascar has taught me. I could ramble on for pages about how my perceptions, ideals, and values have been challenged during these two years. And maybe someday I will. But for now, here’s a list of the things Madagascar has taught that I’m able to fully articulate at this point.
1. Movies and music can be used to learn about different cultures
Somethings about America are just too hard to explain without having an example. How is American football different from futbol (soccer)? What do you mean not everywhere looks like New York City or Seattle? What does Christmas look like in America? These and many other cultural differences (some I didn’t even initially think of) have been so much easier to explain and discuss through the medium of movies, music, and music videos.
I think one of my favorite movies I showed in my film club was the Christmas movie “Elf.” I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received, and if the students were going to be able to follow along with the story. But after some explaining on my part about the traditions and stories surrounding Santa Claus, elves, and how those are incorporated into American culture, they followed along pretty well. And they enjoyed it a lot. It’s been rewarding to see their perceptions about traditions and social norms challenged, and their curiosity grow through the films I’ve gotten to show them. Additionally, it is a personal fulfillment for me to share and see people enjoy a part of my culture that I enjoy so much.
2. Fresh fruit is the best fruit
There are many things that worry me about readjusting to living back in the states. Will I have a job? Do I need to buy a car? What cultural shocks are going to rock me? But one of my biggest worries is: What if I don’t like fruit in the states anymore?
I’ve gotten so used to the abundance of fresh fruit here. No preservatives. No chemicals. Just fresh, good, natural fruit. Not only is it my cheapest grocery purchase, but it’s a food source I’ve become very dependent on. I don’t know for sure if fruit in the states will taste different than it does here, but I’m certainly afraid it will. I’m afraid that I won’t enjoy it as much as I do here. That I’ll become a fruit snob—something I already suffer from because I live on the coast of Madagascar and the variety of cheap tropical fruits that grow here makes me turn my nose up at the limited options offered in other parts of the island.
I’ve never been a fan of the whole “organic/whole foods” craze or the people who live by it, but I’m already researching places near my hometown where I can buy produce that’s not from a supermarket (and hopefully won’t break my bank). Should’ve known Peace Corps was going to turn me into a crunchy granola snob.
3. Cyclones aren’t that scary
Obviously, a difference in living conditions or where one is located in the place a cyclone is hitting can be the deciding factor about whether a cyclone (or any natural disaster) is scary or not. I am not dismissing that, as for some, cyclones are very serious business. And I am also aware that due to my privileges, the consequences of a cyclone may not be as intimidating to me.
That being said, even the Malagasy handle the news of an incoming cyclone with a surprising amount of calm. Perhaps I’ve watched too many movies, but my idea of “preparing for the passing of a storm” is very different from my neighbors’ idea of it. I guess I just imagined a lot more chaos. But in reality it rains very hard, the wind blows even harder, and you’re only option is to just sit and wait until it’s calm enough for you to go out and grab enough food to last you through the next bout.
More often than not, I’ve found it’s the aftermath of the cyclone that’s scarier to deal with. Broken or flooded roads make travelling to or from my site scary and unpredictable, and I’m not sure what sort of state my house will be in. So in that sense, yes, cyclones are scary. But I think sometimes international news enjoys overdramatizing the “horror” of natural disasters, especially when they occur in “developing countries.” Yes, they can be catastrophic, but people become normalized to them. In fact there is a “cyclone season” in many parts of Madagascar. Rather than feeling sorry for them, I admire the Malagasy people for their perseverance and adaptability to the constant destruction that threatens to complicate their everyday life.
4. “Loosey-goosey” is an inappropriate phrase
While chickens may be descended from dinosaurs, geese are just upright terrifying. Yes it is a matter of opinion, and I understand some may find the creatures cute. But no one can doubt that when those buggers lower their grossly long necks, hissing and shaking their bodies while chasing after you, the term “loosey-goosey” is far from accurate. Add all these things to the fact that geese can be about the size of a small child, and probably stronger than one, I think you’ll agree that this phrase has Americans ill-informed about the nature of these aggressive fowls.
5. A person really only needs five outfits
The amount of clothes I came here with versus the amount I actually wear is…embarrassing. When my dad and sister came to visit me last July, I sent them home with a suitcase full of clothes (and other things I didn’t need anymore). I still have a large suitcase and a good-sized duffle bag full of clothes. It’s pretty ridiculous.
We all know the toxic nature of American consumerism and that we all have much more than we need. Clothes are no exception to this. Yes, you need different clothes for different seasons. Yes, the standards of professionalism may be different from society to society. But really, truthfully, a person doesn’t need as many clothes as the average American has. I have gotten by wearing basically the same thing every week. This includes a teaching outfit, a workout outfit, and casual clothes. I basically rotate the same three pairs of bottoms with four or five tops. And it satisfies all my needs as well as meets the cultural/social standards of my environment.
If social constructs (including the “need” for self-expression and expression of wealth) didn’t create a desire for us to have a variety and abundance of clothes, I think people could easily get by with only a few outfits a year.
6. Behaviors are conditioned by temperatures and seasons
As I am writing this, it is winter in Madagascar. Like at home, this means the days get a little shorter and a lot cooler. The brisk mornings and cool evenings have me daydreaming about roaring fires, hot chocolate, and snuggling in to watch Christmas movies. The only problem is that it’s June, and the appropriate time for those types of activities are still months away. (Although, if you know me and my family well enough, you may not be surprised if you saw us watching a Christmas movie in June).
Those nostalgic thoughts made me realize just how much we are conditioned by the seasons of the places where we live. This has happened to me before, and even happens at home from time to time when an abnormally cold day during summer has me desiring to do fall activities. But I think because the seasons are opposite here these nostalgic feelings seem even more out of place. While family and friends back home are finishing up school and beginning summer BBQs, I’m cozied up in my little house with a cup of tea and talking myself out of watching a Christmas movie. I wonder when I am back in the states if certain temperatures will have me reminiscing of what I’d be doing in Madagascar on that day.
7. Americans are exposed to a lot
Through conversations with Malagasy as well as other volunteers, I’ve realized how much knowledge (useless or otherwise) Americans possess simply from growing up and being exposed to so much: television, movies, music, books, the internet, news, school. All these mediums are facilitators of knowledge that we often take for granted. But through my interactions with people here, I’ve realized how much I know not necessarily because I learned it in school, but because I have so much stimulation being thrown at me all the time.
This realization has hit me several times during my film club. I’ve realized that cultural differences also mean differences in not only what we’re taught, but how we acquire knowledge. For example, when I showed my students “Wonder Woman,” I didn’t initially realize how much background knowledge they needed to understand the story. I had to explain (to the best of my ability) what superheroes are and about Greek mythology. These are two things that are just a part of my culture and growing up. And even if I don’t know all about Greek mythology—I do know quite a bit, though, because I’m a nerd—exposure to television and shows would have supplied me with enough understanding to follow the premise of the movie. They don’t have that kind of exposure here. I’ve learned to appreciate just how much knowledge, and opportunities to learn, I have accessible to me.
8. If Americans are exposed to a lot…why are we so ignorant?
I suppose this isn’t something Madagascar has taught as much as made me more aware of. I could ramble on about this for pages, but instead I’ll keep my realization short and blunt. It’s pretty ridiculous how ignorant we (Americans) are of the world. Not all of us. But enough of us. Myself included. With so much knowledge and information accessible to us, literally at our fingertips, we really have no excuse to be so unaware of the rest of the world. No excuse except arrogance and laziness.
Obviously, no one can know everything. And not everyone can have the experiences I have had, that helped me grow in my perception of the world. I realize I am truly blessed. But as I hear of the changes happening back home, of what our country is turning into, it makes me a bit afraid. Afraid of the types of conversations I may have with people where I must choose to hold my tongue or else risk offending that person. I’m afraid of coming off as pretentious even when I’m not trying to be. I have so so so much more to learn about the world that this little taste has made me hungry for more. I wish that America, as a whole, had that desire as well. Again, I know there are people in America who are not ignorant and who do have that desire. But if we continue to generalize other populations that do not fit into our “Great America,” then I’m going to do the same. Because what I see America turning into, the ideals and values we represent is not something I’m necessarily proud to be a part of it. And I want to be proud of my country.
The good thing is the solution is simple. People have the access to information. People have the opportunity to broaden their global views. Luckily, we have organizations such as Peace Corps that encourage positive cultural exchange. My hope is that those who have taken the time to read my stories and look through my pictures get a glimpse beyond the world they know. And perhaps, be inspired to pursue their own cross-cultural experiences—whether that is in a country halfway across the world, or in the next town over.
“The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.”