There is something nice about moving to a new place in that you get to redefine who you are to people who have no preconceptions of you. Peace Corps is one of the times in a life where you get a chance to do this.
Before coming to Peace Corps, I had spent most of my early and mid 20’s attempting to define who I was and convince others of it. This is not an easy task when you come from a small town, even one as loving and accepting of difference and eccentricity as mine was. It’s especially tough when who you are, or at least who you want to be this month, is constantly changing throughout your young adulthood. I think this is a shared experience for nearly everyone, and eventually we just grow into a more confident version of ourselves with age.
But Peace Corps forces a different path of sorts. You get to your country of service and suddenly who you are is all you are left with on those difficult days. Everything else from your former life, all the things that helped define your identity or reflect upon your tastes, are gone. You are left with just yourself. It is a terrifying place to be when perhaps who you were prior to your service was more fluid than static. I found myself in that position the day I met my fellow volunteers at our staging event in Philly nearly one year ago next month. It was then that I told that first lie.
I told myself, “I know what I’m doing.” That was the first lie about joining Peace Corps. I knew it wasn’t true before our plane touched down in Lusaka.
I told myself, “I don’t have a comfort zone; everything is okay with me.” That was the second lie. I knew it wasn’t true within the first week of Peace Corps.
I told myself, “I am going to be sober for 27 months.” I swallowed that lie (happily, I might add) with a mouthful of chilled suds three weeks into training.
Eventually, I stopped telling myself anything at all. In a place (both physically and emotionally) where nothing seemed certain, I decided the only thing I wanted was the truth. But the truth is a fluid thing; subjective; wiley. It felt like everything I was told ended up being only true to a degree; like everything about Zambia lied to me in some small way or another. One day I expressed these frustrations to a fellow volunteer. I told him how I felt like everyone was constantly telling a lie of some kind (i.e. “I’ll be there at 13 hours,” and “I will come to your meeting”) and didn’t understand why people couldn’t just tell me the truth. He looked at me carefully and said, “When it seems like people are telling a lie, have you ever stopped to consider what else might be true?”
This was when I came to appreciate that the stubborn mistress of truth sometimes hides behind a saved face or a pale lie. I learned that sometimes we choose our lies because they are less painful for us, or perhaps more importantly, for someone else. This struggle I had been having between truth and lies suddenly lost its tug-of-war feeling and slipped into something more graceful, more poised, more elegant in describing our reality. It seemed that, at that moment of clarity, I could choose to hear all those little cultural lies as a kind of indirect truth.
So, I started paying attention to the language of truth and lies, and I’ve learned to hear what else might be true.
Here are some of the lies that I tell myself:
– My roof doesn’t leak.
– I really love nshima.
– My neighbor’s music isn’t THAT loud.
– It isn’t weird to stand at my kitchen table eating peanut butter out of a 1-liter container with a spoon I haven’t washed in three days…
– People will show up to my meeting today.
– People understand me when I speak Mambwe.
– Everyone loves having a Peace Corps volunteer in the village.
Here are some of the lies I tell my family and friends back home:
– Things are great here right now.
– I haven’t had diarrhea in a looong time.
– I never get homesick.
– My diet is super interesting!
– There’s harassment, but you get used to it.
And here are the lies I tell my villagers:
– I totally understand everything you’re saying.
– Sure, I’d love to come see your corn field.
– This camera belongs to Peace Corps.
– This cell phone is only for work related business; I can’t loan it out.
– I don’t mind that I biked 40 minutes to get here only to find that you’ve completely forgotten about our meeting. No, really. It’s fine.
– I believe in God.
– I understand why you think women should be subservient to men.
It seems cold, these lies. But they are the ones that don’t matter, or that keep me sane. I think more importantly, there are many lies I have stopped telling:
– I am comfortable with almost anything.
– I can shrug off harassment, alcohol abuse, and ignorance easily.
– I have infinite strength.
– I can do it all by myself.
– I know what I’m doing.
– I am right.
When I came to Zambia, I was good at the lies that made my life easier, but I rarely told them. Now, nearly one year into my service, I say something other than the truth – daily – as I speak the language of saving face and negotiating a culture that is not my own. But the lies that matter, the untruths I told to myself about myself are nearly gone.
Many of the comments I receive on this blog thank me for my honesty, for my straight-forward approach to talking about life as PCV in Zambia. These comments remind me of how much easier the truth can be, even if it is a harder feeling to tell it. So, Peace Corps has forced me to look at “what else might be true” within myself. Because of that, I have given up the masquerade of who I wanted to be (or appear to be) and now am focused on letting the truth about myself happen on its own. I won’t make it up; I won’t invent it.
And that’s the truth.