In Search of Cultural Balance

I’ve never been particularly attached to the clothes I wear.  I have always happily worn different outfits to fit the social situation required — unlike others, what I wear does not define me or so I thought…

I wore a hijab for the first time as a Peace Corps volunteer in The Islamic Republic of Mauritania, a country three times the size of New Mexico in western Africa. It’s a sunny, hot, and dusty place that is almost entirely covered in sand.  Almost all of the women in the town where I lived wore clothing that covered their entire body – only exposing their face, feet, and hands.  Wearing a hijab is as much for practical reasons as it is for religious and cultural reasons; it offers protection from the sun and sand.  In order to be respectful and culturally appropriate, I wore an ankle-length skirt, a short-sleeved blouse, and a headscarf, which left only my face exposed – shining white out of the center of a colorful frame. I embraced this outfit, even in the heat, because it was exciting and new and I could feel that I was more accepted in my community as a result of my efforts.

About four months into my two year stint as a volunteer, I realized that I was feeling rather strange and couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was troubling me. I thought about my daily interactions, the very friendly exchanges I had with Mauritanians. Then it hit me—I didn’t have any real friends.  As an extrovert, I had never struggled to make friends. As I thought more about why, I realized that I had lost my sense of self, my past, my individuality.

In my efforts to be culturally appropriate – wearing a hijab and politely interacting with people – I had suppressed my own extroverted, American self. I realized it’s hard, and almost impossible, to make connections with people when you aren’t revealing your true personality, expressing your opinions and being you. It was in that moment, that I rediscovered Alison within Mauritania. I opened myself up to women in the community, communicating my opinions, interacting with them from this new perspective, all the while still wearing a hijab and my conservative clothing, and almost immediately, I had friends.  Not surface friendships, but real friends.

In The Convert, we watch as two cultures, two religious perspectives compete for the souls of the characters.  To me, Jekesai’s struggle is very real — even though my own personal struggle had much less at stake. Discovering who you are within a different cultural framework and trying to reconcile your own culture and the new culture is a challenge faced by all Peace Corps volunteers.

As a recruiter for Peace Corps, I try to set realistic expectations for potential volunteers, telling my personal story, and encouraging them to watch movies and plays that depict what it takes to live in a culture that is not your own. The Convert gives Americans a glimpse of what it might be like to find cultural balance while they are serving as Peace Corps volunteers.

If you would like more information about how you can serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, please visit the Peace Corps website at www.peacecorps.gov and contact Alison McReynolds at amcreynolds@peacecorps.gov.

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