The Phenomenon of Perception

Screen shot 2013-11-16 at 4.08.53 PMLast October, when I received my long-awaited invitation from the Peace Corps, I had no idea what to expect. Jamaica. I knew very little about the country, except that it was too close to home to be called an adventure. Regardless, I googled as much as I could about the island, scoured my Welcome Packet for clues and attended PC events to talk to returned volunteers, all in attempt to learn more about what the next two years would hold for me.

Finally, I found a Facebook group. It was created by one of our own, and designed so that Group 84 could connect with one another prior to departure. It was reassuring to know that I was filled with the same sense of wonder as everyone else.

The Facebook group also allowed us to connect with PCV’s already on island. At last, we were able to get answers to some of those burning questions:

What is your life like?
What do you do?
How do you live and work?
What should I pack!?!?

We took their words as gospel, and personally speaking, I idolized them for their insight. After all, these were seasoned volunteers, accustomed to their lives as PCVs, and I was just a newbie.

Months later, in training, I mentioned this to one of them, and he replied, “Nah, you’re just looking at me with freshman goggles. You’ll be where I am in no time.”

Fast-forward a few more months, and a new Facebook group has surfaced. The incoming Group 85, back in America, receiving their invitations, and looking to us for help. Suddenly, we’re the experts! I was a freshman one morning, and a senior by the end of the day. Within a week, I answered questions about packing lists, my daily school schedule, shopping in the market, and church going (or my lack thereof). I also assured one concerned PCT that she can find peanut butter in Jamaica!

Talking to the new group has me thinking about Shadowing – a three-day segment of training where PCT’s visit a currently serving volunteer at site. My days in shadowing were spent in doubt, unsure whether I wanted to stay. My PCV was understanding, and played Devil’s Advocate as she posed questions to help me see things from all angles. Even though my turn to host a PCT is months away, I find myself examining my life in Jamaica and wondering what questions or comments she’ll have. Will my deep bushy lifestyle excite her, or turn her off? How will she feel about my frigid showers? Will she greet it with enthusiasm, or shiver afterward and hope hers are a bit warmer? Will she be ready to dive head first into her service, or will be she testing the waters, like I was?

I’ve come a long way since my own Shadowing experience, and everyday I thank myself for sticking it out and staying in Jamaica. Needless to say, my attitude has dramatically improved! And now that I’ve taken my off freshman goggles, I see my world through a new light. My morning commute to work – which takes about 45 minutes – has allowed me to better integrate. I know exactly which drivers come and go, at what time, and in what order. I pass the same mothers as they walk their little ones to school, and their children, who at first were very shy, now eagerly wave hello. Community members greet me with, “mornin’ teach!” and a few people have gone out of their way to let me know they have respect for me, which, in a small rural community, and for an outsider like me, is a pretty big deal. And let’s not forget that I can finally speak Patwa.

Recognizing these things also makes me think of a topic we discussed at ESC. There are four stages of cultural awareness that each volunteer passes through during their service.

1. unconscious incompetence
2. conscious incompetence
3. conscious competence
4. unconscious competence

Simply put, a volunteer might not even realize there is a difference in their behavior, versus that of their local counterparts. Then, they realize the difference, but are not sure how to emulate it. Next, they make small attempts to adapt and fit in, until finally, they are so well integrated, they don’t even recognize the ways in which are one with their community.

When I first arrived in Jamaica, I was at stage one, and understandably so. I was in stage two by ESC, and now I am moving slowly into stage three. I’ve discovered that there are multiple strains of pumpkin and yam, and I have my preference for both, and that I enjoy eating chicken neck over chicken back any day. I’ll declare myself in stage four the day I fail to realize I’ve eaten a chicken foot.

Cultural awareness aside, there are many other ways in which my perspective is changing. Although the last few years have left with me a heightened sense of maturity, I catch myself making small changes in my personal life everyday. Call it growth, if you will. The obvious is a set of new skills; a confident approach when killing cockroaches and $(KGrHqR,!qIFEj6ehwQEBRvjJs,ZO!~~60_35spiders, the ability to French braid my hair, and an acquired resourcefulness in the kitchen. More subtly, I’ve learned not to sweat the small stuff. Acceptance and patience are also new friends of mine. You see, from the day I landed in Jamaica, I feel as though I lost a great deal of control in my life. From being unfamiliar with everything around me, to recognizing the ways in which I am different, and stepping far outside my comfort zone, I eventually learned to throw my hands in the air and just go with it. Everything seems to works out in the end.

Dun’ worry. Be happy.

Facebook Is Not My Friend

Early Termination (E.T.) (verb) [ur-lee tur-muh-ney-shuh n]
1. When a PCV exits their service prematurely
“Another one bites the dust.”
“Oh? Who ET-ed?”
“No, I mean another friend just got married. But it’s the same thing.”

I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook these days. I enjoy that I am still connected with my friends, but the flipside is that every week, someone else has either gotten married or engaged. It’s a painful reminder of the fact that I’m still single, broke, and jobless.

“But April, Peace Corps is your job now.”

Oh please! I can’t decide if this is a never-ending version of riding the Tilt-o-Whirl, or It’s A Small World After All. And if I choose the latter, I’m not sure if I’m in the little boat, watching and learning about this new culture, or if I’m a little mechanical doll, and everyone else is staring at me.

The other day, I smiled at a curious child and made him cry.

My friends and family are supportive. They tell me what I’m doing is amazing, and that I am a role model. But I don’t feel like any kind of superhero. I’m not wearing a flashy outfit with a cape; I’m wearing a t-shirt with armpit stains and I smell bad. Showering is a hassle, because my hair clumps and clogs the drain, and the amount of dirt that comes off me would make you think I’m a real life version of Pig-Pen.


But I’m good, until I face the choice between taking a walk in the blazing sunlight, or camping out in front of my fan and playing solitaire on my computer all day. Reading on the veranda is always a winning option, if I can tolerate being interrupted by every other person passing by who wants my attention.

But between crowing roosters, oversized spiders, little black ants that will get into your food if you’re not careful, and the abundance of mosquito bites that adorn my body, I’m doing pretty well.

I’ve done a thirty-mile hike, I frequent the beach, I’ve attended a church service, and I’m finally remembering more community member names than I am forgetting them. I’ve made many Jamaican friends, my students occasionally stop by to say hello, and I keep myself busy by organizing dusty books in the library (when playing solitaire doesn’t sound more appealing). I’ve also managed to balance a social life with my responsibilities, which for many volunteers in other countries is considered a challenge. Then again, I’ve only been a PCV for three months, and it’s the summer time. Let’s see how things go when school starts up again in September.

facebook-sign-outMy bitterness comes primarily from my lack of A/C and pizza. I also grow impatient while I wait for friends to reply to my emails or send out the care packages they’ve promised. Mom and Nana, meanwhile, are busy gallivanting through Italy on a five-star cruise. This friend is posting pictures of her dinner, that one is complaining that a specific television show isn’t on tonight, he’s boasting about that awesome concert he just went to, and – oh shit. Another friend is engaged.

It’s time to log off Facebook.