And other interesting questions and misconceptions
“Is it easy to marry an American girl if you are an American?” While Goal 1 of the Peace Corps Mission concerns bringing trained individuals into interested communities in need, Goals 2 and 3 are solely about a cultural exchange. Goal 2 states that volunteers must help “promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.” Goal 3 says that in turn, volunteers should help “promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” One of the purposes of this blog is to fulfill Goal 3.
No matter where you go, the people you meet will have questions and beliefs about the United States. We all know that these are created by the media and other experiences foreigners have had with Americans. For me, I encounter generalizations and misconceptions about the U.S. on a daily basis in Cameroon. Part of my job here is to teach my community about my own culture, and to teach those in America about the culture of Cameroon. I find myself explaining every day that the U.S. is very diverse, and many cultures are present. There is a lot I still do not know about the cultures of the U.S., so I must only speak for myself and what I know.
The cultures in Cameroon share similarities with those of the U.S., but also show vast differences. For example, in Cameroon, weight is wealth. If you are fat, it means you eat well, and for you to eat well, you must have money.
Cameroonians also have a habit of asking questions such as these: “You don come?” (“You came?”), and “You were in the house?” I often think of Severus Snape in the film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when he bluntly replies to Professor Umbridge with “Obviously…” Of course, I never say that…but I want to.
I am often asked where my husband is or why I am not married with children. (“Where your boyfriend at? Is he tall? Is he coming back?”). You see, many women my age here in Cameroon are already married with at least one child, sometimes more. The Muslim women in my village marry in their teens and bear their first child by the age of sixteen. I find it hard to relate to many women in my village who are my age because they already have families of their own. Polygamy is common in Cameroon, so even if I say that I already have a “fiancé in the North”, I might be asked if I am looking for a second fiancé. Westerners (and especially white people) are such novelties, mainly in rural villages, and it is difficult to escape unwanted attention. Other PCVs and I like to say that we are “hot commodities” here…and we don’t really like that.
Cameroonians will almost always take the time to greet you, but cannot be bothered with saying goodbye. Birthdays are usually forgotten or not celebrated. My fellow village people will always know where I am (“You were in the market?”), and if I’ve been away, upon my return, they will say: “You’ve been missing??” They will ask what I have brought them, and I have heard that this is really just a way to show concern for how I traveled. Almost every day I am asked for a “dache” (a gift), whether that be one of the bananas I just bought, or the shoes on my feet. It is perfectly acceptable to demand a dache (in the Northwest Region at least), though it still makes me feel uncomfortable and sometimes frustrated. One of my fellow volunteers is sometimes asked if she will dache some of her long blonde hair.
Many people in my village are under the impression that the streets in the U.S. are paved in gold, that you can pick up money with every step you take. People in my village assume that all white people and westerners are rich. Many Cameroonians wish to move to the U.S., and I often find myself explaining how difficult it is to live there, especially for immigrants. A lot of people think if they move to the U.S. they will immediately find a job and start living well. I explain that it is important to save your money and get an education. After, if a Cameroonian still wants to move to the U.S., at least he or she will be better prepared and have more realistic expectations. Almost every day, I compare prices of items in Cameroon with those of the same items in the U.S. For example, I can buy groceries for the week for the equivalent of a few U.S. dollars. A meal at a restaurant here costs less than 50 cents. My housing rent per month is sixty U.S. dollars. The quality of products, monthly incomes, and standard of living tend to be lower here. Regardless, I try to make Cameroonians understand how expensive it is to live in the U.S. and how difficult it can be to live anywhere.
Sometimes, I am asked how holidays are celebrated in the U.S. Questions like these often require long answers, in which I emphasize that one cannot generalize about the U.S. Each family spends holidays differently, just like they do in Cameroon. During Christmastime in my village, people like to buy balloons and other things to hang on their ceilings and walls. I have heard that some people will put up their version of a Christmas tree, but I have not seen one. On Christmas Day, if a family is Christian, the children will dress up in new clothes and go to church with their families. In the afternoon, families will gather to share a special meal.
While Cameroon is a collectivist society, it also is a patriarchal one. Many women do not have official jobs, but instead spend their days farming, cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children. I have heard men say that “women are weak,” but at the end of the day, the women are the ones working and raising the children, while many men work for a few hours a day and reward their hard work by spending hours and money at local bars or traditional palm wine (mimbo) and corn beer (sha) houses (beer is cheap, too – a little over one dollar for a bottle). Women and youth empowerment is something I hope to develop projects around in the next two years.
There are countless other questions and misconceptions I encounter every day. Sometimes I am so taken aback by a question or statement that I have to take a moment to evaluate how to respond. Every day brings unexpected things, as well as the regular opportunity to share my American culture (as well as my family’s immigrant culture) with my new neighbors and friends.