It was evening time and I had just finished eating dinner and settled down with a book when I heard, “Odi?” at my step.
I replied, “Kalibu,” and opened my door to find five of my host siblings with an eager look in their eyes. They usually come by my place at night to play and hang out because there is little time on their hands during the day with the chores they are expected to complete.
They scrambled inside and sat on my couch and chairs. When prompted with the question of what they wanted to do that night they replied, “Ukusambilila" ["Learn"]. I questioned them further – learn about what? “Pafya calo.” ["About the world."]
I wondered to myself where I could possibly even begin to discuss such a massive place and its vast intricacies of different cultures. I came to a decision: I would teach them to count to 10 in Spanish.
They were incredibly perplexed at first. Spanish? Was that another Bantu tribal language in Zambia they had never heard of? No, I explained, Spanish is a widely spoken language around the world and in Latin America, a place where one side of my family was from.
After a bit of a geography lesson that involved pointing to my worn and well-loved world map on my wall, they mastered counting to 10 in Spanish. It was one of the many surreal moments I have had during my time here where it hits home that I am in Zambia and sharing myself and my culture with others who have never encountered anything remotely similar to it beforehand.
I've never been the type of person you could sort into a single category. From a young age I prided myself on being different. Being biracial only added to this persona... or I could say it was really the root cause of it and everything else in my life that defines me.
You know those sheets that always ask you what your race is on standardized tests and identification cards? How could I possibly be expected to pick only one? I hated labels because I could never fit into a specific one and had difficulty finding my niche within a society that likes to sort people and things into boxes and columns. I grew accustomed to being unable to find a specific group, and the inability to being categorized, and learned to embrace my differences and grew comfortable with being who I was. This comfort that I developed eventually helped me in a way I never expected it to in Peace Corps Zambia.
Growing up as a minority in America, along with being someone who appears racially ambiguous, helped my ability to adapt to a foreign culture where I was once again a minority. I have talked to other Hispanic Peace Corps Volunteers who agree. Living in a culture in America that is predominantly white, you find that you can never fully blend in — you are different and it’s difficult to ignore.
I fully believe that my service in Zambia has been made easier because of this. I am accustomed to sticking out, to being an individual who can’t be invisible, unlike most of my peers who are Caucasian and can sometimes have a more difficult time adapting because, in America, they have an easier time as a person who doesn’t stick out.
Everywhere I go in Zambia and throughout other parts of Africa, people seem perplexed and curious about my ethnic origins based on my appearance; many people think I am either Asian or half black.
Host country nationals are generally curious when they are able to spot a foreigner and they become more intrigued when the foreigner has origins from a country they never knew even existed.
When I was young this would frustrate me, being bombarded with questions about my ethnic background and how my mother could possibly be white when I was very obviously brown. As I've grown older, I have learned to value my racial ambiguity, especially in a developing African country where a multitude of people are unaware of most of Latin America. This has led to some of my favorite cross-cultural experience and gives me the opportunity to educate and share with people the food, language and customs in Mexico, all while they tell me about their own culture. It's an exchange, a give and take.
People around the world generally know typical American culture. What they are unaware of are the different cultures that comprise it, one of them being Latinos and Hispanics, which constitute 17 percent of the American population. As the Peace Corps Second Goal states, it’s part of our job to share American culture with our host country. In my case and many other Volunteers, part of my American culture is Latin culture.
It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, talking to a fellow Hispanic Volunteer about the lifestyles of our ancestors and recent living relatives, that I came to the realization how their daily life and work is similar to those of the people with whom we are now living with side. No water, no electricity, relying on the land, sitting under trees in the afternoon and dishing out the daily gossip — communal living.
In a way, many of us now have the opportunity to be more in touch with our roots than ever before in terms of lifestyle and work. That opportunity is incredibly significant to me and many Hispanic Volunteers. Many of us have not had the chance to even visit our family’s country of origin and can sometimes feel disconnected from our culture and our people because of this. By having the chance to live a life similar to those of our distant and not-so-distant relatives, it can fill in the missing links and knowledge that we may not have previously had. This gives us the chance to fully know our culture, a chance to even further our own sense of self.
For these reasons, I believe that it’s important for Hispanics and Latinos to join the Peace Corps and serve in countries that are currently unaware of our culture, all while having the time to truly find who you are in the world. Nothing can quite aid in helping an individual find themselves as much as teaching and sharing with others about your family and your origins.
I can wholeheartedly say this with confidence because I have never been more positive of who I am and where my place is in the universe. I always love sharing my background and story with others, especially during my service in Zambia. My race and culture are something I'm incredibly proud of and sharing these aspects of myself, and having the chance to teach people in my host country that Americans truly do come in all colors, shapes and sizes, is an experience I'll never forget.