Culture shock and disparities between host country and US culture are popular topics in Peace Corps training and volunteer stories. But, less talked about, is the diversity of Peace Corps volunteers themselves.
We volunteers come from all parts of the US. We have unique life experiences, reasons for joining Peace Corps, and life goals. We are in no sense homogeneous after you discount the fact that we are all US citizens. Our diversity is often overlooked, and by more parties that you might expect.
It’s not surprising that host country nationals might think all Americans are the same. As volunteers, we might be the first person from the US our community members have met. It’s also not entirely shocking that people in the US tend to stereotype volunteers. Most people in the US only know several returned volunteers personally. More surprising, however, is that Peace Corps staff and volunteers also often make the assumption that because all volunteers are from the States we have a lot in common.
Let me give an example. In Paraguay, one common topic in Peace Corps training and subsequent conversations with volunteers is catcalling. Street harassment is something that happens in Paraguay and, depending on where you are, it can be frequent and daily.
What I’ve found fascinating about the numerous powwows to discuss street harassment I’ve experienced with volunteers is how it is discussed as though it is something that does not happen in the States. Catcalling often is brought up as one of those unsavory parts of Paraguayan culture with which one has to deal.
I find this a mystery. Catcalling is not unique to Paraguay or foreign places. It is alive and well in the US too—from boys whistling to men who follow you down the street offering undesired commentary. My sister and I sometimes talked about our street harassment experiences when I still lived in the States: She lives in New York City and I lived in Washington, DC.
Catcalling is something new to many volunteers in Paraguay, and they find it very upsetting. But, for others, like me, who experienced catcalling in the States it is not new and we had strategies to deal with it before coming to Paraguay.
Experience with street harassment is one example of how volunteers are disimilar, but there are many examples. Our variance highlights the vastness and diversity of the US and reminds me that nationality isn’t what makes us similar or different. Nationality is one of many fragments that make up a person; it is not the summary of a person.