Sunday, February 7, 2010

Falling Ass-Backwards Into Saving the World

"What you`re doing is so much more important, they tell me, but I don`t do ANYTHING." Jenna and I were sipping juice on a patio in Asunciòn while she was telling me how sad she`d been to miss her dad`s birthday, and how her family just downplayed it to her. We went on to talk about how it seems like no one in the US understands what we do, and maybe don`t want to know, but they still put it on a pedestal as being this wonderful thing. There`s plenty of PC literature that warns us about how when we go back, people will want to hear about our experience for about 10 minutes before their eyes glaze over and they tune it out. Not that they do it maliciously, but of course it`s going to mean a lot more to us than it would to them, and it`s possibly the development-work equivalent of looking at someone`s vacation slides.

I`d recently had a conversation with my dad where, in the midst of showering me with compliments and telling me how proud of me he is (that`s the good part), he was also making in sound like Paraguayans were just these hopeless idiots whom I had to swoop in and save. I defended them, and after a short pause, he logically followed with, " what are you doing then?" Good question, and the answer is just complicated enough to write a whole blog entry about...

We`ll have to start a while back to explain. After a several hundred years of crippling and mismanaged wars and corrupt and thieving governments, Stroessner took over in 1954. Try to understand what this time would have been like, and how it would have affected people. This was the book 1984 (without the technology), where Big Brother was watching all the time in the form of all your neighbors and "friends" that could turn you in to the government, and society was completely ruled by fear. Stroessner didn`t have to shove THAT many people out of planes over the Chaco, or kidnap THAT many people in the night (either never to return, or to return emotionally broken and silent about their time away), before the chisme started flying and word spread fast. Dissenting opinions got you killed. If you weren`t a member of the Colorado party, you couldn`t get a job and your family might starve. Critical thinking was an exercise in futility or outright treason, so it was best to sit down and shut up. Crime went way down because stealing a pack of gum could turn you into one of the Disappeared. The curfew was strictly followed and families peered out from behing closed curtains at night and told their children about all the terrible people out there, waiting to get them.

They still do this. 31 years after Stroessner was overthrown, there are bumperstickers on buses that say, "Stroessner- we didn`t know we were happy", because they felt safer then, at least when it came to street crime. A lifetime of dictatorship mentality cannot just be turned off in an instant, even once the dictator has been chased to Brazil.

Paulette told me of this animal study she`d read about with regards to human/animal behavior. They put animals in a small room with a low hurdle and shocked them. All they had to do to get away from the shock was jump over the hurdle, and they all figured it out easily, until they brought in this certain group. This group had been through another experience where they`d been shocked with no escape (we don`t have to explore the whole animal testing issue right now, just go with me on this). These animals, when faced with this new test, instead of jumping over the hurdle, just laid down and took the shock.

People are the same way. Why try if you can`t escape? Why question if it`ll get you killed? Just tow the line and everything will be all right. It is not that Paraguayans are lazy or stupid (although I have heard this COUNTLESS times from Paraguayans, just before they tell me that a big problem with Paraguayans is their low self-esteem). They are not. In fact, they are very together in a lot of ways (some, more so than Americans), and getting better all the time. They are not these poor, lost souls who don`t know how to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and they are NOT, as Christian so eloquently put it during his visit, Fucked. They are exactly where everyone else in the whole world would be, given the same set of circumstances. We are all products of our experiences and our environments.

So what I`m doing here, as I explained to my dad, is just providing a different perspective. I am helping, and I am making a difference, but it is in a much more subtle way than I pictured before arriving here. They have 95% of what they need, and the 5% I bring can make all the difference. So what I do is listen and watch and try to keep up with what`s going on, and then I ask things like, "Why?". Then, as they explain to me, this clueless but lovable foreigner, the logic behind what they do, the light dawns as they think about the Why of it, maybe for the first time. Sometimes there`s no good reason why something is, other than it`s just always been that way, and through the questioning of it, they see it`s ok to change it. They weren`t taught in schools to question. It`s not that I`m so smart and this is some brilliant psychological move on my part, either. I probably just really don`t understand what`s going on. But, just my being here is enough of a catalyst to spark change, as bumbling and poorly spoken as I may be, and there are these wonderful Wizard of Oz moments where they see they`ve had this power the whole time, and start clicking their heels like mad.

The youth, especially, having never lived under a regime, are driven to question and change, and I am so lucky to be here at a time like this, when things happen. I`m working with these jovenes (youth) from the leadership camp we had a few weeks ago, and I watch them just GO, knowing full well that at 16 and 17, I was neither driven or enthusiastic, like they are. They are coming up with all these project ideas and planning and doing, and I stand slightly off to the side and say things like, "Perhaps we should try this on a small scale before we start feeding and clothing every poor person in the country" and they agree, and slightly adjust - so I`m like a rudder.

That`s why the Peace Corps is set up the way it is - why we come here to LIVE as part of the community, not just do a project and leave, because it`s the little things that make all the difference. I say, "Perhaps we don`t need 4 links on the website going to the same place, and we could simplify this," or "If we have all the books in digital form, why do we need to spend the socios money on buying expensive books?" or "Yes, I`m blonde naturally but I think dark hair and dark eyes is so much prettier, like you, so that`s why I dye my hair" and things are just slightly better in a lot of areas.

Our coordinator Betsy told this story about how her host family had come into some extra money, and her dad had wanted to build the future house of his 11 year old daughter, effectively telling her that`s where she`d belong. His wife, though, asked, "How do you know she`ll want to live down the street from us? Maybe she`ll want to travel the world, like Betsy." Just her presence there completely changed that little girl´s life, and she didn`t have to say a word. That`s what we do here.

Michel, Bambi, and Mike all left with the same excuse - they didn`t feel like they were helping enough, but things take longer than a few months to get done in Paraguay, and maybe they just didn`t see what a difference they were making. There`s a reason it`s a 2 year process. Sometimes, especially when we`re missing home and we don`t see the impact right away so we feel like we`ve done nothing, it`s hard to see how those little moments are adding up to something bigger than all of us.

When I was helping Michel pack, her internet wasn`t working and her host mom Digna and I, knowing very little about computers, were staring up at the blinking lights on the modem on a wooden pole outside her room. Digna tssked and then announced, "Este sistema es jodido" (this system is fucked). Nevermind that this is super funny coming from a sweet, old lady, I`m going to extend this metaphor a little. After a moment, the lights came back on. The people and the systems of Paraguay are not jodido either, although it may appear so to someone who doesn`t understand those systems, and in fact, all it takes is a little tweaking, a little questioning, and a little time, and all the lights come on, like on this modem, and everything comes out ok. That`s what I`m doing here - falling ass-backwards into saving the world, one poorly-pronounced Why at a time.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Ang! Very informative! I like the pictures you have on your blog too!



Chuchi - this is probably my new most popular word. It means snobby or fancy, but is used in the Peace Corps as anything nicer than dirt roads and shacks, or for a person, anyone who showers with hot water. Living in the city, I am super chuchi for here.

Fuerte - literally means strong, but because the culture is based on talking around everything, it´s when a person says anything they want in a direct way - it means asshole

Puede ser and otro dia - literally means "could be" or "another day", but because noone will directly blow someone off, both of them mean "never" and are the answer to a question of when something will happen

Deseas, en tus sueños, Que Arriba Perra/o and Es lo qué es - these are the terrible translations of American sayings that are not used here and don´t really translate, but we say them anyway. Literally they mean "you wish", "in your dreams", "What´s up bitch/dog?" and "it is what it is"

Qué guapa - this means "what a hard worker" and is used by Paraguayans every time I do ANYTHING manual, including carrying a dish to the sink or sweeping out my room. I don´t think they have high expectations for Americans and work.

Saludos - sending saludos by way of a mutual friend is how people tell each other they have a crush on them. The most serious kinds are given with a pinch on the arm and they mean business.

Thumbs up - this is done everywhere here and is a simple answer to pretty much any question. I will probably have carpal tunel in my thumbs when I leave here because I do this so much.

No se como comer esta - this is how one refuses food in Paraguay. Literally, it´s "I don´t know how to eat this" which creates an internal struggle for me each time it´s said because I want to be a smartass and explain that, just like any other food, you put in in your mouth and chew, but I don´t think that´s acceptable here.

No Más and Un poco - this is said after almost every phrase for no real reason other than to make everything sound like it´s not a big deal, even when it really is. Literally, it´s "No More" and "A Little", so the translations are something like "Sit down no more", "Come here a little", and "Do you want dinner no more?"

Cocido - this is a hot drink mixed by carmellizing sugar with a little yerba, adding just enough water to wet it, and then adding more sugar. It´s served by the thermos-full just before bed.

Mosto - this is to sugar what crack is to cocaine. It´s a "tradional" drink capable of putting even the sweetest tooth into a diabetic coma, and is served continuously at fun gatherings like funerals.

Ch-ch-ch-ch - this is the sound Paraguayans make to get each others´attention - like "Psst" . It´s especially used for catcalling, and they have nothing to follow it with - they just want you to look.