Today is my one year anniversary of Life in the U.S. After Peace Corps. It is only now that I realize how drastically my experience there has changed me. Peace Corps was defining for me in that I was forced, every single day, to stand out and be different—and ultimately to be okay with that. One year later, back in America, I can see how much that has helped me thrive.
I grew up in a very unique culture in a small town in America. It is a culture that most outsiders could never imagine; and was oddly similar to what I observed in Armenia.
My hometown was very small—less than 1,000 people—surrounded by many other small towns. The population of my entire county was just over 35,000! We were nestled away in the northern parts of Michigan, surrounded by pine and birch trees—and of course Lake Superior.
I grew up in a religious and conservative community, full of rules and traditions. Overall, I believe I had a very good upbringing. I became a very grounded person with a strong code of ethics and values. But I was also hesitant to fully explore who I was, for fear of the wrath of God and the disappointment of my family and friends.
Peace Corps helped change that for me; I’m no longer terrified of being a bit controversial. And while I’m still a work in progress, and am scared out of my mind to post this, I have come a long way and believe it’s time to share this part of my life.
The town in Armenia in which I lived should have been like living in a metropolis—with a population of approximately 8,000. But let’s face it. A small town is a small town is…still a small town! It was also very conservative. I should have felt right at home.
But I was a tall blond girl living among (generally) short brunettes. I spoke English and broken Armenian. They spoke fluent Armenian, Russian, and sometimes a little broken English. I wore sneakers and black slacks. They wore 3 inch heels and sequined skirts. Also, I had never milked a cow or made gata, so what skills could I bring to the table?
I did not feel at home.
By the very nature of living among them, I stood out. I was stared at, and no matter what little thing I did, my actions were noted.
So from the very start, I realized I would never fit in. In a sense, that was liberating, because that meant I didn’t have to try to fit in. I could still be respectful of the culture and integrate as much as possible, but I could also get away with acting in ways they considered strange, because I wasn’t expected to be exactly “like them” anyway.
Imagine living in a conservative culture and getting away with not following the norms and—better yet—not feeling guilt or shame over it. I had never had that opportunity before.
I became comfortable being different. When I got back to America, I carried that level of comfort with me and it affected my life in untold positive ways.
The best example of this is dancing.
I grew up in a culture that does not permit dancing. Why, I can’t reasonably explain to you, but it was unacceptable so I never did it. I was uncomfortable moving my body, had no idea how to shake my hips, and didn’t know what to do with my hands.
Armenians, on the other hand, love dancing. They dance at every occasion—for hours on end.
The first birthday party I went to, my second week in Armenia, there was dancing. I stood awkwardly on the sidelines and waved my arms in the air. I was pulled into the circle and shown the steps and made to dance with everyone as they all commented on my inability to do the Armenian dances. It was embarrassing, but I did it.
This scene played out over and over again, at birthdays, at holidays, at the wedding I attended, and sometimes just for fun. I gradually became more familiar with the steps and was able to relax a little bit. Everyone still watched me closely the entire time, but I stopped caring so much. And I found that I was having fun!
Dancing, which used to be strictly taboo, lost its negative connotations, and I almost forgot that in my community, it is still not an okay thing to do.
It’s also a touchy subject to talk about, and in posting this blog entry, I risk a lot of backlash.
But I want to prove my point—that Peace Corps has given me courage to be different, to be myself.
And I want to talk about my new love, which is salsa dancing!
Recently I decided to start taking salsa lessons. In the past, I would have been mortified to get in the front row of the class directly in front of the dance instructor. But I got over the shy stage very quickly and just started enjoying it and wanting to get better. I attribute that to Peace Corps and the countless times I was made to dance in front of an audience without a clue about what I was doing.
Now I salsa dance from 1-4 times per week, and I love it! The salsa community on the Central Coast of California is wonderful. My dance partners have been forgiving and accommodating and challenging, and I’ve learned so much from them and their varied styles. The more I dance, the more confident I become, and the happier I am that I have pursued this (previously unknown) interest of mine.
As I said, my story of dancing best illustrates how I approach life differently after Peace Corps. But it isn’t the only example. As I worked for literally days on this post, I came up with many more that I’d like to share sometime. Perhaps in future blog entries or personal emails. (See form below to sign up for stories straight to your inbox.)
Now it’s your turn. Did this article speak to you? What did you learn? What stories do you have that help define your life and where you are now? Please share.
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