Peace Corps Part deux: Moroccan Nights

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Do you Americans eat this?

The other day I was introduced to someone new. She asked me if I was French and I responded that I am in fact American. She then turned to her friend and said: "like Oprah?" and then started laughing.

On Novermber 12th I finished up my second round of Peace Corps training. Although I wouldn't recommend that anyone go through two rounds of Stage, as us West African volunteers like to call our training, it was still nice to through a little party to thank our host families and host communities for being so kind and generous and sharing their lives with us for the past two months. In order to say thank and bid adieu we decided to make a bunch of American food for the party. To me and to several others in the group American food meant one thing: pizza. While some Italians may have objected to our labelling we went ahead with the cooking. As a non-chef I quickly found my place in the cutting section of the preparation room. I was joined by some members of a stage-mates host family as we hacked away at enough tomatoes to make pizza sauce for our guests. In Morocco people usually cut the skins off of their tomatoes before cooking them. When I say they usually cut them off I mean that people look at you like you are crazy if you leave the skins on. Note that this makes perfect sense in a culture without shoprite and the FDA. I told my ten year old assistant to leave the skin on and she looked at me with shock, but after some convincing did as she was told. After the tomatoes, the next step was cutting, and grating the cheese. My assistant turned to me and with a very confused face asked, "do Americans leave the wax on their cheese, since they leave the skins on their tomatoes."

As I just mentioned I have never been known for my cooking, but as a gesture of goodwill a few weeks ago I offered to make my host family a spaghetti dinner. I made the meal my family pretended to enjoy it and I thought the subject was finished until last week. We had a small gathering before the pizza party to discuss how the training went. My host sister claimed to have had a good experience and mentioned that she had enjoyed having "real American spaghetti with vegetables." The next day the normally shy, reserved cook who makes our lunch every day and makes incredible dishes that I could only dream of making, nearly jumped on me to make sure she got the recipe for how to make, "real American spaghetti with vegetables."

After having gone through two Peace Corps trainings and one year of service I would like to point out one flaw in the cross¬cultural training. I realize the necessity of making Americans more culturally sensitive (especially the ones who insist that pizza is an American food), as well as the difficulties in developing cross¬¬¬cultural materials that are applicable for the wide range of cultures in the countries that Peace Corps serves. In this training Americans are stereotyped as the epitome of direct speech while Host Country Nationals (as Peace Corps so diplomatically calls the "natives")are seen as very indirect saying yes to any idea that the volunteer presents and then voicing disagreement by not showing up to meetings, etc. I have now served in two Peace Corps countries as well as lived in New York for most of my life and I can tell you that both Moroccans and Mauritanians can put the bluntness of the most forward New Yorker to shame. The other day a fellow trainee came to my house for some tea and my family flatly, firmly and kindly, told him that his Arabic was terrible. An experience that even the most fluent volunteers in either Morocco have surely had multiple times. It is not that my family was being mean, in fact they said it with a smile and offered him more cake, it is simply that the style of communication is more direct and honest than any New Yorker I know is used to. That being said I could still use a training session on figuring out how to be nice to people from the Midwest.

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