Yesterday I was talking to another volunteer on the phone. One of the upsides of everyone’s service having pretty predictable emotional peaks and valleys is that when you go through a rough patch, you’re not doing it alone.
We were talking about how one of the biggest challenges of living in Vanuatu is the inability to set boundaries for our own alone time. You’re living in a community that is very open and social, and, well, communal. Kids have trouble comprehending that I live in my house by myself, because to them, living by yourself is unthinkable and undesirable. They’re also confused by the small portions of food they see me cooking—they’ve never seem someone make food for just one person before. Even if I’m sitting in my house, it’s expected that my door will be open. If it’s shut, people will come knock on my door to ask me why my door is shut. “Are you sleeping? Are you sick?” they’ll ask. People might drop by any day, at any time, to ask me for help with something. If I’m not feeling up to chatting or helping someone with homework then I usually have to say I’m “busy.” It’s not like in the States, where, on your personal time, you can decide if you want to socialize, and when, and with who. Nope. I’m an open book. An open door, really.
“Yeah,” said the volunteer I was talking to. “But also, the weird thing is, even though you’re around people all the time, it’s like…you still get lonely.”
Yup. She hit the nail on the head. Because no matter how many people I know, or chat with, or call my family, I still don’t feel like I have a real, close friend here in my village. There’s always that gap of culture, of experience, that keeps every social interaction from being quite as relaxed and comforting as talking with a friend back home. Especially here on Tanna, island of gender roles, I don’t really have friendships with men, old or young. I talk to them in passing, we greet each other, but we don’t just hang out. I talk to women, especially my fellow teachers, my host mom and host aunts, but in some ways the conversation is limited to two things: sharing about our respective cultures, and small talk (reviewing for the umpteenth time how many siblings I have, what my parents do, etc). Sometimes that’s great, but it’s not what I need when I feel lonely. And in some ways, talking to young women here is the weirdest. Here are the people that, judging by age and gender, should be my peer group, so when I face the cultural gap between us, it smacks me in the face all the harder. The things we’ve experienced up to this point, our role in the community (for me, either my native community or this host community), our expectations and desires for the future—it’s all radically different. Which can be fascinating and educational, sure, but again, not what I’m looking for when I just need a friend.
That’s the hard thing about Peace Corps life here in Vanuatu: you’re never alone, but you’re always a little lonely.