Thursday, September 20, 2012

9/21/12 Creep, Creep Me Do

9/21/12 Creep, Creep Me Do
Okay! Let’s take a break from Rosemary’s Introspective Mood Journaling, and learn a little more about this very strange land, Vanuatu. Today, class, we’re going to talk about creeping and the creepers who creep.

Creeping is a serious issue for volunteers in Vanuatu, especially female volunteers. Aside from natural disasters, it’s probably the most commonly faced issue for us here. Well, actually it’s much more common than natural disasters, but given that Vanuatu is ranked as the most dangerous place in the world in terms of likelihood to experience a disaster and the government’s unpreparedness to deal with one, I’m going to go ahead and put cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and volcanic eruptions ahead of creeping on the danger scale. But for all that creeping is a real and common problem for volunteers, I have to take a moment to laugh at the name. Creeping! Seriously, it’s called creeping, or “kriping” in Bislama. We literally have creepers here.

Creeping is a courtship practice that’s widespread across Vanuatu. It typically consists of a young man coming to a young woman’s bedroom window late at night, and whispering her name, saying that he likes her, and asking if he can come inside or if she will come outside.

That may not strike us Americans as particularly romantic, but the covertness makes sense in this country. After all, if you live in a tiny village, you don’t exactly want to get rebuffed in front of everyone you know. Also, there isn’t much here that an American would recognize as dating—romance is usually a very discreet, secretive thing here. People don’t generally make a relationship public until they’re all but married, or the girl is pregnant. Sure, maybe everyone knows what’s going on, but it’s not going to be conducted out in the open.

But yes, it really ISN’T particularly romantic. Generally speaking, relationships in Vanuatu aren’t nearly as romantic as the kind of relationships we idealize in America. Men and women don’t hold hands in public, or show affection (men and men will hold hands, and women and women, but not cross-gender). People here don’t kiss romantically. There are quick pecks of friendship or familial love (on one personally memorable occasion, a 70 year old woman kissed me on the lips), but making out is just not done, even in private. And as for sex, well, if you live in a small thatch house with a bunch of parents/aunties/cousins/siblings/what-have-you, or even at best, live in your own small thatch house roughly five feet away from all of your family in a shared familial compound, it’s not exactly easy to bring a girl back to your bedroom, is it? From what I understand, sex—at least when it’s between two unmarried people—happens in the bush (by which I mean the forest, not the, ahem, American slang usage—that one should be self-evident). You don’t bring a girl back to your house. You bring her to your garden. Hence the local euphemism for getting it on—“planting manioc.” (Other sexual euphemisms here include “eating a mango” and “selling island cabbage,” which makes me wary of discussing my mango-consumption in everyday conversation for fear of being wildly misinterpreted.)

So my point here is that creeping is a practice pretty in keeping with the generally secretive, hush-hush, and not-super-romantic nature of courtship here in Vanuatu.  It’s not a bad thing, necessarily (although I could argue that a culture that avoids an open discussion of sex is setting itself up for widespread STDs and pregnancies, and additionally, that making out is awesome and people should really give it a go). But creeping CAN become an issue when it happens to a volunteer, because for an American living alone in a foreign country, having someone sneak up to your window when you’re asleep so he can tell you that he loves you and ask you to let him inside—well, it can be really threatening and upsetting.

Sometimes it’s just a shy, lovestruck young guy, and all the volunteer needs to do is quietly explain that she is not interested and ask him not to come back, and the problem stops. Sometimes it’s a more persistent guy, and the volunteer has to forcefully explain that this behavior is inappropriate, shaming him, and talk to her host family or others in the community so they can make is publicly known that creeping the volunteer is not okay. Neither one of these scenarios is actually a big threat, but you can see where it would be very disturbing and frightening to someone from the U.S., and that can be hard to explain to the local community. After all, it’s just part of their culture. They think it’s normal, or worse, kind of funny. We have to explain that if someone did that in America, we might legitimately call the police to come arrest that person. Hell, I think in Texas I’d only be legally obligated to fire one warning shot before I could shoot to kill.

And sometimes creeping is much more threatening. Sometimes a man will come and just spy on a volunteer at night, not saying anything. Sometimes a man will refuse to go away, even after the volunteer has yelled at and scolded him, or come back night after night. And sometimes a man will even try to enter the house, even after the volunteer has asked him to go away. Situations like these are a very real concern, and we’ve been trained to report it immediately to the Peace Corps and to everyone in our community, so that the issue can be addressed. (Also, it’s a rule that our houses have to be within earshot of another family, and that all our doors must lock, even if that “lock” is just a rotating piece of wood that prevents the door from being opened.)

Every one of the scenarios I mentioned has happened to a volunteer in my group. Many of those volunteers have had to deal with creepers multiple times. They’ve all remained safe, and the issue has been dealt with by Peace Corps and their communities (the volunteers have varying levels of satisfaction with the response they’ve received). I’m very fortunate—I haven’t been creeped, and I really don’t expect that I will be. One of the upsides to the gender divide on Tanna is that (in my opinion) it would make a man coming to creep me more of a serious transgression. It also means that I only superficially interact with young men, so there’s really no room for any misunderstandings about feelings or intentions to develop.

I should also point out that, while the vast majority of creeping incidents involve men creeping women, that’s not always the case. Local women have creeped male volunteers before, and I believe some men have been creeped by men, as well.

So that’s a little bit of info about relationships and dating here in Vanuatu. I could go on and on about the topic—it’s one of the areas where culture here varies vastly from culture in the U.S., in sometimes fascinating and sometimes disturbing ways—but I’m gonna end it here, for now. That’s creeping in a nutshell! I do not recommend that you try it at home.

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