Thursday, September 20, 2012

9/21/12 Not all sunshine and butterflies

I want to clarify something, in the interest of giving you as clear a picture as possible of Vanuatu and the life of a volunteer here.

From reading my blog, you might get the impression that everyone in Vanuatu is very welcoming, kind, helpful, and supportive. That’s because I’m extremely lucky, and the people I interact with in my community are wonderful. I can’t think of a single encounter I’ve had here in which someone has been anything less than friendly and caring towards me.

But it would be unfairly reductive for me to take my own experiences and paint an image of the happy-go-lucky islander, radiating generosity and cheer from every pore. That’s the picture that tourist brochures about Vanuatu will try to give you, but obviously, it’s not real. Sure, we can make some generalizations about what kind of traits a given culture encourages, but ultimately, people are people. A nationality is not a personality type.

And so I have to point out that not every volunteer has had the same experience as me. Some have faced persistent and aggressive creeping (see the previous post for info about that). Some have dealt with people who are resentful and jealous of the volunteer’s perceived wealth. Some have had property stolen from them, or their homes broken into. Some have had their pets killed by locals. Some have discovered that people are spreading very hurtful and obviously dishonest rumors about them. Some have had to deal with their coworkers and neighbors loudly critiquing the volunteer’s work and motivations to other people.

When I mentioned one volunteer’s negative experience to my sister on the phone, she said, “Oh! So there ARE assholes in Vanuatu! I’d kind of thought, just from hearing about your village, that everyone was completely nice all the time.” 

That’s what prompted me to write this post. I’m not saying these things so I can bash locals. I’m saying these things because I’d be doing a disservice to the people of Vanuatu to present them as an idealized stereotype. Sure, the culture here tends to encourage quite a few really great qualities—but it also encourages some pretty negative ones. But even beyond that, people here are just like people in any country or culture: some are great, and some are okay, and some are kind of jerks. That’s true of America and Australia and every other country in the world. It’s just true of people.

I’m also saying this as an acknowledgment of the local people that I interact with in my day-to-day life: their warm and helpful reactions to me aren’t something I can take for granted because it’s just a part of their culture. Nope, I’m very lucky, in that the people around me are, by and large, really great.

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