I have never enjoyed being the center of attention. I don’t like big groups of people, the idea of public speaking makes me break out in a cold sweat, and I really, really value my alone time. Almost every Peace Corps book, information packet, manual, and blog I read before becoming a volunteer mentioned the “fishbowl effect” – the feeling of exposure, lack of privacy, and being in full view of the people around you with nowhere to hide that often comes with being the new/different/exotic foreigner in a small town. I was (theoretically) trained extensively on this phenomenon and (hypothetically) prepared to live for two years as a sea creature in captivity, where my every action, movement, embarrassing dance move and questionable wardrobe choice would be documented, remembered forever, and recited back to me by a whole lot of people I don’t know. But despite the fact that I sort of knew what I was getting myself into, this introvert is having a hard time adjusting to living in a display case.
What I really want to do is –>
My town is just small enough that everyone who has lived here their whole life knows everyone else, but just big enough that I have no hope of knowing everyone in only two years. This means everyone knows who I am, but I don’t know who very many people are. As far as I know I’m the only American living here (although I do frequently see lost tourists wandering around in search of the popular beach towns nearby), which makes me interesting and exotic and a popular topic of gossip. It’s kind of how I imagine it would feel to be famous, except without the money and fancy cars and hanging out with Oprah. This means my comings and goings are noted with startling detail (“Raquel, where have you been?!? I haven’t seen you since two Tuesdays ago when you were crossing the bridge with your blue backpack wearing a black shirt and jeans”). Do an embarrassing interpretive dance to “jingle bells” in my English class? Everyone knows. Play hooky from work for an afternoon to read on the beach in the next town over? Duly noted. A few weeks ago I went to the capital city of my province, about 2.5 hours away, to hang out with another volunteer. The next day the man who runs the tienda next door to my house told me, “I saw you at the mall in Portoviejo yesterday! You were eating lunch with a girl with brown hair and you were wearing a green tshirt and you guys were sitting at that table talking for such a long time!” Last week I ran into a coworker of a friend in another town. I hadn’t seen her in months, but she asked me how my novio (boyfriend) was doing because she heard that I went to eat a sandwich with a guy THREE MONTHS AGO in San Vicente (NOT a novio, just a friend). I could go on and on, but you get the point. I’ve never gone out drinking in my town and I will never, ever go on a date with someone here (and no more sandwiches…) – if my daily jogs across the bridge make front page news, I can’t even imagine what would happen if I did something even mildly interesting.
This is how people look at me –>
To a certain degree it’s comforting – I know people are looking out for me, and it makes me feel safe and cared for. However, it also makes me feel a little paranoid. I want to establish myself as an upstanding and trustworthy member of my community, which is a daunting task when living in a culture I don’t totally understand and communicating in a language I am not completely comfortable with. I worry constantly that I’ve unknowingly committed some cultural faux-pas that I knew nothing about, and everyone is gossiping and laughing at me for accidentally looking a chicken in the eyes or walking on the left side of the street on Sunday (I made those things up, but you get the idea). While I’d love to take on the “I don’t care what you think, I’MMA BE ME” attitude, that wouldn’t fly here. I need to earn the respect of my community if I’m ever going be able to do my job effectively, and to earn respect I have no choice but to care, A LOT, what people think of me.
I miss my privacy and the feeling of being watched at all times is unsettling, at best. The only option is to suck it up, get used to living the life of a goldfish, avoid giving my town a reason to gossip, and try to keep my embarrassing dance moves to a minimum.