Object of Pity

I’m not a good roommate. I’m not particularly loud or messy, I just have zero interest in interacting with people when I’m getting ready to leave in the morning or when I get home in the evening. I like being social at work and school and also going out with friends or having them come over. But when I’m just at home, I tend to prefer to be quiet and do my own thing. Understandably, this isn’t also the greatest for my roommates.

My living situation here in Rwanda suits this tendency perfectly. Although I have neighbors, they don’t expect me to engage in more than brief conversations. My two rooms are just my own. If I don’t want to talk to anybody (and most of the time I don’t) I don’t have to.

Now, though, one of my neighbors has a new umukozi, a rail-thin, chipper 14-year-old who took a liking to me and likes to chat. What’s more, she feels bad that I separate myself from the society of my other neighbors. She’s taken it upon herself to try to welcome me and bring me into the fold.

Although my Kinyarwanda is not really up to the task, I tried to explain to her that, while in Rwanda, people prefer to spend all their time in the company of others, in the US many people enjoy being alone. Indeed, I tried to say, people often intentionally seek out such an environment. At the end of our conversation, I repeated “I’m not lonely” several times. Although her English isn’t good enough to respond fully either, her facial expression and body language clearly said, “Methinks thou doth protest too much.” She gave up trying to rescue me, though, and left me my willful loneliness.

Then, at school, there’s one of the teachers who makes a point of coming over to talk to me during our morning break. Unless approached by a colleague, I spend breaks sitting quietly by myself in the staff room, half paying attention to the conversations going on around me in Kinyarwanda. I realize that I really probably do look pitiable, sitting with nothing to do and no one to talk to, but I like it that way. Teaching is a very in-the-moment activity – you can’t really zone out or reflect about other things while class is going on. So, the twenty minute break when I can think quietly is good for me.

Again, I tried explaining this to the teacher when he said he felt sorry for me, sitting all alone, and he suggested I start bringing a radio to school for company. Like the umukozi, he didn’t insist on me joining in on the conversation but he walked away disappointed and still concerned, like a participant in an unsuccessful intervention.

Finally, another neighbor saw me sitting on our front stoop the other day, arms crossed, peacefully surveying the bucolic sunset scene before me. An American might have congratulated me on taking time out of the rat race to sit and appreciate life. Maybe we could discuss the appeal of Walden-like solitary forays into nature. She, though, said “Aren’t you lonely out here by yourself” I repeated my protestations and explanations but she had the same reaction as the others: that of someone graciously agreeing to accept an explanation that is clearly false, out of a polite refusal to contradict.

Are there moments in Peace Corps when I actually do feel lonely? Absolutely but these aren’t them. What’s difficult in the situations I described above isn’t loneliness but the culture gap. Being an outsider in this society evokes many reactions from people here. I’ve been an object of wonder, ridicule, envy and, now, I’m an object of pity.

If you ever needed a “scared straight” type cure for megalomania, try moving somewhere where every aspect of your appearance, personality and behavior are commented on and scrutinized. I think you’ll find yourself wishing for less attention and some good old anonymity in a hurry.

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7 thoughts on “Object of Pity

  1. I enjoy you, Gretchen.
    As I was reading this I thought of the one time I was walking to class and you were on the lawn on the phone or reading or something. We waved. Later you said something like sorry for not saying hi. And I laugh now because I feel like that was my ‘I’m not lonely’ moment.
    America, we’re conditioned to not be lonely.

  2. I love the megalomania comment – so true! Sometimes being in another culture makes you want to crawl into a cocoon where no one will look at you or notice you.

    Thinking about communal cultures makes me wonder about the naturally introverted people. Are they exhausted all the time? Are they just used to never getting a moment alone? A missionary friend of mine in China said that she knew a girl who was clearly a natural introvert, and noticed that she was not thriving in such a communal culture. My friend observed that this girl probably would have been an artist or writer, if only she had time to be alone. The communal aspects of her culture hindered her from doing things she enjoyed.

    Then again, one could say the same thing about American culture – are there people here who are not reaching their full potential because they aren’t nurtured by a communal setting? Probably!

    • That is a really interesting question! It makes me wonder how cultures transition from communal to individual. I assume that at some point most of Europe was more communal than it is now and that America used to be more communal too. How and why did we change? Is that change inevitable with economic progress and technological development?

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