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Ross Szabo

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What Does an American Look Like? Racial Diversity in the Peace Corps

Posted: 11/04/11 06:08 PM ET

What does an American look like? America is home to a beautiful array of different races and ethnicities. On most city streets it's common to look around and see a plethora of people representing every region of the world. Ancestors who came to America at different times over the last couple of centuries have added their legacy and dreams to our nation. However, the question of what does an American look like can result in some intriguing answers. American minorities who volunteer in the Peace Corps learn this lesson pretty quickly when serving abroad.

In this piece I will try to provide some perspective from volunteers who deal with different experiences pertaining to their race throughout their service. I interviewed volunteers in Botswana. I want to stress that Botswana is different from other African countries and obviously other countries around the world. The circumstances for each volunteer also vary.

A lot of African Americans look forward to volunteering in Africa. Aaron Washington, an African-American man from New York, was hoping for a homecoming of sorts when he came to Botswana. He said, "I expected the 'back to the motherland experience' that so many Afro-Centric black Americans talk about. I expected people to be excited that their 'brother' has returned home to learn more about them and take that knowledge back to the US."

Aaron faced a situation a lot of African Americans deal with when serving abroad. He explained, "The 'welcome back to Africa my brother' I thought I would get when meeting many people has usually been: 'you are too dark to be American,' 'why don't you speak our language' or 'you want to be white.'"

Race relations can be challenging in any part of the world. Aaron expands on his experience, "My own jealousy has been surprising. I never even noticed race in the states and now when I am with a white person I feel like local people slightly change their behavior. To be honest I envy the treatment that whites get in Botswana, although I am not naive enough to know that they also have many hardships."

With every challenge comes rewards and Aaron has found his, "As a minority I have become a teacher in a sense. No matter where in the world I went I am sure the experience of being a minority would be the same, which is interesting that I still feel like a minority in Africa even though I am black. I feel like I represent all black Americans but I don't want to, because I am not all black Americans. At the end of the day I have met a lot of people and made a best friend here in Botswana, a best friend for life."

Omosalewa Oyelaran, an African-American woman, who was born in Nigeria and raised in Nigeria and North Carolina, said she expected to come to Africa and face questions about not having kids and not being married due to different roles of women. She said, "I didn't expect to have to answer so many questions about being American, why I am light-skinned and spending so much time trying to make people believe me."

She continued, "It was a lot harder than I thought it would be. In America, I spent a lot of time trying to conform to the definition of being Nigerian and or American, then I came to Botswana and had to spend just as much time trying to get people to believe I am American. I don't want to deny any part of myself. I wasn't like a flag waving patriotic person when I came here, but being in Botswana has really made me proud to also be American and given me more meaning."

I asked Omosalewa how she copes with these situations. She said, "I write a lot. I can sit down and all of a sudden I am 30 pages into my journal. I talk to people. I do my best to make sense of it all and have made some really good friends in the Peace Corps and in Botswana."

Asian Americans face a unique situation in Africa as China has begun investing in a lot of countries and establishing businesses. Caitlin Anzalone was born in South Korea, and adopted when she was a baby by an American family in Virginia. She identifies more with her adopted family's Italian background than her Asian appearance. When I asked her about any expectation she had about her race, she said, "Before coming to Botswana, I read in the handbook that volunteers who look Asian often have people act out kung-fu or ask about Bruce Lee and I thought that would be entertaining and that it wouldn't bother me much. I didn't think about my race much at all."

As Caitlin was adjusting to life in her village she was harassed a lot. She provided these details: "People would constantly call me China, speak fake Chinese to me, or ask if I sold certain objects at my shop. Occasionally kids would make kung-fu movements. One time a man stopped and got out of his car to ask me why I never said hello to him, since he gave my family business at the shop. I explained to him that my family did not own a shop and that I was American."

At first she didn't want to walk to work anymore. She just didn't want to deal with constantly explaining she is American and America is a diverse place. She was getting the attention more than other Asian-American volunteers. She quickly learned how to cope, "I realized people didn't mean to be offensive. They see Chinese people setting up shops and they aren't trying to be derogatory. After being in my village for a while people started to know who I am and called me by my name. I feel like this experience really gave me more self-awareness. As American as I feel, I look Asian and there is no way around that. Whether I feel American or not or am connected to the Korean culture or not, this is what I look like and its part of who I am."

Paco Mathew is a mixed race, Hispanic-Caucasian man from New Mexico. He didn't think about his race before coming to Africa. "There's so many other things to worry about that I didn't really think much about what role my race would play. When I got here I was surprised that the stereotype of Americans is that they must be blonde-haired and blue eyed. It was like anyone not fitting that description must not be American."

Paco lives in a very small village in Botswana and has adjusted well. "Sometimes people think I am Indian. Sometimes people think I am white. I often talk about being half Mexican. Growing up mixed race I am used to a lot of jokes on both sides, so the confusion or questions have never really bothered me. I do a lot of work with students and teachers. They got to know who I really am and that's really what matters. People will always see race, but once you get to know someone that stuff can fade away."

Parisa Kharazi is a first-generation American woman of Iranian descent who grew up in New Jersey. She said, "I wanted to serve in the Peace Corps in Africa. I didn't really think about my race when I was coming here. People in Botswana are usually surprised when I tell them of my ethnic background. It is a stereotype to assume that all Americans are blonde-haired and blue-eyed. I like to bring up the example of our President whose name is not typical. I think that really helps people understand the diversity of our country."

She talked about her experiences, "Sometimes I get confused for being Indian or South African but I don't really experience much discrimination here in Botswana. I have actually experienced more of it in America because of my ethnic and religious background. Growing up I felt like I had to pick one identity; American or Iranian but I learned that I can be both."

Parisa has made efforts to talk to people about her background, both American and Persian, and celebrates holidays with friends in her village. She's also grown in a new way in Botswana. She shared, "I think that I have really learned to appreciate my Iranian heritage since coming to Botswana. I never realized how much it is a part of my identity and I thank my parents for that. Today in America there is a growing plague of Islamophobia and a negative image towards Middle Easterners and I hope that by serving in the US Peace Corps other Americans will see that I have a love for this country and care about it as much as they do."

As a Caucasian male, being in Botswana has been fascinating. I fit the stereotype of what many people think an American is "supposed" to look like. I have some difficult moments, but most of the time I am celebrated. People want to be my friend, help me or talk to me any chance they get. Little kids will yell, "white person" in the local language as I pass by and my co-workers laugh that I am a pseudo-celebrity in my part of the village. It's not the minority experience I thought I would have.

I thought a lot about race before I came to Africa and how my race in general was responsible for a lot of issues both good and bad. I worried about how I would handle those situations. Much like Aaron feels like he has to speak on behalf of all black Americans I feel the same way for white Americans, especially when trying to change other stereotypes about wealth.

I do everything I can to respect the local culture, learn new languages and represent myself the only ways I know how. I've found there are definitely different customs all over the world, but much like Ghandi's famous quote, "we are more alike than we are different."