The fishbowl effectPosted: December 19, 2012
You’d think things would calm down. I’ve been here for more than a year, but whenever I step out of my house, all the necks within what feels like a five mile radius will pivot instantly in a Sam-oriented direction. Unblinking eyes will track my every minute step and expression. It’s weird. It’s unabashed. I’m half celebrity, half animal, and in all likelihood the most interesting thing of that passerby’s day.
Yeah, I’m just going to say it. I’m a big deal. A really big, maybe once-in-a-lifetime deal in the ‘Bad, for sure. And for the average Peace Corps Volunteer, it can be pretty claustrophobic.
The most common denominator of PC service everywhere is the Fishbowl Effect: feeling like you’re a multiple-limbed deep-sea fish ripped from the obscurity of its home and lobbed into a goldfish bowl to be ogled by pesky humans.
And the most prominent manifestation of this is the staring. Everywhere. On the street, on the bus, in someone’s house, in the classroom, in a car, in the shop, at the bazaar – well, you have the idea.
At first it’s something to laugh at. But the stares accrue. Even the most relaxed volunteers will find themselves wearing thin as this subtle torture continues. It becomes unbearable. And then, after months and months of endurance, one day, you just motherflippin’ lose any reasonable standard of normal. Suddenly, each gawk can evoke from you anything from stone-cold silence to giggles to rage that burns like a thousand skewers of lamb kebab. (True story, though I paraphrase: “You’re sick in the head, lady!” said one frightened spectator of me as he backed off – though, in my defense, he was being more than just an annoying gawker.)
So, as I’ve learnt, the staring never goes away. (Not if you’re the most gripping thing to happen to your local community since the last PCV, anyway.) But the upside is that neither do the rumors. As I learn more and more Azeri, I find that these often return to me, distorted through multiple, misinformed tellings or based off entertaining culture-specific assumptions.
I know people have gossiped about my wardrobe, considered outrageously unfashionable and shoddy compared to local trends. One previous PCV was remembered for a few oil stains on her shirt, which she didn’t clean off, much to the distress of her neurotically clothing-tidy Azeri community. People have asked my host family why I lug around my internal-frame backpack when I’m hitting the road (“It’s so ugly! And she’s a girl! It’s bad for her back!”). They’ve seen me walk by a beggar on the main road in town, and talked about the fact that I didn’t hand over a few cents, like a “good Muslim” would. Maybe most hilarious is knowing they’ve formed opinions about my use of toilet paper – my host family generously informed me that people have seen me buy it in town and take it home, in a land where a water pot and a left hand are all the clean-up materials required.
And I’m not alone. My new site mate, Trevor, was seen walking in my company and the next day, all my students were asking my counterpart – not me – who this new “yellow-haired Russian boy” was. A teacher at the Minnesotan’s school knowingly remarked that the Minnesotan liked gum – “because you were chewing it yesterday.” Similarly, the Minnesotan’s neighbors commented one day that she sure went to bed early last night.
“How did you know?” she asked (she hadn’t gone out to visit anyone, and had been in her apartment the entire night).
“You turned off your lights early,” they answered – as they had been watching her windows, from across the way.
I miss the anonymity at home – but who knows. Maybe it’ll be a shock to feel commonplace again in America. I’ll be offended that no one will scrutinize my every food purchase, or know how much exactly I paid for my new cooking pot, or claim to know THE American. After all, here, I’m a big, bizarre mutated fish in a small pond.