Sunday morning was lovely; I spent it sitting at a cafe, sipping a latte and chatting with friends. It was in this most comfortable and relaxed of environments that we stumbled upon a topic that was anything but. Apparently I am not the only one who has had some seriously awkward slip-ups in the past two years. Almost akin to malaria or giardia, awkwardness is like a disease that plagues most Volunteer's Peace Corps experience at one point or another. I'd even venture to assert that anyone who has spent time in a foreign country has caught this infamous bug.
In our conversation, it came up that a fellow Volunteer had been seriously reprimanded for the way he taught the incoming class of Volunteers last summer. It was clear he took it rather hard. What would normally be a shrug in response to getting slapped on the hand for some rather loose lipped lessons turned into a crisis of self that clearly rocked his sense of confidence. He was overcome with sheepishness and shifted awkwardly as he talked about what had happened. In an attempt to sympathize and entertain, I related a story in which I hugged a professional recently in a very much not-huggable situation. It was rather confusing since I am so used to hugging friends and fellow foreigners in Hovd with regularity and ease. At one point Mona mandated that we must always hug upon greeting each other. Apparently this is not the case with US Embassy Staff in UB. Oops.
In the Peace Corps you live your job; you are your job. Even just existing as foreigner in such a remote location, our actions are scrutinized like specimens under a microscope. When your job is to set an example for Americans abroad, you are working every waking hour of every day. And when you are so closely connected to your job, occupational and cultural failures become personal ones. We are here because we care and it's easy to care so much that we become wrapped up in it. Volunteers don't want to offend the locals we interact with and so we alter our behavioral standards and expectations to fit a different culture. In this position, with legs straddling two different norms, it is impossibly easy to slip. Indeed I believe we all do it, or at least those of us who care. But even so, it is really difficult and even painful to be that vulnerable. After being here for a while, it is so simple to feel smug; I feel I have put my awkward past behind me after a series of smooth interactions. But without fail the dreaded awkward creeps back up on me and pounces, sending me down a peg or two just like in high school.
But then again, with deep breaths and the right perspective, these incidences become just another occasion to laugh, as one of the paramount lessons I've learned here is not to take anything too seriously. Being awkward is something that plagues those who experience growing pains, from adolescent puppies to teenagers. Learning to stand firmly between two cultures without offending anyone, all the while navigating the professional world, is no exception to the growing process. So I suppose all there is to do is sip your latte, accept the inevitable and laugh.