This is part 1 in a new series of interviews. I’m featuring fellow travel, culture, and language lovers who are currently ‘grounded’ due to the coronavirus.
Melanie Stanek is a travel blogger, writer, and English teacher. She writes about culture, education, and the life-changing magic of travel at https://melaniemary.com/. She and I met during a 6-month study abroad in Be’er Sheva, Israel in 2012 and have kept in touch over the years, exchanging stories about expat living and cultural faux pas.
For the past three years, Melanie served as a English teacher with the United States Peace Corps, and continued until March of this year when the lock-down started. Melanie, along with 7,300 others, was evacuated from her post and sent back to the United States, a country she no longer recognized.
I know the coronavirus caused your Peace Corps assignment in Madagascar to end earlier than planned. What was it like coming home in this environment?
It was crazy. For one, the whole experience of having to leave my site super quickly, wrap up loose ends, say goodbye, and be shuttled off to Ethiopia and then the United States was emotionally exhausting. I arrived in Dulles Airport jetlagged and a little weepy. And then, to get off the plane and be the only ones in immigration was bizarre. I’ve never been in an airport where I didn’t have to wait in line, but that whole day, it was like we volunteers were the only ones in the entire airport.
When I landed in Memphis, I saw my dad waiting for me at baggage claim and cried, because again, I was super jetlagged, and he was wearing a mask and gloves and I couldn’t hug him. And everything was closed. One of the most exciting parts about returning home after a long stint abroad is getting to hug family and friends, eating at your favorite restaurants, and visiting all your favorite spots. I couldn’t do any of that.
I had to self-isolate for two weeks. My parents were really sweet and accommodating. They turned the guest bedroom into a little Bed & Breakfast, jokingly calling it “La Jardin Princetonique,” after a hotel we stayed at when they came to visit me in Madagascar. They set up a mini fridge, coffee maker and tea kettle, and lots of beer and wine so that I would be comfortable. But I spent all my time in that room. It was very unpleasant.
I wanted to share my journey with them, but I felt like I was contaminated. Thankfully, I passed the two weeks in full health. I’m grateful for that.
What stood out to you as the main comparisons and cultural differences between Americans and Malagasy?
In Madagascar I had to learn to speak Malagasy, which is a Micronesian language with 18 dialects. It’s related to Hawaiian. My dialect in the north is called Antakarana and has Bantu, Swahili, and French influences.
Of course you have the main structural differences, which are pretty obvious. I lived in a one room house made from a local tree called ravinala or “traveller’s tree.” I had no electricity or plumbing. I had a shower/outhouse behind my house and I took bucket showers with water I fetched from the well. The nearest post office and bank were an hour away by car, which was pretty close compared to some other volunteers’ set ups.
But honestly, you get used to those things pretty quickly. I’ve always been sort of a minimalist, so I didn’t have a problem using candles and solar lamps and eating rice and beans. It’s all part of the experience, and the most important way to become settled in a new community is to learn to live like the locals. And people really responded to that.
At first they thought I was crazy. I was the first Peace Corps Volunteer in that village, and probably the first American any of them had seen. Madagascar has a lot of French tourists, but not many Americans. So everyone thought I was French. They also thought I was rich, and couldn’t speak Malagasy, and hated sweet potatoes and couldn’t handwash my own clothes. I had to prove them wrong.
People warmed to me very quickly, and I felt so welcome. People prioritize community and conversation over work and “getting things done,” which is the antithesis of American culture.
Also, people survive by relying on each other. As an example, any time I got sick, I would try to hide in my house until I felt better. I think this is a very American cultural norm. We don’t like other people to see us when we’re sick, or not looking or feeling our best.
But my neighbors and students had a habit of visiting me every day, so it was really hard to hide. Whenever someone discovered that I was sick, they would scold me for not telling them, and then insist on cooking for me or fetching my water.
I really hated this at first, because I felt embarrassed. But eventually I realized that this is how you survive illness, and they were concerned for my well-being. And truthfully, when you’re double dragon-ing, those water buckets feel a lot heavier.
How did the Peace Corps impact your feelings about what it means to be American?
I think it’s a reality check on how privileged we are. I don’t come from a wealthy family, but I’ve never known hunger, and my parents always had enough money to send me and my siblings to school. I never had to choose between taking care of my family or getting an education, for example.
Malagasy people, at least the ones in my village, were faced with these hard choices every day. We read articles about extreme poverty, and take classes on it, and feel bad and sad and sometimes heartbroken. But until you see it every day, and its weight surrounds you constantly, you just don’t understand.
I also realized that Americans, even some Peace Corps volunteers, might just not care that much. In the Peace Corps I learned that not all volunteers are okay with feeling other people’s emotions, or even feeling their own emotions. Some of the American behaviors made me feel disconnected from the group, like heavy drinking or partying, behaviors which are so normalized in America.
Of course nobody’s perfect, and I made a fool of myself loads of times. But when we interviewed for the Peace Corps, they told us we’d be representing America 24/7 because we’d likely be the only American our community had ever met. And so, for the first time, I was seeing the idea of America through the eyes of my students, and neighbors, and colleagues, and I realized how much weight that adjective bears.
People are always watching us. We have no idea, back home, how closely the world is watching us, but they are.
Can you tell me about a high point of your experience?
There were a bunch of highlights. A major one was GLOW: Girls Leading Our World. Volunteers in the capital wrote a grant to arrange this week-long conference for high school girls living all over the country.
Madagascar is such a diverse country, but most people don’t travel: They’re born, grow up, and die in their village surrounded by people who look like them and speak the same dialect.
That’s why it was so exciting that each volunteer could bring 5 of their female students along with a counterpart (a teacher) to stay in a guesthouse in the capital for a week. I chose to bring girls that I had gotten close to through a girls’ group I had started after school. We’d get together and study English, or play music, or talk about our lives and our bodies with the limited Malagasy language I had.
They had the time of their lives. I’d hear them say tsisy tihody, which means “I don’t want to go home.”
I noticed, though, that many other girls were homesick and lonely being far away from their community for the first time. I really felt for them. It was tough because there are so many dialects in the country that it could be a struggle for the girls to understand each other.
When you say you would talk to the girls about their bodies, did you find you were able to relate to the girls through that basic similarity of being female, in a way that transcended being American or Malagasy?
What I realized was that while they were all Malagasy, at the end of the day, they’re still just teenage girls who want to be independent and explore. It was interesting that they were together with me, when at the time I was a 27-year old woman, not married, no kids, with a college degree, well-traveled – many of the girls had never seen that kind of woman before. I’m not sure how to call it.
A different kind of role model, maybe?
It was really challenging for the girls to understand, especially for those who had never even been out of the region. Where I was located, the capital was 24 hours away by car. We went by a shared van called a taxi ‘brousse, driving 24 hours straight.
I’m curious, was the driver male, and was it a big leap for families to let their daughters go to the capital this way?
They were almost always male. I only saw one local private female driver ever. It’s often said there that ‘women are easily tired, so they shouldn’t drive.’
It’s true that there are very different gender roles in Madagascar than in the U.S., but parents were excited for this opportunity and the community saw it as a big honor. Also, they knew there were going to be chaperones.
How common is it for Malagasy women to go to school?
My village was located on a paved highway running north to south in the region, Route Nationale 6. There were six or seven in the country, I think. So we were “connected,” but at the same time, some students lived far away and had to walk many kilometers to go home to their parents who were farmers. This meant they couldn’t come to school in the rainy season because the ground turned into rivers.
Otherwise, I’d say there’s a 50/50 female split. Girls are encouraged to go to school, but if they’re acting out, for example, they’ll be sent away to a relative or to be married. There’s a lot of child marriage and girls dropping out because they are pregnant. Girls are still largely seen as property with few relationships and little independence or freedom of their own.
While a girl is in school, she belongs to her father and isn’t allowed to date, but this varies from family to family and subculture to subculture. A lot of children are raised solely by women as infidelity is a big problem, but they can still go on to university.
Where it comes to sex, this was mentioned in one unit in 9th grade biology. Otherwise, girls learn from their parents, siblings, and friends…and who knows what it is they learn, just like in America.
Since the population is largely Christian and Muslim, when girls would get pregnant, the reaction would be similar – they would drop out of school. Though this was somewhat common, there was still a stigma attached.
I can definitely see the parallels there between situations common to both American and Malagasy life, but with different cultural context. How did you respond to the challenges of cultural immersion?
(During the course of our conversation, we spoke a lot of the duality of culture. Things that exist in Malagasy but not American culture, from believing that a spirit may take possession of, and speak through, a body to the plant-based medicine prescribed by ‘witch doctors’ – much of which Melanie said had health benefits. There were similar aspects to American culture, like the idea that when someone’s sick, they need a massage, and when someone dies, people should keep vigil over the body.)
The Peace Corps encouraged us to be sensitive and open-minded as possible. That sometimes meant that girls would never be able to play soccer or that a 12-year old is having a baby and that’s fine, because it was accepted in the community. That when someone dies, women don’t go to school but sit and cook. It could be very frustrating. I remember my feelings of powerlessness, objectification, and being taken advantage of, like my own students.
I had to separate in my mind what is defined as ‘culture’ because it’s honorable and good, and what is ‘culture’ because no one has done anything to stop it yet. For example, I disagree with child marriage. Men having no consequences for their actions isn’t honorable.
Once I reached that point, I became more outspoken. Like, you can trust girls. It’s okay to have a crush on someone and still focus on school. The better my language got, the more I realized how people talk and debate all the time, how they pass the time – I can do that too!
So I got more comfortable sharing my opinions, like about birth control. I would tell the girls, if anyone tells you birth control causes cancer, don’t believe them, it’s not true. I felt that from what I’d gathered about my students, the world they live in and their options – they need to know.
It’s not that I felt I was there to make a change, and also not just to integrate and to learn – but to expose my students to something they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten exposure to.
I can definitely relate to that, having experienced cultural immersion in Czech Republic as well. It sounds like exploring and processing cultural differences related to sex and gender were a big part of your experience.
Yes, there are a lot of things you might take for granted in Western culture, like the idea that women and men should be equal. But in Madagascar, it was very important that women had women’s work and men had men’s work.
Sometimes I was angry with the women, with my host mom, but that was so short-sighted and bigoted of me. I couldn’t get past my own concept of gender equality, and as time went on, I had to break down that assumption.
For example, village life is strongly based on manual and physical labor. The men chop wood and the women fetch water. Also interesting is that men carry things on their shoulders, while women carry things on their heads, which has to do with how our bodies are structured and where the center of gravity is located. I found that everything I’d known wasn’t relevant here and I had to relearn what being a woman meant.
Ultimately, I could see the honor and strength in being a woman who cooked and cleaned. Those things that American women look down on as manual labor, but are in fact essential work.
At the same time, that’s also not all there is. And it doesn’t mean women aren’t capable of doing certain things just because they’re a woman. I believe women should still go to school, still be able to play soccer.
Could you tell me about a low point of your assignment?
I was the first volunteer in my village so I had a lot of work to do to be accepted, to get people to understand who I was and why I was there, why I was living like them. I lived daily life as locally as possible – I cooked my own meals, washed my own clothes and cleaned my house, I went to the market every day.
This was very different from the type of expat they might have known and seen by being along a main road, or even the local rich people with cars, housekeepers, cooks and nannies for work that was ‘beneath them.’ They’d say about expats or foreigners that they ‘can’t handle the Malagasy lifestyle, they can’t handle eating rice or sitting on the floor.’ After I did those things for a while, they got to know I was different from other foreigners.
Still, I experienced a couple of break-ins. One time, I came back from out of town and found my door frame had been ripped off. Someone had taken the suitcases from under my bed looking for money, but when they didn’t find it, they left them with my clothes strewn all over the floor.
Of course, this felt violating and insulting, and my neighbors and friends (including my host family, who lived a couple houses away) were scandalized. But this was common. It’s why people don’t like leaving their houses unattended. But as I lived alone, this was difficult to do.
I also didn’t get along with my school director, who was punitive, harsh, and mean. He was there as a result of nepotism and Malagasy can be a deferential culture. In schools, corporeal punishment and student/teacher relationships are common, and I felt like I had no authority to do anything.
When I’d worked with summer camps and youth programs in the US, they taught us all about being a mandated reporter. Meaning, if you witness abuse or if a child discloses something to you, you are legally obligated to report it. And this is meant to help and support children who are vulnerable. But mandated reporting didn’t exist in my community.
In the U.S. we are frustrated with our country, but as flawed as our systems are, there are people who try to do the right thing, to look out for those who are most vulnerable. There were times I considered whether I could continue, and I asked myself, Is it worth it or safe for me?
After reassessing my role, I found I had more influence than I realized. Not to go directly to people in power because they often didn’t care, but to go to other people who do care. I need to find them first, and learn to rely on them. So I started caring less about people with authority and more about my students, neighbors and the people I enjoyed spending time with. I focused less on the things I couldn’t change and more on things that I could.
The goal was for my students to have a good adult role model and a caring adult in their lives. Some had many of those and some didn’t. But for example, if a student had received an unjust punishment, I would just try to be there with them.
So did it make a difference? I don’t know and I ask myself that question every day. What else can you do? There are so many people who genuinely care and are trying to create better worlds for people even with the unjust systems we’re all stuck in.
How has your experience in Madagascar impacted your view on travel, in the context of the COVID-19 crisis? Do you think it will influence how you travel in future, where you’d like to go, or the experiences you’d like to have?
That’s an interesting question. Part of me wants to stop traveling and part of me knows that will never happen. Sometimes I think, there’s so much work to do in America, maybe I should just stay here… but I know I’d never be happy doing that. I definitely feel a renewed desire for slow travel, not just hopping around so much, which I’ve never liked as much as really living in one place for a long time.
My experience also gave me more confidence to stand out. I’ve always been hypersensitive about this, not wanting to offend anyone. After 3 years in Madagascar, I realized I’m different and always will be different. Of course I’m American, but I’m also a product of all my experiences. I don’t need to hide so much everywhere I go. I believe you can be respectful, culturally sensitive, and open-minded, and still yourself.
I felt like I was compromising a lot in the Peace Corps because I was so afraid of offending, screwing up, or making a big mistake that I lost a part of my identity. So I want to push back on the idea that you can’t do anything controversial. It’s possible to keep your own interests and act in good faith.
For example, compared to Malagasy, our communication in American English is very indirect. With my students, it was also the directness of communicating in a foreign language. They just didn’t know how to use those hedging phrases, like “I feel kind of like…” or “you know what I mean?”
They’d just come out and say whatever they thought, and the Malagasy directness didn’t always translate well into English. But I still knew what they meant. And I appreciated it in a way, because even though it could be shocking, it was still a real expression of what they felt.
Thank you, Melanie, for collaborating with me on this interview! What surprises or interests you most about Melanie’s experience?