Americans, Authenticity, and a Duffel Bag Full of Sunblock

Reflecting on charity and cultural integration in the Peace Corps

This week the Americans were here, and their visits always throw me for a loop. They’re missionaries from the Midwest, mostly hog and corn farmers, young and earnest and conservative. Through some long and complicated network of international relationships, they’re tied to the Haitian church in my front yard. The missionaries and their shiny American dollars built the house I live in and dug the well I drink from, and those facts combined with our shared language and nationality make me feel like I owe them something. In the weeks leading up to their arrival, one of their leaders, a sweet, strange fellow named Tom, sends me enthusiastic, semi-literate emails asking what “the village people” need.

I never quite know how to answer him.

The Americans play with the neighborhood kids indiscriminately, with no limits and total abandon — the patio is chaos for days, kids kicking up huge clouds of dust as they laugh and scream and rough-house. Inevitably, the little ones fall and scrape knees, bruise elbows. They are Band-Aid’ed and cuddled and sent back into the fray, and I watch from my porch with a crooked look on my face — I don’t like this, and I have trouble explaining why.

A part of it is the anonymity. The Americans can’t speak Spanish — they don’t know these kids’ names, or their parents, or where they live. They don’t know their histories or who their siblings and cousins are, they don’t know who’s a trouble-maker and who’s sweet, they don’t know which families have the greatest needs. But still — they wrestle with the tumult of kids and give them candy and let them take pictures of each other with their iPhones.

The Americans’ presence overshadows all the normal routines, a kind of extended shout that silences the regular patterns of my days: Kikito doesn’t walk the goats in at night because there are too many kids around, Jefe doesn’t stay up late listening to his radio because of the noise. I can’t get any work done in my house. When their truck rolls up in the morning, the neighborhood kids arrive in a vast noisy wave, and they don’t leave till dusk.

The missionaries stay for four days, and on day five they depart in an enormous child-swarm of chaos. All the missionaries but one get in the back of the pick-up truck, and then Ben, a beefy carpenter from Minnesota, picks up a black duffel bag and books it up the hill back towards my house — four dozen kids follow at a dead run, screaming and cackling and reaching madly for Ben’s back. At the top of the hill Ben shakes the bag empty, the toys and crayons and jump ropes hit the ground, and he sprints back to the truck while the kids descend on the goods in an insane dog-pile. As soon as Ben’s in the back, the Americans pound the roof — two thuds means go — and they’re off, waving and taking pictures as the kids emerge from their cloud of dust, the lucky few with toys in hand.

I’m left standing with my neighbors, my mouth actually gaping with disbelief. Just like that, the Americans are gone — no goodbyes to anyone, no handshakes or hugs for the adults, just a duffel-bag full of plastic toys and a tap on the roof of the pick-up and they’re gone. My neighbors, laid out in a semi-circle of plastic chairs, are laughing, perusing the goods their kids scored.

One boy shows off a spray-can of Neutrogena SPF 70 sunblock, and I almost laugh. Sunblock? I translate the label and he clutches it like something made of gold. In his defense, it probably cost about $15, more than enough money to feed his family for a few days. But this object has no real value, not anymore. This object has no practical use for him, for his family, at all.

When the Americans are here, no one talks about anything else. They are the main event, the only show in town, and our patio is their three-ring circus. I don’t think their intentions are inherently bad, but their presence makes me uneasy. I wash dishes on my porch and watch two of the missionaries play a very loud, dusty game of dodge ball with fifteen screaming boys, and I want to be different from them. We all carry navy blue passports and we all have white skin. But we’re not the same, I tell myself. We’re not.

Peace Corps has an annual survey that all volunteers worldwide fill out, and one of the most confounding questions is this: How integrated do you feel in your community? Very integrated, somewhat integrated, not at all integrated. No further definitions provided. Integration is something all volunteers strive for, but there’s no formula for achieving it, no precise definition of how it feels. Being universally loved? Being involved in every project? More often than not, we seem to lurch to extremes: I am the most important, the most adored. Everyone knows me. Integration as some quantifiable measure of yes-ness.

Investigating. near El Seibo, Dominican Republic. Photo by Dory Trimble, 2012.

Late afternoon Maria and the girls stop by on their way up the hill. Maria comes in and the girls stare at the photos I have taped to my wall; they’ve seen them a thousand times but they’re still just as mesmerized as they were on first sight. Pictures of me and my Peace Corps friends, my parents, my brother. One faded snapshot of my best friend from high school, a goofy smile on his face, the sweeping sandstone of Utah’s canyon country in the background. Another picture of me and my brother at my college graduation, both of us smiling for real, the sole scandalous proof of my past-tense nose piercing.

Maria and I discuss our plans for tomorrow and then we all walk down to the main street. I watch my host mom and sisters walk back up the road in the falling dusk, baskets and empty soup-pots balanced on their heads, a bag of plantains and squat green squash in a plastic sack, snuggled between my littlest sister’s braids. I do feel integrated, but it is not how I thought it would be. I don’t have to match my Dominican friends and neighbors step-for-step, don’t have to follow them everywhere or do everything with them. Integration and omnipresence are not the same thing, and it’s not about “being Dominican,” either — playing dominoes, dancing perfect merengue, or even going to church the way I always used to. It’s not about conforming.

Being integrated is about integrating other people into your life, and integrating yourself into theirs. Daury and Ariel come over and goof off for two minutes and leave. The girls are never surprised or even overly excited when I come visit, but we sit on the bed and watch TV together and laugh. Esmeralda and I share my USB Internet stick, she rambles about her classes at university and I listen sympathetically, her only peer who’s also been through college and might understand. She makes fun of my cooking, and we send bowls of rice pudding, sweet breads, and bollos back and forth in the hands of her nephews. Maria and I engage in what is essentially one long, never-ending interaction, a collage of phone calls and conversations and meals. We never say goodbye — our usual farewell is “Cualquier cosa, te llamo,” Anything happens, I call you. An assurance that our lives will not move too far in any direction without the other person’s knowledge.

Over the course of a day, maybe ten people step onto my porch and then out again — some stay for a minute, some stay for thirty. Enana and her friend play cards, my sisters sit on the floor by my propane tank and play jacks, Cruz Maria sits in a plastic chair and complains, at great length, about her health problems. I stop what I’m doing to listen, or I go about my business and step around my visitors, nodding and agreeing — “Si, claro, ¿es verdad?” — while I wash dishes, write a lesson plan, or clean my house. Integration is almost literal — my family and my neighbors become a part of my home’s geography for a few minutes. On my way to the bookshelf, I step over Meralin, and she reaches past my ankle to recover a jack scattered too far from home.

Sunset in the campo, near El Seibo, Dominican Republic. Photo by David Richie, 2012.

I don’t have to go to church five times a week to be integrated. I don’t have to know everyone, I don’t have to do the things everyone around me is doing. I don’t go to church anymore, but people know that I did once, and any gossip about my absence has drifted clear of my ears. The parishioners from Jesucristo Reina still greet me warmly, call me sister, give me hugs. My time there had value and meaning, and just because my life has driven away from that doesn’t mean these bonds dissolve.

Peace Corps administrators talk about how integration keeps us safe, and of course it’s true. Maria and I talk five, six times a day — a day of silence, with no explanation, would be uncharacteristic and troublesome. Juana notices when I sleep late, chastises me for it from across the way, and if by noon I haven’t emerged half my neighbors are gathering at the windows to ask what’s wrong, ¿que tienes, estas malosa? The vigilance is exhausting and frustrating and, at the end of the day, a blessing. My neighbors know exactly what I’m doing every second of the day. If something goes wrong, they’ll know that, too.

Another volunteer, sharing her lessons learned at our one-year conference, said, “Just because we’re foreign doesn’t mean we’re exempt from Dominican standards of hospitality,” and this rang deeply, essentially true for me. I reflect the same hospitality back to people that they’ve shown to me — I give a cup of water to anyone who asks, I give juice or soda or banana bread if I have some around, and I apologize, profusely and ritualistically, if I have nothing to give. Later, when I am visiting Cruz and there’s nothing in her house to share, I will respond to her apologies with the same generous, dismissive gestures that she so graciously offered me. We give what we have, we forgive one another for the things we lack. It is a balance.

When the first group of missionaries came six months ago, I was here. When a new group comes back six months in the future, I’ll be here. Someday, I’ll leave too — but for now I am different. For now I am here. The Americans’ truck pulls out and my phone rings and it’s Maria, who says she’s on her way down to talk about a meeting we have planned for tomorrow. My cousin Samuel wants me to explain a card game he scored from the duffel bag. As the dust settles, we sit down in the shade and I translate the instructions to Uno.

We carry the same passports, but we’re not the same. They left, and I stayed.

This essay was written in July 2012. Dory Trimble completed her Peace Corps service in the summer of 2013, and did not stay in the Dominican Republic. She now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah

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