Monday, August 22, 2011

Peace Corps: Preparation for Life

100_1300When I was in the Peace Corps, I didn’t realize it was preparing me to live in the Bay Area.

For most Peace Corps Volunteers, there’s plenty of things they learn that they realize will be useful when they get back to the States.  How to write a project proposal, outlining objectives and goals, maybe even how to start a fire.  I figured learning how to wait patiently for public transit, how to cook rice in a pot and how to deal with creep crawly things would still be useful tricks when I got back.  But there’s a whole bunch of other things I never expected to use in the US.

This past weekend, my friend Meg&Jack came over and we had a rummage sale.  I suppose bartering isn’t a surprising element at a rummage sale, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised to find myself drawing out old market day skills.

Bartering

My strategy was to decide the price I was willing to pay for the item before getting into negotiations.  I was less interested in paying the absolute lowest amount possible than in paying no more than I thought something was worth.  If the seller wouldn’t go done to my pre-set value price, I walked away.  For the rummage sale, I sort of just flipped the strategy, thinking how low would I be willing to go to part with something.  Since the sale was mostly stuff I was just trying to get rid of, this went well for buyers.

Making do with limited language skills

The surprising bit was how much I had to use my I-really-don’t-know-what-you’re-talking-about skills, and even more surprising, occasionally my smile-and-nod-cuz-I-don’t-give-a-vampire skills.  Nearly every person that came to the sale had a thick accent with varying degrees of English skills. 

There were the two Spanish women who asked on nearly every item, “is there another price?”  And the woman from next door who I think is from South-East Asia.  She’s got Tibetan prayer flags on her porch, but along the I-80 corridor of the East Bay, nearly everyone has Tibetan prayer flags.  An African woman stopped in briefly, but I didn’t get a chance to find out where she was from.  A younger gentleman who could have been British, Australian or even South African (I can’t tell!) came by looking for some action figures.  And there was an older gentleman who sounded as though he came from Eastern Europe a long time ago, his accent softened by years of English.  These people were all very nice and we talked only of items for sale.

I really have no idea what you’re talking about

The smile-and-nod-cuz-I-don’t-give-a-vampire skills came in with my downstairs neighbor, an elderly man from Bangladesh whom I had never actually met before this day.  He told me, and then Meg&Jack and me, repeatedly, that we shouldn’t have a rummage sale on the small street.  We should put everything in our car and just sell it out of the trunk on the busy road.  He came back later, after Megan&Jack had left and gave me the entire history of Bangladesh.  It wasn’t until about 10 minutes into it that I realized he was saying “Bangladesh.”  Understanding maybe only every 5th word, I think I got the gist. I definitely got as much as I wanted to get.  I was so relieved when he left. 

Then he came back and gave me his whole family history.  It was so, so much like a conversation that would have happened in my Zambian village.  “I moved from here to there on twenty-three April 1965 and then I went to visit my cousin in nearby city on seven June 1942 and stayed there 1, 2, 3 weeks.”   Years clearly not making sense, going backwards in time, numbers being confused.  “On 18 February, I moved here, but then I travel to India for visit to my brother and I stay 6 weeks.”  Etc, etc.  Then it got so much like a Peace Corps village story it was surreal.  “I am very poor.  My brothers and my sister, they send me money.  But my brother, he only gives me food, no money.”  And another 5 minutes about how poor he is.  In Zambia, I would have assumed a person was telling me this because they saw me as a rich muzungu and wanted me to give them money.  Here, with my neighbor saying this, I had no idea what was up.  Smile and nod; smile and nod.  And be thankful when the poor man’s cell phone rings.

Photo: one of my Zambian neighbors who would come over and just talk and talk and talk and I rarely had any idea what she was going on about

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