There are 2 Peace Corps volunteers in my district: myself and my friend, Amanda. We look nothing alike. I have midlength, wavy, brown hair. Amanda has long, straight, blonde hair. Our faces are completely different. Our clothes are completely different. Just about the only physical characteristic we have in common is that we’re both just over average height, within an inch of each other.
All of that being said, people here cannot tell us apart. One white person is the same as another, I guess. When we go to town, it is hit or miss whether a person knows us, collectively, as ‘Jaime’ or ’Amanda’. It’s almost like being in a Shakespearian comedy, with identical twins confusing themselves, each other, and all the innocent bystanders.
A few weeks ago, I was in my market buying onions. My market is about halfway between my village and town, right on the main road. Many people there know me, and most everyone there recognizes me and greets me as a friend.
I had made my purchase and was headed toward my bicycle, when a man greeted me. I didn’t recognize him, but he clearly knew me, so we started talking. I should say here that I have met literally hundreds of people in the last 6 months, so it is not unusual for someone to know me without me immediately remembering them. So, I was chatting with this man I didn’t recognize, and I became more and more sure I didn’t know him. Not that it mattered- he seemed pleasant enough, and I was happy to talk. After about 10 minutes the conversation ran down, and he said, “Go well. You are headed home to 4-ways?”
Finally! Everything made sense: Amanda lives at 4-ways. I live in Chankumba, about 50Km away.
“Ah,” I say, “you have me confused with my friend. There are 2 of us, you see. She lives at 4-ways; I live in Chankumba, just there.”
“Oh, sorrysorry!” He said, “Yes, I can see now I was confused. You and your friend look just alike. Except you, you are fatter.”
Yes, it’s true: Amanda is slimmer than I am. I know I’m not built for skinny jeans. But it’s still surprising to hear it that bluntly. And here’s the thing: that’s a fantastic compliment here. In a country where disease and malnutrition are serious threats, being well-fed is a very good thing. I know exactly what was going on in this man’s head: “Oh, no! I’ve just confused this woman with her friend (bad in any culture). Quick! Say the nicest thing you can to her!”
And here, that’s “You’re fatter.” If this has happened in America, he would have probably said, “But you’re hotter.”
So my hope is, by the end of my 2 years, that I won’t have a visceral, negative reaction to being called fat. Maybe being here will help balance the slimmer-is-better that we get flooded with back home. It is really strange to see your culture from the other direction, to know that you are the ridiculous one, that being well-fed is desirable. It just sucks to be called fat all the time… believe me.