From 2019-2020, I served as an Agribusiness and Economic Development volunteer in Uganda.
I could tell you all of the many adventurous things I got to do: the wonderful community projects that I got to do, the many relationships I made with the Ugandan people, or even funny personal stories about living without water or electricity; but that wouldn’t tell you my story of my volunteer experience. As an Asian-American volunteer, there were more unique challenges that I faced with identity, culture, patriotism, and a fundamental understanding of my presence here as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Pictured above is me with grandma Loy Naigaga. She was a really sweet woman and we became friends over time as we greeted each other over the weeks while I was passing by on the brick red dirt road with my bike.
In the eyes of the community, like with grandma Loy, my American identity was challenged because I simply did not fit the typical American image. I did not have blue eyes. I did not have blond hair. I did not have light skin. I did not look American. I have brown eyes. I have black hair. I have brown skin. And I am 100% Filipino-American. But instead, I was presumed to be Chinese, as most of the Asian people that lived in Uganda were mostly Chinese. At some point it became a personal goal to figure out how to convince the local community that I was really American, which ultimately transformed to trying to convince myself how I was really American.
Socially and culturally, my upbringing was a bit different than most of my peer volunteers and so the idiosyncrasies that came between me and my peers compounded the difficulty of trying to relate to my American friends. The challenges compounded on each other and made it that much harder to work and do my part in fulfilling our Peace Corps goals. But the job that I signed up for was never supposed to be easy, and so I dug myself deep and entrenched myself to understand how to reframe my challenges and make it a learning experience that I would never forget. I started to speak and listen to my peers about my personal struggles with my friends, American and Uganda, and from the many differences that became highlighted between myself and others, there are still so many more ways to connect to people than by the skin on my back.
To address my challenges of being a “true” American, I actually stopped trying to prove my American identity, and started to simply prove my worth. I learned to speak their language at a greater fluency, that whether if I was American, European, Asian or anything, it wouldn’t matter if I can be their friend. Simplifying my issues away from a matter of identity, culture, and patriotism and moving towards a single mission of making friends and building trust, my volunteer experience began to flourish. My fears and anxieties were not quelled by this mission, but it gave me an incredible source of confidence that put those fears to naught and allowed me to do the projects that I sought to do.
Bridging the gap and explaining myself as an American, despite most people’s initial assumptions of me, to grandma was a challenge because I lacked the ability to speak more fluently to her. I asked a friend to come along with me to work it out and always tried to speak with her when I could. It took an immense amount of work to gain her to trust me and eventually she started to see me as a close friend. I am more than grateful for her generosity and patience to me.
My Peace Corps experience is as original as any other story out there. There is no linear and massively stereotypical image of what a Peace Corps Volunteer should or shouldn’t be; but to the entire world, there exists the image of the blue-eyed, light-skinned American that we’re all purported to be. For those that do not align with the latter, it will be a challenge and it will make you question your American identity, cultural identity, but mostly your personal identity. The adjustment curve is different for us all, so take pride in what you pledged to do once you sign up to become a Volunteer.