7-21 The pseudo-celebrity of a PCV
Peace corps is a great way to try out being famous for a short period of time. Any white people on the outer islands are minor celebrities. I’ve heard from other PCVs that this is true everywhere, being a Peace Corps is like being famous. Here, this goes double for men. As one of the other PCVs put it, “Guys are rock stars.” Remind me never to get famous. I am finding it not entirely to my liking.
Don’t get me wrong, there are things I enjoy about my celebrity. New people want to talk to the white man and I like meeting people. The men all want to drink kava with me. Even at a kava bar or fund raiser, where we buy kava, I pay for less than half my shells. And that’s on an expensive night. I can walk around anywhere and be welcomed into any Nakamal. If I am going to end up crashing there for the night I will be ordered to one of the beds, not a mat on the “floor.” I don’t think I could convince them I’d be just fine on a mat on the ground. Anyone using one of the public water taps will back away from it and insist I take what I need before they finish if I so much as look like I might want water.
Make sure to let me know if all this starts going to my head.
But there are downsides. Being a celebrity is mentally draining. You are on stage ALL THE TIME. Everyone wants to talk to you but it never gets past the “cocktail party” level of conversation. I don’t even get the tasty drinks to go with it! (I actually enjoy kava but there isn’t much variety to it.) The conversation consists of anecdotes and short stories with no real substance or understanding for either party. I’ve had so many of the exact same conversation that I have started finishing the stories they are telling me. Even when I am conversing with a friend here, there are almost always others around and listening in.
The biggest issue is the lack of privacy. I never realized how interesting it could be to watch somebody walk by just because they have a different skin color. I still don’t actually get it myself but it seems to be true. The kids still stop what they’re doing and stare every time I walk anywhere. This is generally accompanied by exclamations to each other of “Tuturan, tuturan!” (local language for white-man). There is a chorus of “Hello! Hello!” that starts after I’m a little past them. Then it doesn’t end until I’m out of eyesight. We have been intently watched for 20 minutes while doing nothing more interesting than reading a book. It is almost a relief when the kids run away screaming, because at least they aren’t staring.
We’ve started to refer to ourselves as the “white-man channel.” They’ll wander by our house, kids and adults, to see “what’s on” (what we’re doing.) There’s a convenient community store just down from our house where they can hang out and keep an eye on us. At least they don’t have cameras or mass media and thus no paparazzi.
This extends into the ceremonies and kastom events. If I show up te mwalmwal (in a loin cloth), to an event, I will be shown off like a new toy. The chief orders me around in language, just to show any newcomers that “his” whiteman speaks language and wears kastom clothes. Gaea gets pushed to the front of a crowd to take pictures because “this is your only chance,” even when it is the third or fourth time to witness something, like a funeral.
We are definitely not celebrities in the same sense as movie stars are back home but it’s a decent approximation. It’s a very strange experience and one more way of reminding us that we’re different. I don’t really need the reminder, thank you. It also feels unwarranted, at least the overly respectful parts of it. I’m learning as much as I’m teaching and I’m not likely to forget that. I do appreciate their appreciation. It’s not entirely unpleasant and I can understand the appeal more than I did before. However, I am getting to experience enough of the downsides to think they would out weigh the benefits. Well known and respected I will shoot for. Celebrity I’ll try to avoid.