Race and the “stage of love”: Melanie Cheng on her experiences in Peace Corps Morocco. Part 1: Summer in Tazarine, a ghost town full of watermelon patches.

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During that shining weekend in Ksar El Kbir, I was lucky to score an interview with Melanie Cheng, 27, an Ohio State alumna currently in her second year as a Peace Corps volunteer. Cheng is applying her emphases on international studies, Spanish, women’ studies and public administration to youth and women’s empowerment in the city of Tazarine, southeastern Morocco’s watermelon hub. In a house filled with stained glass windows, she spoke to me about teaching women’s exercise classes and challenges she faces as an Asian American in Morocco. 

All opinions expressed here are Cheng’s own, and do not reflect views of the Peace Corps or U.S. government.

Could you describe your Peace Corps site?

(Tazarine) is in the province of Zagora, (about) three hours from Ouarzazate. It’s very, very dry. It’s the desert. We grow a lot of watermelon in the summertime, which is unfortunate because growing watermelon actually takes a lot of resources, of water specifically, which we don’t have. Because of the growing season there, it gets very hot earlier in the year. By April it hits 90, 95 degrees, a hundred degrees (Fahrenheit). They’re able to harvest the watermelon earlier, which is why they grow so much watermelon where I live.

Could you describe your living situation?

I live by myself in a (one-bedroom) apartment. I have a kitchen. I have a living room, a bathroom. I have a Turkish (squat) toilet. I don’t have a Western toilet, but in my town, I don’t think I know anybody who has a Western toilet. It’s a pretty typical house in Morocco.

How does it differ from your house back home, your apartment?

The toilets are different. There also is not a gas range or electric stove hookups, so essentially what you have to do here in Morocco is you buy the butane gas tanks, and you have to set up your own stove system. There’s no central air, no central heating, which can be very difficult during the winter and summer months.

So what do you do?

Sweat to death. Quite frankly, in the summer time, it’s unbearable. I live on the third floor, and (also) get a lot of direct sunlight that hits my apartment. In the summertime, it’s unbearably hot. I basically run fans (all the time), and I wear very little clothing so as to keep cool. It’s miserable, and it’s just one of those things where, honestly, I’m very antisocial in my town in the summertime, because it’s so hot. I don’t want to go outside. I don’t want to put on clothes. All you can do is just lay there and sweat. You’re waiting for the sun to go down, for it to cool down a little bit. In the summer time, it’s pretty common for people to sleep outside, because it’s cooler on the roof than it is inside the houses.

Does life in the village really change during this time?

It does, at least in my town. A lot of people will leave Tazarine and go somewhere cooler. Most people in Morocco have family in other places (in Morocco), so they’ll take off for weeks or months during the summer. My town becomes a little bit of a ghost town in the summer.

Ah, they come to Ifrane.

Yeah, exactly. Or Rabat, or they go up to Mediterranean – wherever they have family, as long as it’s a cooler place. They’ll just escape (the heat of) Tazarine.

What surprised you the most (about living in Morocco and Morocco in general)?

At this point, (my stage) has been here so long that everything seems normal. But one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve encountered is that Moroccans are some of the most hospitable, nicest, kindest people I’ve ever met. Whenever I need any help – if, for example, I’m trying to figure out transportation or I don’t know how to get from one place to another – Moroccans are very quick to try to help you figure out whatever it is you need to do, wherever you need to go, and they’re very good about taking you where you need to go. They will literally just drop whatever they’re doing. It helps to speak Arabic, because then they become curious about you (and want to spend more time with you), but literally, I’ll just meet people and we’ll have a two-minute conversation, and all of a sudden they’re very insistent that I come have tea with them, or stay for dinner, or have lunch with their family.

Being from the United States, we’re not used to that kindness and hospitality from complete strangers. That’s something that’s really nice about Morocco… the genuine hospitality and kindness from strangers.

Have you changed the way you dress, at all?

Oh, yeah. It’s most evident in the summertime, when it’s over a hundred degrees and I wish I could be wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but I can’t because I have to be covered up. I definitely dress more conservatively here than I would in the United States. Basically, everything has to be covered up: (even) my collarbone always has to be covered up. My shirtsleeves go to my elbows or further. My ankles have to be covered at all times. Even tightness of clothing: if I feel like my clothes are too tight, like if a shirt I’m wearing is too tight, I’ll throw a scarf on, so as to hide… things. The shape of things. The shirts that I wear tend to be longer: I try to wear shirts that will cover my bottom, because that’s something that’s culturally inappropriate (to have visible). I try to maximize covering as much as I can.

For other parts of this interview, visit:

Part 2: Exercise classes in a Moroccan village.

Part 3: Cheng explains that not every Asian in Morocco is a Chinese national.

Part 4: Peace Corps culture.

Part 5: Cheng’s not frickin’ saving babies, you guys!

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