Race and the “stage of love”: Melanie Cheng on her experiences in Peace Corps Morocco. Part 3: Cheng explains that not every Asian in Morocco is a Chinese national.

What about learning Darija (Moroccan Arabic)? Tell me about that.

It was a struggle at the beginning, just because it’s so different from all the other languages (Cantonese Chinese and Spanish) that I speak. I think that for me it was a little bit easier to learn, because I am multilingual already. My problem is actually where I live, I speak a lot of English, because a lot of the counterparts and people I work with speak English or understand English pretty well. Additionally, where I live it’s an Amazigh site, so the only time I hear Arabic is when people are talking [directly] to me. Otherwise they’re just speaking to each other in Tachelhit. I’ve gotten to the point where I can understand… generally, what they’re talking about. I know what I know, and I’m able to do the work that I need to do.

And so with Tachelhit, did you get any training on that?

I wish we had gotten more training. They do it a little differently now. I think they are giving the new Peace Corps trainees more of the Amazigh language. My (Moroccan and Arabic culture) teacher spent one day teaching us survival phrases in Tachelhit. That was the only training that I got in Tachelhit before arriving (to) site. Once I got to site I was there for a while, and then Peace Corps offered, I think it was a week or 10 days… (of) a boot camp, like a language boot camp in Tachelhit and Tamazight.

(It was) very minimal. (It was) just the very basics. (However, what’s great about Peace Corps is that they) reimburse us for tutoring. My site mate is being tutored in Tachelhit, so she’s learning it through a tutor.

How are you treated as an American, and especially an Asian American, here?

It can be a little difficult at times, because… Moroccans’ perceptions of Americans come from the media. The media perpetuates a lot of stereotypes, which is difficult. And so for them, in their minds, a “real” American is somebody of European descent. When they look at me, their first question is, “What is your origin? Because you’re not really American. Where are you really from? Where’s your family from?”

I think a lot of that is just the Moroccan way of thinking. Their mentality is that you can take the Moroccan out of Morocco, but you can’t take Morocco out of the Moroccan. Even if they moved to another country, even if they became citizens of another country or their children (were born in another country), they’re still Moroccans. They’ll always be Moroccans.

That’s the same mentality they apply to Americans. So when they look at me, they’re just like, “Well, just because you grew up in America, doesn’t mean that you’re still not Asian, or Chinese, or wherever you’re from.” In my case, I am Chinese.

The other thing that they assume is that all Asians come from China. It’s really common for me to walk down the street, and for them to call me “Chinois.” It’s just something that they say, and to them, they’re not being racist, they’re not being offensive, they’re just like, “Oh, look at this Asian.” It’s just the natural assumption.

It can be difficult because I struggle with people thinking I’m not actually American.

I have to deal with a lot of stereotypes. People are constantly asking me if I know tae kwon doe or karate. A lot of that has to do with how popular martial arts are here in Morocco. A lot of Moroccans learn martial arts. For them, they’re so surprised I don’t know it, because they naturally assume that I do. Dealing with stereotypes like that can be hard.

You’re unmarried. Does that affect how you’re treated living alone (with a site mate)?

A lot of (Moroccan) people (at my site) will ask me, “Where do you live? Do you live by yourself?” Their next question is, “Aren’t you scared to live by yourself?” My site is very safe. I don’t feel like it’s a dangerous site at all. I’ve walked home at 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock at night by myself, and I didn’t feel unsafe.

It’s just to (Moroccans at site), (me) being a single woman, they don’t understand why I would want to live by myself. I think it’s because they’re used to living with so many other people (in one house), and because of the communal culture, they don’t like living by themselves.

Dear readers: are you living in a country foreign to you? How do your experiences compare to Cheng’s? 

Ive never faced any problems being a single female here. Harassment can be kind of a pain, but I think that harassment is prevalent in every country, regardless of whether you’re single or married.

For more parts of this interview, visit:

Part 1: Summer in Tazarine, a ghost town full of watermelon patches.

Part 2: Exercise classes in a Moroccan village.

Part 4: Peace Corps culture.

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

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