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5/26/08 Quote of the Day: "I’m not stupid, I’m American"

A couple weeks ago, there was a session hosted by members of the Diversity Panel, Peace Corps Volunteers who are members of various minorities. They said a lot of things that gave me food for thought. My favorite was the poignant line, “I’m not stupid, I’m American.” The context was that some of these Americans, because of their skin color, are mistaken for Moroccans. Whoever has assumed that they are Moroccans often therefore concludes that they speak fluent Berber and, if they’re educated, fluent Darija (Moroccan Arabic). When it turns out that they don’t – most PCVs speak only one of the two languages (those of us in the rural areas mostly learn Berber, and those in the cities mostly learn Darija) – yet another conclusion is sometimes drawn, which is that they’re dumb Moroccans. The plaintive, “I’m not stupid, I’m American,” sums up a whole host of frustrations with this set of assumptions.

I’ve found myself using the line – at least mentally – several times since the Diversity Panel. Especially when I’m unable to understand even very simple questions or statements from members of my new community. I know that challenges are inevitable, but I hate feeling stupid all the time. When people speak English around me, I understand everything (or at least assume that I do). When I read in English, I understand what I read. I have an enormous vocabulary, because whenever I find a word I don’t know, I learn it. I *love* language. And now I’m in a position where I understand barely a fraction of what I hear. I can pick out a few words from every paragraph that is spoken. I know my host family and neighbors are sympathetic, and (I hope) don’t think that I’m an idiot for not comprehending the words that flow past me…but I still feel pretty stupid a lot of the time. But I’m not stupid, I’m American. And Americans, for the most part, don’t speak Berber. :)

But I keep running into situations where I have to learn something that every child here knows – and not even necessarily language – little things, like when it’s the right time to sweep the floor, or how big a piece of bread to use for each mouthful of tagine. My five-year-old host sister is more comfortable with the butane gas stove than I am. One of my favorite authors, Orson Scott Card, says in Enchantment, “Everyone who travels is a child again.” (Or words to that effect.) In all the times I’ve thought nostalgically about childhood, I haven’t given a lot of thought to the persistent confusion that I now recall. Being a kid was hard – everybody always seemed to know so much more than I did.

Imiq s imiq. Shweeya b shweeya. Little by little. Step by step. Bit by bit. Because I’m really not stupid. And being American doesn’t just mean that I’m linguistically challenged; Americans share lots of the world's wonderful traits, like open-mindedness and eagerness to learn about other cultures…and a lot of dogged determination. :)

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