Some of my friends and family members think that it must be very hard to be an American-raised woman living in a developing country. They are right, but often for all the wrong reasons. Here’s a partial list of the things that they seem to find particularly challenging: bugs, blackouts, boredom, no tv, no internet, no Ben and Jerry’s. You get the picture. These features of the physical environment can be annoying, but it’s just something you adapt to.
One of the hardest things about that drastic change in living conditions can be equally hard to explain. It involves living day to day with a strange sort of celebrity. It’s the kind of celebrity where kids follow you around and people of all ages may openly stare. It’s also the kind of celebrity where you don’t always have to bother with following the same rules as the locals. That’s the seductive part, and you definitely run the risk of becoming a jackass.
To some extent this kind of celebrity also involves being a representative of your country. Unlike the Americans they have seen in the media, they can ask me questions. My favorites are random questions like, “Why do foreigners like pasta so much?” Even if I’m not qualified to answer that question on behalf of foreigners, I can’t object too much about the question itself.
The questions do get personal, though. Or they feel personal, perhaps as an American. I’ve worked in seven developing countries on three continents now, and I think I’ve had to have a conversation about my marital status in each one. Sometimes this conversation may be about finding out if I’m available, but as the questions continue it just starts to feel like raw curiosity about very personal matters. I know that some of this curiosity can be attributed to the rarity of finding a never married, middle aged woman, but the notion of that being personal information never seems to enter into it.
I think that for these inquisitors, my choices had stopped being personal, and therefore private, when they started clashing with the community norms where I was living. It seems like my personal choices somehow became public property. I hadn’t broken any law, but like a criminal I’ve had to talk about whether I had ever had the means, motive, or opportunity to get married. It really gets quite tiresome.
But maybe it’s doing some good. Maybe my patient explanations of the ways a woman can have a fulfilling life without a husband or a children can inspire my questioners to re-examine their assumptions. In that case, I guess I should join them in making the private public. Good idea, unless I’ve gotten my private life completely wrong.