Many RPCVs (Returning Peace Corps Volunteers) have said they felt like they were living in a fishbowl during their service.
I knew that once I set foot in Kenya that I would get a lot of stares. What I didn’t expect was that I found myself used to the stares almost immediately.
It has bought back memories of being the only deaf person in a classroom of 800 students and being the only deaf person in a school of 1,100 students. The stares I would get from everyone once they saw my hearing aids or saw me signing.
The only difference is that I can hide signing and I can hide my cochlear implants. I can’t exactly hide being white.
What I find the most challenging about the stares is I want so badly to know what is going through people’s minds when they see me.
Sometimes these stares draw comments as well (positive and negative) and I want to know what people say to me as I walk by. I can sometimes tell when they’re saying “hi” and “how are you?” without lip-reading but other than that I have no idea if they’re saying something negative or positive. I have no idea if I should react to hearing a voice or take the risk of appearing rude and continue to walk. Then again, sometimes I’m glad I can’t understand what people are saying. I don’t get drawn into conversations with strangers and I don’t hear the potentially hurtful things people might be saying.
Every once in a while I see a white person not associated with the Peace Corps (I think there’s a group from Europe in town as well). I catch myself doing double takes and I think to myself “What in the world are they doing here?! What do they want?!” Also when I see pictures of myself standing next to a bunch of Kenyans….I realize how much I really do stand out. It’s moments like those that actually make me concerned when people don’t stare at me….people should be curious.
I have been really surprised that the stares haven’t bothered me at this point. Maybe I’m more used to it than I realized I was or maybe it’s too early in my PCV journey.
The only thing that bothers me about the stares (other than the fact it may put me at an increased target for robbery) is that it drives me bonkers not knowing what is going through people’s minds when they see me. What kind of stereotypes do they have? Do they get scared when they see me (I’ve had a couple of young children look terrified but most of them will wave, smile, and follow me)? Do they trust me? What do they see when they see me? What do I look like to them?