Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Armenia
In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.
Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Armenia, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Armenia.
Outside of Armenia’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the perception in some countries that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Armenia are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.
To ease the transition and adapt to life in Armenia, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.
The Peace Corps staff in Armenia recognizes the adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
Armenia has a traditional, patriarchal culture. Among the challenges of living and working in Armenia is learning to cope effectively and constructively with the different status of women and men and the different standards of behavior to which they are held.
Female Volunteers may find that being a single woman living alone goes against the cultural norms of their community. Besides receiving unwanted and inappropriate attention from Armenian men, female Volunteers may also have to work harder than male Volunteers to gain the professional respect of colleagues in the workplace. In addition, female Volunteers may experience resentment from host country women over their “male-like” position of authority in the community. Finally, female Volunteers need to keep a low social profile and practice discretion in public (e.g., not smoking in public or drinking in bars) to avoid developing an undesirable reputation.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
Volunteers of color may face challenges both inside and outside the Peace Corps community. Within the Volunteer corps, you may be the only minority trainee or Volunteer in a particular project. You may not find minority role models among the Peace Corps/Armenia staff and may not receive necessary personal support from other Volunteers.
Once you move to your site, you are likely to work and live with individuals who have no experience or understanding of a non-Caucasian-American culture. Because of ignorance, stereotyped cultural perceptions, or the country’s current or historical relations with other countries, you may encounter varying degrees of harassment. You may not be perceived as being North American, or you may be viewed with suspicion, or you may be evaluated as less professionally competent than a white Volunteer. In any community in Armenia where you are not known, you need to be prepared for staring, pointing, and comments. Finally, you should be prepared to hear derogatory terms and racial epithets that would be considered completely inappropriate in the United States today.
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
Respect comes with age in Armenia. Younger Volunteers may have to work harder than their older colleagues to be accepted as professionals. Older Volunteers may feel isolated within the Peace Corps community overseas because the majority of Volunteers are in their 20s.
Training may present its own special challenges. Older trainees may encounter insufficient attention to their needs for an effective learning environment, including timing, presentation of materials, comfort level, and health. You may need to be assertive in developing an individual approach to language learning.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
Gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers have to practice discretion. Although homosexuality is no longer illegal (Armenia decriminalized homosexual acts on January 9, 2003), it may be considered immoral by some people. Certain styles of hair and dress (e.g., earrings on men) and mannerisms considered acceptable in the United States may be viewed with disdain or suspicion by Armenians. Your basic civil liberties may be ignored, and you may be hassled in bars or in the streets.
You may serve for two years without meeting another homosexual Volunteer or Armenian. Most Armenian homosexuals probably have migrated to larger cities, while many Peace Corps Volunteers are posted in rural sites. Relationships with host country nationals can happen, but as with all cross-cultural relationships, they are not likely to be easy. Lesbians will have to deal with constant questions about boyfriends, marriage, and sex (as do all women). Wearing an “engagement ring” may help. Gay men must deal with machismo: talk of conquest(s), girl watching, dirty jokes, etc.
The Peace Corps is committed to providing support for all Volunteers regardless of sexual orientation.
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
Volunteers are frequently asked about their religious affiliation and may be invited to attend a community church. Although Volunteers not in the practice of attending church may have to explain their reasons for not attending, it is possible to politely decline if the church or religious practice is not one of their choice. Most Volunteers find effective ways to cope with this challenge and come to feel quite at home in Armenia.
Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities
In Armenia, as in other parts of the world, some people may hold prejudicial attitudes about individuals with disabilities and may discriminate against them. There is very little of the infrastructure to accommodate individuals with disabilities that has been developed in the United States.
That being said, as part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Armenia without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. Peace Corps/ Armenia staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations in training, housing, job sites, and other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.