Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Samoa

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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, socioeconomics, 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, our diversity poses challenges. In Samoa, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyles, background, and beliefs will be judged in a cultural context very different from our own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics considered familiar and commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed here.

Outside of Samoa’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What is viewed as “typical” cultural behavior or norms may be a narrow and selective interpretation, such as the perception in some countries that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Samoa 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 differences that you present. To ease the transition and adapt to life in Samoa, 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 will 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 limits. Although Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, the challenge will ultimately be your own.

The Peace Corps staff in Samoa recognizes 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 cultures, backgrounds, religions, ethnic groups, sexual orientations, and ages and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who will take pride in supporting each other and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers[edit]

Sexual harassment can occur to both women and men anywhere in the world. However, there is no arguing that female Volunteers are more prone to be targeted. Women can be verbally harassed and have unwanted sexual advances made toward them at work, on the road, and in public places. It is important for Volunteers to realize that they are not alone or isolated. Volunteers are trained in methods and apprised of existing policies that will allow them to deal effectively if they become a target of such harassment.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color[edit]

Volunteers of color contribute a lot in educating Samoans about the diversity of American society. It would be untrue to say that “racism” does not exist in Samoa. Asian and African-American Volunteers have experienced racial remarks or comments being leveled at them in one instance or another. Most of the remarks can be innocent enough, born out of ignorance and misunderstanding perhaps resulting from how Americans of color are represented in the media. Helping Samoans to remove the stereotype that all Americans— especially Volunteers—are white does help a great deal.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers[edit]

Being a senior Volunteer may offer additional challenges to Peace Corps service. However, older Volunteers have served admirably and have overcome these challenges. A concern for some senior Volunteers worldwide has been accommodation and transportation. It is important for all Volunteers to remember that the amenities offered in most housing will be very basic. Moreover, transportation is also basic and limited to the use of public transport (often on crowded buses), a bicycle, or walking. However, Samoa has adequate transportation infrastructure in terms of good roads and site accessibility. Another concern for some senior Volunteers prior to service is language acquisition. Rest assured that if you are interested and willing to try, the Peace Corps training staff will work closely with you to overcome that hurdle.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers[edit]

It is currently illegal for anyone to engage in homosexual behavior in Samoa. Legal authorities have noted that many of Samoa’s civil laws are dated and have been since the country became independent in the 1960s. Having said that, in general, most Samoans tolerate and accept gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers. We have not received any negative reports or had complaints lodged against such Volunteers. However, most Volunteers opt to remain closeted to the Samoan community, and are able to be freely out with the Peace Corps community including Volunteers and staff. As long as Volunteers are discreet, their sexual preference should not have a negative impact on their Peace Corps service.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers[edit]

Since Samoa is a Christian country, Volunteers may face the tag of being non-church going or an atheist if they do not attend church on Sundays. Sunday observance in Samoa is enforced, especially within the villages. Volunteers, despite their religious beliefs or affiliations, often find that participation in certain church services or activities, like singing in the choir, are useful for community integration and can be viewed as another aspect of the cross-cultural experience. For those who do not attend church services, you should refrain from any activities outside or inside the home that may be interpreted as being disrespectful of the holy day.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities[edit]

Volunteers with disabilities may receive stares of curiosity as some Samoans may fail to realize that staring is inappropriate. The Government of Samoa has put an emphasis on increasing services for people with disabilities and on improving education for students with special needs. These efforts are beginning to lead to greater awareness, understanding, and positive change.

The Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, of performing a full tour of Volunteer service in Samoa without unreasonable risk to yourself or interruption of your service. Peace Corps/Samoa 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.

Possible Issues for Married Volunteers[edit]

Couples will be housed together during training and service in Samoa. Nevertheless, they may face their own set of issues during training and service. While couples will do many activities together, they should be prepared and willing to work on separate projects and assignments. These may require one of the spouses to commute to another village or site during the day or even to stay at a separate location for a few days at a time.

Couples should consider how varying degrees of enthusiasm about Peace Corps service, adaptation to the physical or cultural environment, and homesickness will affect their lives. A husband and wife may have to deal with changed marital roles due to societal expectations. A married man may be encouraged to take on a more dominant role in the relationship, while a married woman may find herself in a less independent role than she is used to. This may create tension for a couple at work (e.g., a wife being expected to perform “traditional” domestic chores instead of working) and at home (a husband being ridiculed for performing domestic tasks or for refusing to have extramarital affairs). Finally, responding to and coping with competition (e.g., one spouse learning more quickly than the other) or differences in job satisfaction may also be issues couples should consider before beginning their service.