Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Vanuatu

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In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is 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 the 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 Vanuatu, 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 Vanuatu.

Outside of Vanuatu’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 belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Vanuatu 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 Vanuatu, 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 they had 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 Vanuatu 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[edit]

Female Volunteers generally face challenges in adapting to and understanding the role of women in Vanuatu, who may appear to be treated as “second-class citizens” or “property.” Though Ni-Vanuatu women can hold positions of authority, this does not occur to the same extent as in the United States.

Female Volunteers need to understand that their communities may have little experience with women, particularly young women, who have professional roles or live independently of their families and thus may expect them to conform to more traditional roles.

Besides receiving more unwanted and inappropriate attention from Ni-Vanuatu men than they get from American men, female Volunteers may also have to work harder than male Volunteers to gain the respect of colleagues in the workplace. The Peace Corps encourages female Volunteers 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. You will receive support from the Peace Corps in dealing effectively with these issues.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color[edit]

Volunteers of color may face special challenges in Vanuatu. While unlikely, you may be the only minority trainee or Volunteer within the Volunteer corps or a particular project. You may not receive necessary personal support from other Volunteers, and there may be no minority members on the Peace Corps/Vanuatu staff to serve as role models.

Once you move to your site, you may work and live with individuals who have no experience or understanding of a non-Caucasian-American culture. Out of ignorance or because of Vanuatu’s current or historical involvement with other countries, you may encounter stereotyped cultural perceptions. You may not be perceived as being American, or you may be viewed as less professionally competent than a white Volunteer. You need to be prepared for staring, pointing, and comments in any community in which you are not known.

Finally, while very uncommon, you should be prepared to hear derogatory terms or racial epithets that would be considered completely inappropriate in the United States.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers[edit]

During training and at their sites, senior Volunteers may face challenges solely due to age. Because the majority of Volunteers are in their 20s, you may work and live with individuals in the Peace Corps community who have little understanding of, or respect for, the lives and experiences of senior Americans. You may not feel that staff members give you sufficient personal support, or you may be reluctant to share personal, sexual, or health concerns with the staff. You may find that younger Volunteers look to you for advice and support. While some seniors find this a very enjoyable part of their Volunteer experience, others choose not to fill this role.

Training presents its own special challenges. Older trainees may encounter a lack of attention to their specific needs for an effective learning environment. You may need to be assertive in developing an effective individual approach to language learning.

There are also benefits to being older, as respect comes with age in Vanuatu. A younger Volunteer is likely to have to work much harder than an older colleague to be accepted as a professional.

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

Vanuatu is conservative by U.S. standards, and homosexual acts are against the law. Because of this, Volunteers who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual have not been able to be open about their sexual orientation. It is advisable to use discretion and common sense before disclosing your sexual orientation to Ni-Vanuatu colleagues and community members.

Homosexuals certainly exist in Vanuatu, but not with the same level of acceptance as exists in the United States. Most homosexuals in Vanuatu have probably migrated to the larger cities, while most Volunteers are posted in smaller communities. Styles of hair, earrings on men, and certain clothing viewed as acceptable in the United States may be considered inappropriate in Vanuatu.

The Peace Corps staff maintains a supportive atmosphere for all Volunteers and will address the concerns of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Volunteers in a sensitive manner.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers[edit]

Ni-Vanuatu frequently ask Volunteers about their religious affiliation and may invite them to attend a community church. Volunteers not in the practice of attending church may be challenged to explain their reluctance, but it is possible to politely decline if the church or religion is not one of their choices. However, church-going is as much of a social obligation as it is religious, and usually a generous community meal is served afterwards. Ultimately, most Volunteers find effective ways to cope with these issues and come to feel quite at home in Vanuatu.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities[edit]

In Vanuatu, as in other parts of the world, some people may hold prejudicial attitudes toward individuals with disabilities and may discriminate against them. In addition, there is very little infrastructure that can accommodate people with disabilities.

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, of performing a full tour of Volunteer service in Vanuatu without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. The Peace Corps/Vanuatu staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in training, housing, job sites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.

Possible Issues for Married Volunteers[edit]

Being a married couple in the Peace Corps has its advantages and challenges. It helps to have someone by your side to share your experience with, but there are also cultural expectations that can cause stress in a marriage. The most important thing to remember is that you are in a foreign country with new rules. As long as you remain open-minded you will have a successful service. The possible issues listed below will also depend on the size of the community you will be living in. Sometimes, one spouse may be more enthusiastic about joining Peace Corps; be better able to adapt to the new physical and/or cultural environment; or be less or more homesick than the other.

Your roles may be different in a new culture. A married man may be encouraged to be the more dominant member in the relationship or to make decisions independent of his spouse’s views or to have his wife serve him. He also many be ridiculed if he performs domestic tasks. On the other hand, a married woman may find herself in a less independent role than that to which she is accustomed. She may experience a more limited social life in the community than single Volunteers (since it may be assumed that she will be busy taking care of her husband). She may also be expected to perform “traditional” domestic chores such as cooking or cleaning.

Other possible issues for married Volunteers include the following.

  • Competition may cause difficulties; one spouse may learn faster than the other (e.g., language skills, job skills).
  • There may be differences in job satisfaction and/or different needs.
  • Younger Volunteers may look to couples for advice and support.
  • Married couples are likely to be treated with more respect because the community sees marriage as a responsibility.
  • You may be asked why you do not have children.