I spent six years living in a city of 8 million people.
In this city, you had everything. Saw all shapes, sizes, and colors of people. Heard any number of languages spoken on the street. Smelled food from all over the world.
In this city, there was little space for privacy, but plenty for anonymity. You could weep on the subway train without shame, knowing chances were you’d never see any of those people again. You could let curses fly at the man who harassed you, secure in the knowledge your language would never get back to your mother. You could impulsively kiss a young man on the dance floor, and the only impact it would have the next day would be in your respective memories.
I spent the past two years living in a village of just a few thousand.
In this village, I was The Other. Because of the color of my skin, a few shades lighter than anyone else’s. Because of my strange accent, so much less musical and expressive than the local Creolese. Because of my American passport. Because I was unmarried and childless at 28, and when I first arrived, the only young woman in the village with short hair. Any of these would have set me apart. In combination, they ensured I would never be completely able to blend in. It was not the first time I’ve been a visible minority, but it was the first time I’d been one for such an extended period (and it gave me newfound respect for people who are “The Other” for their entire lives).
In New York City, I was a small woman with a mostly-shaved head and I was instantly forgettable. I used to go to concerts, dance parties, dinners alone and no one batted an eye. Craving privacy, I used to take refuge in the mixed crowds of humanity, of the constantly changing population of the place.
Even before I landed in Guyana, I suspected that would have to change, but I don’t think I fully anticipated the degree to which it would. I went from anonymous bystander to local celebrity in a matter of days, and it was more than a little strange. To be honest, I hated it. I felt eyes on me all of the time, had to carefully consider every word that dropped from my mouth lest it be heard and reported. I learned that “Miss”, the local shorthand for a female teacher, was a term of respect, but also a subtle warning: you are expected to earn that respect 24/7. I learned that in Guyana, people will frankly comment on your physical appearance as a matter of course, and for me, that was a constant reminder of my paleness, the strangeness of my straight brown hair, my lack of makeup, my choice of dress.
To integrate into my community, I had to hide certain parts of myself, especially at first. The me that would let loose at dance parties never existed in Guyana. Neither did the me that sometimes liked to go out with her hair coiffed into a little mohawk, or the me that liked to drink whiskey neat, or the me that could be a bit brazen. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was always myself, just a different version of myself from before. In my village, I will always be Miss Gabi. Miss Gabi never used to wear anything cut higher than her knees, and the one time she wore shorts reaching to mid-thigh, it was talked about for days. Miss Gabi only drank on Saturdays, and even then it was never more than two beers. Miss Gabi always smiled at you while passing and said “Good morning” or “Good afternoon”. Miss Gabi never flirted with men, and never cursed. Miss Gabi almost never went out after dark, and when she did, it was never alone.
I might be making this sound like playacting, and it was and it wasn’t. We all play roles over the course of our lives. Mine was true to myself and consciously chosen, as I realized that one of the deepest impacts I could potentially make in my community was to be a role model to young people who in some cases needed one desperately. At times it felt exhausting and overwhelming, a weight of watchfulness and potential gossip I shouldered daily.
But over time, I found myself growing to love parts of my newfound celebrity. For one, it meant that I was always protected in my community. I’d often hear sips from strangers on the waterfront, only to hear “Don’ trouble miss!” from another young man from my village. It also meant that I would be greeted by the village children like a famous person every single day, with delighted “Miss GABI!”s and hugs. It gave me power to speak up and speak out, as when a commission visited to assess the state of local education, and the teachers asked me to be their mouthpiece (not only did I not have to worry about losing my job, but by virtue of my Americanness, I was considered an authority on pretty much any intellectual subject). It meant I always had a front-row seat to any local events, and sometimes was asked to serve as a judge (which, if nothing else, makes for a fun story). And I found, too, that acting happy all of the time translated into a lot of actual happiness. I would say hello and smile and most of the time I’d get a beautiful smile in return.
Over the last week, as I said goodbye to my community, I was never more thankful for the speed of village gossip and my lack of anonymity. It meant that every day was a gift; as people heard that I was leaving, they began emerging from the woodwork to thank me and tell me what I had meant to them. A parent of a child at the school stopped me in the road. “Some of the other foreign visitors would go drinking and partying,” he said, “but not you, Miss. It can’t have been easy, but thank you for being such a good role model for our children.” An ancient-looking woman at the post office shook my hand and told me her great-granddaughter was one of the children whose reading improved as a result of my lessons. I was the guest of honor at several assemblies, dinners, and lunches. Bathed in love and appreciation, it was easy to forget the difficulties of otherness.
In a few days I will slip back into anonymity, back to my beloved New York City, where the act of not-noticing is almost an art. Part of me is immensely relieved; a burden feels lifted. But along with it, a loss. Walking down the sidewalks, I will always half-expect a little smiling face to pop out of nowhere and say “Miss Gabi!” But those darling faces will be a world away.
I will be missing them.