Relationships are the hardest thing to maneuver no matter where you are. Forget pooping in a squat toilet, cooking on a coal stove every day and having to haul your water from a well, relationships make all these things seem like child’s play. Relationships are difficult in your native tongue, let alone in a language you’re only starting to feel comfortable in, and that’s just with straight talk, like, hey I’m going to the market, you need anything? not necessarily the subtleties that one needs to understand in order to navigate the murky waters of international dating; which is why I’m currently so amused at my past and present attempts to swim upriver without water wings during my time here in Mozambique.
We all say it when we get here “I’m not dating a Mozambican”. We say it after all the terrifying health talks during training about the rampant rates of STDs and HIV, after Alfredo tells us that having a soda with a Mozambican male is the equivalent of going out on a date in the States, and holding hands is pretty much saying you’re dating. Or after all the “cultural sensitivity training” on how most men will tell you they’re not married, when their wedding ring is with their spare change in their back pocket, and that’s only for those who give enough of a shit to take it off in the first place. We stand strong in our conviction that we’re here for ourselves and to grow on our own, and that we’ll have a liberating 27 months of self discovery.
That’s a real cute thought. Turns out you can have all the self discovery you need within the first 10 months, after that you begin to get a little lonely and bored with your newly discovered and empowered self, rock on girl power, but it’s time to shave your armpits. Did I mention also that as a white woman you are the best arm candy that any man could ever have to stroll around town with, and every single day you will be the only woman in the room that matters. As an American you can roll out of bed, slap on some jeans and a t-shirt and leave your hair the messy rat’s nest that it most likely is, brush your teeth, and you will be told that you are absolutely gorgeous, so gorgeous in fact that it is distracting to be in the same room as you. It doesn’t matter that you’re sitting by a younger version of Kerry Washington and Halle Berry in all their glory, you have white skin and therefore you win in their eyes.
Now you need to realize I’m not saying this in a “Yes, I’m white so the attention is deserved and expected, bow down to the Western Goddess” I’m simply stating the reality, that for once being a blonde white girl from Maine is considered exotic. It’s as if a seagull landed among a flock of birds of paradise and was found to be the most exciting thing since sliced toast. Sometimes when I walk down the streets of Maganja,or more recently Quelimane, my internal soundtrack is “American Woman” by Lenny Kravitz . It starts at 8am and only ends when I retire myself from the public eye, all day every day I am bombarded with male attention. Try and tell me that after a couple years that won’t get to you, wear you down, and finally make you want to see what all the fuss is really about.
I remember one night in Maganja before Josh had left we were having a beer at a local bar and I made some typical sarcastic comment about how much attention he gets from women in our town, and also how I’d never date a Mozambican. He looked at me, shook his head, and said “I give ya 6 months before you change your tune.” Well, he wasn’t totally off, it was more like 10 months, but it did happen.
I allowed myself to be flattered, that all this attention was actually sincere, that a man here could be interested in me not because I am the coveted “other” but because I’m a smart and funny young woman that has a lot to offer, only to later think “woman, when did you fall down and smack your pointy little head?” In the same line of thought I could also say unicorns exist and vampires really do sparkle in the sunlight, one could say I got played. Now, part of me was seriously amused by this whole male debacle I found myself in. Being a local celebrity I was able to choose which man was going to be graced with my sun-kissed presence, I was positive I had the upper hand in all of this; I let it get to my head. Where I went wrong was that Mozambican game is so very different from what the boys back home spit, I was totally blindsided in thinking that I was the one playing the game, and not them. I remember getting home one night, turning the key in my door and at the same time the lock clicked something in my head clicked as well and I realized I had just been played like a second hand fiddle.
Here everything is very “ I am going to speak beautiful Portuguese and tell you all the things that any woman would want to hear and more” It is the complete opposite of what American boys do, and it threw me for a loop. It actually was a huge turn off, men telling me they loved me after the first day, it broke all the rules, where in America you practically have to trick your boyfriend of over a year to finally say those three little words, and don’t expect him to say them again unless he’s drunk or apologizing for some crap he pulled. But here, it just rolls off their tongue after “so do you want to go grab a beer, by the way I love you and want your children” Leaving me being like whoa, hold the phone, killer, if I were in the States I’d be headed for the hills and then telling my girlfriends what a chump that guy was over a beer later that night, instead I find myself saying “so you’ll call me later?” What happened to all that girl power I’d been stockpiling for the past 20 months? My journey to self discovery and enlightenment flew out the window and all of a sudden I found myself falling into the cultural norms of being the needy girl and letting the man piss on my leg to mark his territory and then leave me hanging.
Also, let’s be real ladies, we all do it when we’re waiting for some guy to call. Staring at your phone every 10 seconds, wondering how many times you can call him before you appear to be just as desperate as you actually are at this moment in time. You sit there and think “well, one more call can’t hurt, I’m sure his ringer is just off or he left his phone somewhere” when we all know the phone is in his hot little hand and he’s enjoying making you sweat. And sweat you do, and obsess, and get pissed off, until you don’t even want to talk to the jerk but you’re going to keep on trying until he picks up, goddamn it. Once the craziness has worn off you’re left with your little shroud of embarrassment and just want to maul a jug of ice cream and hide in your bed and forget the entire episode of female melodrama, but with the calm, clarity also comes and you realize you’ve been being completely irrational and aren’t even that into the guy in the first place, so just let it be. Pride is a dangerous thing. I can be like a dog with a bone when I want something, only to discover later I didn’t really want it, I just didn’t want to be denied it either.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I briefly allowed myself to get so hung up on the dating game here in Mozambique, and I’ve narrowed it down to a couple of reasons. 1) You are absolutely alone. You lack your normal safety nets, family, neighbors, close network of friends and acquaintances, you get bored and you want something outside of your work and playing with children who on average are about 6 years old, and you know you’re in trouble when you start using them for a sounding board for your male problems. You want to feel wanted, and you want it more than ever when you’re living so far from home. On the weekends in Maganja I had nothing to do aside from clean my house, cook beans, and go for a walk to kill the time, chat with my neighbors. It was fine, but it wasn’t exactly TGIF by any standards. I started getting a little worried when I’d spend 20 minutes looking for my cat because I was worried he might be hanging out with questionable female cats, and I really didn’t need to be a cat lady at the age of 24, so finding a male companion of my own species seemed like the best way to avoid spreading cat food on to toast like my mother always told me old single ladies eat after living with cats their entire lives.
Another reason that I can think of about my dabbling in the international dating pool is it was impossible not to be flattered by all the male attention I was receiving. I had long decided that the PC dating pool was about as shallow as the gene pool of my cousins from the mountains of North Carolina, and I was not about to wade into that hot mess, so it only made sense to take a leap of faith and try dating a Mozambican, as they seemed to gung-ho about the American chick. And despite all the frustrations and failures and ridiculous situations, I’m glad I gave it a go.
What I’ve learned is that cultural differences are huge and provide a decent challenge in attempting to have something with a member of the opposite sex here. Expectations are completely different. For example, I expect that if you tell me you’re not married it’s because you aren’t. Not that your wife happens to be out of town this weekend, or lives in a different province, in my book that doesn’t count but here’s its perfectly acceptable. And I think that has been the biggest issue here for me with men, there is no absolutely no shame in telling someone you aren’t married when in fact you are, or even telling them you are married and yet still continue to try and make something happen with this person. I’ve had many a conversation with male friends or colleagues about the serious of issue of infidelity here in country. I once was told that you need to respect your wife, in that you can’t show her you are dating someone, you should hide it, because that’s the respectful thing to do (obviously). Or men try and tell me that it’s impossible for them to be with just one woman, that’s not healthy to go a long time without having sex, and what do you do if you wife lives far away? So I try and turn it around on them and say “well, maybe your wife/girlfriend is doing the same thing”, which only solicits laughter and sometimes the occasional look of “holy shit, I’d never thought of that before”
So if you’re thinking of joining the Peace Corps, and you’re a young or not so young woman, you should be open to meeting new people and maybe even trying to date an HCN if you’re intrigued, but don’t allow yourself to lose yourself while doing it. It’s hard being isolated and on your own for a long stretch of time in the middle of nowhere, but sometimes relationships can make it worse, or they can add to what you already have in a good and healthy way, it really just depends on what you want. And if you don’t want an angry wife or girlfriend knocking down your door, be sure to check his pockets for that little band of gold..