“Another Saturday night an I ain’t got nobody, I got some money cuz I just paid. Now, how I wish I had someone to talk to, I’m in an awful way.” Those are the lyrics to one of my favorite songs from way back when I was a teen. A 1963 hit single by Sam Cooke from the album Ain’t That Good News, it was sung over and over by me and my brother David. So, I was singing that this past weekend and meaning it! No, I’m not “in an awful way,” but quite often the rest of the song fits me. That’s right. I ain’t got nobody, I just got paid, and I wish I had someone to talk to here in my site. No, not chitty chat. Talk. Discuss. Relate.
Most of the time my weekends are not spent relaxing, socializing, and conversing with friends (one of my favorite pastimes). They are spent either performing at an event or spending time alone, doing the things I love to do – paint, write, create. I’m happy here. I feel good and I enjoy my work and my leisure time. My schedule is packed with not only my projects but with weekly violín performances at various events. Life is rich in so many ways. My family and close friends stay in touch on a regular basis. But when it comes to the typical Friday and Saturday night, although I’m not truly “in an awful way,” it feels like there is a lack of real connection with others. It’s a curiosity to me, given the number of people I know here in my site. I spend time with extremely loving people. But there’s something different going on. So, I’m curious about communication and camaraderie in this culture and I want to look it over a little
Although I’m finding out just how much I enjoy spending time alone, here’s the thing. I miss the comfort, strength, and depth of my relationships in the states. I miss getting together with friends who know me, and I, them. “Know” is the operative word. Here, we aren’t finding out much about each other. In my relationships in the states, we know each other’s stories and many times we know each other’s hopes and dreams. We know each other’s sense of humor, we know each other’s taste in music. We know who likes to dance and who doesn’t. We know who grew up in the country and who grew up in the city. We know each other’s hobbies and idiosyncrasies. We know about each other’s schooling. We know who likes to read and even who they read.
So why can’t that happen here? For me, friendships with Paraguayans are different. More than likely, the complex mix of social behaviors and expectations from both Paraguayans and North Americans are the reason. There are many people here whom I have grown to love, and they love me and tell me so. But the relationships don’t render themselves to having the breadth or depth that one would expect after months, if not years of spending time together. There are indeed many, many powerful moments experienced, almost too poignant to even describe. These people are special and I will carry them in my heart long after I’ve left Paraguay. But socially, culturally, there is something different than I’m accustomed too. It may have a little to do with the language barrier for I’m a long way from knowing the tenses and descriptive colloquial expressions and idiomatic phrases that would help me to grasp the intricacies of a personality or to articulate the things that are important to me.
Too, there may be a barrier, an automatic boundary that is stationed between a Paraguayan and a foreigner. Because no matter how loving and open and kind Paraguayans are, there is a short leash on what they will talk about. I’m not sure it’s deliberate. Does it have to do with privacy or formality? I’m here to tell you, that can’t be the case. Often, there are very pointed personal questions that occasionally hit me in the eye and leave me agog. Those questions aren’t asked in the framework of getting to know me; they typically come from someone I barely know. It’s obvious that they’re asked out of blunt, unadulterated curiosity. Interestingly, we are told this is an indirect culture. But man, oh man, they’re very direct when they’re curious. I notice indirectness showing up in situations where there is a desire to save face (for either party) so we dance around an issue instead of facing it head on. Interesting juxtaposition.
Here, we spend hours together chatting as good friends would, up to a point; however, the conversation typically lacks any information regarding our lives outside of what we are doing together at that moment. For certain, there is a real excitement on their part to share their culture, to teach you things Paraguayan, and that has been enlightening, beneficial, and interesting, but the phrase “turn a deaf ear” is a good description for what seems to transpire when, on the other hand, our U.S. customs and traditions are offered up in conversation. This isn’t done rudely; the topic simply seems to get “overridden”.
Getting together for an evening out for Friday night pizza just would never happen. The friendship stops just a hair before that level. I do attend some really enjoyable gatherings almost weekly but rarely is there personal conversation. It’s simply an enjoyable, relaxed time without much substance. That certainly has its benefits! Air space during a visit can be a very good thing, but not when you’re looking for more.
There are three people I’ve really connected with, though. One is the local catholic priest and the other is a German couple who moved here from their homeland more than 25 years ago. Those provide great camaraderie. I teach an evening violín lesson to Wolfram and later, Hannah provides a delicious Merienda where we sit and have great discussions on a myriad of topics from my brother’s health to previous travels to global warming, all said in a mix of Spanish and German.
Too, some of my most favorite conversations are with the local catholic priest, Padre Tomás. He knows no English but we communicate well and seem to be on the same wavelength. He loves to be funny in that same silly, uncool way that I subscribe to. Plus, I’m so happy to say that I can now make jokes and funny comments in Spanish! Padre Tomás is handsome, with a full head of pure white wavy hair, dark skin, loving eyes and broad shoulders, all at once making me swoon. Our conversations have consisted of so much rich banter that we have gotten to know each other well. And I believe that, in itself, may be the reason he has been of such enormous support to me here. That knowledge, that connection, is what fuels trust and admiration for one another. He flatteringly sings my praises often, announcing my courses and projects to the congregation regularly, allowing me the use of church space, sound system, Internet, projector, blackboard, etc for my classes and projects. Many of my violin performances have been set up by him. Typically, there is at least one event per week at church, or at one of area chapels, or in a private home. Funerals, quinceañeras, wakes, serenades, ultreyas, and celebrations happen right and left around here and I’m fortunate to get to perform for them. Then, we are almost always invited to stay afterwards for refreshments. Occasionally, Padre Tómas can be heard in the distance telling someone in Castellano that I’m from the U.S. and serving in the Peace Corps. He pulls them over to me for introductions and with his help, the chatting turns towards identifying things we have in common, where we have traveled, family, and other types of enjoyable topics. Perhaps he realizes how much I miss those sorts of conversations.
This leads me to somewhat of a conclusion here about being “in an awful way” at times, when it comes to the comfort and satisfaction that a rich conversation with a friend provides. My most recent reading has explained quite a bit and has more or less put me in my place. In “American Cultural Patterns – A Cross Cultural Perspective” by Edward C. Stewart and Milton J. Bennett, regarding personalization and depersonalization in relationships, the authors say that “what is personal for members of one society may not be for those of another.” “Personal treatment in American life includes use of the first name, knowing biographical details of someone, such as hometown, and acknowledging specific acts, appearances, the preferences and life choices of the individual.” We North Americans tend to learn lots about each other when we become friends. We learn about ones history, likes and dislikes, taste, hobbies, education, and perhaps plans for the future. But, that may not be the cultural norm here. In other words, Jane, you’re dealing from two separate decks of cards.
With that, I will simply say that I’m enormously thankful for you all back home and I value very much my friendships with the other volunteers and staff here in Paraguay. Our time spent together, whether over the phone, over the Internet, or in person, fills in the gaps for me. Another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody, I got some money cuz I just got paid, and I’m thinking about you all, my friends and family, and that warms my soul.