Summer Camp, or Fat Tony’s Taste of American Culture

I guess when I think of “summer camp,” there are sort of grandiose images that pop into my head with s’mores and campfires, long hikes through the woods, boat rides and swimming pools, lots of hard work, laughter, and love.  But the El Jadida Summer English Immersion Camp I worked through Peace Corps didn’t quite fit that description.

That’s not to say it wasn’t a positive experience.  I think many of the Moroccan youth who came to “summer camp” will go home tomorrow wishing they could stay.  Listening to them this morning describe their camp experience, they used words like “respect” and “patience” and “fun,” so I feel assured that this has been a good two weeks for them, and I take real pride in that fact, but I also have this overwhelming sense that English camp is not my forté and that I belong in a different realm when it comes to leading camps.  Or rather, I just don’t work as well when there’s a language and cultural barrier (I’m yet to decide how much of that stems from the fact that I’ve never worked a camp in a secular setting before now).  I could go off on a tangent about those thoughts for hours, but instead, I’d rather offer you a few questions that really hit me this past two weeks that I think are worth addressing:

1. What is poverty?  

I think we have this tendency to think of poverty as purely economical.  I mean, sometimes, you’ll hear theologians or philosophers talk about poverty in more abstract terms, as if to imply that even monetary wealth doesn’t guarantee emotional or spiritual wealth.  That’s a no-brainer; the Beatles had that much figured out.  But this week of camp pushed it beyond that for me.

The El Jadida Summer Camp is funded by the United States Embassy, which puts forth scholarship money for youth who are living in rural communities to be able to afford to come to camp (about $120 per camper covers lodging and food for a week).  That means half of the camp is chosen by Peace Corps Volunteers.  The other half of the camp consists of youth who are living in bigger cities, namely Casablanca and Rabat, and are very capable of affording camp and bringing their iPhone with them.  That mixture of classes creates quite an interesting dynamic (that plays out in many different ways right down to what languages people speak and how those language might be used to empower certain individuals).  In many cases, the “rich kids” and the “poor kids” (and I think that dichotomy is a real one) just didn’t interact well, and all the judgments were pretty typical of what you’d expect to see in a public high school in America where cliques form around socio-economic class.  So, no huge surprises there.

After all, economic inequality is an issue across the world.  In the United States, the income gap between the poor and the rich seems to be growing wider and wider all the time – to the point that it’s been dominating conversations in the political sphere as of late, and Morocco, being a developing country, deals with its own levels of economic inequality.  But the difference between economic inequality in a developing country and inequality in the United States is worth mentioning, because measuring that inequality solely on income figures misses something huge: opportunities.

A family here might be “wealthy” with a large home, fields upon fields of olive trees and plenty of livestock (and they are tied to that land if they wish to keep that wealth).  That family might even be wealthier than a family living in Rabat or Casablanca.  But the family whose wealth is attained through business happening in the big city has far more opportunities for their children (and themselves), because they live in a developed place.  The smaller your village, the fewer your opportunities.  Youth in Caity or Avery’s villages, for example, must travel almost an hour to my town just to attend high school.  In fact, Caity had been working diligently to try to find funding for a school bus for her village, so that girls in her community could actually receive an education.

Sometimes, the youth in the larger cities may not have as much money as some of their peers living in rural communities, but they have a wealth of opportunities, which changes the meaning of poverty entirely.  Wealth is all about opportunity.  And real poverty is a kid sitting on a desert rock with nothing else to do because his village has two, small “hanuts” (stores) and little else to offer.   And that’s not the kind of thing you can measure through the GDP (Gross Domestic Product).  It’s not something you can look at on paper and grasp with numbers and graphs.

What I saw this week at summer camp wasn’t wealthy kids and poor kids coming together and fighting  over economic inequality; rather, I saw youth representing nearly every region of Morocco, all of whom were cashing in on a very unique opportunity, an opportunity that even made Morocco National news — Click here and fast forward to 13:20 to see for yourself.

2.  What happens when a person is completely absorbed into Western culture without having ever been to the West?

Now let me tell you a little story or two about Fat Tony.  I’m not sure if his name was self-prescribed or if one of the Americans just started calling Abdellah “Fat Tony,” but the name was certainly fitting for the five-foot, eighty pound Moroccan kid who loved any American movie with an Italian-style mafia theme to it and whose voice when he spoke sounded a whole lot like that of a mobster from New York or Chicago.  When I first met Tony at the camp, I was used to most of my conversations at English camp consisting of broken sentences as simple as, “Hello, where are you from?” with kids who were still learning colors and numbers.  So when Tony asked me that question, and I told him I’m from Tennessee, I was a bit shocked when he then asked if I was from “Memphis or Nashville, the Music City, though both of them are music cities,” and then he followed it up by asking me if I had ever been to Beale Street.  To date, he is one of two Moroccans I have met who admitted to knowing where Memphis or Nashville were and one of the few Moroccan youth who have even heard of Tennessee outside of Jack Daniels Whiskey (yes, Tennessee, that’s what you are known for outside of America, even though the Whiskey is brewed and bottled in, like, Virginia or some place).  Still, it didn’t really hit me how odd this conversation was until a few minutes later after he told me that he wanted to move to Michigan, because that’s where Eminem was from, and he “never forgot his roots.”  It’s amazing how little phrases like that are so obviously American that we would never expect to hear something like that from someone who is not a native speaker.

So, when my shock subsided, and I began to talk more with Fat Tony, it became blatantly obvious how much of American culture and English language he had absorbed from watching movie after movie at home (I should add that he came with one of the PCVs and is from a very small town; Tony is also Berber, so Arabic is not his first language).  At one point, we were trying to convince him to give a speech in front of the other students, and I told him to “do that scene from that one movie where the guy is standing facing the mirror repeating, ‘You talkin’ to me?'”  Tony pointed out that the correct name of that movie was “Taxi Driver” and then began acting out that exact scene to perfection.

One of the best “Fat Tony” moments, though, came in the middle of the week when the U.S. Embassy visited camp.  One of the men from the Embassy brought a guitar to showcase American music and began playing John Denver’s “Country Roads:”

Here’s the conversation that followed:

Fat Tony: “Why should I take the country roads when I can just take the highway?”

Guy from the Embassy: “Well, those are the roads that take you home, and they’re very beautiful to see.”

Fat Tony (in his Mafia voice): “Well, what if I’m on a business trip?”

I’m not sure if the guy from the Embassy ever realized that Fat Tony wasn’t being told what to say by the Americans, but for all of us, it was a priceless moment.  And now that I’ve had more time to really dwell on this very cultured young man, it’s really forced me to think seriously about the impact of culture on a human being.  It goes back to the old nature v. nurture conversation; that whatever situation we may think we’re born into, our surroundings and experiences shape us in a powerful way, and in this case, you could argue Tony had been as deeply shaped by American television and movies as he was by growing up in a small Moroccan village.  In fact, in some sense, Fat Tony is more culturally American than I am, even though he has never left Morocco, but he’s so fueled by the stereotypes that movies and media have drawn of America, he might as well be American (or at the very least, begs us to think about what it actually means to be American).  His brilliance and his ability to absorb our culture from movies and the internet has left me wondering what our culture says about us, whether its good or bad or accurate or fair or appropriate.

Part of my job in sharing cultures, it seems to me, is to curb and correct false stereotypes.  A lot of American films leave behind this objectified picture of women, if not also a hypermasculine, macho picture of the gun-toting male.  I think there were several volunteers this week, just in correcting his foul mouth, who helped show Tony what a real American is actually like.  And when I really let what that means sink in, it hits me that, perhaps, the biggest task I carry as a Peace Corps Volunteer is to be American, or rather, to be myself.  Sometimes, volunteers can get so caught up in integration and learning about Moroccan culture, that we risk forgetting who we are, where we came from, or as Fat Tony put it, we run the risk of “forgetting our roots.”  All desires to show respect in a different culture aside, and we can’t stop being who we are, or we’re missing the whole point to this shindig.

And in some sense, isn’t that also a major goal of any camp: to teach kids to be comfortable with being themselves.  Some of the best camp moments of my life were spent watching some youth decide to be comfortable in his or her own skin.

I don’t know where Fat Tony will go beyond camp, if he’ll venture off to America one day and see what it’s really like, but if he ever does make that trek, a part of me hopes that some sense of pride and love for who he is as a Moroccan will well up inside of him and eventually lead him back home, to his roots.  No matter how much he might “fit in” Stateside, and no matter the degree to which America could be a land of opportunities for him, there’s just no replacing who you are, and there’s nothing richer in life than accepting and loving that for what it is.  So while poverty may be a lack of opportunity, I think the theologian and the philosopher is still right in saying that wealth isn’t just money or opportunities, that we need something deeper in life than that.

And wherever he goes, I hope Fat Tony will find just that.  Himself.  Beyond Morocco.  Beyond America.  Somewhere in the Cosmos beyond all those lies of culture where we’re told to be something different than what we were born to be, than what was good enough already.

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