Before joining the Peace Corps and moving to Fiji, I was disgusted, angered, and offended by much more than I am now. I would have described myself as easygoing, and I believe my friends would have also. However, I had yet to understand the difference between privileged, American easygoing and impoverished, islander easygoing. They are not at all the same thing.
One time, when I was serving in AmeriCorps and living in Iowa, my team volunteered to staff a mud race called Hard Charge in order to run it for free. We worked as referees, essentially, until the last race of the day, which we were allowed to run.
When our turn came we ran across fields, crawled through mud, and climbed over walls. All without a single cup of water. My mouth felt as though it were filled with cotton and I quickly became fatigued. Never before had I participated in a race with so little water. In other organized races, water was provided so often I had to turn it down.
We did not receive our first cup of water until about three miles into the almost six mile race. When we came to the water table I stopped running and drank a cup. I told the woman with the pitcher to fill it again and I chugged another, emptying it in one large swig. This continued approximately six more times before I was ready to run again. When I asked the woman where to throw my cup, she said to put it back on the table. They were out of cups and had to reuse them.
I was flabbergasted. I could not believe they had given me a used cup without informing me and allowing me to make a health-conscious decision whether to forgo the water despite my thirst or risk contracting a virus or disease by drinking out of the cup. As a free man I felt it was my right to make that decision and they had, in a sense, stolen that freedom from me by withholding important information. It is for the same reasons, after all, that not telling someone one is sleeping with that one has a sexually-transmitted infection or disease is a crime.
I spent the rest of the race running on the fuel of my anger and being slowed by my continuing thirst. The latter was not due to the cup situation but the fact there was not another water station for the rest of the race. Needless to say the comment card I filed was not particularly cheerful, thought the race itself was loads of fun.
Fast forward two years to me sitting on a mat woven from Pandanus leaves spread across the sand under a tin roof held up by a few bamboo posts. All forty men sitting cross legged on the mat were gathered there for a funeral. The body was already buried by some of the village boys and everyone wanted to drink kava, tell stories, and laugh.
I sat behind the kava bowl, despite everyone's best efforts to force me to the front, with the other men who were not chiefs or members of the mourning family. All forty of these men drank from a single coconut shell and I joined them.
So what changed? Why was I so upset in America about sharing with strangers and so willing to do it in Fiji, despite the fact that I had previously gotten strep throat from the same risky behavior only a few months earlier? Maybe it was the choice. Maybe something has changed in me during my Peace Corps service, in the way I viewed community, germs, or just what is important. I do not know. What I know is I prefer the new me, which continues to change shape a little bit every day.