The Peace Corps application asks you about pretty much every aspect of your life. The Peace Corps does an FBI background check on you before accepting you, so nothing is really hidden. If, in your application, you admit to being a vegetarian or having a restricted diet, you then get extra questions added into your interview. Whichever recruiter is interviewing you will ask you how you will react if, upon entering your village of service, you are presented with goat’s head stew, the highest honor according to cultural tradition. Obviously they are looking for your ability to adapt and be culturally respectful, but I don’t think this is the best question to ask because the only answer is that you will do your best to eat it. I cannot emphasize enough that nothing really prepares you for Peace Corps because every situation is so different. You can say you are going to eat the goat’s head stew, but you don’t know what will really happen if/when you are actually faced with a goat's head.
This question also needs to be updated, because most likely you will not be presented with goat’s head stew. You will probably be presented with something like a McDonalds hamburger. That happened to one of the vegetarians in our group. McDonalds is expensive, well-known palagi food, so bringing McDonalds back for dinner is a big deal in Samoa. I was impressed because she sucked it up and ate a couple bites – she hasn’t eaten beef even longer than I have. I’m not sure I would have been able to do that when I first got to Samoa.
Now, I could probably manage it. My thoughts about being vegetarian have changed a lot while I’ve been here. I didn’t really become a vegetarian (I actually like to refer to myself as a poultarian because I still eat chicken and turkey) for any real reason other than cows were my favorite animals and I didn’t want to eat them anymore. I was 14 at the time. As possibly the most stubborn creature on the face of the planet, it is not easy for me to change my thinking about something, but I’ve been influenced by two different things. First, obviously, is my time in Samoa. Living in a different culture forces you to step back, re-think, and compromise on certain aspects of who you are, or who you thought you were. I have an incredibly restricted diet compared to your average Samoan, and the consequence of my choice to limit my diet is that it makes it really hard to meet people because most every social encounter involves food. For a long time I avoided talking to people at certain times of the day because I knew meals would be served soon, or if they had been served recently, leftovers would be brought out. That is still true to an extent, but now that I’m trying to be flexitarian, it is not so much of a problem.
The other thing that brought this new food policy about is a lot of reading I’ve stumbled into related to slow food and local food. Reading inevitably led to discussion, and after discussing with other vegetarians in the group, I realized that being a vegetarian does tend to be the better choice because it contributes less to environmental degradation and global warming and promotes sustainability and human rights. Perfect, I now have a real reason to be a vegetarian. But I won’t be a vegetarian because it’s complicated. It’s hard for others to accommodate me all the time, and I get enough special treatment as it is in Samoa. It’s hard to keep a balanced diet if you refuse to cook chicken in the public kitchen with an audience of a dozen kids. So I’m stretching my diet limitations because necessity, culture, and laziness demand it.
I like it better this way. To give you a rather long-winded example of how this has improved my life, I’ve been tutoring two girls in English two afternoons a week, and I wanted to make a stronger connection with the family. Partly because half the village is related to the family, partly because the family has a bunch of high chiefs and therefore have a lot of influence in the village, and partly because the mom works at the resort and speaks excellent English so she can catch me up on coconut wireless. So one afternoon after I finished my English lesson, I asked if I could eat dinner with their family. I had been agonizing over the decision for weeks because they were a new family and weren’t accustomed to my dietary limitations, and for my first meal with them, I knew they would serve me the best food they could. In Samoa, that generally means mutton and beef, either in the form of a cow or corned beef. Both mutton and corned beef turned up at my first dinner in addition to fish, so I obligingly took a bite of both the mutton and corned beef, decided again that no, I do not like those foods, and stuck to fish the rest of the night. Then they walked me home (they live on the other side of the village and I don’t like to walk alone after dark) and ran into my neighbor. I’ve eaten with my neighbors for over a year now, so they know all about my eating habits. The next time I had dinner with my new family, they asked me what I do and don’t eat, but I still find unusual things showing up on my plate. But now that I’m trying to be a flexitarian, I will do my best to try everything once because you never know what you might end up liking. That night, they served oka, which is like a raw fish soup. (I’m not sure if there is an equivalent in the States, or if it is the same thing because seafood has never been in my diet before, so I didn’t pay attention to what things are called. And as anyone who has force-fed me sushi before knows, raw fish and I don’t get along. I always spit it out). Oka is also a really special meal in Samoa showing that you have a lot of money for good food, and while I have made excuses every other time it has turned up at a meal, I decided to suck it up, stop thinking about raw fish, and try it. And, surprisingly, it tasted really good. As long as I didn’t think about it being raw fish. I would get a spoonful, start chewing and think “this is pretty good,” but then I would remember it was raw fish and my gag reflex would kick in and I had to stop thinking about that immediately.
Whenever possible, I would like to make the healthy, socially, and globally beneficial choice, but we don’t live in a perfect world where you can do everything you want all the time. Besides, nothing is really healthy in Samoa, and the days when I craved vegetables and dreamed about grilled chicken salads are long gone. Give me fried fish covered in salt and breadfruit dripping in coconut cream, followed by half a package (ok, a whole package) of cookies.
Adventuresome food before I came to Samoa
Kalamari. And that’s really probably it. Like I said before, I never managed to swallow a piece of sushi.
Adventuresome food I’ve eaten since coming to Samoa
Pig that looks like a pig, chicken that I watched being killed, pig testicles, fish, fish that looks like fish, oka, poke (pronounced POH-kay, which is raw-ish – I think – tuna), mutton (no, I do not like it), octopus (don’t like it either, too chewy), pre-packaged/frozen lobster meat, corned beef (in minimal amounts, and no, not a fan), canned sausages, spam
Food I still won’t eat because I can’t mind-over-matter it
Beef, corned beef, lobster and crab still in the shell, and most other seafood. Fish has made it onto my menu, but the rest of the ocean can stay where it is