Being a VSO Couple

Corey writes:

Today is our 2nd anniversary. We’ve been married in India longer than we’ve been married outside of India! I think that somehow makes us common-law here. What better time to share some observations about being a VSO couple.

For one thing, we spend a LOT of time together. Gina and I are together from 6:00pm to 9:00am Monday to Saturday, and then all day on Sunday. (For our first year here, when we both worked for the same organization, we were together basically 24/7.) 90% of our time is spent in the same room. We go out to restaurants together, we go to the Internet cafe together. You get the picture. There's not much to do in Koraput and most of our friends are just casual work friends, so we're stuck with each other!

To simulate the "alone time" that both of us like, we’ve both adopted certain habits that simulate being alone. We both have earbuds attached to our laptops. I sit at my desk and Gina sits on her couch (mattresses stacked on the floor). Sometimes we go for hours without speaking to each other. Often, only one of us will go to the market, just to give the other some space. We’ve each developed techniques to try to respect each other’s space and alone time, but at the same time have some good conversations and laughs. I've gone on 7 or 8 work trips for 3-14 days and Gina has enjoyed the change (but missed me at the same time!).

We spend a lot of time talking about and analyzing this experience. We talk about something confusing that happened to us that day (this happens less frequently now) or some frustrating thing or awesome thing that happened. We try to understand what these things mean, are they good or bad, is it our fault or someone else’s? What could we have done differently? It’s like we’re co-authoring a book in our heads about India and development. This is one of my favourite things about having Gina with me. By talking about this experience with each other, day by day we put everything into place, and help each other develop coherent thoughts, philosophies, or judgements about our life.

By seeing the husband/wife roles in India we’ve realised more about husband/wife roles in the U.S. culture and also in our relationship. For one thing, the roles are much more clearly defined and rigid here in India. Husbands earn the money, make important decisions, and are the ambassador of the family. Wives lead a more cloistered life, managing the house and children. While the U.S. may have been like this at some point (see Mad Men), now roles are much more negotiable. We both do things that are shocking to our neighbours. For example, I wash my own clothes and cook many meals. We both prefer it this way.

Like all volunteers, we experience a great deal of stress in a culture that isn't ours. Everything is so new and different, etc. Even now we both have frustrating days at work, just like we would have in the U.S. Having a spouse helps immensely in coping with this stress, but frustrations are sometimes misplaced on the spouse (the only other person in the support "network") and can cause fights. I imagine this sort of thing happens all the time with new marriages, but being overseas can turn up the stress a little bit more. If a VSO couple doesn't end up killing each other, they'll usually end up with a better understanding of each other!

One situation where being a couple really reduces stress is at weddings or parties (just like in the U.S.). It’s been really great to have Gina there to chat with when everyone else is just staring at me. However, the flip side of this is that a foreign couple is much less approachable than a loner. Many times we’ve been on a train staring in silence at our co-passengers for hours. Then I’ll get up to go to the bathroom and when I come back 3 people have all struck up conversations with Gina. Also, since we have each other, we're less likely to force ourselves out of our comfort zones and have probably missed some great experiences by sticking with the familiar (each other).

Another interesting bit about being a couple in a different culture is individuality. In the U.S., it was important for Gina and I to have separate identities and some separate friends. While it’s still important to us here, it’s not really an option. When we both worked at SOVA we became “Coreygina” - one word. Partly this individuality thing is a result of the amount of time we spend together but it’s also because we are both VSO volunteers.

On the whole, Gina and I are both glad we volunteered together. For us, the benefits of being a VSO couple definitely outweigh the negatives. We’ve both said that we never would have had the guts to do such a long placement individually, and we really respect some of our VSO friends that have gone it alone.