This is how the letter starts. It’s addressed to you, “Dear Person Contemplating Joining Peace Corps.”
I imagine that you’re at a transition point in your life. Perhaps you’ve just graduated, perhaps you’re going through a career change, perhaps you have an itch for something more that can’t be scratched. Whatever the reason, here you are: contemplating joining Peace Corps.
The letter then asks the all-important questions that you’re dying to know the answers to.
Should you join Peace Corps?
Is it right for you?
There’s no way to know for sure because…
… every person’s experience is different. Your Peace Corps life will be uniquely shaped by your country, program, and site.
However, there are similar struggles that all volunteers seem to share, no matter where in the world they are sent, and what they are sent there to do. The author of the letter describes experiences she considers to be universal throughout the Peace Corps world, from her perspective as a volunteer in Cambodia.
In this blog entry, I want to tackle these points one-by-one, and reiterate, from my own “uniquely shaped” Peace Corps life in Armenia, that certain parts of Peace Corps are the same, no matter what country you serve in. The following are my echoes of agreement from An Open Letter.
It doesn’t matter nearly as much as it used to. Life simply isn’t all clean and shiny here, like you’re used to in the United States. There are huge cow pies in the middle of the streets. Certain coffee cups I’ve drank out of have probably only been rinsed with cold water for the past two or three months. Bathrooms I’ve been in… no, you’re not ready to hear about that. What does it mean for something to be “sanitary?” I’m not sure I know anymore. But luckily I also don’t really care.
One of our very first medical sessions dealt with diarrhea. We learned about viral and bacterial diarrhea, acute and chronic diarrhea. After that, we put all modesty aside. Embarrassing bathroom stories ensued (and continue!). I definitely forgot what a normal bowel movement was like for my first three months in country. The people with diarrhea were jealous of the people who were constipated and vice versa. The people with upset stomachs didn’t know which they would prefer. It’s a fact of life; it’s hard to adjust your physical body to a new culture, and some people never quite succeed. This section may sound crude to you. I’m sorry; I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be modest about physical problems.
I can barely speak Armenian and I’ve forgotten how to speak English. I communicate by grunting and pointing. At the store I say things that translate to, “I want… something like this. That. Over here. No, farther away. Okay. Next, I want… garlic? No… onion? Onion!” When I do speak English, my words are simplified. I speak slowly. I stumble over pronunciation. Sometimes I just give up and sit in utter silence; I feel smarter that way. It’s certainly easier to shut your mouth than to explain what “puffy” means.
I teach in Armenian; my poor students are saints for putting up with me. Think about your foreign college professors who you couldn’t understand for the life of you. THAT’S ME! Except my Armenian is worse than their English was.
The stuff I’m pro at, in Armenian, is answering the following questions, “Where do you live? How long have you been in Armenia? Where do you work? Do you want to marry an Armenian man? Where are you from in America? Have you been to Glendale? What do you think of our town? Do you like Armenia? Which is better, Armenia or America?” I get these questions ALL THE TIME.
I get unreasonably mad at taxi drivers who try to rip me off. When it happens, I’m being overcharged by a whopping 25-50 cents. It’s mostly the principle of the thing. But… I also think about money differently now.
I earned less than $4,000 last year, according to my W2. That was enough to live off of in Armenia, and have some money left over. My rent is the equivalent of less than $50/month. It is almost unfathomable that people pay in the hundreds of dollars for ANYTHING. I dream of the day when I can get a good job and buy whatever I want, no matter the cost.
This is impossible to sum up. Some of the most amazing and the most frustrating times of my Peace Corps service have been at work. On days when no one seems to listen to me and I don’t have a clue what’s going on, I wonder why I’m even there. On days when a student “gets” everything I’m saying and teaches someone else in the class, I thank my lucky stars that I was there to help them learn something new. A day might be totally unproductive, and then I’ll sit and have coffee with my counterparts and they’ll include me in jokes and tell me how grateful they are that I’m there, and I’ll go from complete frustration to feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.
I will never be completely satisfied with my work service, because I know that the language barrier is keeping me from teaching everything that I know. And some days, I just don’t feel like fighting, asking again and again for collaboration on a project that I know would be greatly beneficial, if only someone would help me implement it. BUT. I know that I’m glad I’m working, and I know that my students and counterparts are learning more with my help. It’s just not all roses. (Although I did receive roses the other day.)
Some days, I just want to stay in bed. I totally could. It’s up to me to decide that I should get up and get moving. I’m “just” a volunteer. I don’t “have” to make lesson plans, I don’t “have” to participate in events. If I’m unmotivated to follow through with a project or go out and meet new people, I don’t have to. I am pretty free to live my life as I please, with little need to report my activities to a higher authority. Either way, I’ll get paid my (tiny) salary.
Self-motivation is KEY!!! I have to remind myself that I’m here out of free choice. I came here to do certain things, so by golly, I should DO them! Staying in bed is absolutely always an option, but it’s not the right option for me.
With my blond hair and long legs and (weird) American clothing, I look different. People stare at me all the time, and it sucks. And I’ll never get used to it. I never want to be a celebrity.
Even growing up in a houseful of kids I somehow got my own personal space when I needed it. I could get away, be by myself, do my own thing, get lost in my own world. The need for personal space? Armenians don’t get it. They’ve never had the “luxury” and never needed it, as far as I can tell. When I lived with my first host family, I had a bedroom all to myself, as per Peace Corps policy. It was the biggest room in the house. I felt bad about it, as the 4 members of the family were all crammed into the neighboring room. But I also loved that I could go in there and shut the door and be alone. And now, even though it baffles every Armenian I meet, I love living alone. It’s my own little “America” and I can follow whatever strange American customs I want, like sitting on the floor, or walking around barefoot, without hearing how I’ll become barren or sick.
I have never considered myself an unstable person, or even a very emotional person. I’m Finnish, after all! Peace Corps has changed all of that. I can wake up feeling amazing and then drench my oatmeal with tears. I can leave work practically skipping with joy, then turn red with internal rage when I pass a group of men who turn in tandem to watch me walk past them. A benign email turns me to a puddle of mush. One day I can laugh at the fact that my electricity went out again, and the next I cry until my eyes are so puffy that I can’t go to work. I can’t predict with certainty how I’ll react to anything. And I know I’m not alone in any of this.
GIBBF—Government-Issued Best Friends Forever
I can’t guarantee the “forever” part, but I can believe that I’ve made some very solid friendships in Peace Corps. We have gone through so much together that it’s hard to imagine that our bond will ever weaken. Worst Christmas ever? Yes, it was, but imagine how close I became to the two friends I shared it with.
WANT VS NEED
What do you actually “need” in life? Not a whole lot. Did you realize that you don’t need a refrigerator or a dryer? You don’t need a shower, a flushing toilet, or even running water 24/7. Yes, certain things make you more comfortable, but they are not absolutely necessary. I will be grateful for the surplus of luxuries I’ll have when I get back to the U.S., but I can’t imagine taking them for granted like I used to.
I had a dream the other night that I went back to the United States and a good friend told me I had changed. She wasn’t able to put a finger on exactly how I had changed, and that made me very angry. I started shaking her and yelling in her face, asking her, “What do you mean, I’ve changed? What’s different about me? Tell me, so I can go back to being how I used to be!”
In real life, I assume I’ve changed, and I’m hoping that it’s for the better. But I couldn’t pinpoint the exact changes and spell them out for you. Maybe when I see you next, you can tell me what those changes are.
This letter is worth reading. It’s very detailed and interesting, probably even more so than this blog entry, although I think mine is a good follow-up and reiteration of what she talks about. You should click on the link and check it out. You can compare her thoughts with mine and see that even though we are in two different countries, we are experiencing some of the same things.
If you are a Peace Corps volunteer, would you agree with these points? Please comment below.
If you are contemplating joining the Peace Corps, do you disbelieve any of them, or think that you would have a hard time with any of them? Did anything I talked about make you reconsider? Please comment below.
If you would never consider joining the Peace Corps, did I just reinforce that belief by what I told you? Please comment below.
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