The answers to these questions will provide a preface and context for the blog post to follow:
What was wonderful?
What was hard?
What did you learn?
Would you do it again?
Would you recommend that others join Peace Corps?
It was wonderful. It’s also one of those things like bearing a child that can’t be described adequately. The wonderful is sometimes simple, straightforward, and requires no explanation like the time sloshing around in a creek with an elephant on her side, throwing buckets of water on her and scrubbing with a big brush. The wonderful includes the sound of Linawat’s voice opening the class with the ritual “Please stand up!” in a voice so full of hope and commitment to learning that the tone itself said, “This is it! Bring your whole self! Highlight of the day! It’s English class!” The wonderful included mattering to some folks, and feeling their importance to me.
It was hard. I aspired to more than I could accomplish. I didn’t choose to be but I abruptly came to be face to face with my weaknesses. Repeatedly. Relentlessly. Faults that I could deny and “ignore” in a familiar culture became too constant companions. Look at yourself. You like to think you’re strong. You are. And you’re weak. Look. The best part of Peace Corps was my failures because the only way to cope with those things is improved self-acceptance. With better self-acceptance comes better acceptance of others. It built my compassion. I also pushed through some things that were hard, like creating a smiling image in town and then having to go out and smile when I didn’t feel like smiling, and this sort of thing contributed to my development. But the most important thing was facing weaknesses.
I learned to love myself and others more. That was my purpose for joining Peace Corps and it happened. I also learned some things about international development and about change in education which I’ll address in the next blog post. I learned to speak adequate, limited Thai; to dance at a monk ordination with traditional hand shapes; to smile though four hours or more of lecture beyond my comprehension; to teach English to non-English speakers; to travel alone with confidence (but also with good sense); to laugh at sad things as well as at happy things (a useful feature of Thai culture!); to eat it and not think about what’s in it; to enjoy my home’s monster lizards; and to take better pictures.
I would do it again in the sense that I would make the same decision to go that I made originally. I would do it again in the sense of returning to a new Peace Corps post, if I didn’t have a “better offer” in the company of a gracious, highly intelligent, caring, and interesting gentleman here in California. If I could be two places at once, I’d do it again. However, I’d prepare differently, I’d have my eyes wider open, I’d understand the job to be done first, I’d … I’m not sure. I have no regrets that I chose to join Peace Corps.
I would recommend that certain types of people join Peace Corps, with the caution that it’s very easy to get involved with an inadequate idea of what the experience will be. Suitable personalities for Peace Corps, as best I can tell, include idealists who are not too concerned about reality, adventurers who will roll with whatever occurs around them, and folks who are committed to seeing, doing, and being as many things as possible. I have never taken a job with as little real idea of what the job will entail. I have made Barbie doll arms in a factory from midnight to 8 am and when I took the job I had a pretty fair idea what it would be like. I was a bookmobile librarian, and I was ready for the tasks and satisfactions. I was a professor, and knew going in to a great extent what it was about. I worked in a medical research lab as a technician and I started that job knowing the basics of the experience. Not so for Peace Corps. Dear souls everywhere please take note: Peace Corps has three overarching goals involving providing professional support and fostering international understanding. Most of my PC friends and I joined with a focus on helping people in developing nations with our knowledge and skills. Would you join if all you really got to do was foster international understanding by being the poster child for the US and by returning home and helping your neighbors understand more about your host country? I’m not saying the knowledge and skills to support people in a developing nation doesn’t happen at all, but I am saying that if you NEED that to be satisfied with your experience you should think again about going. There is ample evidence that the organization does not assign us to the country where we would be most useful in terms of knowledge and skills, the operation within the country does not make a priority of “goal 1” in its site placements and its “steering” and support of our activities, and the size of the program across countries will give you an interesting perspective on what the real purposes of Peace Corps are. (You can look that up at Peace Corps Wiki and draw your own conclusions.)
So. I am extremely pleased that I joined Peace Corps. And I have some concerns about change in education and international development that I will share in the next blog post.