“ ‘I wish I had known I wasn’t going to change the world,’ I’ve heard others say.” – http://passport.peacecorps.gov/2014/06/16/the-5-things-i-wish-i-had-known-before-joining-peace-corps/ – shared this morning in the FaceBook group Peace Corps Northeast.
The writer goes on to describe the small ways her host community was affected by her presence. But like all equations, it doesn’t do to look at just one side. By entering the Peace Corps, she has affected the world in a small way. She has changed herself as well in more dramatic ways. Big World + small changes = One Person + big changes
Both my kids are going into the Peace Corps, and, of course, I have been trolling the net for advice to give them; this is an article I will forward to them as an outside-the-family source.
Certainly my days in El Menzel, Morocco did not seem world changing at the time. Certainly I provided a model of “American” that was different from the popular view at the time. I was modestly famous for my speaking colloquial Arabic, riding an illegal moped, being a regular at the public baths, wearing henna in my hair, having a father who spoke a bit of classical Arabic. There is no telling how much of an impact all this made, nor how long lasting that impact was.
This notion of not changing the world is common among returned volunteers. It reflects youthful perspective. It looks for change in others, holding the self as a constant. It was years before I realized that the effect that changed the world was in me. Peace Corps volunteers are not just ambassadors of American culture and values, not just guests at the table. When they leave their host countries, they return to see their own communities with fresh eyes. They develop different standards of poverty, wealth and industry. And perhaps they learn an appreciation for charity and grace.
A couple of years ago I found myself in a class with three other women who had also been Peace Corps volunteers. One had recently taken a young man from Ghana under her wing. He was newly arrived in the Boston area, enrolled in one of the many colleges, and missing home. He welcomed her as a surrogate mom. She had just realized that her own welcome in her host community was much less due to her American-ness, and much more to her youth. The adults of the community helped her assimilate because they recognized a kid out of culture. They treated her as they would any young person far from their family’s guidance. Volunteers are blessed with learning how to “adult” not only in their own community among peers, but in an entirely foreign community. When they return to the States, they will forever hold those two cultures in their hearts.
Some of the cultural differences are superficial. There were adult interactions I had never really experienced in the States. On my return to the US, it was like going abroad for the first time, learning a new culture; being a stranger and yet at home. I had trouble buying things. Not just because the shelves seemed overcrowded with variety, but because I didn’t know how initiate a transaction. None of the polite social exchange, chit chat, oblique approach to purchase that was familiar in Morocco, worked in Bangor, Maine. Meeting new people was difficult; no one shook hands. I had learned to cook and buy food in a place without refrigeration. Markets there used kilos and sold things in small quantities for daily purchase. Farmers markets were not yet a thing in the States, and the closest open air market I knew of was hundreds of miles away in Boston. Bathing was also a challenge. I had gotten used to having a serious wash once a week in a steamy public bath, chatting with friends, helping scrub their kids, being scrubbed myself. A solo daily shower seemed just odd.
There were, however, more fundamental changes in dealing with others. Knowing what it was like to not even recognize that there was a subtext to some social situation, I was more likely to explain interactions, rather than leaving someone floundering. While my kids and students benefited from this, the risk came in teaching Grandma to suck eggs. This was a useful skill when it came to helping folks transition from the world of typewriters and file cabinets to the world of computers, internet, and virtual communication. Knowing how to explain the unknown, the unimagined, to a person who expects to be in charge and is uncomfortable at being clueless is invaluable.
Time alone, surviving mistakes, learning culture all contributed to an talent for shared self reflection. It became clear to me early on that I alone was responsible for the trouble and frustration I faced. I had made that choices that led me overseas. I chose to let it get to me, or not. I was also responsible for putting my feet on the path that led me to joy and delight. I needed to remind myself of that then, when living as an expat; I remind myself of it now.
The Peace Corps was less about how a volunteer could function as an advocate for change in the world, and far more about becoming the change in the world that Gandhi advocated. My children have heard my travel stories: years spent in Morocco (in the picture I am second from the left), both during the Peace Corps and for quite a few years after COS (close of service); growing up in Kenya and Jordan with parents active in American Friends Service Committee; travel through Europe, learning languages. I am a huge fan of international living. It is weird, then, that for the past 30 years I have lived in rural Maine, traveling only for conferences. Beyond a brief trip to the Maritimes I have never really traveled with my kids. Now I look forward to visiting with them in their new homes.