Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Social Juxtaposition Of Being A Peace Corps Volunteer

Being a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand comes with an inherent juxtaposition. I've been reflecting on this and attempting to find ways to reconcile it, but I’m not entirely sure it’s as easy as it could seem. I will elaborate.

To begin, when I define my being a Peace Corps volunteer, I first remember that my/our work here is considered “service.” The word service itself connotes a number of things to me- empowerment, progress, equality, accessibility, selflessness. Relating this to the volunteer, their role and expectations are to be a servant for the impoverished community in which they live. They are to aid the community in finding local sustainable solutions for local issues. Volunteers are a cog in a grassroots approach to improve life as a whole for all those who come in contact with them. Many, if not all, the PCVs I have met are all talented individuals who are enthusiastic, non-judgmental, empathetic, dedicated, and smart people who epitomize the “community servant” term. Ultimately, our aim is to join a community, integrate as best as we can, exchange our knowledge, skills, and ideas with the locals, and hopefully leave the community, and world, a little better off.

However, as a volunteer who lacks any substantial knowledge of host language or culture, we require a bit of a jumping off point with aid from our host families and co-workers. Herein lays the conundrum- we are often connected to the social elite of our assigned community. For example, during PST, I was the “son” of the mayor of my village. The family was very well respected throughout the amphur (town) and they had considerable wealth. We went to many local social events and were regarded as VIPs and received the perks that come with such a designation. For my home-stay in site, again, I am the “son” of a very prominent family of government workers (local government, and teacher) turned sustainability farmers. They, too, are well off financially, and perform many deeds for the community as a whole. They know many people and are esteemed highly.

I understand part of this. Peace Corps needs to ensure their volunteers are safe first and foremost. Well to do families generally are able to afford safety and security. However, PC requires home-stay families to be financially stable enough such that they don’t have to depend on the stipend they receive for housing the volunteer, which I understand- can’t have conflicts of interest when it comes to the generally vulnerable state of PCVs (PC’s ”most valuable resource”). Secondly, these families generally have connections that will aid the volunteer in jump-starting their projects. These connections lead me to my second issue.

I've met an incredible amount of “important” people in my community that wield substantial influence and decision making power- The mayor, local government officials, heads of public organizations (hospitals, school districts), school directors and board members, educators, and I’m confident the list will continue to grow. On one hand, what servant receives immediate and allegedly critical access to such individuals, especially a foreigner and stranger? I've been a servant before in America, and I can assure you that I've never met a mayor, decision making public official, or anyone else of noted import due to my position in the community. On the other hand, how might a PCV actually get anything done without the help of one motivated community member that can help connect the cultural dots for them? However, the sheer fact that I state “due to my position in the community” presents another issue to me- I’m a volunteer and servant, yet definitely have elevated status within the community.

I’m treated like a rock star. People of all sorts approach me to talk while I’m eating lunch. Community members and shop owners alike will cover my bill of whatever consumable I’m mashing into my mouth at that moment. Some of this is cultural, I’m sure. Thai people are among the kindest and most thoughtful people I've ever met (especially when it comes to food). I am apt to think when this happens, it has less to do with status and more to do with Thai people being thankful foreigners have an interest in them and their affairs, and are working to help them improve their country. However, I digress. I've already been paraded around a variety of social events (but far less than a majority of my female counterparts!) by the aforementioned elite. I’m afforded privileges a “common” servant doesn't typically experience.

Perhaps the most difficult thing I've experienced with regard to this disparity was when I was travelling to school one day. I was flagged down by a middle aged woman and she began speaking English to me. I happily obliged and spoke for a little while with her, answering all the typical questions- how old I am, if I was married, what I am doing in Thailand, if I can eat spicy Thai food. She eventually asked me where I live, and I told her that I stay with a host-family just south of the school. She immediately knew who it was and asked for confirmation. I affirmed her guess and she gave me a, “Oh, huh” answer and looked unsurprised, if not a little disappointed. At that very moment, I felt a strong disconnect between who I was and who she was, regardless of her being the exact demographic I am expected, and hoping, to serve. She lives in a tin hut that is roughly 12x15 square feet large with upwards of six to eight people of all ages. She works in distant Phuket as a server and comes home when she can to take care of her family. She is also now one of my favorite faces to see and chat with, but I will never forget our first meeting.

As with most all conundrums, there is no easy solution. I will put forth my best effort to always be accessible to my entire community and reassure them that I will never judge them, while always holding each person in the highest esteem, and hope that our combined actions and cultural exchange render this juxtaposition non-existent.

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