Saturday, December 7, 2013

Why Is Peace Corps Service Twenty-Seven Months?

It's December now, and it doesn't feel like it at all. Thirty-five degree highs during an Oregon winter have been replaced with eighty-five degree "cold season" days that are only slightly less sweaty than a couple months ago, fog and snow by torrential rain storms, and Christmakkah with nothing. I see pictures of friends and family back home experiencing actual seasons, beyond hot, hottest, and wet and hot, and it reminds me that time really is moving swiftly. Peace Corps Thailand 125 is already down eleven months and staring at their final sixteen. We're not quite half way, but with as quickly time has gone, it sure doesn't feel like we'll be here much longer. PCT 126 will be here shortly. We'll be looked at with admiring and impressed eyes, just as we saw 124 during pre-service training. This is it. This is Peace Corps service. We are in the thick of things, having been in our communities for seven months, working with kids and adults alike, making impressions of one sort or another, and, hopefully, changing the world for the better one person at a time (starting with ourselves).

I reflect on Peace Corps service a lot, really in a critical way- Am I making the impact I thought I would be? Am I gaining the skills for which I was hoping? Am I growing personally? Asking these questions makes me understand why service is twenty-seven months. Peace Corps stresses, hard, integration and collaboration with the volunteer's counterparts and community, and for good reason. Imagine taking a foreigner into your job for the purpose of skills transfer. Even if you request their presence, there still needs to be groundwork laid for a solid relationship- trust, respect, compassion- before any progress can be made. The best recipe for that is time and always putting your best foot forward, with the best intentions in mind.

My first semester at school was, by and large, pretty uneventful. I taught some classes, laughed with some kids, began a relationship with my co-teacher (Aoy)/director/school community at large, and did basic skills training with Aoy. I didn't have any other projects, but a volunteer can make a pretty solid argument that getting accustomed to your site, building new relationships with market vendors, curious community members, local government/health/education workers, etc., and learning how to be ok with flipping your entire life upside-down is, indeed, project enough.

In reality, that's more or less what I did. I made my face shown. I spoke with vendors and various key institutions in town- the municipality, many schools, the health center, locals exercising at the stadium, and others who were into running and cycling. I've played with my neighbors' children. I talk with curious individuals in whichever language they feel comfortable. I run and bike with people who I now consider friends. I integrate.

I see community integration, now, as something much different from even just eleven short months ago. I didn't do these things in America. I didn't take the time to talk to my vegetable vendor about them and their family, or the education system, or the importance of a local food system. I didn't go out of my way to find others who are interested in the same things I am because I already had that social support in friends. I didn't get to know things that were important to my neighborhood or town by talking to neighbors or local government officials because I didn't view it as important. These are all things I've done and learned by simply taking the time to open my mind and inquire about my community so that I may be better at serving it.

Having done this, I embrace my community. I love it. It's a part of me, and I'm a part of it. It is home for now. Additionally, I've undertaken additional roles at my school. I now teach English to teachers at my school who want to learn and practice more. I have an English club for grades one through three that rotates classes through to expose them to foreign individuals and English from a native tongue. I have begun working with my school and municipality on a Youth Tour Guide program to simultaneously improve youth confidence and English abilities and hopefully increase tourist foot traffic through town (and directly increase incomes of those who would otherwise participate in a tourism sector should it be more pronounced).

By putting in the time to participate in festivals/customs/ceremonies during the first semester, I've been rewarded, if you will, with more responsibility through improved relationships. People know me, can trust me, want me around. A month into this second (of four) semesters, I have better relationships with teachers and students, because they will seek me out for conversations and/or playing. I get discounts on (and free!) food from vendors and neighbors. This exchange definitely prompts in me the feeling of "the more you do, the more you want to do." As my community embraces me more, I want to do anything and everything I can to improve the quality of their lives. Ultimately, it is considerable time well spent that will permit you an opportunity to do so.

3 comments:

  1. Great reflection entry on the importance of integration. Are you the one in pink? Just kidding. :0 Continue your important work.

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  2. Chaseburgmama is a friend of mine and shared your blog. My husband and I were in EC78 (Saint Lucia 2008-2010) and I resonated COMPLETELY with your observations. We've lived in a fair number of towns in our lives, but hands down, our village in Saint Lucia became HOME for us and we are still in constant touch with our friends (who feel more like family). I loved your observations on integration and particularly your goal to "improve the world...starting with myself"- clearly, you have the most important attitude for a successful service. I will be looking forward to future posts and re-living my service through your thoughtful blog entries! Diane

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  3. What a great post! The first year is one of intense community integration, and you seem to be doing that so well. You've done more than you know for this community by simply being there and taking the time to get to know them :) Wishing you and your site community Happy Holidays from up north!

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