It’s amazing what being a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) has done for me. In the past year there were days I would feel lost, days I would feel depressed, and days I would feel isolated and lonely, but then there were days and weeks and months I would feel a sense of belonging, a sense of community, a sense of knowing who I am and why I exist. Being a PCV has allowed me so much clarity into the life of others and into my life. It has increased my empathy, patience, and my understanding of others. It has allowed me to experience such strong emotions whether they are happy, sad, or anything in between. Living in the States made me feel a little lost, not sure of what I want to do, who I want to be, how I wanted to practice my faith, and who I am. It’s not that being in Indonesia gave me that clarity, its being a PCV that has given me that clarity. This is why…
Time, quiet, and self-reflection.
Most people don’t tell you that a lot of your time as a PCV is actually, doing nothing. Maybe just hanging out with people or being by yourself with your own thoughts. Being a PCV gives you time to think. You’re not just working and/or studying and hoping to figure out your life. You actually have time to reflect on your life, where you want it to go, and how that can happen. Being a PCV allows you quiet from the voices and distractions around you.
The first few months in country you are so busy being trained on how to do your job, on Peace Corps policy, Indonesian culture and laws, and so many hours of language. During this time you are also busy getting to know other PCVs and the people in your training community. You really don’t have much time to think about anything other than worrying about whether or not you will be able to integrate at your permanent site, will you ever understand the people around you, will they understand you, and whether you will be able to actually accomplish anything. Most of training is worrying but you build a community with those who are going through the same thing as you. You build comradery with people who were complete strangers to you days ago but who you rely on so much for emotional support. That was the best part of training, building those lasting relationships that you will have for the rest of your life. You become so close to these people and then, you swear-in officially as a Peace Corps Volunteer and leave them and the training community you a built a relationship with to go to your permanent site where you have to do it all over again but by yourself this time.
At permanent site the loneliness and isolation kicks in with great force. Even though you may be surrounded by a bunch of people you can still feel very alone because you are the only person like you. Though being utterly unique may sound great initially but it soon becomes tiring to be the marvel of the community all day every day for months on end. This is your reality and you have to come to grips with the fact that you will never truly integrate. You will always be a marvel but it does get better and you start to build coping mechanisms and understand those around you more. You learn how to navigate the space and it leaves you plenty of time to think about your life. You start to question why you joined the Peace Corps or what you are doing with your life. You think about your life before Peace Corps and begin to idealize it but since you have so much time to think and do nothing while people are marveling at you, you think past the negative thoughts and realize this was a choice you made for a reason and you left that life back home because something was missing.
For me, what was missing was direction. I was just going through the motions. I started college two weeks after graduating high school. I had been working at the same job since high school into college and stayed there for six years because it was comfortable and easy. After undergraduate I went to graduate school because that’s what I was expected to do. Here I was in graduate school, still unsure what I wanted to do with my life. Finally, I spoke to my little sister and she suggested Peace Corps. I thought about it before I applied to graduate school and now it was coming up again. So I finally decided to take a huge chance and change and do it. It was the best decision I’ve made because it gave me what I was missing. I never had time to really think about my life, what I like, what I don’t like, what I want to gain from my work.
Now, this didn’t come immediately to me and what I want to do isn’t directly related to TEFL education so it’s not that being a teacher provided me insight to it. It’s just having time to think about everything, having some form of time off from what I considered the real world, just to think, really helped me. It wasn’t until one year and two months into my service that I realized I want to work with international development doing program management. Part of my dream is to eventually become a country director in Peace Corps.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer I have been heavily involved in the Peace Corps program in my country. I was elected to the Volunteer Advisory Committee, which meets with staff to discuss questions, concerns, or issues volunteers have with any aspect of the Peace Corps Indonesia program and I really enjoy having that position since I get to maintain my close relationships with other volunteers while also further understanding Peace Corps in general. I am a Safety and Security Warden for my region in Indonesia and I’ve been a Resource Volunteer aiding in training new PCVs to Indonesia. I started to notice how much I enjoyed working with people, learning how we could improve our program here, and making sure people were involved in the development of our program so that it improves for future volunteers.
I know this sounds like a brochure for Peace Corps but I have been really happy as a volunteer. Part of that happiness comes with now knowing what I want to do with my life. Having that clarity makes every day so much better and the little micro-aggressions that happen while being a foreigner in a country start to bother you a little less (only a little). This clarity also comes from being in my second year as a volunteer. Most PCVs will tell you that your second year is so much easier than your first and that it goes by really fast which is a good and bad thing. Your language is better, you aren’t as much of a marvel, people know you a lot better, and you know them better as well. I feel that difference and because I know what I want to do with my life it also makes it easier for me to understand exactly how I can benefit my community.
Part of my insecurity in my first year was all the learning I was doing, not knowing if I was offending people or not, and my fear of practicing Bahasa Indonesia and being laughed at for speaking horribly. With this clarity it has given me more confidence to make those mistakes and because of that I know how to be a benefit to my community. I know the school schedule so I’m not being surprised anymore by cancelled classes, holidays I didn’t know existed causing our school to close, or showing up to school just to find out that my counterpart is in another city so class is cancelled. All those times where I couldn’t teach or the people closest to me were far away, allowed me time to think and develop this new clarity but it also prepared me for what to expect in my second year. Now I have about eight or nine projects I’m starting before I leave in nine months and I have the time to dedicate to them along with support from my community to pursue them.
My first year I worried so much about not having anything to do, not starting a secondary project, or not being integrated enough but I realize now that those times allowed me the freedom to develop as a person without distraction. I allowed the projects my community wanted to come to me over time without worry that I was imposing my own ideals and wants onto them. I also learned that I have to pace myself sometimes and not try to be busy all the time. For so long I believed the only way to live is to be doing something at all times. Peace Corps took that crutch away from me and forced me to stare at myself, cry, laugh, be unhappy, be happy, and then live.
I’ll leave you with this clip of Louis C.K. summarizing my point of view more succinctly then I could: