The toughest job.....[1]

Swearing inCredit: wiki commons

There are plenty of sites and books that tell you how to join, what’s required, what you’ll be doing and how to act.  This article is more about what to expect within yourself when you’re faced with the realities of living in a foreign country.

Culture shock and awe

When your plane/boat/taxi/camel lands you in your new country, it’s likely that the first thing you’ll notice is the poverty.  Those shacks you see along the side of the road are actually fully functioning stores; they’ve been there for a long time already, and they’ll be there long after you’ve gone.  You’ll start to understand that being poor doesn’t mean not having the latest iPhone, it means having nothing but bread for dinner. Or nothing.  It’s an uncomfortable feeling to realize that even at your lowest, you are inconceivably wealthy compared to most of the people you’ll be working with.[2]

During your first few weeks, most things are new and fun.  Ok, you bathe by washing out of a bucket, that’s not so bad.  You’re toilet paper is torn out of a book…that’s a little less fun, but still ok.  The food is completely different, always. Everything is different, always. In about a month or so you are tired of being different and missing the routines you were used to.   You may recognize this, or you may just be irritable without knowing why.  This will last until you get started at your site.

Getting, and staying motivated

Peace Corps VolunteerCredit: Peace corp online

Once you have a project, or something to work on, things get a little easier.  There’s something about feeling in control of your life that makes small irritations less of a bother.  Now it’s fun again; you have plans and you are on your way!  Until you realize that your way may not be the way that your host town wants to go.  It’s all well and good to want to build a library, but if your town doesn’t want one you’re faced with the choice of making a new plan or trying to convince the rest of the town that you have a good idea.  Before deciding which of these to choose, it’s good to get some other opinions.  Ask other volunteers near you, talk to the folks at the Peace Corps office, or speak with the leaders of the town to find out why they don’t want to follow your plan.

Wait, they don’t speak English. This is usually your next big hurdle to overcome, communication.  Even if your friend from your host country speaks perfect English, he or she grew up in an environment that is completely different from yours.  How do you explain to someone that you choose not to be married, when that person was brought up believing that the only reason for living is to get married and have children?  Add to that the reluctance of people to say certain things to you because you aren’t really “one of them”, and passing along a simple idea becomes as big of a deal as designing your entire project.  To make it even more of a challenge, you’ll discover that some people are trying to undermine you, not because you aren’t doing good things, but because they feel threatened.  You are upsetting their way of life, and change is difficult for everyone – easier just to try to stop you in your tracks.  It’s ok, just accept this and try to either explain better, or change your tactics so people feel more comfortable.

All of these things are small challenges, but in a strange place (change is difficult for you, too) you start to feel like you’ve made a mistake, you’re wasting your time, and you should just bag this whole stupid Peace Corps thing and go home.  If you’re on schedule, this is happening right about the end of your first year.  If you can, take a break, take your vacation, have your family visit you now, go home to visit, do anything but quit, because once you get through this, the worst part of the whole two years, it all becomes fun.

Finding your groovePeace Corps VolunteersCredit: peace corps

A few months into your second year, somehow everything becomes ok, which is funny, because nothing has really changed.  I never figured out what happens at the end of the first year, but I saw it in the other volunteers, and I’ve seen happening to people from other countries that come to live in the States.  Get through the first year and you’re golden.

At the end of your term, most people are ready to go home.  It’s been fun, you’re having a good time, but you’re beginning to feel like you’ve put your “real” life on hold long enough.  You need to get started on grad school, job, or whatever.  Get addresses and phone numbers of your friends, take all kinds of pictures, and make an effort to visit the sights you’ve been putting off.  You’ll be heading home with all kinds of stories that everyone will want to hear right?

Coming home

No….many people don’t want to hear your stories, sad, but true.  I imagine there are many reasons for this, but it does kind of make you mopey.  Here you’ve gone through this life changing experience and your friends don’t want to listen.  This is about the time you realize that you aren’t quite as interested in some of your friends, either.  You have changed, a lot.  Probably more than you’re aware of.  You’ve undergone more introspection in the last two years than many people experience in a lifetime. You understand yourself, and what you want, and some of what you want is different friends.  This is a normal process that happens continually; you’ve just gone through an accelerated version of it.  The difference is even more marked because you were gone, and suddenly you return to a life that you’ve outgrown.  It’s a bit sad, a bit scary, and a lot exciting.

One last word.  When you are preparing to leave, they’ll tell you about reverse culture shock[3].  It sounds silly, but this is a very real experience, and it’s very disorienting.  Don’t go shopping alone for the first few weeks, instead find a family member or good friend that will be there while you kind of freak out.  It doesn’t last long but it’s a very uncomfortable feeling while it’s happening.  You can't really plan for it, but you can try to expect it.

The Peace CorpsCredit: wiki commons