[Disclaimer: I apologize in advance for the inexcusable length of this posting. I pretty much vomited up a week’s worth of internal angst here. Feel free to subdivide into chapters if necessary.]
You’ve probably noticed that the fountain of blogging clogged up somewhere last week. We were warned by the M26s (the group of PCVs who have been here for a year now) that these last couple of weeks of PST could prove to be difficult and tedious and we shouldn’t be surprised if we felt “depressed” or “homesick” or “disappointed” right before our actual Peace Corps journey is set to commence; I heretofore acknowledge their wisdom and experience in identifying the precise time period when exactly this would occur for me. I am not adept at recognizing some of the less desirable emotions I experience; I tend to paint every self-portrait in happy colors, populate the background with balloons and sunshine, and frame it all in gold stars and smiley faces. That I can’t manage this all the time now is one of the (unplanned) lessons I have been given to learn.
I have been considering why this is so (the lack of sunshine and balloons) for a couple of days now: is it just me or is there something in my environment that I am reacting to? Is it this big change, in general, that has thrown me off balance or is Moldova a unique impetus for eliciting a certain, complex set of emotions within me? Or is it merely just the end of PST, when I will depart from my established routine in Stauceni and all my American cohorts? So, given my propensity for over-thinking every last detail of my life and experience, my analysis traced the following path:
- Is this the scariest/most challenging/potentially life altering experience that I have ever had?
The short answer to this, I believe, is no. It is a ‘short’ answer because the other experiences that I might consider to be relatively scarier, more challenging, or life-altering lasted for 15 hours and about 5 minutes, respectively. The first was the time that my friend and I were lost in the Angeles National Forest overnight and were ultimately rescued by a Marine Search and Rescue helicopter. The second was a personal epiphany that I had while speeding along the edge of an escarpment in a rickety bus through the Andes. (Though it was a life altering experience for me, I have never effectively conveyed its mind-blowing impact to anyone else who’s suffered through the details, which I will omit here.)
At this juncture I am forced to acknowledge that – duh – the scariest, most challenging, potentially (and actually) life altering experience I have had was becoming (accidentally) pregnant at 23 and choosing to go through with it, keep my beautiful child, and raise her – if I had to – alone. Thankfully, the abundance of life provided us with everything we could ever have wanted or needed. But my life DEFINITELY followed a different path than I would have tread had I not encountered this fork in the road. And I was terrified, often and thoroughly, during her first two or three years of life.
- Is there something about Moldova that is eliciting these feelings in me?
The answer here is a (qualified) yes, though truly this question requires a book-length explication to actually do it justice. In fact, I did just read a book – The Lost Province: Adventures in a Moldovan Family by Stephen Henighan – that did much to clarify for me the tumultuous impressions I am juggling vis-à-vis Moldava, its denizens and the realities of twenty-first century trans-national capitalism. Though I realized it has been a mere 21 years since Moldava gained its independence from Russia, I didn’t have an appreciation for the dregs of history that boil and ferment just beneath the surface of a culturally suppressed and economically-raped population. Henighan came to Moldova to teach English in 1993-94; his experience of Moldovans was largely delineated by their seeming inability to cope with the catastrophic changes being forced upon them by the advent of a “democracy” and “freedom” heavily subsidized by rampant consumer materialism. The particular anxieties delineated by their ever-shifting borders, the complexity of their linguistic history and the historic artifacts it denies them, the tension that keeps them culturally, economically, and politically suspended between Western Europe and Russia are all integral to their national identity (or lack thereof) and make for an interesting read. (If you are lacking a good book for the beach this summer, I highly recommend Jonathan Sacks The Dignity of Diversity. He is much, much better than I at drawing out the intricacies of cultural identity and how it defines and shapes the human experience.)
Let me just excoriate here for a bit my favorite demon, transnational corporations: From 1991 on the Moldovans have been relentlessly saturated by the corrosive infiltration of first world media and products while trapped in a netherworld between the tantalizing but vagarious rewards of capitalism and the stultifying, pseudo-security promised by the communist state. They can no longer rely on their agricultural products and the rural lifestyle it (more or less) supported for centuries to sustain them. Embargos and tariffs are placed on their exports by various countries seeking their allegiance and/or to co-opt their borders. Virtually their entire industrial sector has been cordoned off in the separatist, unrecognized “state” of Transnistra. Their governmental ministries and officials struggle to integrate diametrically opposed political parties and philosophies. Meanwhile, the likes of Mercedes Benz and Apple and McDonalds tantalize them with seductive advertisements carefully calculated to whet their burgeoning appetites, You Tube proffers hypnotic music videos replete with heavy-lidded, long-legged beauty queens draped in gangsta bling, cinder block McMansions are sprouting in the suburbs Chișinău, and speaking a foreign language is de rigueur for any ambitious youth seeking gainful employment in an increasingly globalized economy. They are not far enough removed, resource-depleted, nor education-deprived to be ignored by the ravenous maw of consumer-dependent corporations. Yet they lack the political stability, economic base, and cultural cohesiveness to collectively harness the engine of capitalism and make it enrich, rather than drain, their bank accounts.
Most of the adults between the ages of twenty five and fifty are what is popularly referred to as “departe” – far away. They work, usually far beyond their allotted visa period, in places like Italy, Germany, Moscow, and Canada, to be able to save and send money home for their families. They are forced to leave parents, children, spouses, and siblings for decades in order to earn the money needed to afford the necessities that life in the twenty-first century increasingly demands. Families are torn asunder, children are orphaned, seniors work well past retirement age, half-built houses crouch in weedy lots, and an entire generation of Moldovans is denied the opportunity to influence or preserve their political system, cultural institutions, or dwindling national identity.
I think when I pictured the “Peace Corps,” I imagined a challenge that would involve enforced abstinence from common conveniences enriched by adventurous encounters within tribal enclaves: no running water or electricity, scarce or no access to conventional medicine or hygiene products or retail establishments, no Internet access, telephones, television, etc., all offset by a teeming social beehive of sustenance activity that would serve to distract me from the privation. That is far from the case here in Moldova. All of those conveniences that were supposed to be inaccessible are here, relatively affordable (at least for me) and attainable. Many Moldovans have them. Yet they are, for the most part, so busy, distracted, anxiety-ridden, and stressed by attaining/retaining the ability to grasp and keep hold of these things that the social fabric that binds them is noticeably affected. Kind of like America.
And so perhaps, I am disappointed at being ‘denied’ the opportunity to live out the atavistic fantasy I had built around my service within my head. Instead, I am being asked to integrate into a community of people just embarking on a seemingly inevitable march into the consumer lifestyle the ultimate consequences of which I (and many others like me) am attempting to flee. The causes, implications, ramifications, and veracity of this line of analysis are far too complex for me to explore here. But I am consumed with these details all the time; I just can’t work my way out of the maze within which my nationality, economic status, education, opportunities, personal predilections and consumption patterns conspire to entrap me.
Anyway, enough of that.
3. Is it the end of Pre-service Training, my imminent departure from the relative familiarity and comfort of my fellow American volunteers and the English language, esprit de corps, and common cultural referents they represent, that is unsettling me? (In other words, am I finally being forced to leave home?)
Undoubtedly, this is a loaded question, one that is not at all comfortable to contemplate. After all, isn’t this one of the reasons I so doggedly spouted for joining the Peace Corps in the first place? What does it mean if I don’t really want to leave America, after all?
It means that I am a product of my culture influences, like it or not. And I now have a eminently valuable opportunity to truly see and appreciate the aspects of Americanism that are deeply embedded within me, that shape my perspective and way of being in the world, and that I don’t want to lose:
- Americans are preternaturally optimistic. We believe, generally speaking, that we can do anything. We are not subdued by the hand of fate, nor do we cede the trajectory of our biography to some unfathomable plotline drafted by forces outside our ken or influence.
- We tend to believe that most people like us. While this characteristic has had some unfortunate implications on a global scale, within neighborhoods, families, work environments, and public places it generates a great deal of shared laughter, social cohesion, and a predilection for including the people around us in our circle of perception.
- We lean towards the adventurous and are more likely to embrace challenge and opt for change. We like to explore, question, debate, pinch, poke, and prod. We can be (for the most part) persuaded to abandon traditions and historic influences in favor of scientifically-backed theories that have generated a wealth of technology and increased affluence for our country.
Granted the aforementioned constitute a gross generalization of what it is to be American. And I don’t have the space nor my readers, most likely, the inclination to embark on a dialectic about what is accurate and bona fide about this generalization. All I can say at this point is that I feel I am letting go of these qualities when I say goodbye to PST. Of course, I can continue to nurture them within myself. Many ex-pats are quite successful at maintaining their national/cultural integrity for years in foreign climes. But I am going to feel the dearth of these characteristics in my day to day environment.
How and why Moldovans differ from Americans is part of what I am here to experience. And, ultimately, to be able to understand, share, and celebrate. The multi-faceted aspects of actualized cultural diversity are more complicated, potentially fractious and alienating than I was able to truly understand within my generative environment. But it is an experience that we are being forced to grapple with, like it or not, comfortable or no, in our suddenly interconnected, transnational, globally networked world. I feel like a baseball player on a soccer team; I keep using the wrong limbs and skills and all my moves are predicated by a different set of rules. And I definitely don’t get the jargon. I am a fish out water, flailing about, pining for contextual familiarities. I miss being comfortably at home in my own head. Above all else, I did not appreciate how much language defines the contours, dimensions, and palette of my reality. It is like living in a science fiction story: this world shares much of the same surface characteristics as mine, but it is ineffably, maddeningly different.
Will I ever feel at home here? And is that the challenge that will define my Peace Corps experience? Or just one of the many ahead of me that I can’t even hope to identify this early on?
And that’s what’s up with me this week….