Rethinking the Peace Corps Experience


Picture of me unrelated to this post but provided for the benefit of my grandma and father. You’re welcome.

My postings are shifting from frantic, nearly daily hand wringings when I first arrived in Moldova to a more leisurely drop-in visit once a week or so, I have realized.  I attribute this both to becoming more acclimated to my surroundings – successful integration – and to having beat a retreat into a state of meditative contemplation, which is a really a westernized, acceptable way of admitting I have a remarkably empty mind these days.

For so long I had been preparing to leave overseas, having to think about applications and essays and medical visits and disbursing twenty years’ worth of accumulated possessions and packing clothing and selling the condo and tying up financial matters; and then I was here, in Pre-Service Training, meeting herds of people, hearing and speaking a new language, familiarizing myself with a new culture and geography and transportation system, eating different foods, establishing routines of boiling and filtering water and hand washing clothes, setting up a new bank account and telephone…it was so much novelty coming at me my head was like to burst at times and I had to get it all down  and out of me.

Now, I live in Moldova.  And life is becoming routine.  Funny how three months changes things.

Last Tuesday, I began going to the “office” everyday.  I started Tuesday because Monday was the 21st anniversary of Moldova declaring its independence from Russia and I only worked through Thursday, because Friday is their national language day.

Political/cultural segue – skip if you’re not into history.

Going to the office as a Peace Corps Volunteer is very different from going to the office as an executive administrator, I am finding.  People only darken my doorway to ask, “Ați dori sa mancați?” (Would you like to eat?)  I am not responsible for anything related to day to day operations and – obviously, with my language being as juvenile as it is at this point – am not an abundant source of pertinent information (or gossip, for that matter.)  Other than Ana, my partner, stopping by to struggle through our (pathetic) attempts to plot her management strategies, I am mostly left alone to translate documents, peruse online funding resources, study Romanian, or surf the web as the whim takes me.

The Peace Corps drills into us, over and over and over again, that it will take months and most likely all of our first year to become sufficiently proficient in the language to be of any real use to our partners.  This is the primary reason Peace Corps service lasts for two years and why volunteers who extend to a third year are so valued and effective. Though we accept this conceptually, in practice it is simultaneously anxiety-provoking and stultifying.  Who wants to spend a year confined within a little tower of Babel, unable to begin a satisfying – much less challenging – task because one cannot communicate with one’s compatriots?  There is a buzz of activity and purpose in the air but you cannot participate in or contribute to it because your ears and tongue are not set to the same station.

I think it is doubly hard for Americans, as our culture is built on the precept that activity equals  Purpose and Purpose defines Meaning, from which all notions of success derive.  Sitting at a desk madly trying to imprint the squawking hieroglyphics of a foreign language into one’s reluctant brain does not feed one’s longing for Purpose, let me tell you.  So the most mentally satisfying practice I’ve found at this point is to cultivate an empty mind.  Think about nothing. Or rather, quit thinking about the things that formally filled up one’s brain and open it up to new content.

With the result that I (and most other PCVs here) flee to the comfortable filler of the Internet when the afore-mentioned empty mind’s echoes begin to reverberate too loudly.

Silly but informative segue: OMG!  The wealth of free entertainment available on the internet!!! PCVs and their cohorts are scrappy treasure hunters that regularly unearth and proclaim the bounteous pleasure of sites like Project Free TV, which is currently providing me with every episode of How I Met Your Mother (the Friends of the 21st century.)  Or Grooveshark, where for the first time ever I found an uploaded copy of Buckingham Nicks (orgasm!)  And Brain Pickings, where the inimitable Maria Popova, an Atlantic Montly writer and MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow, curates a delectable sampling of cross-pollinated tidbits from the writings of Anais Nin to the science of Michio Kaku. Or the delightful and stimulating Big Think, where some fascinating thinkers propose tantalizing ideas in a series of video monologues.

Honestly, I think the Peace Corps would be a substantially different experience without access to the Internet.  My fellow PCVs and I talk all the time about our dependency on its encyclopedic information and divertissements.   When one is ready to pull one’s hair out from hearing Romanian ad naseum, there is always English to be heard on the internet.  When one has a need to build a white board from scratch, check the internet.  Question about substitutions for ricotta (impossible to find in Moldova) in lasagna?  It’s on the internet.  Need to translate that indecipherable Russian label on a hygiene product?  Internet. Hopelessly confused by the unfathomable melancholy many Moldovans display for aristocratic and/or authoritarian forms of government? Wait for it…..Internet!

We reluctantly admit that we cannot claim to be having the “authentic Peace Corps experience” that by now has attained mythic status amongst us.  What would it be like to be serving in Thailand, for example, in a mud hut with no electricity?  Or Timbuktu, in a yurt at 40 below?  Or in Birkina Faso, helping to deliver babies with traditional midwives with no plumbing, sanitation, or medical safety nets?  There are PCVs right now living in conditions that far exceed Moldova’s (the ‘Posh Corps’) in hardship, isolation, depravation, and cultural displacement.  Moldova is too much like a younger, poorer, distant cousin of the United States to make it feel as if we’ve been kicked out of our universe.  And we have the internet.

A couple of us were speculating yesterday on why the Peace Corps is still in Moldova.  They feel so close sometimes to having attained a foothold into western-style economic capitalism – see the McMansions and BMWs and Victoria Secret fashions and cell phone towers cluttering the landscape – that we are often puzzled by what the substance of their need might truly be.  One of the answers we posited relies most heavily on the last two of the three main goals of the Peace Corps:

  1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Just by being here, we help foster an important political and cultural dialogue for the Moldovans as they continue to struggle with the lingering, sugar-coated memories of the Soviet system of minimum entitlement while concurrently suffering from democratic capitalism’s imperfect success in bridging economic, social and educational barriers within their country.

And by having access to the internet, and sharing our experiences, perceptions, and thoughts, perhaps we PCVs are contributing to the emerging discussion in American about our hardwired cultural precepts, blindfolded nationalism, and rampant materialism.  And we run across fresh takes on why the juxtaposition of post-soviet mentality with 21st century EU aspirations of consumerism are so confusing, yet potentially stimulating and fruitful.

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic who is a professor at the European Graduate School, International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London, and a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.  He proposes an extremely interesting take on what our global mission should be at this particular point in civilized history.  After reminding us of the horrible failure that communism in practice turned out to be, he turns to the would-be capitalism reformists:

This is why, as I always repeat, with all my sympathy for Occupy Wall Street movement, its result was . . . I call it a Bartleby lesson. Bartleby, of course, Herman Melville’s Bartleby, you know, who always answered with his favorite “I would prefer not to” . . . The message of Occupy Wall Street is, I would prefer not to play the existing game. There is something fundamentally wrong with the system and the existing forms of institutionalized democracy are not strong enough to deal with problems. Beyond this, they don’t have an answer and neither do I. For me, Occupy Wall Street is just a signal. It’s like clearing the table. Time to start thinking…

My advice would be–because I don’t have simple answers… precisely to start thinking. Don’t get caught into this pseudo-activist pressure:”Do something. Let’s do it, and so on”. .. [T]he time is to think. I even provoked some of the leftist friends when I told them that if the famous Marxist formula was, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the time is to change it” . . . thesis 11 . . . , that maybe today we should say, “In the twentieth century, we maybe tried to change the world too quickly. The time is to interpret it again, to start thinking.” (emphasis mine)

And actually, the internet provides a very effective means for sustaining and building this strategy.   Especially for Peace Corps Volunteers.  We have cleared our metaphorical tables, so to speak.  Our minds have become empty.  Now we can begin filling them again with impressions, perceptions, and interpretations formulated through exposure to a people striving to follow our journey, but with a much more complex web of cultural, linguistic, political and economic circumstances to untangle.  (If you actually clicked the link on Moldovan history above, this would make more sense.)

Our dialogue is potentially fruitful and enlightening for both parties.  We can learn from each other’s histories.  Knock ourselves out of repeat mode. Think rather than mindlessly do.

Perhaps by me living and working with Moldovans, and them puzzling over the discordant picture I represent of Western-style success (You left your family why?  They pay you what?), and both sides spreading stories through emails and blogs and Skype sessions and Facebook and Tumblr and tweets, we are – each of us – reframing, reinterpreting, rethinking our world.

And, while we’re at it, that enduring myth of the “Peace Corps experience.”

7 thoughts on “Rethinking the Peace Corps Experience

    1. Nevermind. I just Googled him. Glad to contribute to the expansion of socio-economic iconography…

      Sent from my iPhone


  1. The empty mind is of course a powerful state of mind that makes all things possible. The cradle of true embodied intelligence, creativity and compassion. I cannot wait to see where yours take you….


  2. “For so long I had been preparing to leave overseas, having to think about applications and essays and medical visits and disbursing twenty years’ worth of accumulated possessions and packing clothing and selling the condo and tying up financial matters”….

    Somehow in the editing process this phrase was left out –
    wait for it… wait for it…

    ‘come to terms with 2 or more years of separation from my husband whom I love not nearly as much as he deserves’.
    So there.


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