Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Public Discourse

One of my favorite “extra curricular” activities in PC is the book club our Administrative Officer hosts once a month (sometimes we stay with other PCVs, but usually it is at her house). It’s an overnight deal, so we all pick a book, read, and discuss over dinner, then enjoy breakfast together the next day. The last book we read was “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” and accurately subtitled “a memoir in books.” It is the story of a female professor leading a secret book club that reads Western literature during the Islamic revolution in Iran. The theme of the book was public discourse – telling stories. I don’t have a copy of it with me, so I can’t accurately quote the book, but there are several instances when she says that only by sharing our personal stories and experiences with others do they really seem to come true.

I’ve been pondering this idea a lot and how it relates to PC service, and I’ve decided public discourse plays a role in two different manners. First, public discourse plays a very important role within the PCV community. Second, there is the public discourse from the individual PCV to broader audiences, which can include the host village, other PCVs, and the international community (although this is generally the home-based US audience).

(Just a note for this paragraph - I know I don't speak for everybody here, but having shared discourse with others, I know I'm not the only one who thinks this way.)The reason I find myself thinking so much about public discourse within the PCV group setting is because we just finished our early service conference. After not seeing the entire group together since December (5 months), it was almost weird to see everybody in the same room. There have been several gatherings between December and now, but there is always someone missing. I am usually one of the quieter people in group settings and tend to sit back and observe interactions. Within the PCV community, I think there is an underlying competition to see who has the “most Peace Corps experience,” the best teaching experience, the simplest lifestyle, etc. I don’t think it is genuine competition on the part of PCVs, but our experiences are all so different that we need to tell people what makes us special, which can result in unintentional competition. You can also tell what aspects of PC service people focus on and want to perpetuate by the stories they share. I hesitate to make that statement though, since it goes either way for me. Sometimes I share things because I want everyone to know about it, or sometimes I share things in the hope that making it public will relieve me of the thought. Most of my stories focus on my lack of water, many people talk about the adorable pain-in-the-neck things their students do, and some people can’t stop complaining about their living situation. The things you talk about are the things you want other people to know, and by sharing them, you continue their existence. This is difficult because there is also an unstated understanding that all of us (or at least 18 out of 20 of us according to our personal and professional rollercoasters) are having a difficult time right now and that focusing too much on stories of extremes (best/worst moment) makes us all feel inadequate, unqualified, and sometimes downright hopeless. Personal stories can and must be shared with each other, but only within an acceptable range of experiences. (On a side note, I’ve starting noticing the layers of communication a lot more since coming to Samoa because it is so much a part of the culture here. I think this is true of the US too, but the layers of surface conversation, sub-context, and unstated agreements and the “hidden” truth seem more regular yet more discernible in Samoa. Or maybe it’s just because I’ve been paying more attention.) Sometimes you get into the question of those who overshare personal experiences, who seek to confirm their existence by talking about every last detail of their life. The problem with oversharing is that it tends to fall on deaf ears, which creates a sort of endless cycle because sharing comes from a desire to be noticed, and sometimes the more you share, the less notice people take. All public discourse seeks an audience, so what happens to public discourse that goes unrecognized?

Discourse from the individual to a wider audience is a personal topic, so I can only speak for myself. I have noticed that since coming to Samoa, I have felt an almost urgent need to keep in touch with people. I never made much effort at communicating with others when I was in the US. I sent e-mails all the time for my job and various other activities, but my cell phone was only used as needed (generally to make and confirm plans), and I seldom wrote letters. In Samoa, I use my cell phone to have conversations with other people, which is a novel concept for me. I text the other people in my group to see what they are up to (because it’s cheaper than calling), and I make 37 minute phone calls to my sister or parents every other week to keep in touch. I don’t write letters constantly, but my overall output is significantly higher than it ever was in the States. E-mails aren’t as consistent, but I do my best to keep people updated. Facebook is still the same as ever – I hardly use it, but like to post pictures, and now I use it to keep people updated when I post a new blog. Keeping a blog is also new for me. It feels much more vital to initiate communication and keep in touch now that I don’t have easy access to people. My life and experiences are no longer easily accessible to those around me, and it feels much more difficult to convey my experiences to those who are not here. Words and pictures are good for capturing some of my experience, but sometimes they are frustratingly inadequate. I even find it difficult to convey my situation to other PC people occasionally. In both good and bad ways, some things are just absolutely beyond description.

One of the things that was emphasized in the INVST community leadership program I did in college was talking about your experiences. It’s the same as the concept of raising awareness to help solve an issue. People don’t always know what’s going on unless you tell them, so it’s important to tell others about the things you are interested in and care about. I understand that I have a fairly limited impact – I have a small but loyal blog following of some family and friends, but they are also the people I write letters to and talk to on the phone. I’m not looking to change the world through my blog – not only do I not have the resources to do so while in Samoa, but that is also not my main goal in doing PC. But I feel like I am living a fairly interesting life, and I want people to know that I am still accessible while so far away. I have said it before and I will say it again, probably until it becomes my mantra – humans are social creatures and we need other people. We need to be around other people and we need to have meaningful relationships with other people. More relationships creates more complications, but that’s just part of the human condition. Public discourse is therefore a necessary aspect of life and sharing stories does in a way help them come true.

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