As part of our close of service process for Peace Corps, we do a COS interview with a staff member that basically asks us to sum up our entire PC experience in a few questions, although you have as much time as you want to answer. I ran into a few Americans on my travels, and they asked me a lot of the same questions. I have a feeling I’m going to be getting a lot more once I get back to the States, so this is an attempt to broadly answer those questions now, and you can ask me more later.
What was it like?
Wow, how do you expect me to answer that question? I hate to say it, but the slogan is right – it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love. It was fantastic, awful, challenging, inspiring, hilarious, and generally overwhelming. Nothing is ever easy, even after two years in the same place with a fairly thorough understanding of the language and cultural expectations, but it is the experience of a lifetime. I’ve done more and learned more in the past 2 years than I ever thought would happen in my entire life. It is so hard, but if you have the patience and determination to stick with it, it is incredibly rewarding.
What was the hardest part?
Can you narrow it down a little bit? It was really hard to live without water for 8 months, but I figured out how to do it so that my life felt normal again after the first two months or so. It was incredibly frustrating that I wasn’t fluent in the language, so I knew people were talking about me – right in front of me – but I didn’t know what they were saying. Stepping in front of a classroom without knowing the language was almost impossible. Overall, though, I think the hardest part for me was living in the fishbowl and dealing with all the cultural differences at the same time. I had zero privacy and everything in my life was available for scrutiny and discussion, which sucks and generally only made me feel incredibly isolated. Finding some kind of balance between acknowledging my cultural background and integrating into a new community was a continuous struggle. I couldn’t make everyone happy all the time, and I often felt uselessly angry when people didn’t acknowledge my efforts but instead criticized me or laughed at my mistakes. That’s an individual process though – you have to figure out what you can put up with, what you can compromise on, and what you absolutely can’t give up. You might find that it’s different than you expected. I never thought I would be such a flexible eater, but when my water went away, it was more important to me that I didn’t have to do dishes than that I could stay within my desired diet plan.
What was it like living there?
Overwhelming at first, but I really loved it. The people were amazing. I lived with the pastor, but the pastor’s family lived in a separate fale in back, while I lived in the church hall. Everything happened at the church hall and people were there all the time (that’s an exaggeration, but not much, especially compared to the standard of privacy in the US). It was really hard to find balance at first, but I had great relationships in my village that really helped me through. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
How is Samoa different from the US?
Samoa seems to be community-centered, whereas the US has a more individual focus. In Samoa, the entire family takes care of each other and provides for each other. This is great because then everybody is always taken care of to some degree, but coming from the US, it is hard to adjust to the idea that “what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is everybody else’s.” It felt a lot more laid-back than the States – there was more flexibility in the routines and daily schedules, and if weather got in the way, then that was no problem (it could either be too hot or too rainy, and I used both excuses many times). Overall, Samoa has a “go with the flow” kind of atmosphere, but it also seems really easy for people to settle with what they have. They can get taro and coconuts from the plantation, and money is always coming in from somewhere, so there isn’t such a pressing need to change anything. From a development perspective, it’s hard to find any reason why people should change their lifestyle if they think they are getting along just fine as they are.
What was the best part?
The people. The relationships I had in my village were by far the most important part of my life in Peace Corps, and they helped me through just about every situation I encountered. My adopted families took such good care of me, and I went to them with every single question, confusion, and problem I had. I’m going to make a huge assumption here and say I had the best village relationships of any PCV in my group. I’m pretty sure it’s true.
What did you learn/how have you changed?
That can get really personal. I’ve learned how to manage a classroom. I’ve learned how to not manage a classroom. I’ve learned that I will never be an English teacher again (hear me out. I discovered this when I started teaching piano. During my piano lessons, I would correct all the little mistakes my students made because I wanted them to get all parts of it correct. I didn’t do that in my English lessons because it was more important to me that my students were trying than that they were getting it right. I was too worried that correcting mistakes would make them insecure and shy. That’s not what a good teacher does. So if I teach again, I’ll stick to piano or astronomy). I think I’ve learned to be patient and flexible. Peace Corps showed me that I never know the answer – even if I think I know what’s happening, and when all is said and done, it actually happened, you never know the answer. Always pay attention, have a million backup plans, and observe what is happening and how. I don’t know how long that lesson will stick around – it’s hard enough to learn, and killer to put into practice. My views on personal relationships have changed – what friendship means, how to ask for help, reciprocity, forgiveness, unconditional love, being a role model, etc. That would take a book to explain, though. I’ve begun to see the importance of finding my own identity and letting that guide me through life. As a PC V in a rural setting, I was out of place all the time, which gave me both freedom and restriction. If I wanted to fit in, I had to be triply concerned with my behavior, appearance, and anything else people could use to make judgments on me. However, I was constantly told that the rules didn’t apply to me because I was a palagi, so if I did or didn’t want to do something, I just had to move past the mental barrier that was blocking my actions. That would also take a book to explain. I like to think I’ve gained a more global perspective, enough life experience for five lifetimes, and a greater understanding of where I come from and my own cultural background. If none of that counts, then at least I’m moderately fluent in Samoan, can get through an entire cup of coffee, am capable of napping on the bus, and my skills at French braiding have upgraded from great to grand master.