Wednesday, July 25, 2012

There is no perfect volunteer, or, all great thoughts start in the mandi

The first few weeks at permanent site called for a lot of adjustment. Adjusting to a new family, a new town, a school community, weather, language differences, expectations, even readjusting to food all over again. It also means adjusting to a wildly different schedule, with buckets of downtime instead of the break neck speed of training.

At home in the states, tis well known by my family that it takes me a few days to unwind when I go from structured to unstructured. The first day or two at Ocean City every summer sees me being a little frantic, and dare I say guilty, about relaxing. Battling my adorable Type A neuroses about accomplishment and wasting time is hard enough on vacation, and difficult to say the least now that I have a position which calls for a lot of just…hanging out. There were a variety of events at my school the first week at site, which called for me to be awake early, appropriately dressed, and feeling kind of Peace Corps-y, even if a lot of it involved high schoolers taking pictures of me while I sweated profusely (cantik! they insisted), and assuring the teachers that yes, I like spicy food and no, I don’t want to get married in the next two years. I even went to an amusement park with one of the tenth grade classes, which did not feel Peace Corps-y, but at least was a school activity where I was involved (mostly by taking pictures with ever y student).

The second week at permanent site, school was closed for the break between semesters. And that’s when I was presented with the most free time I’ve had in what feels like years. I didn’t have anything to do—my school wouldn’t even make my schedule for teaching until the semester started, so I couldn’t really start to plan ahead for the school year.  I didn’t have a bike yet, so my exploring was limited. I didn’t need to go shopping for anything, and all my clothes were washed. There was little demanded of me, and I immediately felt guilty for having so much free time that I was notefficiently maximizing.

I’m a Peace Corps volunteer, I’d think, looking around at my host family as we communally napped all afternoon on the porch. Why aren’t I coaxing illiterate street urchins into fluent English conversations right now? WHAT AM I ACCOMPLISHING FOR PEACE I AM MOSTLY EATING AND PLAYING BADMINTON WITH MY TWELVE YEAR OLD COUSIN AND LISTENING TO KPOP. I started to feel bad about my service while it had barely started.

Remember when I said that PCVs tend to suffer from comparison anxiety/envy with their fellow volunteers? I understand that a little more, being at permanent site. You’re in a new environment with an unknown structure and your meter for what constitutes a job well done is unformed, so you look to your friends to measure your progress. But in this case, I wasn’t really measuring against my friends. I was measuring against the Perfect Peace Corps Volunteer.

The Perfect Peace Corps Volunteer is a mid to late twenties racially ambiguous woman with dark hair (also the most desired actress stats for TV commercials, in all seriousness. A little Women in the Media knowledge for your day). She wears durable, camping-esque, modestly priced clothes- lots of crew neck tee shirts and cargo shorts and visors and practical shoes (she would not spend $100 on a pair of yoga pants like the author of this blog. or 200.000 Rupiah on neon crocs with her settling in allowance). She probably has these beautiful handmade woven bracelets that a shrunken old woman gave to her on the side of a mountain, that are blessed or charmed or something mystical. She has a beatific smiling face, kind of like a young Mother Theresa or portrait of the Virgin Mary. She is most likely surrounded by children as she does something physical, such as building a clinic out of recycled plastic drinking bottles for women’s pre-natal care. Or harvesting corn. She definitely lives somewhere very remote, and definitely does not have internet access in her house or her village. She is fluent in her host country language and probably several regional dialects. She never needs alone time to decompress and she’s always serving her community. And she’s a complete figment of my imagination.

As I dealt with a bevy of free time and minimal demands of service, I’d bemoan that as I sat on the couch watching Putih Abu-Abu (the Gossip Girl of Indonesia, without any of the debauchery) with my cousins, Perfect Peace Corps Volunteer was out in a field somewhere, planting seedlings with a micro-loan company that supports grassroots educational efforts. Perfect Peace Corps Volunteer would already know her entire extended family’s names, I’d think bitterly as I met yet another distant relative and her brood. Perfect Peace Corps Volunteer doesn’t get stressed out and have to take a nap, I’d guiltily chide myself as I went for an afternoon break to chill out in my room. I kept measuring myself against Perfect Peace Corps Volunteer and feeling more and more overwhelmed about what a lack of impact I was already not having in my community.

Like all great insights, mine came in theshower mandi. I was thinking about how the Perfect Peace Corps Volunteer wouldn’t have any troubles going on radical explorations of her site alone ( I don’t really like to go anywhere alone- notorious for picking up Melissa from her house so we could drive the ten minutes to the mall together instead of just meeting there), when I realized that there is no perfect volunteer. Not my slightly crazy personification of perfection, or any other kind. There was no volunteer before or after me with a perfect service record. So I should stop worrying what the perfect volunteer would do in a given situation, and just be my own self as a volunteer, which is a typically cheerful young woman and an enthusiastically brave eater. I acknowledged to myself that I had taught my first informal English lesson to my neighborhood children, and I had ground whole peanuts into spicy peanut sauce by hand. I loved my host family and my teachers, and we communicated through a variety of languages and gestures every day. I was accomplishing things, I was engaging. I wasn’t a solitary cave beast.

Now, nearly six weeks at permanent site under my belt, I’m hitting a stride with all the downtime. I invent goals for myself (learn to french braid my hair. practice a new yoga position). I read a lot of books. I watch entire seasons of True Blood in a handful of days. I color with my six year old neighbors and learn new card games and supervise them setting off fireworks. I have yet to build an aerodynamic immunization clinic out of palm fronds. But I do teach weekly English lessons on my porch for both my elementary age neighbors, and my junior high neighbors (which are sometimes more rewarding than working at my school- foreshadowing of a future blog post). And I can guarantee every one of those kids can sing the Itsy Bitsy Spider. And that’s what I’m achieving for PEACE.


  1. sartoriallyinclinedpeacecorps posted this