PST: a retrospective

Pre service training, or PST, is essentially boot camp for Peace Corps volunteers. Traditionally PST is three months, twelve weeks, in length. Peace Corps Indonesia normally has a ten-week long PST; unfortunately for my cohort (ID10, my “class” of fellow volunteers) our departure from the States was postponed for ten days due to a delay in obtaining visas— a fun and telling welcome to the Peace Corps for sure.

Under normal circumstances our late start would have meant a late finish; however, because Ramadan (a month where it becomes difficult to get much done since most everyone will be fasting all day) would begin the week after we swore-in there wasn’t much room to push PST back. So instead of a shift to the schedule, everything was compressed. We landed in Surabaya in two groups on the 29th and 30th of March and our swearing-in ceremony was the first of June. Barely two months later.

I believe most Peace Corps volunteers, Indonesian ones at least, would say PST was one of the most challenging parts of their service. PST is supposed to endow volunteers with the skills they will need for two years of service. That means grasping the language, becoming acquainted with host country culture and customs, familiarization with Peace Corps policy, understanding safety, security, and health precautions, and of course learning how to best perform our primary assignment duties as secondary education English teachers and teacher trainers.

PST, in one word, is intense. The days are long, there is little to no time for rest, and on top of all the things trainees are supposed to be learning they must adapt to living in a new climate (read: tropical and HOT), with a new family they can barely understand, and attempt to not fall ill with interesting and exciting new illnesses not found in America. It seemed everyday someone else was sick with an exotic ailment.

For a multitude of factors, some of which might have been the hardships of PST, my cohort had six trainees return home to the states, ET (early termination). To ET is to end one’s service early. For every trainee or volunteer who ET’s their reasons are personal, unique, and oftentimes beyond their control. We came to Indonesia as a group of 74, and 68 of us made it to swearing-in. A saddening statistic considering how each of us had been waiting months to come to Indonesia to start this exciting new chapter of our lives. For more information on how/why volunteers ET, and a lot of well-presented statistics, here’s a great weblog post about ETing by a volunteer in Kosovo.

While many volunteers would describe PST in a somewhat traumatizing light, and with less than pleasant colors, I found it to be quite enjoyable. PST was incredibly formative and enlightening. Everyday held something new and interesting, though perhaps not always “good.” PST was a massive departure from what I had been doing in Oklahoma for the weeks before I came to Indonesia (mostly nothing combined with a little work on our family ranch). I cannot think of any time during my life when I have been busier for nearly as long a period of time as PST.

Too little free time and no time to decompress was a recurrent complaint voiced by many of the trainees during our two months in Kediri. Our free time was never something I found to be constraining. I wrote every day during PST, I was able to start and maintain Here to Make Friends, and I spent a decent amount of time with my host family in the evenings and on Sundays. I typically got enough sleep, even though I consistently woke up at four in the morning or earlier, because I was always asleep by nine in the evening. I may not have spent much time with my fellow trainees, but I didn’t make that a priority— and the quality of my social life among other trainees was certainly not something Peace Corps staff would consider important for PST.

The things I believed to be important were understanding and adjusting to Indonesian culture, communicating in Indonesian, and learning how to teach. Between school practicum, English camp, and model school we received plenty of experience teaching. We had approximately 140 hours of Indonesian language classes and over forty hours of our secondary language. I never “studied” the language because, effectively, I was “studying” every time I spoke to an Indonesian. The biggest challenge, and also the most rewarding one to succeed in, was adapting to and understanding Indonesian culture.

I am a big fan of analogies.  A good analogy binds together the components of a complicated concept or idea like glue (simile). Good analogies are the mementos or souvenirs that are easily taken away from their place or origin and passed on to others (metaphor). Now, bear with me here because this might be a bumpy ride as I walk you through my favorite analogy that I oft pondered during my time in Kediri.

Peace Corps trainees, being Americans, are like star shapes. Imagine a star shaped cookie, if you will. Indonesia is a land of triangular spaces and Indonesians are triangles. For the sake of my analogy, neither of these shapes are superior to the other, they’re both equivalent in terms of value. Now take your star shaped cookie and try to place it into a triangularly shaped cookie cutter of similar height. There are large portions of the star that will fit, but there are parts that won’t.

This little thought experiment is one I often mulled over when there were aspects of my American culture I needed to let go of—using toilet paper, being very independent, eating lots of sandwiches. Those things were parts of the star that had to be excised. When faced with aspects of Indonesian culture that were not present in America, i.e. eating rice for every meal, being asked about my religion/marital status/age, being extremely indirect, I had to find ways to integrate those things into the star-shape.

It's Ramadan!
Clearly I have too much free time (it’s Ramadan) since I spent about an hour creating this GIF that illustrates my metaphor

This little analogy becomes even more fun—as fun as any analogy can be—when one takes into consideration the material composition of the star that is trying to fit into a triangular space. A star made of Jell-O™ will have a much easier time becoming a triangle than a star made of granite would. It is this analogy I think of when someone returns. Maybe there was something they couldn’t live without, or something that they couldn’t live with, so they go home. Of course, the real reasons people choose to ET are infinitely nuanced and multi-faceted, but I like my analogies.

Over the course of PST I came to this analogy many times. It didn’t make any of the changes I had to make easier, but by visualizing the things I was letting go of and the things I was accepting as vital to finding my place in a new culture, I found the process to be more rewarding. And even though I miss my star-shaped American life sometimes, being a triangle isn’t too bad either.

My original intent for writing this piece was to give some advice about surviving PST to the next cohort of Indonesian Peace Corps Volunteers, ID11, but everyone handles PST differently, and beyond “roll with the punches,” I can’t really offer any great words of wisdom. Though there are lots of other volunteers who do try to give advice; so if you’re into that then I’d recommend reading what they’ve written.

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