Being in the Peace Corps isn’t easy. I think I’ve made that clear before. But I mention this because the difficulties which volunteers go through are often well-documented and known beforehand. Despite being aware of many of the challenges we’ll face many volunteers still chose to end their service early or ET (early terminate). Twelve, of the original seventy-four in my group of volunteers, have returned home to America. Sixteen percent, and we’ve only been in Indonesia for six months. The reasons why people leave are nuanced and intricate, but no one left because they were having too much fun.
Peace Corps, the agency, knows our twenty-seven months of service will be difficult, they’ve been sending Americans to work abroad like this for well over half a century. Certainly enough time to compile a sufficient dataset to make generalized predictions about a volunteer’s service. One of the ways Peace Corps has used their years of monitoring and evaluation is to create a very useful chart which depicts some of the highs and lows of service.
It’s not a difficult chart to read. However, despite the fact that I have seen this chart, and discussed its various implications, numerous times throughout preservice training I was still quite surprised to find myself in the bottom of that slump around the six-month mark.
When I got to site I had a novel idea about trying to capture the story the aforementioned chart portrays using my own experiences. I write in a journal just about every day and I had decided to, at the end of each day, pick a number from one to ten in order to grade the quality of each day. A one for an awful day and a ten for an excellent day. I quickly abandoned this plan.
It became apparent to me that a single number is not a sufficient metric with which to gauge the quality of a day. Most of my days would fluctuate between the better and worse ends of my scale several times. Trying to assign a number, even an average, to a single day didn’t seem expressive enough of how that day actually was. A good day was just a day where I focused more on the good things rather than the bad ones, and a bad day a day where I dwelled more on the bad things than the good ones.
As my second month at site came to a close I found myself focusing more on the bad parts of my days rather than the good ones. This also happened to be around the time my beloved weblog saw an abrupt drop-off of updates. I still wrote, just not for Here to Make Friends. Posting new updates, and doing just about anything productive, suddenly became much less appealing
I had been reading about two books a week, studying for the GRE (an exam I plan on taking sometime in the next two years) four hours a day, writing for H2MF, practicing my Indonesian, creating lesson plans, and occasionally I would even go for a run or do a pushup. I was very pleased with the level of productivity I had sustained following PST.
Luckily Peace Corps provides us with a couple of acronyms to help volunteers through times of struggle.
LIMB- to describe the bad times
I don’t like the introvert-extrovert dichotomy but if I had to place myself in one of those two camps I would be on the introvert side. I like to pass time with people I already know and am close with. Spending time with people I don’t know very well is exhausting more than anything else. I am still relatively new to my community and after a day with a lot of interaction with locals I prefer to retreat to the solitude of my room rather than hang out with others.
Lonely and isolated are similar, though I don’t think they encompass the same feeling. While I can’t say I felt very lonely I do believe isolated is a much more salient term to describe my time at site up until now. I mentioned how I like spending time with the right kinds of people, the problem here is that finding people like that is extremely difficult. There are so many barriers to effective communication with people that it makes having a conversation beyond shallow subjects difficult. Living in another culture, speaking another language, being the only American around for miles and miles can absolutely feel isolating.
I don’t think I was miserable though I was probably pretty close. I never gave any serious thought to ETing, but I did frequently ask myself why I came to Indonesia, why I thought I could teach, why I was failing at integrating into my community, why I joined the Peace Corps and answered each of those question from a very negative perspective.
Somehow, yes. I was very active my first two months, then, without much warning, the things I had been occupying my time with became less important to me and I just stopped doing them. I am only just now getting back into the good habits which had come so easily before. There is a lot of downtime which, unless planned for wisely, can lead to a vicious cycle of moving from one point of LIMB to another. Halfway into July, a month and a half at site, school started. After a morning of sitting around at my school I would come home without the energy to do much of anything other than lay on the floor of my room and listen to music.
EPIC- to describe the better times
It has been awhile since we went over these acronyms and my memory of them is a little hazy—for some reason I didn’t think this would be the most important session. From what I recall, to feel empowered at site a volunteer must feel in control, capable, and fulfilled. Well I don’t yet feel like any of those things. I eat whatever my host family prepares at whatever time they prepare it. In America I was pretty particular about what I ate, not a picky eater, but I just liked to be in control of what I ate. I don’t have that luxury here. Indonesian schools are still throwing me for a loop occasionally, and I’m doing my best to adapt. From my counterpart not showing up because there is a possession at school, or not being able to go to class because we have a meeting with the local ministry of education, it can be hard to feel in control. I don’t think I am quite capable yet and that’s probably more a function of how I have very little teaching experience. As for fulfillment, I don’t think that will come until the first two do.
I feel very safe in my community. I have had no safety or security concerns, but I have it easy. As a six foot one male I don’t think many people are eager to bother me. This aspect of EPIC can be harder to find for the female volunteers.
I am becoming more familiar with my community but nowhere near as integrated as I should be. This is perhaps my greatest shortcoming so far. I have a tendency to be passive when it comes to integrating into a new community. I will not actively seek out events and opportunities for me to interact with locals. Rather, I prefer to wait and be invited somewhere instead of just tagging along and wedging myself into existing groups.
I think the last part of the EPIC acronym was intended to suggest connecting with other volunteers. And I can say that this part of the acronym has been much easier than the other three. I feel very close with many of other volunteers in Indonesia. Sharing a common perspective and many experiences is an excellent mortar with which to build long-lasting relationships.
Going back through my journal, which I have always maintained as a dry and rather disinterested recollection of the events which occur throughout a particular day, it is hard for me to determine why I went through several weeks where I was feeling more “LIMB” than “EPIC.” I suppose the string of bad weeks was when I focused more on the negative parts of my time here than the positive ones. Why this sudden shift in outlook, I don’t know. I suppose it’s just part of being human and the fickle nature of emotion. Regardless of the exact cause I am grateful to have had a chart that validated how I felt.