Peace Corps service is a multi-faceted gem. Granted, one of those facets is basically the scene from the hit movie “Bridesmaids” where everyone has terrible diarrhea, except it’s once a month for two years, a gem nonetheless. It’s a complicated and difficult business to explain, what volunteers do and the focus of the work. In my opinion, one of the best ways to describe what being a volunteer is like is through the “Core Expectations for Peace Corps Volunteers.” There are ten core expectations and they are derived from the spirt of the three main goals of Peace Corps as an agency—I hope to later write a post elucidating upon each one.
- Prepare your personal and professional life to make a commitment to serve abroad for a full term of 27 months.
Straightforward enough. Drop everything and live in a developing country for 27 months. Easy. Though this is probably the first thing that gives people halt when considering joining the Peace Corps. For me, at the ripe young age of 24 and just having graduated from university, I didn’t have many arrangements to make; though for others the challenge can be incredibly daunting, especially so if in the middle of a career or with a tenuous family situation.
In many regards 27 months is a very long time. It’s a long time to do anything. Any one thing. But volunteers live in their host country. Many people think of Peace Corps service as putting one’s life on hold, or pause—I prefer to think of it as changing the channel (for all you TV enthusiasts out there). Twenty-seven months, or 820 days, is not a particularly long time. Most people can barely even produce two babies in 27 months!
- Commit to improving the quality of life of the people with whom you live and work and, in doing so, share your skills, adapt them, and learn new skills as needed.
This is the meat of Peace Corps service. It’s what comes to mind when imagining volunteers working in their host country. Well it’s a tad ambitious and a tad vague. As an education volunteer it’s hard to quantify any of the work I’ll do as directly improving anyone’s quality of life. One thing that greenhorn volunteers hear the most from the battle-weary cohort before them and RPCVs is to “forget all expectations and be ready to modify your goals.” Like the title of my favorite Sondre Lerche song, I always plan To be Surprised. Right now my only “goal” is to only be paying a modest bule tax on the fruit I buy at the pasar come the end of my 27 months in Indonesia.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to improve anyone’s quality of life much, but the rest of this expectation rings quite true. I am eager to help my counterparts in any way I can with what skills I have. This falls to things outside of teaching as well. I have recently learned that not many people in my desa know how to swim.I worked as a lifeguard and a swimming instructor for many summers so I have already started arrangements for a swimming club for my school, and some basic water safety lessons for the community. Adapting skills is a matter of survival. Many of the teaching methods I am accustomed to would simply not work in Indonesia. And as far as learning new skills go, every volunteer is expected to learn the language of their host country. Picking up new skills comes with the territory.
- Serve where the Peace Corps asks you to go, under conditions of hardship if necessary, and with the flexibility needed for effective service.
The first part of this expectation isn’t as requisite in the modern era of Peace Corps. Anymore it is possible for applicants to request to serve in a specific country, region, or sector. However, when I applied I opted for the more traditional route and said I could go wherever, work in whatever capacity necessary, and I am quite happy to have turned up in Indonesia.
I find the second part of this expectation to be a bit of a malaprop. “Hardship,” as is known in Peace Corps service, is living as the locals live, and to think of their lives as ones of hardship, to any degree, is a slight. Sure, life in Indonesia may be harder than life in America—I wash my clothes by hand, there’s no air conditioning, I’ve given up on eating around the ants that end up in my food, getting dengue fever is an ever-present possibility—but these are just facts of life in Indonesia. Every place has its difficulties. After all, from what I understand, people in the States sometimes suffer with a poor WiFi connection or endure the difficulty of having their name being misspelled by the barista at Starbucks. These are hardships I can’t imagine having to endure in Indonesia (mostly because there is no WiFi and there are no Starbucks where I live). Not to say that either set of struggles is related in any way, but people will find ways to be happy, sad, annoyed, excited, what have you, no matter their circumstances in life.
As far as flexibility is concerned, yeah, Peace Corps volunteers must be flexible. I’m only a hundred days into my service and I’m so flexible I’ve considered taking up the nickname Gumby.
- Recognize that your successful and sustainable development work is based on the local trust and confidence you build by living in, and respectfully integrating yourself into, your host community and culture.
“Sustainable development” has become a bit of buzzword over the past decade or so, but it’s something that Peace Corps has always emphasized. To come into a place with guns blazing, telling people how they’re doing everything wrong and how they can do it right is a good way to accomplish nothing and make a few enemies in the process, even if one’s suggestions are right and the suggested methods are better. Subtlety, patience, and kindness are key for volunteers.
Imagine if a Martian dropped out of the sky and told you that you should really be making your pancakes in zero-gravity for optimal fluffiness. For one, you would likely have many questions for this Martian that is so acquainted with Earth-breakfast. Secondly, perhaps you like your pancakes exactly the way they are, no need to fix what isn’t broken. Lastly, the available technology for cooking pancakes in zero-gravity is substandard at best. Clearly this Martian is an idiot. Volunteers, are often much like Martians, at least at first.
Ideally the changes and improvements that volunteers bring about during their two years of service will last long after they are gone, but that might not be so easy if the community doesn’t listen in the first place and makes no efforts to participate in the process for improvement. Feed a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man to teach other men how to fish and that’s sustainable development.
- Recognize that you are responsible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for your personal conduct and professional performance.
One of my mother’s favorite phrases of advice to my brother and me growing up was to “live your life like the microphone is always on.” This edict is particularly fitting for Peace Corps service. Being an American in Indonesia opens volunteers up to even closer scrutiny than many other community members. Word-of-mouth travels fast in the village. One off-color remark or cultural misstep will be common desa-knowledge before Maghrib.
Any behavior that is unbecoming of a volunteer, or of any typical community member, could have the adverse effect of harming projects or their sustainability. This can be a taxing requirement of volunteers as maintaining pleasantries can be challenging when answering “mau ke mana?” for the hundredth time in one morning. This is an important expectation though and it is somewhat tied to expectation number nine.
- Engage with host country partners in a spirit of cooperation, mutual learning, and respect.
For the most part, this one is simple and easy to abide. It falls in line with number four and is common sense for any line of work. There are moments, however, where it is not so easy to maintain the tenants of this expectation. Particularly in areas of stark cultural difference that fall into the realm of American moral and ethical considerations.
Indonesians frequently discard their trash by dropping it on the ground. I am pleased, however reluctantly, to say that this behavior is something many volunteers find hard to watch or associate with. Americans, despite what is sometimes suggested otherwise, have great reverence for nature and the environment. I’m not so sure those values exist, at least not in the same capacity, among Indonesians. A common story among volunteers: they were holding a piece of trash, waiting to dispose of it properly, when a friend/counterpart/family member offered to throw it away for them, they take the rubbish, and promptly throw it on the ground.
These are, of course, excellent opportunities to share American values with our host country nationals, but it can be hard to do so in a respectful manner when their actions are something that would beget them much chastisement in the States. Waste disposal, corporal punishment, student-teacher relationships, to name a few, are just some of the areas that create strain for this expectation.
- Work within the rules and regulations of the Peace Corps and the local and national laws of the country where you serve.
Easy. Peace Corps rules and regulations are made clear during preservice training and a more than sufficient primer on relevant local and national laws is given to all trainees as well. Volunteers do not have diplomatic immunity and must behave accordingly.
- Exercise judgment and personal responsibility to protect your health, safety, and well-being and that of others.
Health and safety are big topics during PST. Many hours of training are devoted to instilling volunteers with the knowledge necessary to keep them safe, healthy, sane, and alive. Peace Corps does a great job taking care of volunteers. We’re not put up in five-star hotels or eating peeled grapes; but the Peace Corps staff does everything in their power to make sure we don’t die or fall gravely ill.
Looking out for the well-being of others can be tricky because the number one concern for the Peace Corps is the safety of their volunteers. There are instances, when trying to protect the well-being of a third party, a volunteers own safety could be put at risk. It is made quite clear that no compromises are to be made to personal safety.
- Recognize that you will be perceived, in your host country and community, as a representative of the people, cultures, values, and traditions of the United States of America.
This expectation hopefully sets the tone for the conduct of every volunteer during their service. Many Indonesians have never met an American, and if they have they certainly do not get the opportunity to work with, live with, or sell fruit to one on a regular basis. The interactions I have with people in my desa are likely the only good first-hand knowledge they’ll gain about Americans for, perhaps, many years. Understanding that everything, from behaviors and beliefs to appearance and accent, will color people’s notion of what America and her people are like. Often this extrapolation will be unjust, inaccurate, or inapt, but it’s one that will be made no less.
- Represent responsibly the people, cultures, values, and traditions of your host country and community to people in the United States both during and following your service.
Sharing experiences across cultures is Peace Corps’ bread and butter. There are many ways to accomplish this expectation, I choose the internet. Some volunteers don’t fully engage with this expectation until their service is over. It can be hard to capture the essence of a people in a form that’s conducive for sharing and doesn’t erode away authenticity. Indonesia is far from monochromatic or one-dimensional. Indonesia is as nuanced and diverse as America, in some ways more so. Where America (the USA) has maybe four hundred years of history Indonesia has well over two thousand years and a culture as multifarious as the archipelago itself.