The Northern Coast

The Northern Coast
The Northern Coast--photo by Zack Thieman

Friday, April 25, 2014

9 months as a RPCV and working on Goal 3

Even though I've been home for 9 months, I feel that I'm just now starting to get settled in and involved with Goal 3 activities here in the US. (Peace Corps has three goals, and Goal 3 is to help promote understanding of the volunteer's host country to people in the USA.) I will admit, while Goal 3 is an important aspect of being a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, it seems like an extremely daunting task at times. There's a reason we were encouraged to come up with an "elevator speech" about our service, as there is quite a bit of disparity between all of the things one could say about their two-year service and the attention span of those listening. I have often felt I'm unable to paint the full picture (or I paint the completely wrong one) while casually talking about my service. Sadly it isn't uncommon for people to misinterpret my explanations of the conditions I lived in or the realities of life in Peru as things that would mare my experience. This leads them to say things such as, "Jeez, I never want to go there!" or ask, "Man, did you enjoy any of your service?" and the slightly discriminatory but well meaning, "Welcome back to civilization!" Of course this is kind of heartbreaking and frustrating for me, because when I say, "We often didn't have electricity or running water, and many volunteers didn't have running water at all," I didn't mean, "I was living in a hell-hole and it was terrible." I'm just trying to explain that this is the reality of the majority of the world we live in, and the bathroom situation didn't effect how I connected to people or learned to love a culture that wasn't my own. I know everyone is well meaning, I just feel like I'm doing a disservice to Peru when the outcome of my conversation is something like the aforementioned. So, as you can see, Goal 3 can be overwhelming, but the misconceptions about developing countries in the world make it all the more important to talk about and work on.

However, for every 10 people who don't "get it" there is at least one who does. I especially enjoy it when these people pop up in the most random places. Like the stranger at a coffee shop who noticed my Peace Corps patch on my bag and talked to me for 20 minutes, or meeting another RPCV or parent of a RPCV in the choir I joined. I started attending an Advanced Conversation Spanish class at the community college to keep my language abilities up (sadly you can lose a second language pretty quickly without practice). After introducing myself not only did I find out there were two other RPCV's in the class, but my teacher is Peruvian (from Cajamarca, a department right next to Lambayeque where I served) and met her husband while he was serving as one of the first Peace Corps Volunteers in her region in the 60's. I gave her so many hugs, I was so excited! We talked about Peruvian food and customs and she asked me to bring in pictures and things I had brought back to show the class. She possesses the quick and warm acceptance that I came to know from so many Peruvian mothers in my community and of fellow volunteers, and I felt so at home. Meeting her and taking her class once a week has helped me feel so much more connected to Peru, and I love hearing stories from the other RPCV's who served in the 60's in South America.

That is another incredible aspect about being a Peace Corps Volunteer; when you join you become part of a family, a brother/sisterhood, that extends beyond your two year service. Whether you served in Malaysia or Jamaica, in 1962 or 2012, there is a bond, and I am really starting to see that as I meet other RPCV's. Just yesterday I went to a Peace Corps event at Oregon State University that was a "Send-Off" party for invitees entering into service, as well as a chance for applicants, nominees, and people interested to come and learn more about Peace Corps. It was this time three years ago that I was attending events like this before leaving for Peru, all bright eyed and a ball of nerves talking to RPCV's about their service and trying to glean any sort of understanding of what I was getting into from their stories. And now I am one of those RPCV's, trying to give sage advice and a little bit of reality without overwhelming anyone, and maybe romanticizing things a bit. Other RPCV's were there, even other Peru RPCV's. It reminded me how awesome the PC community is and how happy I am that I will always have it.

These chance encounters and finding this community of people has been very comforting, and it may sound ridiculous, but I feel like I'm finally feeling more readjusted to US life. I still dream about Peru often, I'm still the person over-bundled and cold in "warm" temperatures, and Peru is never far from my mind. I hope it never is. But things feel a little easier as Justin and I spend time with friends and family, and work on our first garden together at our house. It probably doesn't hurt that I have finally gotten a job and as of May 5th I will no longer be unemployed! I will be working in admitting at the hospital. It will give me some good office experience in a medical/health setting, as well as opportunities to use my Spanish. Being unemployed for over nine months has been really stressful and maddening, but it has had its benefits and given me time to settle back in.

I'm looking forward to start my first job post-Peace Corps and learn some new skills, and in the not too distant future I'll be celebrating a whole year back home in the US. Hard to believe how the time has passed, and sometimes I feel antsy to return to visit my site, but I know I will get my chance in time. In the past months I have worried a lot about losing touch with the experience and the people involved, but I'm starting to see that things won't fall away and be erased so easily. Hopefully I'll have more opportunities to meet up with other RPCV's in the near future, as well as opportunities to work on Goal 3 to help others understand mi querido Perú. Lucky for me, as far as that is concerned, I will have the rest of my life.