Thursday, April 2, 2015

Endings and beginnings

My time in rural Thailand has come to an end after 27 months of service as a Peace Corps volunteer.  It’s been an experience that’s impossible to sum up in one sentence, one paragraph or one blog post.  I could talk for days about the last 2 years of my life and still have plenty more to say.  I'm heading back to America and the familiar mix of excitement and trepidation are constantly bombarding me with expectations and questions. I’ve explained my role as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand many, many times, both in complicated English and simple Thai.  My answer varies depending on the audience (and the language).  My general, vague answer is that I’m a youth development volunteer and I teach life skills to kids at schools in a rural Thai community.  It sounds meaningful and productive and usually satisfies the requirements of the depth of many conversations.  While that explanation is perfectly true and a big part of what I came here to do, my real life, day to day experience has been everything but that.  The ‘Youth Development’ program in Thailand started with my group and no one – volunteers, PC staff, Thai communities – knew what to expect (or what we were doing, really).  I’d like to be able to say that, two years in, we’ve figured it out and accomplished a lot along the way.  We've certainly accomplished things, but we're still figuring things out, and I'm still explaining to everyone along the way that I'm not here to teach English.  I’ve spent a lot of time convincing people why I have absolutely no business teaching English here (or anywhere).  My community is still not convinced, and I think they still wonder why I wouldn’t just sit in the classroom and teach English to every grade, every day of the week (I did that once and it was beyond exhausting).  My time here as been spent, in large part, hanging out in my community, having conversations with anyone willing to struggle through my language blunders, watching things happen and participating when I can.  I’ve spent my evenings at the local market with my host mom, selling fruit and listening to the local gossip and goings-on in the community, taking in what I could understand of the local dialect.  I’ve spent days at a school waiting to do afternoon activities with a group of kids that only sometimes happened.  I’ve exchanged American culture with Thai kids and vice versa.  I’ve fumbled through games with a group of kids who laugh at my accent and tease me in the local dialect.  I’ve had simple but meaningful conversations with someone who stopped me walking down the street to ask where I was going.  I’ve shared meals with too many people to count.  I’ve cooked brownies in a rice cooker and shared them with teachers who mixed them in with their rice and veggies because they were 'too sweet'.  I’ve struggled through conversations that were nothing but confusing and went absolutely nowhere.  I’ve taken pictures with countless Thai people around the country, both those I know well and a lot of total strangers.  I've spent time reveling in the simplicity of life here and enjoying my laid back, very flexible schedule.  I've experienced the entire spectrum of human emotion, sometimes on a daily basis.

The short version of why I joined PC is because I wanted to help people, travel and experience life in another culture, and my view of PC was that it provided these opportunities in the form of a very unique experience.  I came to provide help to people who wanted it, and to use the skills and experiences that I have to bring something special to a community of people who were open to what I had to offer.

Peace Corps is often an exercise in managing expectations, particularly when it comes to the ones we have about our service compared to the reality of what service really is all about.  We’re told to come into this experience with no expectations, but in reality we all have ideas and preconceived notions about at least some part of our service – what our community will be like, what we’re going to do, how people will view us, how we’ll respond in certain situations, what we will and won’t do (or eat), how we’ll grow and change, what we’ll do in our free time, and what we’ll accomplish.  The expectations we have, especially about what we’ll accomplish during our service, change many times throughout two years.  My expectations about my accomplishments at my site have fluctuated with almost the same frequency as my emotions throughout this experience, but so have my definitions of what I consider an accomplishment.

As I finished up my 2 years of service in this rural Thai community, I couldn't help but wonder if I’d really done anything.  The lofty goals I created when I first arrived at sight were still mostly unaccomplished when I left.  I don’t have much to present when it comes to tangible successes or results to show the effect of my work here, and without that it’s hard to tell people about what I’ve done without simply using the ambiguous, general description I provided earlier.  While the broad, overarching goal was to teach ‘life skills’ to kids in my community, the schedule of my daily life here has looked sparse and sometimes chaotic, without any real 'projects'. 

I'd never been too sure of my post-Peace Corps plans, and I assumed when I left 2 years ago that when I was finished with my 27 months of service I would return to Chicago and pick up where I left off.  A lot has changed since then - my perspective, my goals, my relationships, my whole life - and I've spent a lot of time thinking about what comes next.  Despite all the frustrations I've experienced in the last two years, I've gained and grown a lot from this service.  I speak a new language and am intimately familiar with a culture that is in every way foreign to everything I've ever known.  In an effort to use what I've learned and build on everything I've done in Thailand so far, I'm extending my service in Thailand for one more year.  I've moved to southern Thailand to do youth development projects at a youth detention center and a small school in a Muslim community.  I have two years of Thailand under my belt that includes language skills and an understanding of the culture that only comes with time.  I'm looking forward to using what I've gained in the last two years to work toward a productive and meaningful third year project.