What do you think of when you hear the words, Peace Corps?
Do you think of a crazy adventure? Do you think of amazing life lessons that can only be learned out there? Do you imagine new foods, breath-taking scenery, or tribal dances around bonfires?
From the outside looking in, the Peace Corps is an exclusive club filled with individuals brave enough and bold enough to take on a challenge that will change their lives forever. Volunteers are dedicated, selfless, and kind-hearted. From the outside, they are hardcore, they beat the odds, and they do things that the common folk could never dream of doing. Volunteers will change the world.
The view from this side, however, is quite different.
From the inside looking out, we’re tired, sweaty, covered in mysterious rashes or bug bites, and are used to feeling out of place or being stared at. Our clothes have stains and holes, finding a few ants in our food doesn’t irk us, and we’re experts at taking bucket baths. We understand how tiresome laundry is, how a care package can make or break the day, and we will never again underestimate a good cup of coffee or a slice of pizza.
From this side, your first world problems don’t concern us. (Your A/C is broken? Oh how tragic.) Advertisements for fast food and Facebook images of your dinner infuriate us. And call me a hater, but I sure as hell don’t want to see how cute you look in that outfit, or how hard you worked in the gym this morning. On second thought, I don’t think anyone does.
When I joined the Peace Corps, I envisioned an idea of what service would be like. It’s the same perspective that you, my readers, have. Throughout our ten weeks of training, as we began to make our adjustments and adaptations, we began see the Peace Corps differently. We were on the outside before, and now, we were moving to the inside.
I’ve been a volunteer for three months, and have been on island for a little over five. As someone who is officially “on the inside,” my perspective on the outside world (the life I left behind) is beginning to shift.
I like to think of it as looking through a rose-tinted window, aka: my computer screen. On one side of this window is you, a non-PCV, surrounded by everything that is familiar. You have your modern conveniences, friends and family at your fingertips, and you may even be a big shot in your law school class or at work.
But on my side, I live in a world where nothing makes sense. I am an outsider; judged and criticized by the very same people I’m trying to integrate with. I feel embarrassed walking past a shop, and feeling everyone’s eyes on me. On a regular basis, I ask my host mother questions that make me feel spoiled and elitist from having been from America in the first place. Questions like, how do I clean this toilet? Or, my hair clogged the shower drain. How can I unclog it?
From the inside, my only glimpse into the outside is what you post online or supply in an email. As I battle with feelings of insecurity, I watch you get married, pass your Bar Exams, or move into your new apartments. I get to hear your thoughts on the latest blockbuster film that I won’t get to see, and my mouth waters over images of your dessert or iced coffee. And because all these things remind me of how out-of-place I feel, I end up resenting your happiness.
A disconnect is occurring.
But on this side, I find comfort in the shared misery of other volunteers. Simultaneously, we also find joy in each other’s accomplishments. In the Peace Corps, we call these small wins, and from the inside, we understand how important they are. We learn how to share ideas, support each other when in need, and lend a hand where applicable. We will never judge each other’s body odor, or how long it’s been since we last shaved or showered. Most importantly, a fellow PCV understands why your diet consists of cinnamon rolls and mac & cheese, but will also understand why you refuse to share any of the food you received in your latest care package.
On this side, we stick together. PC training teaches us that we’ll encounter hardships, and that our friends and family might not always understand. This much is true. Training also warned about the inevitable divide that would occur between us, and those we left back at home. While I was still on the outside, I didn’t understand what they meant by that, but now that I’m on the inside, I get it.
The paradigm has shifted. I can’t say that Peace Corps isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (because that simply isn’t true), but I can say it isn’t what I expected. I came into this with certain expectations that feel as though they haven’t been met, but in some strange, paradoxical way, they have. My new world is crazy and it doesn’t make sense, and I both love and hate it. I want to go home every day, but I wouldn’t dream of leaving.
Try to explain these things to your friends back home, and they think you’re losing it. A helpful, empathetic friend might even try to give you advice. But the truth is they don’t understand. How could they? They aren’t where I am. I’ve crossed the threshold. I’ve moved over the line. I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer, and now that I’m on the inside, I finally understand what that means.
“From the outside looking in, you could never understand it. But from the inside looking out, we could never explain it.”