I really did join the Peace Corps while visions of thatched mud huts and goats eating tin-cans danced in my head. I was rearin’ to head off to ankle-length skirts and no make-up. I was hoping for interesting photo-ops (“Here’s me milking a yak!” “Another picture of my mosquito-net protected hammock bed!”) and gross-out stories (“Well, the monkey brains really were tastier than the grub!”) I wanted to come back to the States after two years with my tales of discomfort and stoicism-in-the-face-of-privation ready like a bright shiny badge pinned to my chest.
Instead, I came to Ukraine. There aren’t naked round bellied children playing in garbage dumps. All of my students get enough to eat. I have electricity and plumbing and INTERNET. I can buy shampoo and q-tips. In some stores I can even get brands I recognize.
I feel like a fraud sometimes, when people from home congratulate me, thank me for what I’m doing. I want to shout back “Don’t you realize! This isn’t that hard! I’m not in Africa!” It’s as if my experience isn’t as worthwhile because I don’t have to deal with as many hassles just to survive.
At the end of training all the trainees took a mental health questionnaire. We were meant to check off which factors had contributed to stress/unhappiness in our lives so far. Along with the expected “Missing family and Friends” and “Cultural Differences” was the seemingly ridiculous “I’m not suffering enough.”
I laughed then. Now, 13 months in, I’m glad I saw that check-box, and know I’m not alone in these feelings of “is this really it? Where’s the meat?”
My embarrassingly orientalist ideas have died pitiful little deaths. There will be no headdress wearing in my near future. I’m not going to get to morph into some sort of Zen hippie with two years of impressively fantastic stories about polygamy or grass skirts. And really, I’ve come to respect that that’s not what makes up this Peace Corps experience.
Another volunteer, who had worked in Bangladesh until being forced to evacuate, kind of bashed me over the head with reality. In her previous service, EVERY DAY was a struggle to just keep herself going. All of the aspects that seem adventurous and exotic really served only as a barrier to what we’re really here to do: work. When you’re so concentrated on yourself, she said, on getting yourself up and about and through the day, you have much less time/energy/optimism/LIFE to spare for the job you’re doing.
The focus in Ukraine is different, centered much more on projects and goals rather than survival. I’m sure Peace Corps does good work in LDCs. I’m also kind of glad shallow me didn’t end up somewhere I could so easily leave the real Point Of It All unexamined. Props to Peace Corps, for country placement.
Of course, if you want to fund my African Safari Vacation I am SO, SO GAME. Especially if I get to wear one of those great elephant-hunter hats.