Tuesday, February 9, 2010

It’s just what I’m doing

Many people are impressed by Peace Corps Volunteers. Countless times I’ve received some iteration of a stock expression of admiration or wonderment - “That’s incredible,” “You must be an amazing person,” “I wish more people were like you.”

My favorite is “I could never do that.” Yeah, well, maybe that’s true – but I could never be an accountant, and I don’t consider that a particularly extraordinary occupation.

Peace Corps is not noble, and working as a Volunteer is not a noble act. The organization’s stated goals – helping capacitate host country nationals and cross-cultural sharing – are all good. Cultural understanding, in particular, is something that I think is a responsibility for any person with the means to reach it. Care about humanity. It needs your help.

But to connect this job with such an abstract and arguably nonexistent quality as “nobility” is to wear your blinders in public. PCVs are not objectively better than anyone else, and the jobs we do aren’t better or worse than accountancy, fishmongering or taxi-driving.

Firstly, Peace Corps is fraught with political innuendo. It strives to project itself as nonpolitical, but that’s absolutely impossible – after all, this is an organization that partners directly with foreign nations to provide in-country services. It’s inherently political. The more important question is, does Peace Corps intentionally insinuate itself into countries – in a roundabout way, since Peace Corps will not enter a country without an express request – for American political gain, or is it really about service for the sake of service? Maybe I can answer that one in a year.

The most important question is, how do PCVs themselves relate to their host countries and locals? PCVs are the ones who are living out in the community, living with and encountering country nationals every day. And that in itself is lamentably political, because as much as we might try to scrub off outside affiliations and concentrate on our work, we can’t stop being American. So the best we can do is try to be objective about it: when Filipinos ask me questions about the USA, I try to answer honestly. I extrapolate on our subcultures of entitlement, cultural arrogance and willful ignorance, but I also enumerate the freedoms we have which are still absent in many places in the world. I’ve had borderline passionate conversations with my coworkers about American environmental issues, the curbing of supposedly inherent rights, and blind loyalty to a party, an ideal, a brand. And slowly objectivity becomes blatant opinion…

That said, I believe most volunteers are much more interested in doing their jobs and learning about Filipinos than they are in spreading any kind of political agenda. In my experience so far, Peace Corps is low, thank god, on messiahs. Any “saving the world” shtick is a joke within the volunteer circle. Not for everyone; the evangelization of the American gospel hasn’t been eradicated entirely. But for most PCVs, I think, we’re just here doing a job.

And that’s exactly my internal reaction when someone puts Peace Corps on a pedestal. I told a friend recently that I have a stock phrase that goes through my mind whenever I receive unwarranted praise. That phrase is: “It’s just what I’m doing.”

It doesn’t matter if some people wouldn’t be able to follow through with Peace Corps. My ability to deal with some insects, constant heat (accompanied by equally constant whining on my part), food I usually don’t like… that doesn’t mean anything. Teachers in the US put up with things I could never square myself with. In fact, I would be a poor fit for an embarrassingly large portion of American jobs for one reason or another. I would hate being in a position of authority, because I dislike being in charge of others almost as much as I despise being subject to them. The service industry is right out (I’m too irritable), the financial sector would be a disaster (I don’t understand the mysterious ways of money). So why puff up Peace Corps just because it has its own unique challenges?

It’s just what I’m doing. It would be wonderful if I could believe that pure altruism is possible, but I can’t help siding with sociologists who say it isn’t. Whatever sacrifices I’ve had to make in the past year and a half, I feel like – putting aside for the moment any positive impact I may have made on my community – I’ve gotten more than I’ve put in. I’ve learned an awful lot and had many, many experiences I would never have had if I hadn’t decided to apply. It has given me ample opportunities to write about and photograph, which are skills I hope to exploit in my future. Any negative effects my Peace Corps service may have had on my own life, anything I missed out on or lost because of that decision to join its ranks – I can say unhesitatingly that it was worth it and I have no regrets.

But the reason the experience has been so rewarding for me is that I value the things Peace Corps has made accessible: cultural knowledge, new experiences, travel opportunities. All these are very important to me, but I’m not quite so narrow-minded as to assume they’re as important for everyone else. Plenty of people would not get as much out of Peace Corps as I have. I’m doing this job because I want to, not because I have this undeniable urge to sacrifice all the joys of home in the pursuit of making the world a better place. If I didn’t find it rewarding in some way, I wouldn’t be doing it; and so to everyone who doesn’t bother with Peace Corps, which is rather a large majority of the American population, I say: Peace Corps is not inherently better than anything else. For me, it fits well enough. But it’s just what I’m doing.

In addition to my mental reaction to praise, I have a pretty standard verbal one: “Well, I hope I’m helping.” That’s true, and if I left right now, I think I will have had an impact more positive than negative on my community. The problem is, I think sometimes people interpret that phrase as modesty. Embarrassment, perhaps, but modesty it absolutely isn’t.

This is not cynicism on my part. In fact, I think it would be much easier to be cynical if you turned the situation all baliskad (upside-down or backwards): if I did consider my job to be valiant and sacrificial, a selfless act of charity, wouldn’t it be all too easy to view people with more “normal” jobs as nothing but silly, self-possessed scurrying ants? To me, that viewpoint is infinitely more cynical than seeing the discrepancy as nothing more than a personal consideration.

Despite its increasingly modern and even cosmopolitan reality, Peace Corps still seems to have something of that aura of the exotic, the mysterious, even the bohemian about it. On occasion I feel that, and I relish the feeling. And maybe it happens more in other, less developed countries to which Peace Corps sends volunteers – the actualization of that black-and-white mental photograph of a foreign face stoking a gimpy fire outside a thatch hut, so obviously out of place that you can’t help imagining the sheer overwhelming difficulty that face must have in breaking into laughter in the midst of such a grim, unfamiliar environment.

Among the greater community of PCVs, Peace Corps Philippines (and PC Thailand) has a nickname. It’s “Posh Corps.” It’s not true, but sometimes it is.

So throw away your admiration. Don’t tell me I impress you. If you think Peace Corps might be right for you, it may well be, and I'll encourage you unreservedly not to pass up the opportunity; if you’re simply interested, I’ll talk about my experience until your ears bleed. But if you gush, if you tell me I’m noble to be making such terrible sacrifices for the sake of the unenlightened masses (the same masses who have, I am absolutely certain, given me more than I’ve given them), I’ll tell you simply that I hope I’m helping, and before I quickly change the subject, my already well-worn adage will flash through my head:

It’s just what I’m doing.


Anonymous said...

Last night I had a dream and in it, we were just talking, perhaps doing some mundane task as we talked (walking to and from campus, perhaps?) and I woke up missing you profoundly. I know we never did any stereotypical friend things. Really, our friendship consisted of chance encounters at regular intervals, but I valued that just the same. Even two years later, at moments like this morning, I find myself missing that.

In regards to your post, I get just a little bit of that same attitude at times. "Oh, wow. You must be such a wonderful person to be a teacher." Half the time I don't even bother to point out I'm not even hired as one. Same thing with working with autistic students (my current job). They react as if I do it out of saintly devotion. I show up, I do my best to help the student I work with, but a lot of it is simply doing the tasks assigned to me. Its refreshing to read about how you respond. Maybe I can keep that in mind when I face similar situations.

Bryan said...

And that whole "Posh Corps" thing is overblown - I've heard just about every country described that way so the term is basically meaningless. Just as some people are suited for some the challenges of teaching autistic children, some volunteers are suited for walking two miles each way in 120 degree heat to get water from a river, or spending the winter living in a sleeping bag by a gas stove. I served in a country that has a lot more amenities/infrastructure than a lot of African PC countries, yet we lost people left and right for most of the time I was there. Every place, just like every job, has its own unique set of challenges and rewards, and every place has people that are better and worse suited to dealing with those rewards and challenges. I certainly know plenty of volunteers (perhaps myself included) who would go slowly nuts in a nice office job in a quiet American town, but throw us someplace where just getting food is a constant adventure and we've never been happier. It's just a personal thing.

Charlie said...

It's kind of like giving a child rewards for doing things that should be expected - sharing and playing well with others. This is not saying that being a PCV is expected but being a decent person and doing the best with what you have is.

I can take a complement but I can't stand flattery.

It seems your posts are written on principles and that makes them easy to identify with.