The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

We’re back at site after a few weeks away including a week at the Mid-Service Conference with the rest of Omnibus 107. While it is always nice to connect with friends, I am very glad to be back home. So glad, in fact, that it makes me wonder why. Perhaps because I just spent an entire week talking about our first year of service or perhaps it is the milestone itself but I am in a contemplative and more critical mood as of late.

Reading this blog you might think that I walk around with rose-tinted glasses. I try to focus on the positive because it helps me when things are challenging. Which is pretty much every day.

It can be overwhelming to live in a culture that is not your own. To have fewer words at your disposal to express yourself. To feel like misunderstandings are personal. Frankly, it can be very difficult to live in poverty and with everything that goes with that: lack of educational opportunities, lack of gender equality, lack of resources, lack of healthcare. I have never lived in a community where I heard about people dying quite so frequently.

It would be easy to fill this blog with complaints as trivial as how often our water or power goes out to as serious as how women are treated in this society. Sometimes, the little things just pile up and it can be hard to feel as inspired. However, as often as I may think about these issues and try to understand them through my own context, often I find that it’s just not that productive to descend down the spiral of negativity. But, I’m human and I admit that it does happen even as I attempt to mitigate it.

As part of our Mid-Service Conference we had to take an online test to determine our top strengths as part of the new Strengths-based approach to training. According to the University of Pennsylvania, my top strengths are:

  1. Appreciation of Beauty

  2. Love of Learning

  3. Creativity & Originality

  4. Curiousity & Interest in the World

  5. Gratitude

I think it’s a pretty accurate list that reflects not just the tools that I use in my work but also the tools I use to cope with my every day reality. I find it interesting that appreciation and gratitude book-end my Top Five. I can’t imagine living and working here (or in any Peace Corps site for that matter) without appreciation and gratitude. It would be a much harder road.

If I got mad every time I was overcharged for something (aka the “Gringo tax”) I would be in a constant state of anger.

If I looked only at what people lack and not what they have to offer, I could not do my work.

If I listened to the man who yelled, “American dogs” at me, Paul, and Sonia walking around Quito a few weeks ago then I would be tempted to go back to the US.

If I took it personally every time I wasn’t called or consulted or kept in the loop, I couldn’t work with my counterparts.

If I got annoyed every time a drunk man whistled, tsk-tsked, or made some stupid comment to me on the street then I wouldn’t want to ever leave the house.

They never said this experience was going to be easy. In fact, Peace Corps has been described as “The hardest job you’ll ever love.” It’s a given that it is going to be tough. In the end, it’s how you react to the experience that is the biggest lesson. There’s nothing like Peace Corps service to bring out a person’s true colors.

Two recent personal stories of Peace Corps volunteers exemplify this.

The first is an article in the Huffington Post entitled, “Peace Corps Guilt” by Esther Katcoff, a PCV in Paragauy. The second is a memoir written by a returned PCV from Ecuador called, The Gringo: A Memoir by J. Grigsby Crawford. (Full disclosure: I didn’t finish reading The Gringo because it was just too painful.)

These two pieces have become pretty controversial in the Peace Corps community. Most likely because each makes broad generalizations not just about the Peace Corps – from its volunteers to its staff to its purpose but also about the communities in which the PCV is serving. You should read each piece to judge the author’s words for yourself but I will share a bit of my perspective since I might know a thing or two about what it’s like to be a PCV.

Esther Katcoff talks about guilt – mostly about what she has in contrast to what is lacking in her “rural-ish urban community in Paraguay.” I think this is a totally normal response and something that I imagine lots of folks may feel who are taken from one resource-rich context and put into a resource-poor one, especially if this is the first time that the volunteer is experiencing this. I didn’t find her article to be all that controversial (except for her last line seemingly composed to induce guilt in the reader) but if you read the comments section or talk to other PCVs and Returned Volunteers you will find a range of reactions. I think that’s natural, too. Each person is going to react differently when they are taken out of their comfort zone.

Guilt itself is not that productive to me. As someone who spent the better part of my first three years of life in a Colombian orphanage and then was adopted into a family in the United States, I have a lot of experience with guilt. Feeling it. Thinking about it. Turning it into something positive.

At it’s worst, guilt can lead to resentment, entitlement, and hopelessness. I prefer to see things now in the context of appreciation and gratitude. I think it’s important to start a dialogue, even just with yourself, about what it means to be a “have” in the world verses a “have-not,” and I appreciate that Esther Katcoff’s article does this. I may not agree with her take on everything but examining our place in the world is important.

Conversely, I can’t say that I appreciated the little that I read of The Gringo: A Memoir. Often, I like to read books from a perspective that is not my own. Usually I will learn something new or see the world from a new perspective. Unfortunately, this memoir is told from the perspective of a young white male who is borderline racist, misogynistic, cynical, entitled, and lacking empathy. I stopped reading it because as much as I could relate to some of the experiences as a PCV in the same country, I couldn’t relate to his conclusions or the way he reacted to things. I’m not saying that every book has to be inspirational but I wasn’t going to be a better person for having read the book.

I could just imagine him sitting in the back row of one of the Training Center classrooms not participating and silently judging everyone while formulating the snarky and dismissive tone of his book in his head. It makes me wonder if he didn’t leave sooner because as miserable as he says he was he thought it made for some good stories for his book.

Here is an excerpt from an Amazon review of the book that I found to be in line with my own thoughts. This is from a person who appears to have read through the whole book.

The majority of this book is borderline racist toward Ecuadorian and the bigotry is unnerving. Would you like an example? “I hated Ecuador – this disgusting, pitiful country that had put me in so much pain. I hated it for what it had done to me in such a short time.” How about another example? “The thought that this country was worthy of receiving my help filled me with sinister and self-loathing laughter.” And another? “I was tired of people asking me why I didn’t have a girlfriend there. I wanted to say it’s because I prefer girls with full sets of teeth or fewer than three children. But I never said any of it.”…Okay, okay, one more: “I was tired of people asking me when I was leaving and then asking why I didn’t stay and live there forever. Have you taken a look around? I wanted to say.”

Please don’t read this book. I wish I hadn’t.

I think the worst part about the book is in reading the comments section I saw quite a few people mention that they now have an unfavorable view of the Peace Corps from reading this book. It’s one thing to whine to friends but it seems like the author was capitalizing on his situation to publish a book and really wasn’t there to either grow as a person or to benefit his host community in a sustainable way. As I said, every volunteer responds differently and there are a diversity of experiences in the Corps. Yet, he could have given a more well-rounded account by including even a little bit of perspective, humility, or gratitude.

Sadly, I don’t think these strengths are in his Top Five.

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2 responses to “The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly”

  1. stonecactuses says :

    I really enjoyed this post Mari. I’m a PCV in Mexico, and I also blog about the PC perks, the funny things, and the challenges of life in another culture. I relate to what you have written about looking at the world with hope and positivism. I too wonder how to share the harder parts of the PC experience with others in a fair way, how best to look at this experience holistically. After reading your post, I must say, “well said!” Keep seeing the world with gratitude for the beauty that exists everywhere!

    • Mari says :

      Thanks so much for your comment! I feel so fortunate that I am serving in the same site with my husband. Still, it is lonely and difficult at times and I can’t imagine how it must feel to serve alone. I really admire the other volunteers who don’t get to serve with someone by their side, although there are always advantages and disadvantages, too. It is tempting to write lots of negative stuff when I’m feeling negative but with a little time and perspective I can usually get back to the positivity. If I couldn’t I don’t think I could continue to serve – I think that is definitely what PC teaches you – to persevere, to be patient, to keep believing that something positive and important will come of your service, and to celebrate the small things! Keep on truckin’ – hope you’re enjoying your service! Take care, Mari

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