I remember the moment Peace Corps became real for me. The moment it was no longer a far off and unattainable dream. The moment I decided I was really going to apply and pursue this adventure. I was 19, sitting on my bed in the Pension Archodissa in Thassos, Greece. My friends were still on the patio drinking and talking, but I had decided to call it a night, to prepare for the next morning’s cooking and writing workshop.
I sat in my room researching more ways to live abroad and assimilate into new cultures. To live with families and work with locals. To learn what they had to teach, and teach what I had to give. I wanted to continue to grow and become family with people all over the world — just as I had, unexpectedly, in Thassos.
It was in that moment, as I browsed the internet for similar workshops and study abroad experiences, that I returned to the Peace Corps website, something I had been casually stalking on and off since my middle school days. It was then, that I realized I qualified, I could actually do it. I could be a Peace Corps volunteer.
One year later, I sat on a couch at the University of Missouri’s Memorial Union studying with my best friend. I was reading “Monique and the Mango Rains” for my Peace Corps Preparatory class and stopped every paragraph to interrupt my friend’s own studying to rave about my excitement, my plan, the possibilities. I wanted to become a Certified Nurse’s Assistant, become a life guard, and go through wilderness training. I wanted to do everything possible to become an ideal candidate. Peace Corps dreams were running my life.
I’d like to pause to thank my mother for reminding me that I hate blood and all things that have to do with bodily fluids, which deterred me from actually trying to become a CNA.
Luckily, I didn’t need my CNA anyway, or a lifeguard certification, or wilderness training. I was accepted into Peace Corps Indonesia teaching high school English just as I am.
As of today, I have been in the Peace Corps for one year — cheers.
Today, one year ago, my mama brought me to the airport at 5 a.m. It was lightly snowing, and I ate a bagel as she drove. It was the last time I saw snow. It was the last bagel I ate (until I found the motherland of bagels in Bandung last October — blessed.)
When Peace Corps staff first told us we couldn’t leave for Indonesia as scheduled, I was secretly ecstatic. Somehow, I wasn’t too surprised, something like this always happens when you’ve been looking forward to an event for too long. The evil eye was hard at work, and I silently thanked it. It was the perfect excuse I needed to give up, go home, and live a quiet, normal life.
A week later, I was here in Indonesia. The adventure had started and I was trying to mask my terror by being overly enthusiastic and talkative. On the inside, everything I did was wrong. In the beginning, I allowed my extroverted, confident side to take over. Soon, I started to think I wouldn’t make it the full twenty-seven months of Peace Corps.
This has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. I’ve been planning to be a Peace Corps Volunteer forever. But what they didn’t tell me, or what I wouldn’t listen to, in all of the preparatory classes I took and all of the books I read, was how hard Peace Corps is. I was so consumed by what I could do to make myself the ideal candidate, to be accepted, I missed the warning signs — or brushed them away judging others as weak.
Peace Corps is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Every day, I miss my family. My real family. I miss toilet paper; I miss a refrigerator filled with Costco-sized foods; I miss bath tubs and driving down the street. I miss not having to think about whether I have enough money to buy Starbucks; I miss seat belts and snow. I miss things that I do not need, and didn’t think twice about while I was home. Maybe I simply miss the ease of privilege.
I miss these things, but they are not the reason I consider coming home every day. I think about leaving Peace Corps for reasons that I never even thought would exist. For all of my resume building extracurricular activities and classes I took in college, people here simply don’t care, and, sometimes, they don’t want my help. And I have to be okay with that.
It’s hard for me to be okay with that. I’m a fixer, I’m a problem solver. I love helping people, and giving (often unsolicited) advice. Oftentimes, my fellow teachers here are simply content with our students failing their exams, cheating on assignments, or not doing assignments. They grow angry when I propose extra activities that may require extra work.
It’s really hard for me to be okay with that. I’ve had to learn to help in subtle ways and accept the (in my eyes) often lazy education culture in Indonesia. This is what causes my many headaches now. They’re problems I never would have dreamed up on my own while preparing for departure.
The things I was most anxious about when beginning this journey, living with a host family and teaching at a high school level, are actually some of my favorite parts of my life now.
Walking into a stranger’s home and feeling comfortable enough to live there for two years actually made my heartbeat speed up when I originally thought about it. I thought of the people who I have never met, who don’t speak the same language as me, who don’t know me, my life, or my experiences and vice versa, and I shook with anticipation.
How could anyone get passed the awkwardness of moving in with strangers, and not knowing what to say, or how to act?
You do it by embracing the awkward. You say yes to everything and accidentally attend a wedding in a t-shirt and leggings. You try going for a run only to have your new host sister follow you on her motorcycle, not understanding what you’re doing. You break out your hammock for the neighborhood kids to play with, using their laughter and acceptance of you to break the ice. You try, you find your place, and you adapt. You eventually love it.
Without my host families, the first one’s love, acceptance, and patience, and the permanent one’s enthusiasm, curiosity, and relaxed-nature, I wouldn’t have made it this far. I am quite literally a helpless child in Indonesia; a giant American baby who draws attention wherever she goes. Without my host nephew holding my hand in the markets, I surely would have been mugged or scammed already. If it weren’t for my host mom preparing my dinner and telling me to eat, I wouldn’t eat at all. I would literally die, and that’s not an exaggeration (she was visiting her sister in a different city Thursday night and I didn’t eat until 6:30 when she came home because I didn’t know what to do without her. She has me trained very well.)
As for teaching at a high school? My students provide the biggest laughs of my days. I spend every moment possible [probably] annoying them with my presence. They are so encouraging, enthusiastic, and willing to try. Despite the fact that I am closer in age to them than any other teacher at my school (a big concern for me heading into this after teaching elementary school), the students at my school show me their respect and appreciation. Something I never really expected to earn.
Looking back, I was afraid of the easiest parts of Peace Corps, the parts I now love the most. Ah, ignorant, naïve me. I never would have thought to worry about counterparts who don’t seem to want my help, and men on the street who are far too eager to ‘help’ me.
My biggest fears one year ago, are the reason I am still here today. They’re the reason I’m writing this sitting next to my host mom watching Indian soap operas instead of an overpriced coffee shop in Chicago.
Peace Corps is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it has challenged me in ways I’ve never expected, but damn if I don’t find myself randomly smiling at my host family or a goofy student every day here.
For every moment I’ve felt my hands were tied, or a project has been killed because of lack of money/school cooperation, there have been a dozen moments when my kids and host family have taken my breath away.
The moments when my host sister drags me to women’s aerobics, the moments when my Ibu screams at me that I haven’t even enough, the moments when my students beg for extra English Club meetings to compensate for random days off of school.
These are the moments that keep me going.
Occasionally, I search the internet for journalism or publishing jobs back home (good thing there aren’t any.) I dream of what I would be doing right now if I hadn’t joined Peace Corps. I am very aware of the fact that my contract is up and I will be home in 460 days.
But, one year in, I couldn’t imagine my life any other way. The good, the bad, the frustrating, the wonderful, the giggles, and the hyperventilating, I’ll take it all for those remaining days.
I’ve made it 365 and I couldn’t be more grateful to all who have helped me this far. For listening to my frantic phone calls of complaints; for talking me off the edge of early termination; Dad, for the amazing care packages that make me cry with joy and provide more comfort than anything else some days.
Thank you all for the support, encouragement, and confidence.
One year down, one to go. Let the countdown continue.