There are pros and cons to every site volunteers are assigned to serve in throughout Peace Corps worldwide. Serving at a second (or third) generation site is no different; however, it comes with a bundle of challenges I never would have thought to expect.
When I taught in Korea, I was not a second or third site, but rather the seventh teacher to be assigned to Yangsin Elementary School and live in the same apartment. I had an amazing experience with the students and faculty treating me as an individual and very rarely comparing me to my predecessors. Perhaps because there had simply been so many of us in the past decade, they were just used to treating us as individuals.
Because of this great experience, when Peace Corps staff asked me during Pre-Service Training if I would mind working at a second gen site, I immediately replied not at all; knowing I had done it before, and wanting to be as flexible as possible.
What I didn’t realize is that moment fused my experience in Peace Corps with that of another, Miss Makayla Harrelson AKA my apparent alter ego.
From the moment I first visited Panawangan, I was mistaken for Makayla. Village leaders, the educational board of Ciamis, police officers, restaurant owners, even random bus drivers, all began calling me Makayla. Never mind the fact that Makayla was blonde and blue eyes and I have dark, curly hair and brown eyes. Apparently, we were one in the same.
I made a joke out of this at first, comparing my counterpart’s mistake to my own situation:
How many Indonesian men have I met this week? Yet I still call you Pak Wawan, not Pak Basuki!
Throughout the week of my visit, all three of my counterparts continued to call me Makayla, but began catching themselves after I corrected them (probably too sternly) on the morning of the third day.
When joking didn’t work, I tried explaining that it was hurtful, isolating, and even prejudice to be called by the name of someone who was here before me simply because she was also “white.”
Once I moved to site permanently, the name slips mostly stopped. Occasionally, a bus driver will try to drop me off at Makayla’s old home and think I’m lost if I refuse to get out, but that’s usually all.
I live with a different host family, in a different village, from where Makayla lived, which helps a lot. To my family, I am the volunteer, they very briefly knew of Makayla from seeing her to walk to school, so they don’t confuse or compare us.
After teaching in Panawangan for nine months, a certain administrator at my school “jokingly” called me Makayla, knowing it was a sure-fire way of making me turn red with anger and frustration, as another teacher at the school took photos and the others laughed (this was probably my worst experience at school and resulted in my Regional Manager/ Super Hero stepping in.)
I find myself frustrated, annoyed, and bewildered in these situations. Wondering how hard it is remember one name, as I struggle to learn two languages to assimilate with my community.
Nevertheless, having a second gen site has major perks.
Not only were students and teachers at my school accustomed to interacting with a foreigner, they were generally bored of taking photos because they had (seemingly) filled their quota with Makayla (thanks girl!)
My counterparts also were very aware of Peace Corps policies and preferences, so they knew that they were required to attend class with me, as well as lesson plan beforehand, and when it was time for class, it’s time for class. No jam karet (rubber time) in Panawangan, Americans are prompt.
Another perk, that I struggled with a bit at first, is that people tend to leave me alone when I’m busy. I am a person that has to remain busy to remain functioning. I have a hard time staring at my phone or into space while not in class, so I generally always have a book, journal, or my laptop with me in the teacher’s lounge. Instead of constantly sticking their faces in what I’m doing, my fellow teachers tend to leave me alone while I’m working.
I’m told this is because Makayla was far more reserved than myself. Again, thanks girl!
The only reason I struggled with this in the beginning was because it created the illusion that people at school did not want to talk to me or interact with me at all. They’ve since learned how talkative I am as long as I don’t have writing/lesson planning tunnel vision, and frequently invite me to their homes, the canteen, and holidays. But it took them some time to get there, they didn’t crowd me when I first arrived, I was given space because it’s what Makayla liked.
All these positive and negative aspects may overlap with first generation schools as well, I realize that, but without a doubt, the best part of being at a second gen site is my mentor herself — Makayla. It’s completely unique getting to ask questions and advice to someone in whose shoes you are now walking and, without Makayla, I may not have been brave enough to return to Panawangan after my initial visit.
After the visit, I bombarded her with messages asking for tips and advice and she was golden enough to humor me. She told me about her own experiences without trying to sway me to her opinions, gave me tips on teachers at school who I could become friends and allies with, where to travel around Ciamis, and even what restaurants to visit in the big city of Bandung as well as how to get there and how much I should be paying for such a bus ride without getting scammed.
Makayla was my Fairy-Corps-Mother, and I am forever grateful for the chance to continue her work and have her always fist pumping in my corner, understanding completely because she is the one other person on this planet who has been through (nearly) the exact same thing as myself having lived in Panawangan for a year too.
*Side note: We still have never met each other in person, yet she is a huge part of my life and Peace Corps experience. Makayla is now enjoying her post-Peace Corps life living it up in her home state of North Carolina.