Since writing Postcards From Cambodia for the past year and a half, I have received questions from readers about Peace Corps service. Particularly from those over 50 who are curious, perhaps entertaining the idea of signing up. Here’s a compilation of a few questions with my answers du jour. It’s not that I am ambivalent, it’s that the interpretive dance around each one changes. Daily.
What does the Peace Corps need to fulfill its mission?
Three goals: First, to provide the host nation with trained men and women. For Cambodia that means health care educators and English teachers. In other countries that might be expertise in business or agriculture, as well. The second goal is to promote understanding of America to the people of the country served. That part of the job is 24/7. As a PCV you represent America in the classroom when you teach and on the street when you say hello. The third goal is this—what I am doing right here: Talking about Cambodia and my experience with my fellow Americans; showing pictures of my life in another part of the world.
Is it about skill set?
Curiously, not so much. Most PCVs have just completed college. Some have limited travel experience. The Peace Corps probably has a more profound effect on them than on the people they serve. The ability to adapt is the most essential skill. To be able to make do or do without, and to get along with others, particularly those you don’t like, are a useful skills. Also useful is the ability to entertain yourself. I recommend the Peace Corps to poets and writers, to artists and philosophers, to those who are happy in their own company.
Do you think the Peace Corps prepared you adequately, or was it sink or swim?
Both. We had two months boot camp of intense language and culture instruction, then we were dropped off at our new sites. PCVs must be bendy enough to stretch beyond their comfort zones—to be outgoing if you’re really shy, or to let others lead instead of taking charge. Service is a two-way gift; you both give and receive.
Of all the things you do for Peace Corps, which do you feel is most effective in furthering the primary mission?
My primary mission is to teach, which I feel is most successful at my Art & English Clubs. A student at Happiness Homestay recently remarked, “I think I am no good at art, but Teacher Tree show me I can make art anyway. I do and I get better at making art.” That’s my lesson plan—to encourage courage.
Would you recommend Peace Corps to others over 50?
In Cambodia most people my age are dead. Seriously, sixty-four is the usual expire-by-date. Although it’s flattering to be peerless, it is also a lonesome road. Older volunteers are in the minority. But, since I’ve always been lonesome, that doesn’t wear on me as much as it might on others.
If you are old and cranky, however, then PC is not for you. If you like to complain about the pains of old age, you won’t find much company here. If you’ve never traveled outside of your own county, or need explicit instructions to complete a task, or feel happiest when everything goes according to plan, then Peace Corps will not make you happy. If however, you are open-minded, enjoy the company of young people, and feel comfortable being alone, then you may find the Peace Corps a welcome challenge, as I have.
How is your Peace Corps experience? Is it as good and colorful as your pics? What has your favorite moment of cultural exchange been?
My experience has run the emotional gamut of giddy expectation to tender moments, with a few dashed hopes thrown in there. My favorite cultural exchanges often come from photographing people and things. A group of children followed me on a bike ride and photo-bombed my shot of a field of flowers. With my iPad camera I can share the picture, which is always a joy. We laughed ourselves silly over that.
Here’s a pro-tip for social media: Don’t show the bad pictures. I edit, crop and brighten, because that’s the picture I want you to see. I’m not showing caged dogs on the way to slaughter or roosters razored for a fight, even if that would make an arresting photograph, because I don’t want that picture in my head. Editor’s choice.
What advice do you have for America, Cambodia, and The World after your Peace Corps service?
My only advice to the world is to love each other and do your best. My site mate Jenny likes to say, “You do you.” That is profound advice. If we come blundering into our host country with the notion that we are here to change them, everyone is bound to be disappointed.
My greatest lesson has been to become more patient. Actually, I’m still not patient, but I have learned to anticipate annoyances and reroute that energy. For instance, I am a punctual person. It’s in my English DNA. My teachers are not. They are Khmer. I make a practice of coming to school early in the morning so I can write and muse. When they are late, I have more time to write.
What was the most difficult part of this journey for you? What was the best?
Not done yet, so the answers to both questions could change. So far, the most difficult was leaving my first site in the north because the father was an abusive alcoholic. Luckily, PC found me a welcoming family with a wonderful school, and smart-ass site mates here in the south.
Best, thus far, is how happy I feel at the moment. All my projects are progressing. I am excited, yet not anxious about outcomes. I feel more awake and open to whatever happens next. This might be what it is like to live in the moment.