Perhaps the tourist had never tasted tom yum before, or if she had, maybe that cook had used different ingredients. Or possibly she had expected something more familiar for lunch. In any case, she missed the opportunity to enjoy what was put in front of her because she expected something else. Expectations are the biggest buzz kill for any experience.
Coming into the Peace Corps I did not know what to expect, but I could imagine—cue bubbly music—I imagined living in a thatched hut deep in the jungle without electricity, using a car battery for dim light in the evening. I envisioned simple people grateful for my big American knowledge.
Turned out my imagination was a bit off. I live in a modest house with electricity and WiFi (but no refrigeration). My family’s house is on a busy road about two hours from the capital. All my students have cell phones and Facebook, but no idea how to do research on the Internet. My expertise is not that special. Although I warned myself not to have expectations, I had a few anyway.
One big expectation was that I had answers to Cambodia’s problems, at least in education. I spent ten years teaching college English in private and public schools. I knew how to teach writing, and how to lead students to critical thinking. Turns out that is not a priority in my village. Students want pragmatic language, something that can help them get into college and later get a job in the city. Critical thinking is a luxury poor people can’t afford. I found the more I was able to unplug from my pedagogical and cultural expectations, the more I was able to enjoy the soup put in front of me.
Recently I booked my flight home, which will give me a few hours layover in Japan. To my delight, I found a park with a shrine and a museum close to the airport. I went to the museum’s website to learn more and read visitors remarks. Many English speakers complained that the didactics in the museum were in Japanese only. One visitor wrote, “You’d think they would realize most of the world speaks English.” Oh really? Let’s turn that around. How many American museums have didactics in Japanese? A few national museums, perhaps. To expect that the rest of the world should accommodate English speakers is arrogant. To presume that most of the world speaks English is actually wrong. Most of the world speaks Chinese and Spanish. English is third on the list, followed closely by Hindi. If, as a traveler, you expect special treatment because you are a Westerner and speak English, you are going to be sadly disappointed.
In my exit interview, Country Director Susan Dwyer asked me what was the biggest change I saw in myself after two years in the Peace Corps. Without hesitation (ironically) I said, “I am less sure about things.” My Peace Corps cohorts and I are approaching our Close of Service in two-and-a-half months. All our collective expectations have either been met or dashed by now. Those of us that remain standing have learned to adapt. Those of us who are happy have lowered our expectations. I say this without bitterness. For me, letting go of expectations was the biggest cultural lesson.