I wrote this entry a while ago, intending at the time to spam all my friends and every listserv possible in the same rush of urgency that I was swept up in. Back in October, I had just finished reading Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and once more felt that familiar and unsettling thought emerge: The incongruity in the international action of that monolith known as the American government and the general goodwill that its citizens have toward other cultures, and what it all means. This time I was able to get it down in words.
This will be the last entry I post in Circle of Influence. I had wanted, originally, to add entries about a society struggling with Western wealth, the juxtaposition of extensive red-brick compounds towering over mud huts and tin shacks, the downfalls of both individualism and community-oriented societies, of women. But in all the empty days I’ve had since returning have been emotional matches that I’ve sometimes won and sometimes lost. It’s time to close this out. A year after I embarked on my Peace Corps service and five months after returning, we can finally consider this blog finished.
Is Peace Corps a Non Sequitur?
Written 17 October 2007
During training, I admitted to a friend that I have never been especially patriotic, so wasn’t it a little odd that I had always wanted to do Peace Corps? I wondered what it really meant to join Peace Corps, especially with the international perception of our government. “Too late,” she quipped. “You’re already in.”
Something didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. This organization was a misfit, possibly being one of the only undisputedly good things to come from the U.S. government. Since we had even considered applying to Peace Corps, we had practically been bludgeoned to death with the following: Above all, our presence is diplomatic. Regardless of personal failures or successes, the essence of Peace Corps is to represent the American people.
That’s it. No other guidelines. As volunteers, we learn to balance ourselves as individuals and as reflections of the American public, but I often wonder whether Host Country Nationals understand that each of us represent only a slice of our vast and varying cultures.
As Americans, we live in a country of dual cultural spheres, intertwined a la venn diagram: the corporate and political, and the more personal sphere that frays into thousands of subcultures. The latter we know as our daily lives, but in so many ways, it draws its sustenance from the former in what amounts to binary relationships: old money and nouveau-riche, yuppies and hipsters, bohemians and hippies, hawks and reactionaries. Even such groups as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Habitat for Humanity and the National Rifle Association find their counterpoint or harmony in the first.
Yet despite ideology, every American has an inkling that our society is tinged. Regardless of its guile, beneath the surface, our country smacks of corporate-political collusion and a system that, at the very least, borders on imperialism. The power and reach of this partnership is too frighteningly vast for any of us to contemplate in its entirety because, despite sacrifices and redirected decisions–perhaps to buy a hybrid, to boycott Nike, to drink only fair trade, to question weapons of mass destruction—we are the nodes that hold this hyper-marketed web together. None of us believe we can extricate ourselves from this system and still live in America.
Corporate-political machinations still click their way out of America via keyboards and phone calls, but thousands of miles away, there are so many other things for Peace Corps volunteers to consider in our quest for cultural middleground. In the moment, similarities can go unnoticed or be taken as givens while differences take on mind-boggling proportions. The world is still turning and current events move on without us. But what can we do? We spend idle hours melting into ourselves to survive the Peace Corps experience. We pull our emotional selves through with small victories: constructing a bookshelf out of cinder blocks, improvising a candle holder out of a plastic bottle, chopping up chocolate bars in the absence of chocolate chips. We move on to bigger victories: starting libraries in local communities, helping a weaver’s group connect with an international market, extending service an extra year for the sake of a couple of promising students. Do these projects make an impact? I met a man in Maseru who works as a sales associate in a furniture store. He still remembers the Peace Corps volunteer who lived in his village when he was a child. One of my co-workers fondly recalled the Peace Corps volunteer assigned to teach permaculture at his agricultural college.
But then comes the bigger question: In light of American policies and international actions, and in light of the few number of Americans who complete Peace Corps tours, how would Peace Corps volunteers represented Americans?
It feels as though if Host Country Nationals were really to sit and think about it, there’s no other way to view Americans except as well-intentioned, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed idiots.
It took a collage of articles, images, radio casts and books to bring me to conclusions, of conversations, inspirations and disappointments all mashed together. Peace Corps volunteers, as individuals, eventually find a way to turn off their community’s ideas that Americans live “Days of our Lives.” But the American government—toppling and installing new regimes, brokering WTO power—which also represents the American people, is a reality and incongruity to the Peace Corps mission: representing Americans while also helping with sustainable development. In the campaign field and in office, American politicians continue to defer their responsibilities to the environment for their greed, they essentially put their responsibilities to us on the backburner for a brief carouse of power. The decisions made on our behalf rob nations of their resources and wealth and worse, of their survival and culture. Media paint sub-par candidates as heroes because we have no real heroes to play out our desire for a modern-day fairytale.
The fact is, at the end of two years, Peace Corps volunteers return to American or move on to other things. Have Peace Corps volunteers done their part in making a difference? You betcha. But what does it mean, some ask, when volunteers profess a philosophy of international cooperation that is limited to two years abroad?
It isn’t the act of leaving that suggests abandonment, it is whether our society as a whole is about to change things after some of us have seen close-up the consequences of our decisions on the international (really, local) level. At that point, it isn’t only the Peace Corps volunteer’s responsibility to fulfill a commitment to the rest of the world. Peace Corps tours cannot possibly outpace the actions of the American government, American companies, American “national interests.” It is up to the rest of America—American citizens—to back us up. Peace Corps tours only take on their full significance if Peace Corps volunteers represent a promise: That all our actions, government or personal, will be a representation of our goodwill and the next generation is going to change things.