Reasons for Joining the Peace Corps: Part II
This is the second part of a series of entries articulating (as best I can) the reasons why I joined the Peace Corps. (click on the link above to see the first entry: Questions and Answers Re: My Departure)
Another reason I chose to join the PC was to fulfill my desire to live and work in a country that is totally foreign to me. After traveling through S.E. Asia and living in Thailand for four months in 1994 and in Indonesia for 6 months in 1996, I knew that a portion of my adult life would be spent overseas.
Traveling, for me, was the shaking of the proverbial champagne bottle before the ceremonial uncorking.
Never before had so many questions, self-reflections, and personal discoveries effervesced into self-awareness. Before I took off for Asia, my life had distilled, settled and sat on a shelf (my parents, who exposed me to endless cultural events from museums and folk festivals to political rallies and military ceremonies, would undoubtedly argue with my assessment of having lead a settled life). When I applied to Saint Olaf College’s Term in Asia program in 1994, it was like watching from the shelf, knowing you’re about to be the next bottle to make it out of the store.
After monkeys and Buddhists, pagodas and yaks, elephants and spicy-toosh, motorcycles and Great Walls, Terra-Cotta warriors, bamboo and sticky-rice, chuk-chuks and tuk-tuks, and Forbidden Cities and crocodiles, my life was shakin-up and uncorked.
As with any uncorked bottle of champagne that’s been shakin-up, you better dump it all over the person standing next to you or drink it down fast. I chose to drink it down fast. I wish I could share how intoxicating some of those first moments were: Standing atop the roof of the Yale guesthouse at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on my 20th Birthday, drinking Carlsberg beer and discussing inter-religious dialogue with my religion professor; teaching English to young Thai girls who were at risk of being sold into prostitution; painfully trying to meditate at a Buddhist monastery; watching a 90 year-old Thai woman roll perfect banana leaf cigars; dodging fireworks while watching the evanescing glow from thousands of lanterns as they floated slowly down the Mekong river; being attacked by a thirsty orangutan who stole my bottled water. Those moments, once trapped in a bottle, were worthy of uncorking the finest bottle of champagne.
When world-travelers sit-down and share their experiences with one another, I’ve found there's a thread of commonality between them.
Part of that common thread is a feeling of self-reflective “aliveness” that manifests during extreme experiences. When overseas, simple, everyday acts present challenges which our analytical western minds try vigorously to comprehend: Squatting over a toilet turns into a discussion of why many cultures don’t eat or shake with their left hands; witnessing bamboo scaffolding surround a skyscraper turns into a metaphor for East meets West; watching a man sweep dust off the sidewalk but avoid removing plastic wrappers and water bottles turns into a debate over the Eastern perspective of what garbage is. In strange lands, every profane experience ripens into potential for the profound.
For me, reflecting on these simple everyday events elicited a more intimate inquiry into my own sense of life, self and being. Who am I? What is the purpose of my life? Am I a “good” person? What is the value of being “good?” How can I become better a human being? What would “I” like to become?
These existential questions are painfully banal, but the fact that they are commonplace does not diminish the value inherent in how one arrives at them. For me, these questions were conjured simply by participating, observing, and reflecting on everyday life in a foreign land.
For example, imagine you’re invited to a funeral by the Batak people of Sumatra, Indonesia—you arrive wearing your mourning face (even though you have no idea who that dead person is laying on the ground in front of you), but you quickly realize very few people look sad. In fact, a lot of the women are dancing and singing while their men stand off to the side smoking cloves and sipping Tuak (a sour palm wine). Next thing you know everyone’s stuffing their face with the water-buffalo, which, just moments ago, was alive and nibbling on that Batik shirt you’re wearing “to blend in”. Aren’t funerals supposed to be sad? As soon as you ask that question, you look over and see three women wailing uncontrollably over the dead man’s body. What’s going on here? You start asking more questions, “Who was this man? Why are there so many people here laughing? Who were those sobbing women? Why is this water-buffalo meat so stringy? What does it mean to die in Batak land? Do they believe in an afterlife? Did somebody just say “cannibalism”?
And then your mind starts trying to make sense of it all.
Usually, it begins by finding something familiar in the foreign. “O.K, those women were crying, so obviously some folks here are sad.” You note too, that people have gathered together and dressed up for the occasion—that’s similar
…Phew!—you wipe your forehead with the back of your hand and scan the scene for more similarities. After awhile, you’ve grabbed enough pieces to start assembling a new world that’s a little easier to understand.
Fast-forward three months…the pieces of this damn puzzle won’t fit together
!...Every time you think you’ve got it figured out, a new piece arrives: Witch doctor’s; snake whiskey; crocodile meat; corruption; houses built to resemble boats; drinking pig’s blood; political rallies; sinking ferries; rubber-plantations protected by scowling men with AK-47s, etcetera. With every new piece, you are forced take apart a world you thought you had just figured out.
Some of the greatest moments of my life have been lived during this process of deconstructing and reconstructing worlds. The energy it requires is immense, however, the reward—paid in the currency of self-knowledge—is even bigger. And that’s the irony too—you spend all this time and energy trying to figure out another culture, and you wind up learning so much more about yourself in the process. This is another reason why I chose to join the Peace Corps. (more to follow)