My very first post at the end of August 2010 documented what I had to go through to apply for the Peace Corps, and I followed it up with an explanatory post on why someone would want to join Peace Corps if the application process is such a bear. Then in September 2010, I left the U.S. behind to start my service. For two years, I gave readers a glimpse of my life in Turkmenistan, one of the most isolated countries in the world. They got to experience vicariously my adventures both fun and awful. They knew of my struggles and triumphs. And some of them stayed with me when I returned, reading of how I grappled with reverse culture shock and my impressions after being away. My blog continued as a record of my experiences and thoughts, only now in my native country.
The first post I wrote that was, for lack of a better term, “non-Peace Corps” was this one in October 2012, which was tangentially related to my service because my service affected my reaction to witnessing people do this foolish thing. Many of my early (and not so early) “non-Peace Corps” posts are like this. That’s because the Peace Corps experience is indelible.
I have now lived as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer for longer than I served. I think the expectation both on the part of the volunteer and on the part of his/her acquaintances is that over time, the Peace Corps experience will fade and become nothing more than just another anecdote in their personal history. And while certainly some of the initial reverse culture shock has worn off, Peace Corps will always be much more than simply a piece of my personal trivia.
Three years after my close of service, Peace Corps is still impacting my life. One of the reasons I got my teaching job last year is that I had Peace Corps on my resume. It suggested to the people who hired me that I would do well with the diverse student population at the school. Plus the county that I work for included my years in Peace Corps toward teaching experience, which bumped me up two steps on the pay scale. But there are less quantifiable ways in which Peace Corps still affects my life. I automatically have a bond with anyone else who served regardless of where and when. Last year, one of the only non-English teachers that I met at the school was a history teacher who had been a PCV in Kyrgyzstan in the ‘90s, and I met her because of our Peace Corps connection. We co-sponsored a Peace Corps booth at our school’s Just World Night. This year, I’m at a different school in the county where her husband is in the English department, so he and I already have something to talk about. As soon as one of the other new English teachers overheard me mention that I had been in the Peace Corps, he started chatting me up as well because his wife had been in the Peace Corps. I’m sure there’s a greater concentration of them in the D.C. area, but there are RPCVs all over the country, and whenever I meet one, it makes conversation easier for an introvert like me and makes for a stronger initial bond.
And it’s not just other RPCVs and their spouses. I was initially interested in the guy I’m currently dating because he lived in Turkey. I thought that our shared knowledge of a Turkic language (Turkish and Turkmen are both Turkic, similar to how Spanish and Portuguese are both Romantic) and appreciation for manty (though we don’t agree on its pronunciation or spelling) would be interesting. More importantly, the fact that he had lived abroad was huge, because, as I’ll discuss in the next paragraph, that changes you. Though he has many redeeming qualities, it was the similarities to my own Peace Corps experience that piqued my interest and prompted me to pursue getting to know him.
More than anything, though, it is the experience itself of living in another country among the people and living like they do that sticks with you. It is not the same as studying abroad for a semester or taking a short term mission trip or living among other expats in the capital with most of the amenities you’re used to. When pooping in a hole in the ground becomes your norm, it changes you. And I’m using that as a specific example but also as a representation of changing your entire way of living. When you are removed from your family and friends and culture and language and climate, and everything is foreign, and you know that it’s not just a week or two before you’ll be back home, you cannot not be changed indelibly. And you cannot look at your own country the same way again. That distance clears your vision and you see the things your country gets wrong. (To be fair, you also better see what your country gets right.)
For me, that was compounded by my spiritual life. As a Christian going into a Muslim country, I was more diligent about spiritual disciplines. I knew that I probably wouldn’t find Christian community there so I had to rely on God even more, pray more, dig into the Word more. Too often in America our theology is informed by our politics rather than the other way around. Many of my political posts here are a result of the Holy Spirit’s continued work on me during my time abroad. The sins of our country’s hawkishness and the ways in which our society de-values life (torture, capital punishment, social justice, welfare, healthcare, education, workers’ rights, and immigration are all life issues in addition to abortion), the idolatry of patriotism: these are all things that I feel a strong burden for speaking out about because of that time when I could more easily hear God speak to me without the noise of my native culture getting in the way.
These views are not necessarily popular, sometimes making me feel alienated even from some fellow Christians. But that’s okay. Because another way the Peace Corps experience will always be with me is the way it made me even more independent and resilient than I already was. If you haven’t read the first two years of my blog, here are a few posts to help you understand what I’m talking about.
But in a nutshell, I lived for two years in a country that is often listed as the second worst in the world for human rights violations. It’s a dictatorship. We were followed; our phone calls were listened in on. They tried to hack into my email. We had to be careful what we talked about with our students. Plus all the normal trials for PC regardless of country: I got food poisoning; had a terrible first host family (I am so thankful for my real host family, the second one); had a star-crossed relationship; missed my family and friends; went without the comforts of home; had some scary medical situations, and, yes, did my fair share of pooping in a hole in the ground. So now, when I’m freaking out about moving to a new place or starting a new job or navigating a new relationship or auditioning for a musical or whatever, I try to stop and tell myself, ‘you survived Peace Corps Turkmenistan; you can do anything.’ And even though my Turkmen language is fading from lack of use, my Turkmen experience is always there as an inextricable part of my being.