The other day I was sitting around a dinner table with 2 other Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs). We were talking about ways to curb negativity coming from PCVs. Some of which, act as if Peace Corps is a prison sentence and not an adventure. Yes, it is isolating as a PCV and not everything will be super. As I have stated in past blog post, in many cases, PCVs will be the only American or English speaking person for miles around. I for one have gone through troubling time, but there are strategies for dealing with every negative or difficult situation a PCV encounters throughout her/his service.
Isolation– This is probably my biggest hurdle, although I like to be alone, there are times when I need to feel like I am part of something bigger. As we integrate into our sites, many PCVs loose site (myself included) that we are part of something bigger. The Peace Corps organization is a family and in that family we will never be alone. I have learned that reaching out of my comfort zone to meet other PCVs in my area is a great way to fight feelings of isolation. Throughout the past two years I have met many interesting people, some of my most trusted friends came from my service in the Peace Corps, but I had to take the steps to find the people I trust, and that process means testing the waters by getting outside your comfort zone.
Community integration– I equate community integration with partnership building. It is the first thing that pops into my mind when I utter the words. Now, I do not mean partners in a sense of marriage or even business (even though the second does apply, for some the first as well), what I am talking about are the little micro connections we make with people throughout our ordinary routine. This is an element I was not fully conscious of until writing this blog. I see the faces of the people behind the counter of the grocery store, the employees of the organizations which neighbor our own, or the people in my nearby gym. All of these people did not accept me when I first came into the community. They may have smiled and said “good day”, but they were not sure how to react to me. I learned that in time these relationships begin to build into something that is at the core of integrating into a community. Something that is challenging at first, will become one of the best parts of your service. Do not see it as a burden to integrate to a community or as if you must bend to another’s will. See it as an opportunity to make a many micro impacts in people’s’ lives. Do not try to be a mold of a model American citizen, there is no such thing, just be yourself. People will accept you in time.
Cultural integration- Understanding a culture means really knowing what makes the people in your community tick. It is also one of the most vital tools a Peace Corps volunteer can use. One example I would like to throw out, is the culture of abundance which we have in America. My first instinct was that this should not be highlighted as culture, but it most certainly is at the heart of what makes America great (again). It is okay that we have supersize grocery stores. We should celebrate the progress of societies who are able to feed the majority of their population and provide reasonable wages for most. However, Peace Corps countries are not in this category. It is hard adjusting to this fact. I told myself that I would be fine with it, but gosh darn it, sometimes I want peanut butter on demand. Full disclosure, I may still not be over this cultural shift because I am just one month back from spending 40 days of special leave in America. It is okay to want peanut butter, but in this situation I must adapt to the resources at hand. For instance, I really like to drink apple cider vinegar. That is definitely not something easily found in Ukraine. I looked for months. Finally, I made the decision to watch a Youtube tutorial on making apple cider vinegar, and a few days later I was at the bizarre buying supplies. A month later, wala, I had homemade apple cider vinegar. My culture will never leave me, but accepting the situation around you and taking steps to learn how to adapt accordingly will help get over this hurdle.
Communication barriers- I still remember one of my clustermates (groups of 4-6, who we learn Ukrainian with) mentioning that it was surprising that I was able to make it through Pre service training, because I struggled so much with the language. They could all see my frustration, there were times when I wanted to cry in the middle of our lessons because I felt like an idiot who was falling behind in the classroom. Language learning has been the hardest piece of my service and I am in no way advanced after two years. There are still times in the office when I have brief flashbacks of pre service training. However, that should not stop anyone, learn to use the language you have. I made the mistake of trying to speak perfectly. I was way too critical of my language because it was not perfect; but, I was taught a valuable lesson by one of my best friends who said that the trick to learning languages is failing and being okay with it. When you do not care about perfection, language begins to flow. After time, you will get better and better, smoother and smoother. Focus on conversations you have daily and perfect those small segments, read the language even if you don’t know what is being said, and take your time. Perfection will probably never come, but you can steadily increase your skills. We all learn at our own pace.
Workplace issues- Same with language, most PCVs do not have the perfect workplace. An important part of service is being able to adjust your normal equilibrium to make others happier. Submission is key to serving others. However, submission comes with uncomfortable situations. I am not the type of person who likes to be uncomfortable. But, I also believe that true confidence comes with the willingness to grow. I try to see all problems from different angles, and seek the advice of people around me. Many times, Peace Corps staff, mentors and friends have been a key asset for me when something in the office does not go how I want. As PCVs we have tons of people in our corner. If we have issues in the workplace it is easy to reach out for help and guidance. There is also a support group in your workplace. Remember, you are in the same boat, they must adapt to your language and culture as well. Do not be afraid to be honest or let down your guard around your coworkers, you may be surprised how they react.
*These are the ideas of Richard J. Roman and are not those of the Peace Corps or its affiliates.