Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"Peace Corps Moments"

I suppose every group of people who work together develops its own jargon. I'm not sure if the term Peace Corps Moment (PCM) is an original coinage, or if I read it somewhere and subconsciously recalled it when thinking about certain experiences I've had here. I'm sure hundreds, if not thousands, of people have thought of it independently.

Anyway, it's a sort of semi-ironic term that some of us like to throw around here. A PCM is an experience that somehow fits in with the romantic notions or expectations one fashions while considering Peace Corps service. I think it's safe to say that pretty much every volunteer at some point was wooed by the promise of beautiful landscapes, deep cultural exchanges, moments of feeling like you really are making a difference, etc. When you're in the application process, or still thinking about applying, you definitely fantasize about epiphanies and other assorted profound episodes. The organization itself works hard to cultivate this idea of the "Peace Corps Experience". It's certainly an attractive image.

(Whatever service is like, it doesn't much resemble the expectations you begin with.)

But PCMs are real, and they are powerful. When we discuss PCMs with each other, we use the term with a hint of irony, but maybe that's just because it's a bit absurd and counterintuitive to talk about highly personal and deeply meaningful experiences with an obvious cliché. It's the quickest way to get your point across, because all of us understand what those moments entail. I will share a few of mine.

Just a couple days after arriving at my host family's house during training, I had my first real PCM. There were about a dozen little kids already at my house, most with English workbooks, requesting my help with their homework. The sun had already set, but it wasn't dark yet. Then the power went out in the whole village. I was already sitting on the sofa with all the children surrounding me, dressed up really nice for prayers at the mushollah. The adults brought out candles, and we continued doing English exercises together. The ambience was unreal. This orange-golden light was bathing all the children, and they were smiling and repeating words after me, giggling at some of the funnier sounding ones. They all broke into laughter we repeated the word "banana" several times, each time louder than the last until a dozen people shouted out BANANA! It was a moment of complete comfort, and one of those moments where you are conscious of just how special and beautiful it is.

Another moment was just last week. One of the boys in my new village invited me to play soccer with a big group of them. The field is near my house, and it's in fairly good condition. It is surrounded by rice paddies on three sides, and its north edge is lined by a dirt road with houses on the other side. The goals have no nets, and there are several very large piles of rocks, probably for grinding and making cement later on. For at least an hour, I played soccer with 20 village boys, some in their late teens, some probably as young as nine or ten. They were very excited to have me there, and my teammates were eager to pass me the ball. Indonesians love to please. We played shirts vs. skins, and then switched, and as the evening wore on the sun was blazing red in the west and setting over the paddies, where the sky was reflected in the water. There was some haze in the air, so the halo of the sun was magnified and it seemed twice its usual size. Running, exercising, laughing, play-faking injuries, chasing balls kicked into the fields, setting up goals, scoring a goal, getting schooled, shaking hands. I don't know why, but it felt like being inside the song "Cape Canaveral". The colors and the air and aura just felt like they were waiting to be swallowed into memory and reminiscence.

A third moment was two days ago. I was home after a very good day. My host father's cousin's son (therefore my host second cousin, hah) came over. It was my first time meeting him, but I sat with him and my host parents, and we talked in Indonesian about many things. The school system, philosophies of English education, relative wealth in the US and Indonesia, American companies setting up factories in this country, and many other things besides. I sat with them a good three or four hours, and we just talked and talked, plenty of laughter and plenty of seriousness. And for some reason, I was giddy inside. It's really happening, this is integration. This is real discussion, real exchange. Smooth and natural, and these people are good people, and this is the right thing for me. It was an amazing feeling.

I have had other PCMs, but I think I've illustrated my point. I don't want to give the impression that every day is filled with these moments. For every PCM, there is a moment of gloom. It's not so different than life in anywhere -- sometimes you're up, sometimes you're down, and most of the time you're somewhere in between. But, at least for me, the ups are more intense here, and my general mood is better than it would be in the US. I don't brood as much, anyway. And the lows really aren't so low. For me, at any rate.

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