Monday, February 13, 2012

Two Farewells

Two of my friends, Jenn and Cody, have decided to resign from the Peace Corps and move back to the States.  Another friend remains undecided, but seems likely to follow them.  Jenn and Cody were both in my training village of Giripurno.  I saw them every day during my first two and a half months in Indonesia: they were two of my three or four best friends.  Not to make it about me (because this is infinitely harder on them), but these farewells suck.

The official phrase for ending one’s service before completing the two-year term is “early termination”—ET for short.  The rate varies among countries, but ETs are a normal part of any Peace Corps program.  I’ve read that the worldwide average in 2009 was 29%, and I’ve heard that in certain countries the rate can climb over 50%.  Assuming the first statistic is accurate, PC Indonesia remains below the global average. If the third friend indeed opts to resign, the ET rate in Indonesia will stand at 20%—ten people out of fifty—combined for the first two groups.  Two of those ten left before swearing in as Volunteers due to a family emergency.  But one group still has four months, while the other still has sixteen months (meaning it seems likely that the current Indonesia PCVs will be end up at the average ET rate). 

I think many people have mistaken notions about Peace Corps service in general.  Some think of it as a sort of holiday, while others assume it’s a two-year exile to the Stone Age.  People hold mistaken assumptions about the personalities of PCVs, their motivations for serving, and the hardships they face.  Likewise, I believe people are quick to think they understand why some PCVs quit and others don’t.  I’ve had a few conversations with non-PCVs about the impending ETs and been met with misguided psychologizing.  Explicit or not, the next step is always judgment.

Before leaving for my service, I also thought about ETs.  Why do they happen?  Because of personal failures or impossible situations?  How can anyone live with themselves after quitting? 

And, without wanting to sound haughty, what I’ve learned is that you have to be here to understand it.

(Even then, you might not get it.)

The reasons that people ET are as varied as the reasons they sign up.  Some leave within days or weeks of arrival, others after many months of stubbornness.  To name a few of the categories of reasons for leaving early: health problems; family problems; inability to adapt to a sufficient degree; lack of personal fulfillment; the realization that the desire to serve was founded on faulty assumptions or expectations; simple boredom; realization of one’s genuine calling; reaching one’s limit for dealing with foreign bullshit (as opposed to familiar bullshit); and, in general, coming to the understanding that this job doesn’t fit one’s personality.

The word “quit” is loaded—at least in my American brain.  It assumes failure and weakness, and it signals judgment.  Weakness and failure have nothing to do with ETs, which, I suppose, explains my sensitivity about this topic.  I bristle at the thought of people judging my friends as weak.  In the ten months they’ve been here, they have shown fortitude and grit.  And now, rather than growing bitter in obstinacy, they’re showing humility and prudence.  It’s tough to revise one’s thoughts about success and failure.  This deserves praise, not pity.  I’m proud of my friends for having gone as far as they could, and I’m proud of them for refusing to be prisoners of others’ expectations.