Wednesday, April 24, 2013

You don't feel your speed until it changes.


The glasses that I wear have been with me for a long time.  I can’t really remember how long, to tell the truth.  I think I got them in high school.  When I came to Indonesia, I brought two pairs (in accordance with the recommendation of Peace Corps, which also advised us not to bring contact lenses).  My dad had bought me a lovely new set: titanium, rimless on the bottom, and with larger lenses than I’d had previously.  I kept my worn old Nike brand glasses as backups.

Five or six weeks into training those new glasses fell out of my backpack on an angkot after I failed to close the pocket properly.  I’d been switching between normal glasses and prescription sunglasses—another shiny pre-Indonesia acquisition—and just didn’t pay enough attention.  Despite my and others’ best efforts to get them back, the new glasses were never recovered, and I’ve spent the last two years wearing what were already a shabby set of specs.

The color of the rims used to be a solid metallic brown color, but it looks as if paint has chipped away in places, and now there’s an odd mixture of silver and brown.  At the ends of the parts that go behind your ears (what are those even called?), the silicone material that covers/rounds/softens the metal has curled up and twisted at the ends like the corners of an old book, and the metal is poking through one of them.  The glasses haven’t sat straight on my face for at least four years.  I don’t know how many times I’ve had to pop the lenses back into the frame. 

Somehow it feels like nearly everything else I own—and everything about my appearance, when I think about it—could be described in similar terms.  Shabby, functional, oblivious to the impression it makes.  My backpack has been with me through high school, college, Europe, and all of my Peace Corps service.  I have not traveled anywhere without it since my junior year, and it’s starting to look its age.  The bag’s black color is badly faded.  In Flores it got soaked with ocean water, which has drastically accelerated its aging.  Thus drowned my iPod, which had outlived its time in any case.  The zipper-handle of the little pocket cracked, and the zipper itself is too corroded to be opened (in fact it’s stuck in a semi-open position).  The same goes for the zipper of the minor pocket containing my sunglasses, which I haven’t opened in months.  At some point I’ll have to cut it open to get the sunglasses out.  Other pockets only open when forced by a ripping action.  There is now a four-inch slash in the small pocket, where somebody cut open my backpack and stole my digital camera on a bus.  I only discovered the theft the next day, so it was deftly done.

And then there’s my appearance.  I’m skinnier and lighter than I was in the US.  My hair is usually a big mess and I don’t really ever know what I want to do with it.  I shave once every two weeks or so, and the beard grows in patchy.  My clothes are awfully worn out.  Pants and casual shirts are faded and stretched, and almost nothing fits quite right.  I’m afraid my shoes won’t ever shine again.  Dress shirts have been stained by sweat around the collar, and a scent of mold clings to most of my clothing, as it does to my pillow, no matter how many times I wash the case.  If I use a blanket at all, it’s a thin, raggy sheet with grey and white stripes.  Thinking back over the last three or four years, I don’t remember more than one or two instances of buying myself new clothing.  I’ve always just worn what was given or gifted to me, or took something I found lying around for my own.  I don’t have any bags suitable for short-term travel, so I use a large green tote-bag originally intended for multiple-use at grocery stores.  When not employed as a travel bag, it doubles as a hamper.  I can and have lived for weeks out of those tattered black and green bags.  My wristwatch stopped working again, and this time I’ve procrastinated getting it fixed and serviced.  Sitting on my bed for several weeks, the leather strap was totally molded over until I wiped it down just before starting to write this.

Everything is shabby.

Most hours of the day I’m not conscious of my appearance or the appearance my belongings.  It doesn’t occur to me, so it doesn’t occur to me that it could be occurring to others, so I don’t feel much in the way of insecurity.  I simply forget to think about it.  But now, for whatever reason, I’m thinking about it.

**

There are six weeks left in my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  A couple weeks ago marked my two-year anniversary in Indonesia.  Last year I had a special post for the occasion, but this year it felt rather muted and even overshadowed by the sigh-heaving relief of the ID-6 Volunteers, who made it through their first year, and the arrival of the ID-7 trainees. 

I suppose I haven’t mentioned it on this blog yet, though everyone who knows me probably knows this anyway, but I’m entering the Master of Public Policy program at Duke University in the fall.  Getting the graduate school application process behind me was a big weight off my shoulders and allowed me to focus fully once again on the things happening in Indonesia.  People keep asking me whether I’m excited for grad school.  The answer is yes, but it’s not dominating my thoughts just now.  There’s a lot to think about before burying myself in books (but not snow, Jay). 

I just got done with iGLOW, a girls’ empowerment camp.  Before iGLOW, I was in Yogyakarta with Melanie, and before that in Surabaya.  Things have been really busy, and the coming months will remain so.  After my service finishes, I’ll tarry a while in the Gili Islands of Lombok, then fly to Switzerland, where I’ll spend a few weeks before going back to the US on July 2nd.  A month later I’ll be moving to Durham, North Carolina.  At that point I’ll be ready to get really excited about grad school.

**

Maybe it’s an inescapable consequence of being so close to the end, but I’ve been thinking a lot about these last two years.  The first eight months were a time of tremendous change and growth.  The second eight months were steadier, and gradually the perception of grand changes ground down, especially moving into the third eight months, when I had to begin balancing my service with preparations for the future.  I stopped counting the days a long time ago, and I’m not staring at the countdown as the end approaches.  Still, the closer it gets, the more I feel it’s the right choice for me to leave Indonesia and start something new. 

A few weeks ago, I had a VAC meeting in Surabaya.  At VAC meetings, PCV representatives meet with the top staff in country to discuss various programmatic concerns and generally facilitate communication between staff and PCVs.  One issue that was brought up was the amount of time PCVs spend out of their community.  Generally speaking, staff wants Volunteers to stay at their sites if they’re not on official holiday, and they suggest that Volunteers not be away for more than two days per month on personal business.  In reality, most PCVs are away from their sites more often—in some cases much more often.  This point led to a discussion about what a PCV whose entire work centers on their school (such as myself) is supposed to do with themself when school is canceled for weeks at a time. 

Should they just sit around doing nothing?

That question is an important one, and the staff’s answer is yes.  I already knew the answer and the reasoning, but hearing the explanation again revealed a lot to me about my current mindset.  Why should PCVs remain at their site, even when there is no school and nothing particularly interesting going on?  Because the very fact of our presence in our communities is valuable to the people in those communities.  Sitting around and doing “nothing” is never really nothing, no matter how boring it can be at times.  Being visible in our communities, being a part of our communities even when there’s nothing exciting happening, is one of the things that distinguishes Peace Corps Volunteers from the many other do-gooders to be found in the developing world.  Our presence and integration is a source of pride for our neighbors and builds fellowship among us.  That’s why it’s valuable, and that’s why we should stay put. 

And that’s how I know that Peace Corps isn’t for me anymore. 

Because staff is right: it is valuable, it is special, and it is what makes Peace Corps different.  But it’s not a job I want to do.  I’ve done it for a while now, however imperfectly, and I don’t want to keep doing it past my term of service. 

I like doing service work.  Working person-to-person has been satisfying and challenging, and I feel that I’ve given much of myself and received much in return.  The knowledge and experience gained over the last couple years mean that I have more potential to be effective now than I’ve ever had before. 

But I’m also weary, and I’m troubled by signs of remoteness that have become manifest recently. Other Volunteers (Erin and Martine, both with excellent insight) have written recently about the small talk/minor interactions that define a PCV’s experience in Indonesia and the attitude with which we approach those moments.  Though PCVs often feel that all the attention they receive is unfair, burdensome, and invasive, in reality it’s no individual’s fault.  To my mind, a perfect PCV would cheerfully engage with every inquiring stranger, despite the predictability and repetitiveness of such conversations, treating each situation as an opportunity to make a new friendship and increase mutual understanding.  No one is perfect, of course, and people often would rather be left alone with their thoughts or their music.

What disturbs me is the way I’ve evolved an ability to avoid such interactions altogether.  Something in the expression of my face, in the accent of my speech, in the posture of my body keeps most strangers from even initiating conversations with me anymore.  It’s not that I scowl, but I’ve learned how to project an aura of unapproachability and disinterest.  I’ve learned how to answer opening inquiries (“where are you from”, “how long have you been here”, etc.) with such brevity and indifference that they almost never lead to any longer conversations.  There was a time when I got into those conversations with great gusto.  I recognized their value and consistency with my role here as a PCV, and I wasn’t put off by their repetitiveness.  I was eager to see where they would wind up. 

But no longer.  I don’t enjoy the small talk with strangers, which does not lead to meaningful cultural exchange.  Perhaps I’ve been spoiled to work for a long time with counterparts at my school who are Indonesian and with whom I have had deep exchanges, both personally and culturally.  Whatever the cause, my heart longer buys the notion that such superficial interactions are truly valuable.  These days, only the truly determined cross that gulf of detachment (and those are the people who are more interesting to talk to).  I’ve become indifferent to compliments, which are given freely here as a matter of politeness.  I dislike being addressed in English, though it is done as a courtesy.  I loathe the fits of laughter that come over people who, after arguing among themselves about it, ask me if I can speak Indonesian and learn that I can.  I hate the cheap points I can get with people here by saying two words of Javanese, and I’ve come to avoid saying things I know will trigger overdone reactions, even though they would endear me to the person I’m speaking with.

Maybe that’s jadedness, but it’s not cynicism by any stretch.  I believe that what I’ve done and what I’ve achieved with my counterparts and colleagues has been meaningful for everyone involved.  Earlier today I watched as three of my counterparts discussed how they could integrate a lesson on expressing opinions with a message for students to weigh the pros and cons of getting married young or waiting to get married.  It was immensely satisfying to watch these three teachers working with high expectations of themselves, viewing the planning meeting not as a nuisance, but as an opportunity to make a difference in kids’ lives.  We’ve made it to this point together, through so many ups and downs.  These two years have been well-spent for me, and I would make the same choice again in a heartbeat. I believe that the PCVs here are doing something good and worthwhile and that this program deserves to grow. 

I’m just not the one to continue the work.  At least not in this capacity as a PCV.  I could continue working with Indonesians and with other PCVs, but I don’t want the restrictions and I don’t want to be bound by Peace Corps’ mode of community integration.  I’ve taken a lot from my experience here and learned more from it than I can articulate, but it’s time to move on.   

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