More kids, clowns and pieces of things part 3

So this is obviously quite late.  I could say that I decided to wait until after I rang the bell, a Peace Corps Nicaragua tradition demarcating ones close of service, before writing this in order to give an RPCV’s (returned Peace Corps Volunteer) viewpoint.  I could say that I needed to wait to be back in the US in order to evaluate my experience.  I could say that I needed to see my friends, family, and town in order to gain perspective.  I could say a lot of things, but the truth is I just never made time.  I even thought of never writing a final post and let it be interpreted as ‘Oh, well service never really ends.  You can’t encapsulate it.’ Or some such nonsense, but that would be a serious cop out.  Ever since I had to write 5 paragraph essays in schools I always whiffed the conclusion.  Maybe it was resentment towards my reader; if you can’t synthesize what I just told you then it’s your own damn fault.  More likely it was laziness.  This time I’m just lost.  I thought I knew what I wanted to write but now being home I don’t. 

Lots of people, Nicas, volunteers and Americans in America, have been asking me, “So how do you feel?”  without any further prompting. How do I feel about what?  How do I feel about going/being home?  How do I feel about the future?  How do I feel about value-added taxation?  I have to assume it’s about my service and whenever people have asked me do you like the Peace Corps/are you happy that you joined, I always responded, “It depends on the day you ask me.”  Some days I feel great about it, and other days I think it was the worst decision I’ve ever made.  So I have to ask myself that question now, looking back trying to sum up the whole experience.  In order to do that, I have to think about why I joined Peace Corps in the first place.

Well, one reason was selfish; I thought it would be a good career move.  I was very interested in developmental economics when I applied and Peace Corps seemed like a great way to get interesting experience in that.  So was it a good career move?  I was talking about this with a fellow volunteer a few months back and she had asked me about my service on the wrong day.  I had recently applied for a position at the company I used to work at before Peace Corps and it was essentially the job I had when I left.  I didn’t get it.  I’d normally like to think that two years work experience would at least make me as qualified as I was two years ago (one would think a little more) but certainly not less.  I look around Facebook and I see lots of my friends with interesting and advanced positions while I seem to actually be worse off than when I graduated.  My friend smiled and nodded politely.  Then she told me in a very courteous way to shut the hell up.  She is a somewhat older volunteer, in her thirties and was established in her field.  She made me realize that lots of people join the Peace Corps much farther along in their careers and still come back from it.  Moreover, I’m very young, and it’s not uncommon for people to start whole new careers later in life.  Not being far up a career ladder at this stage in my life, while not ideal, isn’t tragic.

So why else did I do it?  I wanted to travel and have a new experience; I wanted to learn a new language, a new culture and a new way of life.  So check.  That happened.  I also wanted to do something positive and altruistic. I wanted to make an impact, and to quote Hippocrates “… make a habit of two things – to help, or at least, to do no harm.”  I may not have achieved everything I wanted work-wise with my service, but I’d like to think I certainly did no harm.  Due to the nature of the type of work I did in Nicaragua I unfortunately won’t be able to witness too much of the impact I’ve had for years to come, if ever.  But, in my opinion, Peace Corps isn’t strictly a development organization.  It’s also very much a diplomatic service (although Peace Corps specifically denies this).  So for however successful I may have been with my 1st goal work (“help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women”) I’ve seen a positive impact I had with 2nd goal (“help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served”) and I think this blog, in combination with other efforts, has had a positive impact on 3rd goal work (“help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans”).  I’ve made myself a world citizen, improved public opinion of America in Nicaragua, and taught some Americans about a country they might have thought was in Africa otherwise.

While I say it depends on the day you ask me, I have generally maintained that counting all the good days and all the bad, I was left me with a net positive.  When I analyze it like that it seems that I would say that yes, my service was indeed worth it.  It was hard leaving Nicaragua.  It was harder than I thought it would be.  Not in a small part because of saying goodbye, which I had been doing since January pretty much.  There were some people who said to me every day for six months, “Wow, you’re leaving soon and never coming back.  You’re off to go and forget all about poor us.”  The sentiment was endearing at first but quickly became tiresome.  I’ve always been surprised by how much people like me.  I don’t mean to seem arrogant when I say that, because certainly not everyone likes me, but I am almost disoriented sometimes by the impact I have on other people’s lives.  The sincerity and emotion of the good-byes I received were almost surreal, as have been the welcomes.  In the moment, I don’t always fully appreciate this. 

Nicaraguans would sometimes be amazed that I would be willing to move to a foreign country, away from everyone I’ve ever known for two years.  They think it must be a military obligation of mine or something I need to get my degree.  They can’t believe I could up and leave everything I know, especially for no money.  I’ve often prided myself that I could, indeed, drop everything and leave like that.  I liked seeing myself as emotionally independent, adaptive and as a result free to chase any opportunity that presents itself.  Maybe I’ve changed or maybe I’ve just learned that that isn’t really true about me.  I don’t know if I could do something like Peace Corps again because I’m not sure I could leave my whole life again, twice.  I left everything going and once again coming.  Everything is different while it stayed the same.  If nothing else, my service was worth it to learn that. 

I can’t think how to end this.  What can I really say?  I remember when I studied in Mexico I thought after two weeks I knew everything there was to know about the country.  Then after six weeks I thought, “How arrogant I was to think I knew everything about Mexico after just two weeks.  What a tourist I was!  Now, of course after six weeks I really do know everything about Mexico.”  I repeated this mistake thinking I knew everything about Nica culture before training was even over.  In these posts I’ve talked about a wide range of topics.  Some of the topics were about me and my life and my personal minutiae, some about my work with the Peace Corps and some about Nicaraguan life and culture.  I’ve tried to capture incredibly broad topics by describing discrete and usually isolated observations.  I hope people have enjoyed reading this and have learned a bit about Nicaragua (or learned anything).  Even after having spent two years in Nicaragua, I know that I can’t say I really know everything about the country, its history, culture, etc.  I’ve spent my whole life in the US and can’t claim to be an expert even on the state of New York.  Beyond that, these things change.  Just as a man can’t step in the same river twice I can never fully define anything I’ve talked about in these pages.  They are all simply anecdotes; pieces of things that happened.

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3 Responses to More kids, clowns and pieces of things part 3

  1. Looks like I’m the first to comment. Your ability to see two sides of a situation is going to be the bain of your life, making decisions difficult–although from an intellectual point of view, it is a great boon: essential to get even close to the truth. While I am surprised about the company you worked with before not giving you back your position, I am not surprised by your over-all malaise. I wonder if that American business has found from experience that people who return from something like the Peace Corps eventually become dissatisfied and quit. Perhaps after they think that you have re-entered fully into our culture, they will be more interested. Or, perhaps, you will now start down a new path–one which is somewhere between the career path you began two years ago and the altruistic path you have been on for the past two years–which is what Michael has opted for.

    In any case, excellent and interesting writing again. I understand well your realization that, even after two years, you don’t really understand Nica. I was asked to consider taking the role of a community leader with the students over here and said “No” immediately–not because it would be too much pressure at my age (which is the usual reason for such a decision), but because I realized that I would make a mess of things, not really understanding the African mind, even after two years.

    Could you continue to do the blog over the next years–perhaps under a new banner and for a smaller readership? Once a month? I suggest this for two reasons: The first is quite selfish: I doubt there is any other way in which I could know you as well as these blogs have allowed over these years. And second: as your mother has gushed repeatedly, the writing itself is really good and should not be abandoned now.

  2. Joann Mulqueen says:

    Well, I read u. Dick’s comment before leaving my own and realize he said much of what I would have said. This reflection continues to show your ability to analyze your experiences both intellectually and emotionally and, as noted, continuously see things from both sides. This talent, of coruse, will serve you well in a leadership position, which I have no doubt you will have at some point.

    I like your musing about everyone asking you, so “how do you feel.” Sometimes, I feel like I want to ask you that every day. Now that you are home and I’m hearing more and more details about your time there, I’m even more overwhelemed with pride and awe about just what you had to do in order to be so successful there. And, my take is that you were incredibly successful. The degree to which you have become self-sufficient, learned that you can adapt and survive in foreign and unexpected circumstances, and were able to touch the hearts of so many people attest (in my opion) to the fact that this was well worth it and will ultimately help you in both your career and yoru personal development.

    I was most struck, however, by the fact that i don’t want these blogs to end. U. Dick hit it right on the nail when he said he hoped you would contine for 2 reasons – 1. because I, too, have gotten to know you in ways I never would have and 2. your writing is superb and should be catered to – and not abandoned.

    Welcome home dear Johno – my heart is so filled with love, joy, and pride to have you back wtih us!

  3. Gail DeMaria says:

    Unfortunately Johno I’ve read both u Dick and your Mother’s comments which leaves me a bit of a “Johnny-come-lately. Besides agreeing with what they both said I know I always look forward to reading the next installment. I’ve learned a lot from your blogs (as you hoped) and got a glimpse of how difficult this time is for you. The part that had the greatest impact on me was realizing that you left “your entire life” TWICE. I understand that but appreciate how you were able to be in touch with that reality and express it. Yes, by all means…keep the blog coming.
    Love, as always, AGail

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