Thursday, February 14, 2013

How Peace Corps changed me

It's been almost a year now since I finished Peace Corps. Though I don't think I'll really have a clear perspective on its role in my life until much later, I can make some short-term reflections.

First of all, I made some amazing friends, and beautiful Oliver found his way to me. These are the sort of things that can never be computed into "what-ifs". I also have no regrets professionally: I gave my site all that I could, and I learned a lot about international development and environmental management in the process.

Individually, the experience was at times joyful and did change me in many ways that I had hoped:

(1) I'm much more aware of my own strengths and weaknesses. I thought I used to be, but a lot of things I was hiding from myself came out. 

(2) I learned what my own culture is. I realize that culture is internal to people, not something external to admire about them from afar, and I recognize the importance of approaching people with humility. 

(3)  I'm more dynamic, more comfortable in front of any group, and more assertive overall. This is especially true now, after having given improvised "charlas" in front of umpteenth captive Guatemalan audiences.

(4) My brain is way more analytical. I'm a bit of a dreamer by nature, but something about being in a foreign environment with so many challenges trained my brain to zone in on ideas, turn them over, rip them apart. I'm definitely more critical and "creative" in that way.

(5) I'm addicted to vegetables, and really not at all into processed foods any more. The experience really broke a lot of the addiction pathways for junk food in my brain. Which is nice!

A lot of people talk about Peace Corps as a personal growth experience. As they say, "What doesn't kill you..." though I don't think that's totally the case for everyone. Like many volunteers, I faced challenges that pushed me into a difficult place, and changed me in some ways I didn’t expect:

(1) I'm way less patient than I was before. I thought Peace Corps would make me crazy patient and flexible, but more often it just made me crazy. Like a muscle, you have to strengthen patience with carefully chosen loads, or you’ll sprain something.

(2) I'm more pessimistic or skeptical. I felt so constrained in my first 3-6 months that I sort of trained myself to assume many things weren't even worth trying, to accept that inertia. It's been great to recuperate my normal optimistic mindset.

(3) I don't remember "facts" as well as I used to. I forgot most of my technical schooling, not that calculus is particularly useful unless you're building rockets. It's interesting to be back in a place where having that knowledge is not only useful but also admirable.

There are also all the quirky little changes, some short term, like: I find it impossible to mix organic and inorganic trash. Styrofoam makes me angry. I felt really awkward in social situations in the US for a long time - how do you say hello, or ask someone for something, or say goodbye? I had a terrible time being close to on time for anything for a long while.

The Peace Corps experience testifies to the fantastic plasticity of our brains. I wish I'd realized at the time how habit-forming everyday life would be - how the rollercoaster of a new environment, a new culture, new languages, new food, social isolation, mental exhaustion, freedom, stress, and even boredom can lead to amazing changes in the brain… both wanted and unwanted. 

How about you? How has Peace Corps changed you or your loved ones?