Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Peace Corps Site is Not Mine

An interesting part of Peace Corps culture is that many volunteers refer to the sites where they live, and others’ sites, as though they belong to them – “my town” ;  “her village” ; “his city”. I remember reading a HuffPost editorial one night on my Tigo modem Internet that criticized volunteers for doing that, for pretending like we’re not sitting on the emergency ejection seat with parachute at the ready.

I was definitely one of those volunteers, and I remember thinking about it for approximately two seconds before dismissing it: “Okay. I get it. But I’m here. I know the people here. She doesn’t. I’m invested. She doesn’t get it.”

Leaving Guatemala nailed home one certain thing for me: the site where I lived was not my town.  I love that town. I poured two years of myself into the people I met there. But it’s not mine. On some level, I knew all this from the moment I moved there.  I was an outsider, and it took a while for people to get to know me. Walking on the streets, I could feel palpable discomfort from some people. I never did get to know everyone, and to some I was understandably representative of the systems that have oppressed many people in Guatemala.

Even so, if you had asked me at the time, I would have unhesitatingly called it my town. I experienced it daily in such a way. Getting smothered with love by my host siblings. Absorbing into the work flow of my host agency. My best friend, who I could count on any time of day for a laugh and a snack. The night my grandma passed away and two friends insisted I go out in the pouring rain so that they could buy me fried chicken. All of the people who showed so much kindness to me, who laughed with me, and who filled my life with meaning on a daily basis.

I'm not saying this is representative of all Peace Corps experiences; I speak for my experience alone. Yet I do think the Peace Corps culture of integration encourages people to consider their site to be a personal experience rather than a professional placement. The emotional isolation of the situation is another contributing factor. I had a strong instinct – perhaps better put as an emotional need – to identify with the people and places around me during the experience. It was part of my privilege as a wealthy US citizen to indulge that instinct despite significant racial and socioeconomic differences, to feel that in some way I belonged to the town.

So in that way I maintained cognitive dissonance about the privilege I had in the situation; foremost the ability to benefit from the experience of living there for two years, and then leave, on a plane, with a US passport, and not have to give a second thought to the people there and the structural challenges they face.  I tried to give more than I took, but in the so many intangible ways that the our actions ripple away, I'll never know whether I succeeded. I've always had the idea that I would find some way to stay involved with the town, especially with my closest friends if there is a way I can. There is nothing that forces me to do that, though.

And for the time being, I’m exercising that privilege. Somehow, despite the intensity of my feelings in the site where I lived, it was more than a year before I made a phone call back. My life is here, and though I’m constrained in certain ways, by family and economic opportunity, I mostly decide to be here.  I'm really looking forward to my first visit back this year, and I enjoy catching up with friends over Skype calls, instant messaging, the occasional phone call routed in Spanglish through my parent's house. Even so, it remains that I can choose when and how to bring my two years in Guatemala into my current life, if ever.  So no, my site is not mine, and never was.