May 8, 2011
LOOKING BACK

I was organizing my computer files the other day when I came across the site history report that I had to prepare before leaving Moldova. Basically, these site history reports are used by Peace Corps staff in deciding whether to continue placing volunteers in a given community and with a given partner or host family.

Clearly, a site history report will reflect the opinions of whomever wrote it, and a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) who has a bad experience in a given town or village will write a different story than a PCV who had a better experience in the same place. More importantly, however, the site history ideally should reflect a given PCV’s truthful opinions about his or her site, opinions unfettered by concerns about who might read it. The report is only useful if it’s honest and tells the whole truth.

I was never dishonest about what I wrote about my service on this site, but I was certainly selective about what I chose to write. Being a PCV with a blog can be a bit tricky, because anyone can read what you write, and for obvious reasons we are supposed to shy away from saying negative things about where we live or whom we work with.

After enough time passes after a breakup, we all tend to remember the better things about our exes; and so it is with me and Moldova (though it wasn’t a nasty break-up, and the good always outweighed the bad by far). Looking back, I found it interesting to read my site history and to be reminded of the difficult parts eight months later. And so do I present my site history report for your reading (n.b.: names have been redacted):

Site History Report - Anenii Noi
Site Summary
Anenii Noi is a raion center with a population of less than 10000 and about an hour by bus from Chisinau. The town and its nearby villages have been host to a number PCVs in the past, and it is in general a community that is welcoming to PCVs.

My primary partner organization was Liceul Teoretic Hyperion, a secondary school located in the town center. Hyperion has a student body of about 400 children in grades 10, 11, and 12. Students come to Hyperion from all over the district, and some live in an adjacent dormitory while classes are in session. The current director, Mr. E— M—, was installed as director at the end of the 2009-2010 academic year, following a sort of coup against the previous director, Ms. G— B—. Ms. B— herself was only director for the fall term in 2009, having just been elevated to the position following the retirement of the long-serving previous director. Ms. B—, a French teacher who I believe is no longer a faculty member at all, was anonymously accused of impropriety and denounced in a letter that was sent to national corruption investigators. She was hospitalized for stress when she was informed of the investigation, and did not return to the school for some weeks; she was replaced on an interim basis by the then-adjunct director, S— M— (who has since left for Italy).

From what I was able to find out, it was not clear that Ms. B— had done anything improper, and instead was the victim of the ambition of Mr. M—, who apparently had long coveted the directorship of the school. Mr. M— has outwardly never been anything but friendly and supportive of my presence, but I got the sense from my former host mother (who works at the district education office and knows these issues well) and my partner teachers that such machinations on his part (as in, the type that he may have committed in the lead-up to Ms. B—‘s departure) are not out of character. In short, Mr. M— is an excellent resource and takes his job seriously but is not to be trusted unequivocally. As for Mr. P—, the present adjunct director: he was always suspicious of me and I am not convinced that he is very good in his present position; I often overheard students gossiping about his awkward, forced attempts at flirtation with his female students. Other teachers at the school are generally open to the presence of a volunteer, though some more so than others. The gym teacher, N— V—, was especially supportive and helpful.

At Hyperion I worked with three partner teachers: J— P—, H— S—, and P— L—. Mr. L— is very bright, speaks the best English of the three, and is very Westernized (he has been to Iowa and Great Britain for extended trips), but has some health problems due to his age and does not prefer to dedicate much of his energy to his efforts in the classroom; he is more interested in raion politics that go on across the street from the school than teaching. He has also been known to miss school for weeks at a time, ostensibly for health issues but possibly for drinking binges. He is, however, a valuable partner in after-school undertakings such as Odyssey of the Mind, has useful connections throughout the town, and is a veteran grant proposal writer. He has some connections with other NGOs in town, and should be a point man for any community development projects.

H— S— is also very bright – she likes to read Shakespeare in English and also speaks very good French – and enjoys her job more than most teachers. She is the youngest of Hyperion’s English teachers, but is also very, very conservative, and can make inappropriate (by American standards) comments in class about religion or sexual orientation. She has two very young children, and will unexpectedly miss days at a time to care for them. She has a tendency to ignore weaker students and in general to give the students work that is much too difficult along with a lot of superfluous vocabulary. She is ambitious, and is a bit of an outcast among other faculty for her ambition; she has a tendency to rub people the wrong way. Her teaching skills require the most work, and as she can be stubborn it will take a very strong-willed volunteer to break her of her bad classroom habits.

J— P— is, in short, the best partner a volunteer could ask for. Her English is the weakest of the three, but she is very, very good with students – she effortlessly makes lessons entertaining for students while still ensuring they learn – and she is always open minded about new methods and activities. She understands what is truly important in the classroom. She also is a straight-talker, and is a valuable resource for a volunteer trying to understand goings-on in the school and in the community.

Anenii Noi has a hospital near the middle of town and quite a few people who speak English well who could be potential tutors. Internet, banking services, and mobile phone service are all ubiquitous. There are at least a dozen buses to Chisinau every day that leave from the new, modern bus station; the trip takes an hour and buses generally leave every twenty-five minutes. The train stops outside of town near the road to Bulboaca and Cobusca.

Anenii Noi is generally safe. I did hear one unsubstantiated story of a teenage girl being raped and possibly murdered behind the outhouses at the local discotheque this summer. Having been to that disco myself, I can say that the fact that this might have happened at this spot is not surprising. I’ve also heard a story about a string of unresolved murders a decade or more ago, and another story about local mafia meeting in the woods on the edge of town.

In general, people in Anenii Noi are receptive to the Peace Corps. The Russian school, unfortunately, has had a string of bad luck with volunteers who terminated their service early under less-than-ideal circumstances, and one female volunteer there in particular established quite a negative reputation for herself in the town. The two Romanian schools, on the other hand, remember their volunteers fondly. A recent agribusiness volunteer was quickly forgotten; I did not meet anyone who knew him during my time in town. In my experience, it is not made clear to town members that volunteers are not paid a teacher’s salary and are in fact volunteers; advertising this fact better would go along way for increasing public opinion in the town. Romanian speakers will have some difficulty, as most people speak Russian on the street, and I would estimate that 80% of conversations I hear are in Russian. People working at local restaurants and shops often will only speak Russian and do not understand Romanian at all.

A— and V— D— were my hosts for the first six months at site.  They are supportive, wonderful hosts, and I had no complaints. After that, I moved into a house in the nearby village of Bulboaca. The house is owned by a man named V— who owns the AutoService next to the gas station in Bulboaca. The house is old, has a sink with running water, but no refrigerator, bath, or indoor toilet. During the winter there was a serious rodent problem. V— wants to sell the house, and will overcharge you if he thinks he can get away with it. I cannot recommend that a volunteer stay in this house again. For more housing possibilities, I would recommend calling J— P— and would avoid asking teachers at the Russian school for recommendations. Another possibility is A— D—; she is a American high school exchange program alumna and may have housing suggestions.

Work Summary
In addition to teaching at Hyperion, I also was involved with the local basketball team and coached an Odyssey of the Mind team at my school. I can strongly recommend that subsequent volunteers get involved with Odyssey of the Mind; there are a number of local kids with experience in the program, and its goals align well with the goals of the EE program. Before I left, I was set to begin a new civic education project with P— L—, and this is something he is still interested in; I still feel that such a project has great potential and would recommend following up on it. V— S— is a good contact for local athletics and youth programming. He has been to the United States and enjoys working with volunteers, and is interested in working with future PCVs on sports camps and the like.

Final Recommendations
I can strongly recommend that another PCV be assigned to Anenii Noi, and in particular to Hyperion. My students and partners all expressed to me that they would like another volunteer. I would recommend that any future volunteer at Hyperion be particularly good with older students and be much more than just an English teacher, as the high quality of both the English teachers and the students demands a volunteer who can share other skills and experience with them.

Anenii Noi would also be a good site for a community development volunteer. There are opportunities for work in both civic education and in general youth development. I would strongly recommend, however, that any community development volunteer be trained in Russian rather than Romanian.

3:57pm
  
FILED UNDER: moldova peace corps 
October 29, 2010
REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK REARS ITS HIPSTER HEAD

Recently, I wrote that in my experience so far, Peace Corps’ warnings about ‘reverse culture shock’ have been overstated. I still think that’s true, but wanted to relate the following:

It comes as no surprise that, as an unemployed former Peace Corps volunteer who, after five weeks, is still sleeping on his friend’s sectional, I am one of the most poorly dressed twentysomethings in DC. Not that I was ever on the cutting edge of fashion, but before I went into the Peace Corps I gave a lot of my clothes to Goodwill, and so now I have only what I had with me in Moldova plus two ill-fitting suits, a few dingy white dress shirts, and a suitcase full of grey, Tennessee-sports themed t-shirts my mom sent to me when I got back. In a town full of well-dressed yuppies and judgmental hipsters (not to be too pejorative), I feel like I fell off the turnip truck whenever I go out in public.

Although hipster-ism has been around awhile, I have never been around it, or at least, didn’t know I was. I lived in Austin for a year before I went to law school and didn’t think it was as awesome as everyone says it is: whenever I wanted to go out and do something fun, I ended up feeling like I wasn’t supposed to be where I was because I wasn’t cool enough. At the time I didn’t know the word for these people who thronged the dive music venues around Sixth Street, who wore oversized headphones on the bus, and who seemed to look down upon my apparently Springsteen-album-cover-inspired “look” and mainstream taste in music. They had just started to arrive in Nashville — a city I love and have long described to people as an Austin that doesn’t care how cool it is — when I left for Moldova, but still didn’t know who these people were. And it’s no big surprise that they weren’t around in the village in Moldova, where mesh shirts are high fashion. It’s only now that I’ve come back, to a relatively buttoned-down, slacker-free city no less, that I’ve come to know the hipster.

My second week back, still before I knew what hipster truly meant, I had an interview. The weather report said that there would be rain on the morning I’d be walking around in my suit, so I decided that after taking in a movie (my first in a theater in 17 months!), I would stop somewhere convenient to get an umbrella. Next door to the theater was what seemed to be, from the outside, a chain clothing store: pretty standard mall stuff, if a little trendier than the Gap or J Crew. (I went in only because it happened to be next door and seemed to be the only place in the immediate vicinity that might sell umbrellas. I don’t have a car, and the place I’d normally go — Target — is not easily accessible.) I expected that I might be forced to buy something like an umbrella with a PBR logo on it, but I rationalized the idea by saying it would be worth it to not have to walk all over the place. Thus began my first experience with a place called Urban Outfitters.

And I nearly had a panic attack.

The experience was more frightening than anything I ever confronted in Moldova — even hitchhiking with a car full of thick-necked, possibly drunk Russians. I’ve never been in a place where I so viscerally felt I didn’t belong, and while I was cautiously browsing through all of the ironic chatchkas in the accessory section looking for my umbrella, I overheard a girl who was wearing a fedora and a scarf on a 90 degree day call the band Grizzly Bear “too mainstream” for her. She saw me looking at her, stopped, looked me up and down, and (I’m pretty sure) rolled her eyes before continuing. I had to get out of there.

And so here I am, returned from the Peace Corps, wearing my ratty dad jeans out to bars where every dude is either in a suit or bearded and wearing a t-shirt with airbrushed unicorns on it.  One of these is not like the others.

(If you want a good read today, check out this piece in New York Magazine on hipsters; I learned a lot, including that I apparently am a little hipster myself given my affinity for Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s, the movie Rushmore, and a v-neck shirt I have that I don’t always wear as an undershirt.)

October 4, 2010
HOMECOMING

It’s now been about two and a half weeks since I returned to the States. Peace Corps, from the beginning, makes a big show of warning returning volunteers about the dangers of ‘reverse culture shock,’ but I’m not really surprised to find that those warnings seemed overblown. Either reverse culture shock has passed me by, or I’m in for a delayed freak-out in the coming weeks.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t had some social anxiety now that I’m home. I still find myself mapping out sentences in my head — sometimes in Romanian — before I’m forced to interact with Washington’s countless waitresses, cashiers, and bartenders, only to have it all come out stilted: “I pay money to you now?” Even before I went to Moldova, I made mental conversation scripts in English as a prelude to any kind of unfamiliar social interaction — especially before making a phone call when I thought there was a possibility I would be forced to leave a message — but in Moldova I couldn’t function without it. (In fact, I knew I had ‘made it’ linguistically when I could make an off-the-cuff phone call in Romanian; talking on the phone in a foreign language is harder than it might seem.) I’m really hoping it (the scripting) wears off soon — it’s not a tic that comes off as endearing.

Coming home has also taken me down a peg or two socially. In Moldova I could count on the fact that most locals I met under the age of fifty were going to like me simply because I was a funny foreigner who smiled at them and who made an effort in their own language; now, I actually have to be likable. My time in Moldova was also the only time in my life when I could effortlessly strike up a conversation with the prettiest girl in the room; as a decent-looking American who has all his teeth and doesn’t smoke, pass out drunk in the street, or hit women, I was well-aware of the fact that I was one of the most eligible bachelors within a ten mile radius. Now, I’m just an unemployed twenty-something who sleeps on his friend’s sectional and has three suitcases of possessions, no car, and ratty clothes. My desirability, street cred, and general local importance have plummeted to ranking just above that of a member of the glee club. I never felt comfortable in the spotlight, but didn’t expect to miss it.

The Peace Corps cliche says that the physical hardships are the easy part of serving, and modern American conveniences have been easy to get used to having again, but my appreciation for them has not worn off. Hot water (and potable water, more importantly) makes me feel spoiled, as does access to a washer and dryer. The toilet paper is soft, the fridge cold; milk lasts days, not mere hours. But the things I missed the most were more subtle: long morning runs without stares or mud, college football with friends and a glass of bourbon. The hardest part of being a volunteer was always having no choice in how to allocate my finite supply of willpower and patience — this is the best way I can think of to articulate that struggle, but it doesn’t come close to capturing the soul-crushing frustration a volunteer feels on some days. Turning the other cheek at a rude comment, remaining mindful of the volunteer’s role as local American ambassador, and capitulating to the attitudes and superstitions of villagers, to list a few of the job’s requirements, wear down the spirit and leave very little mental energy for anything else. The absence of that albatross is what I now revel in the most, and perhaps that’s why I’ve yet to use a microwave, eat fast food, or drink a Dr. Pepper — those conveniences seem even more trivial than they did while I was in Moldova.

Leaving the village was hard.  I had written a couple of paragraphs about my last few days there, but my computer locked up and I don’t want to rewrite them now — maybe later this week. I want to acknowledge all the nice comments I’ve received in the last few weeks — I think it would be obnoxious to respond to them all — so now that my service has ended I would like to thank you all for reading.

8:47pm
  
FILED UNDER: moldova peace corps 
June 23, 2010

riotousroots said: Hi! I just found your blog and really like it so far. I'd love to go into the Peace Corps after college (this would be four years down the road) so I was just wondering what the process of entering such an organization was like. Do you enjoy your work?

All I can say about the PC application process is that it seems more designed to weed people out who aren’t committed rather than to put people in the best place for their talents. The whole process is unnecessarily difficult and frustrating. I had great grades in college, had put in time in difficult conditions abroad when I worked on archaeological excavations, had experience learning a difficult language, and came with a law degree on top of all that; my placement officer told me I was underqualified to be in the Peace Corps and made me jump through a bunch of unnecessary hoops just to get here, presumably to test my resolve.

As for whether I enjoy it: teaching is difficult, and doing community-development stuff is even tougher. It’s frustrating to work so hard for something so intangible — you may never see the fruits of your labors. And living in a strange culture requires innumerable surrenders on your part every day that add up to a larger, existential headache.

The easiest part, being the semi-official American ambassador to my community, is what sustains me. Making friends and trying to get everyone to like me (and by extension, the United States), preconceptions and stereotypes notwithstanding, deliver satisfying moments more frequently than the other parts of the job. For example, every time someone gives me a backhanded compliment like, ‘I thought all Americans were morbidly obese until I met you,’ or, ‘I thought all Americans were boorish, but you’re not at all,’ or, ‘I thought all Americans cared about was money, but what you’re doing is really great,’ my Grinch-like heart grows three sizes. Maybe it’s not enough to make up for the negative perception the United States has abroad, but getting them to put a benevolent face to the superpower that in their estimation has only given the world Britney Spears, McDonald’s, and Guantanamo Bay is a fulfilling little victory in a job where big victories are few and far between.

June 4, 2010

Anonymous said: Hey I'm thinking about applying for the corp for your or another eastern european location. Your blog is great I really like reading it, just found it earlier this week. I have two questions, the first is that are you placed with other PCV's and how do you meet other PCV in the region? Though training? Are you placed near each other? Do you hang out after work or is it mostly you see each other on vacation times? I need some understanding of what the social life is like so I can better picture how a typical day would be. Also, I'm a girl, I'm worried about the safety of that area of the world, do you know any PCV that are girls and how they feel about safety?

Thanks so much for your time! I'll keep reading :D

Are you placed with other Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and how do you meet up?
  • A big group of us went through training together last summer — about sixty — and during that time we lived in smaller groups in 4 or 5 separate villages. I had 2 volunteers as neighbors during training, and there were 16 of us overall in one village. As for site placement, it all depends. I actually started out as one of two volunteers in my town, but the other volunteer quit. There is one volunteer about 15 minutes from me, and another about 20 minutes away. Other PCVs have to travel much further to find the nearest American. I go into the capital at least twice a month — usually on weekends — and I always see other PCVs then. In general, you see other PCVs as much as you care to, though unless you are in the same town as another volunteer, social time will usually have to be on the weekends.
How is it being a female PCV in Moldova?
  • Being a female PCV in Moldova is a unique challenge. As Americans in small villages and towns that normally don’t see many outsiders, all of us generally get a lot of unwanted attention, and that can cause problems for the women. There have been a handful of incidents of sexual assault on PCVs here in the past. Such incidents are, of course, never the victim’s fault, but I can tell you that with responsible decision-making w/r/t alcohol and a bit of common-sense (like knowing it’s a bad idea to walk down a desolate country road alone, for example), tragedies of that nature are usually avoidable. In the end, how safe you feel is really up to you: the better you are at integrating into your host community, the more your host community members will have a stake in seeing to it that nothing ill befalls you. Most female PCVs make it through their service without anything terrible happening apart from unwelcome stares or lewd comments.

Got a question? Ask me! Seriously — and it doesn’t have to be related to anything I’ve written here; the randomer the better.

7:06pm
FILED UNDER: ask! peace corps 
May 12, 2010

Anonymous said: Could you tell us what learning Romanian was like? What language experience did you have pre-Peace Corps? How much did you learn before you left? etc. etc.

Just as my service here in Moldova has had its peaks and valleys, so has my language learning. During our twelve weeks of training, learning Romanian was almost effortless; I was bound to learn a whole lot since no one in my host family spoke English and I had to find some way of communicating. It’s been more of a challenge to continue to improve my Romanian since training ended simply because at the end of the day I have limited mental energy to devote to studying, but I’ve been consistently getting better at it since I moved out on my own because I am now forced to tackle any number of strange situations on a given day just to take care of everyday business.

Being an English teacher, I sort of got the short end of the stick since I’m not forced to use my language skills as much as volunteers who work with NGOs, mayor’s offices, or those who teach health; they all do their jobs in Romanian. In fact, I’m expected to speak as much English as possible at work, so I sometimes go whole days without speaking a word of Romanian, while volunteers in other programs go days without speaking English. Because of this disadvantage, the volunteers who are English teachers are generally the weakest Romanian and Russian speakers among the four programs, though there are exceptions.

I have three major gripes with the way we were taught Romanian: (1) our language instructors — native Romanian speakers themselves who speak good English — are told by Peace Corps not to use any English during the lessons; (2) the textbook we used was terrible; and (3) we were taught proper Romanian Romanian, not the Romanian that most Moldovans speak.

As for the first gripe, I understand the philosophy behind not using English in the classroom, but it’s my opinion that some points of grammar are so foreign to us as language learners that they will remain obfuscated until clarified in terms that we understand, while the immersive value of the Romanian-only-in-the-classroom rule is minimal when every waking moment of our day is an immersion experience. My complaint about the textbook is also about grammar instruction: the book presents the grammar piecemeal as mere examples to be memorized, not in a way that will allow you to see a reductive pattern that you can learn to apply to new constructions on the fly as a way of experimenting with what you’ve learned — in my opinion, how you can really learn a language.

As for my third complaint: while I enjoy the compliment I sometimes get from Moldovans that I speak Romanian like a Romanian, it makes life much more difficult when I don’t know the local word for something basic, especially when our Romanian-made dictionaries are no help. We were strongly discouraged from learning Russian words during training, even though sometimes the Russian word for something may be the only word a Moldovan knows for that thing. And apart from the Russian words that have crept into the Moldovan vernacular, the differences between Romanian Romanian and Moldovan Romanian are many. I won’t go into the minutiae here, but if someone asks for it I’d be happy to tell everyone all about it. Simply put, the difference between Romanian as spoken by Moldovans and Romanian as spoken by Romanians is like the difference between Appalachian English and the Queen’s English: there are many words that are just plain different or don’t exist in the other dialect — like holler (used as a noun describing a feature of geography) in Appalachian English or lorry in British English — as well as marked, regular changes in pronunciation. We weren’t even told to expect these differences by our teachers.

I’m a bit of a language nerd. I had four years of French in high school, tested out of two years of college French, took a year of Italian and a year and a half of German while in college, as well as three years of ancient Greek and two years of Latin. I also studied Greek and Latin for an additional year when I was in a PhD program (which I quit in order to go to law school), and I did some graduate-level coursework in linguistic typology and universal grammar. There was maybe a point in my life at which I spoke Italian and French as well as I spoke Romanian at the end of training, but that’s a big maybe; I can still read a bit of French, while all of my Italian and German has left me for want of an opportunity to put them to use. I have a good understanding of the way languages function in general, so understanding the nuts and bolts of a language’s grammar has never been a problem for me. Getting beyond that, though, has always been difficult, in part because I’m not very good at learning vocabulary.

I didn’t learn much Romanian before I left because I couldn’t find a good descriptive grammar book in English and because a lot of the pronunciation rules are difficult to understand until you actually get here and hear the language being spoken on the street. Romanian has a couple of vowel sounds that are difficult for English speakers to make, and there are some pronunciation rules that are almost impossible to get a grasp on from across the Atlantic. Frankly, I knew almost nothing when I arrived. Everyone else was pretty much in the same boat.

I am still learning new words and constructions every week just from talking to people, but most of my energy I devote to studying Russian on my own because it’s so widely spoken in my town. I taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet during the fall, and now I can count to sixty in Russian, describe colors, and name some items around the house. I can make very, very simple sentences, and I know some colorful cuss words as a result of playing basketball with Russian speakers. Hopefully, once school is out, I’ll have the opportunity to devote more time to it.

Finally, for those incoming volunteers who want to know which language you will be learning: no matter what you hear, there is no real rhyme or reason behind who gets assigned to what language. I had heard that people who had studied a non-Romance language or a language that was written in a different alphabet get put into Russian, but I know at least three people for whom that is not true, including myself. I actually asked to be put into Russian, but my request was ignored, despite my relatively broad (albeit shallow) experience with languages. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

Got a question? Ask me! Seriously — and it doesn’t have to be related to anything I’ve written here; the randomer the better.

May 7, 2010

Anonymous said: I just recently discovered your blog and I really love it. I haven't gotten to read through everything because I've only just finished exams and completed my [first year of law school], so I've been a little hectic up until now. Anyway, I have several friends who are RPCVs, including my ex boyfriend who I obviously got to talk about the Peace Corps with quite a bit. I gave some consideration to applying when I graduated from college in 2008, but ultimately didn't and started law school last fall. I know I want to do something in the public sector, very likely environmental law, but am now regretting that I didn't take more time to get a little bit more life experience kind of stuff, and am really feeling compelled to do something. I traveled for a while during my year between college and law school (and in the past have traveled quite a bit), but wish I had traveled more and I've been starting to think about whether I'd like to serve in the Peace Corps after graduating. I think alternatively I would spend a year or a little more traveling. I know that there is a lot of opportunity for traveling and other great experiences while working as a volunteer, but there is a lot I want to see and I might like the opportunity to have broader experiences, but I'm wondering if the Peace Corps would give me a little more legitimacy as far as having something on my resume rather than a block of time where I wasn't doing anything after finishing law school. Anyway, the thought of joining the Peace Corps after law school hadn't really crossed my mind at all until I found your blog and I'm curious to hear what your thoughts are. My other concerns are about feeling like I'm not doing a whole lot; I know a lot of people feel frustrated in trying to do their projects either because of local hesitation or problems with Peace Corps itself. (It seems like the latter has been kind of an issue for you?) But overall do you still feel like it's been a good experience?

Thanks for the kind words; I’m always happy to hear that people are finding something of value in what I write. And congrats on finishing your first year of law school — the hard part is over.

I have had some frustrations with Peace Corps itself but they’ve been resolved for the most part. I’d say the biggest problem I have with PC is that I don’t find my particular job intellectually satisfying, but in a month my job here will change, a change I’ve asked PC to make to take care of that problem. My days are always full, but every volunteer’s experience is different, and whether you are satisfied with what you might be doing is more dependent on your personality than on Peace Corps itself. As for me, I think that joining the Peace Corps after law school may be the best decision I’ve ever made.

I can’t really give you a whole lot of advice on what sort of difference doing something like joining the Peace Corps will make in getting a job after you’re finished because (1) I’m not there yet and (2) I have no idea what I will try to do when I do get there. If you are planning on practicing law, I can say that it would probably be difficult to graduate from law school, join the Peace Corps, then get the sort of job that actually involves writing briefs or going into courtrooms, whether it be in private practice or in the public sector. Think of it this way: if you were hiring an attorney, would you want someone who has never practiced law but just finished law school and took the bar, or someone who has never practiced law and has spent the last two years forgetting everything he/she learned getting that JD? In my experience, lawyers who are hiring other lawyers generally care more about easily-packaged achievements on your resume like law review than life-changing experiences; they want to know that you can find stuff on Westlaw and don’t really care or want to hear whether you’ve grown as a person recently. I don’t plan on ever setting foot in a courtroom or opening a Bluebook again, so that’s not an issue for me — but it might be something for you to consider if you are worried about legitimacy. Of course, spending two years in the Peace Corps will probably look a lot more legitimate to a potential employer than wandering around the globe for a year if you don’t have much to show them you’ve learned or done once you’ve come home.

If Peace Corps is something you want to do and will regret not doing down the line, I have a crazy suggestion for you: apply to the Peace Corps now, leaving as soon as possible, take a sabbatical from law school, and finish the last year or two when you’re done with PC. That way you can have your cake and eat it too. Otherwise, you can get that traveling fix by spending your second year or part of your third year of law school abroad on an internship, of which there are plenty if you have the wherewithal to get there, and set yourself up for a job abroad when you graduate.

In retrospect, I probably should have done something like that, but I didn’t want to miss college football season or break up with my girlfriend at the time to do so. (If I’m being completely honest, it may have been just about the football.) I guess that can tell you something about how out of whack my priorities can be, so you might want to take my advice with a big grain of salt.

Got a question? Ask me! Seriously — and it doesn’t have to be related to anything I’ve written here.

6:54am
FILED UNDER: ask! law school peace corps 

Anonymous said: Being a person who loves bikes and their ability to make transportation a bit more enjoyable than say walking or taking the bus, I was wondering if you had one or knew other volunteers who had them. Are they easy to come by?

I have a bike, but it is still not operational. Peace Corps gives us about ninety dollars if we want a bike and get it cleared with our program manager, so there are a few volunteers with bikes. We are required to wear helmets, though — if you get caught on a bike without a helmet, PC will send you home automatically, no questions asked — and that discourages some people because no one here wears helmets and wearing one is like just asking kids to throw rocks at you. As for the question of whether they are easy to come by, my experience would say no: I bought the only bike I could find in my price range that wasn’t going to be a huge hassle to get home, and it sucks.

Got a question? Ask me!

April 3, 2010

What follows is a (long) excerpt from an essay in the January 12, 2009 issue of the New Yorker by Peter Hessler, a former Peace Corps volunteer in China. Despite the fact that his service was in a different world for a different Peace Corps and a different America, just about everything he writes about it — from why people really apply to what service does to you — is accurate. The only big difference I notice is that Peace Corps seems to be all up in my hair more than it was ever in his.

Goettig and I had both joined the Peace Corps in 1996, when it seemed slightly anachronistic to become a volunteer. President John F. Kennedy had founded the organization at the height of the Cold War, and back then it was immensely popular, attracting idealistic young people who were concerned about America’s role in the developing world. Later, after the Vietnam War, the Peace Corps suffered as the nation experienced a wave of cynicism about foreign policy. Since the attacks of September 11th, the significance of the Peace Corps has changed again — nowadays anybody who joins is likely to have thought hard about personal responsibility in time of war.
During the mid-nineties, though, there were no major national events that weighed on volunteers. It was hard to say what motivated a person to spend two years abroad, and we went for countless reasons. Most of the volunteers I knew possessed some strain of idealism, but usually it was understated, and often people felt slightly uncomfortable speaking in such terms. Goettig told me that during his interview with the Peace Corps the recruiter had asked him to rate his ‘commitment to community’ on a scale of one to five. Goettig gave himself a three. After a long pause, the recruiter started asking questions. You’ve worked in a drug-treatment center, right? You’re teaching now, aren’t you? Finally, the recruiter said, ‘O.K., I’ll put you down as a four.’ Goettig told me later that one reason he signed up was that he had a girlfriend in Minnesota who wanted to get serious. I heard the same thing from a few other volunteers — the toughest job you’ll ever love was also the easiest way to end a relationship.
Back then, I wouldn’t have told a recruiter my own true motivations. I wanted time to write, but I didn’t want to go to school anymore and I couldn’t imagine working a regular job. I liked the idea of learning a foreign language; I was interested in teaching for a couple of years. I sensed that life in the Peace Corps would be unstructured, which appealed to me; but they called it volunteerism, which would make my parents happy. My mother and father, in Missouri, were Catholics who remembered Kennedy fondly — later I learned that the Peace Corps has always drawn a high number of Catholics. For some reason, it’s particularly popular in the Midwest. Of the thirteen volunteers in my Peace Corps group, six came from Midwestern states. It had to do with solid middle-country liberalism, but there was also an element of escape. Some of my peers had never left the country before, and one volunteer from Mississippi had never travelled in an airplane.
None of us were remotely prepared for China. Nobody had lived there or studied the language beyond a few basics; we knew virtually nothing about Chinese history. One of the first things we learned was that the Communist Party was suspicious of our presence. We were told that during the Cultural Revolution, the government had accused the Peace Corps of links with the C.I.A. These things were no longer said publicly, but some factions in the Chinese government were still wary of accepting American volunteers. It wasn’t until 1993 that the first Peace Corps teachers showed up, and I was part of the third group.
We must have been monitored closely. I’ve often wondered what the Chinese security officials though — if our cluelessness confused them or simply made them more suspicious. They must have struggled to figure out what these individuals had in common, and why the United States government had chosen to send them to China. There were a few wild cards guaranteed to throw off any assessment. A year ahead of me, an older man had joined up after retiring from the U.S. Coast Guard. Everybody called him the Captain, and he was a devoted fan of Rush Limbaugh; at training sessions he wore a Ronald Reagan T-shirt, which stood out on the Chinese college campus where he lived. At one point, I was told, a Peace Corps official said, ‘Maybe you should change your shirt.’ The Captain replied, ‘Maybe you should reread your Constitution.’ (This was in the city of Chengdu.) One day, while teaching a class of young Chinese, the Captain drew a line on the blackboard and wrote ‘Adam Smith’ on one side and ‘Karl Marx’ on the other. “O.K., class, short lesson today,’ he announce. ‘This works; this doesn’t.’ In the end, the Peace Corps expelled him for breaking a cabby’s side-view mirror during an argument on Chengdu street. (This altercation happened to occur on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, a detail that probably escaped the Chinese security file.)
After a while, though, it was almost possible to forget who had sent you and why you had come. Most of us taught at small colleges in remote cities, and there wasn’t much direct contact with the Peace Corps. Only occasionally did a curriculum request filter down from the top, like the campaign for Green English. This was a worldwide project: the Peace Corps wanted educational volunteers to incorporate environmental themes into their teaching. One of my peers in China started modestly, with a debate about whether littering was bad or good. This split the class right down the middle. A number of students argued passionately that lots of Chinese people were employed in picking up garbage, and if there wasn’t any litter they would lose their jobs. How would people eat when all the trash was gone? The debate had no clear resolution, other than effectively ending Green English.
The experience changed you, but not necessarily in the way you’d expect. It was a bad job for hard-core idealists, most of whom ended up frustrated and unhappy. Pragmatists survived, and the smart ones set small daily goals: learning a new Chinese phrase or teaching a poem to a class of eager students. Long-term plans tended to be abandoned. Flexibility was important, and so was a sense of humor. There had been nothing funny about the Peace Corps brochures, and the typical American view of the developing world was deadly serious — there were countries to be saved and countries to be feared. That was too of the Communists, too; their propaganda didn’t have an ounce of humor. But the Chinese people themselves could be surprisingly lighthearted. They laughed at everything about me: my nose, the way I dressed, my use of their language. It was a terrible place for somebody stiffly proud to be an American. Sometimes I thought of the Peace Corps as a reverse refugee organization, displacing all these lost Midwesterners, and it was probably the only government entity that taught Americans to abandon key national characteristics. Pride, ambition, impatience, the instinct to control, the desire to accumulate, the missionary impulse — all of it slipped away.

7:47pm
  
FILED UNDER: peace corps 
March 16, 2010
THE HARDEST PART

When I first came to Moldova, I heard some longer-tenured volunteers say things like, “I read eighty books last year,” or, “I taught myself how to play the guitar over the winter — you’ll have a lot of free time when it gets dark at three in the afternoon,” or, “I run twice a day — there’s plenty of time for it,” or better yet, “Some weeks I had so little to do that I literally memorized entire pages of my Romanian-English dictionary.” I had planned on working hard every day here, but I was also thrilled to hear that people who seemed like good volunteers had time to spend on themselves in addition to helping their communities. I had hoped that my Peace Corps service would allow me the opportunity to do something practical and helpful for once in my life while still being able to exercise my body and my mind in my free time. And, after all, I only would have twenty hours of teaching time a week — that’s half of a full time job! — so I was convinced that I would be guaranteed to get in some quality ‘me’ time while still doing something to help others, or, at least more free time than I would have working at a law firm.

Oh, how wrong that all was. I’m not sure whether I’m just not as productive of a worker as the volunteers who apparently have all this free time, whether I have more opportunities for work in my community than they do, or whether I’m less willing to shirk my responsibilities for some personal time, but I’ve had exactly two days to spend on myself since the first week of January, and that includes weekends. Apart from those two days, I’ve filled the days doing something related to my job, and yet, I feel like I’m still leaving the majority of my work undone or doing it poorly. 

I’m not the only person who feels this way, and Peace Corps is aware of this problem. Our Country Director makes sympathetic overtures — usually a weekly pep talk in an e-mail — but in practice I find I’m more discouraged after talking to my Program Manager (my direct supervisor) than encouraged. For example, once a semester our Program Manager (or her assistant) comes to observe a class at each English volunteer’s school.  Last fall, I lucked out, and my supervisor came late and missed the class; but last month, her assistant came and observed one of my lessons with a twelfth grade class. My partner teacher and I work hard to make our lessons interesting for our students — they are in general all very good kids when they are intellectually stimulated — while also doing what’s mandated by the Ministry of Education: following the curriculum and using a textbook that explains grammar about as well as Sarah Palin explains intricate issues of foreign policy. The lesson that the Assistant Program Manager observed went so well that I wish every lesson could go as smoothly (and I am certain that a very small minority of English lessons in this country are as productive), yet what I took away from her comments afterward was that we were doing more things wrong than right. I spent more time preparing for that forty-five minute lesson than I did most exams in college and had barely slept in three days, and what she felt like dwelling upon was how we didn’t devote enough time to grammar during the lesson.

Another example: as English Education volunteers we are supposed to write lesson plans with our partners for every lesson that we teach; this requirement is evidently not Peace Corps’ but the Moldovan Ministry of Education’s. When our Assistant Program Manager, on a visit to observe another EE volunteer, asked to see some of that volunteer’s lesson plans and was told that she didn’t have them, the Assistant Program Manager told her that if she’s not writing her lesson plans then she’s not doing her job. The volunteer cried, and afterward she told me, “All I do is my job, and I’m supposed to be a volunteer.” One sympathizes: I rarely walk away from any sort of interaction with my supervisor, as supportive as she tries to be, feeling like I’m doing my job correctly. And Peace Corps wonders why it has a morale problem.

Peace Corps Moldova has volunteers in four programs: English Education (EEs), Health Education (Healthies), Agrobusiness (Ags), and Community Development (CODs).  The CODs and Ags work at town halls and NGOs across the country, and in general volunteers in both programs do the sort of work that you think of when you think of the Peace Corps: writing grant proposals for installing indoor plumbing in schools, raising money in a community to create a working school nurse’s office, and so on.  As far as the EE program is concerned, in addition to our responsibilities as teachers, we are also supposed to be CODs in whatever additional time we have (mostly during the summer).

In theory, this sounds like a great idea — combining a regular assignment with the sort of scattershot, grassroots development work that can help a community get what it needs to grow — but in practice doing both things well is impossible. Designing interactive, stimulating lessons for the number of hours we are expected to teach is difficult enough back in the United States, but when you’re teaching for the first time, teaching in a foreign culture, and living with time-consuming physical hardships (hand-washing clothes definitely takes away from my lesson plan writing time), you have a full plate. On the other hand, it’s difficult to tackle a community’s other development problems in a summer; most EE volunteers have one or two relatively small community development projects during the course of their service. I find I’m doing a mediocre job on both fronts thus far, and based on the opportunities and resources in my community, I think my time would be better spent working on development projects rather than teaching.

Philosophically I find my job to be even more frustrating. In my opinion, what my community in Moldova needs are creative young people who are motivated to invest themselves in their community, not English speakers; presently, a straw poll of my students shows that roughly ninety percent of them want to leave Moldova if they can to find work or study abroad. In theory, Peace Corps has an English Education program because 

people realized that English was a valuable tool to help strengthen links with the democratic countries of the West, to enable Moldovans to participate more fully in international information exchange, and to better integrate into the international community from which it had been isolated during the Soviet era. (from the Peace Corps Moldova EE Project Plan)

In other words, having an English-speaking workforce would encourage Western businesses to invest in Moldova, which in turn would create jobs and increase the quality of life here. In practice, however, this isn’t happening because Moldova’s laws discourage foreign investment and make it difficult to start a business. Because there aren’t jobs here, young people have to leave to find work.  Perversely, the better I do my job, the more I enable my students to flee their country, since those who speak English and can help their communities the most stand a better chance of obtaining a visa and living abroad legally.

Moldova presently has around one quarter of its population living abroad, and although remittances have helped Moldovans improve their living conditions, this mass emigration has created a phenomenon whereby many villages seem bereft of anyone between the ages of sixteen and sixty. No society will prosper if its workforce has fled, and a generation of Moldovans is growing up with one or both parents abroad. This student made film accurately captures the malaise:

And here is another, more light-hearted take on this phenomenon:

In short, not having enough time to do a good job on everything that needs to be done is frustrating; being told that you aren’t doing your job when that’s all you do is disheartening; and realizing that your hard work may just be pouring gasoline on a fire is heartbreaking.  

I suppose my point is that the hardest part of being a volunteer has not been learning a new language, trudging through the snow to use the bathroom in the morning, bearing the scowls of the babas on the street who don’t know who you are, losing sleep because the mice in the floor make terrifying noises at night, or making do in the kitchen without a fridge; the hardest part for me have been those days when it feels like I have devoted every waking hour to my job but end the day feeling like I’ve failed at it.  That’s tough.