Saat July—Moments of July (Part I): Reflecting on Peace Corps’s 50th Anniversary and the words of Sargent Shriver
Instead of updating my blog with frequent posts about “I did this today/I did that today” and ending up with a thousand entries by the time things are done, I’m going to instead try to distill each month into one post full of tidbits from my journal, e-mail correspondences, or memory. I think that this format will (1) be easier to parse through for you, (2) give me a chance to reflect on things before I share them publically, and (3) still provide a comprehensive idea of what my daily life is like in Indonesia.
That being said, I am not prepared to write a Saat July (Moments of July) that encompasses all of my daily habits or important notes. There are three topics I still want to share with you: (1) The Anniversary and purpose of Peace Corps, (2) a short and funny story about local food and media, and (3) a funny story about my failures to explain where exactly I’m from.
During the month of July, Peace Corps turned 50 years old. To those who follow the organization, this anniversary created a lot of hubub including one Voice of America Special English news article about a fellow current Volunteer in Indonesia and a comprehensive book on the Peace Corps history. I read the book: When the World Calls by Stanley Meisler. It was fairly narrative and easy to read. Its recount of Peace Corps’s last fifty years struck me more as reminiscent than strongly vetted or corroborated. Much of the history or commentary on the people who have shaped the organization over the past fifty years was largely anecdotal. Still, I was glad to have learned more about the origins of the organization I worked for. The book forced me to consider for the first time my role not as an individual but as a member of a group representing the United States. Many returned Volunteers and even Peace Corps training staff emphasize the individuality of PC service, and while this book explains this unique aspect as a strength of PC’s model, it also shows the purpose of PC as a whole.
More interesting to read, however, was an article written by Sargent Shriver*—the first director of Peace Corps—two years after the first Peace Corps Volunteers left. Two Years of the Peace Corps was smartly titled and timed to be a reflection on an organization after the same time frame that individuals serve. Two points in the article resonated with me and are particularly relevant to my experience in Indonesia. The fact that these words and descriptions were as true forty eight years ago as they are today makes them even stronger. The first pertains to language and the second is about Volunteer living conditions.
One of the most frequent questions I get from people back home is about language progression. In 1963, Shriver wrote this:
“One of the most difficult [challenges] is the provision of adequate language training. This was foreseen, but most observers thought that the exotic languages such as Thai, Urdu, Bengali and Twi would give us our main problem, while Spanish and French speakers could be easily recruited or quickly trained. The opposite has been true. The first volunteers who arrived in Thailand in January 1962 made a great impression with what observers described as “fluent” Thai….One the other hand, a considerable number of volunteers going to Latin America and to French Africa have been criticized for their mediocre language fluency. Expectations are high in these countries and halting Spanish or French is not enough.”
My attempts to learn Indonesian–in this case an “exotic” language–could not serve as a better example for this observation. Many people that I meet here are so excited to hear me speak any Indonesian at all that I hardly have to say anything before I am being proclaimed as “brilliant!” or “clever!” and, most inaccurately, lanchar (fluent). I am nowhere near fluent, but often times a person who is talking to me for the first time assumes I am and jumps into a full speed conversation in which I understand about a fifth of what’s going on.
This is true for Bahasa Indonesia, the lingua franca of Indonesia, and it is even more true for Bahasa Jawa, the local language. I know ten phrases in Javanese—all of which I memorized in order to give a speech on one of my first days at school. People ask if I know Javanese, and I say, “No, but I can speak a little,” at which point I ramble off my tape-recorded introductory sentences. I’m met with ooos and ahhs and more Javanese. I also know the Javanese magical word: manggo. It’s used in many friendly situations including passing someone on the street, offering someone food or drink (along with a thumb pointing gesture), saying excuse me, and just about any other similar circumstance. One afternoon, I was leaving school and a woman was blocking the exit to the narrow corridor I was walking through with my bike. “Manggo, manggo.” The woman turned to move, saw that it was a foreigner speaking to her, and immediately started to proclaim to her friends: Dia bisa bicara Bahasa Jawa; pintar sekali!*—He can speak Javanese, he’s so smart/clever! Mind you, all I had said was one word—the most common word in the language, in fact.
Shriver’s second point that is worth mentioning is in regards to the expectations of living conditions during Peace Corps service. Many people back home and Volunteers themselves expected more “primitive” conditions. It is true that while in Belize, I met a current Volunteer who had built his own hut, was ten minutes from fresh water, and fifteen minutes from the nearest road with regular transportation. Another Volunteer I know who lived in Tanzania slept under the stars because there was no roof. The sexiness of those two experiences is alluring, but most Volunteers are “better off” than that.
Shriver reminds us that living primitively is nowhere in the Peace Corps’s three main goals. The three main goals are to provide a skill, educate the world about the U.S., and educate the U.S. about the world. Additional comments in the Peace Corps Act state that Volunteers should live as locals do and be prepared to face hardships if necessary. Shriver provides an exemplary quote on the subject stated by a Ghanian national who visited Shriver in the U.S.: “The Peace Corps teachers in my country don’t live so badly. After all, they live as well as we do.” Shriver doesn’t provide much more context for the comments, but I have to imagine they were made in jest to (1) dispel rumors that Volunteers were roughing it and to (2) proudly—and perhaps with some annoyance—defend the conditions of his home country, which were better than what most people imagined.
So yes, I have internet in my home. But it’s the same internet connection that my host father paid for when he was a school principle. I e-mail photos back and forth to my counterpart teachers. Don’t you do things like that too? I ride a fairly nice bike to and from school, but my counterparts ride even nicer motorcycles. The house I live in is solidly built and even comfortable. My host family watches DVDs on their TV and DVD player. My host children play computer games. Consider this a part of the Peace Corps goal about educating the U.S. about the world
* Sargent is the man’s first name, not a military rank. I have not spelled it wrong. He was JFK’s brother-in-law.
** The flattery of words such as pintar were diminished when I received the same accolades from my host father for being able to slice a cucumber.