At our second class on the Peace Corps at Lourdes University we brought the world in. I invited two Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) to join us. Janice recalled her Peace Corps experience in Liberia, 1980-82, during those early pioneering years, pre-digital communications revolution. Cynthia talked about her time in the town of Zhangye in Gansu province, northern China, 2003/4. Next week I'll talk about Ukraine.
We are three volunteers who served in three different countries with totally different cultures, at three different time periods in Peace Corps history, but we all shared the same Peace Corps goals: using our skills and experience to help out where needed, learning about new countries from the bottom up, and helping others learn about America. These are the cultural exchanges that are the foundations of international understanding.
Liberia has a fascinating history, as Janice reminded us, going back to the ante-bellum era, the pre-Civil War years in the US, and the early efforts to end slavery by sending African-Americans back to Africa. The history of Liberia is thus linked to the history of America. It's colorful seal embodies this connection: "The love of liberty brought us here," it proclaims.
Ironically, in Liberia, former slaves seeking freedom became the colonizers and the indigenous African people who had lived on the land for millenia became the subjugated. The freed slaves rebuilt southern plantations and replicated the culture and architecture of the American South in this new place, and they ruled the majority, the indigenous inhabitants, for years, bringing inevitable conflict and wars up to the present. It's a story worthy of further examination, and I am fascinated by the implications.
But politics and history were not foremost in Janice's mind when she served "about 120 miles upcountry" from Monrovia, the capital. It might as well have been across the continent, given the bad roads and poor communications. Her primary focus was teaching math and science, preparing classes (it was her first time teaching), and serving her students, average age teens to twenties. It was the pre-cell and pre-computer era, so Janice adapted to the isolation and integrated into her village, where she was accepted as the American teacher. It took a while, for the villagers of course had to get to know her, too. The school principal remarked that he and others thought the new PCV from America strange at first, but after 6 months they got to know and accept her. "That speaks volumes for their patience and what it means to live in a community," Janice noted.
Janice said she called home maybe three times a year. It helped that English was the official language, and it was "a very verbal culture." She was a young girl, just out of college, studious and serious about her responsibilities in Liberia, learning as she went. Her students helped her with daily living, getting water, cooking, shopping. "They made it all possible!" She traveled a little, recalling especially a visit to Cote D'Ivoire, where the people spoke French and the culture differed greatly from neighboring Liberia. Africa we are reminded is such a huge continent with such diverse tribal and regional cultures and traditions that no generalizations are possible. Colonization and independence complicate the picture even more.
Janice made her home in a small part of a vast continent for two years. "It changed my life," she said. It was a profound experience that affected her career and worldview to this day. Friends of Liberia, a group of PCVs who served there, returned to Liberia a few years ago. There were many changes, Janice said, which pleased them, and lots of things that were the same, including the bad roads and poorly developed infrastructure. "But everyone had cell phones," she said with a laugh, so the people were communicating more than ever. Both Cynthia and I smiled at that, and understood, because nowadays it seems to be true everywhere! The ubiquitous cell phone attached to the ears of the world.
Janice's return to Liberia is testimony to the ties of friendship that PCVs develop during their service. They are the ties that bind. They are the ties that in my opinion are underestimated in the long road to building peaceful relations in an ever-shrinking world still dominated by conflict, terrorism, and war.
Cynthia taught also, but in China and at the college level, "teaching the teachers" at Hexi university in Zhangye, not far from part of "The Great Wall." A statue of Marco Polo on the university campus intrigued her, until she found out that he actually went through her town all those centuries ago. These are some of the amazing things PCVs discover as they make their way in a new country!
The first PCVs arrived in China in 1993 to teach English, Cynthia noted, and that has been the major focus ever since. It's a major aspect of the Chinese government's policy to open up its country to the West. The government realized that in order to globalize and become part of the worldwide economy its people had to learn English. "So in true Chinese fashion," as Cynthia put it, the government required that ALL citizens learn English from an early age. In a country with so many people, this required a lot more teachers than the country had, so the Peace Corps helps fill the gap. Native speakers of English are prized.
In contrast to Liberia, China is a country where "people are everywhere," Cynthia said, still stunned by the fact. "There is no silence...you are constantly surrounded by people and noise, but you are always alone." On the other hand, it's common for people to stop you on a busy street (because Americans always stand out even in the biggest crowd), and ask "would you speak English with me?" As with other government policies from the top down, this one has had repercussions, unintended consequences. If you do not early pass a national proficiency test, which is very difficult, you are automatically bounced out of opportunities to go to universities, your future forever limited. Thus awaiting the test and the test results, let alone failure to pass the test, not only raises profound anxiety, but also profound depression and sadness, both of which Cynthia encountered every day.
China is a huge country undergoing tremendous changes. The well-known government policy of only one child per family, for example, has also resulted in an unintended consequence: an enormous gender imbalance. There are too few women and far too many men, so millions of bachelors are unable to find women to marry and to start families. Chinese policy is loosening in response, but it will take years to correct the imbalance. Peace Corps Volunteers like Cynthia witness these kinds of issues first hand, and see the impact of these changes on the people.
Stereotypes about a glittery America, all MacDonalds, material things, TV soap operas and wealth, also abound, and of course the lingering images of Americans as evil, the enemy. Afterall, it was government propaganda for generations, just as it was in America concerning the Chinese.
"You get to see your own culture through other people's eyes," Cynthia noted. And you also have an opportunity to change perceptions. Peace Corps Volunteers bring a more realistic picture of America, showing the diversity, complexity and vastness of our country. The emergence of warm friendships are another sign of change, positive change.
Peace Corps, from its very beginning, has created friendships around the world, and continues to do so. It's the essence of Peace Corps service, the Peace Corp way to peace, from the bottom up, personal, step by step. It was a way that slain Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, fully understood and embraced. It makes his death all the more tragic, and peace seem all the more distant. And yet, I still believe it's why Peace Corps matters, and matters deeply.
Janice and Cynthia brought the world to our doorstep, and we're grateful. Next week our class journeys to Ukraine. На следующей неделе наш путь ведет нас в Украине. Это опыт, который я буду помнить всегда. It may be a different place and time, but it is in the same Peace Corps tradition of making friends and fostering peaceful relations from the bottom up.