Post-Peace Corps Changes

The title of this post is erroneous – life at any moment cannot snuggly fit under a single category and time cannot be divided into pre- and post- eras. I may suffer from a severe case of the Lykke Li “Everybody but Me’s”, but attributing changes to Peace Corps has always fallen flat for me. It’s been a convergence of being in my first job post-college, East Java, living under my host Mom’s roof and being in my early 20’s. Very much like my personal identity paradigm shift that took me from the very rigid and very French 50/50 split “a moitie Congolaise et a moitie Americaine” to a more self-confident and flexible space afforded by English where each of my molecules were 100% American and 100% Congolese and then some. There has been a unique mélange of circumstances, influences and intentions these past two years, which have certainly resulted in new ways of thinking and reacting. Here they are, sans gif’s.

1. I want to pay full price for things.

While USD120/month certainly goes a long way in East Java, I did try to make my purchases count. In college, I remembering discovering Trader Joes and bringing bags and bags of fruit and vegetables home, the byproduct of loving low prices and shopping while hungry. I allowed my CVS card to determine what I might stock up on that week. Hell, I went in on that free pizza and soda at whatever college group meeting was happening that night. Now, I’d rather save up for something that I really want and know that I want it based on my willingness to pay the full price. Focusing on finding dealsondealsondeals seems to take the focus away from being more involved in understanding supply chains. I’d rather have less that I can love more because I understand it. I’m hesitant to opt into programs, to get on email lists that will get me 50% off of something I don’t really need.

2. I consider my family first.

My only thought the last few months of Peace Corps was, “I need to get to my sisters, I need to get to Chicago.” I’ve always taken for granted how empowering it feels to be part of my family; we’re all expected to follow our own paths, regardless of the distance that may be physical, philosophical, or emotional. That’s a critical way of how we function and the beauty of having a mother like mine is that your achievement is measured based on how good you are to others. But there’s been a budding thought in me to consider my family members first. That is scary and in all honesty, wasn’t supposed to happen. Families are arbitrary. To pick out 3 people out of a lineup of millions and say, “These ones, they’re most important” is ludicrous. But there’s so much meaning there, I don’t want to miss out on it.

3. I’m interested in self-curating.

I badly wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer and be wherever, whoever the invisible forces pointed me towards. By the end of my first semester of teaching, I wanted to wear all black every day and put my hair back in a hard ponytail – everything to hollow out the space I might be occupying in order to give my students more room to grow. Today, I find myself saying no to any decision that doesn’t fit me perfectly and isn’t firmly built on a tower of logic and aesthetic. I want to have read certain books, to be learned and poised in the clothes that I walk around in. I wasted more time, ran my head through many walls by not putting up strong limits of who I am and what my capabilities are.

4. I’m much more ready to listen, there’s no saying ‘no’ to anyone – that’s a ridiculous choice.

I just read this great excerpt from Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting about a character he creates, Tamina:

“Almost always there is someone sitting on a barstool, trying to talk to her. Everyone likes Tamina. Because she knows how to listen to people. But is she really listening? Or is she merely looking at them so attentively, so silently? I don’t know, and it’s not very important. What matters is that she doesn’t interrupt anyone. You know what happens when two people talk. One of them speaks and the other breaks in: “It’s absolutely the same with me, I …” and starts talking about himself until the first one manages to slip back in with his own “It’s absolutely the same with me, I …” – The Book of Forgetting and Laughter, p. 110

I am no Tamina, but the way I experience most conversations is similarly devoid of personal need. I enjoy listening, and yearn to make something happen with anyone willing to give me some time. Indonesians are (apologies for the generalization) incredibly easygoing and open. Conversations with strangers could be un soulagement, rather than something to get worked up over. It isn’t that people cannot connect to my work in Indonesia or my context the past two years, I just don’t want to offer it up for workshop-ing.

5. I have little patience for talk, for finding creative solutions to spur social change.

I worry about this one. I put on MSNBC or CNN in the morning, I glance at various news sources, I take long walks in (probably not Chicago enough) parts of Chicago, I try to make friends. But I don’t see opportunities, I don’t feel urgency. The rage I feel has softened in parts into deep sadness and in other parts has been frozen until I am able to act on it. I can’t live in conversations that don’t end with action steps, though conversation is where things start. There’s a lot of wasted breath in our history, too much information shared to not be horrified that our global society looks as it does. I see this now as fact and the working context that I will be working in for the rest of my life. Somehow, I’ve lost the fight that I used to have about being for or against, even aware or unaware, of social justice issues. There’s nothing glorious about that stage, though there is a lot of movement and emotion. There’s little controversy left in me and more personal considerations and I’m not sure whether that calm is what it should be, or whether it is taking me to a docility that will only be compounded year to year.


There’s my list for now, I think many friends are experiencing their own sets of ideological adjustments with age. I’d be more than interested to hear them.


Le plus ca change…

It can be tough for me to articulate why I love the rhythm of living in East Java, even to myself at times. At a recent meet-up with friends I hadn’t seen for months, we couldn’t do much more than exchange cursory “everything’s good’s” when we asked after each other’s news. For some that may indicate months devoid of value or riddled with disappointment, frustration and boredom, but to me it’s the essence of rural Java. Julia Suryakasuma, a columnist for the Jakarta Post, begins one of her columns with the French saying of “le plus ca change…” (the more things change, the more they stay the same). She uses it to show that the wrongs that regime upheavals in Indonesian politics claimed to fight, including Sukarno’s fight for independence against the Dutch (and Japanese), Suharto’s New Order, and Reformasi (the political era ushered in by the coup that deposed Suharto in 1998), did not in fact deliver on their promises of increased freedoms for Indonesians, but rather replaced old skins of oppression with new ones. A typical, cynical and deserved lens on history and one that is entirely appropriate for Indonesia, amongst many other places.
But, in ways that Julia Suryakasuma perhaps did not intend writing from Jakarta amidst a circle of finely educated and globally-minded liberals, it’s also a surprisingly accurate description of the FEEL of living in rural East Java.
The subdistrict where I live was established about 11 years ago, which in Indonesian governance years means it is still an infant (the bupati system of traditional leadership has gone formally uninterrupted since the time there were kingdoms in Indonesia, though the positions were entirely co-opted by the Dutch as they imposed colonial rule). Most people in the area say that their lives changed drastically with the consolidation of 11 villages into a new sub-district because it meant that they began to receive government services that before wouldn’t make it all the way up to our hills. The unpaved 7km of rocky hills that stand between Grabagan and the closest village (market) of significance, Rengel, made it much harder on the lives of people in Grabagan. Farmers had a harder time transporting their crops to market, miners lugging their stone and sand to factories and kids getting to school if they wanted to continue their education past elementary school. When Grabagan was ushered into kecamatan-dom, the road was paved and widened with sidewalks, a subdistrict office was built, along with a community health clinic, a police station and a military post. Five years later, a public high school was built and the public middle school became more robust with an influx of PNS, government civil servant, teachers.
Things are definitely changing, so much so that all adults I’ve spoken to on the subject tend to divide history as pre- and post-kecamatan. In daily life, though, it is extremely hard to feel that change, and as a community volunteer, to tap into it.
The 33 years of Suharto’s rule left a deep sense of disempowerment in Indonesia. Reading back on the pemuda movements around independence, particularly the resistance to Allied forces in Surabaya (commemorated as the Nov 10 resistance), it’s hard for me to place my students in those positions. There isn’t a tradition of eliciting new ideas or of critical exchange, and most of anything new comes from the top. The wheels of grassroots change are terribly difficult to see turning. Many teachers see themselves as working for the state and thus, the community, rather than the other way around of working for the community first, and by extension, building the state. One might think that a foreigner to the community presents a wild card, an added element that may be able to evade the top down structure of decision making, but that doesn’t translate. Volunteers tend to be most successful when there’s an ok to be successful from the top, and even then it’s sketchy because expectations of English learning or anything else may be too high and unrealistic and a lot of energy is lost in debunking that myth. Or, more clearly said, volunteers have some serious roadblocks to their work when there’s no genuine ok from the top. This bureaucratic power that Suharto’s Golkar party thrust on Indonesia is alive everywhere. Despite the shift of decision-making power from Jakarta to schools under the school autonomy law, the Indonesian education system is still handed down to teachers through curriculum that prioritizes breath over depth learning that is inappropriate to the level of kids’ learning, through a large volume of administrative tasks that keep teachers too busy to focus on teaching, and through the process of teacher certification itself, which does not reward highly-effective teachers, but well-connected teachers or those willing to pay thousands of dollars in bribes for the full-time job.
The way that I’ve experienced that western label of disempowerment isn’t all negative because you have to recognize what’s behind it. It is true that the classic scene of a community meeting where young and old are standing up, raising their voices, bursting with ideas of what they want for the futures of their communities is rare. Indonesians are most likely going to show up, in ironed coordinated uniforms, listen to their elected or appointed officials stand up and give speeches outlining the information they’ve received by whoever is above them, the plan of action and then eat the catered meal that’s sitting waiting for them before heading back home. Where’s the back and forth about ideas, the public weighing of pro’s and con’s to reach the best conclusion? Where’s the democratic space where all community members are urged to contribute to validate the importance of each individual’s perspective? Is that microphone really necessary when there are 20 people in the room?
So much of that makes it very discouraging to be working in education in East Java. A top-down environment is rarely inspiring to observe and the average higher than normal positivity of the Javanese can make it seem as though important issues that need to be dealt with are glossed over. That last point, I can’t stress enough.
But the rhythm that Java provides is one that takes in all of those negatives and creates a non-negotiable safe and agreeable surface environment to deal with them. Changes – both positive and tragic – are so quickly absorbed into the fabric of life, that so little can feel like a surprise. That kind of environment takes an almost inhuman strength to build because it rests upon accepting the shortcomings of the life you’ve been dealt and meet each day with the scrappiness needed to not only get yourself and your family through it, but also to tie your success to that of your neighbors, classmates and colleagues’. To be at the receiving end of a top-down system is no picnic and more subtle channels to initiate change in communities have to be developed, channels that aren’t as obvious as hand-raising in community meetings. It doesn’t help visibility in all of that evasiveness lot of unexplained things are inserted. So subtle and harmonious, in fact, that despite changes happening, yesterday feels the same as today, and tomorrow will most likely look just like today.
The consul general in Surabaya is on his second tour to Indonesia and when asked what changes he perceives between Indonesia 11 years ago and today, he explained that he thought Indonesia was much more open. I don’t know what 11 years ago felt like, but Surabaya definitely feels open today. Cities tend to be the center from where change pulsates out to the rest of the country and in Indonesia Surabaya, Jogja, Malang and Jakarta definitely have their own thing going. Grabagan has only been a kecamatan for about 10 years and it’s not just western volunteers who have 6 weeks of language training and 1.5 years of experience in a community who fail at understanding villagers’ visions of change. “Everything’s good” is an inadequate summary of months of changes but it gets at the essential.

P.S.: Here’s Aime Cesaire’s take on this subject in Martinique: “At the end of the small hours, this town, flat, displayed… It crawls on its hands without the slightest wish to stand up and pierce the sky with protest. The backs of the houses are afraid of the fire-truffled sky, their foundations are afraid of the drowning mud. Scraps of houses that have settled to stand between shocks and undermining. And yet this town advances. Every day it grazes further beyond the tide of its tiled corridors, shame-faced blinds, sticky courtyards, dripping paintwork. And petty suppressed scandals, petty shames kept quiet and petty immense hatreds knead the narrow streets into lumps and hollows where the gutter pulls a face among the excrement.”

I may not have been critical enough.


TFA & Peace Corps: Sister Experiences

My last post got me some excellent feedback that will keep me exploring my voice in this space, thank you. I am a self-admitted “pooper on things”, particularly institutions that I am a part of and am committed to. It’s my twisted love language when I see something that has the capacity and commitment to good like the Peace Corps or Georgetown.

I did recognize/I do recognize the twisted-ness of it. In fact, my main regret from my last post was that after writing it, I couldn’t think of a single Javanese friend who would have taken the same tact, if that were to have been any consolation at all. My post was a bungled attempt to represent a conflict between locals and expats because it showed how much of Javanese culture my expatriate self has yet to take in. I fashioned an Audre Lorde-ian trap for myself instead of taking up the tools of Javanese culture – of taking care of others’ feelings, of generosity and of calm – in order to contribute to repairing community. The Javanese way of doing things is certainly a higher, classier road and I’m not sure I’d ever graduate from any school of community building by choosing to represent a people in a way they didn’t wish to be represented. On the other hand, the position of a community worker is necessarily one of an outsider and talking as ‘kasar’ (coarse/rough) as I can for me assuages my biggest fear of being misled to a false understanding of my community and place within it because I only listen to what I want to hear or because I won’t recognize that there are things that are being left unsaid, sweetly and gracefully, for my benefit. As an expat, though, I think I too often fall into the trap of equating ‘empowerment’ with volume of voice so I can’t fairly know how unnecessary I was being about the things that go unsaid in contrast with the things that don’t need to be said.

At this moment, I easily chalk it up to age, and to unbalanced emotions, a statement that infuriates me further every time I step back from it and know its truth. Gotta get on point.

Back in June I had the immense pleasure of receiving a dear friend to Indonesia for some well fleshed-out back and forth’s about teaching in poor communities with Teach for America and Peace Corps. I remember her senior year when she was making the decision to teach and reflected seriously about joining TFA. Back then our conversations consisted of broad dismissals of the organization, just as I did with Peace Corps months later as I was going through the selection process. Our qualms included: 1. Both organizations’ PR regarding their impact in communities being vastly overestimated and overlooking the ways that both organizations hurt the teaching/peace building sectors, 2. Alumni of both organizations seem to extract more for their resumes than they inject into communities throughout their 2 years, 3. Brief stints in communities perpetuate the problem of community instability and human resource flight, a problem particularly tough to comprehend when thinking of the lives of children. We reconciled these worries by focusing on the micro; despite a loaded background that we knew we’d need to unpack in order to effectively place ourselves within our communities and our schools, we knew that we would have classrooms for 2 years and what happened there was wholly dependent on us.

Two years later and in a different geographic space altogether, we found a lot of that fight pounded out of us, resigned to the thought: “Complaining isn’t helping, is it?” We now had students, parents of students, fellow teachers and were part of a cohort of TFAers or PCVs with whom we had made real connections and being broad about anything was tougher to achieve. As much hatred as we continued to have for the knowledge that our participation in our respective institutions reinforced unhealthy norms of teacher attrition, of too-short stints of community work, and of rushed training to enter classrooms, the shortcomings of the education systems we were working in were too big and whatever dent could be made, well, we weren’t about to be the ones to say stop trying.

However, one place where we maintained comfortable and endless complaining was on the question of how much harm was being done through volunteers/teachers’ experiments on communities that didn’t result in significantly altered people. She burst at the recollection of TFA professional development sessions where the words “these kids” were uttered over and over again. That’s not even getting started on the little knife slices of new teachers’ true thoughts about their students’ parents, fellow teachers or the very school systems in which they found themselves teaching. How scary was it to hear that horrible vocabulary used to talk about communities, to hear worldviews that looked out onto the world from privilege not being budged month after month teaching in impoverished communities from the very people that kids look up to as exemplary human beings? It makes you give the saying “experience is the best teacher” a closer look.

I recognize that this statement is me asking for too much control of other people’s experiences, and trusting too little. I assure you, it’s out of fear, a fear at truthfully the heart of which lie my own teaching inadequacies. But it’s also out of fright that worldviews can’t be changed, despite the urgent proof for them needing to change being directly accessible by front line soldiers, aka teachers.

I just finished up a great book about the Peace Corps called “Keeping Kennedy’s Promise” that laid it out well in 1978:

“To begin with, each volunteer has always borne the imprint of his own culture. In varying measure, each has been the product of an ethnocentric, materialistic, and individualistic society. The Peace Corps has failed to awaken volunteers to their own cultural heritage and native biases and to kindle within them the desire to assimilate new values during their experience abroad.” (Keeping Kennedy’s Promise, p.132)

A friend shot a version of this back at me after my last post. She wrote saying that the premise and work of cultural exchange doesn’t guarantee that worldviews will be adequately deconstructed and rebuilt anew because altering worldviews is not even fleshed out as the objective of the exercise. I don’t mean to imply that teachers/volunteers are not undergoing significant personal reconstructions of self – that depends on the teacher/volunteer. And most PCVs and TFAers begin their applications to both organizations armed with a desire to experience something new to open themselves up to new values and to test the ones they’ve already settled on. But she rightly pointed out that to be ready to radically reconstruct your worldview is not as easy as it looks, particularly if it unseats you from relative safety as you commit to expanding others’ opportunities rather than guarding your own.

On my end, I think that Peace Corps is a great model of an organization that prides itself in its belief that when two people meet and, even better, work together closely for an extended period of time, that something of value results. The beginning of the process is exchange, but once it gets down to what we’ll be teaching the students the next day, what comes out is (hopefully) a patchwork of three brown-skinned ladies’ personal teaching cultures. However, Peace Corps denies that this is the goal in its recruitment material and even in the way that it defends itself in front of Congress. The story that’s told has a gap in the middle where Peace Corps work actually happens: on the recruitment end, it’s about “the corners of the world that can’t wait” and on the budget end, it’s the readiness of America to face its future in a globalized context. But what’s really happening isn’t cultural exchange, it’s cultural pragmatism. It’s what most RPCVs attest to having undergone and it’s why most continue to learn from the many lessons that their two years as PCVs taught them, because they were truly reformed, they didn’t just drop in some American values, even if in exchange for a host country’s. They negotiated what they knew with what they were being taught in order to come out with the best version of themselves, with a perspective lit on fire with knowledge of poverty. Anything short of that does not reach the goal of the organization, and rather has volunteers fall short in a land of waste called poverty tourism.

So what can be done to diminish the number of experiments done on communities that don’t result in poverty tourism or a superficial but glamorous political career?

Here are some suggestions:

1. Bolster undergraduate programs with practical work. Too many PCVs and TFAers have too much to learn about community work on the job, and that’s not good for the job. Programs like Peace Corps or TFA do a good job of helping you find your next step, particularly by orienting you to graduate school with great grants and scholarships, but the two programs are popular enough options that the requirements to enter them could be threaded into them at the undergraduate level. The crux of this would be in diversity studies. I think this is a direction that many universities, such as Georgetown with its Jesuit identity, want to push on their students. I recently read Mountains Beyond Mountains about Paul Farmer — his knowledge of the medical field is incredible, but he cites his ideological drive as originating in Black Liberation Theology. From the book, it’s clear that he’s able to fit himself into Haitian communities because of this departure point, because he’s frank about understanding privilege and people trust him for it. He didn’t learn that at Harvard, though.

Another place this can happen is ….. in TRAINING! Obviously, there’s a lot to be done & PC does include Keeping Kennedy’s Promise in its mid-service training. But more, more, more!

2. PC, TFA and like organizations need to make sure that mentor-mentee relationships exist with mentors from the host community. Given how both organizations work, trying to just find adequate assignments for its workers is stressful enough, but this element can’t be taken out of the equation. My friend gave me some good advice about how she changed up her relationship with her TFA manager: she said she sought out the relationship and was rewarded for it. Orgs like TFA or PC feel like they’re mostly there to troubleshoot problems for the teacher/volunteer because of the nature of the terrain. I know I’ve walked into our PC office and just said 2 words to the staff because I haven’t encountered any problems so far and felt like if I wasn’t there to talk about a problem, I’d be wasting their time. I’ve been missing out on a valuable teaching relationship, particularly with the local staff, and I need to take better advantage of it. Of course, TFA managers or PC staff aren’t the ideal mentors. Perhaps they know about your job, but they don’t know about your community (not that you can’t get lucky and get a staff member particularly in tune with your community). The other key piece of advice that she gave me was to open up my teaching to criticism. She mentioned that TFA does a good job of making you feel like anyone can pop into your classroom at any time and you have to be ready for it. This is good! Writers throughout the years, like Lucas and Lowther in Keeping Kennedy’s Promise, have lamented the fact that volunteers don’t do enough to put themselves in a humbler position and invite other teachers into their classrooms. Maybe, with more eyes on us, we’ll make fewer egregious mistakes.

3. With that, do more to highlight the work that comes out of PC/TFA. These days, proving that TFA works means putting test scores in the spotlight. PC is evaluated based on the personal narratives of its volunteers. Both these strategies miss out on a crucial effect of both organizations: in giving new energy to long-time community workers who are helping these often young and naive (that’d be me) people along their way and in giving a platform for extraordinary students who rarely have the positive reinforcement that many (not all, obviously) PCVs and TFAers grew up with. My experience this past year hasn’t so much been that my school lacks good teachers, but that it lacks adequate ways to bring out the best in them, whether it’s a salary that is too small or the absence of praise. PCVs and TFAers naturally have to cling on to examples of strong leadership that they find in their communities and all-too-often, those people have been doing their work for years without tire, without thanks. And our students are sometimes in a tough position; I want to push my students to reach for new opportunities, particularly educational, but there are a lot of barriers that even come with scholarships to state universities, let alone universities/work opportunities outside the country that might set them on a drastically different path. One example of this was highlighted at my friend Joe’s school where students couldn’t sit for scholarship tests because they couldn’t pay the fee. This isn’t a “if you work hard enough, you’ll reach your dreams” kind of world. But TFAers and PCVs can turn the firing machines on their community members and students in a public forum, and let the bouquets of roses, graduate school scholarships and fireworks of praise fire them at full blast.

4. Change the face of PC, TFA and other comparable orgs to emphasize the transformation expected in the volunteers/teachers. It’s not just a question of firming up leadership skills of America’s next wave of politicians or the cultural toolkits of future foreign service officers, but of admitting what these orgs try to do, and that’s to give people of privilege a premise for extracting valuable life-altering lessons from marginalized communities of the kind world people in power are reinforcing daily and what it is doing to the people on the bottom, to hate that kind of world and to get fired up to no longer be an ignorant participant in it any longer. *To be fair, my friend disagreed with this point with regards to TFA because she felt that the transformation shouldn’t be about the teachers but always remain focused on the students and that actually, prizing the teachers’ transformation into leading citizens is what contributes most to turning a blind eye to teacher attrition, which hurts kids most.


Yo PCVs: Your Facebook Statuses Make Me Want to Early Terminate.

Must’ve been about a year or two ago that I was talking with a friend of similar background. She’d grown up moving around Africa and had gone on to tag on an African Studies minor to a political studies degree just as I did at Georgetown. How she described her college experience has stuck with me. She explained that she felt she wasted her college degree defending Africa against basic and widespread ignorance, rather than actually digging into material that would push her own academic growth. Well, she didn’t say it quite like that, but that’s what I heard probably because that’s how I felt at Georgetown too. I didn’t start college wanting any kind of geographic focus. In fact, as an aspiring international relations professional, I was cautioned to not take up a geographic preference. That fell through quickly when I began to lose respect for the average Georgetown student who tiptoed around the ‘topic’ of Africa the same way that many majority group students tended to tiptoe around race issues. That tiptoeing drove me up the wall, I grew angry and I started spitting the word “Africa” into as many spaces on campus on possible out of spite. I grew so obsessed with wanting any kind of conversation about Africa to happen that I lost sight of trying to pursue a quality conversation that would result in my own personal academic growth. As a sophomore, I personally invited Bobby Bailey, a member of Invisible Children to talk about his new film about malaria. I was so pissed at how easy it was for students to get mobilized to ‘fight’ cancer, while malaria or AIDS garnered hushed tones, wide eyes and innocently inquiring questions. I didn’t even think far enough to think of whether Bobby Bailey’s presentation would be of quality, which it was not. So then I left the night angrier than before: the students who had shown up had left the session afflicted with pity for people who are affected by malaria. If you’ve ever had malaria, you don’t pity people who get malaria; you just think the world is stupid for how high the number of malaria deaths continues to be each year.

Another brief example of an event gone wrong was a conversation about the DRC with Robin Wright where she teared up, summarizing a recent trip she’d taken to Eastern DRC – where my Mom is from but I have yet had the opportunity to visit – saying, “When you look into the eyes of the women… You can see their suffering” or some demeaning shit like that. I went in supercharged with the injustice that conversations about DRC were not happening in proportion to their need as the biggest loss of life since WW2 and came out supercharged with the anger of the conversation that was held not being right. I wasted my degree in this way. An expensive degree later, I can’t tell you much more about African history that I couldn’t tell you after IB, and that’s not a comment on the quality of the African Studies Department at Georgetown. I take full responsibility.

Peace Corps has been similar. A year into the contract, I feel like I’m wasting my time, rooted to a single spot by the incredible cultural insensitivities on the part of American volunteers that show up in my Facebook mini-feed on the daily. It’s entirely masochistic.

Today it was something about being chased by a cow and snot being snot-ed out while their host mom was cooking dinner. The other day it was a Tumblr that alleged that female PCVs lose their shit if a boy comes by (the implication being that the boy is western since PCVs, especially on Java, the world’s most populated island, are constantly surrounded by people with boy parts). Weekly there’s something about a parasite that causes a volunteer to be sick (eh, if you wanna laugh at your own diarrhea I don’t want to stop you, but just think of the perception you’re building) or there’s a status where the volunteer self-identifies as a bule/mzungu and talks about the trials and tribulations of that ‘life’. HEY FOREIGN WHITE* PEOPLE: words like ‘bule’ or ‘mzungu’ refer to colonizers who orchestrated brutal colonial systems that crushed millions of people. Props to you for calling your historical privilege into the conversation, but when you do it trying to be cute, just don’t.

I get that these are meant to be attempts at humor and that many volunteers want to share their experiences creatively. You are wrong in thinking that I don’t find it funny because we have different senses of humor. At least I’m pretty sure you are wrong because otherwise you should know that your sense of humor is discriminatory, racist, and perpetuates ignorance. I think you’re better than that; you’re just not thinking about the consequences of your jokes.

Too often they reveal a superiority complex that volunteers take with them when they enter their communities. Superior to their community members who most of the time do not have as solid of a foundation about things westerners might take for granted like nutrition or hygiene because of their poverty. And superior to their friends and family circles who have to take them on their word of how wacky and wild living in an Indonesian village is, when it’s really not.

The worst part is the medium – blogs, Facebook, Tumblr. Peace Corps today is not my father’s Peace Corps in Zaire. Obviously, as I’m doing now, I can share my thoughts with whoever chooses to click on my blog. Peace Corps’ third goal to increase Americans’ knowledge of other countries is so much more within reach than it was in the late 1970s. And we’re fucking it up every time we choose to introduce Indonesians as people who don’t understand enough basic hygiene to not to mix snot with dinner.

Where before I was frustrated by how little people seemed to know about Indonesia (which is unfair… I didn’t know much more than it being the largest Muslim population before I landed here), I am now infuriated by the condescension of people who do make a commitment to a random community on Java for 2 years (which most twenty-somethings seem to think is a considerable amount of time) and then proceed to take advantage of that community, often linguistically shielded when they make comments in English.

I vented to a friend at school about that particular status tonight and he had a good perspective about it. He explained that in Javanese culture, when you enter a family, usually you try to keep the shit in the family and you don’t vent to strangers. To say that’s Javanese culture is just softening the blow: it’s a universal truth. It can be tough to manage different families that exist across the globe with social media. But sacrificing the family that’s physically right in front of you and is planning on feeding you that night; that is pretty heavy and it frequently pushes me to not want to be a part of the Peace Corps community. If your 2-year plan is to smile pretty for your community members and save clever funny moments whose main theme is developing country/rural community/poor people’s backwardsness to share with the internet world, you’ll be doing more harm than good. My friend was generous – he conceded that it’s a norm to not always use tissue to blow your nose here. He goes, “Most of the time, when I see people use tissue to blow their nose, it’s because they’re rich. Maybe your friend can just buy a tissue box for their host mom in a few days and find a joke to stress using tissue.” Ahh. Yes, basic human decency.

Peace Corps volunteer culture as I’ve experienced it looks to take care of volunteers who are not feeling the host country. Everyone crowds in and supports. That’s great. Everyone should do what’s right for their situation. Volunteers like each other (maybe not me after this post, but I’m ok with that) and 2 years joking and laughing together is great. But hopefully our jokes and laughter can be more inclusive and can be more thoughtful, particularly in the perceptions that volunteers actively create for their friends and families who are keeping tabs on their work in various host countries and who are getting an ‘in’ to getting to know countries like Indonesian because they have a human connection to these islands.

But just giving a connection isn’t quite good enough; the conversation has to be respectful, even when attempting to make a joke. Quit assuming that everyone deals with the stresses of volunteering in the same way. And don’t even try to make it seem like being on point as a volunteer is equivalent to never groveling at the feet of your host family and saying only good things about Javanese/Sunda/Madurese/Indonesian/Muslim/School/etc culture. Everything has its problems. You’re a good volunteer when you’re you and you’re able to use your judgment to promote a culture of peace.

Personally, I’m having trouble not wasting my Peace Corps experience away just as I did the African Studies degree because I can’t let (what should be) petty shit like this go. I didn’t imagine that cultural exchange could be so ugly and that people wouldn’t be more aware of their role in promoting stereotypes. If you’ve got any advice, I’ll gladly take it. I don’t think that this is stuff that anyone should walk away from or just not concern themselves with so that’s not an option. It’s like hearing a joke about rape and not going off about how unfunny it is. Humor builds norms and we’re all implicated in carrying forward a culture with healthy norms, rather than destructive ones. So, really, I’ve got no conclusion, just needed to scream a bit.


Peace Corps’ approach to development: It doesn’t have one

Back in April, I assisted Pak Wawan, a member of the inspiring team that holds Peace Corps Java together, to plan 2 sessions for volunteers-in-training on PC’s approach to development and on working with counterparts. As we discussed the organization, I let him know what I thought Peace Corps was doing for Java in way of development: not much. I justified this by saying that Peace Corps’ expectations were way too low to achieve anything resembling ‘development’ (expanding freedoms/opportunities for communities). As volunteers, if we ‘survive’ 2 crazy adventurous years of eating ant-covered sugar and pooping in holes, we’ve made the world a better place.

Now, I couldn’t agree more with Peace Corps’ model for community empowerment.  KNOW the local context (language especially!). Plan inclusively. Invest in human resources. Listen to your community. Projects should be a product of an intersection between community needs, national priorities and the volunteer’s passions/skill set. The process is the product, AKA what happens between A and B is just as important as getting to B.

But while all of this is correct, PC’s goodwill ambassadors’ mission is prioritized above all of this. In Indonesia, while the program is still new and so may be different from other posts, volunteers who begin to think about ‘secondary projects’ in their 1st years are considered ahead of the game. As a volunteer, I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that I have been successful for living with a Javanese family for a year, being able to communicate in Bahasa Indonesia and showing up to school.

I’m halfway through my service!

And that has not actually helped anyone. Surviving the Peace Corps is not an accomplishment, particularly if you’ve gotten into this work with the bar set so low that just surviving it is winning and you live to tell the tale as condescendingly as possible once your 2-year poverty  safari is up and the people in your community continue to live in the same conditions that you saw as only fit for an American backpacker.

It is true that human capital, at the very least, is improved. I used to think that it was common knowledge as to where the largest percentage of investment in human resources was happening – in the volunteers – but I’ve been disappointed to find out that many continue to believe that they are helping others more than they are helping themselves.

Given all of this, what makes me defend Peace Corps isin fact, the cultural exchange portion of it. While development organizations have changed considerably from Rostow-ian disasters in the 50s to structural adjustment’s royal screw ups in the 90s, they continue to lag behind where they need to be in terms of the groundwork that goes into understanding a community before starting a development project, and the space they give to communities to set their own agendas for development.

Cultural exchange is a great place to start, but volunteers need to be pushed to work much harder if they want to be building PC’s development portfolio – and by that I mean, if they want to be advocates for peace. Short of that, we’re cashing in on a very generous invitation by our host countries that provide 2-year visas for us and put in the time and labor to select communities where we can rest our bags, all the while believing that what we’re doing is reducing poverty. It puts the “toughest job you’ll ever love” slogan into perspective; can/should we really love something so minimal? And to pursue this further, is cultural exchange still a job in the year 2013?

During a PC training event I put it this way to a friend: praise for being a PC volunteer, whether from family, friends, our community members, feels like someone handing you a glass of water to clean yourself up after a day rolling in the mud. It’s insulting to think that what’s being done is close to cutting it.

Pak Wawan was great in giving me the space to speak from my own experience and thoughts within the training module sent over by PC headquarters in DC. It was a generous move and not one that most organizations would risk, but PC is excellent at valuing its volunteers. Hopefully, however, in the future this isn’t a message that PC comfortably gives out of the mouths of volunteers but one that comes out of our communities and our national staff because they are our most important stakeholders.


“I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means – except by getting off his back.” -Tolstoy


Confused? Don’t worry about it.

What follows is the speech I gave to the 12th Graders and parents of SMAN Grabagan during their graduation ceremony in May 2013. Best of luck Class of 2013!

My name is Martine Randolph and this year I had the wonderful opportunity to learn side-by-side with the 12th Grade students at SMAN Grabagan. The biggest difference between them and me today is that they’re actually ready to take their next step, while their teacher is left behind.

When our principal, Mr. Nanang, told me that I would be speaking at graduation, he told me to talk about what I learned this year in Grabagan. I was glad for this suggestion because I have learned so much throughout this year, and I think most of those lessons came from the students of SMAN Grabagan. I’d like to talk about 4 of those lessons.

The first lesson I learned is that everyone is a teacher. There were so many things I did not know when I was new here. language, food, community culture and school culture at SMAN Grabagan. It was the students here who took the time to teach me and I am most grateful for their patience and care. In fact, sometimes I learned English from them, too! …I learned “Brokenheart”, “enjoy learning”, “refreshing” – indeed, in each of these expressions there is a small mistake. “Brokenheart” should be “brokenheartED”; “enjoy learning” should be “enjoyABlE learning”; “refreshing” should be “refreshed” (as in, ‘I went on a bike ride to feel refreshed’)… Well, in any case, the point is clear: students, you think with your heart, so being heartbroken is a big deal; your life philosophy is to always enjoy yourself and you generally need a break from school, not because you are tired or lazy, but because you are well aware that there’s so much to learn outside the classroom. Throughout this year, I got to see how confident you were in helping a stranger in need, and doing so with a smile. Once again thank you for that lesson.

Hopefully you will never think too rigidly about whether you occupy any position as a teacher or as a student, but will rather do what needs to be done in any situation, particularly if you know of a way to improve a situation. I think, often, around the world, we feel like we have to respect positions, rather than labor. We tend to wait for the officials who are supposed to be in charge to get the job done. I hope you do not follow this example  because if you all had done so this year here at SMAN Grabagan, I do not know that today I would understand our school as I do as a byproduct of the many times many of you have come into the library to chat with me.

The second lesson I learned was about my weaknesses. The weather here is different from in the U.S. and normally, every day I came straight home from school because it was so hot. I’ve worked full hour days before, but here, because it’s so hot, I was usually ready to go home after 2 hours. For several months, the 12th Graders added on 2 hour-long tutoring sessions to study for their national exams. Most teachers only had to tutor the students once a week and they were definitely tired after that, due to crazy working hours. Instead, the 12th Graders studied hard 5 times a week for the additional tutoring session. Students, I hope you will always remember how hard you worked this year so you know your own capacity.

My third lesson was about how to be a leader. When I was in high school, upperclassmen did not take care of underclassmen with as much care as the students here at SMAN Grabagan. For programs like New Student Orientation and other events, it was usually the school that acted as the organizer. But here, right away from the month of July, I saw the 12th Graders and student government representatives playing an integral role in every event. I hope you will not forget that kind of leadership and you will always pay attention to those who come after you, regardless of where you end up studying, working or settling down with a family. Also, you all taught me that a leader is not just a clever orator, but a great listener as well.

The fourth and greatest lesson I learned, is that if you can live your life surrounded by good people and work with highly motivated people, there isn’t a day when you won’t feel like you’ve achieved one or two of that day’s goals. It’s OK if you don’t wake up with a purpose because if you select good people to keep close, you will create common goals and help each other achieve them. Friends lend you energy and with positive energy coursing through you, there’s no way you can be too lazy. After one year of living in Grabagan, I feel very energized, because you’ve supported this to theory for me. There are some words of wisdom from South African Desmond Tutu that I’d like to share. He says: “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” Therefore, I am pleased and proud to have spent this year with you all in Grabagan, and am excited to hear of how you bring Grabagan’s culture to wherever it is that you’re heading to next, and humanize others with it.

Finally, I hope that at this moment, you have no idea what you want do with your life. Do not panic! That’s not at all wrong. In my opinion, it is actually better to be confused than to already have it all figured out. Our world today is just that — confusing. We do not yet have answers about how humans can live together peacefully. It is you who need to move us forward with creative and new solutions. So if you already know everything about your future now, you will not see the problems of tomorrow’s world everything because we do not know those problems as of yet. Again, DO NOT PANIC. Do not worry that you do not know while some of your friends do. Instead of all of this worrying, relax an move forward with a confused head, a glad heart and powerful curiosity.

Once again, thank you for all the lessons this year.

Bahasa Indonesia

Kepala BINGUNG? Ora po po.

Di berikutnya pidatoku saat perpisaan siswa-siswi kelas 3 SMAN Grabagan tahun 2013. Semoga sukses semua.


Nama saya Martine Randolph dan tahun ini saya punya kesempatan yang istimewa untuk belajar mendampingi siswa-siswi kelas III di SMAN Grabagan. Berbedaan yang paling besar di antara saya dengan mereka hari ini adalah mereka yang telah siap untuk mengambil langkah selanjutnya sehingga gurunya tertinggal.

Ketika Pak Nanang menyuruh saya berbicara pidato ini, Beliau menyuruh saya berbicara tentang apa saja yang saya pelajari tahun ini di Grabagan, saya senang sekali karena memang ada banyak hal-hal yang saya pelajari, dan menurut saya yang paling adalah banyak pelajaran dari siswa-siswi SMAN Grabagan.

Pertama, saya belajar dari siswa-siswi bahwa semuanya bisa menjadi guru. Ada banyak hal-hal saya belum tahu ketika saya baru ke sini. Tentang bahasa, tentang makanan, tentang budaya dan tentang SMAN Grabagan. Siswa-siswi di sini yang mengajar saya dan saya harus berterima kasih atas itu. Kadang-kadang saya belajar bahasa Inggris dari kalian juga! Saya belajar “brokenheart”, “enjoy learning”, “refreshing” – memang, setiap kata ada kesalahan kecil seperti brokenheart seharusnya menjadi brokenheartED, enjoy learning sebetulnya menjadi enjoyful learning dan refreshing itu bukan kata kerja, tetapi maksudnya jelas: kalian orang-orang yang berfikir dengan hati kalian, jadi efek pata hati itu hal besar, dan kalian hidup dengan philosophie belajar dengan menikmati dan perlu istirahat, tidak karena capek atau malas, tapi karena mau belajar banyak ilmu yang harus cari di luar sekolah. Selama satu tahun, saya lihat bagaimana kalian berani untuk maju dan membantu orang yang mungkin aneh pertama kali kita bertemu dan kalian selalu membantu saya dengan senyum dan sabar. Sekali lagi terima kasih.

Mudah-mudahan kalian tidak pernah akan berfikir tentang posisi sebagai guru atau siswa di situasi kalian, tetapi akan maju jika ada yang perlu seperti tahun ini, atau jika kalian bisa lihat bagaimana bisa menciptakan satu situasi lebih baik bukan yang sekarang. Menurut saya, sering, seluruh dunia, kami merasa seperti kami harus menghormati posisi, daripada karya. Kami menunggu orang yang punya tugas atau orang di atas kami sampai mereka gerak dulu. Saya harap kalian tidak mengikuti hal tersebut karena saya tidak tahu kalau sampai sekarang saya akan mengerti SMAN Grabagan seperti sekarang kalo tidak ada yang mampir di perpustakaan kadang-kadang buat ngobrol-ngobrol.

Kedua, saya belajar tentang kelemahan saya. Cuaca di sini berbeda dengan di Amerika Serikat dan biasanya, setiap hari saya mau pulang dari sekolah cepat, jalan-jalan ke rumah dan baru mau istirahat karena sangat panas. Memang, saya pernah bekerja sampai jam 5 lebih, tetapi di sini, karena terlalu panas, saya sudah siap untuk istirahat jam 2. Selama beberapa bulan, siswa-siswi kelas 3 selesai pelajaran jam 1 dan sudah siap untuk jam tambahan sampai jam 3. Kebanyakan guru cuma punya LES satu kali satu minggu dan pasti mereka capek setelah itu, karena jam kerjanya luar biasa. Siswa siswi kelas III belajar dengan rajin 5 kali dalam satu minggu untuk LES tambahan supaya mereka menjadi siap untuk UNAS kemarin. Siswa, saya harap kalian selalu akan ingat karya kalian tahun ini jadi kalian tahu kapasitas kalian sendiri.

Ketiga, saya belajar banyak untuk menjadi seorang pemimpin. Di sekolah saya saat SMA, biasanya tidak ada kakak kelas yang memperhatikan adik-adik kelas seperti di SMAN Grabagan. Mungkin kalo ada acara seperti MOB atau acara-acara yang lain, biasanya itu sekolah sebagai penyelenggara. Yang mengatur adalah bapak-ibu guru. Tetapi, di sini, langsung dari bulan Juli, saya lihat anak-anak kelas 3 atau anak-anak OSIS yang berperan penting pada setiap acara. Saya harap kalian tidak akan lupa semangat itu dan selalu memperhatikan ke adik-adik di mana saja kalian pergi, kalau kuliah, kerja atau mulai hidup keluarga. Juga, tentang miminpin, saya belajar dari kalian, seorang memimpin tidak cuma pinter bicara, tapi pintar mendengarkan juga.

Keempat, pelajaran yang paling besar saya belajar, jika dalam hidup Anda bisa tinggal sekitar orang yang baik dan kerjasama orang yang punya motivasi yang tinggi, tidak ada satu hari ketika kamu bisa merasa seperti tidak mencapai satu atau dua tujuan hari itu. Tidak apa apa kalo tidak bangun tidur dengan tujuan karena kalo pilih orang yang baik dan menjadi dekat mereka dengan pikiran ke menikmati waktu bersama, pasti akan menciptakan tujuan bersama dan tujuanya diciptakan sama teman-teman itu lebih istimewa daripada yang bisa buat sendiri. Dengan teman-teman, kamu bisa pinjam tenaga dari mereka, dan tenaga itu pasti positif dan tanpa jalan di mana bisa menjadi malas. Setelah satu tahun tinggal di Grabagan, saya merasa sehat sekali, karena kalian memberi teori itu untuk saya. Ada kata mutiara dari seorang yang berasal dari Afrika Selatan namanya Desmond Tutu. Dia bilang: “Kemanusiaan saya terikat di hatimu, karena kita hanya bisa menjadi manusia bersama-sama.” Karena itu, saya senang dan bangga sekali ada bagian Grabagan di badan kalian yang akan pergi ke mana-mana dan tambah lingkungan di manapun akrab dan asuh dengan budaya Grabagan.

Trahir, saya harap kalian sangat memikirkan tentang masa depan kalian. Jangan panic! Itu tidak salah. Menurut saya, itu lebih baik daripada salah. Dunia kita sekarang memmbuat kita bingung sekali. Kita belum punya jawaban tentang banyak hal-hal besar dan tentang cara manusia bisa tinggal bersama dengan damai. Itu kalian yang harus maju dengan solusi-solusi kreatif dan baru. Jadi kalau kalian sudah tahu semuanya tentang masa depan kalian sekarang, kalian tidak akan bertemu masalah-masalah dunia besok dengan baik karena kita semuanya belum tahu masalah-masalah besok. Sekali lagi, jangan panic. Hidup tidak akan terjadi dengan biasa-biasa saja karena siapa yang mau hidup dengan biasa-biasa saja? Jangan khawatir yang kalian belum tahu dan yang teman-teman belum tahu. Jadi, ayo, lanjutkan dengan kepala BINGUNG, hati SENANG dan rasa ingin tahu yang menggebu.

Sekali lagi, terima kasih atas semua pelajaran tahun ini.