13 September 2010

The Peace Corps Experience: The Next Generation

Yesterday, I filled in teaching for a volunteer friend and taught a session on an alternative economic model, coined "Buddhist Economics" by E.F. Shumacher. It has little to do with Siddharta or nirvana, and more with countries culturally influenced by Buddhism trying to find a culturally appropriate way to run economics. One of the main ideas is that work is not purely to produce things to make money, but to help the worker develop personally and learn how to work with and within a larger group.

To relate the concepts to life, at the end of the class, I gave a personal example of the crazy choice to join Peace Corps right after getting an MBA, and quite truthfully said "it is not at all a sacrifice for me to come work in Tonga." The students' eyes nearly popped out of their heads!

A lot of people assume that Peace Corps is a certain way: noble, self-sacrificing people leaving it all behind to live among throngs of starving children in the middle of nowhere -- or, The Peace Corps Experience.

(You may be able to substitute in governmental circles
  "The Development Work Experience" or in Christian circles "The Mission Experience," each said with a kind of slightly ironic, capitalized awe.)

No doubt, some people do live something more similar to this way, but even then, it is almost never exactly the noble ideal.

Instead of living the Peace Corps Experience, we're living what could be called The Peace Corps Experience: Globalized Edition or The Peace Corps Experience 2.0 or The Peace Corps Experience: The Next Generation.

We are not living the Peace Corps Experience.
We don't live in a mud hut. (We live in a cute wooden, termite-eaten house on stilts)
We don't cook over an open fire. (We do eat regularly from an underground oven)
A pig cooked in an underground oven

We don't fetch our water from a muddy river. (We do haul our drinking water from a rainwater tank)
We are not in daily danger of catching malaria or some horrific parasite. (We do live in a country with a very high rate of non-communicable diseases - diabetes and heart problems)
We don't live on the edge of starvation. (Very far from it)
We don't live or work with hoards of starving children. (We both work with adults)
We don't live kilometres away from the nearest other Peace Corps volunteer (Even on 'Eua, the nearest volunteer was across the street)

Tropical Pacific Ocean
Cement buildings and dusty streets
Toilet paper
We do live in a capital city smaller than most rural districts in the US, surrounded by the beauty of the tropical Pacific Ocean, but on most city blocks among the cement buildings and dusty streets, you would forget it; in a tiny country glutted with foreign aid where organizational corruption is common but generally not acknowledged; among people groups who compete fiercely with the next community but are equally fiercely proud of being Tongan; in communities trying to navigate the proliferation of poor quality, expired, and reject food sold at high prices.

We bumblingly steer through a very different culture of strict hierarchy, completely unused to encountering a cultural reality that does not operate on Western principles of economy and exchange, constantly being misled by surface appearances that seem so similar to what we are used to.

It would be easy to think that living in a city where globalization is more evident than a rural town would mean that we would come in less contact with Tongan culture, but really, since we moved to the city, we don't see less of "Tongan-ness." Instead, we see culture being made every day by
  • the young woman working in her family's shop as she visits from overseas; 
  • by the farmer feeding coconuts to his pigs; 
  • by the primary school kids eating a bag of American candy brought back from an auntie;
Kids in the market
  • by the moms making fried dough "tongan doughnuts" every morning for the family breakfast;
  • by the female business manager who holds an MBA and just adopted a baby daughter;
  • by the young people's performing arts group that teaches dance on Saturdays;
  • by the school principal who spends 4 months during the school year in Australia;
  • by the kids who clean the school until it shines on Fridays and then help tidy the family yard on Saturdays; 
  • by the church choir that practices three nights a week to make sure their songs are good;
  • by the sewing-talented woman who ends up making kids' uniforms for her whole community; 
Girls in primary school uniform
by the language teacher who spends the winter picking fruit in New Zealand;
  • by the pastor who just got a loan to increase the size of his sweet potato plot;
  • by the Tongan-American, Tongan-Kiwi, Tongan-Aussie, Tongan-Samoan and every other Tongan marriage;
  • by the high school teacher that holds four or five academic certificates and is a self taught computer expert;
  • by the nine year old boy who sings Shania Twain's "Man, I feel like a Woman" at the Tongan equivalent of American Idol;
  • by the womens groups who make thousands of dollars selling the mats they weave together;
  • by the friends who go out fishing in the dark of early morning to sell tuna at the wharf;
and by all the other individuals that vibrantly make up, change, re-interpret, rebel against, attempt to preserve, and truly cherish what it means to be Tongan.

Dr. Saafi's Surgery
We definitely don't live something so one-dimensionally boring as The Peace Corps Experience, and we're very glad of it.



  1. Yes! I can relate coming from the missions world, where the reality of life is so far from whatever weird ideal folks in the sending country hold up. No I didn't ride an elephant to school. Yes, I had electricity. And yes, that was home to me and I would never trade away my childhood there--definitely not for a childhood in the States.
    keep on living Peace Corps: Next Generation!

  2. This jives with my "experience" in Mexico, El Salvador, Colombia, Moscow, etc. Very insightful!

    Pastor David

  3. Thanks for your services and to all who have served in Tonga and countres in need, may Tonga continue to be the beauty you found it. Malo e ngaue & malo e 'ofa. May God Bless


Related Posts with Thumbnails