The Danger of a Single (Peace Corps) Story

At some point, each person’s life is divided by a before and an after. Often times, we don’t have the privilege of placing our finger right on the pulse of these momentous transitions. We wake up one morning and fate has intervened with a winning lottery ticket, an unexpected accident, or the death of a family member or friend. Suddenly and without warning, the plot line shifts in an entirely new direction. This is the after.

Unlike these moments where destiny blindly asserts itself, joining the Peace Corps was a conscious choice I made to take an active role in writing my own story. My Peace Corps journey definitely began in one place—with an application feverishly submitted at 3am during the height of my post-graduate school-induced anxiety. However, over the past year and a half, the story has grown into a tome with 1,000s of chapters. My Peace Corps ‘book’—only a metaphor at this point, but perhaps a future possibility—details victorious highs, painful lows, and many small wonders that might have escaped my attention if I was not in the midst of an experience that forces me to take a closer look at myself and my surroundings.

As a reader of my blog, you are hearing things from my perspective—a narrow lens defined by factors such as my age, race, gender, and a chance decision that resulted in my being placed to live and work in Northern Luzon. Even within my own perspective, the narrative takes different forms: there is the story I project to Peace Corps staff, the story I share over social media and on this blog, and the more mundane tale of my every-day life as an awkward, tall American woman trying to survive in the unfamiliar environs of a Filipino mountain town.

This blog post serves as a reminder that there are countless other stories that you could (and should!) be reading about the Philippines and about Peace Corps—tales from volunteers serving in other countries today or forty years ago, tourists who visited the Philippines for a few days and have great vacation tips to share, and host country nationals who have lived in this country for their whole lives and are experts in its history and culture. All of these stories are interesting and important and yet, not one story captures the full picture.

In her famous TED Talk, author and feminist Chimamanda Adichie warns of “the dangers of a single story.” According to Adichie, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” 

As an American who has lived in this country for less than two years, I don’t feel in a position to dissect the ‘single story’ of the Philippines. After all, this is a country of more than 7,107 islands where over 170 different dialects are spoken.

However, given that this post is part of Blogging Abroad’s 2017 New Year’s Blog Challenge, Week Two: The Danger of a Single Story, I thought I would take this opportunity to dispel some of the stereotypes that persist about the other community that I belong to here: the community of Peace Corps volunteers.

I don’t know what my “After” will look like following my service here in the Philippines, but I am confident that I will always be proud to be part of the Peace Corps. Part of the beauty of this experience has been learning from other volunteers. While Peace Corps volunteers around the world share a sense of mission and purpose, each volunteer’s experience is unique and significant in its own small way.

Therefore, to honor my friends and fellow volunteers who have served in 140 countries since 1961, I present to you this list of the top ten commonly held misconceptions about Peace Corps volunteers with the hopes of broadening your horizons about what it means to serve as an emissary for world peace and friendship on behalf of the United States. 

Some of these misconceptions might hold a grain of truth (i.e.: I am a young liberal with no running water!) but there is never just a single story! If you are reading this and you have served in Peace Corps–in the Philippines or anywhere around the world–I’d love to hear your story too!

Top Ten Misconceptions about Peace Corps Volunteers

All Peace Corps volunteers are young, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, recent college graduates

The public’s idea of a Peace Corps volunteer is a recent college graduate who decides to “join” the Peace Corps in their last few weeks of college as an adventurous alternative to a boring desk job. In reality, one cannot just “join” the Peace Corps. In recent years, the application process–although simplified and streamlined– has gotten notoriously competitive. In 2015, about 23,000 people applied to serve in the Peace Corps–the agency’s highest application rate since 1975 and a 32% increase from the year before. Peace Corps extends around 4,000 invitations to serve each year–meaning that only approximately 17% of applicants received an offer in 2015.

After accepting a highly sought after invitation to serve, prospective volunteers must complete rigorous medical clearance and three months of in-country language and cultural training before being extended the official title of “Peace Corps volunteer”. In terms of age, the average age for Peace Corps volunteers is 28. Almost all volunteers possess college degrees and many (in my batch, a vast majority) possess graduate and additional advanced degrees. The oldest currently serving volunteer, Alice Carter, is 87 years old and serving in Morocco. For more information about serving in the Peace Corps as an older volunteer, check out this informative blog.

Peace Corps volunteers live in mud huts with no running water or electricity  

No two Peace Corps living situations are alike. Volunteers in the Philippines swelter while those serving in Eastern Europe and Mongolia freeze. Some do live in bona-fide huts while others live in apartments with constant Wi-Fi and air-conditioning units. Within the Peace Corps community, these nicer living arrangements are often referred to as “Posh Corps”. This designation doesn’t sit well with me though; it strikes me as imperialist and condescending to assume that people living in developing countries must dwell within our narrowly defined ideas about conditions of hardship in the West. Peace Corps volunteers live and work in the communities where they are assigned. These communities are chosen based on need and their desire to host a volunteer—whether they are communities where people live in huts or in high-rise apartment buildings.

I am writing this blog post from my air-conditioned second floor office. True, we are currently experiencing an all-day brown out, but a generator is keeping the power running. My apartment is located in the basement of a beautiful, multi-story cement house built with remittances sent from the United States. While I don’t have consistent running water, it comes every few days and I have big, blue barrels that I fill up to use in the meantime. I have access to Wi-Fi any time I am willing to pay the price to load my pocket Wi-Fi device; it’s painfully slow, but it gets the job done!

Peace Corps volunteers work for the CIA

Over the years, a persistent myth has plagued Peace Corps. Around the world, it is not uncommon for host country nationals to believe that Peace Corps is a front for the CIA. I have heard this rumor many times in my community. Unfortunately, espionage is often suspected of Peace Corps Volunteers who do not adhere to the local expectations for what an American should look like (blonde haired and blue-eyed). My favorite response to this query—“Do you work for the CIA?”—came from a fellow PCV working in my province. When asked about any potential involvement with the CIA, he said: “If we worked for the CIA, don’t you think we would be getting paid more?” This made everyone in the room laugh, volunteers and host country nationals alike.

Widely held assumptions that volunteers work for the CIA are only one of the many stereotypes about America that PCVs must combat in their communities. My intuition tells me that this persistent myth is more closely related to the need for building trust between volunteers and their communities rather than an actual belief that volunteers have ulterior motives as spies.

I want to go on the record loud and clear here: Peace Corps volunteers do not work for the CIA. In fact, recognizing the potential dangers posed to volunteers, the CIA strictly prohibits utilizing volunteers for intelligence purposes. After Peace Corps service, volunteers can never work in military intelligence in their country of service and cannot work for intelligence agencies for at least five years after their close of service. Any person who has ever worked for the CIA before applying to Peace Corps in ineligible for service.  

Peace Corps imposes its volunteers on countries wary of American interference

Peace Corps only sends volunteers to countries who ask for assistance. The assistance provided is specific to the requests of the country and its communities. For example, here in the Philippines, Peace Corps volunteers work in the areas of social work (Children, Youth and Families), Education, and Coastal Resource Management. Every Peace Corps country has its own unique programs based on the needs specified by the country’s government. For more information about Peace Corps’ current programs, check out the Peace Corps website.

Peace Corps service is a two-year, non-stop adventure/paid vacation

It’s true, I go on vacation. And not infrequently. Peace Corps volunteers are awarded 48 vacation days to use throughout their twenty seven months of service and, like most of my friends working 9-to-5 jobs in the United States, I am constantly scheming as to how I can best use my time off to relax, recharge and explore the world. In contrast to most of my friends at home, I’m lucky to be living in a country where beautiful beaches, volcanos, and mountain ranges are the norm!

However, I think it’s important to put vacation time while in the Peace Corps in perspective. The majority of my experience is spent at site. I love this place—truly my home away from home! When I am here, I devote almost all of my time (when I am not reading or binging on TV shows before going to bed) to working with my office, getting to know the culture, and building relationships. Being a Peace Corps volunteer is a 24/7 commitment—even when you are on vacation. The rules around when and where I take my time off are strict, with any notion of “non-stop adventure” hindered by policies that allow me to leave site for, at best, ten days at a time. These same policies prevent me from riding a motorcycle—an essential element to even the most basic of adventures.

Vacation means more than just time off from work to Peace Corps volunteers. Leaving site offers a chance to see friends who live on the other side of the country—often times the only other Americans you will interact with throughout your service. Vacation is an opportunity to be anonymous in a place where no one knows you by name or as “Madame Peace Corps”. Most especially, vacation is a time to indulge in any number of countless delectable delights you can only dream of at site, where the diet consists largely of fish and rice. Everyone needs a little hope to cling to in this life. For Peace Corps volunteers, this hope comes in the form of a few days away from site and cheese. Let us have our glimmer of normalcy without reproach!

Peace Corps volunteers are all liberal hippies 

During my service, I’ve met a variety of Peace Corps volunteers—from buttoned up young professionals to what I like to call “Peace Corps Soul Searchers”, recognizable by their bare feet, flowing hair, and regular references to pseudo-spiritual writers such as Paulo Coehlo and Rumi. In my experience, many Peace Corps volunteers lean left, but not all. For the most part, we don’t really talk politics—especially not in our communities because this is bawal (forbidden). What I can say for Peace Corps volunteers, by and large, is that we are open minded, tolerant, and kind. Call these liberal values if you will, but I like to think of them as common decency.

Peace Corps volunteers lose weight during service  

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, every volunteer’s experience is different. In the Philippines, some of my friends have lost TONS of weight due to the heat, dietary changes, and an increase in exercise. I would say that men tend to lose weight as women gain, but this is not true across the board.

Before service, I had images of myself waking up with the sun to take long, solitary runs on dusty roads. In my mind’s eye, I could already see the street dogs trotting beside me and the hordes of bewildered children cheering me on. A year and a half in, I ask myself: in what world would this ever happen? I try to move my body at least once a day, but my life in the Philippines is decidedly sedentary. 

With a diet rich in sugars, carbs, and fats, I’ve definitely put on a little bit of weight and that’s okay. I’ve enjoyed every pound of it and, in the midst of trying to navigate a new culture and get some serious work done, staying super fit is the least of my concerns.

Peace Corps volunteers are saints who want to save the world 

Peace Corps volunteers may start out with good intentions and pure hearts, but service can grizzle them. For every time a volunteer momentarily helps their community, there are just as many—if not more—moments where the volunteer spends the day puttering around the office. While I’ve come to recognize that this puttering builds a slow momentum, it sometimes feels very different than the image that I had of myself ‘making a difference’. If you want a funny look at real lives of Peace Corps volunteers, check out @rpcvmeme on Instagram. I think their memes get pretty close to the true experience!

If anything, more than saint-like, Peace Corps volunteers are dogged in their perseverance to uphold their commitment to serve for 27 months. I think the stubbornness of Peace Corps volunteers to complete their service is a true testament to host communities and host country nationals; even during challenging times, they are what make it worth it to be here!

Peace Corps volunteers are dropped off in country and picked up two years later—with little supervision in between

When I moved back in with my parents for a brief period before starting graduate school, I struggled to adapt to living back under their roof. After all, I had taken care of myself since going to college at age 18 and had traveled alone for months at a time in three different countries.

Being in the Peace Corps is much like moving home after college: it’s tough to get used to all of the rules and expectations. There are rules about Whereabouts (telling someone where you are going), rules about where you can go, and rules about when you can go there. Every six months, we have to submit a detailed, data-driven report on our activities for evaluation from our sector and regional managers. For most decisions, big and small, there is a long line of higher-ups who have to be called, texted, emailed, or otherwise looped in. For an experience where you are largely out on your own in your community, it can feel like pretty intense monitoring.

I’ve heard that it didn’t used to be like this in the old days. In fact, a staff member, who is also an RPCV, told me that she and her friends chartered a plane and travelled away from their sites for months at a time during her service in Africa during the late 1960s. That being said, I see the need for the rules—I’m happy to comply with any and every policy that will help keep me here in the Philippines. In addition, staff are friendly, responsible, and upfront with their expectations, which makes the unfamiliar loss of freedom easier to swallow. While somewhat intense at times, I trust that the rules implemented by Peace Corps are all rooted in knowing what’s best for volunteers’ safety and well-being based on over 50 years of experience.

Peace Corps is the toughest job you will ever love.

This catchphrase is the unofficial slogan of the Peace Corps. I understand the sentiment, but I think its brevity limits this experience to a ‘single story’. In some ways, it implies that enduring moments of hardship at the workplace are what make these two years of service worthwhile. At times, I hear volunteers talking about their troubles almost as if they are a badge of honor–as if the more struggles you face, the more legitimate your Peace Corps service.

While it’s true that I have faced some challenges during my time here, the difficult parts have not defined my experience. I have been shown such warmth, friendship, and hospitality in the Philippines that it would feel like an insult to call working here “my toughest job”. If anything, I am the one who has been tough to handle as a foreign transplant in this unfamiliar culture. Lacking awareness of propriety and norms, I am sure that I have made my coworkers wonder at times if hosting me in the office is not their “toughest job.” And yet, they have continued to show me love–unwarranted and unwavering love. Me, I don’t need a badge of honor for my hardship. Instead, I need a million ‘Thank You’ notes to let all of the people in my community know what a blessing their guidance and support has been.

The truth is: Peace Corps is unlike any other job that I have ever had, or probably will ever have again. It’s more than a job…it’s a lifestyle–where everyone knows your business, you never have enough money, and the work (and fun!) never ends. There are days when I love being here and times when I’m ready for the next adenture, but I can’t say the past year and a half has been the toughest.The most intense and the most growthful maybe–but not the toughest.


Celebrating the return of Colin, our beloved sitemate

Celebrating a job well done at a work event


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