The Peace Corps Experience: The Next Generation

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.

We are not living the Peace Corps Experience.

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, my husband Mark and I are 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)

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. (As the scale shows, 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 when we were on the tiny island of 'Eua, the nearest volunteer was across the street)

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;
  • 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; 
  • 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.

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


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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.