An article written by fellow Volunteer, Erica Christie, in our Sticky Rice newsletter. With the things we hear about Thailand being the ‘Posh Corps’ and why does a vacation place need to have Peace Corps Volunteers and the question we often ask ourselves being, ‘What am I doing here?’ When I read this, I thought to myself, ‘holy cow, I like how she wrote this. Others need to read this too.’ So, here you go, enjoy.
So here we are, almost one year in. I‘ve heard many discussions and have participated in a number of them, as to whether or not Thailand needs Peace Corps. Everybody is entitled to their opinions, but when I hear this I automatically think, ―Are we living in the same country? Don‘t get me wrong, I‘ve listened to the arguments and understand the points made, but the more I live here, the more confident I am that Peace Corps should not be leaving Thailand any time soon.
I started to look into the Peace Corps directly after college when I was 21 years old. It was one of those…Sooooo, what do I do with my life now?‘ phases. There was stuff going on at home and I knew I couldn‘t leave for two years at that point in my life. So, the natural progression of work, grad school and more work eventually took place and Peace Corps became a distant goal. Despite that, I always wanted to live within a rural community in a foreign country, live the simple life, learn about a new culture and its people and above all else, help people. I‘m sure this sounds familiar to many Peace Corps volunteers. So, life happened and seven years later I found myself back at the point of, Sooooo, what do I do with my life now?‘ I clicked on the Peace Corps website after leaving it stagnant for years and began the application process immediately.
Whenever I thought about the Peace Corps, I always thought I would go to Africa as I have a public health background focusing on sexual health and HIV/AIDS and well, because that‘s where I wanted to go. Not so ironically, I was nominated for a health project in Sub- Saharan Africa to leave January 2011. Yet, due to medical stuff‘, when I received my formal invitation, Thailand was highlighted yellow. I have to admit that part of me was disappointed, but I was also pleasantly surprised and instantly excited. I started to spread the word, and although there was a lot of excitement, I got a lot of the following: ―Uh! I love Thailand, the beaches are gorgeous….you have to go to that place they filmed The Beach with Leo! (what?); Thailand is one of my favorite places to vacation (wait – what?); Thailand, really? Peace Corps is in Thailand? (ok, seriously?) So, I started to get a little upset. This didn‘t sound like the dream
I‘d pictured for seven years of roughing it and helping the neediest people in the world. I expressed my concerns to a RPCV China friend of mine and she said: ―Erica, I served in China, one of the powers of the world. Thailand and China may not be Africa and your lifestyle challenges may not be what you imagined, but believe me, the language and culture will be more than enough challenge. And c‘mon, every country needs Peace Corps, including America which is why we have Americorps. I still carry those blissful and honest words with me.
Countries in all stages of development face a variety of challenges. Some may say that third-world countries have it the worst because they lack all the goods‘ of a developed country. But developed countries lack many of the wonderful things of a third-world country such as resourcefulness, survival skills, no television and all that other technological stuff that is beautiful yet ugly at the same time.
Developing countries, which is where I would categorize Thailand, fall somewhere in between that. Developing countries are working so hard at becoming developed that unfamiliar social, family, gender, economic and health challenges creep up on them without recognition.
Historically, Thai culture is known to be quite conservative, yet many aspects of this are changing. Youth aren‘t finishing school – and most PCVs know it‘s not to help the family in the fields; 15-year-olds are losing the sense of responsibility to help the family (in a country that values family and everybody playing a beneficial role); youth are using drugs/alcohol and having sex at an earlier age; couples spend their entire marriage in separate cities or countries for better jobs to be able to give their kids opportunities they never had; people are leaving their children to be raised by Yai and Da (grandmother and grandfather) so they can work in a big city and buy the newest phone, car and/or electric lights for their motorcycle, etc, etc. These are just some social issues – I haven‘t even mentioned the health and environmental stuff. I‘m not trying to bash on Thailand, as I jing jing (really, really) love it here. But, let‘s be honest – after living in any country for a period of time, anybody could make a long list of its strengths and less-than-desirable traits. Thailand, America or Togo, they‘ve all got good and bad. I‘m sure we could all agree on this, chai mai? (right?)
Yet, despite these growing problems, some will still argue that there‘s no need for Peace Corps Thailand. It may depend on one‘s definition of community development or one‘s view of the Peace Corps‘ purpose, but…..jing law (really)? PCV‘s in Thailand may not do the volunteer work being done in Africa because the needs are different – but there are still needs. Much of it depends on the volunteer, the community, and the interests of both.
I realize many people join the Peace Corps because they want to make a large and tangible impact – in many ways, I‘m one of them. But we must look at the reality of that. I‘d say it takes a good solid year for us to be fully integrated into our communities. That would leave us with one year to make this huge impact we all came here for. Community development can take a lifetime – one year is NOTHING.
My parents have given me some great advice since I‘ve been here, and it‘s simply to plant seeds.‘ They told me to just do the things I love to do, like cook without sugar, exercise, plant an organic garden, recycle, empower youth, carry around a pocket-book made from plastic bags and carry all the materials to make it so when someone asks, I can show them on the spot how to make one. One never knows who this impacts. And let‘s not underestimate the power and beauty of cultural and life‘ exchange. It‘s largely what PC is about (66% to be exact), regardless of what country you are in. Even if just one Thai person is inspired by anything you do or say, they will have the power to make a change, one we may never be here to see.
As idealistic as I am (and we are all idealistic or we wouldn‘t be here) I also realize that nobody leaves any Peace Corps country after two years with their village being totally and completely different. And why would we want that? There is so much to love.