Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A little Peace Corps jingoism

I've spent a lot of time this morning poring through a blog I've just been told about, Chengdu Chronicles, written by two friends of mine, Charles Enciso and Chris Ray (I think Charles is doing most of the writing). Chris is working as Peace Corps staff in Chengdu, China (yes, recently of earthquake notoriety), while Charles, his partner (husband, actually, at least in Canada), is there with him, going to school. Charles was a co-worker of mine during my Peace Corps Placement days, and we progressed on parallel tracks, moving to different regions but doing the same jobs for a while. After I left the Peace Corps he and Chris went to Canada to get married, then resumed their careers in Washington. I lost track of them for a couple of years, until a mutual friend had us together at a New Year's Eve party, but I was unaware of the blog. The same mutual friend, who visited us for dinner over the weekend, put me on to it.

The blog (again, I truly hate that ugly word, a catch-all that does nothing to capture the nature of this work) is a treasure trove of travel columns documenting their "excellent adventures" in Central China. They've been there since July, 2007. They don't post daily, but still, there's a lot to catch up on, and I am making it a project to catch up. The writing is engaging, the stories are both funny and fascinating; their bright personalities shine through, and it is full of pictures. I know most of you justifiably can't imagine adding yet more reading to your day. Still, this is well worth the visit.

Remembering Charles and Chris makes me grateful all over again for the great fortune I had in being able to call the Peace Corps my place of work for nearly 30 years. I was lucky because the Peace Corps attracts such sterling people, but doubly so because I actually had a full career there--most people who work at the Peace Corps never get the chance: written into the legislation which enables the operation of the agency is a rule which limits staff employment there to 8 years at most. I was among a very few people--40 or so--who were in the right place at the right time at a certain period in the agency's history when some people could be given career status. I did nothing to deserve that status except be there.

As a permament employee, while always engaged with the crowd, a part of me was also aware that I was watching a parade of stellar people, each contributing their unique characters to the overall stimulating atmosphere of the place. During relatively stable periods, I'd think there could be no more wonderful a crew to be with, but always, people would move on, only to allow more wonderful people out of the wings. I can't say anyone was "replaced," because individual characters were irreplaceable. There were just always more people, always unique, always memorable. Even the occasional losers in the bunch were losers in memorable ways. I get together now with former colleagues and we still have that bond. Since I worked in so many offices, I have more than one Peace Corps "family," and each is a joy.

All returned Peace Corps volunteers share the unique experience of having discovered parts of themselves they never knew existed as a result of working at the grassroots level in a completely alien culture. Our experiences were different in detail but exactly the same overall; virtually all returned PCVs you ever speak to will tell you that while they feel their work was worthwhile, they gained much more than they gave.

When I hear of the bond shared by former combatants in wars, I identify with their experience while, I hasten to add, in no way claiming the same sort of sacrifice. The self-knowledge we gain is similar, though, and if there is any hope for this country in the long run, I believe some of it resides in those of us who have lived other lives in other places, who have had to plumb own depths at times to survive, and who bring that knowledge, both of self and of the corners of the world in which we lived, back home with us. Most of us may never do anything else so "big," but our experience informs all the things we subsequently learn about the world. It improves us as individuals and can only make this country a better place. I always hope parents will encourage their kids to get out into the world and challenge themselves somehow, before they embark on full "adulthood." The Peace Corps is an excellent vehicle, but it isn't the only one. Take a few months and drive across the country, or tromp through Europe or Asia with a backpack. Work for a political campaign. The possibilities for growth and self-awareness are endless. Choose any one of them, but please, do but choose!

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