Saturday, July 02, 2005

Ukraine: Is this a Peace Corps Blog?

I have been corresponding for several months now with a person in America who is in the process of applying for Peace Corps. He has a blog with links to other Peace Corps blogs, so I asked him if he would link mine. He respectfully declined, saying that while he enjoyed my blog, it wasn't really a Peace Corps blog, that my blog was not enough about the "Peace Corps job" and was mostly about "parties, concerts, climbing and dating."

I asked myself: "Is my blog really a Peace Corps blog?" because I have always meant it to be one, meant it to allow people to see what at least one Peace Corps experience was like. True, it's full of my travels to other places and my opinions of other things, but at it's heart I thought it was currently a Peace Corps blog.

In any case, in my response to his e-mail I found myself writing a lot of information about my changing understanding of my Peace Corps experience, information that I thought was relevant to helping other people understand was Peace Corps is in the world now, at least from my point of view. Which is why I'm posting it.


This was my e-mail in response:

I completely understand, although I think you'll find the majority of Peace Corps blogs are not about the Peace Corps jobs themselves, because those are mostly the same from day to day. Rather, they tend to reflect the person's experience: both thoughts and anecdotes, within the culture. I do try to present Ukraine as much as possible: the last blog talked about the School Leavers ceremony, the meat markets and the Student Republic, all very Ukrainian things. Looking at my last ten posts, they dealt with Peace Corps trainings, cross-cultural problems, the beautiful places I've seen in southern Ukraine and a Ukranian multi-sport race.

I understand where you're coming from, and am not trying to convince you to link to me, but I was surprised that you thought this blog was not about the Peace Corps experience. It surprised me so much that I felt the need to defend it:

My blog is not about Peace Corps per say, but it is about Ukraine, and Ukraine as seen through my eyes. It's not third-person and it's not objective because my Peace Corps experience has been extremely visceral and I want that reflected in the site.

That's what I want people to see about Peace Corps. It's easy to dismiss my blog as "not really Peace Corps", but I think you'll find that better than 80% of the Peace Corps countries are not these poverty-stricken places we envision them to be. Before I joined Peace Corps, I assumed it would be this very spiritual thing, probably living in a hut in a jungle somewhere, helping people as best I could. Instead it's been a roller coaster of experiences and emotions, and the more Peace Corps Volunteers I interact with, even in other countries, the more I realize it's the same. This is not the Peace Corps of the 1960s. We all came in thinking this would be us helping the world. Instead, we found that it was hard to get things done, that we had a lot of time on our hands and that we spent more energy trying to adapt the the country then actually "helping it". So we have all had to re-understand what our Peace Corps experience would be.

I came here thinking I was going to aid Ukraine, that Peace Corps was going to help "fix" it. Ukraine, though, I found, is fixing itself. Ukraine doesn't need Peace Corps or America to "survive", but it can use its help to prosper. English being the lingua franca of the buisness world, that's how I help Ukraine to prosper: by trying to help people with their English as best as possible. But I still don't think that's the most important thing I'm doing here. I think the greatest good I've been doing is to help Ukrainians understand America, to be an American who's not here to make money or get a Ukrainian wife, to use Ukraine for my own sake. Peace Corps is and always has been a diplomatic endevor and the more pro-American sentiment there is in Ukraine, the more our countries can interact with one another and the more peace there can be in the world.

That is Peace Corps now.

I've taught a lot of classes, written a lot of teaching materials, tutored a lot of students and am working on building a climbing wall, but that's maybe 20% of my Peace Corps experience, which is why 80% of my blog is about the third goal: me learning about Ukraine, and hopefully other Americans learning about Ukraine through me. We all think of ex-Soviet countries as these hopeless, grey, downtrodden places. And while Ukraine's infrastructure needs a lot of work, while it has a lot of social problems, it is actually a vibrant country full of parties, clubbing, concerts, climbing and dating. And I write about those because that's what's here and that's what I'm doing.

I hope that teaches people about Ukraine, too.

I realize it doesn't fit well into your concept of "Peace Corps", but it is, in fact, Peace Corps. Thousands of volunteers throughout Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the more developed parts of South American and Africa are all having similar experiences to me. I was initially dissapointed: I wanted the extreme sacrifices, as if that cross to bear somehow made me a better person. But I realized that it should not be about me going: "look at all I gave up to help you" but "let's interact, let me help you as much as I can because I enjoy helping people, and let's have our countries be at peace."

Hopefully you're not taking this offensively. I really am just trying to convey my understanding of Peace Corps and my concern that maybe Peace Corps is not what you think it will be. There is a myth of Peace Corps, and perhaps you will live it. Perhaps you won't. I just don't want you to be disapointed. More to the point, there is no need to be disapointed, because even without the hut and the mashed yams, Peace Corps has been a eye-opening, life-changing experience for me.

And this is my Peace Corps experience, and why you may think my blog is not "about Peace Corps", I respectfully disagree. :-)

BUT: I realize now that people logging onto this site might want more informative articles about Peace Corps or Ukranian culture, and I thank you for that insight. Actually, I already have a couple ideas for specific parts of the culture that I have yet to write about. Those will be interspersed into my more personal experiences in the days ahead.