July 30, 2002 - Colorado State University: Adapting Overseas In the Peace Corps

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Adapting Overseas In the Peace Corps

Adapting Overseas In the Peace Corps

Adapting Overseas In the Peace Corps

One of the few predictions you can safely make about your experience, as a Peace Corps volunteer is that it will never be entirely predictable. You can learn from the experience of ex-volunteers - but there is certain to be a time when you are confronted by a situation, a challenge or a problem that is wholly new, wholly unique and wholly your own. How can you prepare yourself for this?

There are no gimmicks, no tricks, and no easy rules of thumb in resolving the unexpected, of anticipating the surprising, of cataloging the unique. But we can tell you something about the kinds of situations you are likely to encounter and something of how former volunteers have reacted to the new, the strange and the challenging.

When you are in an unfamiliar situation you will function more effectively if you look for a familiar element or reaction. Also, psychologists have shown that you do better in a difficult situation if you prepare yourself by imagining how you will feel and by starting to adapt to your probable tensions and frustrations.

It seems worthwhile, then, to anticipate some of the challenges and stresses likely to arise in your work, and to outline some of your possible feelings and reactions.


The name "Peace Corps" is somewhat misleading. It implies a coherent company of Americans working together when in fact; most volunteers work with citizens of the host country rather than other Peace Corps volunteers and may or may not live in the same house or town with other volunteers. A volunteer's work is often a solitary job, isolated from other volunteers, and lacking the support one gets from working with people who share common backgrounds.

There are times when you will feel very much alone, especially in contrast to the intense togetherness of pre-service training programs. For many people, being alone is more tolerable than the loneliness of being in an unfamiliar town among strangers from whom one is separated by language and customs.


Paradoxically, although you may often feel "alone" you may also feel that you are never alone, that you are always on parade, always under scrutiny, always working in the sense that there is never a moment when you are not representing the "image" of the volunteer. Most of us are used to certain work patterns and non-work patterns. We work at a job. Then we go home to relax. We can retreat from work to privacy.

But from the moment you enter Peace Corps training and for the duration of your assignment it may seem that you live in a fish bowl. Even the few people who find this exhilarating at first eventually find it irritating and burdensome.


Though a few volunteers share living quarters, the good majority live alone. While living together as Americans may offer companionship and support, it also places you in a rather intense relationship with a few people not entirely of your own choosing. You may have had a similar experience with a college roommate, but there you were able to get away from each other for periods of time. Overseas this may not be possible, and the enforced intimacy, even with a most compatible partner, can be wearing on both of you.


If you like people and have formed warm attachments, you will react to separation from familiar surroundings, family and friends by becoming sad and lonely. This feeling, which can be quite intense and which may last for a few days or weeks, is not correlated with age, sex, or previous separations, nor is it peculiar to the Peace Corps. You may have been homesick taking a new job in an American city far from home or school. Those of you who have been to college or in the armed services, for example, know how dependent you can become on mail from home. And because you are far away, any trouble at home - an illness of a parent or dissolution of a romance - can be magnified and distorted.

Sometimes the opposite occurs. Disturbing news from home gets minimized and a volunteer may attribute tensions and disturbances within himself to his immediate environment and the job or social problems it presents, when in actuality the real source of distress is thousands of miles away. The significant people in our lives - family - do not cease to be important simply because we are removed from them.


Ideally speaking, mealtime should be a time of relaxation. But in a strange country, mealtime may be a perpetually unsettling challenge. The available food may not only be strange in type and appearance, but it may be unpalatable and unhealthy. Yet since eating in all cultures is a significant social function and a vehicle to personal relations, you may feel obligated to demonstrate your friendliness and willingness to accept local customs by eating food that you don't want. Sometimes you may find it difficult to refuse the food without offending your host

What you decide in each case will have to be the result of a fine balancing of factors - the requirements of courtesy, your sense of the limits of your own tolerance to unaccustomed foods, and realistic concerns for your health. This will take time and until you get comfortable in making such decision, it may be a strain.

Not only food, but also procedures for washing, sleeping, and elimination may also differ dramatically from those back home. Smells that may repel Americans may be bland or even pleasant to the local people, and vice versa. Sexual customs and rules of clothing may appear excessively strict in some respects, or embarrassingly free in others. You may find your tolerance of noise and dirt very different from what you imagined it to be.

In all these aspects of daily life, so simple and taken for granted at home, you may feel yourself pulled in opposite directions between your accustomed life and that of your host. At times life may seem a series of minor nagging frustrations. Such frustrations can accumulate, and you may come through a long day of struggling feeling exhilarated and happy and yet be inexplicably exasperated because you have to wipe your mouth on your sleeve for want of a paper napkin.


This is a flamboyant, overused term in the Peace Corps. But coping with cultural differences can pose surprising and real problems, which may be exaggerated or minimized. New volunteers usually have contradictory expectations of host country people. On the one hand they feel that human beings are basically alike the world over; on the other, cultural differences may be viewed as so profound, so exotic as to be nearly insuperable barriers to communication. One needs to develop a capacity to see through the stereotypical cultural camouflage in order to communicate with the unique individual.

Your initial reaction to a new country is likely to be one of delight and curiosity. You see it as a tourist does and everything is fascinating. But working in a foreign country is another matter. The differences which strike you at first will become commonplace and just as you think you are beginning to understand and get comfortable, you become aware of new and more profound differences between yourself and the people with whom you work. This experience can be quite disconcerting. Everything suddenly seems strange and incomprehensible, and you may feel you cannot get through to anyone.

For example, talking to one of the local people, in English or in the local language, you may realize abruptly that, although you are using the same language, you do not understand each other. Words like "democratic" or "clean" or "soon" may take on different meanings. You both feel that you are not really speaking the same language.

This breakdown in communication may be heightened by the perceptions that you and your host may have towards one another. Suddenly you both may feel as if you are talking not to each other, but of preconceived images of each other. In either case, the result is a failure to understand each other, and a consequent sense of frustration.

At times it is difficult to remember that all people have a common humanity, that every culture has to meet basic needs - food, shelter and the preservation of life. Also, you cannot tell if he/she is smart or ignorant, funny or humorless, reliable or irresponsible, skillful or inept, honest or dishonest. In our own culture we develop clues, which help us make individual assessments possible, but even then it is not always easy, and we are frequently deceived.

In a foreign culture it is more difficult. There is a temptation to fall back on cultural stereotypes, but much of the success or failure of a volunteer's work depends on his ability to understand the language and the culture well enough to make an accurate assessment of the individuals with whom he must relate in his work. It is not an exaggeration to state that every successful Peace Corps project begins by identifying a particular host country national that is competent, reliable, understanding, and dedicated. This is a slow and arduous task requiring many months of frustrated effort.


One of the most troubling aspects of your stay overseas may be that you begin to doubt your entire set of values, your whole sense of who you are and your confidence in your own way of life.

We are deeply imbued with our own way of life, despite the fact that many of our traditional American values are being questioned. Indeed, to impart this is one of the major motivations of the Peace Corps and our host country governments. Yet, at the same time, as a volunteer you should be prepared to accept and respect the customs and attitudes of host country people. This presents a dilemma: to what extent are you an agent of change, and to what extent are you a respectful, conforming guest and fellow worker? The answer cannot be clear-cut because both motivations are relevant and yet they are clearly contradictory.

In your work you will find an established traditional system or superstitions. Do you oppose it, or go along with it? If you oppose it, you will encounter resistance and hostility - often subtle, sometimes blatant. You may react to this kind of resistance with rage. On the other hand if you go along with the system, nothing changes, and you feel useless. Volunteers who follow this latter course often rationalize their passivity with " after all we are not here to change things; and who is to say that the American way of life is any better than the host country's?"

There is no easy solution. Most volunteers work out some kind of flexible adaptation in which sometimes they oppose the system directly, sometimes they go along with it, but hopefully without giving up the objective of imparting something of themselves in the process.

Another context in which this dilemma manifests itself is that of social behavior. To what extent are you there as an American, as a Peace Corps volunteer, as a technician, or as just yourself? Again there are compromises. Few volunteers wholly adopt host country dress, yet most avoid extreme forms of American fashions, which might offend their host - i.e. mini skirts or shorts.

There are two areas of social behavior that are particularly troublesome for volunteers: sex and drugs. Most volunteers are young people, still working out their feelings and values about sexual behavior. This is complicated by the emergence in America of sexual values, which are considerably variant from those, which have been traditional in our society. When displaced to a foreign culture, the development difficulties are immensely multiplied.

Travel in itself is often an aphrodisiac. It deprives you of the support to your conscience that a familiar environment provides, makes you feel lonely and assails your senses with a myriad of novel stimuli. Although many volunteers are able to maintain their values under the impact of the seductions and frustrations of Peace Corps service, others are constrained to modify their former codes and find themselves involved in sexual relationships for which they are unprepared, pragmatically and emotionally.

Paradoxically, it is among volunteers most certain and assured of their adherence to our traditional sexual values that some of the most serious problems arise. Confident of themselves, they may fail to inform and prepare themselves practically - i.e., with accurate contraceptive information and effective means. Consequently, it is from this group that most volunteers, male and female, involved in unwanted pregnancies, come.

In most Peace Corps countries, the use of marijuana-like drugs is widespread, though illegal virtually everywhere. Marijuana is illegal in the United States, and its possession is a felony and a federal offense. The Peace Corps expects volunteers to obey the law in our country and in host countries as well. The Peace Corps will immediately expel from the country of assignment any volunteer who is found to have used any form of illegal drugs.


There are many reasons why people join the Peace Corps, but one important one is the desire to grow and change. For many, Peace Corps offers some individuals with career opportunities and direction toward a career goal.

Nearly all volunteers are influenced by their service - they are more confident and feel their perspectives on life and people have been dramatically changed. Unfortunately, many are disappointed in the depth and extent of the changes in themselves. They face the prospect of returning with discouragement and apprehension because they find they are as uncertain of what they want to do as they were before Peace Corps service. In some instances, this discouragement and apprehension can be quite acute and intense in the two or three months before termination of duty. It is a temptation, of course, for such volunteers to extend their service and postpone these life decisions, but experience has shown that prolonging service overseas helps only rarely.

You may be able to avoid this distress if at the end of your first year you try to reach some conclusions about what you are going to do when you get back home. The Outplacement Counseling Service can be useful, as can discussions with overseas staff members about careers, graduate education and job opportunities. For many volunteers a period of time at home, in a job, or at school has helped in clarifying and deciding about where to go and what to do.


The situation and conditions of life that we have looked at will affect different people to varying degrees. For example, you may have a great need for privacy or very little need for it. You may be oblivious to dirt, but fairly sensitive to hostility - or vice versa. You may be disturbed by a breakdown in communications and completely undisturbed by a radical change in living patterns. There is no particular virtue, however, in being one kind of person or the other.

While it is possible that you may sail through every kind of stressful situation without encountering any discomfort within yourself, it is unusual. There are times for nearly all volunteers when the really difficult conditions under which they live and work prove upsetting. Most experience rather intense feelings of discouragement and futility - usually during the first year of service. Things that seemed clear become unclear. The direction to take seems obscure. You don't feel in control of a situation or a problem and this can be frightening.

When this happens you may wonder whether you are really up to the job, whether you may have caused the trouble, whether it's really possible to accomplish anything or whether what you are doing is really worthwhile. You may feel unusually fatigued, although you have been working no harder than usual. You may find yourself short-tempered and irritable and annoyed with yourself for being so.

There is no easy set of rules to tell you how to overcome feelings, but fortunately, they are usually short-lived.

But there are approaches, which can be helpful in coping with this trying period. First of all, bear in mind that the frustration and failure of "not getting anything done," usually derives from the realities of the situation, not from your own inadequacies. Peace Corps assignments are not easy. It is always a good idea to seek out the difficulties in a situation, and to recognize that it is normal, not a sign of personal weakness. Often it is helpful to break the problem down into smaller units and work through one unit at a time. Sometimes a sense of failure is simply due to the fact that your initial hopes were too high and unrealistic. If you step back and assess the problems freshly, you will feel more positive about the headway you are making.


When things are not going too well, there is a danger of falling into the vicious circle - discouragement, overwork, and fatigue which leads to less efficient work, more fatigue and greater discouragement. It is important to get some rest during such periods. Instead of always directing yourself straight at the problem, ignore it for a short period. Find a place where you can relax briefly before returning to the struggle.

Active Americans have a tendency to "do something" to solve a problem, but there are times when it is wiser to resist this tendency. A confusing situation may clarify itself if you give yourself the quietness of mind to see its elements.

One of the most helpful ways to clear your mind of a clouded matter is to talk it over with someone - a fellow volunteer or someone with whom you have a good relationship. The Peace Corps recognizes the value of this and encourages volunteers to seek support from their peers and the in-country staff.

Volunteers need to take responsibility for each other. If any one - volunteer or staff - is depressed or drinking himself into insensibility or becoming involved in an upsetting or indiscreet sexual affair, it may be your responsibility as a caring adult to reach out and help. Getting additional help - talking to the physician or to other staff members about the problem is not a disloyal betrayal of a peer, but rather a constructive action to help a fellow human being.

The corollary of this is that people have many ways of asking for help. A fellow volunteer who embarks on a blatant, indiscreet love affair may be asking for help. A person who cares about others will perceive and understand and respond.

Mental health is not a steady state of relative freedom from "pain." Mental health is a much more flexible adaptive state in which periods of appropriate "pain" - anger, anxiety, frustration and depression - evoke adaptive mechanisms which permit you to cope with the pain to help you accomplish what you set out to do. Thus the periods of pain are succeeded by periods of satisfaction, pleasure and sometimes elation and ecstasy. The personality never ceases to change, to develop and grow, and meaningful change in personality is almost always accompanied by some psychic distress.

It may be some solace to you as you work as a Peace Corps volunteer that the pains you are suffering are most likely growing pains.

Author unknown

Peace Corps Denver Regional Office, 1999 Broadway, Suite 2205, (800) 424-8580

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Story Source: Colorado State University

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Culture Shock; Anthropology; For Prospective Volunteers



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