In only a week and a half or so, Ramadan will be over. It’s gotten hotter, unbearably hotter, and I’m always a little hungry, always a little thirsty, and probably more irritable than I’ve ever been. Something tells me I’m not alone in this.
I was talking with Caity and Avery about that, about how this two years abroad challenges you in ways you didn’t know you could be challenged. We all got into this experience thinking, “I want a new challenge, one that will make me grow,” and that growth happens to almost all of us in the Peace Corps, I think, but the stress we face is quite literally a world different from what most people back home could even begin to fathom. And describing what I mean by that is even more difficult to pull off. You find yourself annoyed by the strangest things here, like people cutting you in line at the post office or someone overcharging you pennies, literally pennies, for something you think should cost pennies less. It’s like we bump up against how the world works with our own opinions about how the world should work, and we’re constantly in this struggle to make things happen a bit more the way they make the most sense to us.
It’s funny, too. It’s like Peace Corps gives us all this reading material that tells us exactly what I’m telling you now; we couldn’t be more prepared for this experience in theory. They even map out exactly how we’ll feel at different stages of our service on the roller-coaster ride of volunteering. And yet none of that information, perhaps because this experience is so different from anything we’ve encountered before, prepares us for reality. It’s a tried and true example of where knowledge just doesn’t compare or match experience.
So, where’s the growth? I think a huge part of the Peace Corps experience is coming to a state of acceptance about a different culture (or even our own) and what it is, and part of that acceptance means letting go of the expectations we hold for how that culture should work, learning to just be comfortable with where life is and how it’s panning out,
even if especially if it’s not really panning out at all. That’s not to say we should get complacent or lazy (as some volunteers do); but we have to walk that fine line between pushing cultural boundaries just enough that we can be ourselves versus integrating into the culture just enough to be able to appreciate and understand it for what it is. (And it occurs to me that’s as pertinent to living in America as it is to living abroad, though we don’t always think about our own American culture in such terms).
A more concrete example of my recent struggle is in order. A few days ago, sitting around in my host family’s house to break fast, I was just overwhelmed with exhaustion and ended up passing out on their floor for two hours. Normally, I would’ve stayed up, tried to be sociable, worked on my language a little, joked with my host brother Omar. But I just couldn’t do it. I was too knackered. And for every part of me that knows it was probably a little rude to show up, eat their food, pass out on their floor, then leave, there’s another part of me altogether that just recognizes that, at the end of the day, I’ll always be more Philip than I can be Fouad. And that’s okay. Perhaps part of integration is making clear that you’re not going to become Moroccan, and in my case, that could not be more clear.
Those are all big integration lessons for a Peace Corps volunteer, but I think they hold lessons for life, as well. Because when things don’t always pan out, when we can’t always be who we’ve set out to be, being ourselves should never be too much to ask. So many of us do things or try to do things in this little life, where we feel called to some greater sense of purpose, and that’s wonderful and noble, but stepping into those hard-to-fill shoes should never cause us to be scared of the shoes that fit just right. After all, I’d suspect the shoes that fit just right will take us the farthest. Or to put that more bluntly, I can’t really wear my grandfather’s shoes. But I can wear a pair that fit me in a way he would have admired (and we probably shouldn’t put our heroes on such high pedestals anyway; it’s not fair to them or us). At the least, I’ve become a believer that living into the best of who we are is better than trying to be someone we admire.
So, for now, I trudge on, still thirsty and hungry, still irritable. Still Philip.