Elizabeth Moulton, 126
Love yourself. First and foremost. Know what makes you feel good and what makes you feel not so good. Know what it is that cultivates your soul and what makes you feel like you’re adding rocks to your pockets. These things will cross towns, rice fields, oceans, and continents.
It is extremely difficult to enter a new space. Whether that be a physical space—a new country; mental space–a new job; or emotional space—new relationships; it’s hard. And all these new spaces simultaneously crashing in on you? It is not an easy task.
In navigating these new spaces, it is essential to remain rooted in your values and your identity. I’d like to tell you the opposite of some of those idealistic Peace Corps phrases you hear so often in order to ease some of your anxieties.
1. Don’t try to be Thai. It’s impossible. You are an individual with unique experiences and perspective. Integration is not assimilation. You can learn, honor, respect, and partake, but embrace your differences as well. Have a critical mind and an open heart— to both your host country as well as your own. Try to understand why people act the way the do. There are no absolutes, no “right” and “wrong,” no “good” and “bad.” Our worldviews are mountains, and your foundation is completely different from that of your Thai neighbor. Recognize that you’re adding a whole collection of cultural wildflowers to your mountain, while also planting seeds on others’. Your mountain is never going to look the same as the person’s sitting next to you, whether they are Thai or American, but at the end of your service, both you and your Thai community be able to recognize the apple blossoms you planted on their mountain and the sunflowers they planted on yours’.
2. Say “No.” Know your boundaries. True, every time you say “yes” it is an opportunity to expand your comfort zone and have a new experience–but trust yourself. If in your gut you know that getting up on that stage dressed in ridiculous clothing and lip-syncing Yinglee’s latest hit will result in self-doubt, shame and embarrassment, don’t feel bad saying “no.” If you say “no” to going out to family dinner because the neighbor who has a history of getting drunk every night is driving, rest assured in your decision. “Yes” is not always the best answer. Also, recognize that a “No” can be a “Yes” sometimes! For example, you decline to go on the bpai tiao with the teachers, you may have extra time to hang out with the kids while the school is closed.
3. You will struggle more than other PCVs in one area or another. “Do I suck as a volunteer or does [this particular challenge/Peace Corps/my job/etc.] suck?” will be a common question you ask yourself daily. And you’ll go back and forth between the answer and feel like a crazy person. Know that someone will get a better counterpart, or an easier homestay situation, or a more established youth council. Know that extroverts are going to find it easier to integrate. Know that introverts are going to struggle less with being alone. Some days you will feel completely integrated, and the next day you will feel like a complete stranger farang. I want to you know that, despite these hills to climb, you are doing an amazing job. This is HARD! You are present, you are giving your best effort, and you are changing hearts. You won’t see it every day. But you’ll see it. And take those moments of clarity and replay them before you sleep. Let them carry you to the next day.
4. Look at other volunteers’ experiences. Your fellow PCVs are going to be your life savers. They will be endless sources of inspiration for you. So, no, don’t compare your services, and whatever you do, don’t measure your feeling of worth from the rose-colored perspective of other volunteers’ Facebook pictures! But remain open to that one PCV’s great classroom management system, or the activity that other PCV does with their host family every week that seems to bring them closer, or that amazing environmental youth camp those PCVs from the group before you put together. And don’t forget to share your own successes as well! Reach out to other PCVs when you’re struggling. A lot can be learned from each other, from both the highs and lows. Remember that it will always be easier to see your own challenges and your fellow PCVs’ successes.
5. Recognize that you are a gift. Be eternally grateful to your community and the universe for this experience, but also recognize what a sacrifice you are making as an insanely talented and passionate person, giving up over TWO YEARS of your life—your best friend’s wedding, deferral of grad school, that cushy, salaried job—to try and make some kind of positive change in the world. Don’t take that lightly! You are AMAZING!
It’s important to carve out your own space in this new one. By that, I mean figure out what makes you feel like the best version of yourself and exist in that space as much as possible.
Were you a marathoner in the US? Go for a nightly run along the rice fields!
Never have run more than a mile but really want to do the Angkor Wat Half Marathon next year? Set up a training schedule and stick to it!
Are you missing your Sunday afternoon ritual of meeting up with your two best friends over coffee? Meet halfway with the closest volunteer twice a month at that awesome cha yen stand!
Always wanted to learn how to cook? Head over to your host family’s house on Fridays and help prep dinner!
Some fellow volunteers wanted to share the way they stay true to themselves and keep their light shining bright on this wild ride we call service here in Thailand:
“I buy Mexican food every single time I get a chance. I’ve spent maybe a whole month’s stipend on Mexican food since I’ve been here, and I don’t regret it ONE BIT!”
“I bring a book with me everywhere I go. Sometimes I just don’t feel like talking, and sometimes I get into a great conversation with someone about what I’m reading!”
“I. Do. Not. Do. Karaoke. Buses. Period.”
“I know I’m not supposed to hug. But I’m a hugger! I give about three hugs a day and high five every kid I see!”
“I’ve become an expert multi-tasking runner, wai-ing, waving, and smiling as I show how excited I am to see my neighbors…as I pass them with American music in my ears and taking time for myself to exercise.”
“I paint my nails obnoxious colors and patterns every chance I get. I carry nail polish with me wherever I go. Whenever someone comments on my nails, I promptly offer to paint theirs as well. Integration, culture exchange, color.”
“I travel on weekends and don’t exactly tell people at site where I’m going. They think travel is expensive and I don’t want them to get the wrong idea.”
I hope these words make your heart feel a little lighter and your breath a little easier. I hope they allow you room to embrace yourself, the self who transcends man-made country borders. I hope they inspire confidence in you to be a light for your truth and never feel bad about that. I hope you feel excited, inspired, and ready to head into this crazy adventure. Most of all, I hope you feel kind, compassionate, and forgiving toward yourself, especially when your world is spinning out of control and you can’t seem to locate your face in the mirror. Jai yen yen. Breathe through it, empty some of those rocks from your pockets, and remember how amazingly wonderful you are!
“Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.” ~Buddha