Megan Cindric, 129 YinD
“Peace Corps Nicaragua is being evacuated.”
The words took all of us by surprise. We were in the middle of our summer break, enjoying a relaxing week up in the mountains when our friend told us the news. Suddenly things had become sober, had become real. I’d heard stories from other volunteers about their programs being evacuated, but this was the first time I’d heard of it as it was actually happening.
For those of you that don’t know, evacuation for us is quick. After the order is given we have 3 days to pack up our essential belongings, say our rushed goodbyes to friends and family, and depart the country. And when I say “we,” I mean us, the collective PCV’s. The 100 + Americans living abroad in Thailand are basically guaranteed a safe escape if the excrement hits the air conditioning unit. We have a plan, we know what to do and where to go, and our exit strategy is set. That’s not what made us feel so uneasy about this. Our minds were not on our own safety, but on the safety of our new home: the tens of hundreds of thousands of people who live here, who do not have the luxury of an escape route if things take a turn for the worse. How could one begin to justify that? That because of the country we were born into we were guaranteed a Plan B from the start. As for everyone else, when we leave, whether through evacuation or when our two years come to an end, they will remain.
Suddenly I realized how much of a privilege it is to be in this position. Thailand is my home. I have my routines, my friends, and my family here, but at the end of the day this home is borrowed from those who do not have the option to do what I am doing. This home was not my own, yet even as a total stranger I was welcomed in with open arms from day one. All of a sudden I see my remaining days here slipping through my fingers like sand. I remember how our group had celebrated when we’d reached 1 year into service, then 1 year at our sites, but now I am painfully aware that only ten months remain before we all pack up our lives here and leave behind the world we’ve grown to call our own.
I’ve realized at this point that I am receiving far more from this experience than I could ever hope to give. The compassion, the support, all of the lessons that I’ve learned stack up impressively against what I feel I have to offer to my community. For a long time this was weighing on my mind day in and day out. How could I ever measure up to what I’ve been given, especially with only ten months left here? How could I even hope to repay my family for everything they have done for me? These thoughts were driving me mad until a recent conference when one of our staff members gave me the answer I’d been looking for:
“You can never know the gravity of the impact you have here.”
Those words radically shifted how I was viewing my service in Thailand. Peace Corps is often described as planting trees whose shade you will never be able to sit under. That means each interaction, however brief, is in itself a seed with the potential to thrive and grow into something much greater. It compelled me to reflect back on every small story of success I’ve had in a new light: playing soccer with my B4 girls, teaching my neighbors how to do “American” dances (it was dabbing), little inside jokes with my students, giving small gifts to my grandma and watching her face light up with delight. Suddenly each of these little moments became tens of hundreds of dots, each connecting one another into the greater blueprint of my experience here. If each tiny moment held such limitless potential, then it was my duty as a volunteer to make the most of the ones that remain. So for your reading pleasure here is my official “Year Two Rule Book:”
Say hello to everyone, even if you’re tired. Smile. Eat lunch with your co-teachers. Go to the market more. Sit outside more. Stop and admire the rice fields because even if you miss pine trees now you know in 10 months you’d give the world to see this view again. Say yes to any event, situation, or random vacation. Ask more questions. Give more gifts. Push through lessons even if they seem like massive failures. Play after school more. Ask how you can help. Keep being goofy with the kids. Be thankful for the rain. Be thankful for the sun. Savor each and every interaction because soon it will be your last.
Maybe I won’t get any big projects done. Maybe I won’t rebuild a library or host an English camp or even paint a world map mural. That’s okay. As volunteers we want a tangible representation of our service, something physical we can look back on after we leave and say “I did that.” It’s a nice idea, but at the end of the day our service is first and foremost to the people here, and it’s hard to see that impact manifested in front of us. When I stop and reflect on how much my community has impacted me, every laugh and lesson and happy memory, I think about how proud I would feel to even have half that level of impact on my community. The reality is that we do have that impact, we have every single day we’ve been here, and we will continue to do so for the next ten months. When I think about that, I feel overjoyed at the idea that I’ve been doing good work, I’ve just been looking for results in all the wrong places. Service is a two way street, and suddenly I’ve realized that every positive interaction I’ve had here, however small, has impacted the other person as well.
I cannot deny that I have the privilege of going home, but in the end that also becomes the privilege of coming back. This place has given me so much, and I know that at some point in my life I will have to come back. So many people have offered to host me at their houses and have told me how happy they would be to have me back in Dongkhwang again. The selflessness of my family here continues to astound me, and deep down I know that one day I will come back, that I could never really say “goodbye” to this place. It’s no longer a question of “if” I come back but “when,” and I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to do so.
We cannot deny where we come from, however privileged it may be, but we can take the opportunities that have been laid before us and choose to use them to make a positive impact. These next ten months will be my last, yes, but I’ve never felt so determined to make the most of it. Whether it’s teaching English, coloring with my neighbors or just sitting outside with my grandma, every moment of every day feels like an opportunity. And ten months from now when I finally pack up and leave, I get to do so knowing that it’s not really goodbye, but instead it’s just “until next time.”