Alex Cotrufello, 129 YinD
Hello, readers. I suspect most of you taking the time to read this article are currently serving as volunteers in Thailand, we’ve probably already talked about this topic at length, and you are likely interested in this guide because singledom plagues your mind, like it does mine. But some of you are possibly in the process of joining Peace Corps and are curious as to what the dating scene is like for a volunteer. I was this person a year and a half ago, and after perusing through numerous articles, videos, and depressing memes, I was left with the terrifying idea that I’d either end up hitched to a fellow PCV or as celibate as a nun by the end of my service. The truth is that for most of us, our realities are somewhere between these two extremes. Though, that is not to understate the amount of solitude (some would call it loneliness) we are forced to adjust to in our daily lives. It’s not just the fact that we live in a village alone, away from family and friends, or that we are usually the only native English speaker in a 50 mile radius; but the toll of living in a culture apart from our own, especially within one that almost never uses physical touch in any form, is extremely isolating. This in turn makes it really, REALLY hard not to constantly ruminate on how great it’d be to talk to someone in native English about our mutual passion for American cuisine whilst also touching one another. The knowledge that this is an almost impossible reality for two years forges a quiet desperation, particular and visceral, within many of us hopeless romantics. Now, obviously this isn’t the experience of all volunteers. Some of my friends here are in healthy and loving long-distance relationships. Some have found companionship within Peace Corps or with host country nationals. And some amazing individuals are completely fulfilled and gratified in their singlehood. But for many of us, though independent and willful, would nonetheless like to have a more meaningful connection than the one we have with our body pillow. After hearing this you might be wondering, “How do you keep your sanity for that long?” and the answer is, we don’t. But here is a list of ways we’ve self-medicated against some of the delirium and angst we subconsciously inflict upon ourselves. (Disclaimer: I frequently fail at doing many of these things and that’s why I’m a crazy person.)
The ‘enough said’ list: First, let’s just lay the dirty stuff out on the table so we can all focus and not try to find innuendos in the rest of my advice. These are all the things I can’t explicitly talk about but need to be slyly mentioned anyway because they are an essential part to the survival guide. So, draw your own conclusions: Trips to the big city. Peace Corps events. The internet. Enough said.
Indulge in all the other blessings life has to offer (a.k.a. peanut butter): Maybe PB isn’t your go-to blessing but you get where I’m going. Treat yourself everyday to a little something that makes you happy and keeps your spirits high. For me, that’s usually allowing myself to buy that kindle book I’ve been waiting to read, going all-out on American brunch when I’m in the city, or something as small as walking to the corner store for a cold coke on an oppressively hot afternoon. Find what fuels you and indulge yourself because no one else is going to.
Stay away from social media: Do you ever go onto social media and ponder how everyone is getting some but you? Yeah, me too. Weirdly enough, if you don’t have to see that everyone’s getting some you can just pretend that it’s not happening. Save yourself all those negative feelings and detox social media.
Practice self-care: I believe this is the most essential step in keeping one’s sanity throughout 27 months of seclusion. Making self-care a main priority in my day-to-day life has enabled me to keep an overall, healthy and self-loving mind. To me, self-care means focusing on the present moment, exercising, putting time aside for relaxation, keeping an organized and clean home, staying productive, along with many other small things. When I do all of this on a consistent basis, I am better able to regulate my thoughts and emotions, which goes hand in hand with my ability to not focus on the things I don’t have or can’t control. Make self-care your greatest priority and everything else in life will become a little easier.
Listen to Ear Hustle podcast, read the news, watch Planet Earth: Ok, this one might be specific to me, but when I’m feeling particularly angsty I like to get my mind out of it by consuming really depressing media. This act forces me to put my issues into perspective and remember that there are much bigger problems out there than my dating life. Like death row, nuclear weapons, and global warming. The moral is, focus on the big picture and what really matters.
Distract yourself: One of the easiest ways to not obsess on your overwhelming need to be loved and held is to distract yourself with something else equally as appealing. I’ve spent many an afternoon daydreaming about my COS trip, researching grad schools, and ranking best cities to relocate to. Even better, do actual activities like visiting your friend’s site for the weekend or playing volleyball with your kids after school. The less time you have to think about loneliness and the more things you have to look forward to, the better off you’ll be.
Sign up for dating apps: I know, I know. This is completely contradictory advice to what I just said a few paragraphs ago. But in my defense, I’ve found this to be a useful way to observe the natural world and its dating habitat without actually participating in its wild and lawless ways. Every few months I just need a little reminder that there are actual humans out there looking to date IRL. Apps like tinder let you set the search radius up to 100 miles so you can see who’s in your vicinity (speaking in Peace Corps terms where having another volunteer four hours away seems really close). And Coffee Meets Bagel allows you to put in a zip code so you can scope potential hotties in the city you dream of moving to after COS. Just remember- don’t swipe right! This is a look but don’t interact sort of situation. It’s bound to be an awkward conversation when you match with someone and then have to tell them the soonest time you can see them is in….10 months.
Make a gratitude list: Even though it’s fun to complain endlessly about how single I am as a volunteer, I actually really like not being in a relationship 90% of the time. It’s easy to forget this fact when I have a prolonged stretch of solitude in my village, so during these times I’ve taken to making lists of all of that I’m grateful for. The contents range from the shallow and obvious “I’m grateful for a good aged cheddar” to the more legitimate and meaningful gratitude of being able to live my life exactly how I want, without having to modify it for anyone else. This might be the only time in my life that I’ll ever have the space to be completely without attachment, so making these lists is a good reminder to take advantage of that freedom and to savor every moment. Find what you’re thankful for and refer back to it whenever you’re annoying yourself (or others) with your negativity.
Make your friends your life partners: This is the most important piece of advice I can give. In Peace Corps, your fellow volunteers become your most valuable assets in too many ways to count. They’re your best friends, your co-workers, and your personal Google search engine for the million hyper-specific questions you’ll always seem to have. Due to our unique circumstances, it’s not surprising that they also become our life partners. On the days when they can’t talk on the phone for hours about absolutely nothing, you’ll be devastated. When they send you a postcard just to say hi, you’ll feel elated. We nurture each other, shower each other with words of affirmation, and probably display an uncomfortable amount of affection. These friendships become the equivalent of romantic relationships, minus the romance, because we need each other in ways that surpass the limitations of normal friendship. So, don’t resist the natural progression of friend to life partner. Appreciate it for all that it gives you and care for it like it’s the most valuable thing you possess. In the end, they’re what’ll get you through this thing in one, mostly sane piece.
Read Alex’s previous article Alex and Linda’s Fantastically Exhausting Mother-Daughter Adventure.