Rae Richards, 129 TESS
Welcome to a column meant to explore the highs and lows of Peace Corps volunteer life—in Thailand and beyond. Each month, we highlight a current Peace Corps volunteer somewhere in the world and discuss the best and most difficult experiences that they have had in the last month. Through storytelling, we can glean how different and similar life is between volunteers across provinces and borders—enjoy!
Volunteer name: Yousif Al-amin
Site: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Interviewed by: Rae Richards
Rae: I’m going to start this interview by asking you a silly question, so first thing’s first — if you were a three course meal, what would you be and why?
Yous: Oh my god, I can’t decide if I should give you something serious or something silly. Okay, we would start off with cheesy garlic bread for the appetizer because I’m delicious and you wanna tear me apart. But also I kinda leave a bad taste in your mouth afterwards, you know? [Laughter] Side note, this is all just going to be food I’m really craving right now. Anyway, our main course would be a steak — let’s say steak-frites — because if you say steak-frites, it sounds fancier. But I am not a high quality cut of meat. Maybe you go to the supermarket and and get the discounted meat about to go bad. [Laughter] I’m one of those cuts. Nice and low quality. The fries are really good though — maybe they’re truffle fries! And then for dessert, how about a lava cake — we’ll do chocolate with some ice cream on top. The ice cream is to lure you in cause you don’t know it’s a lava cake yet. But then you cut into it with your spoon and you’re like holy *expletive!*
Rae: I’m sensing that you’re a person of hidden depths, Yous. Thank you for such a graphic response. Simply beautiful.
Yous: You’re welcome.
Rae: So now to change gears completely, I want you to reflect on a challenging moment you’ve had in the last month or so. Whatever comes to mind that you’re comfortable sharing.
Yous: Does it have to be in the last month?
Rae: No! It can be any part of your service, I just say a month to get people thinking.
Yous: Okay good, because honestly I’m feeling pretty okay now. But I would say there was a point after Reconnect — really September through October [of 2017] — where I was in this really bizarre place, feeling like I’ve been here my whole life. And then looking ahead and thinking, “I still have to do this amount of time two more times.” That’s what’s been the toughest for me — feeling the time. PST was like summer camp, and then we had various conferences to see other volunteers at, but after all of that, it was like, “When am I going to see all of my friends again?” It was weird. And then that period going into the holidays I was here and my feelings were a more permanent fixture than I expected. Fast forwarding a bit, once I made it to the one-year mark of being in Thailand, that felt great. I realise now that the time leading up to my one-year of service I really had to shift gears a lot. I’m no longer looking to count down the months– which I was doing before. Now I feel like I’m counting them up. Every month is another notch, another mile marker that we have reached. I think [before] I was taking myself and my job too seriously. It wasn’t like I was sitting down every day lesson planning. [Laughter] It was more like if something didn’t go my way, I would get frustrated, and rather than try to find a solution I would continue to be frustrated, and I would allow the frustration to take away any joy I was getting from this job. It was so much negative energy on my end. I finally got to the point where I realised, “Yous, you’re the common denominator in all of these issues!” [Laughter] It was always coming down to me. I think it’s because I came in to the Peace Corps, like a lot of people do, with a white-savior complex. I mean I’m not white but I felt like I knew better, had better knowledge, could “help” people here, you know? Sorry for answering your question and then listing the positive outcomes from it. I’m finally at the point where I’m like, “I know nothing.” I accept it. I acknowledge it. My job here is less to teach English or change how my counterparts teach, but instead just to be a good role model for these kids, give them the opportunity that they wouldn’t otherwise have to work with a foreign teacher, and encourage the people around me to think a little differently about things. The things that I can’t change here… I can’t change. I’m living with it. First year, the stick was so far up my a**. And now I’m at the point where what matters is not what I thought would matter. Showing up and being present is everything, and you can’t be present if you have goals that are unattainable or are too caught up with the time.
Rae: So you’ve kinda answered my next question which is how do you cope with issues at site? But do you have any other mechanisms with which you deal with problems? Besides shifting your perspective which you’ve already touched on.
Yous: For me it’s been very important to pick up new hobbies to stay busy. The toughest moments are those when I find myself alone in the village. The moments where I don’t want to be “on” and speak this foreign language and be what others want me to be. So giving myself distractions that are fun and healthy. It’s really easy for a person to just binge-watch Netflix or smoke a ton of cigarettes or drink to pass the time. So I’ve picked up healthy hobbies — I started brewing kombucha, I cook a lot, I journal even if I have nothing to say. And also, this may sound ridiculous, but sometimes I just need to look at myself in the mirror and say, “Are you tired or are you hungry?” Because most of the time if I’m pissed off, that’s why. I just need to eat a khanom [snack] or drink some coffee or take a nap and I’ll be good to go. These healthy habits and having things to look forward to are so critical.
Rae: Thank you for sharing your low moments and then how you deal with them. Thinking now about the converse, do you have a really joyful moment you’ve had that you’re willing to share?
Yous: I would say seeing the changes in my kids and how they interact with me. When I first got here, they were super shy and way too respectful. They’re obviously still respectful but before, they would formally greet me three times a day. And I’m like, “That is not necessary, we are friends. I’m not here to trip on the power-distance between us.” And now they’re coming up to me and talking, saying “I am happy” or other simple things. On my previous VRF [Volunteer Reporting Form], I wrote that my success story was about one of my students. This girl would start crying from discomfort when I would say hello because she was so shy and awkward, but now she is super into English class and is picking English up so quickly. She was one of my students who could not read or understand any English at all, and now she can do it. I’m hard on myself as a volunteer and have these ridiculous expectations for progress, but that is progress. And a year in it’s easier to see that progress. For people reading this now, especially the 129s, we get it. If you’ve made it this far [in your PC service], then you have a system that works for you. But it’s important for new groups of volunteers to understand that the first year is really frustrating, but you need to invest your time, effort and energy. You’re going to have those moments of doubt. But then you’ll get to the point where we [129 volunteers] are now and think, “Holy crap, I only have one more Songkran here!” The moments become much more precious on this side of things.
Rae: That’s real for me. This less-than-12-months-to-go zone is wild. I often find myself thinking, “I only have one more school year to accomplish things!” and a mild panic sets in. But the cool part of that is that now I am oriented here, now I know how to operate within this system. That’s the learning curve I’ve experienced in my first year.
Yous: Right! It’s the most brutal learning curve I’ve ever experienced.
Rae: Truly! Okay so you mentioned before that you journal sometimes, but do you have other ways of cataloguing your good days at site?
Yous: I take a lot of pictures and videos. The biggest thing however is talking to people. Especially my counterpart — we are very close. Having someone at site to celebrate with and be validated by is awesome. Whenever my counterpart is like, “Wow, our second graders didn’t know the alphabet at the beginning of the year and now they can read simple CVC words!” That’s amazing. And yeah journaling, but not just the good moments. It’s immensely important for me to go back and read through what I was feeling and reflect on 1) how I am so dramatic and 2) look at where I was versus where I am now. That in and of itself it such an immense measure of progress and success.
Rae: Thank you for sharing that. Now for the last portion of our convo, I’m really interested in what media you are consuming these days.
Yous: I read a lot. I watch Netflix. Now is the time in my life to binge-watch the trash television that I’ve been meaning to watch. How to Get Away With Murder? Terrible TV but so good. I’ve been watching some movies too but not really listening to many podcasts. I listen to a lot of music. I guess I’m the classic TV/reading combination kinda person. Right now I’m reading Call Me By Your Name [by André Aciman] and Contact by Carl Sagan.
Rae: Ahh how is that?
Yous: It’s great, I love it. It’s nice to have a chance to prove to myself that I’m an intellectual capable of thoughts beyond just like, “Have you eaten yet?” and “No, I have diarrhea.” [Laughter]
Rae: Finding intellectual stimulation at site is hard hard hard.
Yous: This is going to make me sound like Douchey McDoucheFace but I’ve been reading Foreign Affairs. PCVs get a free subscription to it and I read it pretty religiously now. Every day I read a few articles. It keeps me up to date with American and foreign politics! So if anyone is looking for another thing to do, I highly suggest it.
Rae: Excellent. Do you have a PC blog and can people follow it?
Yous: Yes! I haven’t updated it in a while but I will soon: somuchtodosolittlethai.wordpress.com
Rae: Thanks so much! I appreciate you.
Thank you for reading another installment of Peaks & Valleys. Join us next month for another volunteer highlight and check out Rae’s previous interviews.
Questions, comments or suggestions? Email me at email@example.com