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: Anna McGillicuddy
Sector: Youth and Development (YinD)
Site: Loei, Thailand
Interviewed by: Rae Richards
Rae: Hey Anna. Can you tell me a little bit about your life before Peace Corps? Just to give the readers a little background — it’s something I’m trying out and you’re the guinea pig.
Anna: What was I doing before Peace Corps? Oh my gosh. I graduated from college — I studied psychology and French — so I remember zero French now that I’m learning Thai. [Laughter] Then I worked as a digital marketing manager and I quit after being there for a year so I could travel around Europe for three months and then hopefully join the Peace Corps — that was the plan. And I actually got my Peace Corps acceptance letter while I was traveling, so that was exciting and also terrifying. And then I came here!
R: Excellent, thank you for that background. Sounds like you did a lot of cool stuff. Did you feel emotionally and spiritually ready for a new adventure after all of that?
A: Well, between my job and traveling through Europe… I felt very comfortable. But I didn’t exactly feel passionate about what I was doing. At one point, I had this fear that in ten years I would be sitting at the same desk, doing the same thing. So I gave myself a year to work there — it really was an incredible job — but ultimately, it’s not what I wanted to do. I decided summer would be a good time to do some exploring and I saw some family over in Europe. After all of that, I was definitely ready for Peace Corps but replying to that acceptance letter was still quite nerve wracking. [Laughter]
R: It feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?
A: So weird. [Laughter]
R: Okay Anna, I have to tell you– I think you’re a really funny person so I hope you appreciate my next question. What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you recently?
A: So I’ve had a lot of kids say really inappropriate things to me lately which is pretty funny but also a little disturbing. So I won’t go there. But I wasn’t have a great day maybe three weeks ago — things weren’t going so well and I was finishing up the last class of the day. We were doing family trees and so I started drawing on the whiteboard an example of my family tree. I was like, “This is me. This is my mom.” And first, I drew me as this face with curly hair. And I was trying to give them context, so I asked my students, “Okay who is this?” And they all looked so confused and were like, “We have no idea who that is.” And then one kid cocks his head to the side and goes, “I don’t know, is that George Washington?” [Laughter] It’s not as funny if you haven’t seen the picture but it was so spot on and I couldn’t believe that my 12 year old student was able to reference George Washington as the person that that looked like. I lost it. I was in actual tears. [Laughter]
R: That’s delightful. Isn’t it great? Those random things that students reference that catch us off guard. So to switch gears quite a bit, do you mind sharing a low moment or a struggle that you’ve had in Thailand recently? Anything that you’re comfortable sharing.
A: So lucky for you, I’ve had one of my lowest points recently. [Laughter] I’m just joking. But the past couple months have been funny. I am hoping to do a third year in Thailand and that’s been a pretty emotional process in pretty much every way possible. In terms of whether or not to stay at my site; if I do want to leave my site, where do I want to go? Just working through all of that has been a lot. About a month ago, I felt like I was done and had finally gotten through all of it. I’d made some sort of decision. So I felt this big relief, I think because I finally had a plan, I was no longer in the dark. And then quickly soon after, that plan fell through. That was my lowest point. I feel very, very lucky because until that point I had not second-guessed my service. I know this is not the case for everyone, but in that moment, which was maybe only 30 seconds, it felt so against all of the resiliency that I had built. Feeling that sense of doubt was so upsetting. I thought to myself, “Maybe I’m not as resilient as I think I am?” Or maybe resiliency comes with weakness as well. That low moment was a really difficult night. I also, in that moment, didn’t feel the need to call anyone. I knew it was going to be okay. I knew there were other options and that tomorrow would be a new day. I knew I was going to keep moving forward, that all of this would work out just fine. This is all just how I generally think. It was hard because I was like, “I don’t need to call someone right now. I don’t need to vent.” Which is the normal route for me if something’s really frustrating me or bugging me. So that was a different experience for sure.
R: Do you feel like you not needing to reach out in that moment was because you wanted to have this kind of internal, private thing you just needed to figure out, or because of something else all together?
A: I’m not sure. I think part of it was that I knew there was nothing anyone could say to me except “It’ll be okay,” and I didn’t really want to hear that. I also think there’s a part of me that was like, “If you can get through this alone, this lowest point you’ve had so far, and figure out a way to cope with this alone, you can do anything.”
R: Wow, yeah well said. Thanks for sharing that, I really appreciate when I talk to volunteers about their very vulnerable moments. I appreciate you opening up. You mentioned this a bit already when you talked about venting to others as a coping technique, but are there any other techniques you’ve found that serve you well?
A: So for that particular situation, I tried something that I’ve never done before to cope. I wanted to try something new and I didn’t really know how to feel. So I wrote a poem. Which I’d never done before — I’ve only just started writing poetry again, the last time being in middle or high school! So it’s definitely a vulnerable space for me, and I’m not comfortable in it. But I did it and it was incredible. I was crying through the entire thing. It helped me figure out what it was I was so upset about ‘cause I think when I had my little breakdown, I couldn’t really figure out what was going on.
R: That’s really cool Anna. Being able to self-sooth with something that isn’t as comfortable as you would normally go for — I think that’s very cool and it’s also speaks to how this experience is without precedents. Like, there aren’t any rules in the Peace Corps because it’s all new, all the time.
A: Yeah, and I think just to add if anyone is reading this [laughter] it’s important to note that feeling things is okay. This all ended with me still feeling mad. I think it’s important to allow yourself to be mad or sad and feel these things really honestly. I didn’t write a poem and then my problems were fixed, but it allowed me to feel certain emotions more deeply.
R: And it sounds like you were able to feel things in a way that didn’t sanitize them or muddle them further. Again, thank you for sharing, I appreciate your honesty.
A: Of course.
R: So changing tones entirely, could you please speak to a really joyful moment or victory you’ve experienced? What this looks like for you, anything you’re comfortable sharing.
A: One of my best days in recent memory was just an incredibly normal day. [Laughter] And when I say normal, I mean I felt normal. I felt like I expressed myself, did the things I wanted to do, taught the things I wanted to teach. On this day, my counterpart was like, “Stay forever!” and I was like, “You guys! You know I can’t but it’s sweet that you’re saying that.” [Laughter] I remember someone giving me a phone call to ask me about buying a t-shirt, which doesn’t seem huge but a year ago, I was not getting phone calls. So it’s these really little things that feel really good and normal. I ended this day hanging out on the Muay Thai mat. There were some people training and I looked out on the fields where people were playing sports. And there were people playing Thai music — I bring my speaker to Muay Thai now because I’m fairly certain that’s the only reason they hang out with me. They love the speaker. So the music was playing and I looked down to see people playing soccer. It felt like one of those nights at home where everything felt right. Nothing extraordinary happened.
R: That’s beautiful. Those seemingly mundane things are definitely where I draw a lot of happiness from, too. Do you have any particular ways that you catalogue these moments?
A: I do a combination of everything. I definitely take pictures and videos here and there. The moments that leave the biggest impressions on me end up in written form. I share a lot of moments with friends back home and here as well, like when something is hilarious and I can’t contain it. I want to journal more… I feel like I’m in a funny place with journaling where I feel like I want to catalogue meaningful things from my daily life AND I want my daily life to become my normal daily life. So I’m trying to find that balance.
R: Thank you. Last couple of questions here: What is your current media consumption like? We’re talking podcasts, books, movies — anything that gets you by.
A: I definitely watch Netflix for movies. I’ve been watching a lot of French movies.
R: Ooo like which ones?
A: I’m Not an Easy Man is one of them. Then there’s this series about these French media agents for famous people. There’s just something about French media that is so refreshing. They tackle totally different topics.
R: And they end so ambiguously! I’ve rarely seen a French movie with a happy, positive ending. They’re usually like, “Yeah a lot of people died but there was some beauty in it too!” [Laughter]
A: It’s so true. You’re just staring at the TV and you’re like, “Is this done?!” [Laughter] So yeah, French movies. I’m also reading a book called The Psychology of Hope. I don’t know if you can tell there’s a theme here [Laughter]. It’s been super interesting and I highly recommend it. It’s about hope, what it means to be a hopeful person and apparently, chapters 5 and 6 will show you how to instill hope in children. So that’s pretty big. I’m also reading The Handmaid’s Tale.
R: Any other books you’d like to recommend to people?
A: Last year, when I went through a bit of a slump, I re-read all seven Harry Potter books! I was like, “Dumbledore is saving my life right now” [laughter]. I would recommend anything that gets you excited or lifts you up like this.
R: Good advice. My very last question is do you have a blog or platform that people can follow you on?
A: I have a blog but I haven’t touched it in forever. But follow facesofthailand on Instagram.
R: Thanks so much Anna!
Thank you for reading another installment of Peaks & Valleys. Join us next month for another volunteer highlight and check out Rae’s previous interviews.
Read Anna’s articles An Ode to Thai Children, PCVs or Spartans?, Fight and Flight, Finding Balance, and Mornings in Thailand and listen to her on the My Peace Corps Story podcast.