Articles

Breaking the Golden Rule

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Kyle Kvamme, 129 YinD

I am writing this confession on my own free will. I hereby admit to breaking one of the golden rules of Peace Corps service. A rule 20 months ago a much more naive version of myself never dreamed of breaking. I plead guilty to the charge of comparing my service to that of other PCVs.

In 2018 Social Media can be a blessing for PCVs’ serving in post. An instant way to connect with loved ones back home. The ability to see every wedding, birthday party, and holiday in as close to real time as we can achieve through time differences. Additionally being able to connect to fellow PCVs in country and see the amazing things going on in their community. This is where Social Media becomes the dark seductor of this tale.

But before we head into the rule breaking, a little context. Last spring (slightly over a year into my service) I hit, at the time, the lowest point of my service. I felt as though I had done absolutely nothing in 14 months (except pick up some Thai). The school term was just about to start and I could only identify one counterpart who was able to help lead youth activities, an English teacher whose time was very limited. People in my community were wondering what I was doing there, or assuming I just showed up to teach all of the children to speak fluent English. Worse of all, I felt like an afterthought to my community members. Almost forgotten about until I showed up, my face a reminder that I was in fact still here. Thinking about spending another ten months at site, doing absolutely nothing but counting down days until COS completely pained me.

I took solace in two things: running (a newly found passion of mine) and checking my Facebook. On really hard, lonely days I found myself opening my Facebook (or other social media apps) often. I wanted to escape my reality and fall into the virtual world of my friends and family all around the world. I went to this realm for a joyous release, but that isn’t what I found.

More often than not I would stumble across two common themes. The first being posts of family and friends from back home, celebrating milestones and achievements in their lives or just enjoying a beer on a patio with friends. These types of posts would make me long for a taste of home and remind me of all the things I was missing from a place I loved so much. The second common theme would be posts from my fellow PCVs in Thailand; moments from their lives with new friends in their communities or pictures of seemingly perfectly planned and orchestrated projects, with the smiling bright faces of many young children.

I wasn’t consciously thinking, “Wow (insert name here) is such a better volunteer than I am! Look at how many more project they’ve done than me.” The thoughts more so looked like “If only I had (so-and-so’s) counterpart, I could be working on all these amazing projects.” Or “(blank) is such a great volunteer. I wonder how they were able to facilitate that camp.”

So in scouring social media for an escape from my pain, it sent me to darker places within myself. I would see posts from my friends in country and see all these projects I dreamed of bringing to my community. A sense of inadequacy lingered around for many months. I doubted many things including my work, my community, and most of all myself.

In pre-service training we had been told by almost all currently serving PCVs to NOT compare ourselves to other volunteers. I never thought about these words from past PCVs when I was scrolling through Facebook. I didn’t even register I was doing it. But I wish I had. I was too busy trying to leave my current situation.

During this period, I wanted my service to be over so badly. I would think what’s the point of me being here? I felt as though I wasn’t doing anything other than sitting around counting down the months/days until I would get to go home again – to really start living my life. The amount of unhappiness I was feeling was bearing on me.

Personal tragedy caused me to take a hard long look in the mirror – the lowest of all the lows felt during this period that made me realize things had to change. I began to switch my habits; exchanging bad habits for better ones. I stopped thinking about work all together and focused on even the littlest things that brought me joy.

I started to notice myself feel better and slowly reach happiness, the feeling whose presence I had longed for what felt like months and months. Once I was able to step outside my funk I was able to see that I had been the one causing myself pain. From the outside it might be apparent but I truly couldn’t see what I was doing.

The antagonist of this story isn’t social media, my community, or other PCVs; I was the villain. I was projecting my unhappiness instead of dealing with it head on. I had to take responsibility for my unhappiness and make necessary changes in my life to be able to smile with ease again.

Writing from the other side of the darkness doesn’t mean the work got any easier. My counterparts might never fully understand the importance of life skills activities. They might never be able to co-facilitate activities the way I want them to. My projects might not have the outcomes I want. And my community will never have a big Peace Corps funded camp. And all of this is perfectly fine. The success of our service isn’t determined by holding large camps with many pictures taken.

We are the ones who determine the success of our service. Success doesn’t stem from objectives, outcomes, and Facebook posts. It’s waking up and greeting whatever comes your way, hopefully finding moments to smile with ease.


4 replies »

  1. Sharing your most inner personal story is courage not many people have. Being able to move out of the dark and actually that you are worthy is an amazing feat. Finding your true meaning in your PC time is only your story and can’t be compared to anyone else’s. I’m so sorry you had to go so dark, but without it you would not understand the light you have brought to so many, no matter how dim, it’s still more than what they had before you came into their lives. What you do when you come home will be amazing. I’ve never doubted for one second that you will provide shelter for so many people’s storms and although the financial rewards might not be there, the emotional and personal rewards will highly outweigh it. Your personal tragedy is not just yours; it’s shared by many and some day you will gain strength from those who share the same. I can’t tell you enough how proud I am of the decisions you’ve made (well most of them!) to better understand the world. The life experiences that you have earned will be with you forever and will benefit you in ways you cannot even imagine, but they are there. So glad you found your awesomeness even though it was hard. Life lesson #1 complete. You made it.

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  2. We love you Kyle! Such a good lesson for all of us. Comparison is hard and never leaves us feeling good, yet it is so easy to fall into. You are touching lives of others. You are making an impact. Even if you don’t see it where you are, we feel it back home. The example you set for my boys is one I treasure! Maybe not what you set out to do, but an unplanned side effect.

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  3. The time line gap between our experiences as a PCV in Thailand is some 50 years (I served in group XVII Malaria Eradication: note the first 20+ Thai PC groups were denoted by the PC using Roman numerals?). There were some 12 different PC groups (about 280 PCVs scattered over the 4 corners of the country) in TH at that time. Almost 75% were involved in teaching in specific schools. My home base was in the provincial city of Chachoengsao. My work had me “on the road” some 20 days each month so I was constantly roving around 3 different provinces covering the area between Chachoengsao and the Cambodian border. The time line of my moods had some similarities to yours. First 6 mon. were novel and fun. The second 6 mon. were full immersion in the work. The third 6 mon. were marked by self doubt about my real value to the program. Finally, the last 6 mon. were marked with concern about what I would be doing when I returned home. The PC trainers did not give me advance solutions or suggestions of what to look forward to. Personal life as a PCV in Thailand was quite different from today. We had no mobile telephones, no TV, limited radio and no Thai family giving us attention. Communication with friends within TH was mostly by local telegrams via the Thai postal system. Contact with home in the US was via weekly postal aerograms. Int’l telephone calls could only be handled by a service at the main post office in Bangkok. My biggest challenge was how to deal with the US draft which was in full mood in order to find more cannon fodder for the war front in Vietnam. I duly notified my home town draft board in MO by registered mail about the end to my exemption from the draft for PC service. Upon my arrival back to my home town I celebrated by 26th birthday. It was a little known fact at that time that during the height of the VN war period the US military never drafted anyone that was age 26 or older: I was reclassified as 1-A Overage. Needless to say I believed that the best course to follow was advanced education so I studied for an MA degree in Southeast Asian Studies at Ohio Univ. in Athens, OH. My summary thoughts about your message are that our PC work and living experiences, although quite different, were very similar in the mood swings.

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  4. I am awed with your honesty and your newfound insight. You have no idea how much your impact on your community truly is.

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