Gene Nixon, Country Director of Peace Corps Thailand
I was invited to submit an introductory message upon my (re)arrival to PC/Thailand.
As you know I was a former PCV in Thailand; I was right out of college with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and a reluctance to enter the job market. I was recruited with eight others for a new health program siting us in Ampur-level hospitals with the task of strengthening local medical laboratory capacity. We conducted complete blood counts, urinalyses, TB tests, and parasite identifications which were particularly cool for a Biology science major. At that time, up in the hills of PakChong in villages bordering the jungles of Khao Yai there was also a heavy burden of Malaria to diagnose through blood smears. During my second year, my coworkers and I enthusiastically developed community based projects to address the endemic problem of hookworm infections. We traveled weekly to outlying villages and delivered educational programs on the parasite’s life cycle, provided medicine and shoes, and built pit toilets. It was a lot of fun.
I returned to the States with heightened self-confidence and a certain tenacity. Thailand had fulfilled my expectations and my self-narrative reinforced the powerful impact the experience had had on me. As a PCV I thought I had integrated pretty well, had made great friends, kept busy and helped contribute to the hospital’s laboratory advancement. Summarily I knew that in balance, I had received more than I could possibly have given. Reengaged and ready to earn some money back in Northeast Ohio, I initiated what would be a satisfying career in local public health.
Flash forward twenty-five years. In 2005, I returned to Thailand for the first time following my service to help with tsunami recovery efforts in Khao Lak in southern Phang Nga. After that emotional commitment along the coast, I made my way back to visit my former Peace Corps site in PakChong, Khorat. I experienced a bizarre time warp phenomena where nothing was as I remembered. The 20 bed hospital was now over 200 beds, and alarmingly; the town was bigger with more people. Vineyards had replaced fields of cassava and soybean and the town was now strewn with air conditioned coffee shops with eclairs and Viennse Puschkrapfens.
However, when I did catch up with my former co-workers and friends, despite no contact in the intervening years, it was like no time had passed. We shared a meal as we had so many times before, looked at faded photos, and laughed at stories of those times, triggering long forgotten memories. They insisted we visit those places where we had built privies, long since absorbed in the bludgeoning economic development (despite my concern, no one was quite sure where the villagers had gone). Reflecting on my visit, I realized that I needed to amend the narrative of my Volunteer experience and acknowledge that I had had more of an impact that I had ever imagined.
A lot is said about the changes in Peace Corps and the changes in the Volunteer experience. Absent, any analytical analysis, I’m convinced that the challenges, experience and the rewards today are very much comparable to the experiences of earlier serving Volunteers and today’s PCV individual impacts on host communities, equally significant. Call me anytime. Peace and friendship.