Anna McGillicuddy, 129 YinD
I joined the Peace Corps at a point in my life when it was much in need of change and yet, when I arrived to begin this journey, I found I was incredibly resistant to it. Yes, things changed – Thai began to replace my English, my definition of socializing started to include 10 year olds, and I learned how to stomach eating rat for breakfast. But while there was so much constant outward change, I wasn’t allowing anything to permeate the ‘me’ inside.
I knew who I was before joining the Peace Corps. Or, at least, I thought I did. And so it was comforting and easy to hold onto this identity when everything else around me seemed so incredibly chaotic. Class cancelled for the 4th day in a row? Accidentally agreeing to escort a man who’d stabbed his own eye to the hospital? Yeah, sure that’s fine. I’m cool, calm, collected. Anna.
Staying ‘that Anna’ allowed me to maintain a connection to things back home. I had spent 24 years creating the person I had been before leaving, I can’t just let go of that…can I? What started off as rope-like, thick attachments to home began to thin over the first year of my service. My ability to relate to events back home became more and more difficult. Even so, if I could maintain these connections to home then it must be proof of my unchanging, stable, self. I found myself clinging to this so-called ‘certainty’ of self. I’d convinced myself that what I’d cultivated was resiliency and strength when really, it was fear of change.
Slowly, those threads connecting me back home began to break and I was left with just one major connection – my long-distance relationship. That, too, eventually broke and I found myself lost, searching for some way to connect to ‘that Anna.’ I couldn’t completely let go of her. I mean, if I did it would mean becoming someone other than the person who had entered that (those) relationship(s), and thus, potentially close the door to any future reconciliation. In my well-cultivated resiliency/stubbornness and general lack of direction, I maintained ‘that Anna’ for a bit longer until swimming upstream just became too difficult.
It took over a year, but I finally began to let go of that person – that Anna. I began to let the relationships I built with other Peace Corps Volunteers and with people in my community to really permeate this mind and heart. I began to forgive myself for having spent so long looking for my worth in memories and past relationships rather than finding it within myself. I began to accept that I will never again be the same Anna that left New York 22 months ago.
I find myself, like many second year volunteers, feeling as if I’m only now starting the Peace Corps work I came here to do. The depth of all of my relationships is deepening and my professional work is becoming more effective. I can’t fully begin to explain the reason behind this because I believe it to be multi-layered and personality-specific, but I’ll liken it to that feeling you get when you’re stretching. Let’s say you reach down to touch your toes and almost immediately you feel that resistance/pain (Thai work culture, language barrier). In response, your whole body tenses up (frustration, stress, anxiety etc) and even though you’re focusing all your energy on that goal of touching your toes (being effective), you still pull up just a little bit short. But, if you recognize the reasons your body reacts that way (expectations, clash of cultures), and you redirect your focus to your body as a whole (relationships, small victories, beauty in the little things) you’ll find that your muscles will begin to relax (accepting change) and your reach will lengthen. Yes, you can still feel the stretch and that pain doesn’t just disappear. But if you stretch every day you’ll find that it lessens, that your flexibility increases and that you will, one day, be able to reach your toes. The uncomfortable becoming comfortable – so long as you let it.
So how can we leave when our work is just beginning? When we’ve finally touched our toes? There seems to be a sense of leaving things unfinished but I don’t think my extending a third year will change that. I don’t think extending another ten years would change that. I think we hope to change a life, just one, in the same way ours have been changed here but to do that would require a lifetime of service. And while I can’t promise to stay in Thailand for the rest of my life, I can promise to spend another year letting it change me so that it can live in me for a lifetime.
I arrived in Thailand driven by what ‘change’ could do and I’m staying in Thailand for the same reason – but this time, it’s a bit different.
Read Anna’s articles An Ode to Thai Children, PCVs or Spartans?, Fight and Flight, Finding Balance, Peaks & Valleys, Vol. 10 feat. Anna McGillicuddy, and Mornings in Thailand and listen to her on the My Peace Corps Story podcast.