Neil Pickus, 131 YinD
Peace Corps service calls upon volunteers not only to serve their communities abroad, but to create an atmosphere that allows for personal growth and cultural understanding.
In many ways, personal growth is the most challenging part of service.
Not because of expected challenges, but because of unexpected challenges both at site and back home.
Since moving to Thailand just over three months ago, I have unfortunately been told of the passing of two very influential people in my life back in the states.
The reality of our friends and families facing the passing of a loved one is as inescapable as eating copious amounts of white rice in Thailand.
Yet, Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) are introduced to the unique challenge of grieving for someone while on the other side of the world in a culture that largely deals with death in a different manner unaccustomed to most volunteers.
I have struggled with finding the appropriate time and place to inform my Thai co-workers and Thai family about the untimely passing of these individuals because of the language barrier and unknowns relative to how this type of information could affect people around me.
Particularly during the intentional relationship building (IRB) phase of service within the first six weeks at site, every interaction can have a lasting impact on what the next two years will look like.
In a high context culture, sometimes there is no place for outward projections of emotion for fear of putting a host country national in an uncomfortable, unwanted situation.
These uncomfortable and unwanted situations can affect one’s relationship with Thai people for the remainder of service.
Another challenge facing PCVs is needing to adjust to a completely new and unknown professional and personal support system.
PCVs go through this change in support systems multiple times during their first three months during pre-service training (PST) and moving to site.
Something that PCVs ten years ago could not do, we do not take for granted the immediate access we have to our loved ones through the phone.
Those close to us back home offer whatever support they can while an entire world away and overcoming obstacles, such as communicating with a time difference and understanding the lens and language of a PCV.
How does one grapple with needing to process and reconcile loss back home while trying to carve their niche in a very foreign place and atmosphere?
Answering these questions and rising to the challenge are all part of what makes Peace Corps service so impactful on PCVs as well as the communities we are serving.
PCVs are forced to grapple with the reality that we may not be present during some pivotal moments back home, all while scrambling to create new friendships and support systems within our Thai communities to help us reconcile and cope with this new reality.
The process of finding (and providing) support at site is the definition of the integration period of service, but is an ongoing process through the two years of service and beyond.
As I discussed the passing of my friend with my Thai counterpart, which I had delayed doing for a few days out of pure anxiety and grief, I found that he immediately offered his condolences.
He wanted to provide me the kind of support I have grown accustomed to in the U.S. and was curious about what Americans say (in English) to each other when they receive such tragic news.
We had a discussion about the cultural differences surrounding death and funerals.
On the surface, this moment was an attempt for me to externally process my grief.
Under the surface, however, we were both showing vulnerability and needed the other’s understanding and support to get through it together.
This moment of cultural and emotional exchange did not stay sia jai (sad), because in classic Thai fashion, we began talking about what we were going to eat next and how everyone in my Tessaban (municipality) still thinks that it is hilarious that I ride my bicycle to work every day.
My counterpart was not discounting my emotions, but rather, he was doing his part in trying to comfort me in his own way.
Perhaps, his tactics are not my preferred methodology at the moment, but as we learn and grow together, we are finding where we can meet in the middle to accomplish the goal at hand.
This meeting in the middle will be revisited frequently as we navigate through working together for the rest of my service.
Unfortunately, this will not be the last time that something changes in the lives of our loved ones during service.
As we navigate IRB and integration into the community, leaning on our new friends/families at site is something that will help bridge the culture gap and ensure a professionally and personally successful two years of service.
There will be bumps along the road, confusion at every step, and at times, an overwhelming sensation of isolation, but these moments are fleeting and overshadowed by the strong culture of Thai people and their willingness to help in their own special way – usually with food, karaoke, and a lot of smiles and laughter.