Megan McNelis, 131 TESS
“I remember thinking, ah, Thailand… that’s not very metal.”
It was my first time venturing out of my site for the weekend, and T. and I were sipping on Chang, liberally poured and quickly refilled by lovely, bored-looking young women at the Dok Mai in Korat. We’d been discussing our choice to serve in Thailand as opposed to somewhere else. Did you apply directly to Thailand? Where were you hoping to go? Is there anywhere you wouldn’t have gone? Why did you want to “do” Peace Corps?
Turns out, we’d both selected Thailand as our preferred country – in my case because it had a Youth in Development program. Both of us ended up in education, and as we talked about our challenges and successes as new teachers, we both sheepishly admitted that we thought that Peace Corps daily life was going to be… a little less comfortable. Every site is different, but I know that when I applied, I certainly hadn’t expected 24/7 internet access, air conditioning, washing machines, and 7-Eleven a mere 12 kilometers away. Running water and electricity aren’t even available in some Peace Corps countries, but they are here (well, usually… it always seems to get shut off when I need to do laundry). My little rental is about as “Posh Corps” as you can get. I even have a western toilet. I had a western toilet with my training host family, I had a western toilet with my site host family, and I have a western toilet in my apartment. I was sure I’d be going in squat toilets for two years, but nope – I can settle right down and take Buzzfeed quizzes until my thighs fall asleep just like at home.
I have to admit something to you. It’s about the toilet. The toilet has become a symbol for me in a lot of ways. At first, there was a feeling that I would almost call… shame? When there are volunteers around the world who haul their own water and go to the bathroom in a literal hole, it makes me feel a little soft to have a real, working toilet. Don’t get me wrong; I can use a squat toilet now, and I do frequently. I always laugh at the ones from the company called “American Standard,” since I’d say most of us came into this with no idea how to use one. But there isn’t one in my house, and I feel very pampered.
But let me assure you of something: I changed my tune immediately when I got hit by the worst food poisoning of my life. I’ve learned to eat all kinds of exciting new foods here, but what did it was actually a McDonalds in Suphanburi. I embraced that toilet like it was my best friend from a variety of angles and with a variety of emotions.
The second time it happened was much milder, but I’d made a far more embarrassing mistake. I didn’t take a pill in Ibiza; I trusted a fart in Bangkok. A fart I should not have trusted. I’d gone straight for the carnitas, and while they were decent (this New Mexican gives them a 6/10), I paid the price. I was extraordinarily fortunate to have been already en route to the toilet from my hotel room when I got a quick throwback to my days as a literal infant. I’d say it wasn’t funny at the time, but it honestly kind of was, and it helped me realize something important: my desire to feel rugged was nothing but pure vanity.
Firstly, we don’t join Peace Corps to show how “tough” we are. We’re here to do real jobs in education and development. We are also here to integrate, build relationships, and provide a kind of boots-on-the-ground diplomacy that other government programs and NGOs don’t offer in the same way. Having to walk to the next town to use a telephone might have lent me some perspective, but it would not have necessarily helped me become a better volunteer. Secondly, the very idea that an American living at the same level as millions of people around the world makes the American “tough” is ethnocentric. Finally, what person working development, in their right mind, would be anything but pleased to see development? My host mom said that when she was a child, this village didn’t have electricity. Can you imagine the very real consequences for education, for public health, and for daily life?
That being said, I definitely think it’s okay to take some measure of pride in doing something a lot of people are unwilling to do. There is pride that comes in making it over the steep learning curve that comes with learning to live life in such a different way. There is pride when you figure out how to use a squat toilet without peeing on your shoes. There is pride in learning how to cut a mango just right, and do the dishes at the speed of light like the yaai (grandmother) next door showed you. We’ve chosen to learn how to live in a completely different way in a completely different language because we decided that it was important. That very fact makes us tough. No pit toilets necessary.