The first “aha” moment came when the flight attendant handed out customs forms as the plane neared Bangkok.”I don’t have any foreign currency to declare,” I said. “All my money is American.” My seatmate laughed, “What do you think American money is in Thailand?” she asked.
I suddenly realized my perspectives were going to have to change.
I was 24, on my way to teach English in a Thai high school for two years. Never mind that I had never set foot outside the United States, spoke not a word of Thai, and had never been a teacher.
I was on my way to being a Peace Corps volunteer.
Sixty years ago today, President John Kennedy signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps. In the ensuing six decades, more than 235,000 Americans have taken up the challenge of living among the people of developing nations, serving as volunteers in 141 countries. They have taught school, worked in public health, toiled in agriculture, and done whatever jobs the host countries have asked of them.
Sadly, on this 60th anniversary there are no Peace Corps volunteers stationed overseas. Last March all 7,000 volunteers from around the globe were recalled back to the United States because of the coronavirus pandemic, but hopes are high that volunteers will be able to start returning to the countries which they serve later this year.
In March 1980, I was among a group of 30 volunteers headed for Thailand. The Peace Corps trained us well. Two months of intense language and cultural training, with a little practice teaching on the side, and we were sworn in as volunteers and sent off on our own.
My village was Kosum Pisai, an eight-hour bus ride from Bangkok, in northeastern Thailand, the country’s poorest region. The village had a school, a bank, a post office, a market, and not much else. My two-room house, shared with a Thai teacher, had electricity, but no running water. The closest phone was an hour’s bus ride away. Transportation in the village was by bicycle.
I loved it. I loved the students. I loved pumping water. I loved learning the language, making the slow transition from tongue-tied to Thai-tongued. I loved riding my bike into the countryside, listening to the monkeys screaming from the trees, watching the water buffalo working in the rice fields, hearing the chanting of Buddhist monks as I pedaled past the temple.
It all seemed so exotic. And yet, I was what was foreign to the landscape.
That was reinforced when my Peace Corps supervisor, a Thai woman, came to visit. She got off the bus and asked a woman at a food stall how to get to the school. After giving directions, the market woman added, “And we have a farang (a foreigner) there. She speaks Thai and eats spicy food, just like us.”
A foreigner who speaks the language and eats the food. In essence, that’s what the Peace Corps is all about.
That’s what Sargent Shriver, the agency’s first director, believed. On the Peace Corps’ 25th anniversary I had the opportunity to interview him in his office in Washington DC.
“When the first group of volunteers landed in Ghana (in 1961) and spoke to the people in their native language of Twi and sang the national anthem in Twi, the people of Ghana couldn’t believe it,” Shriver recalled. “That kind of story spread like wildfire all over West Africa. It endeared the Peace Corps volunteers to the African people.
“The Peace Corps represents an attitude which respects other people and other cultures,” Shriver said. “The Peace Corps says we can work with you toward a solution of common problems. It holds out the hope that together we can create a better world for everyone. It’s a commitment of love. You become fond of the people you work with and involved in their lives. You find that this service you went to give to someone else becomes the greatest benefit to yourself.”
That is certainly true.
On the 30th anniversary of our arrival in Thailand my Peace Corps friends had a reunion in San Francisco (plans for a 40th reunion were delayed by the pandemic). We gathered in the same hotel in which we had first met for orientation three decades earlier and talked about the difference Peace Corps had made in our lives.
Many of my friends have had careers shaped by the volunteer experience. Some are teaching English to immigrants and refugees. Another works for UNHCR (the United Nations High Commission on Refugees). One is an immigration lawyer, another works in public health.
But even those of us who cannot trace our current livelihoods to the Peace Corps still feel its influences.
The Peace Corps provided me a different lens through which to see the world. I see immigrants and remember what it feels like to be the foreigner. I see people of other faiths and remember going to the Buddhist temples in Thailand. I remember that just as American money is foreign in another country, so are some American ideas and attitudes. The Peace Corps taught me that there is more than one way of doing things, and that other countries’ ways may be just as valid, if not more so, than my own.
So happy birthday Peace Corps. And may its volunteers continue to serve other countries and our own for many years to come.
P.S. The service for this week’s compline is attached.