Here’s another article from my son Peter. It’s about his time at the Summer Peace Institute in San José, Costa Rica, and also about his post-graduation plans. Peter spent nearly half his life overseas before graduating from high school, so another trip to another culture should have been a piece of cake, right? And heading back to Asia with the Peace Corps shouldn’t be a problem, either. Here, Peter shares about how it can be hard to cross cultures alone, even for a TCK.
In 1999, my family and I left Joplin, Mo., for the other side of the world—Taipei, Taiwan. Before that, I’d never been outside the Midwest, let alone the United States.
If you are not familiar with Taiwan, it is a small tobacco-leaf-shaped island off the southeast coast of China, having about one-fifth the land area of Missouri with four times the population.
When we took our first trip to Taiwan, my parents were in the process of considering whether they wanted to become missionaries there. We spent two weeks traveling around the island, sightseeing and meeting Taiwanese friends who had once been international students at Pittsburg State University and at my father’s alma mater, the University of Missouri.
Two years later, my family and I left Joplin again for Taiwan. This time, I stayed for eight years.
After I graduated high school, I returned to Joplin to attend MSSU. I have enjoyed my time at this university more than any other time in my life, but now I am near the end. I will graduate this December with two bachelor’s degrees and, like many of you, still have no idea what I want to do next.
Well, I should not say, “No idea.”
Ever since returning from Taiwan, I have been fascinated by the world outside Joplin, outside Missouri, outside the US. I had tasted another culture—Taiwanese food is delicious, by the way—and I was ready to experience more.
When I heard about the Peace Corps, it sounded like a perfect fit. Started in 1958, the Peace Corps is a US government-run volunteer program that sends American citizens out into the world to learn about other cultures and serve the people of developing countries. Volunteers spend two year stints anywhere from Zambia to China to Peru to Jordan.
About six months ago, I submitted an application for the Peace Corps. Even before that, I had watched as two friends, fellow MSSU students and past McCaleb winners Luke and Caitlan Smith, were sent off by the Peace Corps to Rwanda.
By the time I left for Costa Rica, I was several months into the Peace Corps application process.
During the UPEACE-Berkeley program, I got to talk with two people who have experience with the Peace Corps: Dr. Jerry Sanders, a former Peace Corps volunteer [and co-founder of World Policy Journal and director of the Summer Peace Institute], and Manuel Davila, a former employee of the Honduran Peace Corps office. I asked them about their thoughts on the Peace Corps.
Sanders volunteered in Colombia in the 1970s and became disenchanted with the Peace Corps halfway through his two years there.
“I wasn’t any more satisfied with [the Peace Corps’s] policies—so-called development policies—than I was with the war in Vietnam,” he said.
Sanders felt the policies prevented efficiency. He encouraged me to go into the Peace Corps with a willingness to criticize the system.
Davila said the volunteers he met had great experiences, and he became friends with some of them. He told me the Peace Corps takes very good care of its volunteers.
I thought my time in Costa Rica would make me more excited for the Peace Corps. Instead, it made me realize how hard the Peace Corps would be. Though I had lived and traveled internationally, I had always done it with family or friends.
By the end of my first day in Costa Rica, I had already faced several difficulties.
My luggage was held up in Houston, Texas, so I lacked a change of clothes, toiletries, and even cleaning solution for my contacts. I was overwhelmed by 30 students whom I had never met before and who already seemed to know each other. I could not keep up the lectures on topics I had never studied. I could not speak Spanish. I did not know my way around town and got myself lost wandering home from the bus stop.
As I familiarized myself with my host town, learned a few Spanish phrases and befriended—and was befriended by—the other students, I felt more and more comfortable in Costa Rica.
Some of my favorite moments of the trip were whitewater rafting down the Pecuare River, learning how to say “God bless you” in Spanish, taking walks around my host town, visiting the Caribbean coast, trying new Costa Rican dishes, having intellectual and non-intellectual discussions with fellow students and watching soccer on television with my host family.
Nevertheless, being away from my family, my church community and my other close friends in Joplin was difficult throughout the trip.
While I truly enjoyed my time in Costa Rica, it did open my eyes to the realities of living overseas by myself.
In a Facebook message about the Peace Corps, Luke Smith writes, “The hardest part for me though has just been being away from my family. Diet and living conditions are a cake walk compared to not being able to see the people you love.”
Two weeks into this semester, I received a Peace Corps invitation to volunteer in Indonesia as a secondary English teacher, with a March starting date. I was given seven days to make my decision.
About an hour later, I decided to decline it. It feels like the coward’s move. But right now, I am not ready for the Peace Corps, and that is okay.
Now I am trying to figure out what is next. I will still graduate in December, and I still have no jobs waiting for me. Though I am not yet ready to live in Indonesia for two years, I am ready to explore more of the US, especially her big cities.
I do not plan to give up my aspirations of international studies. I know if I do move somewhere like Chicago or Philadelphia, I will meet people from other countries and cultural backgrounds, and that is exciting.
Maybe I will pursue a master’s degree in international relations. I am still very interested in cross-cultural issues. I follow global current events in my free time, and I try to pick up bits and pieces of other languages.
My thirst for cultural diversity will never be quenched. The Peace Corps may still be in my future, but I am not looking that far ahead. I am looking at what is next, one decision at a time.