Thais love taking pictures, especially selfies. They snap photos at restaurants, at temples, at funerals, at meetings and in classrooms and even while on holiday. Social media are filled with smiling or pouty-lipped Thais aiming their cellphones at themselves. When there’s a Peace Corps volunteer in town, watch out. My fellow volunteers have been dressed up in traditional Thai garb, heavily made up and prettified in a Thai-doll sort of way. “How adorable”, everyone must think. I cannot say if the volunteers themselves are truly happy and pleased with their “integration” into Thai culture, but I know how I’d feel. These younger volunteers seem to be forever put on display, fawned over and photographed with the unwritten caption, “Look what we have, isn’t he/she adorable?” I usually decline the offer for any photo op, but I did acquiesce a few times early on. One photo I vividly recall was taken in front of a local attraction, an ancient, rusting hulk of a WW II train engine. The symbolism was not lost on me. “Look what we have.”
The average age of a Peace Corps volunteer is 28, while 7% of volunteers worldwide are over the age of 50. My village had another Peace Corps volunteer five or six years ago, a young 20-something. A few of the people I work with still have photos of him taped up near their desks, faded memories of what they knew as the typical Peace Corps volunteer. He was young, educated, white, single, idealistic and adorable. (Aren’t Peace Corps volunteers by their very nature idealistic?) He was of a similar age to the young men and women in the office back then and so they made friends easily.
I’m educated, white, single and unabashedly idealistic. I am also not young; in a few weeks I will turn 60. No matter how you look at it I am not adorable. Adorable is for puppies, kittens, pandas, baby seal pups (the kind that get clubbed) and young, bright-eyed Peace Corps volunteers.
I’m actually older than the Peace Corps. I grew up and grew old with the thought of wanting to join, to serve my country in peace. I dreamt of living in a hut; drinking tea or coconut water; conversing with my neighbors, community elders, who would take me under their wings and teach me the old ways, all those romantic images from the posters and brochures. When the time came along, in my 20s, I chose the path of least resistance, earning a living, and I turned my attention to a career. Once I retired from that world of work I figured it was time to do what I had always wanted to do, so I applied to the Peace Corps.
But always in those images of the Peace Corps and my service in it, I placed the young me, the twenty-something me, into those mental snapshots, those psychogenic selfies. I was forever going to be the plucky, energetic, fresh-faced volunteer I pictured all Peace Corps volunteers being. Well, that didn’t happen; I got old along the way. Who did I think I was, Dorian Gray? Learning a new language is harder for me now than it once was and I find it problematic to retain new information. The tropical heat and humidity zap my energy more quickly. Riding a bicycle is punishing, I no longer have the knees or lung capacity for it. I can’t interact with the students the same way my younger colleagues can, the physical stamina is not there and my knowledge of current culture (movies and music) is nonexistent. Making friends with people my own age proves more elusive.
All volunteers experience hardships. While the younger ones can more readily adapt to the physical challenges, they also seem to be more vulnerable to criticism, to loneliness and to emotional distress. Some volunteers have been brought to tears over fault-finding and judgment by their communities. As guests in rural villages around Thailand we are on constant display and so much about us is new to our hosts: our skin, our eyes, our hair, our height, our speech, our attitudes, our habits. We are novelties and hence fodder for gossip and attention. Concepts of beauty and acceptable behavior come into conflict. We are too fat, we’re not eating enough, our clothes aren’t ironed, our skin is too tan or too dark. The women that run and play soccer can’t really be girls: the men who don’t drink must not really be men.
Asians and Buddhists have great respect for their elders and that plays into my favor. From the start the people I work with have left me pretty much alone. I’m not saying they don’t watch out for me. When I ask for help—when I ask—they’re there to provide assistance: calling the internet provider on my behalf, giving me a ride to the big, modern supermarket every week or so, introducing me to a new kanom (edible treat). They are generous but generally they don’t go out of their way to include me in activities or conversations. On one hand they see an independence in me and on the other they simply don’t know what to do with me. I am not the adorable puppy to show off or to play with. I’m more the old dog that needs a gentle push up onto the back seat of the car, the one who quickly lies down to enjoy the rhythm of the ride and to feel the comforting warmth of the sun.
I have consciously and unconsciously slowed myself down over the years. There is a mindfulness of aging and life’s limits. I have learned to accept disappointments and hardships and they do not trouble me as much. I do what I can. It’s not so bad becoming an old dog.