As I was beginning my second year in Thailand I found I was sleeping less. I was waking up at 4 AM, then 3 AM, and not being able to fall back asleep. I blamed it on the mattress and the heat and the funny, mewling sound my fan made as it oscillated at the foot of the bed. I wasn’t walking around the village and greeting people as often and I blamed it on my lousy language skills and the heat. I was eating less and I blamed it on too much rice and the heat. I lost interest in reading and writing and I just wanted to sit in the plastic chair on my patio and stare. I tried to blame the heat but in reality I had nothing and no one to blame but myself.
At the half way mark of my Peace Corps service I was at a low point, the same low point that many volunteers experience, but I wasn’t seeing the next upswing. Something had been bothering me for a very long time and I had been ignoring it, pushing it aside as irrelevant and inconsequential, minimizing its value and impact. But deep inside I knew otherwise.
I had always wanted to be in the Peace Corps, ever since I was a child. It seemed so altruistic and exotic and I wanted to picture myself as being altruistic and slightly exotic. I wanted to be seen as being a little off-center, a little novel, a little daring—but in a safe way–living beyond my comfort zone, but only a step or two outside that comfort zone. I still had limits. Along with the usual happy childhood memories, those sights and sounds and smells of growing up in small town America in the 1960s, I locked those impressions of that exotic and altruistic Peace Corps self in a little box and tucked it beneath the floorboards in a corner of my conscience. Many years later, nearing retirement, I went searching for that dusty and almost forgotten box and polished up that dream of serving my country in the Peace Corps.
After I sent off my application to Washington I waited and waited for a placement and I felt as if my recruiter had forgotten me. I pestered her without being an out and out pest and I waited some more, a life paused. I thought about the semester in college I spent in Southern Chile near Tierra del Fuego, working in a National Park. I worked alongside a Peace Corps volunteer involved in park development there and that’s what I saw myself doing. Almost 40 years later I was hoping for an assignment like that, something drawing upon the things I’d added to my resume through the years, something in forestry or agriculture or dealing with environmental concerns. This was the Peace Corps of my memories: planting trees, digging wells, building outhouses. This was the Peace Corps from the posters and ad campaigns of the 60s and 70s when I was coming of age. Finally, a year and a half of waiting paid off and my recruiter offered me an assignment. She said there were openings in a fairly new program, Youth in Development. I had no kids, no nieces or nephews. I never taught children and I had no idea how to relate to them. The joke was, “I don’t even like kids.” But I figured, what the heck. One of the core expectations of the Peace Corps (#3 if memory serves) is to be flexible. This being the only offer coming in, I accepted.
As Youth in Development volunteers (Peace Corps Thailand cleverly refers to this program as Yin D. Yin dii in Thai means delighted, joyful) we were to provide life skills training to Thai youth. Through games and play activities we would inspire them to think differently about cooperation and team building, about getting along with others, about making healthy decisions, about creative thinking and problem solving, and the list went on. I didn’t have the background or the skill sets needed to work effectively with youth and because of that I didn’t have the initial spark of enthusiasm. My heart just wasn’t in it. This program I was in, this program I was trying to fit into, this program I really didn’t want to be in, just didn’t feel right. Each game, each icebreaker, each energizer, each activity geared toward engaging youth felt awkward. I was clumsy, uncomfortable, embarrassed, and I simply felt inept trying to engage the kids. I was not joyful or delighted. I was not yin dii.
Peace Corps Thailand understands the vagueness of Yin D and gives volunteers latitude in shaping their programs to individual strengths. We had a lot of flexibility. I slowly got into the classroom and helped one of the school’s English teachers and that went well. I truly enjoyed the kids. I saw opportunities for an environmental project or two but they didn’t align with what the community wanted. My derisory language skills left me unable to communicate my ideas and desires. Throughout that first year I kept telling myself, “Give it a year. See how you feel. See if things get better, easier, less awkward.” They didn’t.
If I left early I would feel like a failure, a quitter. I would be a disappointment to myself for not living up to my commitment, to my dream. I would feel a traitor to my own high standards. Could I sweat through another year of this? I waffled for months, go or stay. What if played out in detail. The rainy season was upon me and it was coming down hard. Torrents of self-doubt, stubbornness, defeat, pride. No. Yes. Go. Stay.
Then someone posted a quote on social media, “Respect yourself enough to walk away from anything that no longer serves you, grows you, or makes you happy.” The storm clouds broke.
It was at this point I spoke to my stepmother about my father’s failing health. The two factors, the two storm fronts, collided and I knew I had to go home. I was quitting but I was quitting for the noble reason that I needed to be with my father. Peace Corps staff said they understood, my fellow volunteers would understand, and the Thai people I knew would understand and wonder why I wasn’t home already taking care of him and providing for him. It was time for me to walk away and take my need for altruism back to its roots.