I Joined the Peace Corps to Keep From Becoming an Asshole (It Worked, Mostly)

When I applied to Peace Corps, it had everything to do with money. First, that I had none; second, that as an English major graduating into the recession, I wasn’t likely to make a lot of it any time soon; third, that I understood how ridiculous it was to say that I had no money. Out-of-state tuition at the University of Virginia is almost $50,000 per year, and my scholarship alone put me in the world’s top 1% of earners.

It was hard for me to truly understand that last statistic. Everyone in America feels strapped for cash, I think. Everyone feels that whatever they have must be guarded fiercely. It’s too bad for people my age, with our depressed earnings and whatnot; but then it’s also too bad for the 3 billion people who have to live and work and try to get laid now and then on the tight daily budget of $2.50.

“How to live?” I asked myself, as graduation loomed and the world seemed to narrow rather than expand. Fearful of growing up and becoming an asshole, I went in for an interview with Peace Corps.

Nine months after my interview, I got placed in the former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan (“Oh no! They send people to the Stans? Can you trade your assignment for Jamaica, or, like, Thailand?” said everyone I knew). I prepared for my departure by showering twice a day and going to Vegas (later, the memory of one $27 double bourbon-ginger haunted me nightly as I watched my tiny, hungry host siblings divide every meal). “Can I get a dog in Kyrgyzstan?” I wrote hopefully on the wall of the Facebook group.

Most people have considered joining the Peace Corps, if just for a millisecond. And why not? Peace Corps offers our fundamental patriotic dream redux: the drama of self-imposed exile, the promise of a blank slate, a life structured around virtue and independence, an uncharted opportunity to self-aggrandize. Less selfishly, volunteering also offers you a chance to take a tiny swing at the world’s biggest problem—the fact that comfort for the few rests on exploitation of the many.

There are other attractive aspects. Peace Corps is two years outside the real world of consumption and desire: You can’t gorge yourself on blogs or new restaurants. You can’t go shopping. You can’t meet up for happy hour. You can’t spend, or save money. You also can’t make money in the Peace Corps, which is why most people consider volunteering only at moments of either financial or personal instability. But luckily for the Peace Corps, these moments, for many of us, are expanding into months and years. Application numbers keep going up.

Peace Corps volunteers, unlike expat English teachers and NGO workers, live at a local level, which is to say poorly. While in Kyrgyzstan, I could afford bananas three times a week, meat only rarely. To save $3, I’d readily spend an eight-hour car ride with a stranger’s baby drooling all over my lap. Coal was expensive, so I spent all winter wearing a sleeping bag around the house like a full-body condom.

That stuff was funny and relatively easy, while the intangible stuff of poverty was deeper and worse. Local mafia drove through the village, handing out bribes for the local elections. School was cancelled for three weeks so the students could harvest potatoes. The government withheld teacher salaries, the power went out at the bank, and I felt the malaise that my villagers had known all their life—the dullness that sets in when all infrastructure passes you over and opportunities for growth seem impossibly far away. I sometimes looked down on the villagers for boozing in the morning and watching TV all night, but my anodyne self-soothing (entire seasons of South Park, yoga for hours) was no better. There was one unimpeachable similarity between villager and volunteer: We always had money for those $2 liters of vodka.

My two major goals in joining Peace Corps were to better understand real poverty and to not become an asshole. As to the first one, I’m not sure I’ll ever get it. I was never poor in Kyrgyzstan—I had a laptop, an escape hatch, and a monthly allowance that, while small, was still almost half of the average annual income in the country. It only took a few months for me to see that I’d never understand the physical and spiritual reality of having grown up in a society that doesn’t care about you at all.

Am I less of an asshole? Who knows. But Peace Corps does put you in your place. I’ve never met better people and never will. And for every time I was harassed, robbed, disciplined, and isolated, there were a dozen more times when happiness spilled out of me like the rays of the sun.

Twice during my service, there were outbreaks of political and ethnic violence. On these occasions, we were evacuated to an American military base that launches Air Force missions in Afghanistan. They took terrific, courteous care of us there. One doctor even let me use a private room in the base clinic just to take an air-conditioned nap, which was so touching that I almost cried.

At the base, we were on vacation, and we felt like strange kings. We ran through the mess hall, stuffing Clif bars and maple syrup bottles in our pockets and lining up early for Steak and Lobster Sundays. We pulled out our credit cards and availed ourselves of cheap (subsidized by you!) eyebrow waxes, hour-long massages, soy lattes, and North Face gear. I splurged on an expensive phone connection to Texas and called my boyfriend. “We’re so lucky to be American,” I said breathlessly. “God, we’re rich.”
Jia Tolentino is spending the summer as a ghost (writer) (but she is interested in working as an actual ghost if you know of any good haunted houses in the Ann Arbor area). Photo:flickr/300t.org


39 Comments / Post A Comment

Huh, I was in Peace Corps in neighboring Turkmenistan and I’m pretty sure it made me MORE of an asshole. Nice article though. (We always thought you Kyrgyz PCVs were soft, with your cell phones and Internet cafes).

Edit: I also taught English in Kyrgyzstan for a while — I think I made about 15,000 soms a month, give or take.

j-i-a (#746)

@stuffisthings We were totally soft compared to you! A lot of people in my group were assigned to Turkmenistan right before the program closed, actually. I am so intrigued by Turkmenistan. Did the people you worked with buy all the brainwashy political stuff? And were you surveilled a lot?

@j-i-a Many of them did. And yes, we were surveilled.

Actually, my doctor here in DC is Russian and he told me he asked one of his patients from the Turkmen Embassy “Do you really believe all this stuff? REALLY?” and the guy was like, “Yeah, people don’t understand what a great man Turkmenbashy is!”

So some of them definitely believe it — especially the younger generations that don’t have direct contact with the outside world.

j-i-a (#746)

@stuffisthings That’s totally insane. And so unusual that the younger generation is the most repressed, but I guess it makes perfect sense. Only like 2% of Turkmen people use the Internet, right, or did I make that up? I wish I could witness the spookiness of all those empty golden buildings.

YUP. I think, for most PCVs, your time in service either makes distinctly MORE of an asshole or distinctly LESS of one. And I think very little of that has to do with where you’re placed.
Great article!

j-i-a (#746)

@Whitman’s Sampler Totally! You end up either totally sanctimonious or completely humbled. I’m sure I was the former for quite some time. And thank you!

@j-i-a Yet all PCVs emerge with heightened levels of cynicism, distrust of taxi drivers, and intimacy with poop.

j-i-a (#746)

@stuffisthings Hahaha totally. They say the best way to make friends is to have a common enemy; I say it’s poop. I wonder if every post calls shitting your pants “becoming a volunteer” like we did. Did you do PC time somewhere?

@j-i-a We called it being a “real Peace Corps Volunteer” (RPCV). And yeah I’m the guy from one comment up =).

j-i-a (#746)

@stuffisthings Hahaha if only I could read!

Robin (#1,320)

@Whitman’s Sampler Yes! I spent some time volunteering and living in Latin America after graduation, and that’s exactly it. Intimacy with poop and distrust of taxi drivers. Great education.

KurrentPCV (#1,253)

Interesting remarks. How long was your service?

j-i-a (#746)

@KurrentPCV I was involuntarily IS’ed after a year because of sexual harassment. I wish I could have stayed longer, but also I was sort of losing it, and they were probably right that I needed to go.

selenana (#673)

Thank you! Very interesting.

Lipshtick (#1,260)

This is a great article! As someone who was born in Kyrgyzstan and later returned as a privileged Canadian expat,I think its important that more people experience what its like to live in an underdeveloped economy. I can only describe my experience with platitudes so I’ll definitely be sharing this article.

kurrentpcv2 (#1,267)

For not serving a full two years, do you think you really know what keeps PCVs from becoming assholes?

j-i-a (#746)

@kurrentpcv2 I don’t think I know anything, really, certainly not enough to generalize about thousands of vastly different PCVs and their experiences. I never made that specific point at all in this essay.

piperblue (#1,270)

@kurrentpcv2 I read the article and believe this author didn’t say that she really knows what keeps PCVs from becoming assholes. “Who knows” was her best answer when pondering her own grade on the asshole meter. I particularly liked her exchange with Whitman’s Sampler–the one where Whitman says “your time in service either makes (you) distinctly MORE of an asshole or distinctly LESS of one. And I think very little of that has to do with where you’re placed”. That your question suggests length of service may have something to do with asshole self-awareness makes me think Whitman may have been spot on.

kurrentpcv2 (#1,267)

Maybe if you stay for one year, you’re only half an asshole?

j-i-a (#746)

@kurrentpcv2 Maybe. I sense that you are looking down on me for my one year tenure? I have also extensively looked down on me for having to leave early. Honestly, though, after two evacuations, a dozen lockdowns, our program nearly shutting down and half the volunteers leaving, almost getting kicked out twice, being grounded in isolation for three months, developing active TB, and accumulating a sexual harassment and minor assault record in the double digits, involuntary IS was about the best thing I could hope for.

shutthefrontdoor (#1,272)

@j-i-a Ugh! I just got medsep’d from Morocco and am so surprised by how many RPCVs look down on you for not finishing. I mean I’m with you, I’ve looked down on myself too, but still we got on the plane and we stuck a year out. I think that allows us to credibly speak about our experiences. And also, you are absolutely not a real PCV until you’ve pooped your pants. We said it in Morocco and I’ve heard it from Ghana and Thailand RPCVs too. Poop, the universal unifier.

j-i-a (#746)

@shutthefrontdoor POOP, man! You know, I never truly became a volunteer in that sense. The one time that I almost did, I was at that goddamn military base, and it was the WORST because the cafeteria was literally bursting with (to us) lustfully gourmet food items, including exotic fruits and barbecue and chili and my all-time favorite food of cinnamon rolls, and I’ll spare you the details, but I did not do myself any favors during that “evacuation.”

And sorry about your med sep–it’s such a weird thing. With all the things about my service that I regard as regretful, I have rested in the security that no one really cares except for me, and the best thing I can do is to stop caring and make enough money to donate to a good PCPP grant.

Seanteaom (#1,277)

@j-i-a — You’re a champion for that PCV record– I was a PCV in a year in Mauritania, took IS a couple weeks before the evacuation, and seriously, anyone who doesn’t get IS just doesn’t get it. Serving now as a response volunteer in China– maybe that will get my asshole-development (to more or less of an asshole) to 75% completion?

j-i-a (#746)

@Seanteaom Response! That’s awesome. I look longingly at those emails and hope that within a few years, I’ll bite. I wonder how different this experience is from your experience in Mauritania–I would guess significantly different–but do parts of it feel the same? I remember hearing that most China volunteers were city volunteers, but Response is probably different?

There was a couple of months during my first summer in Kyrgyzstan where IS was offered freely to anyone who wanted to leave. A lot of people took it. And great for them, great for everyone, all power to anyone who has ever tried to do anything big with honest intentions.

And I don’t think I accurately communicated my feelings on the asshole issue in the essay, but after Peace Corps I started to think that wasting time thinking about yourself is the biggest asshole move you could make, as well as one of the worst things about the American viewpoint–thus my new perspective of who knows/who cares/deeds over words/etc.

Seanteaom (#1,277)

@j-i-a I think Response postings vary as much as original postings– maybe more towards city postings, as they are train-the-trainer positions in a lot of programs. The China program is currently all university level ESL, so we’re in cities and county towns that are at least big enough for their own Unis. There’s some interesting talk in Chengdu about program directions, but no big official changes that I know of. It’s hard to say how different the China office is from the old Mauritania office– It seems very supportive… the bureaucracy is similar, but everything about day to day life is completely different between the two places…

KurrentPCV (#1,253)

Hey, I think I see what number 2 (real original asshole) is getting at and I don’t think its looking down on you for not finishing your service.

Actually,I was honestly surprised that the tone of your article was pretty positive. I think the frustration comes more from a few different things;

1. You don’t mention anywhere in the article that your service wasn’t finished. That is misleading.
2. You say yourself that you’re service was rocky and outside the norm, which in itself should at least require a disclaimer. I Feel in general every volunteer should disclaim everything with “Everyone’s service is different”
3. You call yourself an RPCV, but if you get ISed or medsepped before the one year mark you don’t get that status. You said yourself you left in January of your first year.
4. Some volunteers wonder whether your previous Op-ed piece was just trying to cash in on the publicity of ABC expose.
5. The timing of this article just lines up perfectly with the CoS dates of volunteers in your group that did finish, which almost makes it seem like you’re trying to make it seem like your service was finished.
6. I know there are some Medsepped volunteers who were forced out who would have given anything to finish their services.
7.You mentioned you were offered a site change but didn’t take it.
8. This is just rumor and conjecture, but volunteers from your group claim that you made it obvious before even arriving in country that you didn’t plan to stay longer than one year. As early as the airport in Istanbul.

Like I said, the last one is just rumor, and we all know how bad rumors can get in service.

j-i-a (#746)

@KurrentPCV You clearly know me personally or have inhaled a lot of bored, nasty third-hand gossip about me, so stop equivocating with this “Some volunteers claim…” business and just tell me, “Hi, I’m so-and-so from Whatever Oblast and I think you’re a noxious dilettante cashing in on a foreshortened PC experience when so many humble and hardworking volunteers like myself are still eating sheep-face in noble obscurity.”

Why do Peace Corps volunteers spend so much time judging other volunteers, when all information comes thirdhand at best and when all of us have fallen short of many of our own expectations?

You have all of your details wrong (I was contacted by a Times editor to write that piece; I didn’t contact them, and I wouldn’t have been sent home if not for that ABC expose anyway), and I disagree with the intent, implication, and accuracy of every number in that sweet little list of yours. If you’d truly like to know the ugly facts of my service and departure, email me anytime; otherwise, I think “get a life” sums up my point of view here as well as anything.

Cris (#1,415)

@KurrentPCV What I admire most about volunteers is their knack for finding inspiration under the worst circumstances and innate ability to see things in a positive light. You have strangely managed the opposite. There is nothing admirable about the emotion and intention behind your comments. If you want to practice online defamation please don’t carry the Peace Corps name. Go work for a tabloid.

kurrentpcv2 (#1,267)

@jia- You were here. You know how small of a country it is and when PC staff and PCVs alike are all talking about incidents such as yours, it’s tough not to wonder why you didn’t take the site change if they offered it to you. This combined with PC gossip (everyone talks and please don’t like you didn’t) that you did talk about staying for one year only may make it difficult to appreciate the honesty in your articles.

@kurrentpcv2 what the FUCK

KurrentPCV (#1,253)

I like lists.

I’m just trying to establish the truth out of the facts and rumors I do have. I don’t claim to know what statements, if any, you made a year before my service even started. All I can say is, multiple volunteers from your group attest to the same thing; that you didn’t plan on spending more than a year in service. I even acknowledged that it was a rumor that could be baseless. It was just another thing to add to the list that made this article frustrating for current volunteers.

I agree that no matter the outcome, anyone who steps on a plane and manages to scrounge up the courage to go to a foreign country with noble intentions deserves some praise. The problem is, I honestly don’t believe 2 months of training and 7 months of site service is enough to put clear, honest, and unbiased information out there in the world wide web that future volunteers could potentially stumble on and affect their decisions in applying for or accepting an invitation.

Like I said, I was surprised at how positive your article was. It just seems so misleading though. Two years of volunteer service isn’t exactly a long time when compared to other types of service (maybe military for example). If someone was discharged out of the army at year four of an eight year contract you could make the argument that they still experienced enough to get a valid opinion on it. That said, I think PCVs across the world generally come into their stride at about the one year mark. Projects start coming together, students start showing more motivation, committees are filled with new volunteers, and staff relationships become more profound. Straight to the point, I think flooding the internet with articles about a service that didn’t even reach the year mark is irresponsible.

I don’t know how hard you had it, and I do know some that some women have it incredibly rough. Someone in our group was sexually assaulted, forced to move Oblasts, and then insisted that she be moved back to her previous Oblast where she was happier.
no one would have faulted her for leaving early if that’s what she chose to do. She probably wouldn’t have written articles about her very short experience in country though.

Maybe its good you got out before a year. Maybe that’s the jaded asshole point.

j-i-a (#746)

KurrentPCV Ugh, are you back again? Multiple posts? And still without the balls to tell me who you are or just email me directly? I’ll tell you everything. I just don’t feel like boo-hooing over murdered babies and sexual invasions in a public forum–do you get that?

So you say I am “irresponsible” and “misleading.” First of all, no one cares about this except for you and the assumed handful of volunteers in country who, two weeks ago, found a brief moment of pleasure in feeling misrepresented by my small-time pieces about Kyrgyzstan.

But okay, the Times article was written with an explicit statement that I’d gotten sent home early because of sexual harassment (again–that was why they approached me to write the article). This Billfold article was about money and perspective and not being an asshole. The terms of my interrupted service had nothing to do with it. Had I written two articles entitled, “How to Have a Fulfilling, Productive, Complete 2 Years in Peace Corps and Avoid Rape Threats Entirely,” then yes, I would certainly have been misleading. Do you even know how writing works? Do you know about editors?

I was there, and I totally gossiped; I get it; gossip makes you feel normal and gives you something to think about other than the desperate poverty all around you. I am actually a lifelong fan of rumors, and it took me until Christmas to realize that there weren’t actually snow monkeys in Naryn. But no one other than my close friends in country knew what went on in my village, and I doubt they made it a habit to hang around with anyone AWESOME enough to waste their time doing this sort of stuff–so perhaps you can believe me when I say you don’t know the half of it.

So okay! Maybe it’s time for you to move onto bigger and better things. Again, if you’d actually like to know any of the details–why I didn’t take my site change or why I told people I was planning to leave during summer 2011–you are welcome to email me and I’ll tell you. Or you could literally take a hike. The summer in Kyrgyzstan is so beautiful, isn’t it?

Maybe I don’t have any perspective on this since a) I’ve never served in the Peace Corps and b) I don’t have the balls to leave my country to serve “the greater good”. But I do have a few thoughts. And don’t worry @KurrentPCV, I like lists too:

1. Why not just take @j-i-a up on her offer? I’d sure like to know the story now that I know there are juicy details outside of this article and might just e-mail her myself.

2. She’s clearly a writer and after reading her responses here and both articles (had to find the Times one), it’s pretty clear that they both had specific agendas (the Times about the dangers specifically for women which are clearly real and this one at the Billfold about money…ya know since that’s what this site is about). These agendas had little to do with “I did Peace Corps and am better than you all,” which it seems that you want to write yourself.

3. Did you ever consider that she may have done some great stuff at her site before her interruption of service? While no guarantee, why not ask her, or ask people at her site?

4. Clearly you’re allowing gossip (read: unsubstantiated rumors) to dictate your reaction to the author. That seems like a clear indication once again that you know nothing about writing or journalism.

5. I may again have no clue about the workings of Peace Corps, but if “finding your stride” happens at the year mark, does that mean that everything you did before then was totally irrelevant? If so, then the site change might have made sense. If not, then wouldn’t a site change then resulted in a restart of her “Peace Corps Service Clock” to 0? And what if the connections and projects she started had JUST started to gain traction after working on them for a long time? Wouldn’t it be that much more difficult to start up the same ones or similar ones elsewhere?

6. It seems you’re really focused on lengths, designations, and titles. That seems pretty anti-Peace Corps. Isn’t the whole point of Peace Corps to try and do whatever positive you can possibly do while you’re there? I read your comments as suggesting that it’s more about will power to stay as long as possible and never relenting. Odd sentiment that sounds a lot more like masochism than altruism.

7. In conclusion, stop worrying about gossip mills, internet articles, and what people are saying after they are forced out of the country. Focus on what you can do while you are there. Life’s too short.

avidreader (#1,519)

Jia, I am one of your avid readers and I read about your brother’s book drive for Kyrgyzstan. I admire what that kid did. I wondered about shipping. I thought you would not find the resources to complete your Library Project within the time that you did. I was not able to contribute anything (sorry). You wrote about needing chairs and shelves. I was excited with you when you were about to open the library (did you bring the books yourself) I read when you felt crushed after.

I am thankful I came across this article. You are a class act for not trying to make yourself look “good” despite this comment thread. I remember liking your writing style precisely because it was honest and refreshing. It’s ironic because you liked to make fun of yourself and it was like the opposite of making yourself look “good”. Don’t ever stop writing. Some volunteer may think he is doing the world a favor by writing about his opinion. I am not a good writer like you, but I think if I translate KurrentPCV’s words, he is saying this:

“Do not write a positive article about your Peace Corps experience. It surprises me. Don’t do that.”

“Do not stay on topic because you leave out certain facts even if they are irrelevant. That is frustrating. That is misleading. Don’t do that.”

“Your flooded the internet with 2 articles and that is irresponsible.”

“I try to establish the truth out of facts and rumors by not asking you but by reposting my thoughts that are based on rumors.”

“I don’t know how hard you had it but no, not asking.”

“I have so many relevant things to say about sexual harassment and money. I didn’t really understand your New York times article and the point of this billfold article.”

I think that’s what KurrentPCV was trying to say.

j-i-a (#746)

@avidreader This made me really happy to read.

The library is still going, I hope–there’s another volunteer who replaced me, a dude who seems pretty cool from what I’ve heard about him (hopefully he isn’t KurrentPCV! That would actually make me feel awful) and I hear that there’s a waiting list for the Russian Harry Potter books. Pretty much entirely due to the help I got from other people, we had all the books in and organized before I was sent home. Recently, my counterpart actually came to America for a US Embassy fellowship (after which I promptly flew her to Texas and took her to the rodeo) and she told me that the English center has expanded to the point where it’s taking over a second room in the school!

Anyway, thanks for everything you said. I agree about your summary of the heinous exchange above–particularly the hyperbolic nature of the word “flooded.” You rock.

avidreader (#1,519)

@j-i-a So good to hear about what happened to that project! You mean someone from your village came to America? Cool! The summary contained his own words (except for the last 2 statements) so I won’t be misleading. Cheers!

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