The Impact of a PCV

The other day I joined Peace Corps staff in their site identification visits. We met in Martuni where we went to an NGO. Then we went to a nearby village. PC is trying to restock Martuni. My first year here, the town and villages had 6 volunteers. Six! Now there are none. So it’s great that they are paying some attention to Martuni.

It was my first time in the village, Verin Getashen. It’s a beautiful and (relatively) rich village nestled along a river gorge with an inactive volcano as the backdrop. I say rich because all the houses seem to have new windows. That’s thanks to the relatives working in Russia and elsewhere. The village has two school and each wants a volunteer from our new crop.

The village had a volunteer as recently as one year ago. In fact, they had a great volunteer. Let’s call him…erm…Banny. Banny did good work there. The community loved him. His host family adored him. He left a great impression on the village. I heard so much about Banny during my short visit.

The village was supposed to have a new volunteer from the A-19 group (I’m A-18 if you remember). However, that volunteer was kicked out near the end of the training period. Still, he lasted long enough to do the site visit. Site visit is a 3 day visit to the permanent site during the training period. Apparently 3 days is enough to make a terrible impression.

This volunteer, let’s call him…erm…Boah. Boah was a “I play by my own rules” kind of guy. “I know what the Peace Corps is and it needs to conform to me. I’m AMERICAN.” That kind of guy. Well anyway, Boah effectively ruined a perfectly good host family because of his ridiculous behavior. I knew that he had messed up with Peace Corps staff multiple times and that’s why he was kicked out. But I didn’t know he also did as much damage elsewhere in the country.

A year has passed since his site visit but his host mom still recalled how “wild” he was. He had his feet propped up on the couch. He didn’t know how to hand wash his laundry. When she started showing him how, he just let her finish instead of taking the laundry task over. Then he hung his clothes outside even though it was going to rain. He had no other clothes. He was dirty and inconsiderate. From her ranting (not all of which I understood) I could gather that he didn’t really care what the family thought. He was doing whatever he wanted basically. And now the family won’t host another volunteer because of how poorly Boah behaved. And even worse, they have some idea that a lot of Americans might be like Boah.

I tell this story to illustrate the balance we must find in our countries. PCVs are little ambassadors. We represent Peace Corps. We represent America. And they are watching everything we do. We have to be so careful not to offend the locals while also somehow maintaining our own identity. Some Americans just flat out fail at this balancing act. This is where all the soft skills you learn throughout your childhood and adolescence come in handy.

Sometimes I am shocked at the way we act in Armenia. Volunteers like Boah think they can come in and behave like they do in America. That is the stupidest and most narrow-minded approach to living in a foreign country I have ever heard. And sadly, it is somehow a very “American” idea too. “Oh, they can just conform to me.” No! We are here to try to integrate into their culture, not the other way around. I will never understand the volunteers who sign up for this experience with that mindset. It is often challenging, difficult, and frustrating to conform to some standards in a foreign society. But it is also the ultimate sign of respect. Just like pouring your heart into learning the language is the best thing you can do to show them how much you care about their country, so is playing by their rules. I don’t care if it’s inconvenient, uncomfortable, or whatever. This is Peace Corps. You’re a volunteer. Do your job.

Thanks to Boah’s course of destruction, the Peace Corps is now pressed to find another suitable family in this village to host a volunteer. The next volunteer will have to work twice as hard to reinstate the good image of America they had in the village. All of this because Boah failed to do his job. Some of us complain that what we do here doesn’t last. Maybe some of the work we do is rather short-term, but the impressions we leave on the Armenians can last a lifetime.

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4 Responses to “The Impact of a PCV”

  1. Wayne Burt Says:

    Well said. And it is good to know that there are very few Boah’s in the Peace Corps, but they can certainly unleash some major negative impressions making damage control an uphill battle.

  2. icenugget Says:

    Yeah, fortunately they are few. A lot of PCVs questioned our CD’s decision to send him away but he obviously made the right choice.

  3. Peter Says:

    Excellent points.

    Of course, the coin has two sides. Plenty of people have immigrated to America and refused to learn English or integrate themselves into American culture.

  4. icenugget Says:

    You’re right Peter. I think in those cases the immigrants typically have children who then really want to integrate and speak English just like the rest of us. And so the soup keeps a stewin’.

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