What Really Matters

In one week, my fellow Peace Corps trainees and I will “swear-in” as full-fledged Peace Corps volunteers and disperse throughout the provinces of East Java, West Java, and East Nusa Tenggara to begin our two years of service. I will deliver the following remarks at our swearing-in ceremony, translated into Bahasa Indonesia.

A few weeks ago, the director of Peace Corps Indonesia introduced us to the acronym "EPIC." It stands for "empowerment," "protection," "integration," and "connection." And it is Peace Corp's way of describing the various ways in which we will struggle or succeed—the goals we will need to be "resilient" in our pursuit of.

This is nothing that we didn't already know. There is nothing in that acronym that we didn't already understand to be a part of a decent, fulfilling life. Who isn't trying to feel more empowered, protected, integrated, and connected? When is it ever easy to achieve and maintain these qualities of life? The past ten weeks have proved that being thrust into a new culture causes one to regress. But being a local somewhere is no guarantee of success either. The "EPIC" qualities are not black-and-white—qualities you either have or don't have. They are relative and subjective—works-in-progress. This is true for everybody, always.

In fact, the more desperate we are to be "empowered," "integrated," etc., the less likely we are to become any one of those things. We will become paranoid imposters and slaves to appearance and abstractions. Instead of trying to be more "EPIC," we ought to focus on what really matters: developing a genuine sense of familiarity and belonging.

Familiarity and belonging! Or, the feeling that you have some stake in and ownership of what is going on around you. The presence of this feeling is what exempts a people and a place from criticism and absolves them of their sins—is what gives homesickness its bite. (E.B. White once wrote of his trips home to Maine: "...my critical faculties are retarded almost to the vanishing point, like a frog's heartbeat in winter"). And the lack of it is what produces restlessness and resentment. Think back to our first week in-country. How many of you got used to—perhaps even grew to appreciate—something that shocked or offended you then? Think back to site visit. How many of you found, during a quiet moment in the night, that you missed Kediri and your host family? How many of you already feel fondly about the mandi? The call to prayer? The stray cat that comes to your porch every morning? The little backroads that cut through the sugarcane and offer up a view of the mountains? A hundred other minor but necessary details, without which your daily life would no longer feel complete? If you answered in the affirmative to any of these questions—consider it one of your greatest accomplishments from pre-service training. It is a testament to your open-mindedness and big-heartedness.

My point is that you have some control over how quickly you develop a sense of familiarity and belonging. Starting from scratch in the face of culture shock is without a doubt uncomfortable. But if you respond to that discomfort with judgment and comparison, then you will feel like a victim. You will feel helpless at the same time that you feel guilty for not being EPIC enough. If you remember instead that there is no predestined reason for why you are visitor in one place and a local in another—that you are just a person like every other—then you will feel fluid and generous and ready to become somebody new. True resilience, then, is about resisting that temptation to judgment and comparison. It's about remembering that you are dignified and competent, even when you feel least so.

That said, we are far from the only people who deserve credit for whatever familiarity and belonging we already feel. I am referring to our Indonesian host families and counterparts. Our adopted mothers and fathers, siblings and grandparents. Our language teachers and community liasons. The entire staff of Peace Corps Indonesia and the local friends we've already made. If we have adapted at all to our new lives, it is in large part because these people have gone out of their way to make their homes feel like our homes too. It is nothing short of a logistical nightmare to house, feed, train, and generally cater to sixty-odd Americans for three months. And as they would for their own children, they have worried on our behalf about everything that we either couldn't or forgot to worry about.

Notice how you have come to expect and count upon their presence and attentiveness. And consider how helpless you would be without them. Did they do everything perfectly? Did they always understand us and our needs? Of course not. But by and large, they held steady for us while we floundered. So tired as we are, ready as we may be to move on, we ought to allow ourselves a moment of genuine humility and appreciation.

I'll tell you when I first felt that pang of appreciation—felt humbled and small in the face of all I did not know and could not do. It was on the night that I returned to Kediri from my site visit in Kupang. As we pulled into the parking lot of IAIN, late and deliriously tired, I noticed that the lights in the first floor office were still on. Nobody was inside. But in that moment, the pale, fluorescent glow revealed to me an interior of perfect security: Helena and Ananda and the regional managers huddled around the conference table, Rusli and Listia tapping away at their keyboards, Oki and the CL's giggling in the corner, Ayu and Zainah deep in conversation, Sarah grading TEFL assignments, Dipa and Teguh chatting with some RV's. I sat down on the stone wall in front of the office and dozed until my Bapak arrived in his rickety van and took me home.

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