An Education [by jesse]

(mostly for future Peace Corps Volunteers)

We recently attended our Close of Service (COS) conference out in Negril and it was a wonderful time of reflection, appreciation and transition.  Many of us–the 28 that remain–had mentally blocked out the fact that time here is getting short, at least until this conference, and once it was upon us, you could sense the inner freak outs occurring all over the room.  It’s not that we’re not happy to be moving on and it’s not like we haven’t seen this coming.  It’s just that we’re…finally here. We made it.  At times we wondered if we ever really would. And now we have.  So what now?

During COS, we discussed the best activities, skills and attitudes for a successful Peace Corps experience.  We looked at these in terms of the 3 goals of Peace Corps and I want to break it down this way too:

There are 3 specific goals the Peace Corps uses to accomplish this mission of peace & friendship:

  1. To help the people of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained workers
    1. So many of us have this goal in mind when we join the Peace Corps–we want to help people to better help themselves. How we will help and the degree to which we are able to help in the time allotted is unknown and can be disheartening in the end.  When the recruiter says that HUMOR and FLEXIBILITY are the two most important traits of a volunteer, they are telling you the truth.  I would like to add INITIATIVE and HUMILITY, but those first two are very key!
    2. At the end of two years, you will not have made a huge dent in any one issue. What you DO with your time is secondary to the MANNER in which  you do whatever you do.  It’s who you are…and that brings me to Goal 2.
  2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
    1. You cannot serve in the Peace Corps without achieving this goal to some extent, but it sometimes takes a lot of patience–a lot of listening and responding with respect, in order to get beyond the pretense involved in how Jamaicans view Americans.  It’s a very complicated relationship here.  My service spanned the 2008 Olympics when Usain Bolt (Jamaica) won gold in track and broke the record, the US 2008 Presidential Election of Barack Obama, our nation’s first African-American president.  We were in Jamaica while a powerful earthquake raged in Haiti, while civil unrest brought Kingston to a standstill as police searched for Christopher (Dudus) Coke in order to extradite him to the U.S. Now, we are watching the 2010 World Cup games.  These have all been opportunities to express my version of Americanism and also my solidarity as a world citizen.
    2. Most of what my neighbors know about Americans is what they watch on TV, DVDs and music videos.  To show them differently, you have to open up and share (this culture will not inquire about this stuff) or start conversations about similarities and differences, etc. You will have occasion to cook American meals for your host family and friends and celebrate American holidays with them.  One thing we’ve done is host a weekly movie night in our town square, providing family entertainment and exposing folks to a variety of film types and topics, and it ranges from interesting to a blast!
    3. Just as Jamaica isn’t “one big beach,” America isn’t one homogenous…anything.  You know this, but they don’t–be patient, be honest and be the best American you can be. Be for them the way you wish all of Americans would be. Or at least try.
  3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans
    1. This is the one I’ll be doing for the rest of my life, I’m told.  This also requires patience and pro-activity, in equal parts.  We decided to start a Peace Corps blog for several uses, and one of those is to educate and sensitize our American loved ones–show them the “real Jamaica,” at least a little more than if the blog didn’t exist.  Over the past couple years, we’ve been able to share about Jamaican language, culture in style, dance and music, social issues, foods and holidays and debunk a lot of the stereotypes that exist about this “tourist destination.”
    2. Aside from the blog, I think the most helpful thing I can do is continue to allow my experiences here and the lessons learned to inform my own life going forward.  Many people you know will tell you that they’ve always thought about living overseas or say, “Yeah, I’ve always wanted to do that.”  You did and they didn’t, so be a friend and give a balanced account–there’s always going to be good, bad and ugly about living and working in a place.  It’s natural to see other cultures as “other” and our own culture as “normal,” but this is not a fact; it’s a judgment, an opinion from only one point of view.  Going forward, my attitude toward “other” peoples and places will have more authority, and that means it’s more important than ever for me to be open-minded and empathetic, as an example.  We have experienced Jamaica in a way that few Americans have.  The same is true for living overseas, becoming an instant minority, working in development, representing your country (not just yourself and your family), and being in the Peace Corps.  It seems like a heavy responsibility at times, but you know…I’m so glad to have this unique perspective and belong to such a unique, talented and caring group of people.  This goal is also my privilege.

If you’re an applicant who thinks you might be coming to Jamaica for Peace Corps service, I will say that our two years has been incredibly rewarding and challenging–and I would do it all over again (and probably do it way better).

I will also say that there are times when it does feel like Posh Corps or Beach Corps–when you think to yourself, “I’m so freakin lucky to have this two year quasi-vacation on a tropical island.”  At other times, it can be very trying, stressful and frustrating–perhaps more so than lots of other “hard-core” Peace Corps posts in other countries.  Because of the socio-political history here in Jamaica and because of its exposure and close relations with the U.S., Canada and the U.K., Jamaicans tend to not really “get” what we’re doing here.  They are often show suspicion, entitlement or even worse–apathy toward our time and efforts at first.  Jamaica is a culture of contradictions and nuances–You’re teetering back and forth between the 1st world and the 3rd as you walk the street or have a conversation or speak on the phone or stand in line.  You will be harassed on the street; You will be asked point-blank for money or your name or if you “like to party?”  It’s odd, but this is Jamaica…TIJ (you’ll want to remember I said this for later).  Don’t worry–you’re won’t be doing it alone. At the end of our service, some of the things that really irked us in the beginning are comforting and things we’ll miss later.  Others still really really aggravate us.  I think that’s all part of the experience.  TIJ.

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2 Responses

  1. Dear Jesse and Josh,

    I began to learn about Jamaica by reading your blogs and enjoying your vivid photographs. I have now been in Jamaica for over three month, have completed Peace Corps training in Hellshire, Cumberland, Ewarton and Kingston, and am now settled into a post at the Montego Bay Marine Park Trust. My first article and photos on lionfish in Jamaican waters has been listed in The Doctor Bird for June 2010.

    Now it is time to start my own Jamaican blog and in some small way, try to carry on the vivid depiction of Peace Corps experiences in Jamaica that you have so movingly and powerfully recorded for two years.

    I want to thank you personally and on behalf of all who have read your blog entries and enjoyed your beautiful photographs. God speed and much success as your continue your educational ventures and life experiences.

    Sincerely,

    Forest

    Forest W. Redding, Jr.
    Peace Corps – Jamaica
    Group 81

  2. I would have to agree with Forest. I read your blog before I landed here, and now I am here in your Parish and have even met some of the community members and places that you have discussed in your blog. You are both amazing people and I am blessed to have met you. I will be sad when you leave, but know you both have many wonderful things waiting for you to do and see.. Thanks for posting a blog, its one of the best PC blogs hands down. See you over the 4th, I look forward to it.

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