Definition: Peace Corps site placements that lack the stereotypical hardships of service. Sites with: running water, electricity, internet, washers and dryers, indoor plumbing and/or hot water.
Among volunteers this term can be loaded, implying that a volunteer is not suffering enough to earn real PCV status. For this reason, I’d like to break apart this Peace Corps stereotype in light of what it means for the host nationals we intend to serve, PCVs, and people at home who may be unaware how the needs of the countries we serve reflect the type of work and lifestyle that volunteers will lead while they are abroad.
As a volunteer in a middle-class community of educated professionals, I count myself among those who are in “posh corps” placements. At times I’ve felt that I would let people at home down if they knew how much I wasn’t suffering in Ecuador, like Peace Corps seemed to promise that I would. Or that, frankly, my family would not support my being here if my placement were not “hard enough”. I signed up for worldwide service; yet here I am, working and enjoying some amenities common to the US, just like the population of teachers I work with. I am as guilty as anyone for believing my experience would be like the posters, something like a very rainy season on M*A*S*H with fewer martinis, and English teaching instead of surgery. It is nothing like I imagined, except for the teaching part. Also, there’s a lot more rum and zhumir here than gin. This may be a sign that recruitment propaganda is in need of an overhaul.
Needless to say, I was uneducated about Ecuador and the TEFL program. In itself an important reason to come, to expel provincial ideas about the world that I maintained unknowingly. Volunteers live at the level of the people in their community with the goal that they will integrate into that community allowing them to share their expertise with the host nationals who request them. In the countryside, they may have an outdoor toilet and they might live in the home with the family for their entire service. It all depends on how the people they work with live, and the cultural expectations of the community. On the other hand, I live in an apartment in a mid-sized city. I continue to eat with my Ecuadorian family, but I have the option to eat at home. I have hot water and a bath tub. On weekdays, I go to work in heels and a suit jacket, just like I did in the US.
Among PCVs, enduring hardship to serve comes in various forms and can be self-inflicted. There are volunteers who bathe in cold water though they have hot water available, or who do laundry by hand regardless of having access to a washing machine. The idea being that suffering is a requirement to be a dedicated volunteer. It’s worth reflecting on why the notion exists that hardship is part and parcel to sharing information with the people we live and work with. Without going too far into murky waters, it seems to be rooted in nostalgia for the 1960s and reflects a paternalistic ideal of the world beyond US borders. Though I worked with struggling communities in the US, I never once felt that I should hand wash my clothes or take a cold shower to better serve their needs. I ask, how would host nationals interpret this motivation to go abroad to endure hardship? If the shoe were on the other foot, how would I feel if someone came to visit me and decided to camp on my lawn because my house was nicer than they expected it to be?
In short or long, being a volunteer is about sharing skills and learning new skills from our communities. There are difficulties inherent to integrating and working abroad; we are people from distinct cultures, languages, and ideologies, and it’s work to build friendships and working relationships in spite of these differences. Yes, I’ve taken a few bucket baths when the water was out. I’ve done this at home in Colorado, too. Thankfully, the world is a different place than it was in the 1961 and the work we do has evolved according to the needs expressed by the countries who host volunteers. There isn’t a “posh corps” so much as there are volunteers who fulfill the requests for skills in a variety of communities, like we always have. The reality that we are serving in increasingly better off communities may just mean that soon we’ll be out of a job, like we hoped.