Coming to Terms

One week has passed since our mid-service conference.  It has been almost one year since our last convocation.  Mid-service is an occasion to air frustrations and share small triumphs within a sympathetic group of people who have been there.  We also get to spend several days at a posh hotel in the world-class city of Bangkok on the Peace Corps dime, enjoying good food and partying with friends.  I decide I am too old for the party circuit (truth: no one asks).  Instead, I retreat to the room I share with another centenarian volunteer and fall asleep to Netflix streaming over my iPad.  We are paying dearly for the privilege, but the internet here works.

 

Prologue

I check my email and click on the latest issue of the Peace Corps Thailand weekly newsletter.  I am troubled by something I read, so I put Season 6 of Jack Bauer on hold and post a comment on our Facebook site.  This and subsequent events take place over the course of the next two weeks.

 

Did I Miss the Memo? – In Praise of Introverts

I confess I was somewhat offended when I ran across the following comment buried in Friday’s Khao Rai Sub Da Issue 258/ May 19, 2016.

Valuing our time and how we use it. We’ve had several discussions when together talking about how we spend our time at site. Some of those discussions have been focused on time spent on relationships (host families, counterparts, others in school, the SAO/Tessaban, the community) and time spent on “work” – the tasks that are part of the assignment).  This is a just a reminder that time spent on relationships is an essential part our work and is equally important to accomplishing our work tasks and mission.

In typical self-indulgent fashion I suddenly find myself wallowing in thoughts of ET-ing, [leaving early] but as I gaze over that looming precipice, I remind myself of my commitment to the students, teachers, school, and community I serve.

I was not aware that Peace Corps is a popularity contest in which the volunteer with the most Facebook friends at COS [close of service] wins.  Under the Agreement between the Governments of Thailand and the United States, Thailand subsidizes a good portion of the cost of stationing Peace Corps volunteers in their country.  Last I looked, there was no mention in the agreement that volunteers were sent here to “warm up the audience.”  Or did I misunderstand the analogy of the cracked pot [Parable of the Crack Pot: “Dude, you really crack me up!”].

Any person (even the social curmudgeon) who works hard at this job in a spirit of service, self-sacrifice, and respect for the people and the culture of Thailand leaves behind an impression of Americans and what our country stands for that our nation can be proud of.  Let’s agree to stipulate, borrowing the title of an ancient text: “I’m OK, You’re OK.”

Yes, the Peace Corps is the toughest job you’ll ever love.  And the glass is always half full.

 

Comments from volunteers follow.  A few are sympathetic.  Some miss my point.  Others think I am overreacting.  Am I taking a cheap shot?  Perhaps.  Bu it feels good.

 

The Main Event

I am on a roll now, I think.  I recommit to the op-ed piece that keeps running away from me.  I am carried away by the sound of my own words, so I have difficulty staying within the 800-word maximum.  After more than a week of rewrites and edits, I hit the target.  Pleased with myself, I email a copy to Peace Corps Thailand Headquarters for review before I post.

 

Hello [J],

     I would like to submit the following as an op-ed … .  Please advise.

Best,

Dennis

I also send a copy to a volunteer friend.

 

Hey [R],

What do you think?

[Note: Since I am not bound by the 800-word limit in my blog, I am restoring outtakes and comments to the draft.  Skip these parts if you choose.]

 

One Volunteer’s Perspective

By D.G. Pastore

“’The simple fact is, Mr. Ambassador, that the average Americans, …, are the best ambassadors a country can have,’ ….  ‘They are not suspicious, they are eager to share their skills, they are generous.’” – The Ugly American (1958)

 

Saturday morning and Kruu (Teacher) Beet and I meet for our first planning session of the new academic year.  She and I “co-teach” English at an elementary school in a small village in Thailand.  I am in my second and last year of service as a Peace Corps volunteer.

The good news: we are teaching all our classes together this term.  The bad news: the school has procured a new line of English textbooks.  It means months wasted poring over last year’s textbooks to improve on a year of learning by doing.  I am also not a fan.  Can we make this work?  I don’t ask.  “Let’s do it,” I say.  In English . . . still.  I know, right?

[Text restored]

     We are approaching sixty years since the publication in 1958 of the novel The Ugly American, by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer.  Most of us associate the term “Ugly American” with the actions of the U.S. Ambassador (Marlon Brando) in 1963 movie adaptation of the book.  In fact, the movie is a fusion of characters and story lines and even turns the title of the book on its head.  Yet both make clear that U.S. policymakers were failing to grasp the dynamic of Communist threat in Southeast Asia.  Instead of recognizing the success of small-scale, people to people partnerships with villagers on the ground, the U.S. was offering ineffective weapons systems and high visibility public infrastructure projects.  With few exceptions, our diplomats and embassy staff did not speak the local language.  They lived in luxury quarters, insulated from the living conditions of the mass of the native population.  They hobnobbed with government and social elites and did most of their shopping at American commissaries and PXs.  As a result, we were losing the battle for “hearts and minds” that was the Cold War.  Why don’t they like us?  What are we doing wrong?

     The American ambassador, Gil MacWhite [In the book – unlike the film – the ambassador is one of a handful of “heroes,” as is the “ugly” American.]: “If we cannot get Americans overseas who are trained, self-sacrificing, and dedicated, then we will continue losing in Asia.”  His prescription, in the form of a letter of resignation to his superiors at the State Department, reads like a job description of the quintessential Peace Corps volunteer.  Indeed, then Senator Kennedy had copies of the book sent to all of his Congressional colleagues.  In March 1961, now President Kennedy issued an executive order establishing the Peace Corps.  Congress passed The Peace Corps Act the following September.

     The book still resonates today and ought to be required reading for all Peace Corps volunteers.  At the top of the list of demands communicated to his state department bosses, the ambassador “… request[s] that every American (and his dependents) sent to [Asia] be required to be able to both read and speak [the local language].”  Specifically, MacWhite urges the State Department to provide every diplomat and embassy employee 12 weeks of foreign language training before they arrive in country.

     I agree with the ambassador in principle, but, as a Peace Corps volunteer with some experience, I would recommend an additional 4 weeks of language training in the vocabulary and expressions specific to the jobs volunteers will undertake.  Prospective English teachers, like me, would learn terms related to grammar and syntax, including expressions for directing and managing students in the classroom.

     This compares with the 108 hours over 10 weeks of language instruction we received during pre-service training (PST).  Our days were split between language instruction and orientation on Peace Corps policy and protocols, cultural and job specific matters, and practical exercises.  This left virtually no time at the end of each day for processing what we had learned about the language.

As an Army enlistee I took the basic German language course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.  After 2 years in Germany, I passed the language exam required of foreigners who wish to study at German universities.  Three years later I produced a 200-plus page master’s thesis in German.  I have taught English to Germans and German to Americans.  Today, more than forty years later, I read my weekly Der Spiegel with the same ease and speed as I do the Washington Post or The Economist.  But this is not about me.  It is a testament to the program and the skill of my instructors at Monterey.

I could not pass the equivalent exam in Thailand now or a year from now – actually I could not even read he questions.  While others have made great progress, I would wager that no volunteer here now could reach that bar.

Thing is, America knows how to teach foreign languages.  The Defense Language Institute and the Foreign Service Institute (which employs similar techniques) can serve as models.  They might not sell in today’s marketplace, but they work.  Many volunteers at mid-service question the impact of their service in their communities.  Some choose to leave.

[Comment]

     We are their project as much as they are ours.  This includes the Thai natives on headquarters staff, who train us, take care of our personal needs, and intervene for us occasionally; the homestay families who take us into their homes and share with us the intimacies of family life; our sponsors and co-workers on site; and the many anonymous villagers who have our backs.  All parties share in making this work.

Basic fluency would make our lives as volunteers so much easier and our interactions with residents of our host communities more fruitful and rewarding.  We belabor our students on the importance of being able to speak, read, write, and understand spoken English.  We should ask no less of ourselves.  Peace Corps volunteers, having learned Thai themselves, could adapt these methods for use at their sites.

As a member of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) – which includes the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore – the Thai government is keen to increase the English proficiency of its citizens. In a 2015 report the Education First Language Institute ranked Thailand 14th out of 16 Asian countries in English proficiency.  With free movement of labor within the 10 member AEC for workers in some professions and in the tourism industry, Thais will face increased competition for jobs requiring English.  Proficiency in English is more than a government priority.  It is a ticket to individual success.

Currently the Education Ministry requires that all students demonstrate proficiency in English, starting in the sixth grade with the first of several comprehensive assessments: the dreaded and oft maligned ONET.  [I think it is a pretty good test if the goal is conversational fluency by the end of Mateom (high school).]  Since the Government of Thailand underwrites a good portion of our stay here, we owe them the benefit of the doubt and should be prepared to teach students to this standard, using methods designed to get them there.  I have some ideas on how to do this. [Of course.]

Last week Kruu Beet relayed a comment she heard from a proctor: that our 6th graders were among the first to finish the English ONET last March.  Apparently, most could neither read nor understand the questions.  Like students before them, they acted rationally, knowing that “wrong answers will not count against you.”

[Comment: In writing this next paragraph, I think back to some of the techniques the previous year’s group of PCVs modeled for us in training.  I would characterize them as the game show versions of Pin-the Tail-on-the-Donkey, Whack-a-Mole, and Telephone-Tag.]

It is not enough that students be able to reproduce the English names of hundreds of everyday objects around them.  They have to learn to extract meaning from written and spoken sentences and to reproduce these themselves.

To be sure, there will always be the individual whose ambition takes flight on the trails of the turbulence we unleash as volunteers in our communities.  And any person who works hard at this job in a spirit of service, self-sacrifice, and respect for the people and the culture of Thailand leaves behind a legacy that our nation can be proud of.  But we can do better.

Which is just another way of saying: Peace Corps really is the toughest job you’ll ever love.  And the glass is always half full.  Still.

Mr. Pastore is a retired former economist with the U.S. Department of Commerce who currently serves as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rayong Province, Thailand.

 

[Text restored.  Not sure where it fits, but I really want to say this.]

And if proficiency in English is important in Thailand, it is essential to a rewarding life in America.  Can we stop arguing and just teach our young immigrants English in our schools –  using methods that work (as a former substitute I know a little bit about current practices in our public schools, and I am not impressed).  There is nothing like hearing someone speak colloquial, accent free English to lead you to assume that they are one of us (even if to them it feels like playacting at first – see Turing Test).  Who better to recruit for this job than returning PCVs who have learned to read, write, speak, and function in a foreign language themselves and have spent two years applying their knowledge and skills to teaching English to students at their sites.  If this sounds self-serving – it is.

 

A short time later I receive this response from headquarters.

Hi Dennis

Just including [G] since this kind of question falls under his authority. Will get back to you soon

[J]

 

The Fallout

From [R]:

I had a hard time understanding exactly what message you were trying to make.  It seems scattered.  First there’s your teaching, then your military and German training, then volunteers not knowing Thai, then ASEAN, then ONET and Thais learning English.

What one point do you want to make?

I reply:

That it is possible to teach volunteers to speak decent Thai. That we would do a better job all around. Primarily that we owe it to Thais to teach them what they want and need to know.  Otherwise what’s the point.

[R]:

then that message is lost.  I would be happy to work with you tomorrow to tighten it up.

 

And then it comes.  [G] has two concerns.  I am paraphrasing.

First, Peace Corps has given priority to spoken over written Thai because they feel that is sufficient to do the job.  Peace Corps also doesn’t have the budget of the Defense Department.  Besides, volunteers typically do not find themselves in situations where proficiency in the language can be the difference between life and death.  If you raise the issue publicly, Peace Corps will have to respond publicly.  This is the kind of thing you do after you have failed to get a hearing internally.  Why not start by addressing your specific concerns to me and the training staff.

Second, be careful not to offend the Thais.

Let’s keep talking.

     The momentum I felt this morning is gone.  I am stunned, feel my motives are under attack.  I respond (characteristically) without taking the time to reflect.

 

Hello [G],

This is my first response.  See what you think.

I get the message that I cannot submit the piece even with changes.

The changes I would be willing to make are those that you say denigrate the Thai’s.  My point with them is that they set the standard for their students and we should work with that.  Problem is, we don’t come close.  I have nothing but praise for the ONET.  Show me something better that does the job, not just something comparable.

So if there is a criticism it is with the PC.  I am not telling the PC how to run its program.  I am disputing the idea that spoken Thai is enough or that the level of Thai that we teach is sufficient to make us competent enough to help the Thais reach their language goals.  PC policy is PC policy.  I am not slamming the policy, just describing my experience.

So if PC stands by their policy on language training, then they must feel they are providing a service to Thais in the area of English language training.  How would PC describe the service?  Because the question is, who are we doing this for.  I have a suspicion that it is more for the volunteers to have their quality experience than to provide a bankable service to the Thais.  Sort of like the Wanderjahre concept in Germany, where students in the 19th century spent a couple of years travelling and experiencing the world after college before settling down to a career.

But I am not trying to change the PC from within.  I think that boat has already sailed.  And I would be surprised if anyone is willing to work with me on this other than to say, thank you for your interest but no thank you.  I submit my piece as “One Volunteer’s Perspective” and leave it at that.  If the PC feels it is doing the right thing I don’t see why they should have a problem with my piece.  If the PC is anxious that they are not doing enough or that they are not ready to defend the PC concept as it stands, then that is a PC problem, not mine.  I have no intention of destroying the PC.  Can one not have an opinion and share it?  In fact, there is no place (I believe) in the piece that I mention the language training we received.  Maybe by implication, but again, one person’s experience.  [I will take out the words, we can do better].  Actually I think I am pretty upbeat about PC in my piece.  I am certainly proud of being a member and the work we try to do.

The way I see it, we (PC and I) have our ideas.  I am sure PC is not open to discussion with me.  Which is fine.  That’s not my point.  But if they are afraid of my ideas to the point of fearing that they cannot defend their own position, then, I don’t know.  I am prepared to take criticism if it comes.  I just don’t think criticism from someone on the inside ruling my piece out of order because PC has already decided on what it wants to do is what should count as a give and take discussion.

So, as I said.  I am fully prepared to take anything out that might give offense to the Thais.  That is not my intention at all.  If PC is afraid that my piece will make the Thais wonder why they are paying money to host the PC if the PC is not working for them, then say that.

I would be happy to fix the Thai stuff before submitting.  If there are other concerns, please be specific.

If this will get me fired or dishonorably discharged or sent home in shame I obviously will not submit the piece for publication.

Dennis

To [R]:

I’m happy with it the way it is.  In any case, looks like [G] is against publishing.

 

I decide further explanation is in order

To [R]:

I am in a very bad mood right now from hearing from [H].

My point with your criticism is that I am writing an OpEd piece that can have no more than 800 words.  I could make it sound like an office memo (“Things I would change”) and be quite specific, but I don’t think that would pass muster with the editors of the [paper].  But maybe you’re right.

In any case, it was apparently specific enough for [J] and [G] that [G] does not want it out.

To my son and his husband:

Hey Guys,

Our office director doesn’t want to let me publish the piece.  Here is his response.  I will follow with mine.  The piece is attached.  What do you think?

But first …

This is me shooting myself in the foot as always.  I start by learning the job.  Then I look at my customers and ask how I could better serve them.  Then I say why I don’t think we are serving our customers well and present ideas how to fix it.  And then I get shut out, kicked out, or never hired again.

Seems to me, if I had any self-respect, I would be entrepreneurial and take my product on the road.  Thing is, I then start to think of what a lousy shit I am, that I would fail, go out on my own, sabotage myself, and end up in the gutter.  No money, no friends, no supporters, afraid to ask for help, all potential supporters having their own agendas that I would not see at first until it was too late and did me in.  This is why I am who I am.

Just thought I would share that insight.

Love you,

Dad

Later that day I receive a response from [G].  Again, I paraphrase.

Thanks for being sensitive to the reputation of the Thai government and the education system.

Why do you think that PC has locked the door on talking about language training?  As far as I know, this is the first time you’ve raised the issue, at least with me.

And don’t underestimate the impact volunteers have on helping to change the system.  I know from 30 plus years in international development, that institutions and practices in the countries we work with change slowly.  As you know, Peace Corps has three goals:

[I quote these from https://www.peacecorps.gov/about/%5D

1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained Volunteers.

2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans

Last I heard, PC feels pretty confident about the contribution we make here.  At the same time, we do not pretend to be a corps of professional language teachers.

I don’t think you have to worry about being sent home for publishing.  [Comment: He will not take the bait and let me manipulate him into pushing me into a corner.]  PC does not work that way.  I base this on some years of experience, first as volunteer and now as country director.  And the Thai government is not going to care about your beef with Peace Corps.

The decision to try to publish is yours.

I welcome further discussion.

To [G]:

Thanks, [G].  I will edit for the Thais and send you the revision for comment before doing anything.

I will also put together my specific ideas about training.  I have mentioned some of these in various forums, but I always get dead silence.  I expect you will feel the same way.  Point is, I do not expect us to be professional language teachers.  We learn how to teach a language if we are taught well when we learn a language.  The quality, methods, model of language training (of volunteers) is the template for volunteers as teachers.  That’s how I got my start, and then (I think) I kept getting better at it.

 

I don’t sleep well that night.  The arguments and counterarguments rattle about in my head.  And like ball bearings in a can of paint, they keep my mind from settling.  I look at my phone.  3:00 am.  At last, a civilized hour.  I set my iPhone to stream WAMU and All Things Considered live (I love the time differential here).  I have breakfast (two banana muffins from the Tesco, an apple, two cups of Nescafe), then I read the morning’s Washington Post (published before I went to bed the night before) on my iPad.  I shower and work on my lessons.

I also pack an overnight bag for Bangkok.  [R] is returning to the States the next morning, and I want to see him off.  His father is quite ill.  Rather than return to Thailand after waiting out the inevitable, [R] has decided to just ET, stay home.  Friday is a short day for me at school anyway.  Kruu Beet will drive me into town after lunch so I can catch the rot dtuu (van) to Bangkok.

Before leaving for school I compose an email to [G].

Hello [G],

Thanks for your patience and thoughtful responses.

I am going to let this thing go before it starts to take over my thinking.  It all comes back to the anger and disappointment that the PC language training was a complete waste of time for me.  This coming from someone who has been on both sides of the desk.  No point in going on about this.  You (one) only get it if you get it.  The only way I could convince anyone that you could do a much better job even within the confines of the program is to actually show it.  In other words, design the training and take people through it and compare their satisfaction and progress with a group who went through the program I went through or one similar.

The anger comes from the fact that I was so much looking forward to learning the language – just as much as I wanted to do the teaching.  Without competence in the language I feel like I am forced (yes, forced.  Not my choice) to work with one hand tied behind my back.  Which I can do, but not without seeing the missed opportunities for my students and my co-teacher.

While I love my work and the concept of the PC, I feel that this particular program (Thailand) has let me down.  I know all programs are different, so I will not condemn the language training in PC in general.

So thanks for hearing me out.  But I want to move on and get back to work.

Best,

Dennis

A short time later [G] replies.  I paraphrase.

I get it.  The title fits: one volunteer’s experience.  We all experience training differently.  As a volunteer I too was unhappy with aspects of the training.  Eventually, I too moved on.

Keep in mind that our American and local staff here are very conscientious in the work we do.  We are always trying to improve the way we train and support our volunteers.  We will take your comments into consideration for the next round.

And don’t despair.  Students will appreciate what you are able to do for them.  Ask them 5 to 10 years from now what they got from having you in their community.  I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

I really am an unmitigated shit.

I apparently misdirected that last email I sent to [R].  In a curious lapse, I end up sending it to a different “R” by mistake.  I will call him “D.”

Dennis

Don’t think I was supposed to get this email, but it’s nice to hear from you anyway.

All is well here with me and Linda. Look forward to reacquainting next summer.

Be strong!

[D]

     As it turns out, [D] is a classmate from high school as well as a former Peace Corps volunteer.  Not so bad.  He will understand.

To [D]:

Thanks for letting me know. As you can see not much changes in life. I too am looking forward to next summer.

Best,

Dennis

     I pack my books and ride my bike to school.  After our first two classes, Kruu Beet asks if there is something bothering me.  As usual we speak in English.  I explain that I am angry over the response to the OpEd.  Maybe I explain too much.  I am already regretting my remarks.  But she doesn’t really understand everything I am saying, right?  Or maybe she misunderstands, which could be a lot worse.  In the moment, I am happy I speak shitty Thai.

 

The Reckoning: Part 1

I think back on the way my senior year in high school ended, with the Franciscan fathers “asking” me to leave the high school/seminary one month before graduation.

On this warm Sunday afternoon in early April, a bunch of seniors decide to head down to the lake.  That is how we refer to the pool of water backed up against a dam, located about 100 yards below the main seminary buildings, at the foot of a long slope of land we knew well from the ritual potato harvests we “volunteered” for each fall.

A handful of seminarians from other classes have the same idea.  There are those who have been yearning days like this to begin working on our tans.  We are well aware that the sun can erase those winter outbreaks of acne we attribute to the penchant of our German nuns to season their recipes with liberal portions of oils and fats.

I remember a mostly (i.e., totally) academic discussion comparing the female sexual response to that of males.  Seems like we males drew the short straw.  A couple of underclassmen hijack a rowboat lying upside down and unsecured on the sand beach and head out to park themselves in the middle of the still reservoir.  A couple of us get up to toss around a football.  Father G gave notice at lunch that the water in the lake is still too cold.  We would have to wait until May for the official start of the swimming season.

My back to the lake, I watch the football sail over my head and splash down on the other side of the swimming pier where it floats out of reach.  Thus begins a race to retrieve the ball.  One student runs to the dock with a loose oar to nudge the football to within reach.  The crew of the rowboat turns about and heads in the direction of the stranded ball.  I take a running leap through the muddy shallows and dive into the water [Hey, it’s not that cold!] to be first at the scene.  This is not part of the plan, but under the circumstances I feel I will get a pass on this.

Turns out, I have taken the lesson of Rosa Parks too personally.  That evening after dinner the prefect calls for all students who went swimming that afternoon to report to his office.  About six of us make our way upstairs after dinner.  I should just accept the set of restrictions G pronounces, like the time MB and I were late to the bus for the ride back from Louisville.  We are thinking it would be totally cool to saunter down a deserted “Two-Bit Alley” in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, flipping quarters, in the hope of attracting the attention of some “loose” women (we were actually thinking girls).  We got two weeks.

But I sense there was a bigger issue at stake here.  “Father, I didn’t go swimming.  I went into the water to get the football.  I don’t think I deserve the punishment.  In fact, I feel I should ignore it.”

“Mr. Pastore.”  Father G tightens the cincture all Franciscan friars wear around their wastes, causing the beads of his rosary to chatter in response.  “If you choose to disregard this punishment, I will have you kicked out of here before you can bat an eye.”

I am convinced, with the passion of youth, that my integrity is on the line.  “Then go ahead, Father.”

I end up repeating this story many times over the next several months to mom and dad, and family and friends to explain why I will be graduating as a(n honorable) member of the Class of 1967 at Owen J. Roberts High School in Pottstown, PA.  [I later receive my real diploma from the seminary in the mail.]

Oh, yeah.  There may be another reason the friars in chapter make the decision to send me home.  A few weeks before, my editorial attacking a magazine solicitation for donations to a Franciscan shrine in Dayton, Ohio appeared in our monthly student publication, The Chronicle.  A priest from the province writes a letter calling me a nihilist.  At the time I don’t know the meaning of the word.  I do now.

 

The Reckoning: Part 2

I arrive in Bangkok later that afternoon in turmoil over the events of the last two days.  I meet [R] at the hotel.  He has booked a room in luxury hotel just one stop away on the BTS from Victory Monument, right were the inner-city BTS intersects with the airport connector.  The place is luxury by any standard but at Thailand (i.e., bargain) prices.  [R] has decided to splurge during his last week in Thailand for the pre-departure medical evaluation and exit interviews.  Convenient as it is, he will have to be at the airport next morning before the connector begins service.  The taxi fare will be the final – unplanned – extravagance.

We take the BTS to the Italian restaurant we discovered in the Nana district last time we were in the city.  I ask about his father, his decision to ET rather than to return, what he will do once he arrives home.  When the time comes to order, I decide on pizza – same as last time.  I am not fussy eater, but I also don’t seek out variety when I can get something I already know I’ll love.  [R] is more adventuresome, orders sea bass and vegetables in some kind of Italian sauce.

“Your leaving,” I remark, “makes me the oldest volunteer here.”  He gets the joke and smiles.  [I have waited a week to play this card.  [R] turned 60 this past year.  I am, well … . Do the math – 5-5-5.]

I still can’t put the OpEd thing behind me.  I relate the following story, over a shared order of fried squid while we wait for our orders to arrive.

     When I was at Monterey we had this German instructor, Herr S–, who at the time was probably in his mid-60s (my age now).  From our first meeting with him, he became our favorite instructor.  A wiry man and, full of energy – he knew how to jump-start a class.  His eyes would land and fix on you like exclamation points before jumping to the next person.  Expansive gestures underscored a deep voice, clear as a bell and rich with inflection.  With the presence and timing of a classical actor Herr S– played to the audience.

     But he also had a drinking problem, and (only) occasionally would show up for class impaired but still coherent.  We wouldn’t get much done during that one-hour period.  [They rotated teachers through our classes, so we never had the same instructor more than once on the same day.]

     I say we didn’t get much work done during that hour.  Or did we?  He told us stories of the time he spent as an officer in the German army during WWII.  Of course, everything he said was in a German that we could all understand.  At certain points in the story he would pause – you could see tears welling in his eyes – and continue in voice mixed with anger and regret.

     Hitler … .  The name hung in the air.  He ruined Germany.  He took everything, destroyed everything.  He crushed our lives and erased our futures.  Herr S– struggled for a moment to compose himself.  Remained silent.

     I tell [R] that I feel the same way about my volunteer experience in Thailand.  Thai was going to be the payback, dammit, and I missed out and would never experience Thailand from the inside.  [In case you are wondering, I realize the comparison trivializes the German experience of WWII.]

[R] has his own regrets (https://rich1019.wordpress.com/).  He is a retired landscape architect who worked in Albany for the State of New York overseeing construction and renovation projects on state park lands in the Adirondack region.  He regrets his decision to accept the appointment to the YinD (youth development) program with Peace Corps Thailand.  It is a job he has felt unsuited for.  He recalls getting to know a Peace Corps couple stationed at a national park in the south of Chile.  At the time, [R] was a college student working on a senior research project there.  But he had already waited a year and a half for a Peace Corps posting, hoping for that kind of opportunity to open up.  With nothing on the horizon, he took the youth development job.

 

It is next morning, and on the ride home, I think about what [G] said about making Thai teachers look incompetent.  I should make clear that I have nothing but admiration and respect the English teachers I have met and worked with.

Thailand is in the process of bootstrapping a generation of students into English proficiency – even if it has to do this alone.  Most teachers have learned English in Thai schools and universities, but few have had the opportunity to study or work in an English-language country.  Their ability to speak English generally is not strong (this is the hardest part for anyone trying to learn a language), but most of them read and understand spoken English fairly well.

I recall sitting on the beach the summer my freshman year at college reading Exodus, by Leon Uris.  Jewish settlers in Palestine during the early 20th century made the very bold decision to adopt Hebrew as the language of the settlement movement.  There was one small problem.  Like Latin, Hebrew had survived for centuries primarily as a language of ritual.  Hardly anyone could speak it and few believed it was possible to adapt a long “dead” language for use in the modern age.  Most would have preferred sticking with Yiddish or Russian or Polish.  But this was a matter of historical and cultural principle with them.  They eventually succeeded, though not without much personal anguish.

I think of the millions of American immigrants, leaving behind their native countries and languages for a new kind of life that required them to learn a strange new language, without the benefit of free language tutors and often in the face of strong local prejudice, if not outright resistance.

I make no claim to being able to fathom the experience of African Americans seeking release from the institution of slavery, only to face a long and continuing struggle for civil rights.  But they too faced the challenges unprepared, motivated by nothing more than a burning desire to escape oppression.  “I have a dream,” Dr. Martin Luther King says, not a plan.

When I did my student teaching in western Massachusetts, I tried to get my American History students to stand by their desks, one by one, and repeat the Rev. Jessie Jackson’s call out to supporters during his campaign for president: My name is [insert name], and “I … AM … SOME … BODY!”  This was during the spring of 2008 when another candidate for president was energizing his followers with the words, “Yes We Can!”  Just a few say it like they mean it.  I note at the end of my lesson plan under Teacher’s Reflections: Needs more work.

Finally, I return to a favorite of mine from Robert Kennedy:

 

There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?

Not “Follow me,” but “Why not:” an open ended question that leaves room for each of us make a contribution – or not.

Why not

 Who says we can’t

 We have a dream

 WE ARE SOMEBODY

 Yes, we can

 So just fucking do it, man!

      These are more than just mantras we use to goad ourselves to act.  Americans are born talking like this.  We carry ourselves wherever we are in the world as if these sentiments describe our birthright as human beings.  And we take it personally.  If these are the kinds of attitudes we model – each in our own inimitable way – and leave behind as Peace Corps volunteers, that is good enough.

Definition of a public good:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

― John Donne

     When I used to come home from the seminary for vacations, at Christmas and every summer, I remember how changed everything had become.  The rooms, the furniture, even my parents seemed smaller.  They also were more fun to talk to.  They had matured.  They were reasonable.  They were even kind of cool.  I figured they must be on the same track, learning the same things I was learning at school.  I noticed that the whole world was changing, and it was beginning to look just like me.

Over the years, as I went through long periods of stagnation and depression, people and the world stopped changing.  I backed into a life of simple patterns and repeating cycles.  At first I thought there was something wrong with me.  I missed the rush and flow of epiphanies.  Eventually I would write those sensations off as optical illusions, artifacts of coming of age.

Albert Einstein was in the habit of using thought experiments to clarify his thinking on difficult theoretical problems in physics.  In one experiment, he decided that a space traveler accelerating toward the speed of light would age more slowly than, say, a twin who remained on earth.  [Please don’t hold me to specifics here.]

With the Peace Corps, I find myself in the thick of things again, moving along at an accelerated pace, on a wing and a prayer and an honest day’s work.  And I wonder: What happens when the space traveler returns to earth.  What happens when a person

 

STOPS

M o v  i  n  g   ?

 

 And I wonder:

Will the same

opportunities for growth

be waiting for me

when I return?

 

I am gazing out the window of the van on the way back to Rayong, and it occurs to me that we are all unprepared, working from incomplete information, on a dubious mission to create a thing of beauty, something whole, from the materials available to us in this moment.  We do not all succeed, but we try.

I open my iPad to continue reading from The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh.  This is book I learned about recently hearing the authors discuss their work on the Diane Rehm show.  [I hope this doesn’t sound too contrived.  This is actually the way it happened.]  The authors are discussing the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Mencius (327-289 BC).

Yet because we often think of ourselves as being a certain, stable way, we confine ourselves to certain past roles.  If you think of yourself as the sympathetic type, for instance, you might be uncomfortable being overtly interventionist – even if you can see that’s what your friend really needs at the moment – because it’s just not who you are.  It falls outside the pattern of how you usually behave.  You might think, Well, another friend can push her to see a doctor/call the lawyer/confront her coach.  I’ll just listen.

But defining yourself as “who you are” limits your sensitivity to the entire situation, the breadth of the response you can give, and the goodness you alone can show.

In order to sense the whole context before making a decision in an endlessly shifting world, you need to train your emotions.  You need to learn what it means to think of decisions in terms of a complex self and a complex world and complex trajectories that can go in multiple directions.

Mencius believed that the only way to cultivate a full awareness of the complexity of situations is by cultivating your ability to understand how our actions can lead to positive trajectories.  And he believed we are all born with the potential to do so: a potential for goodness.

     In college I fell in love with existentialism, the writings of Jean Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus, and Soren Kierkegaard.  Sartre in particular caught my imagination me with his description of human beings as puddles of nothingness lurking within the expanse of being.  The concept is similar to the phenomenon of black holes.  Like the black hole, human beings ravenously consume all that is around them in an effort to fill the emptiness.  In that state of pure possibility, we frantically leap from one possibility to another in a desperate effort to become “something.”  The suspicion that we are fully free in our choices causes Angst, “nausea,” a “Sickness Unto Death.”  This appealed to me as a college freshman because I desperately wanted to be someone else, and the idea that my identity was nothing at all, made it possible for me to imagine a future in which I could be the person I wanted to be.

So, how’s that working out for you, Big Guy?  Quick response: Not so much.

     Now I find Chinese writer who lived more than 2000 years ago, who shared my concerns about becoming the person I want to be but who is coming at it from a completely different perspective.  Sticking with analogy from cosmology, Mencius imagined each one of us as a universe unto ourselves exploding onto the scene with a bang, containing the fullness of possibilities for life within us.  This feels more natural, certainly more like real life.  Instead of a life spent in forced pursuit of possibilities outside of yourself, in a desperate rush to explore as much as you can, Mencius tells us to turn inward.  You already have everything you need.  If you play it deftly, with circumspection and self-critical reflection, you really can become the hero of your own life story.

You just need to get some PUSSY, Dude!  Yeah.  That too.

     But the great JPS didn’t have any problems in that area.  And Camus was a real Mensch.  True, Heidegger spent the postwar years alone in his cabin in the Black Forest.  But there was Hannah Arendt.  And Kierkegaard?  Well, okay.  Maybe the Dane.

I change my mind about the OpEd.  I am thinking, like, after all this effort, seems a waste to have it end up in the trash.  So I work out a new strategy.

And I start to wonder if [G] is reading the same book.

And I really can’t wait to get home.

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About Dennis Pastore

Dennis Pastore serves with the Peace Corps in the Ban Khai district, Rayong province, of Thailand helping to teach English to elementary and middle school students at Wat Huanghin School. A former economist with the Economics and Statistics Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce, he has also taught history and German as a foreign language at high schools in Maryland and Massachusetts.
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