A Call to Peaceful Action

I returned from twenty-eight months as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic at the end of November. A few weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, I went to a family party in Austin where everyone happened to be Indian or Indian American.

As I chatted about my life and service with the other guests, it occurred to me that this was the largest number of people of my own heritage I’d seen in months. Obviously, in my assigned rural Dominican village of some 1,300 people,  anyone who knew anything about South Asia were few and far between. And as for the other 200-plus Americans serving in the DR with me, well…let’s just say that in the little over two years I spent there, I only encountered two others that were Indian American.

The Peace Corps, which in 2011 celebrated 50 years of its work promoting world peace and friendship, sends Americans to live and work in developing communities around the world. Today, there are 257 Peace Corps Volunteers of Asian and Pacific Islander descent serving in 58 countries.

One of the key purposes of joining Peace Corps is that we share our experiences once we get back. It’s important that I share them with everyone, but I’m beginning to think that South Asian Americans especially might find the lessons of Peace Corps life particularly compelling.

So here are “Five Reasons Why South Asian Americans Should Look Into the Peace Corps.”

Caption: The author, standing far right, with three girls from her assigned community (and another American Peace Corps Volunteer!) at a national conference for girls’ empowerment groups in the Dominican Republic.>

Number One: It’s an opportunity to help people. (Ok, this isn’t specific to South Asians.) After graduation, take that expensive college degree for a test drive in the real world. Peace Corps Volunteers work in community development fields like business, education, applied technologies, health, agriculture and environment. As a youth development promoter, my projects included forming and managing girls’ empowerment groups, reading classes, and a team of teenage HIV/AIDS awareness promoters, to name a few. My village, though low on resources,  was positively teeming with bored, curious kids who wanted to be around me. It was my job to show them that there was plenty to do in their own neighborhood – things that were not only educational and fun, but that would make adults take them more seriously as citizens. Ever used a game of soccer to teach illiterate children about healthy decision-making? Neither had I, until Peace Corps!

Changing the world isn’t an abstraction exclusive to beauty pageant contestants and rich, old philanthropists to discuss on TV. It’s a real thing, and it calls for your smarts and sweat. There are myriad ways to serve your country and work for good in the world – from offering your finance skills to farmers running a coffee cooperative, to leading a group of women in reclaiming their self-esteem, all the way to teaching a third-grader about the Internet. Instead of throwing money at a problem, try throwing yourself.

Number Two: It’s your chance to show the world how diverse America (and even Texas) is. It’s one thing to talk about and promote diversity at workshops and events. It’s another thing entirely to be the only American in a small village in a developing country. In the DR, I came across people who had never met an American in their lives, and a brown one at that. Many people you meet will compare you to what they know of the USA from Chuck Norris movies. It will force you to think about what being American really means to you, and about how to change your new friends’ misconceptions through conversation and action.

Number Three: It’ll expand your cultural understanding beyond just South Asia. So just because you go to (insert country here) every two years to visit your grandparents, or you speak (insert language here) at home, you think you know something about the world?

Yes, living in a small village in the Caribbean for two years was not a total shock because I’d traveled to India every other summer. But there was still so much I experienced in my two years of service that proved to me that the world, despite access to advancing technology, is still a vast, beautiful and mysterious place. I spent my spare time reveling and musing among people who dance as easily as they breathe, and who believe in the power of witches and curses. Even the almighty Wikipedia can’t improve your depth of cultural knowledge and sensitivity like being a Peace Corps Volunteer can. Side note: I’ve taken up Carnatic music since my return, finding that I had a renewed interest in Indian culture after being immersed in another for so long.

Number Four: It’ll give you a new respect for your parents’ immigration to a different country. Surviving in another language, adjusting to new foods and climates, exploring another culture, making friends, working hard…all this may sound familiar to someone close to you. I never thought I would live in a place where the whole neighborhood pitches in to help build your house, where mangoes grow so abundantly they roll in the streets, and where extended power outages are routine. It’s an adventure in the truest sense, starting a new – if temporary – life in another country.

Number Five: It’ll look awesome on your résumé. If (when!) you become a Peace Corps Volunteer, you’ll find that this is actually the least important of the perks.

Consider doing something different after graduation. Do some research into the Peace Corps. In commemoration of the day President Kennedy signed the Peace Corps into creation, Peace Corps Week falls on February 24 through March 2. Visit peacecorps.gov, find the campus recruiter’s office, seek out current and returned Volunteers. There are plenty of people – myself included – who would love for you to join us in action.

Picture attribution: Sarayu Adeni


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