Race and the “stage of love”: Melanie Cheng on her experiences in Peace Corps Morocco. Part 4: Peace Corps culture.

Could you describe to me the Peace Corps culture (in Morocco)? I know you talk a lot about your “stage” (the volunteer group with which Cheng trained and arrived in Morocco). When I came (to Ksar El Kbir), (I realized) you guys really feel like a family, with all the inside jokes, they way you were cooking together, everyone’s cleaning up, everyone’s helping each other. I’m wondering how that developed, and if it’s a specifically “Morocco” thing.

I think that it’s Peace Corps worldwide, because I’ve had other friends who’ve done Peace Corps, and they become very close to their training groups. We call our training groups here in Morocco “stages.” It’s a French word. In Morocco, at least recently, the stages have been really big. (My stage) started with 95 people.

But (Peace Corps) is a difficult experience.

They say Peace Corps is the hardest job you’ll ever love. I think that’s true in a lot of ways. It’s very challenging to live in a new country where, coming in, you know very little about the culture, the people, the language, all of it. It’s hard to be thrown into this foreign situation and be expected to do meaningful community work. A lot of people I know are the only Americans at their site, for example, and so it can be a very isolating experience. Because of that, Peace Corps volunteers become very close, because you lean on each other for support.

What’s really great about Peace Corps Morocco is they have a phone plan for us, where we can call each other and talk for an unlimited amount of time… In Peace Corps, you’re going to have your highs and lows. It can be really nice to call a friend and talk to them for an unlimited amount of time, and not have to worry about how much money you’re spending on recharge.

Peace Corps stages tend to be really supportive of each other, because we understand how difficult it can be to be a Peace Corps volunteer, how frustrating it can be, trying to get projects off the ground but facing all these obstacles. A lot of projects I’ve done that I’m most proud of, I would not have been able to do without the help of other Peace Corps volunteers.

My stage, though, I feel is a little bit different. We call ourselves the “stage of love,” and I think it’s because we truly do connect with each other in a different way than other stages do. There is a lot of genuine love in our stage. It’s the stage of love.

Could you tell me more about your highs and lows?

Peace Corps produced this chart, the “Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment.” Peace Corps has done all this research into when (Peace Corps volunteers) typically experience highs and lows, and why they experience them at different times in their service. For example, when you first start your Peace Corps service, you’re excited and start out with a high, but then over time you go down. In the first three or four months it starts to go down because you’re running into frustrations and difficulties with language, and culture and all this other stuff. You’re starting to miss home. You’re back up again a little while later because you become more confident as you start to figure things out, and as you become more confident in your language.

At about the year mark, it hits another low. In my particular stage, a lot of people left Morocco. I think it’s because at about a year, you start to evaluate your life. You look over the last year you spent in Morocco, or wherever you’re serving. Some people realize they’re not doing what they want to be doing, or they feel they’re not meeting the goals they set out to accomplish, joining Peace Corps, and so they leave.

Where we (Cheng’s stage) are in our cycle is the end. Next week, people are going to start leaving. I’ve been here for over two years now. According to this Peace Corps cycle – and I think a lot of people are experiencing this, myself included — (we are experiencing… a low in (our) service because (we are starting) to say goodbye to people, and (we are) panicking about life after Peace Corps.

I think a lot of people in my stage are experiencing a bit of a low right now, trying to figure out post-Peace Corps life, trying to wrap up loose ends here, scrambling to do last-minute projects or trying to accomplish the goals they set out to do, before we close our service.

There are some days you’re really, really high, such as when a project goes particularly well or you accomplish something. Then there are some days – Ramadan, for example, can be a really difficult time for volunteers, because they feel isolated, and especially because here, in our service, Ramadan has taken place during the hottest part of the summer.

What has shaken your confidence the most? Have you had any daunting experiences?

I’ve been very fortunate in my Peace Corps service. I’ve done everything I wanted to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to be placed in a site where there is a lot of work, a lot of need, and a lot of really great local counterparts to work with. My Peace Corps service has been filled with a lot more highs than lows.

I would say, though, now that I’m transitioning from being a Peace Corps volunteer to going back to the working world, my confidence has been a little bit shaken. As a Peace Corps, volunteer, I’ve become very confident in my abilities. People would come to me and be like, “I want to do an event on HIV/AIDS.” I don’t know anything about HIV/AIDS, but I could be like, “Oh, yeah, I’ll help you, I’ll do the research, I’ll help them.” As a Peace Corps volunteer, people look to you to be the “expert.” They assume you know a lot more than you do, and you figure it out.

But, you can only fake it so long. Now that I’m looking into jobs and trying to apply, I’m starting to realize I don’t have as much experience as I wish I had, or I don’t have experience in the right things. My future is making me feel insecure because I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know where I’m going to end up. It kind of makes me question the work that I have done here. “Did I do enough?” Or, “I should have done more of this type of work,” or, “I wish I had done that.” A lot of that just stems from insecurity about the future, though. That’s weighing pretty heavily on my mind right now, and I’m sure on the minds of everybody else in my stage who’s about to leave.

For more of this interview, visit:

Part 1: Summer in Tazarine, a ghost town full of watermelon patches.

Part 2: Exercise classes in a Moroccan village.

Part 3: Cheng explains that not every Asian in Morocco is a Chinese national.

Part 5: Cheng’s not frickin’ saving babies, you guys!

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