Race and the “stage of love”: Melanie Cheng on her experiences in Peace Corps Morocco. Last Part: Cheng’s not frickin’ saving babies, you guys!

What kind of opportunities are you looking for?

My education, work and volunteer background, it’s all related to working in the public sector. I would be happiest working for the government, an NGO, research facilities, research in social and economic policies. Ideally, I would want to work for an organization that dealt with social and economic development, or progressive social and economic opportunities for underprivileged or underserved populations.

Do you think that having worked in this sort of situation makes you more averse to taking on a 9-to-5, or some other traditional job setting?

Honestly, I think the opposite, at least for me. Not that I can’t work in an unstructured environment – case in point, Peace Corps – but I prefer to work in a more structured environment. I miss having the 9-to-5. I miss knowing that I have regular hours. I miss that routine.

You talked a little about accomplishing the goals you wanted to accomplish at your site. What were some of those goals?

I really wanted to focus on working with women and girls, which I’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of. One of the projects I definitely wanted to do was organize a girls’ empowerment camp. We had our camp in January, and it went really well. We had 70 girls attend. We had girls coming from other towns.

One of the goals of Peace Corps is to provide technical training to host country nationals. I’ve been lucky enough to find a lot of really competent counterparts that are great leaders in the community. What was important to me was that (in) a lot of work I did with them, I didn’t want to necessarily be the person organizing, being in charge. I wanted to support them in whatever projects or activities they wanted to do. I was able to take them to different trainings, to give them the skills and knowledge to lead these activities on their own after I’m gone. With the counterparts I have, they can do the work that I’m doing without me now. It’s how it should be.

In Tazarine, I feel like we don’t actually need Peace Corps volunteers (anymore), because the people who are living and working in Tazarine can do the work that we do.

And so with the girls’ empowerment camp, empowerment toward which fields?

This was a very broad camp, as far as (its) goals. All of the girls that came were between the ages of 14 and 24’ we wanted to restrict the girls to be high school aged, but in Morocco, some girls don’t start school until later in life, because they don’t have access to education until then. We wanted to provide a space for them to discuss topics that are important to females. For example, we had a session about sexual harassment. It’s something that every girl experiences here in Morocco, but it’s not talked about.

We also did (talked about) what types of things you’re going to go through in adolescence, how the reproductive system works, and the physical, mental and emotional changes that people go through from adolescence into early adulthood. It’s stuff that is important to talk about, but it’s stuff they’re not [being taught].

We also did… life skills and leadership-type activities. We did a whole beauty and self-confidence workshop, where they [also] did skills identification. The whole point of the camp was for them to realize [that] there are a lot of different opportunities for girls out there that they may not be aware of, and that they’re not confined to living in a small town. All these girls come from really small towns, and it’s typical for them to never leave.

The whole point of the camp was for them to realize that they have a lot to offer. Even if they never leave their towns, they can be community leaders. They have a lot of things they can offer to their communities.

Now, I’ve noticed since coming here, I hear a lot of Peace Corps stereotypes. Could you tell me about some of those stereotypes, what you think of them?

A lot of people think that your stereotypical Peace Corps volunteer is a nature-loving, tree-hugging hippie with a beard. I think that stereotype is not true at all. Peace Corps volunteers are very, very diverse. They come from very different backgrounds. But I think that the overall draw for everybody is that we basically want to do good in the world, and that’s why we joined Peace Corps.

The other stereotype is that Peace Corps volunteers are out to save the world. A lot of my friends back home think that because I’m in Peace Corps, I’m doing all this really great work. I’m not saying I’m not, but in their minds, I’m frickin’ saving babies. I think there’s this idea that Peace Corps volunteers are superheroes in the developing world. Our day-to-day lives are much more mundane than that.

What surprised you most about the people you’ve been in Peace Corps with?

I’m surprised at how young a lot of Peace Corps volunteers are. The average age of a Peace Corps volunteer is 28 years old, but that’s because you have people who are fresh out of college – you know, 21, 22 –, and then you also have volunteers who join later in life, who are retired. For the most part, volunteers are very, very young. I would say the majority of volunteers are fresh out of college, at least in my stage.

You mentioned the stage of love. How do you think your relationships with other Peace Corps members are going to change once your tour ends?

Well, like with all relationships, you’re only going to keep in touch with people you want to keep in touch with. With social media now, it’s so easy for you to know about what’s going on in other people’s lives, even though you don’t even keep in contact with them anymore. I know that a lot of people back home know about the things that I’m doing here in Peace Corps, even though I don’t talk to them. They see me posting things on Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever medium I’m using. I feel like it’s going to be like that with Peace Corps, with the stage of love, after service ends. We’re going to see and learn about what’s going on in each other’s lives because of social media, but we’re only really be going to keep in touch with people we want to keep in touch with.

The other thing that’s really cool about Peace Corps is that if I were going to be in some random city and knew that other people from my stage were living there, I would not hesitate to reach out to them and be like, “Hey, I’m going to be staying here on these dates. Do you want to meet up?” Even if it’s people I’m not really close to, just because you have that bond with your stage and that shared experience. I don’t think it would be uncomfortable or awkward for me at all to reach out to them.

That concludes my interview with Melanie ChengFor the other parts, 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 4: Peace Corps culture.

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