Friday, September 15, 2006

Peace Corps

I recently spent some time talking to someone who just finished two years in the Peace Corps. I have a lot of respect for people who essentially volunteer to spend two years of their life to better the plight of people they'd otherwise never meet. You can't do it for the money; you'd earn more with a part-time job behind the counter at Subway. And you must really want to do some good in the world if you're willing to spend two whole years out of normal contact with friends and family to improve life in a third-world country. I don't know that I'd be capable of doing it, so I'm highly impressed with people who actually do it.

I asked her if she experienced much culture shock when she went to extremely rural Central America. She really didn't; she knew what she was getting into and didn't find too many surprises. She said culture shock really hit when she got back to the U.S. after her tour of duty ended. The first time she walked into a grocery, she just stood in the middle of an aisle in shock for a few minutes. Her thought was something like, "I can't believe I'm in a country where people actually think they need two hundred kinds of toothpaste." She spent a few weeks having moments of shock when she'd see people getting in their cars to drive down the block, when she'd see people spend hundreds of dollars on a dress they were only planning on wearing once, when she saw the myriad of little wastes and squanderings that define consumer culture.

I think if you could keep that sense of shock and outrage alive, the biggest benefit wouldn't be the good you did there, it'd be the good you could do here when you get back. Just talking to her gave me a change of perspective, and I'm hoping she can share that with lots of other people too.

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