As you may know, if I’ve been honest with you (though I haven’t been honest with too many people) I’m getting pretty sick of my role here. The white, young girl role. It’s difficult. It’s straining. The constant coddling, having to play along with it. I used to think it was funny. Now I think it’s too much.
“Mary, aren’t you afraid? I wouldn’t let my daughter live alone like you. Why did your parents let you do this?” Only the most upfront of my friends ask me that. But the rest think it. Thais just aren’t direct.
My role is the young girl American. The other three volunteers in my province, who my coworkers know, fit the mold better. Two men and one woman who is thirty. The twenty-four year old girl is confusing to the villagers. As it should be. If you think you about it, where the West is in terms of women’s rights, (and I’m not suggesting the West’s struggle for equal rights is finished by any means) how we have only been there for the last three decades or so, it’s such a sliver of time. It’s nothing. What I take for granted as being a girl born in America in the eighties—rights I assumed were normal, were a given—it’s all so very, very rare. Compared to all the other women in the world, past and present, my life has been extraordinary. I understand that now.
In four days I will travel to Bangkok and then to Chantiburi to train the next group of Peace Corps Volunteers who are currently going through their three months of Training, which I remember well. When you get off that plane, when you get here, you are so idealistic and excited. It’s happening and you’re doing it. Only you’re not completely certain what “It” is but you have faith that the “It” will surface and define itself soon enough. During those long hours of training sessions days in and days out you strain your ears trying to get it. The one thing someone will say that will better define what you’re doing here. You’re optimistic you’ll hear it. So you wait and you listen and you wait.
I remember when I was a Trainee and Volunteers who, like me now, had been in the field for over a year, would come in and do a presentation. I was in such awe. I was so curious how they had done it for that long. At that point a year seemed like a long time to me. How had they lived in the middle of nowhere? I kept waiting for the secret. Only it began to feel like they were holding something back. You’d get it in pieces. Like when you are younger and you begin to collect the bits you overhear that suggests that maybe Santa Claus doesn’t actually exist. Maybe that was all some comfortable lie our parents and our society had been telling us—for our own good. It was like that.
I remember one Volunteer, who only had three months of service left, telling me, almost in a whisper, and it was his tone that horrified me, “Peace Corps tells you nothing about culture shock.”
I remember another, a woman Volunteer, saying again in this sort of hushed tone, “You have no idea what being a second class citizen will do to you.”
I sort of dismissed all this. Filed it away in my brain and forgot about it. Until of course, months and months went by of me living here, in this place in the south of Thailand, being the white, young girl. Months of being the Other. Months of taking it. Smiling and nodding and taking it and taking it. Months of forgetting my own culture, months of absorbing Thai culture, and finally coming out of it all and realizing all of culture is actually this pretty arbitrary thing. Realizing that what I believed was a given—was actually culture—realizing how much culture has to do with things like the environment—that it has nothing to do with fate, it wasn’t predetermined. Culture is an accident. Who I am is an accident, is random. Then I got it. What the other volunteers had been holding back. The thing they couldn’t explain. The thing you have to experience to really understand. The thing that bothers me so, that today I can barely, if at all, explain.
Anyway, so I’m going to Chantiburi to do a training session on gender differences. What you experience here compared to America. In the end I’m going to gloss over it. I mean you can’t explain it. We’ll break apart case scenarios. Do that sort of thing. But I won’t even begin to suggest what happens to you when you are constantly reminded that you are NOT a man. When you are constantly told that you need help. That you can’t do things by yourself. When you realize how women over the course of time just submitted to it, because for some strange reason, you tend to believe what you are told. If you are told enough times.
I remember during my Peace Corps interview at Cornell, the woman asked me, “What would you do if you were in a culture that suppressed women and there was nothing you could do about it?” The question got me. I hadn’t seriously thought about it before—I hadn’t seriously thought about a lot of the elements I’d face if I became a Peace Corps Volunteer—I was more applying because I didn’t have a clue what else I was supposed to do after college. I paused and then said, “Well, it would be interesting for me to observe.” She smiled, it seemed to be as right of an answer as their could be.
It’s difficult. It’s difficult for me to accept that I just happened to be born in America. There is a guilt that plagues me with that, now. That I didn’t have before. It’s difficult to accept that I just happened to be born into the family I was born into. The comfort. The security. I guess it would all be easier if I had some strong religion to guide me here, but I don’t. It’s difficult to sit on the beach here, with all these tourists. It’s difficult to watch the Burmese four year olds sell you beer on the beach. It’s difficult to watch yourself become numb to it. Numb to the anger that used to rage through you, children born into poverty, children completely exploited. It’s difficult to remember how much you used to care. How much you used to think maybe, somehow, maybe a little bit, you could help. It’s difficult how you have to remember it, remember it the same way which you recall a dream, or a nice memory from the distant past. Something that is no longer present, that only remains in photographs or journal entries.
And maybe that was the secret I was straining so hard to hear when I was a Trainee. The “It” that no one would just come out and say. The thing I wouldn’t dare explain during my training session next week; that something will happen to you here, through this experience. In your loss there will ultimately be a gain, and that gain will be wisdom—a deep understanding. John Updike said, “Growth is loss.” Ignorance is bliss. And I have grown more than I ever, ever wanted to here.