Tuesday, September 28, 2004

A Peace Corps Paradox

Chapter 1: A Paradox Appears

There are a few questions from my interview that have continued to stick in the back of my mind. The questions hinted at an interesting paradox that can occur for Peace Corps volunteers.

The Peace Corps has a three-part mission:

  1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans.

During my interview, I was asked questions about my ability to flex myself into another culture. They were trying to find out if I could be a cultural chameleon. There are very good reasons for this -- things like personal safety and acceptance.

This "request for conformity" and the Peace Corps mission seems to lead to a paradox:

    How can I teach others about my country and myself, if I have to become like them and conform to their culture?

Chapter 2: A Team is Formed

I once worked for a large company that was experiencing significantly above average attrition in their minority workforce. The heads of the company created a "tiger team" to study the issue, document the causes, and propose solutions.

Initially, the team was made entirely of members from the minority workforce. Shortly after they were formed, the team determined they needed a member from the majority workforce to help gauge potential backlash from any of their proposed solutions. To this day, I am still surprised and happy that they picked me.

Chapter 3: An Answer is Found

My first days on the team were difficult. Normally, at meetings, I was used to speaking out, and speaking a lot. During the first days, the issues discussed were foreign to me, and when I spoke (or attempted to speak) I realized (and others realized too) that I knew very little about what I was trying to talk about. I could tell that I was loosing my chance to be a contributor because I did not really understand the issues at hand.

I quit trying to be who I was, and I started to just listen, watch, and help with basic tasks. I was learning and absorbing -- not trying to teach others who I was.

At some point during the process, People started asking me questions. They were also listening to my opinions and conclusions. It was a seamless transition that came on so slowly that I did not notice it until it had been going on for some time.

During our post-mortem. One of the team members said (paraphrased because I can not remember it exactly):

    When Jay joined the team, I felt there was no way he would be able to understand our issues and concerns. Now I know that's not true. He has changed my opinion of him and others like him. I have seen him learn, understand, and empathize with our issues.

Chapter 4: My Answer

How can I teach others about my country and myself, if I have to become like them and conform to their culture?

To be accepted by people of another culture, I must first seek to fully understand their culture, the people, and issues they face -- I must walk in their shoes as much as possible.

Initially, just my presence may seem so different and could cause skepticism in the people that I am with. I will have to show them I can learn, understand, and empathize.

The process of first seeking to understand, will in the end, teach others the best thing about my culture and myself.

(This is definitely going into my book of thoughts)


Kerry Doyal said...

I respect your desire to serve
Such wonderful & rare selflessness

May God honor your efforts to love others as you love yourself


Jay Haase said...

Wow! Thanks for the wondeful comment.

Anonymous said...

Good blog. We decided it had allot to do with clothes. Why wear pants in 100 degrees? The going native thing is always bad because that's not what we are; so be yourself and do what you normally do. Americans like to wear shorts, but that isn't done. So, I won't wear shorts cause it makes sense to wear long pants in 100 degree heat. I will not, however, put on weird native clothing cause it's weird native clothing.

So, once you understand, the answer may not be yes cause that's weird.

I think the phrase they use is when 'you serve the government(federal), you serve God.' I think that was bad.