I Joined the Peace Corps to Keep From Becoming an Asshole (It Worked, Mostly)

by Jia Tolentino

When I applied to Peace Corps, it had everything to do with money. First, that I had none; second, that as an English major graduating into the recession, I wasn’t likely to make a lot of it any time soon; third, that I understood how ridiculous it was to say that I had no money. Out-of-state tuition at the University of Virginia is almost $50,000 per year, and my scholarship alone put me in the world’s top 1% of earners.

It was hard for me to truly understand that last statistic. Everyone in America feels strapped for cash, I think. Everyone feels that whatever they have must be guarded fiercely. It’s too bad for people my age, with our depressed earnings and whatnot; but then it’s also too bad for the 3 billion people who have to live and work and try to get laid now and then on the tight daily budget of $2.50.

“How to live?” I asked myself, as graduation loomed and the world seemed to narrow rather than expand. Fearful of growing up and becoming an asshole, I went in for an interview with Peace Corps.

Nine months after my interview, I got placed in the former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan (“Oh no! They send people to the Stans? Can you trade your assignment for Jamaica, or, like, Thailand?” said everyone I knew). I prepared for my departure by showering twice a day and going to Vegas (later, the memory of one $27 double bourbon-ginger haunted me nightly as I watched my tiny, hungry host siblings divide every meal). “Can I get a dog in Kyrgyzstan?” I wrote hopefully on the wall of the Facebook group.

Most people have considered joining the Peace Corps, if just for a millisecond. And why not? Peace Corps offers our fundamental patriotic dream redux: the drama of self-imposed exile, the promise of a blank slate, a life structured around virtue and independence, an uncharted opportunity to self-aggrandize. Less selfishly, volunteering also offers you a chance to take a tiny swing at the world’s biggest problem — the fact that comfort for the few rests on exploitation of the many.

There are other attractive aspects. Peace Corps is two years outside the real world of consumption and desire: You can’t gorge yourself on blogs or new restaurants. You can’t go shopping. You can’t meet up for happy hour. You can’t spend, or save money. You also can’t make money in the Peace Corps, which is why most people consider volunteering only at moments of either financial or personal instability. But luckily for the Peace Corps, these moments, for many of us, are expanding into months and years. Application numbers keep going up.

Peace Corps volunteers, unlike expat English teachers and NGO workers, live at a local level, which is to say poorly. While in Kyrgyzstan, I could afford bananas three times a week, meat only rarely. To save $3, I’d readily spend an eight-hour car ride with a stranger’s baby drooling all over my lap. Coal was expensive, so I spent all winter wearing a sleeping bag around the house like a full-body condom.

That stuff was funny and relatively easy, while the intangible stuff of poverty was deeper and worse. Local mafia drove through the village, handing out bribes for the local elections. School was cancelled for three weeks so the students could harvest potatoes. The government withheld teacher salaries, the power went out at the bank, and I felt the malaise that my villagers had known all their life — the dullness that sets in when all infrastructure passes you over and opportunities for growth seem impossibly far away. I sometimes looked down on the villagers for boozing in the morning and watching TV all night, but my anodyne self-soothing (entire seasons of South Park, yoga for hours) was no better. There was one unimpeachable similarity between villager and volunteer: We always had money for those $2 liters of vodka.

My two major goals in joining Peace Corps were to better understand real poverty and to not become an asshole. As to the first one, I’m not sure I’ll ever get it. I was never poor in Kyrgyzstan — I had a laptop, an escape hatch, and a monthly allowance that, while small, was still almost half of the average annual income in the country. It only took a few months for me to see that I’d never understand the physical and spiritual reality of having grown up in a society that doesn’t care about you at all.

Am I less of an asshole? Who knows. But Peace Corps does put you in your place. I’ve never met better people and never will. And for every time I was harassed, robbed, disciplined, and isolated, there were a dozen more times when happiness spilled out of me like the rays of the sun.

Twice during my service, there were outbreaks of political and ethnic violence. On these occasions, we were evacuated to an American military base that launches Air Force missions in Afghanistan. They took terrific, courteous care of us there. One doctor even let me use a private room in the base clinic just to take an air-conditioned nap, which was so touching that I almost cried.

At the base, we were on vacation, and we felt like strange kings. We ran through the mess hall, stuffing Clif bars and maple syrup bottles in our pockets and lining up early for Steak and Lobster Sundays. We pulled out our credit cards and availed ourselves of cheap (subsidized by you!) eyebrow waxes, hour-long massages, soy lattes, and North Face gear. I splurged on an expensive phone connection to Texas and called my boyfriend. “We’re so lucky to be American,” I said breathlessly. “God, we’re rich.”
Jia Tolentino is spending the summer as a ghost (writer) (but she is interested in working as an actual ghost if you know of any good haunted houses in the Ann Arbor area). Photo:flickr/300t.org

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