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Last weekend, a couple of people from my Peace Corps group met for a reunion in Chicago. We were marking an anniversary; 10 years ago this month, 33 of us, Americans from all parts of the country, left together to spend two years serving in the tiny Southern African kingdom of Swaziland, now called eSwatini.
One of Peace Corps' tag lines is 'The hardest job you'll ever love,” and it was. When people ask what made it hard, they always assume the answer will be things like not always having access to electricity and running water or the internet. Those were challenges, to be sure, but the far harder parts were being far from home, struggling to learn another language, to navigate another culture, to figure out how to get along in a place where you don't know the system or even the social cues.
Having those experiences is the best empathy-building exercise I can think of. When I meet new arrivals to our own country, I can remember how it felt when people shouted a derisive word for foreigner at me or stared at me on the bus, or being the one struggling to make myself understood because I wasn't good enough at the local language yet.
Even in the midst of those challenges, I still had incredible privilege; a living stipend to meet my material needs, access to medical care, the promise of an evacuation if natural disaster or conflict were to strike, just for starters.
Peace Corps volunteers of color had very different experiences, some facing discrimination because they were not what our host communities expected Americans to look like. It was a strange dichotomy. People would hear we were Americans and in one breath ask about Barack Obama, who was president then, or Beyonce, and in the next breath express surprise there were black Americans in our group.
For many people in the rural town where I lived for two years, Peace Corps volunteers were the only Americans they had ever met. Their entire experience of what the United States was about came from the news and popular culture - stories of American bombs dropping on the Middle East mixed with American professional wrestling, which was wildly popular in eSwatini, sprinkled through with Hollywood movies and pop music.
When I got home, I found similarly narrow views of 'Africa,” as if a continent with 54 countries were one homogenous zone instead of a dizzyingly diverse chunk of the globe. Imagine assuming that because they are all in Europe, Russia and Greece and Norway and the United Kingdom are all interchangeable places with one culture and history, and you start to understand how problematic that is.
The exchange of ideas, of experiences, of understanding, is central to what Peace Corps is about. It is baked into the organization's mission, which has three goals. The first is about providing assistance to countries that ask for it, which is of course important. But goal No. 2 is sharing American culture with the people in the host countries, and goal No. 3 is bringing the host culture back home and sharing it with Americans.
Cultural exchange, I believe, is vitally important. For the Swazi people we served with, I'm hopeful they have faces to put with their thoughts of America that aren't just ones they see on TV. I know when I hear about American foreign policy dust-ups with Russia or China, I picture not just Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, but Dasha and Lucy, two exchange students from those countries whom my family hosted in the early 2000s, and I wonder how policies will impact them as well as us.
We're still in touch with both of them, and with another former student, Ava, from Taiwan. They took their experiences of our country, unfettered by censorship or propaganda, back home with them, as well.
I can only believe such exchanges make us all better, more empathetic, and even safer in the long run. They help break down the barrier between 'us” and 'them,” so we can all just see each other as people. Whether it is the Peace Corps or a student exchange program or a campus or community cultural institute, there is value in this kind of soft diplomacy.
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