Peace Corps and Panama

Posted: 2002 Dec 25 18:51 UTC

— Nobody actually does Peace Corps anymore, right? Who would waste away their life in some far-off country where the people do not really want help? Maybe it is just a hippy Seattle thing, so here is a WCSL News exclusive interview with Yoko, who was whisked away to the isthmus nation of Panama for two years, to answer the question of why anyone would bother to do this stuff.

Panama City
Donkey's-eye view of Panama City.

What in the hell possessed you to go to freakin Panama for 2 years? Did you have such high regards for what the Peace Corps could do?

I could just tell you something like, "It has always been a dream of mine to go to less fortunate countries and help people there." I suppose that's what most people would expect to hear. But really I went for more mundane and personal reasons. My circumstance at the time: I realized in the early spring of my senior year that I would have to a) find a grad school program and then get accepted, b) find a job, or c) come up with some other convincing plan. I wrote a statement of purpose for my grad school aps. I couldn't even convince myself with it. But I was too chicken shit to really immerse myself into job hunting, either. I had no work experience in ANYTHING. I figured it was time to get some experience. What better way to gain practical real-world experience than through Peace Corps?

My personal motives: I wanted to test myself. I think everyone, at some point or another, needs their own epic journey. I also always suspected that the way Americans live is the exception in this world, and not the norm. I wanted to see America from the outside. Hence Peace Corps.

And yes, ever since middle school, I had wanted to join the Peace Corps. I had forgotten about it all through college, but I read an old undergraduate scholarship application essay, and I had written about wanting to join the Peace Corps after graduation. It's strange how I have fulfilled a prophecy that I had forgotten about for so long.

Hiking in Panama
What white people do in Panama.

I remember you mentionning that it wasn't what you were expecting. Just how disillusioned and jaded have you become after being there for 2 years?

My expectations were unrealistic. I thought that it would be like school, or any exam, where the result reflects the amount of time, effort, and heart that you put in. In a way, Peace Corps is like a relationship. No matter how much effort you put in, the situation is so complex that the perceived outcome does not reflect what was put in. I thought that helping a country develop itself was something so easy. How arrogant of me to have thought that way! If that were true, there would be no need for any development programs in the world!

And speaking of development programs, I thought that Peace Corps was a development program. It isn't. In terms of development, what we do is minimal. We are not set up for sustained long-term development. For Americans, though, Peace Corps is invaluable. Peace Corps is crucial in that it gives many Americans the opportunity to view the U.S. in a different light. I don't think that the countries we work in really give a rat's ass about whether we are there 'helping' or not. The 'help' we give our host countries is very small in the big picture, and certainly not cost-effective. I *was* disillusioned for a very long time, but that's only because I had no grasp of reality. I have gotten over the shock and regrouped. I'm not jaded — I just have a better understanding now of just how complex development, nation relations, and governments are. I'm no longer as naive as I used to be.

Mail donkey
Official mail carrier of Panama.

When I came back from Japan the first time, one of the first things I noticed (after how much taller people are here) is how excessively wide the streets are in the U.S. and how much more grass there is; basically, how much more expansive this country is than Japan. What struck you when you got back?

I was very impressed with how spacious, clean, and well-maintained the public restrooms are. I hadn't seen a toilet seat cover in well over 2 years, and I laughed as I remembered what they were for.

It amazes me that there are very few people walking on the street. Why are there so many crosswalks in a country where nobody walks, and no crosswalks in a country where everybody walks?

I noticed how small I am here. In Panama I always stuck out as one of the biggest and tallest people around. I'm actually quite petite here in this country.

I was also highly impressed with the customer service here. People in stores are very pleasant and helpful!

and, nobody rides the bus. In Panama you never see a bus that's not completely full. Here you never see a bus that's even halfway full. What a waste!

Panama map
Map of brown thing in between two blue patches.

And how about the reverse, when reaching Panama?

It has been so long, I don't know if I can really remember all of the first impressions. Here are some of them:

People dress very nicely when they go to town. They wear the best clothes they have. Women never go out without 3 inch heels, a tiny skirt, and lots of make up. (You can just imagine how sloppy I look in comparison!) Buses always carry more passengers than the stated maximum capacity. There is no such thing as travelling in comfort. I constantly got cat calls from men. There is music everywhere — in the streets, booming from passing cars, absolutely everywhere! Complete strangers greet each other when they get on a bus. People are very friendly toward strangers. And they call you by your outward characteristics. In my case I was "chinita", or little chinese girl. Even though I'm Japanese. At least they don't call me "gordita", which is little fat girl.

Panama flag
The unique color scheme of Panama's flag.

What did your family and friends say when you told them you were going to Panama with the Peace Corps for 2 years?

My dad didn't understand. My mother, on the other hand looked me straight in the eye and said, 'so you're going into Peace Corps because you don't have a job and don't want to go to grad school yet, is it?' She understood part of it. My extended family still has no clue why I was in Panama for 2 years. I've given up trying to explain. 'Joining the Peace Corps' is a uniquely American concept. My friends said something like 'good for you,' and then added their own version of 'I know someone who joined Peace Corps and got (circle one: giardia, botfly larvae, depressed, internal parasites)!'

Panama beach
A pretty beach somewhere.

So... uh... what did you do there and why did it take 2 years to do it?

Well, I studied the community's aqueduct watershed, and helped the commuunity assess the health of the watershed. I helped a women's group grow a lot of coffee plants (22,000, to be exact). And I helped construct a school classroom. And now I work as the coordinator for volunteers in my program, and that job entails travelling all over the country to visit new volunteers in their sites, helping my boss shuffle papers around the office, and providing volunteer support. I carry a cell phone and (sometimes they let me) drive a LandCruiser.

So that's what I did. But it's harder to say what it is that I accomplished. Many a night I lay awake wondering that. I think that to have really accomplished something, I would have had to have lived for 5 years in my town. It really does take that much time to make a lasting difference.

Some kind of mountains.

How does it feel to be 2 years older than when you left home?

I don't feel very old — I just feel 'left behind.' Of all of my high school friends, I am probably the only one who still wears the same clothes she wore in high school, *still* hasn't met her soulmate, and still doesn't make an income that's big enough to be taxed. It's as if my life in the states was put completely on hold while I pursued a different kind of life in Panama. State-side experience-wise, I kind of feel younger than all of my peers.

But I feel that I have grown a lot. If I were a tree, my growth rings from the past two years would be thicker than the other rings. I appreciate my parents more. I know when to hold my tongue. And I think I'm more self-confident. But I don't know if these things can be singularly attributed to my Peace Corps experience — I think that the years immediately following college are period of major growth for just about everyone. I just happened to be in Panama for those years.

Where Yoko lived. (Not really.)

So now what? You say you are going back in January?

Yup. As a volunteer 'leader' (I hate that word — I used to be called a 'coordinator' before), I made a one-year minimum commitment, and I made that commitment 8 months ago. So it's another 5 months for me. I'm sure they'll pass by rapidly, though. I truly enjoy my job right now. After I return home in May, I might go to Japan to see the relatives. When my grandpa, who is a mechanic, comes to Seattle in June, we're going to work on my 1972 BMW together. It needs a lot of work. Then I hope to go to D.C. in the eary fall to find a job in the public policy arena. I haven't really made any concrete plans, though.

I've always had this crazy dream of living in Buenos Aires, Argentina for a few months to learn and dance the tango in the dance salons, but Argentina seems to be a rather shakey place lately. I'll have to wait until things there subside.