Columns / Discourse / October 28, 2015

A year in the Pacific

Over the past year, I’ve been serving in the Peace Corps in a country that is most regularly referenced to serve as a shorthand for “the middle of nowhere” — the Fiji islands. Second only to the incredible cheapness of bottled Fiji water (the cost difference goes towards the transoceanic liners polluting our atmosphere, by the way), I have found it to be an excellent place to apply my degree in liberal artistry.

There’s a lot of different ways I could talk about this. I could tell you that I now believe cultural relativism is a worldview available only to liberals that do not ever fully leave their comfort zones and can afford to think of the people “over there.” Or I could tell you that I now believe cultural relativism is the only way to live in the world without being depressed.

I could tell you that my Knox education did a good job of making me aware of systems of power and the relentless tug-of-war between tradition and modernity. Or I could tell you that my Knox education made me insufferably and hypocritically liberal, a too-loud white man that decries the man who beat his wife but lets the principal’s wife wash his clothes (she has a washing machine: a modern miracle for my laundry-powdered hands and aching back).

A year of life is way too much to fit in a little article, so I’ll just meander instead, and tell you that if you have as much passion and interest in the world at large and as basic skills as I do (word processing, planning etc.), you should apply to Peace Corps. Teaching seventh graders math or making a people’s dictionary mostly just requires patience and dedication, as you listen and learn along the way.

Recently, I was talking to a good friend and work counterpart, an awesome, open-minded young guy who teaches me the local dialect and much else. After I told him that a close friend had just started Peace Corps in Mozambique, he thoughtfully inquired about the rates of violence against women in Africa.

I told him it was varied, but then pointed out that the worst rates of domestic violence in the world are actually right here, in the Pacific.

This surprised him, that his country has worse domestic violence than any African country (even here, people have a pretty dim view of Africa, which I work to change more than their Kardashian -and-guns view of America.)

So I then listed off a few people I had heard of as being wife-beaters in the village, though it is usually impressed upon me that they were, and are no longer, domestic abusers. This list includes the ex-husband of a comparatively individualistic hustler I hang out with, as well as an elder who is both the district representative and chairman of the school I work at. His wife and the community have forgiven him, and I’ve worked with him on a few small projects, as well as had a few Sunday meals at his house.

In my (white, straight, male) experience, Peace Corps has been highly worth it, though of course sometimes incredibly frustrating. My gay, female and POC friends have all experienced different struggles, but they have by and large survived and thrived. The self-doubt, the insecurity, the loneliness that we all experience as the result of being sole Westerners in a very conservative village setting are all things that toughen us and teach us to be realistic in our goal-setting, and to play to the end.

I actually hope to extend and spend a third year here, in a more urban setting, doing recycling projects and cultural preservation work, and experiencing a more modern Fijian lifestyle. I strongly recommend that you apply to Peace Corps, and do some really strange, challenging things that will sometimes leave you fistpumping and sometimes leave you crying, but are guaranteed to leave you tougher, more directed in life, and with resistance to bacteria that modern science has yet to hear of.

Tom Courtright was a columnist for TKS as a student. He’s now serving in the Peace Corps in Fiji.

Tom Courtright
Tom Courtright is a columnist for The Knox Student, primarily covering Africa. He grew up in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania and is currently studying international relations, history and journalism. He begins his volunteer term with Peace Corps in September 2014, on the Pacific island of Fiji.

Tags:  column fiji knox grad peace corps Tom Courtright

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