Friday, February 12, 2010

Does Peace Corps Help Turkmenistan: No, but...

by Maya Saryeva
This essay is part of a continuing Camel Spit conversation.

I would like to present a subjective account of my experience with Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), and please note that none of what I say is directed at any PCV personally. These are simply my thoughts, memories and experiences that I gathered over the years.  I cannot argue that Peace Corps Volunteers make Turkmenistan a better country. However, I can say that they certainly facilitate a great deal of cultural exchange and touch the lives of different individuals and families in different ways. While there are a few jewels amongst the waves of PCVs that come and go, most are there for the experience of enduring a life outside of United States and coming back to say that they actually made it, and if they are lucky or strong individuals, they were actually able to enjoy it.  I found it especially interesting that very few of the Volunteers (most of the ones I became friends with) had a sense of pragmatism and interest in the lives of Turkmen people, while many others didn't. Undoubtedly some PCVs came with the goal of changing Turkmenistan, while others had a strange air of ideological bias that "we are here to show you things that are not necessarily different, but are essentially "better".  I believe for most of the latter, the attitudes change in time as they realize that there is much in their way, and that the only difference they can truly make is in their neighborhoods, villages or a group of friends.

With this said however, prior to visiting United States, when I was nine years old, I used to look upon PCVs as characters from movies that were so distant, different yet so interesting. I used to rehearse English phrases over and over in my head prior to approaching a foreigner, to be able to exchange one sentence with him/her, and felt an enormous sense of fulfillment if that foreigner understood me. I still remember the feeling of anxiousness and excitement that I felt when I exchanged my first English words with a PCV named Matthew. In that sense, I think Peace Corps Volunteers  help Turkmen youth the most, in providing them with an opportunity to better their English and offer them a window into a world of real knowledge about United States. Undoubtedly, many PCVs bring a positive contribution to the lives of young student participants who get to enjoy taking part in summer camps or other educational activities organized by PCV. If Peace Corps ceased to exist in Turkmenistan, the majority of the population will probably never notice, however the youth will lack that personal interaction with a person from a different part of the world, and many kids will never get to experience the feelings I felt when I first had to speak to a Peace Corps Volunteer at the age of nine.

Maya is originally from Turkmenbashy, Turkmenistan.  She is currently studying in the United States.

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