To Put a Bow on It

My time in Indonesia, after thirty-nine months of Peace Corps service, has come to an end. The close of my service is a real mixed bag of emotions; the most pressing question in every Peace Corps Volunteer’s mind being “what next?” I don’t know, career-wise, what’s next for me. And I’m not bothered because there’s more to Next than just a job and the following is the best example I could ever give.

As part of my close of service trip, I spent two weeks camping and hiking with my mom in Glacier National Park in Montana and in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. Any experienced outdoors-man or -woman can tell you how crucial food storage is to keeping wildlife wild and away. You can’t even wash your dishes at the campground spigots–bears can smell anything that has touched food. A ranger put it this way: “If your ability to smell is the size of a postage stamp, a bloodhound’s is the size of a sheet of paper and a bear’s is the size of seven sheets of paper.” Bears don’t mess around, y’all. So all dishwater in a campground goes down a designated drain.

Note “all experienced outdoors-people” above. Yes, there are signs but the signs are only in English and French in Canada. So when a matronly Chinese woman, who spoke only Mandarin, wanted to wash her dishes, how was she supposed to know she wasn’t allowed to do so at the spigot? What sense does that make to the average person and first-time camper, who doesn’t know that relative to human sniffing abilities, bears’ are seven hundred times that?

Before Peace Corps, before living as an outsider in Indonesia, before living in a place where I didn’t speak the language, if two fellow campers started yelling at a Mandarin-speaker I may have silently congratulated them. I come from a low-key conservative hometown–the kind that’s only okay with homosexuality chiefly because they like Neil Patrick Harris on How I Met Your Mother, but still says things like “This is America, you need to speak English” (we have no national language in the United States of America). Bottom line: three years ago, I wouldn’t have helped.

But that day, I got between the woman and the two people yelling at her and mimed for her to follow me, despite me not knowing any Mandarin and her only apparent English vocabulary being the word “sorry” over and over. I showed her to the wash sink outside the bathroom which I’m quite certain does more to prevent bears from entering a campsite than yelling at someone in a language they don’t understand. She wasn’t willfully washing her dishes improperly; she wasn’t maliciously washing her dishes. Indeed, the camp sink was closer to her campsite than the spigot she was originally using. She simply didn’t understand.

This woman was so embarrassed it brought tears to my eyes–I didn’t need to understand Mandarin to see that. Embarrassed at doing the wrong thing, at not understanding, at being yelled at by strangers, and that broke my heart. Peace Corps talks a lot about Third Goal–educating the American people about your country of service, even after your time abroad is over. Well this is a different kind of Third Goal. This is teaching the world how to interact with people who are different from them. I will take that knowledge everywhere, to everyone, for my whole life long and Peace Corps is entirely responsible for that. I would have acted very differently three years ago. I know all my readers have not been Peace Corps Volunteers, but I hope after reading this you would act differently too.

All she needed was some patience and something I call uncommon courtesy: an act of service you do for someone which isn’t expected and doesn’t take much effort, time, or money, but makes all the difference to that person. I am an advocate of this high form of kindness. Yelling at that woman only put those other campers on their high horses; it didn’t help or teach her anything. We could all stand to yell less and do more–and that’s Peace Corps.