So far in this space we have reviewed sixteen books and two films. In this issue we stray a bit further (from books, that is) and review an organization: peacecorpsworldwide.org.
We have chosen to review this entity about the Peace Corps because many SIETAR members are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), and even those who are not will be interested to learn about all the great books written by RPCVs, most of which are inherently cross-cultural. Publicizing those books was the original purpose of this enterprise—when it was still a newsletter—and remains a focus even though it is now a website and has expanded its reach. As John Coyne, the co-founder of the site explains: “About 32 years ago, Marian Haley Beil and I started a newsletter Peace Corps Writers & Readers and then in 2000 shifted to the website. What we do is feature and promote writings by RPCVs as an effort to promote the Third Goal of Peace Corps: to bring the world back home.”
We will use the interview we conducted with John to tell the story of the site and explain why many of its features should be of interest to readers of this newsletter.
Can you briefly describe the site; what it consists of, the usual content?
PeaceCorpsWorldwide.org is for and about Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). The content falls into several categories.
- Reviews of books—fiction and nonfiction—written by RPCVs.
- New writing by RPCVs.
- News about RPCV activities, at home and in their PC countries.
- General interest articles by RPCVs, republished on our website.
- Announcements (without reviews) of new books being published by RPCVs.
- News about Peace Corps itself, as an agency, and the changes and developments in the Peace Corps under each new administration.
What do you hope the site will accomplish? Why did you start it and why do you continue doing it?
Our website is an outgrowth of the print newsletter Peace Corps Writers & Readers that Marian Beil and I created in 1989. The purpose of the original newsletter was the same as the purpose of our website: to help carry out the Third Goal of the Peace Corps in order to make all Americans better citizens of the planet. In their writings — memoirs, novels, short stories and poetry —Volunteers bring alive their experiences in the developing world, and reading their writings can help all Americans learn about cultures other than their own.
Over the years we converted the print newsletter into the current website, in addition to which we have created a Peace Corps Writers imprint, which helps RPCVs to self-publish their books through Amazon. As of now, 96 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry have been published under this imprint. We also give awards to RPCVs for the best book in various categories published each year.
What do you think RPCV writers bring to their work/writing that writers who have not been PCVs may not bring to theirs?
Peace Corps writers bring a profound relationship to people of other cultures, and a very special concern for humanity — the same concern that led them to join Peace Corps in the first place. Peace Corps has always attracted men and women of exceptional intelligence and sensitivity, with a very special sense of adventure. Most expatriates have a sense of adventure too, but they are often led abroad by a desire to escape American civilization or, for that matter, to make money from the labor of others. Life as a Volunteer is very different from the expatriate life. Being part of the Peace Corps takes people far away from embassies, first-class hotels, and the privileges of being rich foreigners in poor countries. PCVs live far from the capital cities, in villages that will likely never see a tourist. Volunteers live the life of the people they serve, and that connection — in all its beauty and all its difficulty — is what they write about.
You had your own intercultural experience many years ago in Ethiopia. Is there one especially memorable cross-cultural moment/insight you remember?
Before Peace Corps, I had taught high school for a year in the States while earning my Masters. It was a good school and they were good students, but for those kids, school was just one part of their busy lives, which were filled with sports, dating, movies, et cetera.
When I got to Ethiopia, in 1962, I was assigned to teach at a select, well-run secondary school with a wonderful reputation, and the students, both girls and boys, came from all ethnic groups and levels of society. I wondered how my students would react to finding that an American was now their teacher. Well, I found out on the very first day when I walked into the classroom and the students all jumped to their feet, out of respect for their teacher. I was from another country and was of another race and barely spoke their language, but because I was their teacher, I deserved their respect. I eventually asked them to stop standing up when I arrived each day, but they politely ignored me. They also showed respect by being well mannered and diligent in class, and totally respectful of each other. This, I came to understand, was because they saw education as the center of their lives. Passing their courses was all that mattered. I would work with students back in the U.S. for several years after Peace Corps, but never again would I see such commitment to the educational process.
If you could pass on only one insight/one lesson learned to others about crossing cultures, what would you say?
Different places in the world may look as if they are becoming more and more the same —for example, Starbucks everywhere — but don’t be fooled. Below the surface there are powerful cultural differences — another country’s decision-making process, leadership styles, attitudes toward women, sense of time and space, sometimes even values.
It's not easy to cross cultures, but the rewards and insights are worth it. At the same time, coming home again, crossing back from another culture to our own, can be a difficult experience, one that people rarely mention. It happens to Volunteers all the time. But they usually think the difficulty is well worth it, for what they’ve learned.
This newsletter goes to nearly 1,000 readers, folks who are either in or interested in the field of intercultural communications. If you’d like to say something else to these folks, something we have not asked about in this questionnaire, feel free to add your brief comments here.
To keep your intercultural communications strong, it helps to reach out to others in your field, to share experiences and methods. Join a local SIETAR group. Reach out through Linked In, word of mouth, the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA). You can also get in touch with faculty members at colleges and universities that offer intercultural communications courses.
And consider volunteering for the Peace Corps.
 Mea culpa: In our most recent column we recommended two film versions of E. M. Forster’s A Room with A View. I just watched the 2007 version again, and I was reminded that the last two scenes are a travesty, something completely invented by the screen writer, and would have appalled Forster. If you watch it, stop after the scene where the newlyweds George and Lucy are kissing in the room with a view. That’s where the book ends—and where any self-respecting film should have.