Apr 15, 2010

Guest post: What's It Like To Be a Peace Corps Sibling (PCS)? and Cultural Belonging

[Front matter: My sister also gave me this piece about being the sibling of a volunteer. (Or PCS, as she hilariously puts it.) Some great thoughts from the other side of the ocean. We PCVs tend to be pretty self-absorbed (me worst of all), and it's nice to get some fresh perspective.]

Allow me to preface this by saying that my brother and I have always been very close. When you grow up in an extremely small town (<200 people), you have to play with any kids there are, even if it's your little sister. Also, I am no where near the writer that my brother is. [Baloney.]

I was going to make this two essays about PCS and culture but the deeper I got into the subject, I realized much of my experience as a PCS was due to specific cultures. I am sure that many siblings of people in the peace corps have very different experiences for many reasons, but there are are some common factor. Since it is impossible to know what other PCS experience, I will stick to what I know, but I'm sure much of this applies to all family of PCVs.

First, and most important to me, Ryan is located in a country where cell phone and thus internet coverage is extensive. So extensive that often he is more informed of the news in the U.S. than I am. Our friends check his blog before the major news outlets to find the most relevant news stories. This means that I can talk to him almost anytime I want. It's not as easy to just pick up the phone and call as when he lived in the states, but it is better than many PCV communication lines. It does cost extra money, and it's not always easy to get through. Sometimes the connection is bad or his phone has succumbed to the harsh South African environment, again. But for the most part, I can call him whenever I need his worldly advice (or scientific logical perspective on whatever emotional problem I am having). We can have a casual chat about running, or politics, or school, or life just about every week.

Secondly, there is the second hand exposure to a whole new culture. Something we have often discussed is the need to examine different cultures in order to be aware of prejudices and accepting of other people. South Africa is very different from the U.S. in many ways. The diversity of languages is amazing; in the U.S, one quarter to one fifth of people can hold a conversation in a second language. In most places in South Africa, you have to be able to speak at least two languages just to get by in daily life. Also, I have often wondered what it would be like to live in a culture where everyone knows and participates in certain songs, dances, or rituals. The differences in life-style and accommodations is stark. I often find when talking to Ryan that something I take for granted everyday is something most people don't have; for example, constant electricity.

The culture of child rearing is also very different. I worked with troubled children (infant to 13) for four years and I never had the difficulties that my brother is experiencing. Admittedly I never had a whole class, but I have no advice for him because everything that worked for me here, either doesn't work or isn't an option. It's difficult to make children listen to you by whispering up close if you don't speak their language very well.

There is also the struggle of having your sibling half a world away needing or wanting something. There are certain things here in the states that are difficult or more expensive to get overseas, such as electronics. School supplies are a hot commodity and pens/pencils are generally appreciated. Also, gifts and present requests change dramatically. Ryan generally wants books, and ones in Spanish at that (sheesh!). Things such as shirts or spices are prized (I'm willing to bet he's still figuring out how to use the last spices sent to him in his daily meals of rice and beans). But one has to plan in advance, because it'll take at least a few weeks to reach him.

Probably the hardest part of having your only sibling join the peace corps is that he isn't around for the family gatherings or big events. Christmas and river trips are especially difficult as they were the one time since he went to college that we have all been in the same place at the same time every year. While our vacation this year was fun, something was always missing and strange; maybe it was the missing bad puns or the longevity of the beer supply. I will say that having only four people in our dad's Tundra was rather nice--I got nearly the whole back seat (much like I did when it was just the four of our nuclear family and no girl/boyfriends :D). In all seriousness though, it was weird and we missed Ryan. He will also miss my graduation from college (in 25 days!). That sucks.

One thing that I am especially grateful for during this time. is the culture in which Ryan and I were raised. I have heard from people in the U.S. that, unlike the culture of many other places, there is only the connection of the nuclear family. The community culture is lacking, and as opposed to a large integrated support system, we have our siblings and parents. That was not our upbringing. As Ryan has posted about a recent flood,
"[S]standing on that bridge, watching the thick, dirty, chocolate milk water feeding waves off half-submerged acacia bushes, I knew where I come from. River folk."
He may have been "almost giddy" while watching the flood, but I assure you that the river people were even more giddy reading about it. We were raised in a subculture of american society that revolves around water; specifically, flowing water. Although, in the winter when it is cold, ocean currents will do just fine. This is an extremely tight knit community that we were fortunate enough to be born into. It is a web of support for us based around a common love and woven from unbreakable friendships. I am especially grateful that despite the half a world between Ryan and I, we will always have the connection of water, and we will always have a place to go back to and be accepted for exactly who we are.

I miss my big brother hugs, bad jokes, and that special way he has of making me laugh no matter what is happening. You're an inspiration.

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