Human Touch in the Peace Corps

Those who know me know that I’m rarely a woman of few words. For months I’ve searched feverishly for an appropriate medium to share my thoughts. Often times what happens is that an idea springs to life and my capricious mind will take it and run. Sometime later, what began as one important thought leaves me surrounded with piles of ideas, hours of contemplation and no definite thread. Hmph. What’s a writer to do? A blog seemed the perfect fit for these jumbled thoughts, until I realized that their length exceeded the average attention span of any Internet user. Then one day, I stumbled upon Twitter. Yes, insert chuckles and looks of confusion. I certainly did…until I realized something: Twitter taps into an essential writer’s notion of succinctly condensing our thoughts into the most important idea. Sometimes it relies on the perfect execution of a singular word or word pattern. On twitter you have roughly 140 characters. That requires one to cut through flowery language and unimportant diversions – the perfect remedy for a thought-burden writer. As ideas came to me, I’d whittle away unnecessary words and ideas to search for the core. This process forced me to think seriously about what, exactly, I want to share with the world. With growing privacy concerns contrasted by the opportunity for public recognition, I started sharing things I’d only want everyone in the world to read. I hope I continue to use it as a professional resource, networking liaison, but above all, a place to share small ideas.

(I promise I’ll get around to the core of my post eventually.)

All that being said, my hours of contemplation lead me to blog tonight. I posted a quote on Facebook recently, and a subsequently shortened version on my Twitter. I was able to find the right words to convey exactly what I wanted, a task much harder than it seems for those who write. And my thoughts of the preceding days kept leading my back to my post. I realized that though I expressed my idea with succinct clarity, my thought couldn’t end there. So I want to expound upon my recent status post, which read:

I never thought I’d miss human touch as much as I do in the Peace

Corps. I hug harder and hold on tightly in those last remaining

seconds, not knowing when I’ll get that touch again. – And to those

who’ve touched my heart along the way, thank you. My heart is

more full and warmer because of it.

An idea similar to this was first presented to me during a training conference held this past July. I sat in a rigid metal chair, one of fifty Peace Corps volunteers seated in a hotel banquet room. Our medical officer, Rit London, was wrapping up his medical information updates, mostly about dengue fever and mosquito bites from the impending rainy season. At the end he showed us a video of past PC volunteers who contracted HIV/AIDS during their service. The opening scene coaxed out mild chuckles from everyone due to the outdated clothing styles of yesteryear (the video was filmed well over ten years ago). A group of twenty-somethings gathered around a fireplace, each adorning their own unique sweater-vest or wool sweater. One sweater wove threads of deep, maroon hues in an up-and-down V pattern, while another classic-blue piece hung loosely around the woman’s neck, sleeve cuffs pulled up to her elbows. Even though I understood the serious nature of the video, I, too, let quiet laughter escape. However, the short documentary continued and the volunteer commotion settled. Each Returned Peace Corps Volunteer shared their story, but one particular idea repeated over and over that sticks in my mind. I cannot remember if it was a male or female who initially spoke the thought, but that is only because their fellow friends resonantly agreed. The thought was, “you never think it will happen, but you deeply miss being touched.” In this context of the video, they spoke of a sexual touch, but I presume it was a sexual touch begot from the reminiscent intimate human touch.  This is the same human touch I speak of in my status post.

The thought occurred to me last week while I was staying at a hostel in Bangkok. I’d just completed a powerful training with my Thai youth and the Peace Corps on gender empowerment, sex education, and substance abuse. I traveled down to Bangkok shortly thereafter for a short reprieve from village life. I stayed at the hostel in the company of another volunteer, Jessica, and we had the pleasure of exchanging endless hours of conversation. On the day of her departure back to site, she walked around with mild anxiety and mixed emotions about her return. Since I was extending my stay in the city a few days longer, I felt at ease and assured her it would be okay. We hugged goodbye and I sent her off and went on to the rest of my day’s activities. After she left I felt a small tinge of loneliness, an emotion not unfamiliar to a Peace Corps volunteer.

Only as a Peace Corps volunteer do we know that no one else in the world will ever understand the experience of our service, save the men and women who actually experience it themselves, too.

Thankfully, the evening’s festivities temporarily ameliorated my loneliness.

I went out to have some drinks with a kind man I met at the hostel, named Jeff. When we came back we decided to walk among the streets crowded with over 200,000 people celebrating a major Hindu holiday. We shuffled through the massive crowds, covering less than three blocks in an hour. I was drunk with gaiety and novelty. I raised my arms to the loud beat of the drums, and allowed my nostrils to open and take in the powerful scent of incense and street vendors. Jeff was in awe at the religious celebration and once again, I felt a little less alone.

Late into the morning, after finally returning to our hostel, Jeff and I parted ways for, what we thought was, the last time. He was slotted to leave on a Cambodia-bound train in the morning. I was grateful to meet such a stranger, one that opened himself up to another complete stranger, with blind trust. This isn’t the first time this has happened since my adventures in Peace Corps have begun, and so I am thankful for all who have opened their hearts to me in our travels. He said goodbye, and so we hugged to part ways. His grasp was tight and firm, an affirmation that he was just as grateful for our encounter. Our conversation dragged on a few moments longer, and we hugged again before finally going to bed. Much to my surprise, he sidestepped the morning train ride for errands in the city and wounded up staying one day longer. We ran into each other in the lobby the next day and had drinks again in the evening. I knew when we went to bed in the evening that by morning he’d be off on his travels to Cambodia, Vietnam, then into the mountains of Tibet.

Jeff Wais the Alters that Line the Streets

That day, I had plans to meet up with a wonderful woman I’d met in Bangkok a few weeks prior, Seema. She’s a fantastic, confidant woman who I’m proud to have as a friend, despite our short and unlikely friendship. We met in the lobby of our hostel, proceeded to laugh over a less-than-delicious dinner then stroll down a unique street with penis bobbles and black market Viagra. We shared vegetarian nachos and passionfruit margaritas to die for. The darkness of the night was masked by city-lights and weekend revelry, and some part of me wanted the lights to be as real as the sun of the day, for it would mean the night didn’t have to end. My time with new close friends could continue for that much longer, and I could ward of that small tinge of loneliness from sinking any further. The minute-hand crawled past the hour of midnight and I outstretched my arms to Seema for a goodbye. We walked out together, hugging once, then twice, and even a third time in those split seconds that I waited at the elevator.

I hugged hard and held on tightly in those last remaining seconds, not knowing when I’d get that touch again.

She and I had a meaningful connection that offered satisfying conversation and a connection that resembles intimacy as closely as possible for many Peace Corps volunteers.

I say this because in Thai culture, especially rural areas, hugging isn’t a cultural practice, and intimate relationships are a struggle to build and even more troublesome to fulfill with language barriers. When you greet someone you appropriately wai them with your hands to your chest. The wai is always appropriate and always respectful. It conveys love, respect, admiration, and even close friendship. But even the simple American greeting has an ounce of closeness. Consider the handshake where two people, regardless of sex, grasp one another’s hands in a firm shake. We enter into the intimate space of another, conducting the subtlest form of American touch. But I posit that it makes all the difference to us.

This concept, one void of human touch, is nearly incomprehensible until you live a world without it. Hugging, something so publicly affectionate is forbidden between opposite sexes and not commonly seen between same-sexes. Other forms of affection between same-sexes are common, so there exists some sanity when I am seeking some form of human touch. For instance, same-sex friends will hold hands or walk arm-in-arm. However, this doesn’t address the lack of opposite sex bonding, an important value for most other Americans I know – possibly a byproduct of women’s liberation, but I suspect, a positive step forward our country made in history.

Political commentary aside, we lead very different lives as Peace Corps volunteers. We wear cloaks of alternate cultures, adopt habits of another world, and give ourselves unto the small perils of service, such as a life with infrequent human touch or daily conversations with unusual superficiality.

But amidst these hours of thought on human touch and loneliness, I must make something clear about my personal volunteer life, specifically. In all reality, after returning to my site, and this is the case for every return, I simply need a few days to acclimate and remember that with my Thai family and village community, I’m never really alone at all.

Tonight, before wrapping up my final thoughts on this post, I descended downstairs for a short break. I walked across the outdoor tile and over to the dinner table, lifting the large wicker food covering that protected it from flies. The now cold leftovers didn’t appeal to me so I opened the fridge door and pulled out some homemade snacks I’d made with my Thai family a few weeks ago. Afterward, I walked over to the rustic, dilapidated house of my Thai grandmother and grandfather (Yai and Dta, respectively) that sits directly adjacent to my house (we share the same compound, a mark of traditional Thai culture).

My Yai, who had gone to the hospital earlier that day due to her inability to walk, now sat atop a small mound of blankets on the cement floor. My Aunt Bong and Aunt Dan grabbed my Dta under the armpits to hoist him up onto his wooden bed and under his mosquito net. The week earlier my Dta spent four days in the hospital from what I assume is a prostate condition brought on by old age. He’s currently unable to urinate and the family is taking care of him until a doctor gives us more answers.

Sweat from my Aunt Dan’s upper lip glistened in the moonlight. Baby powder caked to my Aunt Bong’s face like a Halloween mask, signifying she’d already had her evening shower. I removed my shoes and plopped down next to my Yai to share a moment with my Thai family. Smiling, I asked about his condition and when the next visit to the hospital was. When I asked if I could come they eagerly replied yes, happy I offered. After finally putting my Dta to bed, my Aunt Bong saddled up next to me on the blanket. We all sat in silence for a few moments and glared at the Thai soap opera on TV, occasionally looking over at Dta to make sure he was okay. I craned my neck around and asked my Aunt if she’d help me wake up so I could take Dta to the hospital, she said, “Of course. Of course,” and placed her hand on my back. It remained there for several minutes until I arose to grab a drink of water, where it slowly fell off and back into her powder-speckled lap.

Please feel free to follow me on Twitter. My page is professional in nature, intertwining ideas on medicine, literature, writing, and everyday thoughts from Peace Corps life to everything in between – @JuliaSchulkers

One response to “Human Touch in the Peace Corps

  1. Pingback: It’s More Than Smiles That Are Universal | Light Enough to Travel·

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