Guest-post by graduate assistant and MAE student Matthew Fledderjohann. Interested in learning about the choices involved with joining the Peace Corps? Read on.
“English literature, eh? So, uh, what will you do with that exactly?”
As I neared the completion of my undergraduate degree, the questions that had confronted my educational aims for the past four years only increased in intensity. “What’s the marketability of that education?” “Can you get a job with that?” “But how will you make rent?” With less than six months before graduation, I had no idea how to answer any of them. My, “Oh, I’ll come up with something,” was wearing thin.
So, over Christmas break I escaped from the looming reality of Real Life and went to Malaysia. My sister and brother-in-law were teaching in Penang, and they invited me to spend three weeks on the shores of the Indian Ocean with them, sipping watermelon juice and avoiding washed-up jellyfish. Beyond being a wonderfully relaxing way to spend the holidays, my time in Malaysia provided me the opportunity to observe how two Americans could thrive within a foreign environment. My sister and her husband were living well. They knew their neighbors and their city. They knew which vendors had the best shrimp in the market and how to avoid the rude monkeys in the park. In the midst of all that was unfamiliar, they were living life, common life in an uncommon place.
I came home from Malaysia knowing that whatever else I might do after graduation, I wanted what my sister had. I wanted to live normal life in a foreign country. Go to work. Hang out with friends. Buy groceries. But all in an obscure country. A little bit of online research gave me the idea that the United States Peace Corps would be the most direct means to attaining that goal.
And it did just that. As I came to learn, the Peace Corps excels in simply establishing individuals in some of the further corners of the world, providing them with the support they need, and giving them the freedom to just live life. Two months after receiving that indirect degree in Literature and Communications, the Peace Corps responded to my application with an invitation to join their education initiatives in Kazakhstan. My first question, “Where’s Kazakhstan?” was followed closely by my answer, “Absolutely.” One month later I was learning Russian, teaching English, and, yes, eating horsemeat in northwestern Kazakhstan.
While I didn’t truly settle into the ease of common life until my second year of service, the ongoing excitement of new experiences carried me well through my first year. The intimidation of walking into my first American Literature class after having been introduced as a distinguished foreign scholar (only to find that none of the students had textbooks). The time I accidentally bought five kilograms of sour apples. Trying to explain to my host family why my water distiller blew out their electrical grid. Life as an English teacher in geographic Siberia didn’t start out very normally.
But by the fifteen-month mark, I had found a working routine and established a solid base of local friends. I found myself easing into the normality of Kazakhstan life. Those quirks of life were becoming part of the everyday. Washing laundry in the bathtub. Writing out lesson-plans by hand. Using an outhouse in sub-freezing weather. Ordering donor kabobs and local beer at a favorite Soviet diner. In the midst of all that was otherwise unfamiliar, I was living life, very common life in a very uncommon place.
Post Script: As I quickly discovered upon my return to the United States, living in Kazakhstan for twenty-seven months doesn’t exactly answer all those questions about careers possibilities in English Literature. Actually, it doesn’t answer them at all. I’m currently hoping that graduate school will offer the ultimate life-direction that the Peace Corps didn’t. I guess we’ll see about that.