I recently returned to Paraguay after 5 years away – COVID delayed my return. It’s the third time I’ve been back since finishing my Peace Corps service there. I also realized during the trip that 2024 will mark my 10-year anniversary of first arriving in Paraguay as a just-starting, excited, and (yet) terrified volunteer. What I remember most about the pre-departure materials and pre-departure orientation speakers for the Peace Corps is how often they said that my service would change me forever. At that time, I thought their message was a bit sentimental and dramatic.
It would take 27 months for me to understand how right they were – aka it took exactly the duration of my Peace Corps service. I remember returning to the US after more than 2 years away and realizing that the person who lived in the US before (pre-Peace Corps me) didn’t exist anymore.
When I returned from Paraguay after my service, US life hit me like an overloaded moving truck. There were glorious aspects such as being able to throw toilet paper in the toilet rather than into a trash can next to it, no days without running water or power, and not having to run around to unplug everything at the start of a rainstorm in case the power surged. Yet, there were also terrible things about returning. Perhaps the worst was that I lost the community that I’d built over the years, which had become central to my life. I transitioned to a cold region of the US where few people spoke Spanish – two things that made me sad because I find joy in the sun (and its warmth) and the interesting way that Spanish captures our thoughts.
Now having had a decade to think about my Paraguayan self and my US self, I’ve come to understand how the Peace Corps in Paraguay changed me. Thinking about it, I’m not remorseful if I sound a bit sentimental and dramatic because, perhaps, I’m appropriately both of those things.
Having just graduated medical school I can say with a certain amount of pride that my Peace Corps service remains the hardest experience of my life as well as the period where I learned the most (more reflection on my medical school experience to come in future blog posts). This may be because my Peace Corps service came first so I applied what I learned from it to my medical school experience, but I suspect that the challenge the Peace Corps poses is unique and may still have outcompeted medical school even if it came second.
I should clarify that hard doesn’t mean miserable. By “hard” I mean an experience that pushed me to problem solve frequently and on the fly, find new ways to tackle obstacles because every known way didn’t work when I applied it, challenged me to revise and revisit ideas, placed me face-to-face with my own preconceived notions so that I could consider how they may not be absolute truths, forced me to define my values, and required me to look inward both to reflect and to find strength.
When I say “learned the most” I don’t mean I sat and studied all day (I did do that sometimes in medical school though). What I mean is that finding a way to navigate two second languages (Spanish and Guaraní) and to operate in a culture that wasn’t my own required unlearning, relearning, and new learning behavior, vocabulary, customs, traditions, and systems that may have been similar or completely different form my native equivalent and may (or may not) have been in line with my belief system.
The Peace Corps in Paraguay stretched me to look at things differently. It forced me to decide what parts of myself I was willing to give up to assimilate into Paraguayan culture and what parts I would keep even if they accentuated my otherness. Living in Paraguay was a give and take between, on one hand, being open to new ideas and experiences that required flexibility because often situations were unpredictable or not completely understood and, on the other hand, defense of individual needs and goals that did not fit nicely into Paraguayan life.
The experience of navigating conflicting parts of daily life in Paraguay and shifting self are what changed me so much during my Peace Corps service. It showed me that I have multiple identities that come together to form me and how the pecking order of those identities shifts depending on the situation and the activity I’m doing. Also, the amount of self-reflection I engaged in during the Peace Corps (both as a factor of my strange schedule there and as a byproduct of living in a different culture) is what made me who I am today. No time before or after the Peace Corps (so far anyway) has given me so much time to look inward and examine who I am and how that relates to who I hope to be.
When I returned to Paraguay after 5 years away, I was struck by how much I’ve grown since I finished the Peace Corps (and last visited Paraguay). I was surprised and content that who I am today (a doctor about to start residency) is still grounded in the self I created in Paraguay starting now almost a decade ago. When they said my Peace Corps service would change me forever, they undersold exactly how much. Even now, having done and achieved many things since returning to the US, I find my mind drifting back to those days in the land of the Guaraní as a volunteer and falling back on the strategies of perseverance I developed then to help me through rough patches now. These days, I remain skeptical when someone tells me that something will change me, but I also remain humble and open to the possibility because Paraguay taught me that one experience has the capacity to change everything.