Everything in me wants to disappear
from my heres and theres,
yet my transgressing keeps me located,
keeps me where I am, maintaining connections
to all of my different pasts, pushing
boundaries, assumptions and more.
In the rare and wonderful realm of The Evergreen State College, an incredible friend often laughed at me with something to the effect of “If you ever went into televised performance, your show would be called Crossing Lines with iea.” While our young and chaotic undergrad selves had no idea how our storms would lead us into adulthood, it remains inherently true that my performance into reality is all about crossing lines. As part of the complicated space I hold towards the Borderland (Ukraine), I question whether I crossed enough lines, whether it was the responsible thing for me to be a Peace Corps Volunteer – whether I actually lived intricately into my community there, supporting and bearing presence to the stories and lives of Ukrainians, blending the distinctions between self and community, between nationalities, between dreams and realities, between idealism and pragmatism, between power dynamics and hope. I question this, in a drastic way, because I am quite queer and I was not very verbal about it with my Ukrainian community.
When I applied to the Peace Corps, I chose not to talk about my sexuality. I was afraid that the other’s imposition of the gay label would then limit where they would send me. To be honest, I wasn’t ready to talk about my queerness, even when I’ve known I am gay since I was 8, even after shaving my head at 19, even after enduring overwhelming crushes on some of my college-mates. Mostly, I was waiting for a moment when my family wouldn’t think my queerness was just a phase or that I didn’t know what I was about in the world. Most of my first two years in Ukraine were a blend of figuring out what does it mean to crave an international life, while queer and how do I respond to new community members whose first question of three standard, expected questions was, “Do you have a boyfriend?” Granted, with the latter being a standard question, I got really good about spinning Ukrainian culture back in order to make the Ukrainian ladies laugh, avert a potential setup situation, and say everything but “I’m gay.”
I was almost ready to choose myself when I graduated, but then I shrank back after a few months with family in Texas, and even more when I arrived in Ukraine where gender differences are drastically more stark than here in the States. In one of the first orientation sessions in Ukraine we were told something like “Homophobia is real here as homosexuality is a foreign issue. Ukrainians see homosexuality as something really strange. If you are gay, try not to be. If you can’t help it, then don’t tell anyone.” While since then, they improved the dialogue about homosexuality within the Ukrainian Peace Corps community, where I was in my own self and time, I attempted the “try not to be gay” recommendation, albeit extremely short lived and extremely poorly. To choose my queerness, it took growing my hair out experimentally long and my dear college buddy who also happens to be wonderfully gay to come to Ukraine to say in paraphrased form, “iea, we don’t have to do what we’re doing. It’s time we started actually expressing ourselves.”
My buddy and I finally chose to embrace this inherent gay quality of ourselves while living in foreign homophobic countries. Our separate yet similar stories of coming into being aren’t unique (there are others). I am incredibly thankful for my narrative in terms of living into a stronger sense of self. I knew that when I came back to the States, neither hiding nor modifying myself would be something I’ll ever choose for myself again. Nonetheless, it doesn’t change the complicated feelings that I have for the three years, I didn’t share my full self with a culture and people who so wonderfully embraced me into their families and communities and forever changed my life. There is nothing I could, would or choose to do to think that I’d impose my American privilege onto Ukrainian culture, but maybe there could’ve been more space and stories to share within the rare phenomenon that is a Peace Corps experience.
In terms of where to go from here, and all the lines my narrative shifts and crosses, the questions don’t get any smaller, but they do get more and more wondrous in terms of embracing and opening space. I still question how I can live into an internationally focused life, holding presence and awareness of cultures as a very queer self. Moreover, in a new – yet it’s always been there experience – the gray area within gender and sexuality is getting even gayer…ahem, grayer. As I let go of all of my overly critical “not enoughs” and embrace more into tenderheartedness that comes with growth and learning, the questions become how do I get my communities here, there, and elsewhere to see me for me, completely undefined, gender-nondescript, using my chosen pronouns? How do I breathe patience for my community as they struggle with this transition? How do I stay connected to my past when the very things that make me me causes some kind of separation from it?
Right now, everything in me wants to jump on a bicycle and disappear into a wanderer’s life, taking myself away from family, friends and more, beginning into a new space where others only get to know this now me, this version of myself who, as of yet is the most true wonder I’ve become. Even when that’s all I want to do, I know that I will continue to stay connected, cross lines, creating new spaces, full of fluid movements and shifts seeking more integrated ways into the world.
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“Even the bravest of us rarely has the courage for what he really knows…” –Nietzsche
(Of all the quotes that have stayed with me, in many different forms, this one holds fast for the reminder to live past doubt and into humanity.)
Here’s what I know: my life has been and is about living space for the simultaneous transformative sovereignty of self and others.
I know that what is happening in Ukraine perpetuates its history and is another form of Ukraine being told no it can’t by the world and that there isn’t an answer – that there really isn’t an answer to any Ukrainian issue.
I know that my sense of nationalism – my loyalty – is with people, transgressing arbitrarily defined boundaries, is with addressing and atoning for western dominance. In cultivating glacier shifts, I cannot yet see where this will lead, but I know that I am here.
Yes, I hold a complicated understanding about Peace Corps and the experience as an American to leave after my three years in Ukraine. Yes, that experience engrained in me a commitment to the global society. Yes, for the rest of my life, I will be present to stories that are silenced and/or erased. Yes, in cultivating the next step, I am utilizing my Ukrainian experience to cause a much more just and sovereign world. Yes, at the core of my day’s thought is Ukraine and I crave to better integrate thought within action.
No, those three years in Eastern Europe were not enough, especially as they were incredibly selfish years. No, Peace Corps is not enough. It only goes as far as an experience.
Absolutely yes, I dream bigger than I can currently imagine. Yes, I am a pragmatic idealist, committed to systemic change through significant shifts.
Yes, I question values.
But yes, Nietzsche, I am the courage to live what I really know.
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In the attempt to develop my life, bearing presence to people’s stories that never get told and providing space and opportunities for transformation, I lived in Ukraine for three years. Now back in the States, able to understand and see from a different perspective, I question my role there. However, I know that for the rest of my life, I am living into what I now understand about the world and the privileged experience of this opportunity.
I find it problematic how altruistically naive I was when I lived in Ukraine. I should’ve realized sooner my own role within government. Guilt doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel about having been so silently queer in a presently increasingly homophobic space there. I could have been and done more. I could have listened to Ukrainians and shared myself better.
I know I chose to step into the system (and I continuously choose to step into systems), having experienced how they can implicate and limit people. I know I attempt to practice true partnership between peoples and cultures, figuring out shifts to cause endemic change. However, I wonder how it is possible to stay alive within systems and if hope should even be a valued concept.
“The best thing PCVs bring to Ukraine, is hope.” -a reiterated statement that swims in my head.
What does it mean to come from a country that outwardly values hope yet structurally subjects impossibility for both people within its borders and others internationally? Is hope an Americanized myth to placate the masses, that especially when taken to another place, disavows the culture’s past, present and future? What is hope when people and places domestically and abroad are being stratified, objectified, abjectified and even killed?
Is hope necessary to act and respond to the needs in the world? Is hope appropriate in places that feel impossible? Is hope only a piece of some deeper value and what would that be? Could there be a more appropriate word to describe the way towards causing shifts for endemic change?
Even in questioning hope, I fully realize I act into hope…and live and die for the ability to disrupt and question the status quo, positing and challenging opportunities to create a more liberating and integral society. I fully understand that in every instance, people are who matter and in some way or another, I am committed to that reality.
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Five years ago, at the end of a grueling 10-week training, I raised my right hand and questioned for the first time what I thought I was doing by becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer as I recited the Oath. While I still hold complex feelings towards those words, it didn’t stop me from living into this endeavor. I am officially a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV); however I consider myself a Recovering Peace Corps Volunteer.
Ever since I read an article when I was 15 that mentioned someone being a Peace Corps Volunteer in their biography, I knew I would be one too. At 20, I finished my bachelor’s degree, and then prepared as best I could to live integrally into another culture. As part of that process, I stopped being a vegetarian, hoping to check as many angles as possible my privilege of being an American. I wish I would have read Pedagogy of the Oppressed prior to leaving for Peace Corps. Maybe I would’ve been a more dedicated and intentional person both there and in my return.
I didn’t go to Ukraine to change the world nor to project American values; I went to be in dialogue, to learn, to live and work in deep connection. I wanted an experience where I would be able to bear presence to narratives that never get told, to be impacted by people and a culture different from mine, and to have that experience, those stories, cause a trajectory for how to live into the rest of my life. In preparing to leave, I knew I would probably extend for a third year (as I did), because two years really isn’t that long.
Yes, I got to live into my dream. Yes, I loved every minute – give or take – of my time there. Yes, even with how hard it has been in returning to the States, I would do it all over again. Yes, Stateside, most of my friends are fellow RPCVs. But, yes, Peace Corps is also part of the bureaucratic system, forced to pay homage to Congressional whims (the repercussions of such I felt while abroad), and is quite possibly linked as a more modern form of colonialism, which I imagine many international aid organizations might find themselves implicated.
Yes, Ukraine is home to some of the most altruistic people I know who graciously welcomed me into their family. Yes, Ukraine grows phenomenal fruits and vegetables that actually taste deeply and wonderfully. Yes, there are completely rad people engaged in some absolutely important projects. But, yes, Ukraine has a complicated history, for whatever reason continues to be the battleground for other country’s fights, are a people who have continuously been told no by the world, and have some very awful human rights issues both past and present (ex. discrimination of people living with HIV, people of color, different religious backgrounds, and the lgbtqia community).
Thus, for many reasons, my relationship to Peace Corps and to Ukraine is very complex. Recently, I read an article 5 things I wish I knew about Peace Corps and while I can agree with these things, I think they gloss over how complicated it is to live into an international life, seeking integrated partnership between and within peoples.
Facts/Experiences/etc. I wish I would’ve been more prepared for:
- Guilt. As Americans, we have an incredible yet arbitrary privilege. We have the opportunity to be Peace Corps Volunteers. We can travel almost anywhere without a visa. I got to be a part of some amazing projects happening in Ukraine, but at the end of my three years, I also got to leave. My first year back in America, I had a hard time staying connected with my Ukrainian community, because how in the world is it appropriate to express the experience of being miserable in the States when that’s a dream so many people around the world would love to trade places for, when so many people are arbitrarily denied visas to come here, are shuttled like cattle through lines, only to be ostracized and denied entrance to this country? On top of all of that, knowing how, without Peace Corps in Ukraine, PEPFAR projects aren’t happening, camps on project design and management are in need of funding and so many amazing Ukrainians are now out of a job because Peace Corps Ukraine is indefinitely closed.
- The ways Peace Corps plays into foreign policy can negatively impact the hosting country. Particularly, with the unrest that is currently happening in Ukraine, I’m acutely aware of my own perspective as a born-raised Westerner, the English media automatically skews to the West and the challenges NGOs and foreign aid play into political leverage. One of the first things we’re taught to say in a foreign language is, «Peace Corps is a non-religious, non-political government organization.» Surface-level, I know this memorized statement to be true, but in the deep undercurrent….truth becomes murky. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and Crazy Like Us come to mind.
- Peace Corps markets the experience as a two-year commitment that will essentially grant you a golden ticket. Prior to becoming a PCV, I didn’t believe in this reality and had been able to maintain a safe distance between myself and the myth. Unfortunately, after hearing the same broken-record story about how RPCVs in an interview will be hired on the spot because of their experience, I somehow bought into the myth only to be severely shattered when the myth wasn’t necessarily true. In some ways, the experience is an earned golden ticket, but it can’t be quantified by anything other than the stories I have, the Ukrainian connections I continue to cultivate, and how I choose to live my life with others in mind. If anything, Peace Corps instilled in me that at every instance, people’s well-being and lives are at stake and success has more to do with interacting with people than accomplishing tasks or being defined by my job. Stateside, I need to do a much better job incorporating these experiences.
- Reverse culture shock is beyond awful. While I’d experienced moderate reverse culture shock before, coming back is miserable, namely for the above three reasons, but also because after being gone for so long, I forgot how to be American and how to talk to nonRPCV Americans. Living in between very different cultures, very different realities, starting over, and being very confused about place is understatedly hard.
Although at the end of three years, it was definitely time to come home, to build on the foundation cultivated within my time as a PCV, part of me wishes I would have stayed decades longer so that I could have better supported the community who welcomed me so deeply into their world and defied the reality ‘PCVs get more out of the experience than they could ever hope to accomplish.’ It was never about me. It was always and will always be about living within the gray area of self and other, of positing space and opportunity for transformation.
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Recovering…embarking from there to here is always a trek…
Here it is. The project I planned during training five years ago, began last year, then stopped, restarted, and finally finished. It’s not anywhere near my best work, but it is what it is…
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I know most of this blog has been spent in woe-is-me processing coming back to America and that very little of it contains my deep love and absolute respect for Ukrainians and the three years I had the opportunity to grow in Ukraine. Therefore, this post is for my Ukrainian homies.
More so now than ever, I have been anxiously reading the goings-on in Ukraine with the protests, the government’s double-sided response, and the pro-government protests, which in proper ruling party fashion, appears to be purchased. I have been and remain impressed with the passion and movement happening there. I believe the protests have more to do with the situation Ukraine’s been spiraling in the last few years and beyond than in joining the EU. I don’t think the answer lays in aligning with either the EU or Russia, but with Ukraine staking its claim as its own entity. How exactly, I just don’t know.
As a side note, my favorite action taken by demonstrators has been the gifting of pumpkins to the Russian Embassy. (Traditionally pumpkins are a symbol of rejection for a marriage proposal.)
Ukraine is an absolutely complex place to talk about both historically and presently. It is a place with a narrative for other’s fights. There are very few non-controversial historical figures. Except for Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian Shakespeare, most figures are a hundred times more controversial than Christopher Columbus. Eastern Ukraine was essentially populated by the Russian Empire’s manifest destiny doctrine by Catherine, the [not-so] Great [for Ukraine]. The result is Eastern Ukraine being predominately pro-Russian and Western Ukraine being pro-Ukrainian. Most historical figures, therefore, are celebrated on one side as a hero and on the other, a traitor.
Time and again, Ukraine has been the battlefield for other people’s fights. Now that fights have become more economic in their politics and less about bloodshed, Ukraine is still there in the midst of world powers fighting.
Knowing that, and knowing how incredible Ukrainians are, my hope is that what is best for Ukrainians derives out of the passion on the streets and in dialogue.
*Please note, this is an overly simplified synopsis of Ukraine and what is happening. It does not encompass everything and truthfully is only my understanding.
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It’s been a two-fer kind of month….
While gearing up for my departure to Ukraine, almost five years ago now, I listened to The Be Good Tanyas pretty much on repeat – annoying probably most everyone around me. That album resonated so succinctly, that with my parents and brother piled in the car, no one was allowed to speak until three of the songs played on the way to the airport before I departed into the great unknown. This song being the most important of those three.
In gearing to come back to America, once again departing into the great unknown, the theme album oscillated between Bishop Allen and Florence and The Machine. I would lay awake in my Ukrainian apartment, listening and wondering what would happen and how it was possible to leave a place I deeply loved yet had no idea when I would return – all the while knowing I could never really return to this space that held so much. I went to Ukraine unsure, and while I came away equally unsure, I also got to have a glimpse at being my ultimate self. These were those two songs in their albums that stood out.
Last year, when my digging deep into ennui settled in for the long, treacherous and still quite possibly shattering haul, Fun. helped me hold it together for a while. But now, with the momentary glimpses of self and semblance of confidence, the illustrious Janelle Monae gets to be the theme in this next transition to be more fully….because, truthfully, she’s been the music this whole time.
Maybe some day it’ll get easier but for now and when then happens, there’ll be music.
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