Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Hanging On (and Hanging Out)
in Boston
   by Will Siegel (Ethiopia 1962–64)
Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience

I CAME TO BOSTON ten years ago to return to graduate school. I was getting nowhere writing a novel in California and I fancied that a masters mightPrinter friendly version pull me out of the swamp of my life in L.A. I came to my senses a few months after my arrival here on a chill December morning in 1995 at a T-stop across from Eastern Mountain Sports. As I looked around to see where I’d landed, I found myself in culture shock, not unlike what I’d experienced 40 years before when I first arrived in Addis Ababa in the last days of the rainy season of 1962 — one of 275 Peace Corps Volunteers, the first ever to go to Ethiopia.
     Thirty-five years before Boston, I set off with the Peace Corps to “save the world.” I thought (hell, we all thought!) that by sharing my knowledge and myself, I could bring a small part of the world to new understanding and new motivation and improve their lives. What did I know? I was young. There, in the fabled Horn of Africa, we were welcomed and greeted by the Emperor Haile Selassie, written about and gawked at as “Kennedy’s Kids.” We’d come to share our knowledge and skills and western ways in this remote highland kingdom of Africa.
     Like everyone else in the Peace Corps, I learned more than I taught, but I always felt, in that soft underbelly of my secret desires, that I would somehow touch others and help them grow. I believed, in my youthful ignorance, that American ingenuity could solve most of the problems of the world.
     I didn’t, however, solve many (or any!) problems of the world, but for me — as it has been, I’m sure, for most RPCVs — the Peace Corps experience was the seminal experience of my life, though for nearly four decades I kept trying to deny it.
     When I came home from Ethiopia and enrolled in graduate school in California, I quickly realized most of my fellow students couldn’t care less about where I’d been and what I’d done in Africa.
     Swallowed up by the California anti-war, free love, and psychedelic madness of the 1960s as sure as Jonah was swallowed by the whale, I found myself among strangers who, in the name of cool, maintained a distance from any sort of idealism, caring, or concerns about the world.
     I had also come home from Africa with the distinct knowledge that the Peace Corps had not prepared me for life as an RPCV. I returned “dumbed-down” by the experience of being away from American culture for two years. I lost something of myself in Africa. And my great hope for the world, that I’d clung to through Peace Corps Training at Georgetown University, had slipped away without my even noticing. Instead of sharing what I’d seen and lived through at the grassroots of the Third World — the suffering, deprivation, and ignorance, I couldn’t tell my story. Such tales scared people off. And the truth is the telling scared me off. I became jumpy and evasive and afraid of what I learned up close and personal in Africa. My memories of Ethiopia weren’t quite the trip to Disneyland I hoped to remember.
     So was it worth it? Living two years among the poor and unprivileged, planting the experience into the context of my life became a puzzle to me. I can still trace my footsteps along the crowded streets with honking taxis, donkeys and vendors hawking their wares, on my way to teach classrooms filled with barefoot kids. What did it mean to come home and shelve those impressions and memories away like photographs stashed and forgotten for years in a shoebox?
  
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