Post-Peace Corps pondering and telling stories

27 Sep

Let’s get right back into it, shall we?

I’ve officially been done with my service for almost four months. That means for nearly four months I’ve been using the line, “Oh, I just got back from finishing my Peace Corps service in Indonesia” when new people I’m meeting or old acquaintances ask what I’m doing. I began thinking more about this question and that reply this last week. More so, I began thinking about how long I can continue to use that line before it becomes obsolete.

Despite it being so long, I have no shame in using it. Though I said my goodbyes in June, it’s fresh. I still feel like “I just finished.”

Some people follow that question with “How long have you been back?” and then “What have you been doing between then and now?” The answer I want to say is “It’s been a blur, non-alcohol induced.” Elbow nudge. Ha. Ha… More often than not I simply say “I’ve been traveling.” And it’s true. I’ve taken more trips between June and August than I had during any other three-month period.

It feels fresh because I’ve gotten to a point where me and my belongings (for the most part) are in one place, and we’re not leaving. I’m excited about that. I’m excited to be able to completely immerse myself in one place again. Fortunately for me this one place is New York City.

Another reason it feels so fresh is because time has escaped me. Volunteers must sometimes grow accustomed to a slower pace of living in their country of service coupled with limited options of what to do with much more free time.  This often leads to volunteers starting projects. And when those don’t work they pick up seemingly random hobbies like gardening, learning a new instrument, cooking or in my case spending three hours with a mortar and pestle to make one handsome jar of homemade peanut butter. To each their own.

On the reverse side, well, it’s the reverse.

So as a returned volunteer with sudden endless ways to fill my time and surrounded with the go-go-go mentality that is particularly palpable while transferring subway lines during rush hour at Time Square, it’s quite easy to wake up and realize September is almost over when you swore yesterday you were planning Labor Day weekend and sending out those first few resumes.

Back in spring, when my Close of Service was in grasp, I began to think more heavily about my return. I thought about the habits I had created and aspects of Indonesian culture and my Peace Corps experience that I would want to retain when I got back to the U.S.  I knew it’d be all too easy to leap back into old patterns without much intention to purposefully do so or resist doing so. During service all that time to kill actually became important as it provided ample opportunity for reflection, journaling or enjoying some sort of stimulating reading, podcast, documentary or movie that I might not ordinarily set time aside to read/listen/watch and digest. That’s a habit I’m trying to make stick—not just quickly consuming everything that’s out there—but rather spending time to fully explore something. I’ve been trying to set aside an hour or two before I go to bed to do this. That’s how I happened upon this podcast: TED Radio Hour: The Next Great Generation?  Which in turn inspired this blog post, the remainder of which was adapted from my journal.

What’s your story?

We’ve been hearing about it for years now, about this emerging adulthood where 20-somethings are lost and living unconventional lives. We’re underemployed and living with our parents. We’re idealists and optimistic. We’ve grown up with social media that has morphed us into narcissists taking any opportunity to post, tweet and squawk about ourselves.

Eg.

What is it with 20 Somethings? via New York Times Oct. 8, 2010

The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright via New York Magazine Oct. 2011

Educated and Jobless: What’s Next for Millennials? via NPR Nov. 12, 2011

Many ’emerging adults’ are not there yet via USA Today July 7, 2012

A few years back, it fascinated me to see these topics, experiences and attitudes enter the public conscious. Being the “narcissistic” millennial that I am, I thought these were thoughts and feelings exclusive to me and my friends. It was interesting to see that this wasn’t unique to me, but it was part of a larger social trend. It was a generational thing, and it validated a lot. I wasn’t alone in the ambiguity of early 20s, and it was OK to have a quarter-life crisis.

It’s a conversation that doesn’t seem to be going away. Just yesterday I got into yet another conversation about my generation. I’m less enthused to hear about it all now, as it seems there’s nothing to add that hasn’t been said or that doesn’t just state the obvious observations. Regardless I’m still intrigued by what is being said about my generation.

I liked this podcast because it put a positive spin on it all. Instead of focusing on our search for jobs and meaningWe’re creative, innovative… the next greatest generation! We’re changing things up, creating new norms and emanating innovative ideas and energy.

Yet one idea we still abide by, perhaps you’ve encountered it, is the whole “What do you do?” This question has an implicit meaning. It’s an abbreviated version of “What do you do… for a living?” Or more specifically “What do you do from 9-5?” It can appear that the answer to this question is inseparable from our identities. Perhaps for some it is or was. Perhaps it’s the easiest way to sum ourselves up in brief encounters.  It does provide information of value, but does this common question have to be the first one outside of “What is your name?” when meeting someone new. It’s appropriate in an office, but why do we carry it to less formal settings as well?

In Indonesia this was not the case, at least in the area where I lived. I can’t speak to the culture of a big business-centric city or other islands with their differing local cultures. However, with the people I regularly came into contact with, the information they shared about themselves in introductions included 1.) What town, village or region they were from, 2.) Their religion, 3.) Their birth order within their family, 4.) If they were married or single, and 5.) If they had children of their own. I don’t recall getting around to what a person did for a living until a while later into a conversation. In fact sometimes when I asked, it seemed aside from the point.

As I was preparing to leave and considering those elements I appreciated in East Javanese culture… the warmness, hospitality, the focus on working together and supporting one another… this way of identifying ourselves outside of what we do for a living did not occur to me as something I might want to hold onto.

Now it’s in my thoughts after having answered this question frequently upon returning and not having a set title (aside from my former one.)

What if we took this cultural idiosyncrasy and applied it here? What if we broke the U.S. norm derived from a time when “what you do” from 9 to 5, more or less was the same for the duration of your career and perhaps rightfully so displayed something telling about you?

We are finding new ways to identify ourselves outside of that. It’s in the clever quips in the bio sections of personal websites and social media, and it’s perpetuated through the curated images we portray of our lives online. It shows there’s more to us than a title on a business card. Yet why face-to-face does the question “What do you do?” remain one of the first we ask?

Before putting all this thought into it, I noticed a little while back I had started to ask new people I met at social gatherings, “What’s your story?” It’s candid, a good opener to get someone to talk about something. Sometimes it’s a little unclear. We all have multiple stories after all. If the person needed further prompts, I’d provide: “Who are you? What are you interested in? How’d you get here tonight? Tell me something about yourself!”

I’d like to think it opens the door for that person to tell me about whatever he or she feels is important about himself or herself. I hadn’t thought too deeply about my choice in asking this, other than noticing that once I threw it out there, I liked it and continued to use it. Now it’s more conscious and an interesting experiment in seeing how people define themselves through how they respond. When meeting someone new I put effort into avoiding the obvious question because I don’t want the obvious answer. Give me something better to go off of.

This podcast got me brewing as I noticed that the millennials featured had great stories that told who they were without a title. They weren’t defined by a typical job but through what they weren’t getting paid to do whether it was volunteering, pursuing unpaid work, or blogging.

Being that I’m in a transition phase, I can take liberties with my story telling. I can stick with the tried and true whole living in Indonesia/Peace Corps/new to New York/exploring my options story or I can dive right in to any one of the other things I’m currently interested in and pursuing. I dance around these questions. That’s probably why I even started using the whole “What’s your story thing?” My story varies from person to person because I don’t have one single thing I’m doing or have been doing that I can default to as I could if I currently possessed a business card with some cool title on it.  In the interim, as it seems a business card with a title is an important thing to have to answer the question “What do you do?” and because people are less interested in your birth order, religion or marital status, I’m considering something in the likeness of Oskar Schell’s business card which plays to not one single story, but to the variety of stories I have to tell.

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