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February 12, 2001
So, What Was It Like?

People keep asking me if my Peace Corps experience has changed me at all. Of course it has. The difficult part is explaining that the changes are as much about what I have lost as about what I have gained. To talk about what I have gained, I can draw on a unique range of knowledge and experiences. I learned a lot of interesting things, and I did a lot of memorable stuff. I now know about Nepali culture, the Nepali way of thinking, Nepali values... but I haven't adopted those things. By no means have I become a different person. I met plenty of Bohemian travellers in Nepal and India who had come from the West searching for a new way to identity themselves and perceive reality. I wasn't motivated in that way. I just went because I wanted to try to be helpful, and maybe to see some more of the world.

What I lost along the way is the hard part to explain. I'd like to say that, for a while anyway, I lost contact with American culture, the American way of thinking, American values. But it wasn't anything quite so drastic. What I lost was more like the unconscious assumption that some aspects of American culture are equivalent to human nature.

I spent 19 months in a place where very little happens. In an average Nepali individual's life, the range of activities is extremely narrow. People don't do a very wide variety of things. They don't go many places or interact with many people. They aren't aware of much outside of their own lives. And it's ok. People sit. People stare. People have inane conversations. People do the same things in the same way over and over and over. People think and believe what they and everyone else have grown up thinking and believing. And it's ok. This doesn't make them unhappy or bored or pitiful. It doesn't make them relaxed or enlightened or free, either. It's just how they are. And it's ok.

It was hard for me to not be judgemental. When I thought about the benefits of development to Nepal, one of the benefits I had in mind was that it would enable people to fill their time, to work so they could make money and buy things. But materialism alone can't be a goal. Measuring happiness through the accumulation of things the way we do in the West is not an unavoidable natural human inclination. And as much as we tell ourselves that the western work ethic, focus on details, and appreciation of comforts are necessarily good things - they aren't. I've seen people live happily without them.

As countries develop and people gain the ability to acquire more and more things, I can see how somewhere along the way they may start to measure themselves by their possessions. In America, we've elevated that to a highly detailed science. I'm sure that in a few years, I'll be buying trendy cross-marketed product-placed design images to go with my Danish living room decor that I bought on a pre-IPO start-up website using frequent-flyer-mile points that I converted over from my rental-car card. By living somewhere that hasn't gotten to that point yet, I was able to realize the point we've already arrived at.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to judge America here either. I feel more forgiving of America's flaws every time I spend time away. And I do love the huge selection of stuff in America. Being bankrupt in a poor isolated country for two years, away from all of this selection and marketing, has really made me appreciate the power that a person with money in America has. I'm going to earn and spend more money, and go through a larger amount and variety of material items in one month here than I did in all the time I spent in Nepal put together. And I'm going to appreciate it and feel lucky and enjoy every minute of it.

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