1. Being part of the community
My return to Mozambique as a researcher working on a national level has really brought home how unique the Peace Corps experience is. Living abroad isn't unique -- I meet expatriate foreign service members, aid and humanitarian workers, and some industry folks, every day. But the expatriate existence is nothing like being a community volunteer. As a volunteer, even if living with email and working in an office, you are a part of the community in which you live. Your friends are nationals, your recreation is sitting at the corner bar with your colleagues and sharing one of the 750 ml bottles of beer, or maybe gathering for a party in which all the women bustle about cooking fish stew and corn meal xima while the men sit on plastic chairs and talk. As a born outsider, you may never be able to completely fit in, but as a peace corps volunteer you come pretty close.
2. Experiencing poverty
Every person who is born into privilege should somehow experience poverty. Peace Corps volunteers aren't completely poor, as they have their medical and emergency expenses fully covered, but our salaries are pretty darn low. Below the lowest tax bracket low. And it's a powerful experience to walk down a street and know that most shops aren't accessible to you, and to find yourself making friends with people whose company you don't necessarily enjoy, just because they can provide you with fancy food or rides in their car. It goes a long way to understanding how people without means end up putting themselves in risky situations.
3. Being different
As a white person in rural Africa, I got stared at everywhere I went. Babies sometimes looked at me and began to cry. Children begged and yelled "mulungo", white person, every time I passed. Men gave me endless attention and quite a few marriage proposals. My male friends were always approached by women trying to marry off their daughters. Being so different starts to weigh down on you, and you begin to expect the worst from everyone. I'd never experienced this kind of overt prejudice, nor the hardening of spirit which is produces, living in the States -- although many do.
Every time I meet a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), I know we share much in common. Even the volunteers from different continents or working in different sectors can understand my experience, and I theirs. Having been in the Peace Corps is almost like being inducted into a secret society within which there are few rules but much good will. It is an automatic feeling of acceptance when I meet other RPCVs, and the sense that we could talk for a long time, sharing stories from our volunteer days.
There is much I'm still learning about, well, everything. But being in a strange place, speaking a strange language, and dealing with completely unforseen ups-and-downs as a volunteer has given me a sense that I can generally handle things. There's a certain "wait-and-see" mantra that volunteers need to adopt if they are to do well at site, which has also served me well back at home and at school. If I don't know how to do something -- well, I'll figure it out. Or, I won't, and I'll see where that brings me.