A couple of weeks ago, I had to go to the internet store because my modem had stopped working. Again. I carefully prepared a few phrases to use with the customer service provider. At the store I ran into an English teacher friend, who was happy to translate the answer: I’d used up all my data because I hadn’t sent an SMS to the company to convert my units into gigabytes.
Great, I said, though I wasn’t excited to pay double for the month. I went home and popped the modem’s SIM card into my phone. I waited for a network to show up so I could text the company.
Nothing. A grey triangle where there should have been reception bars. After a week of cafe-hopping and buying lunch just so I could watch Facebook fail to load — after changing providers three months before for a network that actually loaded — after finally having a discussion with a provider where I understood what was going on, I still couldn’t get my stupid modem to work.
I threw the modem at the wall, threw myself on my bed, and cried for a while. And I asked myself: What am I even doing here?
That anecdote probably sounds a little dramatic. It becomes all the more so if I mention that I considered plugging my modem in and using a few kilobytes to research why my phone and internet SIM were incompatible; that I considered going back to the provider and asking if he could fix it; that I considered knocking on my landlady’s door and asking to borrow her smartphone to send the SMS. But no. I threw my modem at the wall and cried for an hour.
Take a minute, though, and think about the last time you focused really hard on something mentally taxing for more than an hour. Maybe two hours or four. Think about the way you felt afterward: a little bit like your brain had turned to limp noodles, as if all the usefulness had been wrung out of it and you could no longer form a coherent thought. Right? Communicating in a foreign language when you have low proficiency starts to feel like that after the first half hour.
Now imagine the last time you had a really busy day at work. You had two or three meetings on top of your own projects. And your coworkers kept interrupting you because they needed your help, or your input, or you owed them something and you just hadn’t had the time to do it yet. You end the day not just exhausted from multitasking, but irritable about how little got done despite it. With a dozen CPs, over a thousand students, and almost daily requests for new projects or private tutoring, I have a lot of days that go like this.
And that’s not talking about cross-cultural problems. Or about limited food availability and no control over indoor temperatures. Or the half-hour daily walk to and from school. Or the immature snots in the schoolyard who mimic me in a falsetto every time I speak English. Or, or, or…
It’s not an easy job. It’s emotionally taxing. You need investment and you need some kind of motivator.
I didn’t throw a tantrum because I was frustrated with something as minor as a faulty SIM card. Not really. I threw a tantrum because I was exhausted, because everything felt difficult, and because in that moment the whole two-year exercise seemed meaningless.
Why am I even here?
After an hour or two I gave in to practicality, if not to reason, and decided I should probably eat lunch. I had just heated up leftovers and was sitting down with my meal when I heard a knock on my door.
I paused. Listened. Decided I must be imagining things. Nobody ever came and knocked on my door. It was always the landlady they were visiting.
The knock came again. I put my lunch down to see who it was.
“Surprise!” exclaimed two of my twelfth-grade students, and announced that they had come to take me to lunch. One girl’s favorite restaurant, surprise location, their treat.
Oh, I thought, blindsided. That’s why.
The work I’m doing here is important, and I care about it. I care about my fellow PCVs and the network we’ve built, tenuous with distance and made enduring by shared experience. I care about Peace Corps ideals, abstract as they are — building cross-cultural communities and professional skills. But none of those things are enough in to keep me here, not in a moment of distress.
I’m here for the half-dozen students who are always asking to visit my home, to make American food, to climb a mountain together or go shopping.
I’m here for the girl who monopolizes my open office hours to ask every question about English grammar known to humankind.
I’m here for the full-time professional who stops me after an evening class to show me her new vocabulary app or ask how I pronounce a list of words.
I’m here for the sixth-grade boys who crowd in awe around my ereader in the canteen, cheer when they realize I know some Kazakh, and tell me proudly, “Food! Ол аспаз. Дәмді ме?”
I’m here for the non-English speaking teachers and friends who patiently and encouragingly repeat the same question in Kazakh, over and over, until something in my brain connects and I can stumble over an answer.
I’m here for the afternoon spent chatting about anthropological terminology and cross-cultural experiences with the English teacher who runs a side translation business.
I’m here for the teachers who, seeing me exhausted at the end of a Monday, play with my hair and tell me I’m very young to have this much responsibility, and then jump on my supervisor to tell him he should cut back my schedule.
I’m here for holiday parties and weekend game nights with the other foreigners in the community and some young-adult Kazakh friends.
I’m here for the friends and counterparts who have opened their homes to me, fed me dinner, asked about my life, and encouraged me to practice Kazakh with their children.
I’m even here for the gaggle of ten-year-old boys who chant “Apple apple apple apple” when they see me in the courtyard — not because it’s particularly endearing to have a random word shouted at you, but because they switch languages when I shout “алма алма алма алма” back, and give me something to laugh about on the walk home.
I’m dedicated to my work. I enjoy it, I find it fulfilling, and I am invested in developing myself a professional adult. But at the end of the day, I can’t live for work alone.
It’s about the people, the community, the connections I make. And I’m lucky enough to have made some good ones.
 Side question for PCVs using Skytel: Does anyone else have this problem or is my local provider just stupid about it?
 “She’s a cook. Is it tasty?”
 This sounds really weird in an American context. Here it’s a normal gesture of affection/comfort between sisters and close female friends.