Continuing on with this multiple parter, I am writing about how I came to be the PCV I am today. In this installment: Löki and the Miscommunications (I have just started reading Percy Jackson and the Olympians [link]).
Anyway...moving on...even with the 3 months of pre-service training, I was not prepared to deal with the miscommunications that arose between myself and my Azerbaijani counterparts. Now, Peace Corps doesn't shirk away from preparation, but you can only learn so much in the safe and protective environment of pre-serving training. PC staff, LCFs, training host families - they all have had ample exposure to Peace Corps and/or have relatively quick access to PC support services.
Take all that away and you got yourself a Peace Corps host site.
Now, don't get me wrong. It would take paragraphs to explain the amount of work PC puts into preparing a host site for a volunteer, but PC cannot cover every base.
I made the mistake of assuming my host community had the same amount of extensive exposure to the bureaucratic arm of Peace Corps Azerbaijan as my training site did. Of course they didn't. Peace Corps is not represented by the main office in [insert city here], but by the relationship a host community has with its Volunteer.
It didn't occur to me to really take the time to explain who I was, my skill sets, or why I was living in Zaqatala to anybody. I just assumed everybody knew what Peace Corps was and what I had come to do. Again...assumptions...
Anyway, I wish I had realized that I needed to build my own credibility on day one. It would have allowed me to circumvent so many miscommunications.
I get it though. We do it the US. When looking for work, I submit a cover letter and a resume. There are interviews and probationary periods. I have to earn the right to be considered a member of a non-profit team. Why would my Peace Corps situation be any different? Just because I am a volunteer does not mean people should automatically accept me, especially if I want to work with their kids.
The story ends with it took me almost a year to realize that I should be leading with the cultural exchange part and then moving on to community development. Now when I meet a new person (any new person), I take that first ten minutes to explain who I am, where I am from, why I am here, and who I work for. I try to be patient and answer all the questions in a culturally appropriate way. I drop counterpart names and talk about what I like about Zaqatala. Even if the person is just a passerby, I know I am meeting the vision of Peace Corps with every new relationship I make.