Last week I began preparing for the end of my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. Between closing out my SPA grant, having a final physical exam, going to the dentist, and attending my group’s Close of Service Conference, the fact that I am leaving this country in eight weeks is starting to feel real.
It was interesting to see people whom I have not seen in two years, to find out who left early and who stayed, learn a bit about what people did and what their next steps are. That is, if they have any planned. People from my group will be doing everything from going to graduate school in the fall to traveling and then returning to the U.S. I personally will be returning right after I close my service, though I wish I had the luxury of traveling for a couple of months post-service. However, I checked the box to take the plane ticket offered me, and anticipate returning in mid-May, the day after I sign my last bit of close of service paperwork.
Of course, the conference, seeing people, talking about what is next, talking about how we’ve changed, how we will deal with readjustment – all of this got me thinking. How have I changed since I have been in Ukraine? I had one immediate answer – prior to coming to Ukraine and serving in Peace Corps, I, like so many Americans, was caught up in “shoulds”. I let other people influence me in that I bought into what I “should” do – what is expected of us in the US. It is expected that we as women will want to get married and have children (a stereotype I have never fit into). It is also expected that we will all have ambition, want power and wealth, want a house. We are told we should want to succeed. We are told we should help other people. We are told we should want a secure financial future, and are told how to go about getting that.
The problem with living life listening to shoulds is that I stopped following my own instincts, my own heart. I did what I thought would move me forward in a career, and ended up being underemployed, underappreciated, and ultimately, laid off two times. I did what I thought I should do in re: purchasing a house, and ended up having to sell it for a vast amount less than I owed, and lost all of the money I put into renovating it. I did not want to end up being labeled an “old maid”, so I rushed into a first marriage, which of course led to a divorce. In other words, I made a lot of mistakes that I did not need to make.
So what does any of this mean in relation to how I have changed? One noticeable thing is that although I am planning for my future, I am better at living in the present – Ukraine has forced me to do that. We in the US are planners – we plan our careers (well, some people do), we plan large purchases, plan our lives. The problem with so much planning is that life happens anyway, and often gets in the way of our carefully laid plans. Some of us can adjust and change course, but others cannot, and find themselves completely devastated when life does not go according to plans.
As for me, I had plans, but they were always vague and therefore subject to change. I think that has served me well, and has meant that as things change here, or do not go the way that I planned or wanted (or even hoped), I quickly adjusted and kept going. And I learned to live on a daily basis, instead of planning my happiness. I found contentment in small accomplishments, instead of looking forward to the future accomplishment that would bring happiness. Although I cannot say I am happy every day, I am not hopeless every day. Sure, I’m nervous about leaving Peace Corps and being out in the job-searching community again. I’m less worried about reverse culture-shock, because I’ve been through it once before, many years ago.
As to how else I have changed since that day two years ago when I got on the plane that would bring me here, I am not sure yet – part of me is processing now, and part will be processing for a while after my return to the US. The changes in me will show in any multitude of large and small ways, from the way I approach a seemingly hopeless situation or problem to the way I deal with others to how I handle day-to-day living. In short, I don’t know exactly how I have changed yet. Change is a process, and the kind of change a person undergoes in this kind of experience is not one that is easily put into words. I feel the same, but different. Some of the changes will be good, and others may not be. One woman who was sitting next to me when the topic was brought up during our conference said “I know how I have changed – I don’t tolerate as much BS as I used to – I have developed an edge.” She did not say whether she thought it was good or bad, that change she feels – and it is not good or bad – it just is.
So last week it was hello again to so many people – a final gathering before we say goodbye. I know I won’t see many of them ever again, but I wish them well in their future lives. And soon it will be hello again to the US, and to a whole new life there.