A Writer Writes

How I Was Bombed Out of Sri Lanka And Other Career Changes

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Sri Lanka: The author and his students (Spring 1998).

I spent a year as a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher in Kandy, Sri Lanka. While there, a suicide bomber blew himself up close to my home, which led to the evacuation of the Volunteers from the country. Well, evacuation may be too strong a word, but a security officer flew over from Washington, DC to evaluate the situation and he determined that the best thing to do was send the Volunteers home.

I returned home to New York in April 1998, after a three-day layover in Bangkok, just in time to re-enroll in the summer semester at Fordham University, from which I had taken a leave of absence to teach overseas. I only had one course left before having to take my comprehensive exams and graduating with a Master’s degree, so I figured it would be a breeze to finish up.

In the meantime, the Peace Corps explained they would find a new opportunity for me to serve a full two-year overseas assignment. That’s the Peace Corps for you, to their credit (or to their desire to keep their Volunteer numbers up). Whenever Volunteers get evacuated from a country due to a political or security situation, those Volunteers are put in the front of the line, before all current applicants who haven’t served yet, to get them back overseas before they have a change of heart and decide to stay stateside.

Well, so I ended up back at my parents’ home in upstate New York, and, as part of my cultural readjustment, this is what I went through. It was astonishing to see couples holding hands in the street (can they do that here?), to drive on paved roads, to experience hot showers and 24 hours of electricity, and to not have to step aside for gangs of scruffy-looking mongrel dogs self-importantly trotting by. There were no saffron-robe-wearing Buddhist monks, no sarongs to tie clumsily around my waist, no media stories of army advancements near Jaffna, no being stared at (because being white was no longer a phenomenon) and no British drama to give my opinion about. I mean, I was American. How can I possibly have an informed opinion about the circumstances of Princess Diana’s death or the restoration of Hong Kong to Chinese home rule?

But what I expected to happen didn’t happen. Which is to say, when I returned home, I had a pretty clear commitment to finishing my Master’s degree that summer and then returning to a new overseas assignment sometime in the fall.

This is what happened instead.

When I got home, I started reaching out to Peace Corps communities in the New York state and metropolitan regions. It was something our close-of-service facilitators had told us to do during our final days in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The purpose of these facilitators, it must be said, was to ease our transition back home. We would feel empty and alone once we returned to the United States, we were cheerfully told, because of the intense experience we had just had. Adjustment can be challenging. So, they suggested, reach out to others in the Peace Corps community who knew what you had gone through.

That meant, of course, staying in touch with my friends who I had just served with in Sri Lanka. But it also meant local folks in New York who I might potentially connect with in person. There was about a month of down time between my arrival back in the States and the beginning of the summer semester at Fordham University, so I had time to email tons of Peace Corps-type people and institutions that I researched and found online.

I didn’t really expect anything from those emails other than perhaps some sympathetic replies from former Volunteers who knew what I had gone through and who told me best of luck with the adjustment period. That’s what I received. And it was helpful. Really, it was.

Well, but then I also received, unexpectedly, an email from John Coyne, the manager of the New York regional Peace Corps office in the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. The office had a contract position open and would I be interested in learning more about it? Now THAT was a surprise. My parents’ home in the Hudson Valley was about 60 miles north of New York City, so I was able to take the Metro North railroad down without an issue, met John and the Peace Corps public affairs director, and pretty much had an offer to do some marketing and recruitment for the next several months.

During the train ride back upstate, I was stunned to realize this situation, if it worked out, could work out quite well, in fact. At that point, I hadn’t yet decided whether to move down to the Bronx to finish up my final class and study for my comprehensive exams at Fordham, or stay with my parents. The additional income from working for the Peace Corps would make this decision easier so I started reaching out to some friends in the Bronx, many of whom I had studied with at Fordham University before going overseas, and quickly found another graduate student named Elson was looking for a roommate.

So I got the job at the Peace Corps, I enrolled in my final modern poetry course and I moved down to the Bronx where I got a chance to socially reconnect with my friends, which greatly helped ease my transition back to the United States. Based on what I had heard from the close-of-service facilitators back in Colombo, I was expecting hardship, turmoil, anxiety and a sense of loss upon my return to the States. And well, yes, I suppose that did happen. But for the most part, I just started recreating myself in New York and had little time to invest much in those emotions. I got busy!

The next several months were an exciting blur. I was living a life I never imagined I would follow my tenure in Sri Lanka. I attended evening poetry classes and commuted to work via the D train from the Grand Concourse to Columbus Circle, where I transferred to the 1/9 train, which went down to the World Trade Center station. I read a lot on the train and silently mocked out-of-towners heading to the Staten Island Ferry who kept calling Houston Street “HEW-ston” Street, like the city, rather than “HOW-ston” Street, which was its accurately pronounced name. I was moving quickly from grungy, exhausted, footsore Volunteer to New York snob. I started wearing black again.

John Coyne was more than my boss at the Peace Corps; he was my first mentor. He had more of an impact on me than I bet he realizes though I expect that is likely the case for a lot of returned Volunteers he groomed. He served in the early 1960s and, like many Volunteers from that generation, he attached deep meaning not just to the Peace Corps but to the fact that it was started by John F. Kennedy and Sargent Shriver. Peace Corps Volunteers are typically known as Kennedy’s kids.

John was also a writer and an editor. So John and I hit it off on the literary level too; he published a regular newsletter about Peace Corps writers and asked me to pen a book review of Paul Theroux’s latest, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, which I was reading at the time. In the months and years to follow, I would write many more reviews.

So my transition to the United States arguably was to have taken me away from the world of the Peace Corps and return me to the world of the United States. But based on where I ended up in the regional Peace Corps recruitment office, surrounded by other former Volunteers, it didn’t quite end up that way. It only got stranger when I began to receive calls from my Peace Corps placement officer in Washington, DC. He had originally assigned me to Sri Lanka and now he began tempting (and then pleading with) me to take a new teaching assignment in either Kenya or the Philippines.

You believe that? I mean, the reason I wasn’t ready to go overseas again (aside from trying desperately to wrap up a Master’s degree in English) was because I was already working for the Peace Corps stateside. I was entrenched in one division of an organization that was trying to send me elsewhere. It was one of the more surreal experiences I have had in my life. I still don’t think my placement officer has forgiven me for staying….

There were indications at the university, too, that I wasn’t quite in re-entry mode.

During a Halloween party at a friend’s apartment, some graduate students showed up as characters from classic literature. I work a batik shirt and a sarong, a common outfit in Sri Lanka.

I had also gotten a part-time job teaching English as a Second Language at a local language school in the Bronx. Typically, when my graduate school friends and I would head down to Manhattan, we walked a quarter mile up Fordham Road from the university to the subway station, not really interacting much with the local population.

Now I had a community presence, though, and I would catch my students, who were primarily from the Dominican Republic, passing me by on the sidewalk, enthusiastically waving and calling out to me. The father of one of my Korean students owned a local convenience store and she-my student, that is-bought me an occasional cup of coffee.

And then, it happened, the incident that made me realize that I could no longer return to the university and pretend I hadn’t been changed by my time overseas.

Now keep in mind my original plan in enrolling at Fordham University several years previously was to study to become an English professor. I had studied English as an undergraduate. Two of my best friends at SUNY Binghamton had been as dedicated as I to the study of literature, and I was sure the three of us would ultimately end up teaching at universities across the land.

Well, I finished the modern poetry course and it was time to study for my comprehensive exams. My concentration was modern literature. My particular area of concentration was fiction but the exam would cover poetry as well, and so I had to delve into the likes of William Carlos Williams, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens William Butler Yeats….and W.H. Auden.

One evening, I got back from work at the Peace Corps office and headed over to study at the library. It wasn’t crowded and I pulled a stack of books off the shelves and plunked myself down in a carrel toward the back. Within about 10 minutes, though, I realized this study session wasn’t going to go anywhere.

I had opened a volume of Auden to a poem entitled September 1, 1939. It starts like this:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade;
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge image made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

I have never been the most gifted interpreter of poetry. But I was struck by the fact that Auden was deeply ruminating about a powerful event, in this case the outbreak of World War II, in New York City (”I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-Second Street”) and sought to understand the experience through the lens of scholarly study (”Accurate scholarship / can unearth the whole offense…”).

I had not had time to process my year in Sri Lanka nor, in particular, my close encounter with a suicide bomber. Events had happened much too fast since my return to New York. Auden’s sense of overwhelming emotion in the face of a carnage was, in other words, exactly the emotion I had not given myself time to experience since my return. I specifically remember how I stopped reading at that point, put my elbows on the desk and buried my eyes in my hands for several, long moments.

My emotions had finally seeped through the lens of academic study I had long put before most things in my life, as emotions surely overcame Auden in the face of incomprehensible slaughter. There is no comparison between the outbreak of a world war and the tragedy of a civil war in a single small country such as Sri Lanka unless you’re given to believe that the unfair, violent death of even a single human being is sufficient cause for sorrow.

Foolish me and the desire of youth! Hemingway had shoved me in the direction of worldly experience. Once I arrived, Auden showed how I must feel about the whole thing. Equally painful was the realism that emerged at the poem’s end. It was a journey for Auden as well.

In the poem’s original incarnation, Auden ends the poem with the line: “We must love one another or die”. The line began to annoy him (rose-tinted glasses perhaps?) so he removed it for a while. Then, when Auden finally restored it, the line read with the hardest realism possible: “We must love one another and die”.

There is no escaping death but the world’s ultimate wisdom is that we must love each other in the meantime. This was not something I wanted to study. It was something I wanted to know. Living in a nation that had experienced civil war and living in a city that came close to rioting because of a suicide bomb..those things can’t help but remove you from your cerebral world to place you squarely in the world of physical being.

I ended up earning a high pass in my comprehensive exams. The results came out in late November and when I attended the English department holiday party a few weeks later, both Professors Sicker and Stadler came over to say they looked forward to continuing to work with me when I was enrolled in a doctoral program. It wasn’t even a question of “if” in their minds. I, however, felt as though I was floating above my own experience, not quite certain which way I would go, not quite sure what was next.

Back in the Peace Corps office, my contract was about to end later that month. My university crowd and my Peace Corps crowd did not know each other and had nothing in common with each other except me. I had told John about my situation at the university. I hadn’t told him about the extent of my commitment to a doctoral program, but he must have guessed, based on the way I was going out to happy hour with the recruiters, dating a former Volunteer who had served in Africa, attending Peace Corps picnics, and staying late at the office, that I had some hesitation about remaining in academia.

My placement officer hadn’t called in some time-he had likely given up on me-but I wished he would call because I was in serious need of direction. I was ready to go anywhere if only because I had nowhere else to go. An intense seven months in New York City was ending and, with the unexpected explosion of emotion, the future was a blank page.

John helped out again. The editor of a Peace Corps newsletter dedicated to job postings for Volunteers returning to the United States was going on maternity leave at, well, at about the time my contract in New York was ending. The job was down in Washington, DC. It was only a three-month contract and I would have to get there and find a place to live in, um, two weeks, but it was a next step if I wanted it.

Sometimes life reads like a story. Sometimes life IS a story. My parents and sister hadn’t had the chance to spend the previous Christmas and New Year with me because I was in Sri Lanka. They were less than enthralled now when, this year, I spent a good part of the holiday in my parents’ home office checking out WashingtonPost.com for a place to rent for when I arrived in the national capital.

I had never been in Washington, DC before but I was up for anything. It might be three months or, hey, I might stay longer. Who knew? The DC metropolitan region is where, 15 years later, I now write these lines.

My father drove me to the Port Authority in mid-town Manhattan to catch a Trailways bus down the I-95. We were both quiet during the drive. Things for me had been moving very fast for the past few years. Alaska, upstate New York, the Bronx, Sri Lanka, the Bronx again and now Washington, DC, all in a two-and-a-half year period. I never knew if I was coming or going. Sometimes I had to remind myself where I was.

Before I got on the bus, my father asked if I needed anything. I said thanks, I didn’t need anything, I was fine. I was 26 years old. A few minutes later, the bus crawled out of that long Port Authority tunnel into sunlight only to disappear again, moments later, into the Lincoln Tunnel. It was dark and I felt safe. I was on the move again.

I certainly wasn’t going to be a professor. I wouldn’t pursue my PhD. But my life had most certainly arrived.

Joe Kovacs served as an English as a Foreign Language Volunteer instructor in Sri Lanka, 1997-1998. His work has been published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Miami Herald, WorldView Magazine,  Eclectica Magazine and LiteraryTraveler.com. He has also reviewed numerous books by RPCVs for Peace Corps Writers. Joe blogs at www.writeplaceblog.com.