How Do You Say Nicholas D. Kristof In Your HCN Language?

This is a terrific piece by Peter Hessler (China 1996-98) that is on the website of  The New Yorker as of today,  March 15, 2010. Peter takes on NYTIMES writer Nicholas Kristof and his piece the other day that stirred a lot of  interest among RPCVs who have been there, done that, and know how to say more than “doorknob” in their host country language. Read it, and if you haven’t read Warren Wiggins’  comments about what the founders of the Peace Corps were trying to do 50 years ago, read his comments, too.  And also, if you are taking a class from John Brown at Georgetown University, give him an F. He’s like a lot of those foreign service officers we know overseas. You know, the ones we called, “dumb f****! in our host country language.

Here’s Peter’s piece:

“Here’s a one-word language test to measure whether someone really knows a foreign country and culture: What’s the word for doorknob? People who have studied a language in a classroom rarely know the answer. But those who have been embedded in a country know. America would be a wiser country if we had more people who knew how to translate ‘doorknob.’ “

-Nicholas D. Kristof, in “Teach for the World,” a recent column for the Times

My first response to this column was: How the hell do you say “doorknob” in Chinese? I spent two years in China as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching at a college in a small, remote city called Fuling, and then I stayed in the country for another eight years as a journalist. (My book “Country Driving,” published last month, describes some of what I learned there, particularly about China’s new relationship with the car.) I always conducted my interviews in Chinese, but when it comes to doorknobs, I’m completely lost.

I’ve long believed that Nick Kristof’s internationalism represents a bright spot in American commentary, but there are limits to the routines of a journalist. And that was my second response to the column: What exactly does Kristof know about teaching in a developing country, or about the Peace Corps? After describing the Peace Corps as a program that was thrilling “a generation ago,” he proposed a new initiative that he calls “Teach for the World”:

In my mind, Teach for the World would be a one-year program placing young Americans in schools in developing countries. The Americans might teach English or computer skills, or coach basketball or debate teams.

The program would be open to Americans 18 and over…. The host country would provide room and board through a host family. To hold down costs, the Americans would be unpaid and receive only airplane tickets, a local cellphone and a tiny stipend to cover bus fares and anti-malaria bed nets. This would be a government-financed effort to supplement an American public diplomacy outreach that has been eviscerated over the last few decades.

A couple of days later, Kristof clarified his complaints about the Peace Corps in his blog: “The problem with Peace Corps is that the 27-month commitment is a major deterrent for young people…. And PC is often aimed at somewhat older folks rather than young college graduates whose lives are at a turning point.” By then, John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer who teaches at Georgetown, had weighed in with his own opinions about the Peace Corps. In the Huffington Post, Brown described volunteers as “résumé-driven, undereducated provincial American BAs with, all too often, little or no knowledge … even in teaching (or speaking) their own native language.” He explained:

In all fairness, these well-meaning, often naive, Peace Corps volunteers (I had the privilege of meeting many of them in my Foreign Service career), may be eager to learn about the outside world. But if they are parachuted [sic] to teach/”set an example” in other countries, they should know far more about them (and their own country and language) than Peace Corps “training” provides (and by the time they know something about where they are, they are shipped out).

Peace Corps volunteers are too old for Kristof, too young for Brown; they’re “parachuted” in but they stay too long. What is it about the organization that makes outsiders respond in totally different ways, and why, after nearly fifty years, does it remain so poorly understood?

I joined the Peace Corps in 1996, when I was twenty-seven years old, and I was sent to Fuling with a twenty-two-year-old American named Adam Meier. At that time, there were roughly two dozen volunteers scattered across Sichuan province, and most were in their mid-twenties; virtually everybody had some previous experience in the classroom. In China, our job was to teach English to college students who would someday become middle-school instructors. For the most part the subject matter was simple, but we quickly realized that the real challenges were cultural. Not long after Adam and I arrived in Fuling, a student in my writing class submitted an essay entitled “Why Americans Are So Casual”:

When Mr. Hessler is having class, he can scratch himself without paying attention to what others may say. He dresses up casually, usually with his belt dropping and dangling. But, to tell you the truth, it isn’t consider a good manner in China, especially in old people’s eyes.

The Peace Corps had prepared us with two months of intensive language and cultural training, but we still made plenty of mistakes. As time passed, we learned to avoid most pitfalls, but the more acculturated we became, the more we recognized the complexities of our students’ lives. One of the brightest girls, a quiet student who kept to herself, committed suicide by throwing herself off a bridge. Another young woman died when her sudden illness was handled badly at the local hospital. A student became pregnant and secretly got an abortion; when she suffered complications and college officials found out, she was promptly expelled. Some students were too poor to pay their living expenses; others ran into political problems and had to bribe local Communist Party officials. One unbalanced female student stalked Adam for weeks, lurking outside his apartment door at all hours, explaining that “my body tells me to be here.” What do you do in that situation? Do you keep it quiet, or do you report it to the male-dominated, heavy-handed cadres in the English department? Adam and I debated it endlessly; there had already been one suicide in that student’s class.

Despite what Kristof says about young people and turning points in life, twenty-seven never felt too old for me to be in Fuling. (Today, worldwide, the average age of a Peace Corps volunteer is twenty-eight.) As in most societies, teachers in China are deeply respected, and we had a great deal of influence; in all of the situations I’ve described, students came to us for advice or help. I needed every bit of experience that I could draw on, and I depended heavily on discussions with Adam and other volunteers. Mostly, it was critical that I stayed for two years. It forced me to be accountable: I realized that any action could have long-term repercussions. And I also had time to figure out how to teach effectively, and I learned enough Chinese to make good friends who spoke no English. In the years since, I’ve never met a single Peace Corps volunteer who believes that the commitment should be shortened to one year. There’s no doubt that this deters applicants, but sometimes that’s the right message: If you want to teach effectively in a developing country, you need to be prepared to stay there for at least two years. (It’s also a good starting point for bigger lessons: If you want to invade and rebuild a country, be prepared to stick around for a hell of a long time.)

The last thing I’d want to see is an eighteen-year-old thrown into a developing-world teaching job with a cell phone, a mosquito net, little administrative oversight, and no medical support. (The Peace Corps provides excellent insurance and in-country health care.) Like Kristof, I’m a proponent of gap years and studying abroad; it’s critical for more young Americans to gain language skills. But it’s not the way to provide teachers in developing countries. The vast majority of Peace Corps volunteers that I knew in China behaved responsibly, but there were a few exceptions, which is inevitable when young people are far from home. A while after I finished my service, a volunteer slept with one of his students and sent explicit photos over e-mail to friends; fortunately there was a Peace Corps administration in the provincial capital that immediately kicked him out of the country. A few years later, when another volunteer was sexually assaulted, the staff was able to provide quick medical and emotional support.

A prime weakness of the American approach to the outside world is over-confidence. Everybody wants an easy solution: two years should be condensed into one; a cell phone and a mosquito net are all you need. In particular, the challenges of a volunteer tend to be poorly understood by journalists and foreign service officers, who are typically accustomed to an immediate and extensive support system. They’re surrounded by translators, fixers, and well-staffed bureaus; they rarely know what it’s like to be alone in a strange country with a hard job to do. And nothing is more difficult than staying in a small community for an extended period of time. Incidents can snowball, which is why Adam and I agonized for days over what to do about his stalker. At last we decided to tell some women teachers in our department, hoping they would be more sensitive; but of course they immediately reported it to the male officials. The night-time visits stopped abruptly-and in the classroom, that student stared silently at the floor for the rest of the year. Who knows if we did the right thing?

In many respects, the Peace Corps has long been one of the best parts of U.S. foreign policy. Since 1961, the organization has sent more than two hundred thousand volunteers abroad, and virtually all of these people have been changed profoundly by the experience. Quite a few continue to work with international issues, sometimes for N.G.O.s. It’s also common for former volunteers to find jobs in the State Department; Adam Meier, my sitemate from Fuling, now works for the government, coördinating international exchange programs that involve more than thirty thousand individuals every year. Many of the volunteers I knew became teachers, and a few are foreign correspondents. Most of us have stayed in contact with people we knew in China: nowadays, improved cell-phone and Internet services in the developing world have transformed post-volunteer relationships. I’m still in touch with over a hundred former students, and most of them are now middle-school teachers who, because of the Peace Corps, bring a deeper understanding of the United States to their Chinese classrooms. Every couple of days I hear from a student on e-mail, and their voices remind me of all the challenges that a young person faces in China. “I broken with my husband last month,” a student wrote me this morning. “I am alone now, but I am OK…. My parents are now in Chengdu, they have retired, they are worried about me, but I want to improve to them, a small Sichuan woman can also do great things.”

And yet here in the United States, the Peace Corps remains misunderstood and poorly supported. In 1967, there were about sixteen thousand volunteers worldwide; last year there were fewer than eight thousand. Funding is always a challenge, and there’s a tendency to view the organization as outdated. I’ve long believed that the name is a problem-“Peace Corps” has a nineteen-sixties, Cold War air, and the military connotation of “corps” seems inappropriate. (It’s also really hard to get non-native speakers to stop saying “corpse.”) But the military instinct seems so deeply rooted in American foreign policy that such language contaminates even initiatives that have nothing to do with war. One excellent new government-funded program, which sends American high-school students abroad to study languages like Chinese, Arabic, and Farsi, has the unfortunate title of “National Security Language Initiative.”

But one of the biggest problems for the Peace Corps is that, despite all the success that volunteers have had in the field, the organization has traditionally been bad at promoting its own interests in Washington. At last that is changing, in large part because of Rajeev Goyal, who volunteered in Nepal from 2001 to 2003. After finishing law school at N.Y.U., Goyal dedicated himself to lobbying on behalf of the Peace Corps, and he now leads an organization called Push for Peace Corps, whose goal is to double the number of volunteers in the field. Goyal has been tireless on Capitol Hill, and already it’s paid off; last year, despite the economic climate, Congress granted the Peace Corps the largest one-year budget increase since 1961. Goyal says that part of his job is simply explaining what the Peace Corps is. “I’ve tried to educate Congress that P.C. is not really a development program,” he told me recently. “Nor is it a cross-cultural program. It sits on a sliding scale between. It’s about living humbly and understanding, and making lifelong friends. I’ve tried to make them understand how unique the model is.”

The humility that Goyal mentions is one of the most important qualities of the Peace Corps. Like all volunteers, I was often humbled in China-I made mistakes; I embarrassed myself; I encountered problems that I couldn’t solve. Over time, I’ve realized that these failures were just as important as any successes I had as a teacher. It’s an experience that would be valuable for more Americans, especially since too many of those who go abroad-as diplomats, as businessmen, as soldiers, as journalists-occupy jobs that don’t emphasize humility toward local people. Often the best lesson you can learn is that you don’t know it all.

Of course, I also never learned how to say “doorknob.” I wish there were, as Kristof claims, a one-word language test that measures whether somebody really knows a foreign country and culture. But it’s another sliding scale. You learn as much as you can, and then you learn that there’s something else you need to know. When I did an informal doorknob survey among former volunteers, all of them failed miserably. Goyal couldn’t say it in Nepali (although he pointed out that doors in Nepal have handles, not knobs). My friend Michael Meyer, a Peace Corps China teacher who later became the author of the acclaimed book “The Last Days of Old Beijing,” proved to be equally ignorant about doorknobs in Mandarin. I tried another former volunteer named Jake Hooker, who taught in the Yangtze River city of Wanzhou, and came away with the best language skills of anybody I knew in the Peace Corps. He eventually became a reporter for the New York Times; when the paper won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2008, Jake was the guy who broke the China side of the story about toxic ingredients in medicine and other products. I asked him about Chinese for “doorknob.”

“No, I don’t know,” Jake said, and then he added, brightly: “But I know the word for ‘door.’ ”

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Leave a comment
  • In Spanish it’s “manija,” no relation to puerta (door)…

    Brilliant piece !!!!!!!!

    I write encouraging Peter to continue telling ” the misunderstood PC story!”

    Dennis Grubb
    Colombia I

  • John , BTW, as to the former Foreign Service instructor at Georgetown , “despistado” , clueless, is politically correct for the Spanish “hijoputa!”


  • This was an interesting piece. However, as an early staff member there is room for praise for the Peace Corps AND Nick Kristof. The latter performs a great service as a muck-raling, compassionate journalist who takes on and publicizes some inhuman conditions in the world. There are any number of people who should be criticized before Kristof who really tries to expose the horrors confronting people and shine some light on them.

  • In Spain most door openers are levers instead of knobs. Thus the word for door opener is “palanca” or lever.

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