There is an absolutely wonderful essay in the current New Yorker (January 12, 2009) by Peter Hessler (China 1996-98) about a car trip he and another RPCV, Mike Goettig (China 1996-98), took to the Tibetan Plateau in 2002. This road trip took place a few years after they were Volunteers, and at the time Peter was working as a freelance writer in China, Goettig owned a bar in the southwest of the country and the two of them would get together for little adventures.
The piece is entitled “Strange Stones,” which is, Peter writes, “a Chinese term for any rock whose shape looks like something else,” and focuses on one incident on their trip north. The essay, however, is really about being a Peace Corps Volunteer, and about some of the strange, wonderful, and dear people we meet because of that experience. For Peter, it was meeting up and becoming great friends with Mike Goettig, a kid from Worthington, Minnesota, who is one of those guys who has a heart of gold and if something goes wrong, it will certainly go wrong for him. We all knew PCVs just like Mike Goettig during our tours.
The piece also — though not written this way — is one the best Peace Corps recruitment pieces I’ve read (and, believe me, I’ve read a lot!). Peter isn’t selling the Peace Corps, but he does so by just recounting his trip and musing about his time in China, his time away from America, and what that experience meant to him and how it changed his life.
You have to read the article. Buy the magazine or see if you can find The New Yorker on line. Here are two short paragraphs of Peter’s Letter From China.
At some level, I came away with a deep faith in the transformative power of the Peace Corps: everybody I knew had been changed forever by the experience. But these changes were of the sort that generally made people less likely to work for the government. Volunteers tended to be individualists to begin with, and few were ambitious in the traditional sense. Once abroad, they learned to live with a degree of chaos, which made it hard to have faith in the possibility of sweeping change.
Many of my peers in China eventually became teachers. It was partly because we had been educational volunteers, but it also had to do with the skills we developed — the flexibility, the sense of humor, the willingness to handle anything an eighth grader could throw at us.
There is much more in “Strange Stones” about China, the Chinese, Mike Goettig, the Peace Corps, and about Peter. It is about two RPCVs on the road to the Tibetan Plateau, but in some ways, for having been Volunteers, we had already been on that road ourselves.