An RPCV reflects on the holidays she spent overseas and how those shared moments nurtured a sense of belonging with her, her host families, and fellow Peace Corps friends.
By Molly O’Brien (Jordan 2014–15, Thailand 2016–18)
The holiday season always reminds me of my Peace Corps service. Within a month of arriving in my first country of service, Jordan, we were celebrating Thanksgiving. It was my first time away from my family for a major holiday. Although I felt a little homesick, the experience nurtured a sense of belonging with my new Peace Corps family.
Then, next thing I knew I was a newly sworn-in Volunteer a few weeks later, arriving at my site two days before New Year’s. Even though I couldn’t share the day with my PCV family, I was introduced to a new community and family. My new neighbor and boss made sure to stock my fridge and sneak me some mead to celebrate the occasion. How crazy is it that someone you’ve just met will make sure you’re taken care of, fed, and made to feel genuinely welcome in your new home? That’s Peace Corps for you.
Due to an unexpected evacuation from Jordan, I commenced my second Peace Corps service almost nine months later in Thailand. While there, I worked with the community on youth development projects. During my second year, my program manager, who I bonded with over a shared love of cats, came to my site to visit. I was excited to welcome her into my house (which my host family built for me) as well as introduce her to our many cats (at one point we had 12) and best of all, my family. It still brings a smile to my face to think of my host mom telling her that she had four children: her daughter, son, me, and her other son. She added me to the age order of her children. For me, the holidays are about family, and my Peace Corps service was also about family.
Perhaps some of my favorite Peace Corps memories are sharing holiday traditions with my students. I was always able to celebrate Thai holidays with my community, so I wanted to share part of my culture with them. For Thanksgiving, I resurrected an activity from my childhood — we made “turkey hands” and shared what we were thankful for. During moments like that, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for my students, the teachers I worked alongside, and the community that had embraced me. At Christmas time, we made paper snowflakes and bead candy canes while writing letters to Santa and watching the Polar Express to get into the holiday spirit.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible Volunteer family I made while in service. Spending the holidays with my fellow Peace Corps friends was so special and fun. One year, we celebrated Friendsgiving and had the challenge of trying to find holiday ingredients that were similar to what we had at home. Our shared meal included a few dishes that ended up with a Thai spin on them. The following year, our Close of Service (COS) conference kicked off with a Thanksgiving meal at the U.S. Embassy, followed by several days together at the beach. We found ways to spend the holidays together around trainings and conferences. From ramen to hot pot to pizza dinners, we celebrated by being together. And if you have never been to Bangkok in December, I highly recommend it. The entire city is decked out in Christmas lights, reindeer sleighs, and my personal favorite, Christmas Cats — something that can’t be missed.
I experienced a lot of highs and lows during my service. From a heartbreaking evacuation in Jordan and a few hospital stays in Thailand to connecting with an amazing family, my special students, and fellow PCVs, my time in the Peace Corps was never dull. And whenever the holiday season comes around, I find myself reminiscing about my favorite times of the year and what Peace Corps has meant and still means to me.