Orrin Luc posted an articleWriter Peter Hessler made an unexpectedly early return to the U.S. this summer. see more
Renowned writer Peter Hessler had planned on spending five years back in China with his wife and daughters. But the university he was teaching at did not renew his contract.
By NPCA Staff
Writer Peter Hessler made an unexpectedly early return to the U.S. this summer. In 2019, the New Yorker correspondent, who served with Peace Corps China 1996–98, moved to the city of Chengdu to teach — more than 20 years after he taught at Fuling Teachers College as a Volunteer. He was planning on a five-year sojourn with his wife and daughters. In May he learned that his contract for teaching nonfiction at Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute had not been renewed.
The university emailed a statement to Reuters explaining that they had been unable to reach terms for renewing Hessler’s contract. Reuters also noted that in March, Hessler participated in the China Development Forum, “a high-profile government-run event, where he spoke on a panel on media perspectives of how the COVID-19 outbreak was handled in Wuhan.”
And as Foreign Policy noted, the government of China expelled 18 international journalists from the country in the first half of the year alone.
Steven Saum posted an articleIn January it was announced the China program would “graduate.” Then came evacuation. see more
Nobody wanted it to happen this way. Evacuation stories and the unfinished business of Peace Corps Volunteers around the world.
Photo: Family portrait with Andrew Avitt, right, and his host family, Mr. and Mrs. Zhen and host brother Yanyu. “We received a lot of instruction during training about language, culture, and teaching. Perhaps the most invaluable part of that experience was getting to know my host family,” Avitt writes.
China | Maura Joul
Home: St. Cloud, Minnesota
My cohort came in summer 2019. We had one semester teaching, three to go. All China Volunteers served in the education sector: teaching English at universities, colleges, technical schools, teachers colleges. I was at Tianshui Normal University in a city of 3.8 million with, it seemed, fewer than 10 foreigners. I taught first-year students, most female; some wanted to be teachers or translators, some to work for corporations or teach abroad. Our program manager told me and my site mate, Callie Dick, “They look to you not only as a teacher, but also strong female role models.”
Peace Corps had been on my radar since high school. I went with my local Rotary club to the Dominican Republic, where I met a returned Volunteer who was working on a water project. What struck me was her relationship with the community; people treated her like family. I studied abroad my senior year of college in Hong Kong — and decided China was where I wanted to focus my work and career.
A lot of my students had never seen or interacted with a foreigner. For them, the experience is transformational.
We had in-service training in January; come spring I was looking forward to teaching an elective course on current events, Callie a course on film. All the Volunteers were together on our last day of training when we got news of the program closing in China. That was jarring. We went back to our site, wondering: What’s going to happen? It was a holiday; students were gone, colleagues were at home. The second the news of the virus broke, nobody wanted to leave their house. A young couple owned a restaurant near our apartment; they had invited us to come to their relatives’ home for the spring festival. A few days later, things started to escalate. They rescinded the invitation. As the virus outbreak became more serious, I started preparing for the worst. We got our evacuation order and had about 48 hours until our flight out of China to Thailand. Within two days we learned we would be COSing.
Coming home, I was thinking: Now what? In true Peace Corps fashion, I did what I could with what was within my control. What was outside my control, I let it be.
Photographer Andrew Avitt writes: “The first group of students I taught at Southwest University in Beibei, Chongqing, China. The picture is of them holding up their 3,500 word academic English paper on the last day of class.”
The political noise back here about, “Why is Peace Corps in China?” The value — it’s immeasurable. A lot of my students had never seen or interacted with a foreigner. For them, the experience is transformational — to hear about different values and beliefs. For Americans, we have the opportunity to understand China — a rising global superpower — through its people. Building relationships at the grassroots level is essential; as they grow and multiply, they have the potential to influence international relations. There’s a great need for communication and understanding in every part of the world.
In April I was getting messages from my students: “The virus is very serious in the U.S. How are you doing? Stay inside, wear a mask.” And, “Don’t worry, the Chinese rescue team is coming to help. We’re going to get you through this.” It is gratifying that they still try to uphold up these relationships just as much as we do.
Photographer Andrew Avitt writes: “During our summer project in July 2019, when Volunteers serving in Chongqing Province taught grade school teachers in a more rural part of the province, I had a moment to wander the streets of Wuxi City in Eastern Chongqing. I saw a grandfather and his grandchildren out for an afternoon ride. Although the grandpa seemed to be thinking of past times, his grandchildren were looking straight ahead.”
China | Reed Piercey
Home: Mountain View, California
I was in the International Relations Department of Sichuan International Studies University in Chongqing, a city of 30 million in central China. The university is well-regarded; most students had English good enough to discuss their lives and talk about ideas. Their curiosity was insatiable. Classes I taught were content-based, using speech and debate. The diversity of viewpoints was striking, especially because China is often seen as a monolith in the U.S.
My site mate and I ran a debate club, starting with topics we thought more relatable: strategies for managing tourist crowds during the national holiday. Then bigger topics: artificial intelligence, nuclear proliferation. In speech class, for the final assignment we included a few controversial topics — like should there be more LGBTQ representation in the media. One student who was a class monitor, a student leader, gave a speech on LGBTQ representation. I expected a more of a conservative take. He got up and gave a very passionate speech about a close friend of his who was gay and had recently taken his own life. So he argued for the value of same-sex representation in the media. That blew me away.
My interest in Peace Corps was specific to China — though I’d had an interest in it since high school, since my uncle served in Sierra Leone in the ’70s. My junior year at Boston College, I studied in Beijing and interned at the U.S. Embassy. I wanted to come back and immerse myself; my goal is to work in foreign policy.
The value was the window that opened between people of both countries. We were never told what to teach.
One takeaway: To assume that the Chinese government and people are the same is a fallacy. Granted, a lot of opinions can’t be expressed openly. But get to know people and you see there’s as much depth and complexity to their population as ours. After the program closed, some of us wrote a memo for Peace Corps and Congress on why that’s a mistake. The value was the window that opened between people of both countries. We were never told what to teach. We had freedom to interact with students. A senior staff member of Peace Corps had conversations with a Chinese government representative who referred to our work as “planting seeds.” She was struck by that statement and all the implications.
The part that hit me emotionally was the fact that our Chinese staff — some who had devoted ten-plus years to the program — were now told they weren’t needed. In terms of intercultural competency, they would blow anyone out of the water. I have kept in touch with my program manager. I spent Chinese New Year at her family’s house with my dad — he visited in January, just before we evacuated. He arrived right after the bombshell that the program was going to graduate. Two days before he was scheduled to fly out, we got the evacuation email. We ended up leaving the same day. That was surreal.
China Volunteers—before the program was closed. Photo by Andrew Avitt
China | Andrew Avitt
New Home: Washington, D.C. Area
Peace Corps was something I first heard about in high school. I thought, you can join at any age — but you need some education or experience. So I put that on the back burner. I joined the Marine Corps right out of high school. That reaffirmed my desire to join Peace Corps. Both were good experiences; I learned more about myself, others, and the world than I could have imagined. I learned that having the right mindset in even the toughest situations is essential. In the military, it’s: The mission needs to get done, no matter what. And in the Marines, you are with other people. Peace Corps is a very independent assignment; mission-wise, day in and day out, we do the work but never really arrive at the end.
In Peace Corps I learned to laugh at myself in some situations. I had always taken myself very seriously. Being in a foreign country, there’s an opportunity for a lot of misunderstandings. My Mandarin is terrible. But I would always try to speak the language to my students and people I met. They would laugh, and I would laugh — really a bonding. People realized, Surely my English is better than his Mandarin! I would get so many people to talk to me.
All Peace Corps Volunteers in China receieved pre-service training about language, culture, and teaching. But perhaps the most invaluable part of that experience was living with and getting to know my host family, Mr. and Mrs. Zhen and my host brother, Yanyu. I feel like it was that experience that really opened a window onto the culture and informed my day-to-day life there.
Every day after our training sessions I would come home to eat dinner with my host family. Mom always cooked, and every day it was a different meal. I once asked Yanyu how many dishes his mother knew how to make. He guessed around 700. After dinner each night we would go to a nearby park and walk around a 10-kilometer lake. I was well fed and in shape that summer.I missed dad. I also benefited from the early guidance of my host father, a middle school teacher of Chinese. He would teach me new Chinese words as we walked around the lake, pointing at things and explaining how to sound out the words.
We all think we have time. But there’s not always a tomorrow.
I served in Beibei in Chongqing province, at Southwest University, teaching classes on oral English, academic writing. I also partnered with the International Media Center, to help tell their story to an international audience. My cohort was in the final stretch of completing our service. A year and a half is a short time. And then it is a very long time.
When we got the news that we were going home, it was surprising how quick it came; it was the holidays and I was traveling in the Philippines. I left on a trip thinking, I’ll be back, see all my friends and colleagues in a couple weeks. My students still message me; colleagues, other Volunteers — you just don’t get to say goodbye. As a photographer, I was going to spend that last semester documenting everything and everyone about my sites. We all think we have time. But there’s not always a tomorrow.
China: Fisherman on the Jialing River, which runs through the city of Beibei. Photo by Andrew Avitt
STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.
STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.
Kaylee Jensen posted an articleUpdates on all that is happening for the Peace Corps Community as of Spring 2020 see more
The eve of the Lunar New Year brought some startling Peace Corps news: The program in China — which has sent 1,321 volunteers to teach English in different provinces — would begin winding down immediately. No new Volunteers would be sent—though the 139 Volunteers currently serving would be allowed to finish. That was the word on January 16. But plans changed with the dismaying spread of coronavirus, beginning in the city of Wuhan.
The outbreak led to an unprecedented quarantine and evacuations of Americans. On Feb. 5, Peace Corps announced that all Volunteers had been evacuated from China. And they would not be returning. “My heart goes out to the extraordinary volunteers and staff who are participating in the Close of Service conference and preparing for the next steps in their lives,” said Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen.
It was a sudden end to a program that spanned more than a quarter century. Volunteers served in China beginning in 1993, teaching alongside educators at scores of schools and colleges. But there had been increasing pressure from some quarters Stateside to close the program. Two outspoken critics were U.S. Senators from Florida: Rick Scott and Marco Rubio.
“Peace Corps Volunteers in China are not propping up an authoritarian government. They’re building relationships and teaching young Chinese about American values.”
A Jan.16 statement on Rubio’s website said of the initial announcement to close the program: “Today’s decision by the Peace Corps to withdraw its volunteers from China confirms what we all know — China is no longer a developing country.”
Senator Scott sounded a more triumphant note: “I’m glad the Peace Corps has finally come to its senses and sees Communist China for what it is: the second largest economy in the world and an adversary of the United States.” Scott introduced a Senate bill in 2019 calling for the withdrawal of Peace Corps from China by September 2020. That same bill proposed that the administration of Peace Corps as a whole be folded into the State Department.
Dismay was the initial reaction among much of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community. Rob Schmitz, a National Public Radio correspondent who served with the Peace Corps in southwest China 1996–98 and worked as a China correspondent for the program “Marketplace” before his current role, gave a first-person take. “Peace Corps China volunteers are English teachers throughout less developed parts of western China,” he said in an NPR interview. “What I think critics of the program do not understand is that Peace Corps Volunteers in China are not propping up an authoritarian government. They’re building relationships and teaching young Chinese about American values. You know, when I was a volunteer, I taught Western civ, U.S. history. And that included concepts like democracy and how it works in the U.S. … This is likely one of the most important, unintentional soft power programs the U.S. has in China.”
End of the Journey: Writer Peter Hessler, an early Volunteer in China. Now the program has closed.
Steve Hess is an assistant professor of political science at Transylvania University. He served as a volunteer in China 2006–08. In January he started an online petition calling for Peace Corps to reverse the decision to withdraw. “At a time in which Sino-American relations are more critical than ever,” he wrote, “we cannot afford to lose this important program.”
But now the program has ended.
Writer Michael Meyer served as a volunteer in China 1995–97 and has written a trilogy of books on China. He penned an op ed for the Wall Street Journal about the work of Peace Corps Volunteers in China. “They maintain the steady daily habits of being engaged, learning the language and helping out in communities whose own national government falters,” he wrote. “Is there a better or more cost-effective form of public diplomacy?”
Update: Not long after we went to press with this story, Volunteers from Mongolia — and then all Peace Corps Volunteers around the world — were evacuated. See our blog for extended coverage of that.
Farming with Winrock
NPCA staff met recently in Senegal with Winrock International’s regional staff to assess our successful first year with the Arkansas-based nonprofit sending RPCVs on overseas agricultural projects to share their expertise.
“We are striving to continuously increase our global social impact as a community,” says NPCA International Programs Coordinator Bethany Leech. “We love finding initiatives that conduct international development projects that fulfill our Peace Corps values.”
In 2019 NPCA recruited six short-term, and three long-term RPCVs to fulfill Winrock’s USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer assignments in West Africa. “We’re geared up to fill many more short-term projects in 2020,” Leech said. Travel and living expenses are paid. Volunteer consultants donate their time and expertise.
Winrock is a private, nonprofit organization implementing more than 150 agriculture, environment, and social development projects in over 40 countries. They are also one of the largest contractors implementing USAID’s Farmer-to-Farmer program.
Through NPCA’s partnership with Winrock, our members have unique volunteer opportunities to serve abroad again by performing short-term technical projects. These assignments allow RPCVs to re-engage in international development work, connect with people and organizations on the ground, and work hand in hand to build a better world.
While NPCA’s International Volunteer Opportunities are on hold amid the global pandemic, we’ll share news on peacecorpsconnect.org when we have an update.
Kay and Kevin Dixon (Colombia 62-64) of Spokane, Washington have come to Washington for our Day of Action many times as citizen lobbyists. This year they met Arianna Richard, a newcomer to NPCA’s Capitol Hill advocacy. Arianna had just returned six months ago from eSwatini—the new name for the country formerly known as Swaziland.
As we go to press, these RPCVs are gathering with hundreds of other members of our Peace Corps community. March 5 marks NPCA’s 16th annual Capitol Hill National Day of Action, when RPCVs meet with members of Congress and staffs to persuade Congress to let Peace Corps be the best it can be.
“We’re really fortunate to have so many long-time advocates and newcomers converge on Capitol Hill each year during Peace Corps Week,” says Jonathan Pearson, NPCA’s advocacy director. “There is no doubt that when it comes to Peace Corps, Congress is aware there is an active and passionate constituency.”
On this Day of Action these advocates wanted to thwart a proposed budget cut of $9.3 million to Peace Corps. They urged no less than $450 million for the agency in Fiscal Year 2021 to address crucial program and personnel cuts stemming from five consecutive years of static funding.
Supporting Peace Corps also means supporting its independence. In Senate meetings, RPCVs, former staff, relatives, and friends—and some highly motivated Peace Corps applicants—are speaking out against legislation to place Peace Corps under the authority of the State Department.
Teams of advocates are also asking for new legislation to improve healthcare, readjustment allowances, and future federal employment opportunities for serving Peace Corps volunteers and RPCVs. They’re asking members of the House of Representatives to sign onto the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act (H.R. 3456) that was authored by Congressman John Garamendi (Ethiopia 66-68) of California’s third Congressional district.
‘Critical voice of dissent’ in health
Monica Kerrigan was named the new executive director of Planned Parenthood Global in October 2019. It’s a role to which she brings four decades of international experience, starting with her service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kendie, Mali in 1979. How did that shape her work? “It’s where I saw firsthand the struggle of women and girls that were forced into early marriage, no access to contraceptives and frequent childbearing,” Kerrigan told a DevEx reporter recently. “Many of my friends died during childbirth, and also put their life in their hands with unsafe abortions,” she said. “That experience changed my life.”
That’s one reason why in her first interview as executive director she spoke of the need for Planned Parenthood Global to be the “critical voice of dissent” in opposing what’s formally known as the Mexico City Policy—and informally as the “global gag rule.”The policy prohibits foreign nongovernment organizations who receive U.S. aid from engaging in abortion counseling or services. It was first implemented in 1984 by the Reagan administration and reinstated in 2017. When funding has been cut, it has also affected programs in cervical cancer screening as well as contraception and HIV programs.
Prior, Kerrigan was vice president for technical leadership and innovation at jhpiego, an international nonprofit health organization affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, and helped lead family planning programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Afghanistan: No-Drama Advice
Brookings Institution senior fellow on defense matters Michael O’Hanlon (Congo/Kinshasa 82-84) has some advice for the next president of the United States on Afghanistan. With a little help from NATO allies, he writes, draw down U.S. troop levels by about 60 percent. He made the case for that in “A No-drama approach to Afghanistan for the next U.S. president,” published on the Brookings’ Big Ideas blog December 4, 2019. For starters, he writes: “By the time America’s next president is inaugurated on January 20, 2021, America’s role in the Afghanistan war will be approaching its 20th anniversary. Afghans themselves will have been at war continuously at least twice as long, if one dates the beginning of the modern conflict to the Soviet invasion there in 1979.
“Americans are understandably tired of this war. It has by any measure been a frustration, especially when measured against the more ambitious ‘nation building’ goals of the first Obama term.”
Black Hawk: The U.S. military is giving 53 to Afghan forces. Photo by Nikayla Shodeen/Dept. of Defense/Wikimedia Commons
O’Hanlon reviews earlier White House decisions, the initial “light footprint” of President George W. Bush, a 2009 review by Gen. Stanley McChrystal to increase troop levels, a surge issued reluctantly by President Obama, and the search for an exit strategy by Obama and President Trump.
“But the mission has not been an abject failure,” he writes. “The Afghan government continues to hold all major and mid-sized cities as of this writing, and even more to the point for Americans, the United States has not again been attacked by a group that plotted or organized its aggression from within Afghan borders.”
His proposal is that until the U.S. adopts an exit strategy, there is an affordable way to sustain these modest, yet real, accomplishments: “The United States needs a policy that recognizes Afghanistan for what it is—a significant, but not a top-tier, U.S. strategic interest—and builds a plan accordingly. That overall strategy should still seek peace, but its modest military element should be steady and stable, and not set to a calendar. Roughly 5,000 U.S. troops for at least five years could be the crude mantra.
“A future force of 5,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, aided by 2,000 to 3,000 other NATO military personnel, would contrast with the late-2019 figure of 13,000 GIs there. It would be 95 percent less than the 100,000 U.S. troops commanded there by General David Petraeus and then General John Allen at the peak of the American presence in 2010–11. This lower level could probably be achieved by 2022, though the glide path could be slowed if conditions required.”
Update: After we went to press, the signing of a peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban has shifted the landscape in Afghanistan. Listen to a March 2020 conversation about Afghanistan for the Middle East Institute here.
Originally published in March 2020 in the Spring 2020 print edition of WorldView. Updated April 30, 2020.
Kaylee Jensen posted an articleA look back at travel in China see more
Photos by Jamie Fouss. Introduction by David Arnold
In 1984, Jamie Fouss and a Peace Corps Samoa friend, Liz Alperin, spent six weeks traveling in the People’s Republic of China. The United States had established diplomatic relations only five years prior. China had recently removed the requirement that all foreigners travel in groups; Jamie and Liz were some of the first foreigners to travel on their own. Traveling in those days was quite challenging. Few Chinese people spoke English. Foreigners needed special permission to visit certain cities and could only stay in hotels that accepted special foreign exchange currency.
Traveling by train, bus, and boat, Jamie and Liz visited the south, west, and northern parts of China. With a Berlitz phrase dictionary and a Canon AE-1 camera, Jamie found it simple enough to engage with locals, whom he found to be friendly, hospitable, and curious. Wanting to depict typical Chinese life, Jamie photographed the people, their food, culture, neighborhoods, and lifestyle.
Twenty years later Jamie returned to Beijing as a diplomat. He would often ride his bike to a nearby village to photograph people there. He made it a practice to make prints and deliver them to those he had photographed the previous weekend. The villagers, who were eager to see Jamie and receive their pictures, often invited him into their homes, shops, and restaurants for him to photograph them some more.
Jamie’s interest in photographing people began while serving as a science/math Peace Corps volunteer at Ulimasao College on the island of Savai’i in Western Samoa from 1981 to 1983. He later served as Peace Corps Country Director in the Marshall Islands and then returned to Samoa as Associate Director. He is now the U.S. Consul General in Wuhan, China, having had earlier diplomatic postings in Taipei, Beijing, Guangzhou, Dhaka, and Hyderabad. He has often given his 1984 slide presentation, endearing himself to Chinese audiences, who marvel at what China was like in simpler times. But the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan upended life for so many. In January, Jamie was evacuated to California and put in quarantine.
Piece work: a burlap bag factory in Guangzhou. Long a trading hub, the city had a population of less than 3 million in 1984. Now more than 14 million people live there.
Connected by water: Sailors enjoying a day off near the Pearl River in Guangzhou. Ninety miles from the South China Sea, it was the first port to be regularly visited by European traders.
The journey: an overland bus station in Yunnan Province. This area in southwest China is renowned for its diversity of people and landscapes. It’s now interconnected by high-speed rail.
Tile work: A farmer and his wife repairing their home’s roof. Clay tiles were first used for roofing by humans in China, in the Neolithic Age.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Spring 2020 edition