How Being a Peace Corps Volunteer Prepared Me for Isolation During the COVID-19 Pandemic


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Being a Peace Corps volunteer in China by far was one of the hardest and the most rewarding things I have ever experienced. Isolation was one of the biggest hardships that the China volunteers faced because of the large geography of the country. Traveling from city to city wasn’t always convenient and with a meager stipend,  we didn’t have the means to travel often to visit friends. The volunteers were placed in 4 different provinces or municipalities in southwest China- Chongqing, Sichuan, Gansu and Guizhou. We were given the task of teaching English to college students. Some of us were lucky and we had a site mate (another volunteer) and while others (like myself) we were the only volunteers in our assigned schools. I had three other Peace Corps volunteers in my city and I relied on them whenever I wanted to speak in English. At my school there were approximately 12,000 students, 950 employees, and exactly one foreigner- me. I had no idea what I was in for, and I was completely alone.

What proceeded over the next few months were lessons in street smarts, emotional intelligence and survival. Things that they don’t teach you in school. I was adjusting to a different language, culture and a new way of life. Being an Asian American volunteer had its own challenges. I was the first foreigner that people had ever met and nobody believed that I was American. It made me feel like I was an invisible foreigner. I wrote about that experience in another piece for Overachiever Magazine here. Initially, I didn’t realize it, but reflecting back on my experience, I discovered that I was far more flexible and resilient than I ever thought. During my first semester, I became very ill and had to travel over 300 miles to the doctor by bullet train. In addition, I also missed important family events back home. Throughout my time in China, I kept a diary of my experience and here are some excerpts that I wrote during those difficult times: 

October 2018- Diary entry shortly after I became sick.

My computer and phone aren’t working. I couldn’t even pay for my lunch today without my phone. The vendor took pity upon me and told me to pay him next time. There is no way I can connect to the outside world. I still can’t figure out how to use my TV because I can’t read Chinese. I can’t catch a break. But I know that I am stronger than this. I have gotten myself out of worse situations than not being connected to technology and being sick. I am not scared of my own thoughts.

October 2018- Diary entry after being sick for so long.

I’ve been sick for 45 days now. It’s always so cold here. My cough still hasn’t gone away. I pulled a muscle last week from coughing so much. I had to go to the hospital. I hate being alone. I just want to get better soon. I promise I won’t take things for granted anymore.

November 2018- Diary entry from when my nephew was born.

My nephew was born today!! We have a new person in our family! I am so excited and so sad at the same time. When I saw his picture for the first time I cried….I cried really hard. They weren’t just tears of happiness but also tears of sadness. The homesickness is really hitting me hard. I want to go home. I can’t believe I’m missing this. I really miss my family.

Living in a foreign country, navigating a new culture, learning a new language, while volunteering, being sick and being disconnected from the outside world was indeed very challenging. I had time for deep self reflection and an opportunity to reset myself. It was during this time that I developed some strategies on how to cope with isolation, uncertainty and stress. I learned to be my own best friend and found out that I really enjoyed my own company. It was also during this time that I learned that as a natural extrovert I could tap into my inner introvert. And ultimately, I finally understood what it meant to be alone but not lonely. 

The Peace Corps taught me what it meant to be resilient when faced with new unexpected challenges. I was able to find meaning during those difficult times. I thought about my nursing students who needed me to teach them English so that they could gain full nursing scholarships to Singapore. As I was the only foreigner teacher at the school, I couldn’t let them down. I thought about my nephew who was about to be born. Which would mark the first time that I wasn’t physically next to my brother for a major life event. But I told myself that being far away from my loved ones and going through these challenging experiences would be worth it. Because when my nephew is old enough I will tell him about my adventures in China, and I will teach him about the land of our ancestors. The light at the end of the tunnel was realizing that my strong bonds with other people would pulled me out of darkness. It was the self actualization that a meaningful life was going to be a life of serving other people. In essence, my Peace Corps service was a healing experience because it taught me how to be a better and more compassionate person.

Right now, we have been asked to socially isolate ourselves for the good of humanity. Many of us are at home, some are alone and some are with other people. Each with their own challenges. Nonetheless, feelings of loneliness can be difficult during this period of isolation. We are living in a connected society where the 24/7 news cycle can be overwhelming and social media is a love/hate trap of comparison and connection to the outside world.

Human beings are social creatures that rely on social connections to survive. In the past, humans with the strongest social ties were more likely to survive predators in the nomadic hunter gatherer societies. Emotional connections give humans a desire to want to protect and work together to survive. The feelings you have of loneliness, longing, and connection are valid. The feelings of loneliness are like a built in biological alarm system telling us to find people. It’s similar to our brains telling us to eat or drink water when we are hungry and thirsty. These feelings have evolved to push us to want to be in groups- to want to survive. 

To be honest, I feel like my life right now in social isolation isn’t so different than my life when I was in the Peace Corps. I am still separated from my loved ones and still spend most of my time alone. I surprised myself by how quickly I was able to adapt to my new lifestyle in America. Below are some self care techniques I used in the Peace Corps that have continued to serve me well during the current self isolation. I hope they provide you with some comfort and ideas during this difficult time. Who knows, maybe one day you might even look back fondly upon these memories.

1. Creating a routine will help prevent depression and will keep you busy. It doesn’t need to be an exact routine but a general guideline of how you want your day to look like. Make sure it’s something that works for you. For example: don’t say wake up at 7am when realistically you wake up at 9am everyday. Create small wins and give yourself things to look forward to. I made a calendar for myself and would input things I would look forward to doing for the week. This could be something as small as a workout to my favorite music or cooking food that reminded me of home.

2. It’s important to take care of your physical health- exercise improves your mental well being. Create your own home practice. Do stuff that YOU enjoy otherwise you’ll never be interested in it. If you don’t like yoga don’t do it. If you like dancing, find online videos. Many dance studios are even offering online classes right now. If you’re a competitive person- start a challenge with an online group. The internet has endless types of workouts based on your level and interest. Try things out to see what fits best for you.

3. Stay present and recognize your feelings and thoughts. This is probably the first time so many of us have had so much alone time. Embrace it, meditate on it. Our minds are usually wandering in the past or in the future. Learn to stay present. It’s ok to be scared- I actually wrote in my daily routine that I give myself time to feel scared, sad and anxious about everything that is going on. Remember to take things one day at a time, your feelings are temporary and they will pass. And at midnight every night, you get to reset and start your day all over again. 

4. Practice gratitude- I also kept a gratitude journal during my Peace Corps service. I found that the act of writing down what you are grateful for everyday does wonders in changing one’s perspective on things. I was grateful for the sun, I was grateful to be able to move my limbs, I was grateful for food. What are some things you look forward to doing after this is all over? What are things that you once took for granted? How will you be a better person once this is all over? Reflecting will give you the opportunity to reset.

5. Create your own village- Socialize virtually with your loved ones. While I was in the Peace Corps I realized the quality of my relationships, not the quantity was what made me happy. I made sure to reach out to my friends and family to have meaningful conversations with them. If video chatting or phone calls aren’t your thing you can always write emails or letters to people (and you don’t even need to send them if you don’t want to). The act of focusing on communicating with someone else can help improve your mood.

6. Do something for someone else- Acts of kindness are a way to still feel connected to the world. For example you could write a nice comment online, check in on a friend, deliver groceries for a neighbor, say something nice to someone over the phone. If you contribute to another person’s happiness it will help with your own resiliency. Studies have shown that serving and thinking about others contributes to your own happiness. Make kindness your new habit.

7. The Arts: Having so much solitude made me appreciate the arts so much more. 

  • Read or reread some of your favorite books – When I was younger I loved to read and then college hit and I stopped. After college came my job and everyday after work I was too mentally exhausted to want to read. This time of solitude felt like the perfect time to read and reread some of the books I once loved. It gave me a newfound appreciation for books as I felt like I could go on an adventure without ever having to leave my house. I eventually made a running list of all of the books I read during service along with some of my favorite lessons from all of them. 

    1. Listen to music and take the time to read the lyrics. I guarantee it will make you respect the artist more and you will feel more connected with the world. I used music a lot to learn Chinese and it connected me to my students who were trying to learn English. We would laugh at our grammar mistakes together and I learned that music really does transcend cultures.

    2. Listen to podcasts/audiobooks- As an auditory learner, hearing a familiar voice tell a story or laugh made me feel more connected to humanity. And honestly, it helped me reconnect with English because I was using so much Chinese that I had started to forget certain English words. 

8. Monitor the type of media that you consume- The opposite of panic is education but you need to have the right type of information. Too much exposure and misinformation can affect your mood. I’m not saying to disconnect (you could too) but just be mindful about your intake. Maybe set aside a couple times per day where you’ll check the news instead of every hour. It will require some self discipline but I promise you it will help your mood.

9. Learn something new! Stay curious! Take an online class, now would be the time to learn that thing you’ve always wanted to do but never had the time to do. Take up a new hobby-learn a new language? sew a quilt? learn an instrument? write? try and cook new recipes, maybe have a cooking competition with your siblings? friends? The possibilities are endless as long as you stay creative and curious. 

10. Have compassion for yourself – If you are feeling alone think about advice that your friend give you. There are millions of people going through what you are going through now. If you feel like you are alone, know that you never walk through life alone. You will make it out on the other side with a better sense of who you are and hopefully with more compassion and appreciation for human kind.

As we go on this journey together, we don’t know what the future holds but what we do know is that our world will be different. We will be different. This epidemic will be part of humanity’s collective memory. Human beings are resilient creatures and we will adjust to a new world.

 

June 2019-Diary entry written one year after I started my Peace Corps service

I realized that I’m okay being alone in a new city in a foreign country. I’ve learned that I will always figure things out. 

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