“Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You, Ask What You Can Do For Your Country” – John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961
During the course of his campaign for the presidency in 1960, Kennedy floated the idea that a new “army” should be created by the United States. This force would be made up of civilians who would volunteer their time and skills to travel to underdeveloped nations to assist them in any way they could.
To fulfill this plan, newly elected President Kennedy issued an executive order on March 1, 1961 establishing the Peace Corps. (later made law).
I was then a Librarian at the University of Colorado in charge of Public Services.
In 1963 I applied and was accepted as a Peace Corps volunteer to Malaya, which later became Malaysia. I was then 32 and still single.
In Peace Corps training, I heard the warning about culture shock. Our lecturers were referring to difficulties to adapting to the change of culture we would experience when we arrived in Malaya for our assignments. I had no idea what they could be talking about. However, it was referred to so many times during our 10 weeks of training that I began to believe that they were serious. I, and I think other volunteers, made a silent commitment to make sure that such difficulties would never happen to us.
Of course I was wrong, wrong, wrong. For of course it did. I experienced many instances, both large and small, of new and unique happenings, mostly because of cultural differences. However, the warnings by the lecturers steeled me to make sure that it did not adversely affect my experiences or my work. Also, I believe that I did not show it to my Malaysian friends and co-workers.
After training, my assignment was to be a librarian at the University of Malaya. It should be noted that in addition to having a Masters in Library Science, my bachelor’s degree was in music education and I had taught high school music for a couple of years in Kiowa, Kansas after my military service during the Korean war.
My first shock was in Hong Kong, a stopover on the way to my assignment in Kuala Lumpur.
Never having been in the Orient before, I was bowled over by experiencing another world of sounds, sights and smells. Night only served to intensify each. My senses exploded as if a volcano had erupted. I felt as if there was nothing left that I could relate to except putting one foot in front of another — and I wasn’t sure that the walker was me. I was in another world – a world that was exciting and at the same time a little frightening. Since then, I have been to Hong Kong several times and I can now say that it is one of my favorite cities in the world – but I have many.
Upon arrival at the Kuala Lumpur airport, one of the Peace Corps staff greeted me by saying “Oh, you are the one who is to teach music at the Maktab Perguruan Bahasa (Malayan Teachers’ College). After the initial shock, I found that indeed I was going to be a half time general music teacher. All I had was one volume of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas with me which were to be of no use.
Culture shock was immediate. Our volunteer group was initially placed for orientation at the Technology Institute. The spartan room in the dormitory was shared with three others. The toilet was a hole in the floor over which one squatted. In training we had not been warned of this difference in life style. The shower consisted of a large container filled with water and there was a drain in the floor. There was also a dipper that one dipped into the water and poured it over the body before soaping up. Once you were deemed clean, you filled the dipper again and rinsed off. By the way, there was no hot water. One might expect that in the tropics the water would be warm. No such luck.
The hundreds of orchids that we saw on the way to breakfast lifted spirits but only for a moment — breakfast was another culture shock. Each table for eight contained 16 soft boiled eggs, an enormous basin filled with rice and eight bowls of clear broth with things of unknown origin that floated. In my previous life, rice was only used for pudding. Most volunteers lost complete interest in food and wondered if they would have to starve for the next 21 months.
Two things saved us that first day. One of volunteers found a banana vendor outside the college gate. About 40 volunteers swarmed the cart and, in about 5 minutes, a happy vendor had no more bananas. He hardly knew what hit him. The other wonderful happening that first day was a reception that we attended given by the American Ambassador. We volunteers soon found out which was the door to the kitchen. As the waiters came out, the food on the trays disappeared – as clean as a vacuum sweeper could have done.
A funny thing happened at that party. On a table was a large dip that looked like porcupine quills embedded into a mound of dip about the size of ½ of a volleyball. Word quickly circulated from the nurses that we were not to eat it. The quills were suppositories! The Ambassador’s wife, upon seeing it, grabbed it and whisked it off to the kitchen. She too thought that it was funny and told a few volunteers that she had come in from shopping, given a bag to the amah (servant) and told her to put everything out on the table for the party. She forgot that bag contained also a box of suppositories.
We later found that Malaya/Malaysia had some of the best food in the world, representing the food culture of its three major races – Malay (45%), Chinese (45%) and Indians (10 %) who were mostly Tamils and Sikhs.
Many experiences made my two years full of exciting new adventures. It was a wonderful, life-changing twenty-one months. I loved the time in Malaya and I am almost embarrassed to say that I got more out of it than I contributed. I believe that the other volunteers in my group also felt the same. While there were surprises and shocks, I believe that we all took them in stride and made meaningful, even if small, contributions.