“The purpose of Staging is for trainees to gather from all their various corners of the country and voluntarily saunter into a proverbial pressure cooker of Peace Corps training…”
Although I packed my bags exactly to Peace Corps specs – dotted my I’s and crossed my T’s – the first few steps into the hotel for Staging felt still identical to the first few steps we all took away from mom on the first day of kindergarten. If your classroom was on the edge of a bottomless cliff. On Mars. I posit that there is no terror comparable to that felt by the final member to arrive within newly formed cohort, i.e. me at Staging. And I am a social gal! Really! Truly! But, before we delve deeper into the social gut-punch, I’ll share some fluffy context.
Reason #1037936 why I am the luckiest woman on Earth: My northern Cali fam congregated on Ocean Beach to roast weiners and sip clandestine champagne as my send-off. I negotiated with the U.S. Gov’t (well, uh, Peace Corps’ travel agency… gotta start small) to fly me in one day early to allow for BBQ business with the clan. It was freezing and altogether lovely – something chilly to remember the sensation of “not hot” when I was in the Cambodian bush. I got to share a few more hugs and kisses, read and cry about touching send-off notes, and sip on #whitenonsense microbrew coffee one last time. California Callarmans, Knickmeyer, and Harndens, you are the absolute greatest. Thank you so much. Please expect copious Cambodian goodies in the coming months. Chris and Sophie even drove me to the hotel! Twice! Turns out there are two Double Trees near SFO. Go figure.
Anyway, the social anxiety. My first impressions of the other PC trainees:
1. My God. Is there also a gear photoshoot for Outside Magazine being hosted here? Everyone appears so buxsome and capable.
2. Everyone is already chatting and laughing in one large group. That’s it! I’ve missed the boat! I won’t make a single friend for the next two years!
3. Oh. Oh, wait. Each new person I talk to is the new nicest person I have ever met. The most earnest. The most welcoming. What’s the catch, damnit?
There was no catch. Peace Corps evidently has their filters set to “bomb human specimen” when it comes to selecting their tribute. Despite the intense pressure of staging, all 76(ish) of us trainees supported one another and collectively deflected intense analysis on the madness to which we would all soon submit. The purpose of Staging is for trainees to gather from all their various corners of the country and voluntarily saunter into a proverbial pressure cooker of Peace Corps training before we ship off to our country of service for several more weeks of… intense training. The wonderful staff frequently reminded us that all pre-service training – including Staging – was a time for each us to consider whether or not Peace Corps was for us. We could go home, any time, no judgement. Although they were polite about it as can be, a group-wide shudder could be felt whenever the topic of “going home” was merely broached. We were all here for a reason. Each of us with purpose and intent, and if I read my peers correctly, damned if we were about to hop off of the greatest ride at the fair.
For the purpose of training, we were all split into two groups by last name – a prospect that left us a little heart-bruised after bonding so quickly. We participated in countless activities and discussions which centered around both building our Peace Corps “toolbox” and breaking any ice that remained between us, thin though it may have begun. Some of my favorite concepts from Staging:
1. The Danger of a Single Story
2. The Dive (“Iceberg“) Model of Understanding Cross-Cultural Experiences
3. The Dot-Game. More on this below.
In the evenings we would all reunite and go out for fun in the city. For some, it was their first time in San Fransisco and it was treat to share with them their first walk about Fisherman’s Wharf and through Little Italy. After some carpaccio and moscow mules with Sweet Amanda, we traipsed into an obscure little cafe/pub (nameless as far as I’m concerned) where an angel from God named Meg rained beer down upon us. Meg, we will cherish you forever and we all intend to force you to pursue your dream of one day serving for the Peace Corps. We are barely a few days into this thing but as far as we can tell, it’s incredible. Once I felt full of America and quite suddenly very far from my warm bed, I played mom and helped usher all of us kiddos into Ubers. To the hotel we went for one final night of solid sleep in a bonafide bed.
The final group activity that PC staff organized for us was called the Dot Game. We all stood in a giant circle facing outward, eyes closed, and the staff walked about in the middle of the circle and subtly placed something on our backs as one staff member led us through some guided meditation about our expectations for service. Imagine your first sentence in Khmer. Imagine meeting your host-family for the first time. Imagine your swearing-in ceremony. Imagine your community. Once we opened our eyes, they told us, we had to organize ourselves in total silence, no language allowed. We immediately discovered that we all had stickers, dots of either red, yellow, or green on our backs and we began to silently cling to those of our color. Unable to see our own sticker, we had to trust one each other that we were thinking the same thing. “You have a red dot on your back and you are pulling me toward a group of other people with red dots as well, thus I must have a red dot, too… right?” As we slowly grouped into three large clusters, we began to notice a few stragglers, people looking a little lost and with no home. When they turned, I could see that a few of these people had multiple colored dots on their backs with one guy sporting all three colors. The looks on their faces was absolute helplessness, rivaled only by the faces of those already in their definitive groups: I can see that you are lost but I have no idea how to help. Without strict rules to the game, I attempted to tie them in with each group, thinking that they needed to be in contact with someone representing each of their colors. When we were all latched together in a knot of arms, the activity was concluded. The purpose was to remind us of the confusion we would all soon face in a new place, new country without any language skills, how helpless we would all be at one point or another. We would all need to reach out to each other during those “Three-Dot Moments” and never leave a wo/man behind. Essentially: This ain’t spring break, y’all.
And then, we were ready. We could take the anticipation no more: Get us to Cambodia! In a flurry of Osprey packs and a cacophony of last minute calls to mas, pas, and boo-thangs, we loaded into buses and headed to SFO. It was time. Here we go, team.