Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Peace Corps Essay: Cross-cultural Experience: Written November 2003

Five Dollars Per Person

In January 1996 I took advantage of an opportunity promoted by Saint Olaf College to participate in a Study/Service semester in Indonesia. The idea behind the program was to study Indonesian language, culture and history while also serving the community in which you were placed. The service portion of the program involved teaching English as a second language at the local university. While I found teaching a rewarding way to interact with Indonesians, I also felt compelled to explore the broader community of Pemantang Siantar, a city on the Island of Sumatra.

About three months into my six month stay, I began volunteering at an orphanage on the outskirts of town. I worked with the children in their garden tending the cassava plants and answering questions about the United States. One afternoon, after the work was done and the children were at play, I stopped to talk to the director of the orphanage. She was a western educated Indonesian, full of ideas for the future of the orphanage.

While discussing the history of the orphanage a panicked young girl ran up to us, tears streaming down her face, screaming in Indonesian “Krishna fell! Krishna fell! Come quick!” The director and I glanced at one another and immediately followed the young girl to the site of the accident. Krishna had been playing with another girl on a make shift teeter-totter and had toppled off of it while her end was at its apex. When we arrived at the scene she was still in shock, unaware that her leg had snapped exposing a portion of the bone.

The director of the orphanage took charge, shouting commands while attempting to comfort Krishna. Feeling out of place and a bit helpless, I asked the director if there was anything that I could do. She responded compassionately with a “No” and reassured me that everything would be fine. I promised her that I would be back in a few days to check on Krishna. “That will be fine.” she said.

A few days later I returned to the orphanage and requested to see Krishna. Krishna’s friend, the one who told us about the accident, was summonsed to lead me to the orphanage’s “Infirmary”. In a delicate voice, I asked how Krishna was doing. Her big brown eyes met mine and her bottom lip quivered, “She is very sick.” She said and looked away. I asked her if Krishna had been to the hospital and she said no but that a local witch doctor had wrapped her leg with traditional dressing.

Krishna was asleep when I visited her. Beads of sweat were gathering on her forehead and cheeks and during the few moments I spent with her I noticed her shivering intermittently. She did not look well at all for a girl who merely had broken her leg. How many kids break their legs everyday in the United States? I left the infirmary intent on speaking with director, but was informed she had gone out of town for a few days. Again, I felt helpless.

When I returned the following week, Krishna was being buried. She had contracted Tetanus and died a couple of days after my visit. I told this story to an Indonesian doctor who shook his head in dismay and shared with me that tetanus shots cost approximately five American dollars.

How does the death of a young girl demonstrate or provide evidence of my ability to adapt cross culturally? I believe the answer to this question resides in my reflection of what transpired. If I had offered to pay for Krishna’s hospitalization or even just a visit from the doctor, she would likely be alive—that’s not a guilty afterthought, it’s a simple fact. Had I known this, I certainty would have acted on it. However, I was a stranger in a strange land and through my cross-cultural desire to be respectful and allow events to unfold as they may, I opted for complacency and acquiescence.

Today, I remain respectful of cross-cultural differences. However, I have learned to ask more questions in order to get to the underlying truths. I also learned to offer my assistance at times when it may be of use. Even if the offer is rejected, the fact that it was extended often opens up avenues of dialogue. Sometimes these avenues lead to greater awareness, respect and understanding. Other times, they simply lead to dead ends. Regardless of the direction that dialogue takes, I learned that we are all at a greater loss without it.


  • I have been thinking about joining the peace corp can you offer me some advice? email me at

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 11:10 AM  

  • Your essay left me touched and inspired. Thank you for posting it.

    By Anonymous Sarah, At 3:06 PM  

  • This is a great essay --currently applying to peace corps and it was so helpful to see a really amazing example--thanks for posting!

    And like Sarah--touched and inspired.

    By Blogger E J, At 2:41 PM  

  • Thank you for posting this, like the other commenters I am also currently applying for the peace corp. If you have any advice or even other stories and wish to share please email me at

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 4:38 PM  

  • I appreciate your essay. It reminded me of my time in Ethiopia. I served there as an Intern through the University of Oregon. I also worked at an orphanage. I can relate, very much, to your story. I am currently applying for the peace corps. Thank you for sharing your experience, strength and hope.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 3:45 PM  

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