“Have Rainbow, Will Travel” – Peace Corps Info for Prospective LGBT Volunteers

In honor of Pride Month, Peace Corps will offer an online info session this Saturday, June 20th, 11 am – 12 pm Pacific time, exploring the issues faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals who serve their country through Peace Corps.

All Peace Corps Volunteers must work hard to adapt to their service assignments, learn a foreign language, and fit in with the local culture. LGBT Volunteers face special additional challenges, including being discreet, if not entirely closeted, about their sexual identities while in their host communities.

This online info session — requiring an internet connection — will discuss topics such as:

  • Balancing the desire to be true to ourselves with the need to be respectful of the host community Continue reading

Peace Corps for the Over 50 Crowd

50+For people who were alive to hear President Kennedy’s call to serve in 1961, but couldn’t join Peace Corps back then — there’s still hope!

Peace Corps’s mini website for 50+ applicants offers resources and support especially for people whose main concerns about joining Peace Corps include staying in touch with the grandkids (not grandparents), and how it will affect their social security (not student loans).

The 50+ site includes a Frequently Asked Questions section with topics like health and financial matters. It also includes stories (including audio) of senior Volunteers.

Warning: if you are sentimental about service, the slideshows and voice overs might inspire tears.

While the average Peace Corps Volunteer is 27, the program has no upper age limit. In my mid-20s, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China alongside mid-career, retired, and even elderly U.S. citizens. Chinese students and faculty enjoyed inviting Continue reading

Asia Society Hosts a Discussion about China RPCV’s Book

The Last Days of Old BeijingMichael Meyer, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in China (1995-97), will appear at the Asia Society in New York City on May 7th.

Meyer will be discussing his recent book The Last Days of Old Beijing with Orville Schell, the director of the Center on US-China Relations, at an Asia Society event — Conversation with Author Michael Meyer.

A longtime Beijing resident, Michael Meyer has been sharing a courtyard home for several years in Beijing’s oldest hutongs, Dazhalan. The book chronicles the people in his neighborhood, the forced evictions there resulting from urban overhaul and commercialization, and the destruction of its way of life.

You can also read a recent essay of Meyer’s in the New York Times (free login required).

The Peace Corps China program started in 1993. Listen to a podcast featuring current Peace Corps China country director Bonnie Thie. The program has produced a bevy of other writers like Peter Hessler and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jake Hooker.

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Peace Corps Week

This week is Peace Corps Week!

This week, Feb. 23-March 3, is Peace Corps Week. A time to reflect on 48 years of international service by almost 200,000 U.S. Volunteers, and for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to speak about their experiences in the corps with schools and community groups across the United States.

Check out Peace Corps Week events going on in your region. Also find out how the National Peace Corps Association — the independent group of RPCVS — is celebrating. Read what the national service Resource Center has on tap for Peace Corps Week, too.

I’ll be in Boston tomorrow and Washington Friday, talking about service at the Idealist.org Nonprofit Career Fairs. If you ask nicely, I’ll tell you all about my time in Peace Corps China. Also check out these Idealist podcast shows on Peace Corps: with Bonnie Thie, China Country Director; and Eileen Conoboy, former Director of the Office of University Programs.

For information about joining the Peace Corps, call 1-800-424-8580 (press 1) to speak to a local recruiter. To learn more about Peace Corps Week, call 1-800-424-8580 (press 2, then ext. 1961) or email pcweek [at] peacecorps.gov or visit the Peace Corps website.

RPCVs Appeal to Peace Corps to Honor Late Staffer’s Medical Bills

Returned China volunteers (RPCVs) ask the agency’s director to help pay $12,000 in medical bills left in the wake of a Chinese employee’s battle with lung cancer.

Last week, the Peace Corps China community lost one of its champions and founders, Zhan Yimei. She battled for two years with lung cancer, and her family is now left with a mountain of debt. Below is a letter to Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter requesting support from Peace Corps to help Ms. Zhan’s family with the costs of her medical care which was managed through Chinese health coverage.

Dear Director Tschetter,

On Thursday, January 9, Zhan Yimei, the Program Manager for Peace Corps China, passed away after a long battle with lung cancer. Ms. Zhan had been with the Peace Corps in Chengdu from the beginning. She was hired in 1993, the first year that volunteers were sent to China, and since then she held a range of titles – Program Assistant, Program Manager, even Program Director.

But there is no simple way to describe Ms. Zhan’s role. She was at the center of every delicate exchange between the Peace Corps and the Chinese government, and she did her best to smooth over the inevitable confusions and misunderstandings. In the early years, when Chinese officials still felt uncomfortable communicating directly with the Peace Corps, they routinely asked Ms. Zhan to pass along important messages to the country director. American staff turned to her for advice about how to keep Chinese employees happy. The Chinese knew she was the best at understanding the sometimes volatile Americans. Volunteers asked her how to pronounce words in Mandarin. Whenever people needed a spot translator or interpreter, they turned to Ms. Zhan.

She helped design the Peace Corps language course; she visited potential teaching sites; she coordinated the unit on Sichuanese slang. During the cross-cultural part of pre-service training she was occasionally called upon to role-play a Chinese person. In these situations, as in all others, Ms. Zhan never complained, and she brought a dignity to role-playing that quite frankly was too often lacking in pre-service training. But then Ms. Zhan always played herself: faintly smiling, quietly intelligent, calm as the countryside. She was a small woman with dark eyes and pixie-cut hair; she spoke precisely in a soft voice. She was extremely observant.

She was politically skilled in all the right ways – she understood both the Communists and the Corps, and she was savvy; but she was not at all calculated. She did not demand credit for everything she did, and she believed in the long-term benefit of this strange and wonderful endeavor that became Peace Corps China.

It’s not surprising that she was given as much responsibility as any human being could handle. In 1998, when President Bill Clinton visited Beijing, the government representatives of China and the United States signed a historic Peace Corps country agreement that Ms. Zhan had helped draft. In 2003, when the Peace Corps evacuated all volunteers and staff as a result of the SARS epidemic, Ms. Zhan stayed behind and was named Program Director. For a year she was the highest-ranking Peace Corps staff member in country, smoothing over tensions that lingered in the wake of the abrupt departure. When the Peace Corps finally returned to China in 2004, Ms. Zhan was waiting. All told, she worked under seven country directors, and she assisted more than five hundred volunteers. No American was employed with Peace Corps China for as long as Ms. Zhan. It’s almost selfish to say that she’ll be missed, because she already gave so much to the program.

Ms. Zhan’s battle with lung cancer was intense and financially draining. In early 2006, she was diagnosed with the disease, which had already spread to the lymph nodes. Like all Chinese employees of the Peace Corps, Ms. Zhan never enjoyed the health insurance benefits that would have been offered if she had been American. Over the years, various country directors did their best to improve this situation, but there were still limits to the quality of coverage in China, and there was a fear that someday a valued employee would suffer serious medical problems.

Ms. Zhan became a worst-case scenario. The costs of treatment quickly outpaced insurance coverage, draining family resources; her college-age son delayed his plans to study abroad. In 2007, hearing about her situation, our organization, the China RPCVs, decided to fund-raise on her behalf. Contacting former volunteers, country directors, and co-workers of Ms. Zhan, we raised over $14,000. This money helped fund her treatments in an experimental drug program, which proved to be effective for a while, improving Ms. Zhan’s strength. (Predictably, she continued to go to work in the Peace Corps China office whenever she could.)

Unfortunately, Ms. Zhan’s condition deteriorated last year, and the new drug program no longer headed off the cancer. Additional care required the continuation of expensive chemotherapy and CT and pet scans, and her family fell further into debt. By the end, they owed more than $12,000, a substantial sum for a Chinese household. In her last days Ms. Zhan’s greatest concern was not whether she would live, but whether her family could sustain the cost of her care.

Our organization is now undertaking another fund-raising drive, but this comes close on the heels of our previous effort. The China program is still young, and most returned volunteers are in their twenties and thirties; for many people it’s hard to donate much. As of now, the Peace Corps itself has not provided any funds for Ms. Zhan’s medical expenses. It has no legal obligation to do so, because she had the same health insurance offered to other Chinese employees. There’s no established protocol for the Peace Corps to donate funds in this manner, and government agencies typically do not make exceptions.

But sometimes they receive exceptional work from host country national employees, which was certainly the case with Ms. Zhan. She never complained about being extended far beyond the boundaries of her job description, and she stood by the organization during difficult times, like the SARS crisis. She always showed remarkable flexibility and resourcefulness, and we would like to see the Peace Corps draw upon these same qualities and make sure that Ms. Zhan’s family is not saddled with debt and that her son can pursue his education. Perhaps it’s possible to issue a cash merit award, or locate funding through the Peace Corps Foundation, or find some other solution. In the end, this shouldn’t be a bureaucratic issue.

Last year and this year we have raised money not as RPCVs and Country Directors and Peace Corps Medical Officers supporting a Host Country National. We are co-workers and co-teachers, friends and colleagues, people who care about links between the United States and China; and we are simply trying to help one of our own. We hope that the Peace Corps can find a way to do the same.

Sincerely,

RPCVs of China

Friends and colleagues of Zhan Yimei

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In Memorium, Ms. Zhan Yimei – a Peace Corps China Founder

picture-4The Peace Corps China community grieves the loss one of the program’s ground breakers, its longest-serving staff member, and a paragon of diplomacy, intercultural communication, and humanity.

Ms. Zhan Yimei passed away last night after a nearly two-year battle with lung cancer. She has been a hero to Peace Corps Volunteers in China since the program launched in 1993.

According to Peace Corps China’s founding country director Dr. Bill Speidel, Ms. Zhan “was an integral part” of Peace Corps China. He said, “I’m not sure whether Peace Corps China would have gone on without her, if she hadn’t been with us. She was a major element in the development of the program. She worked tirelessly,” spending many, many hours establishing and growing the program.

Dr. Speidel called her “one of the finest professionals I’ve worked with throughout my career. She was able to help us solve problems no one else could have. She was a wonderful bridge between our staff and the Chinese bureaucracy; she knew how to handle both. She was a fine interpreter even without preparation. A Jill of all trades who came in handy in so many ways beyond what any job description could capture.”

picture-71Dr. Speidel cited an example of when the staff experienced problems importing medical supplies for the new program. Ms. Zhan spent a long time negotiating with Chinese officials to make the arrangements possible. During my time in Peace Corps in the late 90’s, I witnessed countless such negotiations. Ms. Zhan could handle any conflict, it seemed, with staggering grace and effectiveness. She was one of the strongest and most even-keeled people I know. She fought doggedly for us, and we truly loved her.

Before joining the staff of Peace Corps China in the spring of 1993, she’d been a teacher in the department of foreign languages at Sichuan Normal University in Chengdu. Sichuan Normal was the original site of Peace Corps China headquarters, and where I was trained in 1998. The university made efforts to get her back to take on a high-ranking position among the administration. Dr. Speidel said, “We can all be grateful that she stayed on as long as she did; longer than 15 years.”

Ms. Zhan is survived by her husband Lin Ping, and her son Zhan Zilin.

Ms. Zhan, we will miss you.

The nonprofit organization Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of China is collecting donations to help her family cover medical bills left in her wake. For information on how to donate, please email me at amy[at]idealist.org.

This month’s The New Service podcast episode (due out mid-January) will feature an interview with current Peace Corps China country director Bonnie Thie. In that conversation — recorded in December — we talk more about Zhan Yimei and her role.

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Peace Corps China Director Visits Seattle

Bonnie Thie, country director for Peace Corps’s China program, will speak in Seattle next week.

Thie and the Seattle Regional Recruitment Office director Eileen Conoboy will appear jointly at REI in downtown Seattle on Dec. 15.

Bonnie Thie, the Peace Corps’ country director in China, served in Peace Corps Afghanistan, where she served for three years in the 1970s. She served 18 years with the Environmental Protection Agency most recently as the director of policy, communications and resource management in the Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds in Washington, D.C. and in the EPA’s Seattle Air Quality Office, working with states, tribes and Environment Canada to protect and improve air quality in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.  After attending law school at the University of Oregon, she practiced law in Alaska, first in private practice and then as assistant attorney general for the state of Alaska, working on oil and gas leasing, as well as a range of municipal law and use issues. Her undergraduate degree is in history from the University of Washington, which is currently the #1 producer of Peace Corps volunteers in the nation.

Want to attend?

Monday, Dec. 15
6:30 – 8 p.m.
Peace Corps Speakers Series:
A Spotlight on Education Assignments in China
With Visiting Peace Corps Country Director Bonnie Thie
at REI (Flagship Store in Downtown Seattle)
222 Yale Ave. N
Seattle, WA 98109

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