2014: And I went from this to that and this again

I sit on my couch, having just finished watching one of my ultimate guilty pleasure movies: My Best Friend’s Wedding. I incidentally just returned from my best friend’s house as well, clear on the other side of the U.S. The past 24 hours represent the past year in a nutshell: a whirlwind of balancing my new career with my family and friends.

2014 has been the best year of my life. It has also been a test of patience and adjustment. I went from being an only child with no relatives living within 1000 miles, to suddenly having sisters and a very large extended family within 50 miles. I went from Peace Corps back to advertising, and clearly not handling it very well. (But the blog post it inspired continues to strike a chord with RPCVs everywhere!) I went from complete uncertainty about the future to more uncertainty to far too much excitement to care. I went from “now what” to 8 months of Arabic training! I went from RPCV consumerism guilt to taxpayer guilt. I went from Arabic to German four separate times on the plane just this morning.  I went from being a cashier at Whole Foods to a diplomat in one day.

January of this year, I sat in a computer room awaiting my fate. That hour ticked by so slowly as I waited and waited, while people kept being called away leaving me with two other people questioning what we could have done differently. But with one smile and a “let us be the first to congratulate you” my whole world changed. That moment, forever etched in my brain, was one I’d dreamed of for 10 years. And when I finally opened my envelope and saw that my score was high enough to ensure I was called off the register, I felt every emotion possible stream through my body. The second I saw my score, I knew that my dreams came true because I worked for it. I put everything into that day and I was rewarded. Turns out hard work and dedication really do produce results, but sometimes it takes a while. January 23, 2014 changed my life.

This year has also been about maintaining the relationships that are most important to me. But, it isn’t easy when there is a lot of physical distance between you and everyone else. And it won’t improve next year when you can tack on an extra 10,000 miles. But, I’ve tried really hard to make the time for my family and friends. Financially, it isn’t easy either, but I know it is important to them. It is always hard on me when I get back though, because it hits me that I live a completely different lifestyle than what 90% of people are used to. I’m a fair weather friend, daughter, sister now and while I don’t particularly like labeling myself that, that’s just sort of how the cookie crumbles. My lifestyle and priorities are completely different from most of the people I know (outside of the Foreign Service). It is not a vacation until I’ve eaten at the restaurant I’ve meticulously researched. Or it is not a family event until I’ve explained “yes, I’m aware of the dangers of living in Egypt.” I’m at this weird point in my life where I’m a complete outsider within my own family or friend group. I’m that wackadoodle relative or friend that you bring up over the dinner table, wondering “what’s she doing now?” But it’s okay, this is what I’ve chosen and I know that if it were easy it wouldn’t be as rewarding.

2014 was the year in which I sat at a picnic table on my lunch break devouring my delicious Whole Foods salad when everything changed. I still remember looking at my phone while scarfing down some mashed sweet potatoes with candied pecans. I remember checking my email and reading in big bold yellow highlighted text that my name was added to the register and my score was high enough to be selected for the June/July class. And then proceeding to lose it. My fork was still midway to my mouth when I started half-crying, half-hyperventilating. And then I called everyone. Passing the oral assessment was the most glorious feeling on Earth, but getting invited to a class that truly was hyperventilate worthy. 2014 was the year that I made my dreams a reality.

My father is an immigrant. His family didn’t have a lot. My mom didn’t have much growing up either; her dad worked in a sardine factory. But they both worked hard and did everything they could to provide me with opportunities, the opportunities they didn’t have growing up. I went to a competitive and challenging public high school 30 minutes from home, because I knew that it was what I needed to grow. I pursued my own challenges and I haven’t stopped since.
This is my lesson from 2014: hard work pays off. Dreams are a reality, but only if you accept that they are also a challenge. You can’t just be handed your dream career or vacation or experience or relationship. You have to work for it. You have to want it and you can’t give up. Dreams are difficult to obtain for a reason, but determination to succeed and just plain ole hard work can put them within your grasp. I didn’t give up, even after failing multiple times. But as my favorite quote from Edison goes: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

2014 was a year of many changes, but all of them put me right where I am today: extremely happy, grateful, and humbled to have been given such a wonderful year to cherish.

The Disappointing Side of Goodbyes

What is it about goodbyes that make people act so weird? I’ve had some truly terrible experiences with leaving. It seems like every time I make a big move and disappear for years, the people I want to spend time with also disappear. They say mean things or avoid spending time with me. I still choke back tears when I think about my going away party before leaving for Peace Corps. I don’t even know how to describe it besides disappointing.

Disappointing is a good way to describe my experience with goodbyes. What is it about the whole process though that brings out the non-coping mechanisms in so many people? And why do people think it is better to avoid spending time with the person leaving, rather than spending as much time as possible? Is it an attempt to wean themselves off another person? I get that the whole process is awkward, emotional, and jarring, but avoidance only leads to regret and bitterness. Is that the memory you want to carry with you? If you are sad that someone is moving or leaving, tell them. Just say it and get it out of the way. There is no shame in feeling emotions. The worst thing you can do is squander an opportunity to spend those last moments together, simply because you were afraid of saying goodbye. In my opinion, there’s nothing that hurts more than giving someone an opportunity and watching them waste it.

Moving is always bittersweet. I just hope that this time I will be left with more sweetness than bitterness.

Living in the Gray Area

There exists this place where you are neither here nor there. A constant state of transit with no real timeline. A world lost between extremes, cultures, and norms. This place exists only to confuse outsiders. You are both part of a group and a fleeting thought in the wind. You are only here for a short time, but you don’t know how long that time period will be. You are always just passing through.

It can be hard to reconcile the need to feel accepted and part of a group, with the desire to be constantly on the move. As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I’ve had difficulty leaving my Peace Corps family for my own. It has been over six months since I’ve returned and I still have trouble finding where I belong. People don’t understand Peace Corps, how can they possibly understand me? The people I knew before Peace Corps remember the old me, the person before I had this life-changing experience. The people I’ve met after Peace Corps only know this quirky person who went to Africa to do something in a village and who is now moving on to do something overseas again. I feel like when I say Peace Corps these days it’s a curse word. I’ve stopped trying to explain my experiences. I’ve stopped talking about them, period. I live in the grey area where I am both still here and moving away permanently at the same time.

Some days it feels like I am making memories, just have them slowly erased in a few months. An old school movie reel slowly starts to crank up. The black and white movie appears on screen after a few seconds. The sound is blaring and the picture is punctured with splotches where the reel was slightly damaged. As the movie plays, at first it is in bright contrast. As the movie progresses, the picture starts to wash out, to fade, until suddenly there is nothing left but reel after reel of grey tinged screen in front of you.

So I live in the grey area. A place where I try, but also accept defeat. A place where I am always looking forward, yet still peek backwards from time to time. A place where I am both a person and a job title. A place where I belong, yet don’t.

For the next few weeks I’ll continue to live in the grey area. I will transition to a new grey area with new contrasts. I can’t wait to see what shades of grey are in store.

Four Reasons Why You Should NOT Hire a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

Yes, you read that right: should not. Peace Corps used to have a saying: “At Peace Corps we are practical idealists.” Those kind of crazy ideas make Returned Peace Corps Volunteers terrible employees. Here are a few reasons why hiring a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer will ruin your business.

1. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) question the status quo. Business as usual is exactly what a PCV is trained to rebel against. We are indoctrinated to look for the status quo and squash it. The status quo is what keeps developing countries from developing. Let’s keep farming the exact same way we’ve done it for hundreds of years, if it has worked that long, it can’t be wrong, right? False. Cashew farmers in Ghana were just given cashew trees when the great drought of the 1980s destroyed all the cocoa. They’ve continued farming the same way, because it works. But we taught them that simple changes can triple their yield. They can keep chugging along with the status quo and it won’t affect them, but adopting our changes would propel them forward. Businesses shouldn’t hire a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer if they want to maintain a status quo. If you want someone to help you find ways you can improve, you should hire an RPCV.

2. RPCVs over-communicate. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you have to translate almost everything on a daily basis: at the market, getting a taxi, chatting with locals, yelling at the small girls to fetch water, or chasing chickens. During training events, you might even need to translate into multiple languages with a translator. You learn quickly that communication is at the heart of all problems. So you over-communicate. You learn the varying levels of explanation you will need for any project: high level government jargon to send back to Peace Corps, local level negotiations,  basic training language, translator friendly speak, or acronym alphabet. You can say “farmers should keep records” 10 different ways and in multiple languages. So RPCVs over-communicate, we are used to words being our only tools. Businesses shouldn’t hire an RPCV if they want employees to keep quiet. If you want someone who will not fear communication, you should hire an RPCV.

3. RPCVs have a different concept of what is “important.” Try going one day without something you rely on – your cell phone, laptop, electricity, flushing toilets. Suddenly those items become incredibly important. Try spending two years experiencing terrible roads in beat up mini-buses, torrential rains that shut down all plans for three months, or watching the kids dig through your trash for free stuff. Then evaluate what’s important. Arbitrary deadlines = not important. Being five minutes late to work = not important. Coming into work when you are sick = definitely not important. Businesses shouldn’t hire an RPCV if they want employees to adhere to arbitrary rules and work inside the box. If you want someone to do real, meaningful work and do it well, you should hire an RPCV.

4. RPCVs are cheapskates. When you make $150/month and inflation is going up every few days, you learn to pinch every penny. You’ll negotiate for an extra carrot or an extra ladle of soup. You will fight taxi drivers until you are blue in the face for them to reduce their fare by just a few cents. You don’t waste money, because you can’t. When you do decide to splurge, you go out and buy a beer, but you’ll walk an extra 20 minutes to go to the cheaper bar. A recycle bin at work triggers an RPCV to think “my neighbors would’ve begged me for this much paper – think of all the toilet paper that could be!” Saving money and squirreling it away is just in an RPCV’s DNA. Businesses shouldn’t hire an RPCV if they want to continue wasting money. If you want someone who will save your company money by finding ways to cut back efficiently, you should hire an RPCV.

Change is hard, but go ahead, give it a try, hire a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.

RPCVs, are there any reasons I missed? What would you add?

Readjustment Phase Two–Where is Home?

In July I posted about discovering what home means to me – the place where you become yourself. As I feel the second phase of my readjustment kicking in, I no longer know where my home is.

I was looking forward to reconnecting with family and friends as part of my COS experience. However, everyone remembers me as the girl who left in 2011. I’m radically different from that girl. I don’t feel like I can be myself anymore because everyone is expecting me to be the old me. I’m caught in between this limbo of being my new self and faking my old self. As my best friend said “Peace Corps sent back a very zen person.” I was not that way when I left. I don’t know how to interact with old friends anymore. I don’t know how to connect. I feel like there is something missing in the middle, and that’s time. I’ve been gone for two years. I haven’t seen some people for ever longer. How do I be the same friend when I’m a different person? I struggle with every conversation to not monopolize the discussion and blabber on about Peace Corps. I’m genuinely curious about what everyone else has been up to, but most people don’t have two years worth of incredibly crazy stories to tell. How do I be myself?

Home. I’m back in America. But I’m not home. I don’t know where I consider home anymore, I can’t be myself and I don’t feel connected to any specific place. My mom’s house was cozy and nice, but it didn’t feel like home. The area and way of life seemed so alien that I could hardly connect to it. San Diego was fantastic, but it’s my best friend’s home. I was just visiting. I could be myself with her, I felt the most at ease during that week. I was so excited to return to Oklahoma. I grew up here. I have such fond memories of life in this house, but it isn’t my home anymore. It is scary how un-homelike it feels.

There were a few things that finally severed ties for me with this house. After just one hour, I knew this place was no longer my home. First, my dog didn’t recognize me. And he still doesn’t. That’s been one of the hardest aspects of coming back so far. I couldn’t wait to be reunited and dogs are supposed to have such great memories of their owners. He doesn’t even come when I call him. It’s almost as if he is scared of me. He loves everyone else though. It breaks my heart everyday to watch it.
Then, as I entered my room I felt disorientated. There was no carpet, just the concrete slab. My bed was there, but my mattress was gone. During my service I slept on a terrible mattress. It was made of “high density” foam with no springs. It was very soft and had completely molded to my body, which really means I made a giant butt imprint in it. It was so bad that I couldn’t roll over at night, I would just roll back into the butt pit. Turning it regularly didn’t help. I hated it. I couldn’t wait to get back to Oklahoma and sleep on my mattress again. The mattress I had literally been dreaming about for two years. That mattress was one of the first things I bought post college. It’s a material thing, but when you’ve been deprived of good sleep for two years, you really want a nice place to sleep. While I was tossing and turning every night, my dad decided to claim my mattress and it’s now on his bed. I probably would have said it was okay, if he ever asked me, but he didn’t. He said he’d buy me a new one, but that doesn’t solve the problem I have right now – I want to feel comfortable in my house.
This house doesn’t feel the same. My dad’s made a lot of changes, so it doesn’t look the same or feel like the house I grew up in. It isn’t friendly anymore. It isn’t inviting. I don’t feel like I’m wanted here. I don’t even feel like a guest. As I walked through the house, I found one picture of me. And there is a frame that says family and it has everyone in it, but me. No one talks to me or asks me questions. In fact, we barely say anything at all. It’s like I don’t even exist. This is now just a place I’m crashing while I search for a job. And it breaks my heart every night and every morning. I go to bed feeling lost and disconnected. I wake up wishing I was waking up to the sound of hand brooms and goats. I’d take my crappy mattress back and early morning wake up calls. Ghana was home, this is not. But I can’t go back to Ghana. So I sit here struggling with feeling like I no longer belong anywhere.

The only way I know to cope is to continue pursuing my dreams.
This too shall pass.

Why Obamacare is Fantastic, Albeit Confusing for Peace Corps Volunteers

For many Peace Corps Volunteers serving out in the bush somewhere, we’ve all but forgotten about Obamacare. Why? Well, the days blur together and no one is ever quite sure what year it is. Also, the bush part. Yes, we have access to news and facebook and email, but sometimes that means standing on a rock waving your arms wildly in the air hoping to get a signal. So I’m sure it simply slipped the minds of many PCVs worldwide that the online marketplace has gone live. Or they have no idea what that even means.

For the Volunteers returning to America in the next 6 months, Obamacare is fantastic. We are perfect candidates for the new system. Most of us will be returning unemployed, previously uninsurable (chronic Montezuma’s revenge should be a pre-existing condition), and likely in serious need of insurance. Peace Corps provides one month of insurance upon returning to the States, after that you can decide to purchase AfterCare for some months. (Word on the bush path is AfterCare will no longer be an 18 month contract, but 3 months instead.) After reviewing the premium cost (about $240/month) and reviews (terrible) of AfterCare, I’ve decided that shopping for options on the marketplace is a better alternative.

Shopping for plans hits a snag though for Peace Corps Volunteers. Firstly, you need to know what state you live in. Secondly, you need to estimate your 2014 income. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that all Peace Corps Volunteers returning to America hope that their income will be higher than their in country allowance. If I go back to America and I get a job making $175 a month, I’m coming back to Ghana! So you can see the difficulty here – we don’t know where we will be living or how much money we will be making (if we can get a job). We might move back in with our parents while we look for a job, but odds are many PCVs are looking for jobs in multiple states. So, what’s a poor, homeless RPCV to do?

Well, let’s learn some facts about the new Obamacare roll out and answers some questions (scroll down for some insurance related definitions as well):

Income Related

1. 2014 income estimation determines whether you qualify for tax subsidies or Medicaid. The tax subsidies can change your out-of-pocket premium expenses in the long run. If you earn enough though, you won’t qualify for subsidies. Let’s do an example of what a returning PCV might have to pay:

Example A: a 27 year old PCV has just returned to America. He’s living with his parents right now in Oregon as he readjusts to running water, stable electricity, grocery stores, and hipsters. He is applying for jobs in Oregon and estimates that once he gets a job, he’ll be making $30,000 a year. Here’s his estimate for the Silver plan:

$164/month ($1976/year) premium
No subsidies

Example B
: a 25 year old has just returned and wants insurance. Since she’s 25 she still qualifies under her parents’ insurance. She tells her parents to add her as a dependent on their insurance. Done.

Example C: a 26 year old RPCV is looking for jobs in many different states, she needs insurance in the interim though. She doesn’t know how long it will take to get a job, so she’s living at home with her dad in Texas. She’s looking at nonprofit jobs though for when she does get a job. She guesses her salary will be $25,000. Her estimate:

$223/month ($2680/year) premium
$951 tax subsidy
Premium after subsidy: $144/month ($1729/year)

(All estimates are from: http://kff.org/interactive/subsidy-calculator/)

2. If you estimate your income incorrectly, it will be adjusted for your 2014 taxes (read: April 2015). But what does that mean? Here’s a breakdown:

You estimate $30,000, but end up making $42,000 (first of all, congrats!). You don’t qualify for subsidies either way. You’re fine.
You estimate $22,000, but end up making $37,000. You qualified for subsidies with the lower income, but since you made more money, you’ll have to pay the subsidy back.
You estimate $40,000, but end up making $20,000. You probably qualify for subsidies now, which means you’ll be getting money back.

So, my advice: estimate high. It is better to be pleasantly surprised with a subsidy check, than disappointed when one doesn’t come. (Although, not having a subsidy means you are doing well, so win win either way.)

3. Does my readjustment allowance count as 2014 income? If you COS before December 31, 2013 you don’t have to worry about this question.
For the past two years, you’ve been paying taxes on your readjustment allowance since it has been adding up each month. In terms of income, it isn’t the lump sum in tax terms you think it is. If you COS in 2014, your income should be adjusted based on whatever remaining months you had for your readjustment allowance. (Disclaimer: I am by NO MEANS a tax accountant or professional, my mother is and this is what I understood from her.) So that means:

If you COS in March, that’s $825. It isn’t going to affect you terribly when estimating your income, but if you feel wary overestimate.

4. If I take cash-in-lieu does that count as income? Again, according to my tax-loving mom and the Peace Corps (http://files.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/pdf/policies/taxguide2011.pdf), it does not.

Where do I live?!

1. If you move after you apply/receive insurance, you are qualified for a 60 day new open enrollment. If you apply for insurance in Oklahoma, but move to Texas a few months later you will have 60 days in which to reenroll for insurance. After 60 days, you have to wait for the next time to sign up for insurance – October 2014. If you COS in 2014, you will most likely apply for this exception as well. So you can apply for insurance after returning to the States.

2. What if I get a job that offers insurance and I already bought a plan through the marketplace? You will have to decide if you want to keep your current plan or switch to the insurance provided through your employer. If you want to cancel your current plan, you will have to contact the actual insurance company and discuss with them cancelling. Be sure to ask about premium proration! If you want to keep your current plan, but switch later – talk to your new employer about the next open enrollment period. Mark that date on your calendar and switch then.

What are these terms?

open enrollment – a couple months during the year in which you can sign up for insurance. This is the only time when you can sign up for new insurance or switch.

premium – consider it like a monthly subscription cost. This is the amount of money you pay each month in order to have insurance. (Just like car or renter’s insurance)

income – if you are curious what qualifies as income and what doesn’t check out this website: http://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/healthcare/MAGI_summary13.pdf

subsidy – The health care subsidy is in the form of a tax credit, but unlike most tax credits, you won’t have to wait until you file your taxes to receive it. The subsidy will be applied directly to your insurance premium when you purchase a plan through the online marketplace.

 

My Recommendation

You have until March 31, 2014 to purchase insurance through the marketplace. Starting April 1, you will have to pay a penalty for not having insurance. For Peace Corps Volunteers returning to America with our incredible amount of parasites, worms, and scars – Obamacare is a great thing. So ditch AfterCare and pick a plan that works for you.

If you are looking for jobs, estimate your income based on the salary of jobs you’re looking at. Check glassdoor for more ways to estimate salary. If you move, just reapply for insurance. You never know, you might get a better deal in a different state!

If you are still curious about Obamacare and how it impacts new RPCVs, ask away in the comments below. Or check out these websites for more information:

https://ttlc.intuit.com/health-care

http://kff.org/health-reform/

Wary about Obamacare’s impact on your taxes when you return to the land of paying taxes, here’s information about how Obamacare/Affordable Care Act is being paid for:

http://obamacarefacts.com/obamacare-taxes.php

http://www.irs.gov/uac/Affordable-Care-Act-Tax-Provisions

You can find the marketplace at: https://www.healthcare.gov/

Update: October 21 – for details on the prices I found for plans check out this post: https://mapya.wordpress.com/2013/10/21/obamacare-update/