For years, I’ve found it hard to talk about Mortenson’s books. They often come up in conversation, because I’m a former Peace Corps teacher who lived in Asia for more than a decade. And yet that experience made me wary of any simple narrative that involves an American helping people overseas. Like many volunteers, I often felt overwhelmed and ineffective; it took two years of diligent study just to gain a decent facility with the Chinese language. I was still making cultural mistakes up until the day I left. If anything, I felt most positive about the Peace Corps experience because my impact was limited—I left without building anything, or changing the culture, or revolutionizing classroom patterns in my school. I always viewed it as an exchange: there was some value to my teaching, and in the meantime I learned a great deal from my students, colleagues, and friends. It seemed a tiny part of an incremental, long-term process, as China engaged with the outside world. And the key element was that the Chinese remained in charge—it was up to them to improve their country.
The above sentiments are excerpted from the New Yorker’s Peter Hessler’s thoughtful piece “What Mortenson Got Wrong”. My own Peace Corps experience in Sierra Leone has caused me to feel similarly and I also struggle with the way so many are inspired by charismatic outsiders when they choose to contribute. (As a child I was very inspired by outsider Albert Schweitzer.) One of the many things I appreciated about my Peace Corps experience was being forced to do it for two years, not one or a few months. As Hessler points out it takes a long time to even begin to get a handle on a culture so different from one’s own.