Five Ways Peace Corps is just like Star Trek

“Space… The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. It’s continuing mission, to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.”

As any Peace Corps Volunteer (especially in Jamaica), there can be a lot of downtime during your service. Meetings are late, people don’t show up to events they said they would, no one comes to school on a rainy day, time is just…slower here. Which means, for many of us, reading A LOT of books and binge watching A LOT of television. God bless the internet and external hard drives. My sitemate, Stacey, and I have watched Star Trek. Nearly all of it and the various spinoffs. The Original Series, The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine. I doubt we’ll venture into Enterprise or Voyager in what remains of our service, but don’t count it out. I love Kirk, Picard and Sisko, all for different reasons. I have a huge crush on Dr. Julian Bashir and still wonder why they killed off the excellent Tasha Yar. I’ve spent a lot of hours with the characters on the shows and stuck with it even through some pretty terrible storylines (tribbles, anyone?).

There are some goofy science-fiction-y plot devices, but the heart and soul of the various series are the themes of exploration, humanity (and what exactly that means), and a demonstration of the greatness of Patrick Stewart. (just kidding on that last one. Sort of).

When I read a book, watch a movie or TV show, I tend to relate it to my life. When I read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (about the Vietnam War), I even found parallels to my life in Peace Corps Jamaica. That sounds a bit grim, but it’s true. Throughout my viewing of Star Trek, I have drawn on it’s core themes and plot lines and related them to my life in Peace Corps.

1. The Prime Directive

This is the overall governing policy of the United Federation of Planets. Basically, Starfleet officers are not supposed to get involved in the natural progression of a civilization or culture. Things get weird when we involve time travel, so there is, of course, a Temporal Prime Directive: don’t interfere in the natural progression of a timeline. There are a host of episodes that deal with characters struggling to implement the Prime Directive. And it is hard! Introducing warp or time travel technology to civilizations that aren’t there is a serious offense. Watching a culture get conquered by a vicious dictator isn’t easy. But imagine the implications if the Federation got involved in every single dispute or introduced advanced technology to the human equivalent of cave men. If a group or civilization asks for help, on the other hand, it is typically given. The problem is, the Prime Directive isn’t applied equally or consistently. But it’s fiction, so I can deal with some internal inconsistency. Here’s a great clip from TNG debating the Prime Directive (with the much-maligned Dr. Pulaski who was only there for a season).

Of course, Peace Corps is kind of the opposite of the Prime Directive. We are supposed to get involved in the local culture. We’re supposed to integrate and make friends and ultimately, “change behaviors.” The trouble comes when we (and there is a long list of aid agencies that are bad at this) roll in, have a workshop about a particular issue or project, dump supplies or food or aid, and roll back out. That’s what I like about Peace Corps, we live in a community, involve community members, identify needs and use a community’s strengths to solve a problem. We are not, however, to get involved in politics (which makes sense. We wouldn’t want an international incident on our hands.).

Man, if only it were that easy.

2. Cultivating family

Star Trek takes place in the 24th century (we dabble in time travel, but largely stay in the same time period). At this point, we’ve developed warp technology and are exploring different planets, sectors, and galaxies. Different species and civilizations (they’re all humanoid, though. I guess it’s hard to find non-humanoid actors…) can join the Federation and become Starfleet officers, leading to a rich diversity of officers and citizens. Naturally, some of these species have historical conflicts and not everyone gets along. Especially on Deep Space Nine (which takes place on a space station, rather than on a traveling ship), we see very different people (I use the term loosely) thrown together on a space station post-major conflict. There is an underlying humanity that allows people to connect to each other, but it’s often difficult to overcome cultural barriers.

The definition of family comes up quite often throughout each iteration of the series. The ones we choose and the ones we don’t. Lt. Worf (a Klingon) is a particularly good example through TNG and DS9. He was raised by humans and struggles to come to terms with his identity as a Klingon warrior. Even though he is a total stick in the mud, Worf beautifully illustrates the meaning of family. He cultivates friendships with fellow officers and romances a variety of women (Betazoid, Klingon, and Trill at last count).

My happiness during my Peace Corps service is so inextricably linked with the family I have cultivated here. Like Deep Space Nine, we are a rag-tag bunch of volunteers from all over the place, having a huge variety of experiences and backgrounds. But now we share this one thing, Peace Corps service in Jamaica, and now it feels like we’ll be in this secret little club that no one else really understands. The family that we choose and the one that we cultivate are often different, but both are essential to our (well, at least mine) happiness.

3. The Federation is bureaucratic

The United Federation of Planets is the huge governing organization that oversees all of the goings-on (well, most of them) throughout the universe. If that sounds like a big job, it is. All officers are trained at Starfleet Academy, as well as the enormous amount of scientists, anthropologists, engineers, political scientists, linguists, and doctors. Of the series I’ve watched, the Federation is usually presented as a benevolent, if sometimes bureaucratic organization. Those employed by the Federation are held to high standards. There are a few episodes when we go into a mirror universe where the Federation is eeeeevil, and we’re left thanking St. Roddenberry that we don’t have to deal with that. DS9 gets into some of the nitty gritty details of life in the Federation, which is why I really love it; DS9 shows a darker side of this far-distant future. They occasionally make things harder for our heroes, leaving them frustrated and hung out to dry.

Hey guess what? Peace Corps is a government organization. There are going to be rules. There is going to be waiting for reimbursement. There is going to be PAPERWORK. Endless forms to fill out. Rules that (at least on the surface) don’t make a grain of sense. Peace Corps is never sinister, in my experience anyway, but it can be a hassle.

4. What does culture mean?

At it’s core, Star Trek is about the exchange of cultures. During the 24th century, Earth has one unified government and is a member of the United Federation of Planets. Individuals still maintain their respective cultural identities, but borders, hunger, and poverty have been “solved”, which is why the Federation explores new planets and invites new species to join in the fun (and what fun it is!). This was an astonishingly progressive show for the time (still is, really). In the show, we encounter cultures that are agrarian based, matriarchal (I loved that one. The women were broad shouldered and strong, the men were thin and wispy.), have weird mind reading powers, are telekinetic, are basically Time Lords (it’s my working theory to explain the Q), and have slug implants (sounds weird, but is fascinating! Trills are cool.). And even within these species, the individuals are different (of course). During TNG, Ferengis are presented as this ultra-capitalist, greedy, regressive, and scheming race. They also look really stupid. Hard to take them seriously as villains. DS9 gives us Quark and Rom, brothers that run the bar on DS9. Both of their character arcs are ultimately redemptive, proving that Ferengis maybe also have a heart.

Before Peace Corps, I had a very rudimentary understanding of what culture is. I thought it extended to language, food, greetings, music, and architecture. Now I realize it is SO MUCH more than that. It encompasses everything from the way people walk on the street, to the etiquette they use in a business setting, to how people clean their homes. Being cognizant of these differences and not getting frustrated when they impede our work is incredibly important to our mental health as PCVs.

5. Being an outsider

In each series (TOS, TNG and DS9, the ones I’ve seen) there is usually one or more “outsider” characters. Spock, Worf, Data, and Odo all serve this role in a variety of ways. They each have several episodes that focuses on this status and how they wrestle with their identity. How can they really fit in with the Federation? In Data’s case, how can he relate to anyone with a pulse? (Data is an android) Sometimes this is just a matter of overcoming cultural barriers, but sometimes it’s larger. They have to appeal to a common humanity that unites all of the members of the Federation and the crews of the Enterprise and Deep Space 9. Each of these outsider characters have to wrestle with their identities, relate to their fellow crew members and still do their job.

Obviously, being an outsider is a fundamental part of the Peace Corps experience. We are dispatched to foreign countries to perform a job. We are by definition outsiders. Never really fitting in is part of the job description. No matter how much we integrate, how many dead yards we attend, or how much the pickney love us, a little part of us will still be an outsider. That’s not really about skin color, but definitely relates to the cultural identity mentioned above. I’ve been told by RPCVs that during service, it’s hard to relate to Jamaicans, who don’t have the same set of pop culture references and perhaps values that we do. But going back home, it’s hard to relate to the friends we left behind. We’ve just been through this huge experience, this huge ordeal that they can’t begin to fathom. Try as I might, it’s hard to put words to this (which is why I’ve not written on the blog much), so it’s insanely difficult for family and friends back home to understand. This will define me from now on.

Well. I just wrote 2,000 words about Star Trek. I’ll show myself out.

About Elizabeth Riley

It's the wonders I'm after, even if I have to bleed for them.
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3 Responses to Five Ways Peace Corps is just like Star Trek

  1. Thomas says:

    Inspired me to watch Star Trek now to understand what I’m doing in PC Mozambique

  2. Pingback: Top 10 Books I Read in the Peace Corp | The World Ahead

  3. Pingback: Top 10 Books I Read in the Peace Corps | The World Ahead

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