The Peace Corps Welcome Books – Snapshot of the country from a unique viewpoint

Today’s post is by Deborah Gayle, Archivist in the Electronic Records Division at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

The Peace Corps Welcome Books (National Archives ID 51087241) cover the countries in which Peace Corps volunteers serve. Peace Corps volunteers receive these guides at their time of assignment to help them learn about their assigned country, including history, living conditions, health care, and cross-cultural issues. While they are geared toward preparing a volunteer for service in their assigned country, they also provide a snapshot of the country from a unique viewpoint, one that differs greatly from a tourism guidebook, a history book, or a book on the culture of the country. The 345 Welcome Books in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) date from 2006 to 2016, and are in Portable Document Format (pdf) format. Some countries have multiple Welcome Books in the NARA collection, a reflection of the Peace Corps leaderships’ need to regularly update the information provided to volunteers as local conditions change. The section on diversity in each Welcome Book highlights the idea that Americans encounter some of the same challenges in many different parts of the world, but there are also regional differences in the experiences faced by volunteers.

Starting in 2006, the Welcome Books for many countries included a section on Diversity and Cross-Cultural issues for the purpose, as stated in the Guatemala book for that year, “In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps.” It goes on to note that diversity poses challenges, (Welcome Book, Guatemala, 2006, National Archives ID 66392365). All of the 2006 Welcome Books included the same or similar statements. Each section described the challenges faced by a variety of groups, including women, African and Asian Americans, different religions, and seniors within the host country. 

Welcome Book, Guatemala, 2006, p.10.

By 2015, the Peace Corps renamed the section “Diversity and Inclusion,” and provided a definition for the term and what would be covered in the section of the Welcome Book: “a collection of individual attributes that together help agencies pursue organizational objectives efficiently and effectively. These include, but are not limited to, characteristics such as national origin, language, race, color, disability, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, veteran status, and family structures,” (Welcome Book, Guatemala, 2015, National Archives ID 66392365).

The Welcome Book for Jordan, issued in 2006, begins the Diversity section with a discussion of how Jordanians view Americans. The text highlights the difference between the educated residents of Amman, the country’s capital city, and residents of rural communities. The 2006 Book noted that perceptions of Americans come from watching American TV shows and this may lead to common misperceptions that Americans are blond, blue-eyed, promiscuous, and rich. The Book explained to volunteers that their personal characteristics including behavior, religion, lifestyle, background, and belief system would be judged in a cultural context different from the volunteer’s home environment. The Book then proceeded to detail many of the issues volunteers might face by each group that corresponds to the various volunteer characteristics mentioned, (Welcome Book, Jordan, 2006, National Archives ID 66391755). Jordanians still generally follow a traditional and patriarchal culture, especially outside Amman. Due in part to this cultural tradition, and misperceptions of Americans, women, for example, might face difficulties in gaining respect from locals in the workplace, as well as higher instances of unwanted and inappropriate attention from young Jordanian men. The explanations of these different issues provide a window into Jordanian society focused on the people who live there; a different perspective than what most guide or tourist books might provide.

Welcome Book, Jordan, 2006, p. 18.

The Welcome Book for Indonesia, issued in 2014, begins the Diversity section similarly to the Welcome Book for Jordan, with a discussion of how Indonesians might perceive Americans. The author(s) used former volunteer comments to explain some of the issues that may be faced by some groups, such as men, women, volunteers of color, and seniors in country (a term for a Peace Corps term of service in the host country). These comments, based on personal experience, provide a window into how other nations think about race. For example, one volunteer in the section on volunteers of color noted:

“For the most part, Volunteers have found Indonesian people to be extremely accepting of Volunteers of color (especially since many Indonesians are the same colors). Many Indonesians have never really thought about the fact that Americans come in different races, so Volunteers may find themselves explaining about the diverse backgrounds of Americans.”

The sub-section on religious issues includes background information on religion in Indonesia, as well as comments from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish volunteers on their experiences and issues. Each volunteer noted similar experiences based on how they believed Indonesians would perceive their religion, as well as how Indonesians actually perceived it, but handled the situation differently. The Christian and Muslim volunteers noted that Indonesians were tolerant of different religions, however, the Jewish volunteer chose to identify as a Catholic rather than face a potential unpleasant reaction to their Judaism, (Welcome Book, Indonesia, 2014, National Archives ID 66392323).

The Welcome Book for Fiji, 2006, seems to indicate that Fiji may pose fewer challenges around cultural issues for volunteers. The only major challenge noted in the “What Might a Volunteer Face?” subsection of the Diversity and Cultural Issues section is for volunteers from less-represented groups lacking a common background with other Peace Corps volunteers in Fiji. Fijians generous hospitality is highlighted and acknowledged, though the Book cautioned that volunteers might face a range of reactions from locals, especially outside the capital, Suva. (Welcome Book, Fiji, 2006, National Archives ID 66391743).

Welcome Book, Fiji, 2006, p. 96.

A common thread runs through all of the Welcome Books’ Diversity and Culture sections: while volunteers will face challenges based on their personal characteristics, being willing to make temporary compromises in how to present yourself in country and being aware of existing expectations or preconceptions of Americans provided clear benefits for volunteers in adapting to and being accepted by the host country and the local community. Beyond the specific goals of Peace Corps volunteers, this advice applies to anyone traveling through foreign countries: be willing to adapt to the local culture and don’t expect the locals to treat you the same way you are accustomed to in America.