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Want to Learn More About America? Join the Peace Corps
By Kathy Dalle-Molle
Call it a unique way to deal with a midlife crisis.
In the summer of 1999, instead of purchasing the stereotypical little red sports car or opting for a facelift, Scott Chandler, 45, and Judy Bonhiver, 50, quit their high-profile jobs, rented out their Fairmount Heights home, and packed up and headed for Rostov-on-Don, Russia, to serve a two-year stint in the Peace Corps.
This fall, as their assignment drew to a close, the couple decided to extend their tour of duty another year. But first, they took a monthlong vacation in the States, visiting family and friends. They also made time to talk with the Voice about their lives in Russia and how they came to join the Peace Corps, the international service organization established in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy.
Wanting to Give Back
"I was really feeling dissatisfied with my job," recalls Chandler, who had worked for a decade as a film and TV sound engineer for George Lucas' Skywalker Sound in Marin County. "I wouldn't want to go see the movies I was working on, even if I was paid to."
Meanwhile, Bonhiver, a sales manager for a high-tech firm, also was growing discouraged with her job. She began reading Julia Cameron's self-help book The Artist's Way, and keeping a journal mapping out her goals for the future.
"I realized that my life was almost half over and I hadn't done much of what I wanted to do," she says. "I wasn't doing anything good for the world in my job. I was basically just making the company a lot of money."
Although Chandler volunteered in a third-grade class at Glen Park School and Bonhiver helped teach older adults to read through Project Read, both felt they could do more. "We didn't feel that we were making the world a better place. We were enjoying the benefits of life, but not giving much back," says Chandler.
Bonhiver, who grew up near Minneapolis, Minn., and Chandler, who grew up in Merced, Calif., remembered that in their youth they had wanted to travel and explore other cultures. Even though both had taken trips to Europe during their college years, they hadn't done much traveling abroad in the three decades since. The couple considered taking a year's sabbatical to travel the world, but "we realized we couldn't afford that. We also knew we would still just be tourists, skipping lightly around different cultures," says Bonhiver.
Visit from Peace Corps Recruiter
So, as a way to earn an income while living in another country, Chandler, who had once dreamed of teaching English in Japan, decided to enroll in a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) program through U.C. Berkeley Extension. Bonhiver, realizing that if they lived overseas, she couldn't just "sit still and do nothing," enrolled in the program, too.
When, during one class session, a guest speaker visited the class to talk about teaching English for the Peace Corps, "a light suddenly went on in our heads," says Bonhiver. "The Peace Corps would provide us money for language training and medical support and insurance -- all the things we were worrying about. I had even thought about joining the Peace Corps right out of college, but I had a degree in fashion merchandising, and I just didn't know how I could help. I figured they would want only doctors or nurses, so I didn't even try to join."
Soon after the visit from the Peace Corps volunteer, Chandler and Bonhiver attended an introductory meeting at the organization's Market Street office. They completed medical exams, private consultations with Peace Corps counselors, and "lots of paperwork."
"Everyone acted as if we had the skills and talents they needed," says Bonhiver. "That really surprised us."
Choice 'Narrowed' to Eastern Europe
Although volunteers can't select a particular country to volunteer in, they can designate the part of the world they'd prefer. Bonhiver and Chandler chose Eastern Europe/Central Asia. "Because of the political, social, and economic changes that have gone on there, we consider it a very important part of the world," says Chandler.
Knowing they could be stationed anywhere from Romania to Thailand, the couple were thrilled when they got a call from the Peace Corps not long after they had submitted their final paperwork, asking if they would like to be assigned to Russia. "We said, 'That's great,'" recalls Scott. "We were particularly enthusiastic because of all the history the U.S. and Russia have. Both of us grew up during the Cold War, but we really didn't know much about Russia, and this was an opportunity to see it and experience it firsthand."
Once they arrived in Russia, the couple participated in a 10-week training program, spending 20 hours a week learning the Russian language ("basic survival language, not grammar," says Bonhiver). They also were briefed on cultural differences and how to deal with medical problems, should they occur.
Baskin-Robbins and Barbie
Since November of 1999, they have been teaching English to 16- and 17-year-old Russian students at a school (called an "institute") in Rostov-on-Don. Chandler also is writing an Advanced English textbook and preparing audio and video materials for the institute.
"On the average, the students are well-educated, and that's amazing to me because it seems that the student is not the most important person in [Russia's] education system -- in fact, probably the least important," says Bonhiver. "Every day, the students are responsible for getting the key to the classroom for their class. Their teachers are usually late. The materials are dated. Typically, there are only pages to be copied for the students to use studying, although Scott's work in developing a textbook and other materials has done a lot to improve this."
Rostov-on-Don is near the Ukrainian border in the southeastern part of Russia. The city has a population of 1.5 million and is very industrial, with several factories including a farm machinery factory and a paint factory.
"The town is fairly affluent and diverse," says Chandler. "There are Armenians, Georgians, Turkish, Korean, and Ukrainian people living there. There also are 15 universities and institutes, so there are a lot of young people. It's a fairly cosmopolitan city. We have a Lego store, a Barbie store, a Baskin-Robbins, and a McDonald's."
A Luxurious Two-Room Flat
The Peace Corps provides the couple with a small monthly stipend for food and living expenses, "so we can live at the level of other people there," says Bonhiver. The institute where they teach supplies their housing, a two-room flat, "which is very luxurious, a mansion by Russian standards." Bonhiver says a Russian acquaintance of theirs lives in a one-room apartment with his spouse and two children.
Even though the couple have been in Russia for two years, they still consider their grasp of the Russian language mediocre at best. "If I need to find a restroom I can," laughs Bonhiver. "We can come up with words, but not the proper conjunctions. It really takes some patience. It's a difficult language. Even many Russian people have problems, because there are so many different styles and types of grammar involved in the language."
Young People Stylish and Slender
Despite their lack of fluency, Bonhiver and Chandler say they've become so assimilated to the Russian culture that they have a hard time recalling some of the stereotypes they brought to the country.
"I thought there would be long lines everywhere, and that's not true," says Bonhiver. "I also thought that everyone would dress in drab clothing, and I was wrong. Young people are really on top of style, and they are very slender and healthy and beautiful. You'll see girls looking like they are dressed for a cocktail party, walking through the muddy streets of the market in the middle of the day."
"People also are very friendly," notes Chandler. "There is this public persona they have of being very closed and rude and sort of uninterested, but when you get to know them, they are wonderfully friendly and outgoing. They're slow to warm up, but then they'll never let you go."
Says Bonhiver, "People really want to know about America. Most Russian people we have met have no animosity toward America. I told a group of my [Russian] friends that growing up, friends of our family had a bomb shelter in their basement, and to them, that was beyond comprehension."
Homesick Only for S.F. Cuisine
Both Bonhiver and Chandler also have noticed changes in themselves after living in Russia for two years.
"My mind is much more open," says Chandler. "I've come to realize that I really didn't know much beyond San Francisco, and I've learned how insulated we are as Americans because we are such a force regarding pop culture. It's very interesting for me to see America from the outside now, and this has helped me learn a lot about the American psyche."
"We've also have become much less materialistic," adds Bonhiver. "We've realized how much we can live without and still be happy."
There is one thing, however, they wished they could have brought with them to Russia: San Francisco's restaurants. While here in September, Bonhiver and Chandler took advantage of the city's myriad food choices. "I think I've gained 10 pounds in three weeks," says Chandler. "Russian food is a very narrow palette. In San Francisco, there is Italian, Thai, Japanese, Korean. So much is available."
Go for It, Whatever Your Age
Still, the couple, who met at a Scottish Country Dancing class at the Noe Valley Ministry and married in Yosemite 10 years ago, say they are not particularly homesick for San Francisco -- despite their 20-year history in the city.
"It's still a great city," says Chandler, "but it's not a place for average people to live anymore. You have to work so hard to stay in this town that you don't have time to enjoy it. We really don't miss the traffic and the fast pace and all the voicemail messages."
"I'd tell anybody who was interested in joining the Peace Corps to do it," says Bonhiver. "The Peace Corps really recognizes the value of life experiences. In our group of volunteers who went over to Russia, we had people ranging in age from 21 to 73.
"I was really worried that I would be sad and homesick, but the people I have met in Russia are incredible. It's become a second home for us. We feel like the people we know there are family, and it's going to be difficult to leave when the time comes."
For information on becoming a Peace Corps volunteer, call 1-800-424-8580 or 415-977-8800, or e-mail sfinfo@peace corps.gov. You also may visit the web site at www.peacecorps.gov.
A few weeks after Sept. 11, the Voice e-mailed Chandler and Bonhiver in Russia and asked for a sense of the local reaction. Bonhiver responded, "I have had good friends and complete strangers come up to me to say they are sorry about the attacks and feel our sorrow personally. Most of them feel it wasn't just an attack on America, but an attack on free civilization, and so they feel it's a threat to their hope for a free society, too."