While climbing a tree to harvest a coconut was a skill former Fort Wayne resident Cliff Johnson never mastered while a Peace Corps volunteer, he did gain a new perspective from living in a foreign country.
That new perspective came in the realization of the similarities – and differences – between the cultures of the U.S. and Tonga, a Southern Pacific Polynesian nation.
Johnson, 31, shared his experiences with more than 40 people during a Peace Corps public information presentation at the Allen County Public Library in downtown Fort Wayne on Thursday evening.
After stumping the audience by asking who knew where Tonga is, Johnson, now a recruiter for the Peace Corps, said he quickly learned about some of the differences between the U.S. and Tonga in 2003 when he climbed aboard the Tonga-bound plane.
After looking at his fellow passengers, Johnson noted that Tongan men wear skirt-like garments and that they were all large, making it necessary for the flight attendants to hand out seat-belt extensions.
But once on the island and living among the people, Johnson said what he gained were new challenges – like harvesting coconuts – and the humbling experience of knowing three families who didn’t think it odd their households shared only one knife.
While living in Tonga, Johnson said he saw a communal atmosphere he had never seen in the U.S., and that changed how he sees people.
“I think it’s a matter of simply changing perspective,” Johnson said.
Johnson also said Peace Corps volunteers help other cultures learn about U.S. citizens, too.
“So two-thirds of what we do is cultural exchange,” Johnson said.
During his presentation, Johnson stressed that each volunteer has a different and unique experience. He also pointed out that married couples can serve, saying his wife, Amber Johnson, 32, served along with him in Tonga.
While volunteers must be at least 18, Cliff Johnson said there is no upper age limit and that the Peace Corps is actively recruiting older people, including retirees.
Volunteers, who must also be U.S. citizens and in good health, must undergo a lengthy application process, Johnson said. After being accepted to the program, volunteers are given three months of training before being assigned a country.
The training gives volunteers the tools they need to appreciate the culture of the country where they will live for two years, as well as information on how they can remain safe during their time abroad.
Janette Bowers, 40, of Fort Wayne, was among the audience members at Thursday’s presentation.
Bowers, a nurse practitioner, said she was surprised to learn the Peace Corps wants older volunteers.
“I’ve always been interested in the doing the Peace Corps.”
For more information about the Peace Corps mission and volunteering, visit www.peacecorps.gov.