Book Review: A Small Key Opens Big Doors

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by Michael Hancock-Parmer on 1/3/2012

Chen, Jay, ed. A Small Key Opens Big Doors. 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories, Volume Three: The Heart of Eurasia. Travelers Tales: Palo Alto, 2011.336 pages, includes Foreword, Preface, Introduction, Acknowledgments.

Disclosure: Jay Chen is a friend and fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV). We served in the same group in Kazakhstan starting in the summer of 2005. I even submitted a story to this collection, and while I’m not surprised it didn’t make the cut, I was surprised to see my name in the Acknowledgments in the back. The tone of this book is quite different from most reviewed for Registan’s readers, but it undoubtedly shares many valuable American impressions of Central Eurasia. In full disclosure, there are chapters by a few RPCV friends from Kazakhstan.

This is a book  is travel literature of a unique variety. Unlike most of the books printed by its publisher, there is very little actual travel. This is not a surprise to those familiar with the US Peace Corps, which typically involves only two big trips: from and to your home in the United States. For my own part I recall having a strong desire to distinguish myself from other Americans and foreign travelers while abroad – I was not a tourist, or a missionary, or a Foreign Service employee. I was attempting to come to some better understanding of the people around me (with the implied snobbery that the others were not). And so, this is a book less of introspection and more of first, second, and thirtieth impressions of a cultural, political, religious, and economic experience still confusing to Volunteers after two or three years of living as close to another culture as deemed “safe” and “useful” by the US government.

This is not an official Peace Corps publication. Naturally this has its pros and cons. A mixed blessing is that the texts have not been sanitized, cleared, censored, or otherwise edited by the US government. Also, the selection is visibly skewed to those the editor and publishers were able to contact and coerce into writing. One of the concessions, it would seem, is that no rights are being claimed – the stories are all listed in the back as “published with permission from the author,” though most have never appeared in print before. Judging from the countries and times represented, this book is not an overall representation of Peace Corps’ efforts in Eurasia – but it does not claim to be such. There is a heavy emphasis in two areas: Kazakhstan in the mid-2000s (seven chapters) and Turkey in the 1960s (thirteen chapters). One of the contributors, Sandy Lee Anderson, is described as active in maintaining ties with her fellow 1960s Turkey Volunteers. Combine that with the fact that she lives in Washington, D.C. – a stopping point or career location for many RPCVs – and the focus on Turkey becomes less surprising.

The editor has gathered a group of stories that span the gamut of writing styles and tones. There are stories of those who loved their sites and those that were less comfortable. There are humorous stories and touching stories. There are more than a few of the type so common in Peace Corps: I learned a lot more about myself when I learned a little bit about others. And yet there is also the lingering sense of career guilt – more than a few express pride or defensiveness, “I have never regretted my two years.” I certainly don’t regret my time in the Peace Corps – but why should anyone that returns safe and suffers no criminal or other actions during their term?

I recommend this book to those looking for a very human, realistic, organic view of Peace Corps from within. In the same way that I cannot prove that no PCV ever went on to become a CIA spy, these stories make it clear that the majority of volunteers would constitute an unwise investment on the part of America’s clandestine actions. A spy does not want to learn another person’s culture – he must do so in order to better oppose it. Spies spend less time on understanding and more time on mimicry. PCVs may not be as linguistically skilled as the more serious Foreign Service employees and missionary workers – but they bring a very different mindset to the game. A valuable mindset that does not always compute to those only concerned with geopolitics and Great-Game style intrigues. But those who deny its value and impact do so out of ignorance.


Story contributions by Country, Term of Service

Mongolia, 2001-2003
Turkey, 1969-1970
Moldova, 2000-2002
Ukraine, 2003-2005
Turkey, 1966-1968
Ukraine, 1993-1995
Bulgaria, 2004-2006 (2 stories)
Macedonia (evac), Romania, 2001-2002
Turkey, 1965-1967
Tom Fleming, 2003-2005
Mongolia, 2000-2002
Turkmenistan, 2003-2005
Armenia, 2003-2005
Kazakhstan, 2006-2008
Turkey, 1966-1968
Uz 2005 (evac), Kaz 2005-2006
Poland, 1994-1996
Turkey, 1962-1964
Ukraine, 1993-1995
Turkey, 1966-68
Romania, ??-??
Mongolia, 2006-2008
Turkey, 1964-66
Armenia, 2007-2008
Ukraine, 1999-2001
Mongolia, 2001-2003
Turkey, 1963-1965
Kazakhstan, 2005-2007
Ukraine, 2005-2007
Turkey, 1962-1963
Bulgaria, 2002-2004
Albania, 1995-1997
Kazakhstan, 2005-2007
Turkey, 1960s (??-??)
Kazakhstan, 2005-2008
Moldova, 1991-1993
Turkey, Yemen 1960s (??-??)
Kazakhstan, 2005-2007
Kyrgyzstan, 1997-1999
Ukraine, 1993-1995
Kazakhstan, 2004-2006
Turkey, 1964-1966
Poland, 1991-1993
Kazakhstan, 2001-2003
Bulgaria, 2004-2007
Iran, 1965-1968
Turkey, 1960s (??-??)

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This post was written by...

– author of 20 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Michael earned an MA in Central Eurasian Studies in 2011 and remains a student at Indiana University pursuing a dual PhD in Russian History and Central Eurasian Studies. He served 6 months in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan in 2005. After the events in Andijan and the subsequent closure of the program, he served 2 years in southern Kazakhstan, returning to the Midwest in 2007. His general area of interest is on post-Timur Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, centered on the Syr Darya river valley.

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