A love of India’s music endures in the life of a returned Peace Corps Volunteer

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The Indian philosophy class I took in college inspired me to serve in the Peace Corps from 1969 to 1971. I lived in a one-road town close to the Bay of Bengal in South India. The community felt more like a village. Robert Clive, a British general who helped establish the British Empire in India, once lived there (a plaque stood in front of his one-time residence).

My main project was teaching in the Teacher Training College and also in local schools. I was
trained by the Peace Corps to teach spoken English. I found that the college students could speak hardly at all and needed to pass a written examination in order to get a job as a teacher. I used dialogues for practice, and then, in the second year, created short compositions they could use on the government exam. Of the 40 students in my two-year class, 33 of them passed the exam.

And, since the Peace Corps promoted cultural learning, I began to learn Carnatic music, the
classical music of south India, on the bamboo flute. In my spare time, I read, played music, and hung out in the bazaar to practice my Tamil. I learned a tremendous amount about south Indian history and culture and well as the value of simplicity. Also, a local family whose son had gone to the U.S. on a teacher exchange hosted me every week in their home for meals and festivals.

I spent time in the houses and great temples of south India, learning about the rituals that
governed people’s lives. Eventually, I found the basis of those rituals: the Upanishads (late Vedic Sanskrit texts of religious teaching and ideas from Hinduism), which I had read in college.

After the Peace Corps, I became a teacher and now am now retired after 25 plus years. In
retirement, I’ve traveled, returning over and over to India and visiting 30 other countries, But mostly my time in the Peace Corps taught me about how to be non-judgmental, a key component in my American teaching career.

During service I met another south Indian Volunteer, Jeanne, and many years later, as a married couple we served together as Peace Corps Response Volunteers. We were among four of the first Response Volunteers to be sent to Armenia in 2011. Stationed in Yerevan, the
capital city, we worked with the National Institute of Education. Jeanne advised the
testing department, and I was assigned to train English teachers. With few opportunities
to actually train teachers, I ended up taking my cue from the regular Volunteers living in
villages and began teaching after-school classes around the city to students who
wanted to improve their English. I also began writing for the Institute’s newsletter,
primarily creating dialogues and other activities to help teachers with oral
communication.

Almost 40 years after my initial Peace Corps experience I was happy to see that the
fundamentals of Volunteer experience were still intact: self-reliance; community
integration, and simple living.

For anyone considering to join the Peace Corps, be prepared to be often frustrated and confused, but to identify strongly with the people you meet, who will take you into their lives. The Peace Corps changed my life and made it so much richer. It gave me a special relationship with south India which has returned me there for years.

Carnatic music has also been a major part of my life since returning from my initial time in
India. I began performing after getting an M.A. in world music from Wesleyan University in
1983. For the next 25 years I performed Carnatic music, both in India and New England, with the group Kirtana. I now collaborate with a Hindustani slide guitarist, most recently in several concerts held in Bangalore.

Gordon Korstange grew up in Michigan, attended Hope College and received an M.A. in
literature from the University of Chicago. From 1969 to 1971 he served in the Peace Corps in India (where he met his wife Jeanne), and they went on to teach at the Auroville international school near Pondicherry, India, from 1973 to 1980. Gordon worked as an English teacher until 2006, then took a position at an international school in Aleppo, Syria. In 2011 he and Jeanne served as Peace Corps Response Volunteers in Armenia. Gordon has lived in Vermont for the past 30 years and, now in retirement, lives in India for four months each year.

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