Fishing for a Purpose

Last Update: 2/2/2014 9:02 AM

By Athalia Markowitz

Matt Young is a second generation Peace Corps Volunteer living and working in rural Zambia in rural aquaculture promotion. His father, John Young (RPCV Papua New Guinea 81-85), was a marine fisheries volunteer who later applied his education and experience to run an aquaculture farm in the Central Valley of California.

Matt and John Young (Father and Son)

Growing up on a fish farm and hearing about Peace Corps from his father, Matt did not think it would ever be a good fit for him. “I thought, ‘No way would I be naive and idealistic enough to waste two years of my life like that!’” Although his father, John Young headed out in the first group of Peace Corps to serve in Papua New Guinea a week after getting his degree in fisheries, Matt was ready to start his adult life working stateside. And that is how he found himself a year out of college working in an office job that was by all accounts wonderful: a great workplace environment with opportunities to learn more about the business with the promise of rapid career advancement, and excellent compensation. There was, however, something missing, and after awhile Matt came to realize what it was—a sense of purpose. As Matt began researching different possibilities of what he could do with his life, of all the options he found— to his surprise—Peace Corps was the most appealing. So three years after graduating, Matt began his Peace Corps journey, mirroring the path his father had taken 30 years earlier.

John Young

When John entered the Peace Corps, it was a very rare thing for a 2nd generation Chinese American to do, as most parents supported their children’s getting professional degrees. But his mother encouraged his desire to go out and see the world. John and his family knew a few people who had served as Peace Corps Volunteers who had positive experiences, however he did not have any personal connections to Peace Corps before shipping out with the first PCV group that went to Papua New Guinea in 1981. There were three other fisheries volunteers heading to PNG (there were also five Community Development volunteers in Group 1 PNG, for a total of 9 PCVs), After two months of stateside training, John was assigned to a site hundreds of road-less miles from his fellow volunteers, a site where the only outsiders to live there previously were a 19th century Russian anthropologist and GIs from WWII.

When reflecting on his service, John says “I am astonished to this day how the local villagers took me in almost like a family member.” Over the four years that John served in PNG, John’s most consistent communication with the USA was via weekly aerogrammes he sent to his parents. Rather than seeing this as a hardship, John embraced the opportunity to disconnect and really become a part of his community and learn about culture in PNG. Early on, he realized that in his village, “the people were kinder and gentler than Americans.” As he worked to get fishermen to listen to new ideas and adapt new technologies, he had to find innovative ways to demonstrate the benefits of changing habits. An example of this was when John convinced fisherman to use hand-reels on their boats so they could fish at deeper depths.

John Young

"One day, I recruited a couple of skeptical men to assist me on a fishing trip with the hand-reels crudely tied to the gunwales of the aluminum boat. We set out for a well-known but overfished reef a mile from shore. After hours playing with depths, currents, and proper weights, we found a “fishy” area at 300 feet. The first bite was felt and we began winding the reel in as fast as possible. Up from the clear depths came a huge, bright red fish that remains seared in my mind to this day. We caught several more of the 50+ lb snappers that were never seen before in the area. Within a week, all the Samoan hand-reels were loaned out to fishermen and we set up shop to build more."

For Matt, growing up in a household with an RPCV who had a career built upon his in-country service, he was exposed to Peace Corps from early childhood. “I literally grew up on a fish farm run by a former fisheries volunteer, a cultural and physical oasis amidst the 90's pop culture suburban lifestyle of my peers.” Like his father, Matt is also the first volunteer in his site, and a big part of his role in the community is sensitizing people about the role of Peace Corps Volunteers and how it is different than the work that other NGOs do. (Fish farming is promoted by the government of Zambia as a sustainable and lucrative vocation for rural farmers, so many get easy access to funds and resources.) Given the intense focus on fisheries by other non-profits, Matt has diversified the work that he does at his site with a lot of secondary projects, including a GLOW group (Girls Leading Our World) and HIV/AIDS and malaria sensitization. He has also focused on the Third Goal of Peace Corps, with a blog that keeps friends and family at home informed about life in Zambia.

Matt Young

Adjusting to life in Zambia has been both rewarding and challenging. While it has given Matt a broader perspective on the world outside of the USA and the value of community, it has been difficult to adjust to life in a small community where boundaries between private and public are not as clearly defined. “Life in America is designed to isolate, with an extreme emphasis on individualism, so it has been a huge adjustment for me to live in a rural village here in Zambia where my neighbors live so close they know when I wake up before I do.” While Matt has felt the cultural differences with Zambia, he has also maintained much stronger ties with other Americans, via daily emails with friends and family back home and text messages and visits with other Peace Corps Volunteers who live nearby.

Living in Zambia, Matt says he finally understands how deeply his father’s personality was influenced by his Peace Corps experience. “I was struck by how much of my dad's character and temperament has been shaped by the time he spent living in a country more similar to Zambia than to America, a country where time is measured in weeks and not minutes. Living in a country where nobody cares about being late for anything, ever, it's like a light bulb went on in my head: so THAT's why Dad is the way he is! I see this too with my father's reluctance to throw anything away, his dedication to doing everything himself, and his commitment to the local community.” In 2014, John and his wife, Janet, plan on visiting Matt in Zambia and are also making plans to go back to PNG to look for friends from 30 years ago.

Reflecting on his Peace Corps experience, John says: "I learned that people are pretty much the same everywhere. And I learned that building bridges is a lot more enjoyable than creating chasms. I learned that there is much development work needed in California. And I learned that one is a Peace Corps Volunteer for life."

Click here to watch John continue his volunteer work with the Sanger Bicycle Workshop which gives low-income individuals opportunities to earn donated bicycles by participating in bicycle repair workshops in the community

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