Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Charles Matthews, March 29, 2001

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:00 - Personal background / Peace Corps training

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Partial Transcript: Hello, today is March 29, 2021. My name's Jay Sztuk, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji from 1974 through 1976.

Segment Synopsis: Matthews begins the interview by sharing details of his background, explaining that he is from Chicago and attended Roosevelt University. It was at Roosevelt University that Matthews was exposed to people of different backgrounds and ideals. He became interested in Peace Corps as he enjoyed working with people and traveling while learning about different cultures. Matthews had already planned on obtaining a master's degree following his undergraduate degree, and saw Peace Corps as an opportunity to experience an immersion in a different culture and make a positive contribution. Matthews shares that he was concerned about learning the language, but was resolved to study hard and try his best. Matthews' parents were supportive of his decision, but were a bit worried about not seeing their child for several years. In the end, they recognized that this was a positive experience for Matthews. Upon signing up, Matthews was initially assigned to India. While in training, Matthews explains that conflict erupted in the area he was supposed to travel to. Along with the other trainees, Matthews was sent home and instructed to wait until other openings emerged. He was offered a posting at Fiji and jumped at the chance to go. Matthews trained for Fiji in Hawaii in a more agricultural area. Matthews describes the training as intensive, involving both language and culture training. Matthews felt the training provided a strong introduction and foundation for cultural immersion. There were less than one hundred others in Matthews' training group and he shares that there was not a lot of diversity. Matthews shares that a major aspect of training that he remembered was living and working in a rural setting.

Keywords: Background; Challenges; Childhoods; Cultural immersions; Education; Higher education; Personal challenges; Psychology courses; Roosevelt University

Subjects: Communities; Culture; Fiji; Interpersonal relations and culture; Language and languages; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Fiji; Peace Corps (U.S.)--India

00:19:19 - Traveling to Fiji / First impressions of Fiji

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Partial Transcript: Alright, so I want you to think about, uh, now you've finished training and, and you're heading to Fiji.

Segment Synopsis: Matthews remembers one of his first impressions seeing Fiji from the airplane was that it appeared rather small. After undergoing two trainings, Matthews felt ready to begin his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer. He felt excitement and anxiety about getting to work. He landed at the Suva airport and spent a few days transitioning with Peace Corps staff, focusing on rest and relaxation before traveling to his assigned site. Spending time in Suva, Fiji's capital, Matthews recalls seeing shops set up very close to one another. He shares that the influence from Great Britain was still apparent there, though Fiji was in the process of transitioning to a free state.

Keywords: Administrative issues; Airplanes; Airports; Anxiety; Apprehension; Assignments; Capital cities; Discoveries; Excitement; Feelings; Peace Corps Assignments; Shops; Staff; Training; Transitions

Subjects: Culture; Fiji; International travel; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Fiji; Stress (Psychology); Traveling; World politics

00:22:38 - Assignment in Kortisiere

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Partial Transcript: And then, uh, so after a few days in, uh, Suva, then you, you got your assignment?

Segment Synopsis: Matthews explains that Kortisiere was a predominately rural village. He explains that they arrived on the main side of the island where the port was located, and the beach there was lined with coconuts. Matthews recalls seeing vendors on the side of the roads, selling different goods like vegetables and fish. They spent several days at the agricultural station, awaiting their assignments. Matthews shares details of the living conditions there, explaining that they lived in one-room huts with no indoor plumbing or electricity. The huts were located on a compound there, with the village chief living on a nearby hill. Matthews describes the challenges of explaining racial conflicts and diversity in America, as most of the locals' knowledge of America came from watching movies. Matthews enjoyed sitting and talking with the villagers and helping the younger villagers practice their English.

Keywords: Assigned sites; Cities; Diversity; Islands; Kortisiere (Fiji); Ports; Rural; Towns; Vendors; Villages; Work sites

Subjects: Fiji; Language and languages; Lifestyles; Living conditions; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Fiji; Race relations; Voluntarism; Volunteering

00:34:51 - Social life on the island / Integration

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Partial Transcript: Now you talked about drinking yaqona or, or kava, now, uh, so that was kind of the social life there in the village?

Segment Synopsis: Matthews shares that almost every evening, the men on the island would gather together to talk and drink together. They would share stories and discuss things they had heard on the radio or news from travelers. Matthews believes his willingness to drink kava and participate in conversation helped greatly in his integration. He shares that a family adopted each of the volunteers and he was able to see how families operate and observe family dynamics in real time. Matthews shares that during his time there, he witnessed their culture in transition. While the elders and other members of the community wanted to see progress, they were apprehensive to make changes. An additional aspect of their culture is celebrating special days or events and Matthews remembers dancing with many of the girls in the village.

Keywords: Celebrations; Colonial systems; Family dynamics; Integration; Islands; News; Radio; Social life; Villages

Subjects: Acculturation; Communities; Culture; Families; Fiji; Interpersonal communication and culture; Interpersonal relations; Language; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Fiji; Traveling; Volunteers

00:43:32 - Job assignment / Local people

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Partial Transcript: Tell me about your job. What did you do every day?

Segment Synopsis: In the beginning, Matthews was given pictures of where he would be working and he was initially nervous to locate those areas without the help of technology. After asking some of the members of the agriculture department, he became better acquainted with the geography. The island was rather mountainous and Matthews remembers spending the first few weeks adapting to the environment and getting into shape. As a Chicago native, Matthews was not used to such terrain. He recalls mapping out plots of land, counting coconut trees, and documenting crop types. Matthews would sit with the farmer and listen to their story of how they shaped the land. Matthews explains that these plots were rather small and more closely resembled garden plots than farms. Matthews describes the villagers as warm, welcoming, proud, and hard workers. He explains that farming those plots took a lot of effort as the villagers farmed without the use of modern tools. The villagers' hard work in clearing the land and planting the crops contributed to a sense of pride in their work. On the island, there are several large plantations owned by the descendants of English settlers, but none near the island on which Matthews was stationed. These plantations held different populations, but the island Matthews was on was almost exclusively populated by Fijians.

Keywords: Agriculture; Agriculture department; Documentation; English settlers; Farmers; Farming; Farming plots; Geography; Job assignment; Mountains; Plantations

Subjects: Communication; Fiji; Lifestyles; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Fiji; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in community development; Volunteers

00:52:09 - Local cuisine

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Partial Transcript: Alright, well that, that brings up another subject. What was, uh, what was the food like there?

Segment Synopsis: Matthews shares that they did not typically eat meat on the island, but when they did it was usually chicken. For special occasions, they would kill a cow and eat beef at the celebration. During his time with Peace Corps, Matthews ate chicken, beef, goat, and horse. In certain times of the year, they would be able to get fish and Matthews remembers learning to spear fish with an iron rod fashioned into a spear. Matthews explains that his willingness to participate in activities such as spear fishing opened up opportunities to really communicate and get to know the villagers.

Keywords: Activities; Beef; Celebrations; Chicken; Holidays; Living conditions; Local cuisine; Spearfishing; Tools

Subjects: Acculturation; Culture; Fiji; Food habits; Intercultural communication; Interpersonal relations; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Fiji

00:57:22 - Memorable experiences

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Partial Transcript: Alright, so when you were--going back to your, your adventures out in the jungle, going out to these different farms and stuff deep in the bush...

Segment Synopsis: Matthews explains that what he remembers the most is how welcomed he felt while in Fiji. No matter what village he went to, he was welcomed by the people there. Because Matthews was honest and open with the villagers, they felt they were having a conversation and were not guarded, and were able to act like themselves. Matthews remembers the villagers really enjoyed the music of an old country singer that he was not familiar with. He recalls being in Fiji when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and how the villagers reacted. Matthews was surprised that the villagers were crying over his death and their knowledge of Dr. King's role in the civil rights movement.

Keywords: Acceptance; Assassinations; Country music; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Expectations; Experiences; Farms; Kava; Open conversations; Radio; Villages

Subjects: Civil rights leaders--United States; Civil rights movements--United States; Culture; Fiji; Friendship; Interpersonal relations; King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Fiji; Voluntarism; Volunteers

01:03:50 - Impact and success of program

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Partial Transcript: And did you get a sense of, you know being the first group, did you get a sense of, um, how, how successful Peace Corps was, was, uh, becoming in, in Fiji after a few months?

Segment Synopsis: Matthews shares that after a few months, most people who spoke about Peace Corps spoke about it in a positive way. Matthews felt the program lived up to their expectations in terms of integrating and helping the villages. The villagers understood the purpose of the agriculture surveys and how it was meant to develop the island through a long-term plan. In his experience, Matthews believes a large impact was interpersonal relationships with the villages, remembering how proud the farmers were to share the work they had done with their land. While the first year was spent on agriculture surveys, Matthews' second year was spent planning the planting of cocoa trees. They worked to increase the planting of cocoa as the production was much faster paced than growing coconuts.

Keywords: Agriculture; Agriculture surveys; Development; Experiences; Farming; Impressions; Integration; Locals; Nationalism; Personal relationships; Programs; Success; Villagers; Villages

Subjects: Education; Fiji; Friendships; Intercultural communication; Interpersonal relations; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Fiji; Volunteer workers in community development

01:09:46 - End of program

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Partial Transcript: After two years, did you consider extending?

Segment Synopsis: Matthews explains that after enjoying his two years in Fiji, he felt ready to go back to school. In his time there, he learned that people are the same in many basic ways, though they may express it differently. For example, Matthews shares that parents want the best for their children. Parents would have to send their children to schools far away from their home so they would have the opportunity to have a better life. Matthews explains that as the area develops, some welcome change and see it as a way to improve their quality of life. Matthews notes that some, especially older people, are a bit more resistant to change and view change as a source of sadness and anxiety. He found it difficult to leave his friend and remembers women in the village crying. The townspeople threw him a celebration and gave him several gifts, remembering being gifted a whale's tooth, which is the biggest honor in Fiji.

Keywords: Ceremony; Changes; Children; Education; Extensions; Gifts; Home; Honors; Improvements; Leaving; Opportunities; Returning; Similarities

Subjects: Fiji; Interpersonal relations; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Fiji

01:13:10 - Travel and return home

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Partial Transcript: So then you, you got on the plane to head back home.

Segment Synopsis: After living in such a rural area, Matthews was wondering how he would readjust to life in Chicago. Using the money they had saved while in Fiji, Matthews and his friends John and David traveled to a few other countries rather than going straight home from Fiji. Matthews shares that he, John, and David made stops in Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan. They traveled for several weeks, enjoying traveling as tourists rather than working. Matthews explained that to save money, they stayed in hostels and often ate where locals dined. They enjoyed discussing their experience and how eye-opening it was for them. Once he returned to Chicago, Matthews shares that the transition was not especially difficult as he was returning to a familiar mindset.

Keywords: Budgets; Chicago (Ill.); Hostels; Japan; Jungle; Local cuisine; Malaysia; Mindsets; Rural; Singapore; Students; Tourists; Tours; Transitions

Subjects: Culture shock; Fiji; Finance; Food habits; Friendship; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Fiji; Traveling