Sunday, August 29, 2010

Three Months In

As of today, I have been “in country” for three months. Again, I am surprised at how quickly time has passed and how much I have experienced in that time, making it feel as though I have been here longer. Regardless of how long I am here, though, there are things that I am still getting used to.

One thing is that “privacy” is more an American concept than an Armenian one. Questions that are routinely asked here can come as quite a shock, reflecting the interest people here have in one another, and especially of strangers. For instance, a few weeks ago I went for a walk from my village to another nearby. People driving past me stared (as usual) and at one point I came upon a group of guys who had passed me on the road and had stopped at a sidewalk café-type place. They waved me over and in the course of two minutes (immediately upon meeting me), asked me (1) where I am from, (2) how old I am, (3) if I am married, (4) if I have any children, and (5) what my name is. In that order. Even little kids ask your age before they ask your name.

Similarly, religion can be raised as a topic of conversation (and since I am working with a diocese of the Armenian Church, I can expect it to be raised more than others would). When I first met my work counterpart last month, at one point during the day he asked me if I go to church regularly. I responded that I don’t and he didn’t pursue it. A similar conversation occurred with a second co-worker after I started working this month. This past week, I met with the bishop (along with the second co-worker) and when he asked my last name and I answered, he went on to say that Kelly sounds Irish, that most Irish people are Catholic, and he asked me if I am Catholic. I replied that I was raised Catholic but no longer consider myself part of the church. He then wanted me to explain why not and I deflected the question, saying it is a long story. His reply was that I will be here for two years and that we can follow up later (I can’t wait for THAT conversation). He went on to ask about the religious beliefs of the other volunteers and I explained that I do not typically discuss religion with others and did not know. [Throughout this conversation, I kept thinking about hearing “Losing My Religion” playing on a radio in the background when I was waiting to meet with him.] Being that Armenia is officially a Christian nation (the first, as we are continually reminded, having adopted it in AD 301), religion is part of the community and part of how the national identity has survived for so long. Discussion of religion is therefore as natural a topic as anything else. Having said that, not that many people attend services and it is not unusual for people to walk in and out when one is in progress. Throughout the country, you also see cross-stones in seemingly random places, grottoes on sidewalks and miniature churches in some of the old rail cars.

Having said all of that, my host family is very good at respecting my privacy, maybe because they are what I call a “professional host family”, having hosted five others before me. As a courtesy, I let them know when I am going out and will be back (partly because they make my meals so I want to let them know if I will not be eating) but I don’t have the hovering that some of the other volunteers experience, especially the younger women. The latter is partially due to the societal norms here about how women are expected to behave, but I will get into that in a later post. I try to spend time with the host family when they watch TV at night and at mealtimes but they leave me alone when I want to read, study or the rare instance when I am at my computer.

Another thing to get used to is the approach people take when confronted with a foreigner. Here in Gyumri, the young guys sometimes refer to Americans as “Johnny” – not to your face but more as a taunt. When I do hear it I pretend that I don't and just keep moving. Shopkeepers who can tell that I am not Armenian may immediately start speaking to me in Russian, possibly because there is a sizable Russian population here, particularly with the Army base not far from where I live, so it is not unreasonable to think that a foreigner is from there also. They are often very surprised that I can speak some Armenian (although not as much as I should by now but the dialect here has set me back some). But most people just stare. It is much more difficult for the non-white volunteers as they stand out more and the racial acceptance is where the US was quite some time ago (I saw someone pull the sides of her eyes back once when saying the word “Chinese”). I don’t think it is intended maliciously – I believe it is more because many have not had the opportunity to meet foreigners and understand but it can still be jarring.

Then there is the use of cel phones. Many of the volunteers here have commented that it is funny to live in a place where you may not have running water or indoor plumbing, but you have a cel phone and satellite TV. As infrastructure goes, it does not seem to me that the land-line phone system is very good and probably never will be since cel phones let you leapfrog over them and there is no real reason to have one (although there is one where I am living). Despite this, there does not seem to be voicemail at all (your missed call register is all you need) – whether due to the cost of the technology or whether voicemail would be considered rude, I don’t know. Since there is no voicemail, though, people take cel phone calls when they come in – regardless of what they are doing. I was at a concert last week and heard people on phones during the performance. When I taught a training class a few weeks back, people either walked out to take a call or simply took it in the room. Part of the training was about customer service and one business owner (the owner of a beauty salon) pointed out that the hairdressers in her shop take calls in the middle of giving a haircut. While this is not unheard of in the US, there are rarely the requests to turn off phones before an event – it seems to just be accepted that it will happen. And many people talk more loudly than normal when on a cel phone, but that is nothing different from the US so I am used to that already.

I like the remnants of the Soviet era that I see around although I know I have to tread lightly if I discuss that with people here. While the country voted overwhelmingly for independence in 1991, there is still a fair bit of nostalgia for how much better things were economically when Armenia was part of the Soviet Union. And while some of the statues were torn down (in Solak, a pedestal remains where a statue of Lenin once stood) there are still quite a few generic ones remain in Gyumri.

Most street signs (when they exist) show the street names in Armenian and Russian although the newer ones have Armenian and a transliteration with roman letters. Many of the old storefronts likewise have the Russian names displayed. Some of the abandoned businesses you see all over here also seem to have been designed in the Sputnik era, as have other structures still in use (like the bus stop below). But the sheer extent of abandoned storefronts, playgrounds, factories, etc., still makes me sad even though I like to photograph them.

There are things that I hope I never get used to, one being the way animals are treated. There are a lot of stray dogs throughout the country and even when people keep them as pets, they are often treated atrociously (some of the volunteers have told me that their host families' pets often don't have names and simply disappear at some point). In our safety training, we are told that the best way to avoid a confrontation with a stray dog is to hold a rock as though you were preparing to throw it. The dogs here are so conditioned to being beaten and pelted with rocks that they will usually run away at the sight of a rock - there is no need to actually throw one. I have also noticed that packs of dogs will prey upon another dog, the way that bullies in a schoolyard will pick on a small kid. But the dogs get into real fights and people witnessing it will just stand and watch. Gosha (Albert and Emma's dog) was scarce for a couple of days this week and when he came back, he looked horrible - scarred all over his head - and has since been pretty listless. I'm not sure what happened to him but I suppose it was similar to the three dogs I saw the other day chasing a fourth. Since money is scarce, people probably would not spend money on a vet in case of injuries to their pets - they just get another. The fact that drivers here won't swerve for animals explains the dog I saw in the middle of the road on my way home the other day. Cars continued to pass by until a man went out into the road to pull it away (at considerable danger to himself since drivers don't seem to swerve for people either). Other men gathered with the first and I'm pretty sure that he put it out of its misery. I couldn't watch.