Thursday, May 26, 2011

525,600 Minutes

Today marks one year since I left New York for the Peace Corps. I know I sound like a broken record but I am constantly amazed at how quickly the time goes. I have also spent time with a fair number of people in the group before mine (the ones who are nearly finished with their service) and I keep hearing how the second year goes faster than the first. So don’t expect me to stop harping on that aspect any time soon.

As those who know me also know that I am obsessive about time markers, this seems like an opportune time to reflect on the first twelve months here and how it has been different from what I had expected / hoped for / planned for / feared.

Language – I had hoped that I would be somewhat fluent by this point and it has not come to pass. Due to the intensive language training we got at the start, I was pleasantly surprised at my progress in the first two months and hoped that trend would continue. I can point to several reasons why it has not:

  • The older you get, the harder it is to acquire a new language
  • I had a difficult time lining up a tutor and the one I worked with turned out to be less than I wanted and then blew me off. I have not yet worked hard enough to hire a new one.
  • I have been pretty busy with various things so the daily dedication to studying has dropped off a fair bit
  • The dialect in Gyumri is notorious, so my studying of “proper” Armenian doesn’t really help me to understand what I hear all day
  • A lot of people pepper their sentences with Russian which really throws me. I jokingly chastised my co-workers one day when one said “privet” (Russian for “hello”). I pointed out that it was tough enough for me to learn Armenian without another language thrown in.

Having said all that, I am pretty proud of myself as to what I can communicate. I can read (slowly and with the help of a dictionary) and write (sloppily but my English handwriting is no study in excellence either). I can speak enough to make myself understood. My real problem is listening comprehension – both because of dialect and the fact that the sentence structure tends to be different and a lot of words tend to be longer. I often ask people to speak slowly and to use simple words and with that I can carry on conversations pretty well.

But I still run into the problem caused by people not expecting me to speak Armenian. I was in a taxi recently, waiting for it to fill so I could go to Yerevan. A man spoke to me in Russian and I responded, in Armenian, that I don’t speak Russian. Despite this, for the next 20 minutes, he kept speaking to me in Russian while I replied that I did not understand him. A while later, I started listening to his conversation with the driver and realized they were speaking Armenian. A short time later, the driver (with whom I had spoken earlier) asked me a question and my fellow passenger told him that I did not understand. The driver replied that I speak Armenian and the fellow passenger was genuinely surprised. He did not repeat to me what he had been trying to communicate earlier. I continued to read my book.

And no matter how bad my Armenian is, the people I speak to praise my language skills. I honestly think that they truly appreciate the effort put forth in learning their language. Considering all the hardships they have endured, the maintenance of their language and culture is crucial to them so the more people who speak it, the better.

Work – One of the things that we are continually told is to not have expectations and to be flexible. For the most part I have been but it can still be frustrating in the work arena.

When we get our site assignments, there is a sort of job description based on the application the organization submitted when requesting a volunteer. Since that can be a long process, the needs assumed at application time may be different than they are when you get there, the people may be different for various reasons (someone on maternity leave, someone with another function that takes precedence, etc) or the organization may not really want what they said they did, but included information in the application they thought would get them a volunteer. Quite a few in my group have changed primary sites for the last reason but I am still where I started. I am not, however, doing what was in my site description (again for various reasons) so I am continually getting involved in different things and doing what I can to assist my organization.

The accounting skills I built up during my career may not ever get used here for a variety of reasons. The small business owners that I see everywhere don’t speak English and I have doubts about becoming conversant enough in Armenian to discuss accounting, management or cash flow forecasting. Many are not interested in making more money (in their official records at least) because the tax structure in Armenia disproportionately burdens small businesses. And there are many cultural issues that negate the “wisdom” of Western business practices. Nonetheless, I am slowly updating a small business accounting manual that I found in the Peace Corps archives and hope that I can enlist a business student here to translate it.

Someone said to me early on that all PCVs eventually become English teachers and I believe that is true. I co-teach a business English class, I have several English clubs and I edit translations for an organization, at the same time trying to help the workers there improve their language skills. The level of participation in the class and clubs can vary significantly from week to week, but there is a core group that attends almost all of them as they have little opportunity to otherwise practice the English they have learned. Their enthusiasm is very gratifying and I tend to seek them out to pass along scholarship opportunities I learn about.

One of the most fun projects I have worked with is the International Writing Olympics, a program that a PCV in Georgia started a few years back. Students in the participating countries compete against others in their own country to write for an hour in response to essay prompts. The national winners are then entered into competition against the winners from other non-English speaking countries. Two women from my conversation club got first place in Armenia for their university grade levels and a third got second place. One of the first place winners also placed second in the international competition. While there was virtually no work on my part beside encouraging people to enter, it was great to see how much everyone seemed to enjoy it and the thrill the winners felt. Many people here (who speak English far better than I speak Armenian) are very self-critical about their language skills. Affirmation about those skills may have benefits long after we are gone.

Gyumri Olympians

Anahit writing her way to a first place finish

From a work perspective, we also have to adapt as the Peace Corps does. Since I have been here, two of the four programs have been discontinued, we have a new country director and some of the other staff will be changing soon also (there are “term limits” on staff positions so the American members of the staff turn over often). As with the accounting firm I used to work with, while there are world-wide policies that are followed, each individual person brings his or her own personality and approach into matters. While all the staff people I have worked with have been great, changes there add another aspect to the required flexibility.

Adaptation/Assimilation – One of the reasons I joined the Peace Corps is that I wanted to experience living in another culture. While I have traveled a lot, there is a huge difference between visiting a place and living there. As it turns out, it has been easier than I expected, partly because this is a relatively cushy location to be sent, and partly because I have again kept the promise to myself to be adaptable.

I say that I specifically am in a relatively cushy location, because I am in a city instead of a village, I have three fellow volunteers in my city that had a year’s worth of experience to draw upon (and two others from my group) and I have a comfortable place to live with a nice landlord and neighbors. I also had two “professional” host families that had gotten used to having foreigners in their homes. But I would also say that Armenia as a whole is a relatively easy place to be posted because it is a “transitioning” country instead of a “developing” one. We have 3G internet that keeps getting better and cheaper over time, there is consistent cel phone service, and the capital (and some of the cities) have many of the “comforts of home” such as peanut butter, supermarkets and KFC. In addition, the country is pretty small but we have a substantial number of volunteers here so that even people without sitemates can pretty easily get together with others, whereas some other countries are so large that it can be several days travel to see other people.

But beyond that, I have found it remarkably easy to lower my standards and expectations to live without things that they don’t have here. I have talked a lot about this in earlier posts, with using outhouses, living without hot water (or running water), dealing with delays in virtually every aspect of life (work, transportation, starting times for cultural events), unexplained power outages, stumbling along roads that are badly paved if at all, figuring out how many times you can get away with wearing the same things before washing them, and on and on.

I don’t get weepy when I think about things that were part of my everyday life in New York (movies all the time in theaters, Thai restaurants that deliver in 10 minutes, coin operated laundry that gets your clothes clean and dry, bookstores, Costco) because I still enjoy the newness of the things I experience here.

For example, I can’t think of a single time in my life that someone invited me into their home in New York because I was a stranger. Yet the other day, as I was walking through a village I had never before set foot in (and may never have been visited by an American), I asked a family working in their yard whether I was headed the way I thought I was. The father answered “no” but rather than just ending there or simply giving me directions, he asked if I was hungry. I said I wasn’t hungry but accepted the follow-on offer of tea or coffee. The whole family (father, mother, son, grandmother, grandfather) then sat down with me and out came a table full of food and a bottle of vodka before the tea even came out (and I wound up eating anyway). They asked a lot of questions about me and what I am doing here, toasts were proposed to my health and to meeting each other and they happily obliged when I asked to take their picture. Afterward, the son personally walked me to the road I wanted. I have already been invited back so they can prepare a proper khorovats.

Rubik, his wife and parents

Similarly, one day when I was out for a walk, a car stopped and I was invited to a roadside khorovats. The day turned into one of eating, toasts, visiting the grave of one guy's father, more eating, seeing the bees kept in someone's house, more toasts and coffee in another house. It turned out to be a very long day but it was a lot of fun.

Most of the khoravats crew

And while I would like to have some proper Italian, Mexican and Chinese food and a decent hamburger again, I really do like most of the food I have had here (even the khash wasn't that bad). It would be difficult to seek out Armenian food when I go back to New York next year (to my knowledge there is only one Armenian restaurant and it is in Brooklyn) but it will probably be another category that I will get cravings for from time to time.

I still get stared at and will until the day I leave. While there are plenty of tall people in Gyumri (unlike Solak where I was probably the tallest person in the village) I get stares probably because my skin is light, my eyes are blue, my shoes may be dirty, I have facial hair (not common here), my head is shaved (full out baldness is relatively uncommon), I am not wearing an Adibas tracksuit or a faux-Versace sweater (black, of course - see the picture above) and who knows why else. How I respond to that depends on my mood – I may ignore it, I may nod my head and say “Barev Dzez”, I may stare back, I may bask in the adoration. But it doesn’t really bother me.

Some of the differences that I have written or will write about I will never fully adapt to (gender disparities, treatment of animals, corruption) but I try to make dents in the accepted notions – not to tell people that something is necessarily incorrect, but to at least get them to think about them instead of simply accepting them as a part of life.

Homesickness – Before coming here, the longest time I had been away from the US at one stretch was three months. During that trip (in 1996) I traveled alone and battled periodic homesickness. As a result, I wasn’t sure how I would handle 27 months.

In the time since 1996, I have become a different person and technology has made it much easier to stay in touch. Also, as I said above, there are a lot of us here – both in Armenia and in Gyumri – so if I want to talk to an American face-to-face I can do so almost any time I want. And, since I have made a home here, solitude is easier than it is in a hotel room / B&B / guesthouse.

I sometimes get “memory flashes” – images in my mind of places in New York that I like, such as a wine bar on 51st street, a particular tree lined street in the East Village, the Brooklyn Heights promenade. They occur to me suddenly, and I can never really figure out what prompts them. But instead of causing sadness because I miss them, they cause pleasant feelings as you get when you think about the places you visited on vacation.

And I do miss my family and friends and will probably not appreciate how much until I get home next year and discover all that I missed. As I learned on prior trips, people go on with their lives while you are away and they may forget to mention things when you talk on the phone periodically – if something is everyday to them it may not seem important although it will be a shock to you. Your favorite store may be gone; the bartender you were friendly with has new regulars; family dynamics change as the kids get older; you know that someone died but you don’t see how the change affects those left behind.

We hear a lot here about the “reverse culture shock” you experience in returning home after a Peace Corps stint. The problem is that you are homesick for what you left – and that may not be there when you get back. And you are a different person than the one everyone at home remembers. But you didn’t notice that change happening either.

Weather – I had been prepared to live in a frozen tundra for a winter that would last six months. As it turns out, New York had a much worse winter than Gyumri did and I only wore my new winter boots (purchased for moving here) twice. While my building is not insulated, I have a great heater in my living room. I overpacked clothing-wise, so I could layer to my heart’s content if needed. My Peace Corps issued YakTrax were great for dealing with the snow and ice we did get, even if they provided yet another reason for people to stare at me.

Having said that, while it can be very warm in the afternoon, we are still getting night temperatures in the 40s. We did not get a lot of snow but it snowed almost every day for six weeks straight. The snow outside my door (and in other parts of the city) did not melt for months where the sun didn’t hit. So it can get a little depressing not knowing when the cold will finally go away and the snow has been replaced by daily rain.

But right now, the country is gorgeous. There are flowers everywhere, the trees seem to sprout leaves literally overnight and there is a green tint to everything (at least when the sun is out). While it is raining every day in Gyumri, it tends to be late afternoon and night so I can enjoy beautiful weather during the day.

So, how is it? - In answer to the questions I often get about what it is like to be in the Peace Corps, the answer remains that it depends. No matter how flexible you try to be, everyone has their own expectations (even if they don’t think they do). Everyone has bad days (and I hope everyone has good days too). Everyone deals with different people – both the Armenians they come in contact with and the Americans they see and socialize with. I will continue to be adaptable, to enjoy what I can, try to learn from what I don’t enjoy and move on.

I am also asked whether it feels like longer/shorter than a year. The answer is both - time has flown, but so I have experienced so much in the past year, met so many new people, seen so many things, that it's hard to believe it hasn't been longer.

And to the questions about whether it is what I expected, the answer is that it is both more and less. And I don’t know if I will be able to fully answer that question until a fair amount of time after I am finished. But for right now, I am glad I am here.