Friday, January 27, 2012

A Face in the Crowd

Juan in a million - Gyumri Day 2010
I come from New York City, a city with a population of ~8.5 million.  I now live in Armenia, a country with an official population of ~3.4 million (about the same as Brooklyn), in a city with a population of ~170,000 (less than half of Staten Island’s).  

In New York, I enjoyed a pretty high level of anonymity.  Never mind that it can feel like a small town sometimes, where everyone you meet seems to know someone else you know.  And there have been times when I have run into people on the street who don’t even live there and whose visits I hadn’t been aware of.  In most cases, I could go out, be lost in a crowd and not have to worry about anyone paying attention to me unless I did something noteworthy (falling in the middle of the street and breaking my leg being a good example).

One of the big adjustments for me here has been the absolute absence of anonymity.  We are prepped for this and are urged to be mindful about it since one of Peace Corps’ goals is “Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served”.  Since many stereotypes of Americans exist (many Armenians watch US movies and believe what they see in them to be true), we often have to counteract those – not everyone in the US is rich, not all American women are “easy”, we are not here to impose our views on others, etc.   

I can say from first-hand experience that people watch everything I do and are certain to have opinions about what they see.   During my time in Solak, I received a package from my family.  I don’t even know how people found out about it (it came through the Charentsavan post office, not the one in the village, and it was in my backpack when I entered my host family’s house) but I learned from another volunteer that I was a topic of dinner conversation at her host family’s house that night.  Not only were they speculating about the contents, but they concluded that it was sent by my wife (even though I don’t have one). 

Solak has a population of about 2,800 so I thought things would be different living in Armenia’s second largest city.  Not so much.  I stand out here also.

Armenia is a very homogenous society – about 97% of the population is Armenian with the other 3% comprising Russians, Yezdis, Iranians and various other ethnic groups.  Most Armenians have common physical characteristics – generally dark skin, thick black hair, brown or grey eyes, and caterpillar type eyebrows.   Still – I can see a lot of variation in how people look, and not just because many women here dye their hair.  I see redheads and blonds, some tend to have very fair skin, I have seen young guys that look like a group of WASP/Italian/Irish hybrid brothers I know in New York and some of the men actually do go bald.  While many are short (in Solak, I am pretty sure I was the tallest person in the village), Gyumri has a lot of people my height – including some women.  

There are many reasons people stare at me.  Baldness is not common, blue eyes are unusual, I am taller than many and facial hair is not very common (I could shave, but I prefer not to).  Armenia, especially outside Yerevan, is also a pretty conformist society and I dress differently than most of the men (although I am very glad that I brought a lot of black clothing with me).  I could conform more, but in a future post I will talk about the clothes here and why I have chosen not to follow that lead.   

So, I stand out enough that quite a few people remember me – even if we haven’t met. Over the course of the 18 months I have been in Gyumri, I have given presentations, taught classes, led clubs, been a camp counselor and been on TV a couple of times.  In most of these cases, people have learned my name while I may not have learned theirs.  Therefore, it is somewhat disconcerting when I walk down the street and hear “Hi, John!” since much of the time I can’t remember how I know the person or if we’ve even met at all.  Similarly, I get friend requests on Facebook from people I don’t recognize, and the fact that many have the same names doesn’t help.  

I don’t have it as bad as some others.  Quite a few of my fellow volunteers live in villages (some as small as a few hundred people) so everyone knows about everything they do.  The African-American and Asian-American volunteers have the added issue of being considered downright exotic, drawing extra attention.  I have heard numerous stories of kids wanting to have their pictures taken with these PCVs for no apparent reason or people taking pictures of them surreptitiously.  I recently met a PCV who had just completed his service in Ethiopia.  He lived in a remote town – four hours away from the nearest fellow volunteer.  His town was not one that tourists would normally go to, so when any white person happened to come into the town, someone would bring him to the volunteer’s door as if to say “Look what I have for you!”

While that is more extreme than my experience, here are some examples of what I have encountered:
  • Being waved down on the street by the postman who had a delivery notice for me.  I had never laid eyes on him before.
  • Entering a post office one time, and before I could even finish saying “I think you have a package for me”, I was asked “Are you John?
  • Some of my mail is delivered to the "American Corner" in Gyumri since the people in the neighborhood know I have clubs there.
  • Asking for a kilo of fruit in the market and the vendor asking me why I am not buying two kilos as I normally do.
  • Entering my local shop where I always buy eggs, the owner asking me if I want my normal six.  Another customer asks her who I am and why she knew how many I wanted and the conversation was still going in when I left.
  • The house I live behind does not have an address marker outside so people coming to visit me often have trouble finding the correct door.  If it is a fellow American, one of the neighbors is sure to point him or her to the correct one.
  • A fellow volunteer was talking about me to an Armenian and began to describe me but was cut short – “He is the one with the blue eyes”, the other person said, knowing already who I was although I don’t believe we had met.
Also, seeing as this is the Caucasus, people take the label “Caucasian” seriously.  Having filled out a questionnaire one time and marking my ethnicity as “Caucasian”, a friend of mine told me he laughed and told me to change it to “European”.

As with many other matters here, I have found that I have gotten used to it.  While waiting on a marshutni one time with a fellow PCV, we heard a group of young guys outside the vehicle talking and then laughing.  I was asked “Doesn’t it get to you – being laughed at?” I was a bit surprised at the question since it hadn’t occurred to me that they might have been.  And even times when I know people are laughing at me (the YakTrax I wear on my shoes to traverse snow and ice get a lot of attention), I can usually shrug it off. If I find someone is staring at me, I may just stare back or just smile and move on.  Life is too short to get worried about it - and if I fall on my ass on the ice I will get laughed at anyway, so I'll spare myself the pain.

As my service approaches its end, I start thinking about the “reverse culture shock” we are warned about upon returning to the US, which can be worse for some than the culture shock we experience when we start our service.  One of the factors we are told to be aware of is depression – some have trouble adjusting to not being the center of attention any longer, having to settle back into relative anonymity.  

Frankly, that is one of the things I am looking forward to.