Friday, March 30, 2012


Every four months, we need to submit a form to Peace Corps to report on progress in various areas.  One question that we need to answer is "How integrated do you feel in your community?" This is always a difficult question to answer because it depends on the place where you are assigned to live, the circumstances of your work assignment, and on you individually.

As I wrote previously, I don't think I will ever fully blend in here as anyone who looks at me can tell I am not Armenian. No matter how long I study the language, I can't imagine myself being so fluent that I would not still have to say "I don't understand"sometimes and no matter how long I live here, there are certain customs that will always seem odd to me because I have not grown up with them.

Regardless of that, on my latest report I finally notched up my answer from "Somewhat integrated" to "Integrated".  It is something that I think about a lot and it was the accumulation of various things that finally allowed me to claim that.  As I think back on my time here so far, I can identify specific things that have signaled my acceptance by the people here.

Taking pictures.  I learned early on that people here like to have their pictures taken.  I sometimes walk around with my camera and people will call me over asking me to photograph them. Later on, I usually brought prints to them which has led to anything from nodding acquaintances, to people stopping me on the street to chat, to getting discounts or free stuff from the people selling in the market.  

Working in the hay fields.  Living in Solak, everyone knew I am from New York.  I imagine they viewed me as a "city-slicker"or whatever the equivalent Armenian phrase would be. For most of the time I lived there, when I offered help to my host father with any physical work he would decline.  But when the beginning of August rolled around and the family headed to the hay fields, I was asked to come along.  Although it was a much longer day than I expected and I got pretty severely dehydrated, working alongside the two sons-in-law gave me some credibility.  I noted a breakthrough when, during one of the breaks we took, one of the sons-in-law (Gagik) sat right next to me, close enough for our shoulders to touch.  While in New York sitting this way in a wide open field would seem like an invasion of space, here I recognized it as a sign that I was accepted as a friend. Now, when I go back to Solak for visits, Gagik is the one hanging around with me (like young Gevorg does).

Dancing in the square.  A few months after I moved to Gyumri, there was the annual Gyumri Day celebration.  I went, intending to just stand on the sidelines and observe, take some pictures and soak up the atmosphere.  At one point, I was standing with some other volunteers and a group of teenagers waved us over.  After the usual questions, they resumed the dancing that Armenians are compelled to do any time there is a crowd and music and they suggested we join in.  I have never been big on dancing, particularly when it is of a national variety that has prescribed steps for different songs and I can't even differentiate those.  But, having learned a lesson from a Greek wedding I attended years ago, I jumped in and faked it.  And the response was enormous - like speaking, it doesn't matter if you do it badly as long as you try.  And some people told me that I looked like I knew what I was doing. Forget "dance like no one is watching" - this is more like "dance although you know you are on television". And I was.

Participating in Vardevar and snowball fights. Before I moved into my apartment, I had heard from another volunteer who had lived there that the kids in the neighborhood were unfriendly.  After living there for a while, even though I didn't find them unfriendly our relationship was mostly cordial.  When Vardevar rolled around last year (see my post about that here) I arrived home in the middle of the day to see a full-blown water fight in the middle of the street.  They stopped for me at first but, when I let it be known that I was willing to take part, all hell broke loose and we all had a lot of fun. Since then, the kids go out of their way to say hello to me, shake my hand and are completely friendly.  Early in the winter, when I took part in a snowball fight with them, that sort of cemented it.   

Accepting a coffee invitation.  One of the neighbor kids stopped me on the street one day and invited me into his house to meet his family. I used to feel really awkward about accepting invitations like that, but realized that if people are going out of their way to invite you, the least you can do is graciously accept. Over the course of a half hour, I was given a lot to eat, I was treated to the younger brother's singing (Italian arias!), and I formed a sort of bond with the people I could really now call neighbors. You get a lot of questions - why are you here? which is better - the US or Armenia? where have you visited in Armenia? do you like it here? - but find that people are not being nosy, they are generally interested.  And you come to realize that not only are people being polite, but they seem honored to have you as a guest.

Subsequent times I was invited over by someone I had met on the marshutni from Tbilisi, a man who I simply knew from seeing on the street all the time and a family from whom I asked directions. Some of these families clearly had little money but bombarded me with things to eat and drink. Another keeps calling me (from another part of the country) asking when I will come back so he can have a khorovats for me. Time permitting, I accept these invitations readily now because, early on in my time in Gyumri, I was invited into someone's house for coffee and reflexively (and truthfully) answered "I don't like coffee."  I have been kicking myself about that ever since.

Accepting an arm-wrestling challenge. When I first discovered the gym that I now go to, everyone there wondered what I wanted and why I was there.  Few of them speak English and my knowledge of Gyumri dialect was (and still is) very limited, so I would just go and do my workout and not really engage with anyone.  Periodically, the guys there start challenging each other to arm-wrestling matches and everyone else gathers to watch while I continue with what I am doing.  One day, one of the regulars sent someone over to me to ask if I wanted to arm-wrestle.  The challenger is about half my age and noticeably strong (my nickname for him is "Wolverine") so I knew I would get crushed.  My response was "why not?" and, as expected, it was over in about half a second (a full second if you count the second time he beat me).  From then on, though, when I see the others from the gym - either there or in other parts of the city - I get a nod, a hello, or even get called "akber jan" or "ap jan" - sort of an Armenian way of calling someone "buddy".

Being interviewed on TV.  This one is odd because it actually caused some trouble.  I attended a meeting about a program for people in Armenian civil society organizations that sends them to the US for six weeks to observe the US legal system.  I stepped out into the hallway at one point and a TV reporter asked if he could interview me.  I brought along someone to translate and answered his questions in English.  When the news story ran, though, my voice had been dubbed over and words put in my mouth different that what I actually said - they had me saying things that were very critical of the Armenian legal system. Various American officials who learned of the broadcast had to be assured of what I had (and had not) said and, to my knowledge, the matter got smoothed over.  Shortly after that, I was walking down the street and a woman I had never seen before approached me, shook my hand without saying a word and walked away.  A man in the market likewise called me over to say hello and has been very friendly to me ever since. I must point out that I don't recommend this one as an integration strategy.   

Going to a wake.  As I wrote a few posts ago, I attended a wake recently for one of my neighbors.  At first, I was hesitant to go for a few reasons - I didn't know the proper protocol, I wasn't sure who the person was, I didn't have anyone to bring me (all the other volunteers I know who have attended wakes went along with someone close to the deceased).  But I soon learned that it was the grandmother of my friendly-neighbor-kid and his Italian-aria-singing brother.  I had been in their house and met the woman and felt it was appropriate to pay my respects, even if I was solo. While I was there, I realized that it was the right thing to do despite the surprised looks on the faces of the other mourners - the mother of the family (the daughter of the deceased) seemed genuinely pleased that I had made the effort, and the friendly-neighbor-kid gave me a hello kiss - like the shoulder-touching sitting distance I mention above, a common occurrence between male friends here (this is the first time it had happened to me).  And since then, I have noticed that more of the older people in the neighborhood say hello to me on the street.

Each of these have marked instances when I could afterward notice a change in how people treat me.  Just as importantly, I can't overstate the value of just talking to people.  Many times I have hesitated to speak with people because I knew I would make mistakes.  I tend to practice in my head what I need to say but that does not prepare me for any follow up questions.  But even when a conversation goes badly and both parties involved walk away frustrated at not being able to communicate, I can tell that the effort made is appreciated.  The fact that I have bothered to learn the language at all is a sign to many people that I want to communicate.  Even if I knew Russian (which virtually everyone here speaks) that wouldn't have the same impact.   

Other volunteers have told me of great strides they have made in connecting with people by sitting down to a game of chess or nardi (a form of backgammon) - you don't even need to speak the language for that.  Having made progress with villagers, teenagers, kids, gym rats and old women, I regret that I long ago forgot how to play chess and have not yet learned nardi. But there is still time to do that and bond with the old men...and then maybe I can notch myself up to "Well Integrated" before I go home.