Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Is That All There Is?

Revisiting week one
Two years later

As I said in my last post, my Peace Corps service is over and I have already left the country.  I won't be back in New York for a few months, but I am already anticipating the questions I will hear when I see family and friends (and some of which have already been sent by email).  What was it like?  What did you do?  Would you do it again?  If you could go back in time - knowing what you know now - would you still go? What are you going to do next?

The short answers are: Very interesting; not much but quite a lot; maybe; yes; and I don't know yet. But, of course, the real answers are much more complicated than that.  Since I understand that peoples' tolerance for listening to long, complex answers to questions about an experience like the Peace Corps is (justifiably) limited, I figured I would tackle it to an extent in writing so that people can read at their own pace and ask me more (if they want) when they see me.

What was it like?  Rather than rehashing that, I will refer back to my earlier posts.  Overall, though, the impression I am left with is that my service was easier than I had expected.  As far as Peace Corps countries go, Armenia seems to me like a pretty easy one (and being placed in a city as I was, a relatively easy location).  We had a fairly modern capital city within not-too-far a distance, 3G internet was widely available, I had running water (most of the time), a comfortable apartment with an excellent heater, a lot of English speakers around me, several other volunteers in the same city as I was, and lots of other "creature comforts", albeit more expensive than in the US (I could buy soy sauce, peanut butter, MGD and tahini if I wanted to). Also, if so inclined, I could have shopped at places like Swarovski, but I never did.

Having said that, I think back on a conversation I had with one of my more philosophical fellow PCVs.  He pointed out that, amenity-wise, Armenia seems to be a pretty easy placement but psychologically it was up there with some of the other, more obviously difficult countries.  Beyond the issues that the female volunteers have to contend with in such a patriarchal society, there is the "learned helplessness" that makes it very tough to get motivated when working with people who don't seem to want to learn how to help themselves.  A recent conversation I had with an Armenian woman gets to that point.  I forget the Armenian word she used, but she lamented that Armenians had lost something (we struggled for an English translation of her word and settled on "pride").  After the earthquake in 1988, the Soviet Union accepted foreign assistance for the first time.  Prior to that, she said, not only the Soviets but specifically the Armenians had been very self reliant and wary of accepting assistance.  Since then, with foreign aid and remittances from family living abroad providing a lifeline for a lot of families, many have forgotten how to help themselves or don't want to.  As an example, numerous times, I was asked for help with a project.  When discussing it, I would inevitably say "OK - what I need you to do is..." and the eyes would glaze over.  That takes a toll after a while.

Having said that, I think the experience was great.  I had never lived outside the US and living in another culture - even as an outsider - is significantly different from visiting as a traveler. I am really glad that I did it and am glad to have gotten to know a lot of wonderful people in Armenia.

What did you do?  My primary assignment was to help an organization improve its management processes.  Other than that, I was free to develop or get involved in other projects but was encouraged to focus on my sector of Community and Business Development.  While I made a lot of suggestions for my primary site, many events conspired to prevent me from being involved in or carrying through things both they and I had wanted me to work with them on.  So, what was supposed to take up roughly half of my time wound up taking maybe five percent. 

The benefit of having a mostly unstructured system, though, is that it allows you to make the most of the downtime that results from a situation like mine.  At first, I focused on seeking out other projects in Gyumri and worked with some other organizations that I learned needed help.  I also worked with another volunteer to develop a business English class.  With yet another volunteer, I took over an English conversation club that a departing volunteer had been running. As time went on, I also got involved in other projects that were more nation-wide in scope such as the Gyumri edition of a youth camp and the walk across Armenia.  And then I got into what I termed "volunteer support" roles such as leading training sessions for other volunteers, working on a grant review committee and helping to update training materials. 

So the longer answer was that I did a lot of things that I never expected to (and not the well digging that many people think all PCVs do).  What I did not do was something that many organizations in Armenia want - and that is to be a locator of funding.  Armenian organizations tend to be very dependent upon grant money and some will design projects to fit a grant opportunity that is available.  I decided early on that I would take the skills transfer idea of Peace Corps seriously and help organizations develop a fund raising strategy and help with their applications (offering comments about the structure of a project, how a question on the application is answered, how to frame a needs statement) but I would not be there to write applications with no one from the organization playing a lead role.  While Peace Corps stresses to organizations that we are not placed at their sites to apply for grants on their behalf, many still expect us to do so.  Some volunteers do a lot of grant application work because they work well with their organizations to develop projects needing funding and take a lead role in the application because they are generally in English. [As I wrote in my last post, I have issues with why the government does not take the lead there - on projects such as renovating classrooms, buying textbooks and blackboards, renovating school bathrooms.  Not that they are not worthwhile projects, but I think it is a shame that the organization and the PCV have to do fund raising for them.]  Others go along with grant applications writing to maintain relations with co-workers, to feel like they have accomplished something tangible during their service, or to fill the time if bored, among other reasons. I am not saying that this is a bad thing but, for better or worse, I chose not to go that route.

This is also a tough question to answer because I have no concrete accomplishments to point to.  I realized pretty early in my service that I would not likely see tangible results from my work since things like organizational management, confidence building, health education and critical thinking are not going to show benefits in a two year period.  Once I realized that, it became easier to deal with the frustration you can encounter, because who wouldn't prefer to point to a school that they helped build?  Again, this gets back to my earlier point about addressing people who feel helpless and helping them to feel otherwise. One of our newly arrived volunteers has a counterpart with a story that illustrates this point.  When the counterpart was a child, there was a Peace Corps volunteer in her village teaching English.  The child later became a motivated adult who is a school director and who is open to alternative methods of teaching - bucking the lingering Soviet system common in the schools here.  She credits her thinking to the example set by the PCV early in her life.

That is the type of lasting impact I am hoping to have had.  I don't think my time was wasted as I did notice small signs of progress with respect to certain individuals I worked with, I put some organizations in contact with donors and they have established relationships independent of me and I think the Peace Corps Armenia materials are in better shape than before.  I am fine with that.

Other than the day-to-day work assignment part ("Goal One" work, referring to the first goal of Peace Corps, which is to provide skills to people who want them), there was also the "Goal Two" and "Goal Three" things, which are helping Armenians understand Americans better and helping Americans understand Armenians better.

For Goal Two, that was sometimes a challenge.  Because of the pervasiveness of American culture around the world, people have some pretty set opinions about us based on what they see in movies (I often found myself explaining to people that there is in fact poverty in the US - and most were shocked to hear about homelessness).  I often had to explain why we volunteer and that we are not spies.  Most importantly, it means letting people understand that we are not all assholes.  There is a temptation to tell people what to do (especially given how Goal One is supposed to be accomplished) but communicating that you understand them before trying to sell them on something is tougher.

For Goal Three, I had a set up to correspond with a school on a regular basis to help them learn about Armenia but that petered out, so this blog and my pictures are my primary way of tackling that. So, you tell me how I've done on that.

Another thing I did is see a lot of the country.  Part of it was the Border 2 Border walk last year, part was visiting friends, part of it was outings with my co-workers. When Armenians ask me about the places I have seen and I start to list them, most say that I have seen more of the country than they have.  I suppose that is part of being somewhere temporarily and wanting to see as much as you can.

The thumbtacks mark the places I visited

In the background of all of that is the desire to do more.  One thing that is frustrating is that there are often a lot of great projects going on and other opportunities for volunteer support things to get involved in and it can be tempting to try getting involved in all of them.  As I am fond of pointing out, if you try to do too many things at the same time, some - if not all - of them are likely to get done badly. So, I did the things I was able to do and was happy for those who were involved in the things I couldn't be.

In summary, I think of what I did the same way that I describe how time passed.  The two years went very quickly (for me, at least) but when I think of all that I experienced, I feel like it was 10 years time. As far as work accomplishments go, it doesn't seem like a lot at the time, but it certainly adds up.

Would you do it again?  The answer is that I am not sure.  I found the adjustment to the different way of living easier than I expected and living in a different culture incredibly rewarding.  But doing another stint in the Peace Corps would likely entail learning another language and I am not sure if my aging brain would want to do that. And while I didn't have too much trouble adjusting to living here, I also made it a point not to go to the US during my service.  Whether I am more adaptable than I thought I would be or whether I just prepared myself mentally for two years away is unclear and I won't know the answer to that until I do go back home.  

If you could go back in time - knowing what you know now - would you still go?  Absolutely. We are often advised to come into this with no expectations.  I think I managed that pretty well - I didn't know what country I would come to, I didn't know what site in Armenia I would be sent to, I didn't know if my site placement would work out - but I managed through the unknowns and made the most of it.

Other than the challenges presented by life in Armenia, there is government bureaucracy, being part of a group that includes some, shall we say, dynamic personalities, and the uncertainty of life after putting yours on hold for more than two years.  But beyond that, there is the change in outlook that comes along. While my experience was not quite the same as the author of this article, I think the message is a pretty good one - being in the Peace Corps really does make you appreciate what we have.  It is almost a cliche but we often hear that you get more out of Peace Corps service than you put in and I agree with that. 

What are you going to do next? I had hoped to have an answer to that question by now but I don't. I left a job that I hated to go into the Peace Corps and figured that two years plus would give me plenty of time to figure that out (especially during the long winters).  Beyond the plentiful distractions (movies and books mostly) during those winters, I was too busy with other things and didn't carve out the time to make any solid decisions.  I could go back to what I had been doing (if the seismic changes contemplated in the US accounting arena were deservedly scrapped in my absence) although I would need to do some catching up. I could apply for a government job with the non-competitive eligibility that comes along with being a PCV.  I could retire if I chose to live in a place like Solak. While I have learned that I can live in a place different from New York, I need to go back there to see if I could do it on a longer term basis.  We shall see.

So, is that all there is to Peace Corps Armenia?  Maybe so - since as the song goes "if that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing.  Let's break out the booze, and have a ball."  That sounds an awful lot like an Armenian wedding.


Is that all there is to this blog?    Beyond the things that I have written about before, there were some things that were noteworthy but not enough to warrant long discussion so here is a short summary.
  • Many people don't wear watches, which is consistent with a general disregard of timeframes (appointments, opening hours, departure times).  
  • There is no voice mail in AArmenia, so people ALWAYS answer the phone when it rings - regardless of what else is going on at the time. I have been in a conversation with someone who stopped in the middle of a word to answer her phone.
  • I am pretty fascinated with how people really feel about the Soviet period versus now.  I am also interested in how people deal with the reminders of that time and like photographing the lingering traces.  But I was often frustrated in my search for old Lenin statues - and I received some strong reactions to my questions about them.  One man said "he is not part of our history" [because the Soviets pretty much imposed themselves on Armenia].  I responded that, similar to slavery in the US, just because you don't like a part of your history doesn't mean it didn't happen (and the man was born in Gyumri when it was called "Leninakan" for god's sake).  Despite the resistance I found, I did locate traces of some.

The statue of Lenin that used to be in what is now Republic Square (in the courtyard behind the art museum - I was told that his head is in the museum basement).
Where he used to stand in Solak
What used to be Lenin Square in Gyumri

His replacement
But is this finished? Not quite - I plan to write a last entry upon returning home and maybe a few along the way but they will be less frequent. I am traveling in the meantime but since that doesn't have anything to do with living in the Caucasus, there won't be any writing about that.

But there will be pictures....