Archive for July, 2011

A Moment of Clarity

July 28, 2011

Monday and Tuesday were our Mid Service Conference. It proved to be a slightly boring experience, most of which doesn’t deserve to be spoken about here. There were a few interesting nuggets I gathered from it/experienced though.

The first revelation is that this was the beginning of the end. I really felt like we were “descending the mountain” as the Armenians say. There was a lot of talk about a possible All-Volunteer conference in November (which is an annual thing here that had its head placed in the guillotine of budget cuts) and then some more talk about our COS (Close of Service) conference in April. It’s very possible that the next time I will see all these people again will be at the COS conference when we are essentially saying goodbye.

That gave me the impression that it’s all downhill from here. A lot of us are somewhat jaded, a little cranky, and a bit disenchanted with the bureaucracy. We had a psychologist from PC Washington there, who, while a bit long winded, won some points for being a Cardinals fan and knowing the smell of Decatur. During his session he had us think of a metaphor to describe our current mindset in our service. My metaphor was that it felt like mile 14 of a marathon, where suddenly you find yourself running alone. All the half marathoners have finished, leaving just a few crazy souls left with you out there on the course. Our A-17s seem to be dropping like flies and soon they’ll all be gone. And the 19s still aren’t quite with us yet, so the weird feeling of being the lone group will persist for a few more weeks. There were other interesting metaphors, such as the simple illustration one guy made full of dark humor: a stick figure falling off a cliff towards a watery grave where a shark with an open mouth awaited. The stick figure was exactly halfway down his fall.

The reality is that the last group began checking out mentally at random times beginning around Christmas and continuing into the spring. Now is the time where I feel completely at ease here, kinda speak the language, and generally know what is going on. They say it is our most effective time, which I hope is true. It’s just a matter of mustering that internal motivation to get some more good stuff done before the Lada Niva that is your idealism sputters to a stop.

Another revelation is that everyone is beginning to plan what’s next. Life is funny in that way – you dream and plan for something like the Peace Corps. It takes months or years to actually get in. Then when you’re finally in there doing what you dreamed about, you find yourself thinking about the next thing when you’re only halfway done! I am very good at reflecting on the past and thinking about the future, but not always great at cherishing the moment. It’s interesting for me to see a bunch of other people in our group kind of doing the same. Well, I can’t say they’re not cherishing the moment, but when you are toting around a GRE prep book, how can you be?

I’m Going to Grad School seems to be winning the post-PC popularity contest right now. But it’s a close contest, with Extending For A Third Year of Service nipping at the collective ivory towers of I’m Going to Grad School. Once upon a time I wanted to attend a top 5 business school, get a prestigious MBA, and become a CEO somewhere. Then I worked at AT&T 😉 When asked if I am doing grad school, the answer is a firm “no” at this point in my life. I don’t have the desire to, and I don’t think the world needs another International Affairs Master’s degree with the volume the PC pipeline is churning out.

The rumors were swirling about who is considering a third year of PC. Some of the names were surprising, and some were not. For some the idea is surely like a security blanket – delaying the inevitable return to whatever you left back home. For others it is a matter of unfinished work, unfinished experiences, and a desire for more. People have asked me, and again I can say that my name is not just placed into the “No” hat, but it is actually stitched into the interior. I love my PC service, mostly, but part of that love is knowing that it will end in about a year’s time. The more I am here the crazier I am. Well, I was already crazy for wanting to do this. But seriously, the more I am here the more I realize it is just kind of a bubble in my life that is its own unique thing. It will never be replicated, never be replaced, and hopefully never be popped! But it is so unique that sometimes it feels like a somewhat-useless bubble. Sure, there are invaluable lessons being learned and my life outlook has changed for better or worse. What I really mean is that I don’t see staying here a 3rd year as any sort of additional help in my life going forward. I’m going to have to reintegrate into Western society and continue my life as I see fit. I learned so many lessons in year 1, and probably grew more as a person during that year than I will in year 2. It’s just the marginal utility of the deal. So if year 2 isn’t quite as Miracle-Growish as year 1, then year 3 will be like, “Oops I forgot to water Plant for a month.” I have respect for those who do a third year, but my work here will not demand a third year from me and I just don’t have the desire.

One other thing I realized during this time is that I am integrated. Yes, I might feel like a stranger on the street in Vardenis sometimes. That’s just Vardenis at large. Indeed, there are people here who care about me and consider me part of their community. The fact that I realized this is nice, because it’s much easier to see how many people don’t know you and don’t care about you than to appreciate the ones who do. It was evidenced yesterday when I was still in Yerevan after the conference. I got a phone call from one of the girls at the office. She asked if everything was okay since I hadn’t been to the office in a few days. Oops. Guess I didn’t tell everyone where I was going. I came in this morning to a mixed reaction of “We’re glad to see you!” and “Where the hell were you? Don’t ever do that again!” Most of that was because my counterpart hasn’t been in the office either. But still it was cute and endearing. Similarly the shopkeepers and the postmaster will ask where I was after an extended absence. Try to get that at the reliable yet cold US Postal Service or at Wal Mart. Well, hopefully you don’t go to Wal Mart often enough that they know your personal business!

Also, I realized that I have great dental genes. I got my one and only dental cleaning of service yesterday. 16 months without a cleaning, yet no problems.

Finally, I started a trend. One volunteer came to the conference with a great moustache. Another shaved his beard into one during the conference. So my own stache lives on on other faces now.

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Peace Corps as a Means to Catch Up on the 90s

July 18, 2011

It can be a bit lonely out there. You’ve got a lot of time on your hands. You are far from any other Americans. People laugh at you when you walk around outside, so why bother? Fresh air and natural sunlight are for freaks. That’s why I’ve been using my service as a chance to get caught up on a great decade: the 90s.

Yes, I was the guy in college hosting 90s parties instead of the 80s parties everyone else thought were so cool. Was it too soon, in 2006? Probably. But sometimes you need to be bold (those parties were only possible because of an equally bold roomie, Mr. Peter). And I love the 90s. There is a lot of great shit from the 90s that we all took for granted. Compuserve, Beanie Babies, WWF, AOL trial CDs, baby MLS, Ecto Cooler Hi C, mullets, All Sport, and of course Jim Carey. Sadly, I wasn’t able to appreciate all of its greatness as I was a mere 4 years old when that decade started. Cue Peace Corps.

Mosh and Thrash

I am just now getting around to doing a lot of things people did 15 years ago. During the last few months, I have watched for the first time The Matrix and The Green Mile. I brushed the dust off of Half Baked. I am currently having a blast charging my way through Starcraft (currently on the Zerg campaign). I’ve played several complete seasons of Tecmo Super Bowl. I had a fling with Final Fantasy 3. And let’s not forget one of the things that gave me a glimmer of Christmas spirit last winter: Muppet Christmas Carol!

I don’t just limit myself to the 90s, however. I have rocked Band of Brothers, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Sims 1, Garden State, Mad Men, and O Brother Where Art Thou.

You see, being behind the curve is not something to be feared. It’s a beautiful, wonderful thing. You can enjoy things at your own pace. Prices plummet. And a bit of time gives you a great idea of what is worth spending your time on and what is just a bleeding edge piece of crap.

I will continue on with this strategy for the rest of my life. Peace Corps is the perfect setup for a return to an unprecedented level of behind-the-curvedness that I crave. Imagine 2 years isolated from all things pop-culture: movies, tv shows, music, video games, sporting events. I will happily go back to playing my video games from 2009, but it will be 2012. I won’t really be able to comprehend the situation. Apologies in advance, as I listen to Sublime…

You know Armenian? Good for you.

July 12, 2011

The arrival of new people struggling to learn Armenian and a looming language proficiency interview mean many of the thousands of thoughts flowing through my mind in a day are linguistic. Where am I now?

That is always a tough question to answer I think. It’s really easy to beat yourself up. It’s easy to not see progress under the daily microscope. It requires a step back or a slap in the face to see the big jigsaw puzzle you have thus far assembled and not the pile of pieces waiting to be snapped together.

Recently my interaction with the new volunteers has given me perspective on my own language learning. All of the sudden I’m remembering that I used to only understand a few words. Meanings were a distant thing.

Now I can grasp a meaning out of the murky mess that is only partial comprehension in an average conversation. Individual words may sink to the bottom, to my dismay, but more often than not when the sentence is completed the meaning floats up to the surface, albeit a little soggier and squishier than I would like.

I’ve gone from explaining essentially, “I have no idea what you are saying” to “What does that word mean?” or “Can you explain it a bit more?” It could be one of the biggest jumps in language learning, as it gives the speaker something to work with rather than a white flag. The conversation will continue.

My own oral fluency is building, but it seems a bit retarded compared to my understanding. At this point I am able to understand things that I am not able to express myself. It makes sense though if you consider personality and disposition. I am more of a listener than a talker in general. When you add in a certain level of self-consciousness that comes with speaking a foreign language, not knowing a word, struggling with pronunciation, or constantly being misunderstood, the desire to blab is suppressed. I have realized that I am one of those language learners who is too concerned with rules, who tries to make something perfect before saying it, and who doesn’t use the language with reckless abandon. The guy who doesn’t shut up and isn’t concerned about the accuracy of his language is the one who will gain oral proficiency at a faster rate. So I have that personality trait working against me. Regardless, things are going well and I am able to express a lot these days.

There is another thing, as a native English speaker, that just works against you. It’s a beautiful thing and an annoying thing all at once. Everybody wants to speak English. We are the lingua franca right now. Despite what the old guy next to me on the marshrutka thinks, Russian is not the most important language in the world. Nor is French, any more. For the time being (I’m guessing we should be safe for our lifetimes), it’s English. For that we are lucky. We can go anywhere in the world and our native tongue is the most likely understood foreign language. Kids everywhere learn English in school. I think the Germans know English better than we do. So it’s cool because it makes the world accessible to us. It’s our party and the rest of the people on planet Earth have to study a bunch to be able to join in. But, it is also a big handicap for us to learn foreign languages. First, it diminishes the need to even learn a language at all. On top of that, when we are somewhere like, say, Armenia, there are going to be a bunch of people who speak English and seek us out as English speakers.

I can’t tell you how much better my Armenian would be if I wasn’t able to use English on a daily basis at work. I’m not complaining – it has made life a lot easier for me – but it is a big factor in language acquisition.

There is another related piece though. I have gotten very very good at speaking basic, clear, no frills English. Any foreigner who is fairly proficient in English, but who has limited interaction with English speakers, will have a lot of difficulty understanding us. Think of the variety of English that exists. The UK, the US, Australia, Ghana, Belize…the language is different in every place. If I use my normal, comfy American English, my words will just be lost. The other end of it is understanding what a foreigner wants to say in English. That is also a skill that must be practiced.* Knowing the speaker helps, but even more helpful is knowing the speaker’s native tongue. And that leads me to…

*We (Americans) are undoubtedly some of the best at sympathetic listening, if we choose to be. Your nationalistic uncle who denounces all American immigrants (despite the fact his family at some point immigrated as well) might not be able, and sure as hell isn’t willing, to do it, but what other nation has practice hearing people from all over the world try to speak their language? All the accents, the funny ways of saying things, the false-cognates…we are able to listen to foreigners and fish out what they are trying to say. Believe me, in other countries they will burst out in laughter when you attempt to mutter something in the local tongue, just out of the pure novelty of hearing someone who is foreign trying to speak their language.

The Way We Say Things

Many times it isn’t just a matter of knowing the word you need for a situation. Knowing a language means knowing how those people express an idea. This is that no-man’s-land where direct translations fail.

American English: Stop here.
Armenian: Stand here/ Keep here.

The lights are on.
The lights are burning.

Light a candle.
Fire a candle.

Will you tell me?
Will you say me?

I don’t have anything.
I don’t have nothing.

You are winking at me.
You are doing with your eyes me.

I took a test.
I gave a test.

There are lots of other little quirks you just have to know too, just like any language.

There are 2 ways “to think” in Armenian. I need to, I must, and I should are one single idea in Armenian.
If you are playing soccer, that’s not the same as playing piano. No one will tell you to “Sit down please” or “Please eat”….just “EAT!” or “SIT!”

That last one takes a lot of getting used to when Armenians with bad English are trying to be nice and end up yelling at you to do things!

I’ve learned a substantial amount of Armenian. However, those words will all one day fade away. The lasting and deeper lesson learned during this time has been about the process of language learning and the experience of being a foreign speaker. With that has come an empathy and respect that will last a lifetime.

Halfway

July 8, 2011

Yesterday marked the midpoint of my Peace Corps service in Armenia. As the Armenians say, now I am descending the mountain. It’s a weird thing to think about. But I can feel its presence in my interactions with new volunteers, leaving volunteers, and my own sense of exhaustion with a few aspects of life here.

The last 5 days were spent in a mini excursion throughout the country. My friend Joel and I left Vardenis on Sunday to head out for a 4th of July celebration in Yeghegnadzor. I stayed there for a couple nights and did all kinds of fun things, like swim in a river through a gorge, get my 4th mullet (sorry no pics), and eat homemade sausage. It was a very American time in a very non-American country.

From there I headed to Yerevan, which serves as the central transport hub for the whole country. After a few hours in the capital, a group of us went to Hrazdan to spend the night. Hrazdan is 45 minutes outside of Yerevan and very close to our old PST training villages. The next morning (Wednesday) some of us journeyed to the new PST training center in Nor Hajn to give sessions to the new volunteers.

Lizzie and I presented the HIV initiative, which was kind of ironic since I found myself dreading being a member throughout the year every time we had another pointless meeting in Yerevan. On the whole though it’s a good thing to be involved with – the 6 trainings I’m supposed to oversee this summer are one of the only concrete things I have going on right now. Needless to say the trainees were captivated by my mullet/moustache combo; we should see membership skyrocket in the fall.

It was a big day because all of the new volunteers learned where they would spend their next 2 years. It was also the first time the current volunteers were invited to meet and interact with the newbies. My efforts in handing out applications and making an awkward speech in front of a room full of school directors paid off. Vardenis will receive 2 female PCVs come August. Thus, I won’t be the lone American here and I just might avoid going crazy in my 2nd year of service.

That night I spent in a Peace Corps apartment rented out specifically for trainers in the village of Argel. I was there with 4 other PCVs. Thursday I woke up and did a session on culture in the workplace. After that I finally began the winding journey home, completely exhausted of people. I survived the heat of Yerevan, a near accident in a marshrutka, and made it into the last seat of the Vardenis marshrutka. As we left Yerevan I had to count my blessings, despite my crappy mood, as we passed the previous 2 Vardenis marshrutkas broken down within the city limits.

Now here I am, mulletless but with a moustache. It gives me a police officer/latin American/ O Brother Where Art Thou appearance. Although to me it is funny/weird to be 25 with a moustache, the Armenians don’t seem to notice. They do notice the haircut quite a bit and they love the short look. I got a lot of shit for long hair over the past couple months. One thing I learned is that the mullet is culturally accepted and even seen as a great haircut. Awesome!

Should it stay or should it go?