Peace Corps Armenia: how should I say?

Ani’s* eyes lit up when she saw me sitting alone in the back of the bus. I grinned back at her.

She left her mom at the last open seat in the front, and I scooted to make room for her on the plastic blue seat.

“Hello Miss Med,” she said softly.

“Hi Ani,” I said back. Ani is one of the few students in the 6thgrade who actually listens to me. Her mom eyed us from the front of the bus, and I wondered if Ani had told her mother that I was her English teacher before she left, or if her mom was wondering why her daughter was going up to the strange blonde foreigner in jeans and hiking boots. I look like a tourist, and a Russian one. Not an English teacher.

“How are you?” Ani asked, careful pronunciation.

“I am fine,” I answered. “How are you?”

“I am fine too,” she paused. “mi rope…”

I waited.

“Why you were in Yerevan?”

“I was visiting some friends. And why were you in Yerevan?”

“My… vontes asem? Grandmother lives in Yerevan.”

I nodded, the two of us carefully perched on the tiny bus seat, her arm around my shoulder for balance. I was thrilled with her English. She was usually shy in class.

“Your,” she continued, still in English, “ankeroohiner, friends?”

“Yes,”

“Friends,” she repeated, chewing on the word. “They too are from America?”

“Yes.”

“And they are live… che... are living here?”

I nodded.

“English teachers, like you?”

“Yes, or they work at an organization, err, kazmakerpootyoon.”

Ha, haskatsa, oo… kani tari kan ek?

“Twenty-three.”

kasan yerek? And your family lives… here?”

“No, in America. Near Chicago.”

She nodded.

“I have friends here. And I live with an Armenian family.”

Ha, gitem,” she smiled.

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We talked about my family at home, and hers here, and watched the sky light up pink in the haze of burned leaves that’s now blanketing the valley. We watched the snow on Mount Ararat stain apricot orange, and I told her that things here really aren’t so different from America, except the fruit is better here, and I could drive a car there. We switched to Armenian so it was my turn to stumble over words and pause and vontes asem. We would stop and ask questions about each other’s languages with the patience and candidness that comes naturally when the language barrier is equal, and just not that important.

“Do you miss your students on the weekends?” She asked, and casually brushed dust off my knee.

I smiled. “Yes,” I answered honestly. “hatkapes kez,” I grinned. She laughed. Especially you.

“Even the bad kids?”

“You all aren’t bad.”

“What about the boys who make fun of you?” she asked.

I shrugged, and tried to think of how to say what I wanted.  “I understand it can be funny to hear someone speak… vontes asem… bad Armenian? But I know my Armenian is not… pretty. But it is easier for you to try and speak English with me, if I speak bad Armenian with you guys. Does that make sense?”

I don’t know the all the Armenian words or grammar to say what I’d really like to, how I’d like to. But that’s sort of the whole point.

Ani nodded. “I guess.”

Eventually, Ani’s mom pulled her back to the front of the bus, and I got off. They paid for my bus ticket which was very sweet, and I walked home alone.

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I’ve got a lot of excuses for not writing for a month, but no good ones. First, I was at IST (In-Service Traning). Then it was Fall Break, then I was just so busy with teaching and clubs that I couldn’t find the time, or didn’t try. After, a visit back to my PST (Pre-Service Training) host family, then to another PCV’s site. Got sick for a moment there (food poisoning); got bit by a dog (no permanent damage). And then a whole month passed.

I think mostly it’s because things have started to feel very normal to me. My Armenian is more functional, and I have a routine I like. Things still feel foreign and overwhelming sometimes, but mostly?

Mostly I’m just living, so it’s been harder to find things to write about other than… just life.

But honestly, “just life” is pretty remarkable if you remember to look close enough.

For example, my host mom made a joke in Armenian and I understood it. That feels pretty incredible. I’ve got real, actual friends at my site despite a language barrier. A lot of my students really like me, and I really like all of them. Two girls took an extra three minutes after class to learn how to say my name the American way.

One of my 7th graders who used to never pay attention asked me to stay after class and work with him on his break. After, my Counterpart gave him an 8 (B+) for the day and he couldn’t stop smiling, because of her. Now, he listens in class and really tries, and he asks after me when I’m not in that class.

I know all of the names in the 3rd grade now, and there’s about 90 of them. The mountains are covered in snow and it is stunning, especially at sunset. The student who pulled my hair a month ago is now a regular at my English club. When my English club started going off the rails, one of my older students stood up, took over, and asked if she could try to teach the lesson herself and she did phenomenally. All of this is more or less “just life”.

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At IST, over a month ago, we led off at 9am with the question “what am I doing here?” (Which honestly at a 9am, at an all day Peace Corps training seemed a little harsh).

But the question led a lot of different places for all of us, talking about highs and lows, and what qualifies as which, the way we see ourselves in the context of Peace Corps and our site placements and our jobs, and the way we cope with isolation and feelings of culture shock.

But I wasn’t feeling super jaded then, or super tired, or defeated—and this isn’t to say that I don’t sometimes feel those things because I absolutely do, but honestly so far Peace Corps has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me, despite not everything being overwhelmingly positive at face value.

And I think that maybe that has something to do with this:

Every day, there are a million different versions of the life we live, versions of stories that happen to and around us, but we get to choose the stories we tell. Sometimes, the telling can change how you see the story.

I love to write— both the pretty, cut-for-internet version of my life here, and the uglier, I-got-bit-by-a-dog-today-and-really-want-to-cry-but-can’t-‘cause-can-i-even-still-feel-emotions version I write in my journal (dog episode cut for time). I think no matter where I am writing it forces me to reframe things.

Not always as positive, but almost always as meaningful.

It’s not a positive experience when a student makes fun of my accent, but I can better empathize with other language learners as a result.

It’s not a positive experience when I’m a target for harassment, but it is a reminder of how vulnerable a girl like me from a different country might feel in America. It is a reminder to always show empathy, make people feel safe and welcome.

Getting sick wasn’t a positive experience, but it showed me what a great support system I have here (and also taught me to cook my eggs all the way).

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Learning about a new culture and language and the process of adjusting has been uncomfortable, and hard, and isolating, but it’s made it easy for my students to trust me, forced me to figure things out in ways I haven’t had to before, and helped me get really comfortable with being uncomfortable.

I’m not trying to say “just look on the bright side”, because that’s not realistic. But for me, writing until the meaning becomes a little clearer? That helps.

And I find my work with my students to be very, very meaningful.

So yes, Ani. I miss you guys on the weekend.

*All names are pseudonyms, but the stories, especially the embarrassing parts, are real

(All views expressed on this site are my own and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps, the US government or the Armenian government!)


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