Full disclosure: I didn’t think I would struggle this winter. My summer was so mind-bendingly hot that I couldn’t conceptualize the cold. All of the things that Peace Corps said would be hard about the winter I didn’t think applied to me, because it’s not as cold as it could be at my site, because it’s often sunny, and I’ve had running water and a supportive and fun host family this entire time. I can even still find peaches and strawberries at my site if I really want to.
So that was the first thing I was wrong about, because it has been hard. There are things you can’t plan or prepare for, and you just have to figure out, and a lot of the time you think you understand how things are and how they’ll go and you’re just, well, wrong.
I am wrong constantly in Armenia. (I mean I was wrong constantly in America too, I was just more stubborn about it there.)
But sometimes, a lot of the time, I am really glad to be wrong.
The other weekend, at the Ararat Write On! Competition, we (three other volunteers and yours truly) met the 11thand 12thgrade girls of Ararat High School. They study English with one of the most well-respected English teachers in the area, whose club we got to sit in on as guests. All of these girls want to be ambassadors and translators, to travel and to learn. They all speak phenomenal English, and were thrilled to practice with native speakers.
In a circle, they discussed equality in Armenia, between women and men, rich and poor. They talked about how conventionally pretty people are treated better, and light skin privilege in Armenia, and how they all had bigger dreams than marriage and a family only, but how it was okay to want that too. They talked about how they have whole and meaningful lives all on their own, without that traditional marriage and family.
They disagreed with each other, and laughed, and were brave with their words in a way that reminded me of an American university.
One of their English teacher’s questions for them was this: what do you look for in a friend? What’s one thing you would never forgive?
One girl, with stylish thick black glasses and high-waisted jeans smiled. “I think probably I could forgive anything,” she said. “There is nothing I wouldn’t forgive.”
I smiled a little to myself, because I think I agree with her.
More and more here, I find myself feeling less foreign at my own site. I feel a little less out of place, I feel like the people around me recognize the difference between me and my Americanness, and vice versa. Our culture influences who we are, but it is not all of us.
The entire range and spectrum of human emotion, and depth, and diversity of opinion exists everywhere. Still, it’s really easy to forget and see what you want to, and I am guilty of interpreting things as an American on more than one occasion.
When I first started in the school, there were kids who would make fun of me when my Counterpart wasn’t looking. They’d sometimes mock my accent back to me as gibberish, dance on chairs, and ask me to pronounce “six” because they think it sounds like “sex”, and so on.
Aram* was one of those kids. He was in the 5thform, and everychance he got he would act up in ways I considered to be rude and destructive. I wrote him off, focused on teaching the students who listened to me.
One day, he took it a little too far. My Counterpart had left the room, and Aram decided it was an appropriate time to stop writing his test, get up on his chair, and show off his dance moves. His dance moves are admittedly pretty good.
When my Counterpart came back I tattled. Listen, I know snitches get stitches or whatever, but I was over it. So Aram got in trouble trouble.
He stood in the corner facing the wall for the remainder of the testing period.
“Say ‘I’m sorry Miss Maddy,’” my Counterpart said, arms crossed. She’s got a short bob, all black outfit, and perfect makeup—all of which I imagine is very intimidating to a ten-year-old.
“I’m sorry Miss Med,” he spat.
Aram had the last few minutes of the class to finish his test. He did not do well.
So I was really surprised, and honestly a little horrified, when he showed up at my English club the following week. Still, I’ve never told a student they can’t come without giving them a chance, and I didn’t want to start. So Aram and his friend sat, and they talked over me a little, but ultimately they ended up participating.
That was in November.
Two weeks ago, on my first day back after Peer Support Network (PSN) training, Aram ran up to me and gave me a big hug.
“Where were you?” He asked.
“At a training with my organization.”
He shook his head. “You missed a snowball fight.”
“Next time, hostanoom em.” I promise.
“In the school?” He asks me, grinning.
“Absolutely not. Outside.”
“Good, now you’ve promised.”
By last September, there were a lot of things I thought I knew about Armenia. I’d lived here half a year. I had gotten some kind of grasp on the language, I understood the public transportation, where felt safe for me and where didn’t.
I thought I knew enough of the language; I thought I understood gender dynamics, and how those dynamics affected me.
I thought I wanted to live alone, and I thought a lot of the questions my host family asked me were interrogations or coming from a place of judgement, because of the feelings I was projecting on answering them. I thought I more or less understood enough about what was happening around me to have an opinion on it, and I was wrong.
Coming to Armenia, all through Pre-Service Training, and through a lot of this Fall I never imagined myself as wanting to live with a host family for the full two years. I’ve always liked my independence, and for a long time living with my family, I felt guilty taking up space, and sort of felt like I was always working.
I’m not sure what changed or when, if it was related to improvements in my language, or maybe I just started to feel more relaxed, but now I’ve sort of changed my mind. I feel comfortable here, and I like my host family a lot more than I expected to, and I am choosing to stay with them, something I wouldn’t have imagined myself doing even six months ago.
I appreciate all the conversation with my host family and all their support. I’ve been helping my host sister, M, with her English a little. Frankly, she doesn’t need my help. Her English is very impressive and she’s an incredibly motivated student.
The other night, we sat on the couch together running through questions.
“Which of your friends has sisters?” she reads carefully, then pauses. “None of them, maybe?”
“I have sisters,” I say, nudging her side. “Aren’t I your friend?”
She smiles a little. “I guess… you are my sister.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I am.”
*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!)