Peace Corps Armenia: Narrative Arc

“I know this!” My student said in English. She grinned.

“I like this song,” I told her, glancing at my laptop screen. Let it go, from Frozen, had just started to play. I smiled to myself—I had been hoping they would recognize this part of the movie.

“Me too,” She and her friend craned closer and elbowed each other, smiling. “Yes haskatsa,” She whispered to her friend. I understood.

This is the same girl who pulled me over in the hallway after the 7th grade English club two weeks ago and told me in panicked Armenian that her English was bad, and she was embarrassed, and she wanted to be in the 5th grade class instead. I had told her sure, whatever you want, and assured her that her English was right where it needed to be if she wanted to stay in her class.

My game plan for Frozen was about 15 new words or phrases for every ten minutes of the movie—just enough so that they could understand the plot. The previous week, I spent about 4 hours going through the whole movie and deciding which words they would already know, which they would need to know, and what questions I could ask them to check comprehension. Then I picked out colloquial phrases that were useful, like “hang in there” and “just roll with it”, and tried to figure out how to explain those in either basic English or my broken Armenian.

So when only two of the eight students I invited to the movie came (despite somehow having 30 students for the previous lesson on basic questions?) I was a little frustrated. Was the lesson even worth it? If I was going to have to do the exact same lesson with a different two students next week, and hear that song again?

My two students sat side by side and wrote translations and notes on the words and phrases I gave them.

“Absoutllllley,” One repeated back at me, smiling. The word appeared like clockwork two minutes later in the movie and she perked up and grinned at me. They leaned in and whispered to each other, pointing at the verb list I made and translating. They laughed at the funny parts, and I did too, and I could see them understanding.

More importantly, they were proud that they were understanding. Seeing that—them look at each other and laugh, and understand, and feel good and smart for understanding, made me feel guilty for thinking for even a second that it wasn’t worth the prep time.

So much of what is on TV and in media, both in Armenia and all over the world including in America, follows a man’s achievement. There is so much that uses violence against women as a plot tool, where women and girls exist as cogs in the narrative arc but are rarely the hero. The girls and young women here and everywhere deserve so much better than that; they deserve to feel important, valuable, and proud of themselves.

Our world is coded in languages and corresponding cultures, and English and learning foreign languages can open up a lot of the world for kids and everyone. In headspaces that allow for the confounding of violence and love, where girls and women are plot tools or objects, it can help to have a separate language, a separate code and access to different narratives, where someone like you is a hero.

The truth is, I don’t think watching Frozen or other movies alone can change the world, and I certainly don’t think I am capable of any mass change. (I’m only 5′ 4 and not super organized.) I don’t really get to see the results of any work I’m doing, or know concretely if it is “worth it” per se, but that’s okay. Even if just one of those students decides that they deserves to be loved the way they want to be loved, or that they are important and can be a hero of a story, or feel proud and smart for understanding a foreign language, even for a second that’s completely worth it. If one student decides they’d rather be kind than tough, or decides there’s nothing wrong with them for not understanding, that’s worth it.

Language is so powerful. It’s the one thing that cracks us open, lets us explain ourselves, and helps us connect.

The only thing more powerful is a story.

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Photos of Lesson Plan so no one else who wants to do this has to watch the movie and come up with a word list!

(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!)

Peace Corps Armenia: Kami

The thing that strikes me most is how alive everything feels here.

Mornings are slow. I wake up around eight and have a cup of coffee, then a cup of tea, then go to the school and do English clubs for two hours. Twenty kids a class, turquoise walls and a chalkboard. I sweat through a loose pink blouse.

After, it gets hotter and everyone stays inside while the thermometer creeps red. I’ll open the window, and a dry breeze swept down from the mountains will fill the house and rustle the trees. The Kami (wind, or storm) comes every night, and some afternoons if we’re lucky. You can see the heat outside—a bright white sky against washed out green leaves.

Around five it cools down. The sun comes at a slant, and washes the city in pink. The kids are out playing volleyball and soccer, and they’ll wave as I walk by. Sometimes I play too. Sometimes I walk up the hill in the center of the city and look out over the mountains in the distance. The sun will set, and a storm will roll in light up desert pink, flicker with lightning, and cool wind will come but usually no rain. My hair will be yanked out of a braid.

Someone will stop me while I walk, ask if I’ll come in for coffee or dinner, and where am I from? I’m not Russian? I don’t speak any Russian? I sure look Russian.

I laugh, and say no, I’m American. Sometimes I accept the coffee. Sometimes I’m passed a bag of sweet cherries, or apricots. I say thank you, shnorakalootsyoon, and they will smile, and say I speak very well. I’ll laugh, and tell them they don’t have to lie. Tjisht e asoom / say true.

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Time starts to work differently. “Meeting at 11” starts to mean meeting you leave for at 11:10, and materializes maybe by noon in the form of more coffee. I show up for my English clubs 10 minutes early, and students show up around 10 minutes late. My favorite khanoot, small grocery store, is the one where the aisles are tightly packed, fresh fruit spills off the shelves and on to the floor, and items are organized in no logical order I can sense. It’s an adventure to find something, but they always seem to have it.

 

 

I walked with my host sister and her friends through the town for a few hours while the sky turned coral pink, mountains steeped in purple. They talked with me, and I reminded them to slow down so I could understand, and we all laughed and I told them they’re funny.

Gitenk,” My host sister grinned. We know.

It took a second for the joke to process but when it did I burst out laughing, both at the joke itself and how long it took for me to get it.

My host sister proceeded to tell her friends how the previous day she had told her brother in prefect English “You are the stupidest person,” and had been so surprised I snorted tea out of my nose. Fourteen-year-old girls are the same everywhere.

A group of men stopped smoking on the corner as we walked pass. “They are staring at you,” my host sister’s friend needlessly explains. “Nmana Ruski. Yev siroon es. Kapooyt achker.” She nodded. You look like a Russian and are pretty, with blue eyes. “Ba. Don’t worry. Vochinch.

I nodded. “Vochinch.” I echoed.

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The heat sticks to me. On my legs, slick on my lower back. It’s only June, and a storm tumbles down the mountain and the sky sizzles and red hills roll and roll. Dust flares down the road. It’s too hot to leave the host so I sit alone in the shade. A tangle of birds sing outside.

I eat cherries. Sweet, and roll them over my tongue in the shade of the apricot tree, while the sun broils the dirt roads and sand hills all around. I spit the pit into a napkin, my lips stained red.

We walk to the butcher in the city to get meat for khorovats, Armenian barbeque, where the meat is cut with an axe on an old stump. Five of us cram into one taxi and bump down a dirt road in the dust and heat. Me, in a black tank top and lipstick like I never wear at home, grinning at some private joke with my head craned most of the way out the window, a little bit awestruck by the facts of it all. How lucky I am to be 23, and in Armenia, in that taxi in the Valley with this group of Russian and English teachers. Right then, it felt like there was no better place to be in the entire world.

 

Later, the Kami will sweep through the valley again. Rain will drum on the roof, spit out the gutter steady. A bird will sing outside while swallows dance between me and Mount Ararat. Dark clouds will split open at a crack of white lightning. I’ll move inside, and knit in front of the TV, trying to piece together the plots of Armenian soap operas and talk with my host family. After, I’ll go to bed and leave the window open, enjoying the wind. I’ll wake up in the morning and repeat.

(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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View of Mount Ararat from the Hill

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Yours truly
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Mount Ararat, in Turkey
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Coffee and apricots 

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Sleeping Bear Moods: A Photo Essay

The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one of my favorite places on earth. It’s got clear blue water, rivers and forests, some of the best beaches in the world, and of course, the dunes themselves.

In the summer, the water is warm enough to swim and the beaches fill up. Fall sees the leaves change color, and by winter most tourists have filtered out, and the park becomes a snowshoe and cross country ski play ground.

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Sunset from over Lake Michigan from Overlook 9 in July, looking like something out from Planet Earth.

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The same overlook in the winter, with South Manitou Island obscured by snow and fog, small human for scale.

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Overlook 9, basking in that post sunset purple glow.

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Looking down into the water from the tops of the Empire Bluffs Trail in August, Lake Michigan looks practically tropical!

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The Manitou Islands from Pyramid Point, a short mile hike up to a bluff over Lake Michigan.

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Otter Creek flows into Esch Road beach on a still, cloudy day in October. In the summer, this beach is teeming with people, but as soon as September hits the crowds filter out.

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The flowers in early June at the top of the Empire Bluffs Trail on a cloudy day.

 

The North Bar Lake Overlook in fall, winter, and summer– in the fall, spring, and summer you can take the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive out to this overlook, but in the winter you have to cross country ski or snowshoe.

 

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At Point Betsie, the wind kicks up turquoise waves.

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Colors change out over the D.H. Day Farm, looking out from the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

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Winter and windy vibes out over Lake Michigan.

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Empire Bluffs looking bright and hot in late August.

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Up close and personal with fall leaves.