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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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: Restart

We’re surrounded by mountains on all sides. To the North, the hills are stained red and orange. To the East, the mountains turn green. If you look hard you can still snow at the peaks. To the South, the mountains are neither red nor green, rather a gray and orange that tells of more desert over the jagged ridge at the edge of town. To the West is Mount Ararat, hovering over the whole valley, marking the border with Turkey, near the point where Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran almost meet.

There’s red and mountain on every side, but here in the valley it is green. Apricot, peach, and almond trees creep towards the sun, cherries fall off trees and bake to the pavement. It’s hot—the shoulders of rosy mountains move in heat lines, puddles appear and disappear in the street. I sweat through a pair of loose fitting jeans, feel tank top lines burning into my back. I think long and hard about water—about taking a pull from the cold hose at my last host family’s house, letting it drip from my chin. I decide that there if there is a fountain of youth it’s that hose. The air hangs thick and hot.

At night, it dips from the upper 90s back down to 70, and street lamps fire up, lights strung between the trees hold that warm orange glow. Everyone comes out, and the small city hums.

It’s not what I pictured when I imagined life in Armenia. I guess I pictured twirling through the mountains like Maria in The Sound of Music, or a small town in the ice cold of winter with a snowball fight. But it’s so different where I am from that idea, that it sort of feels like starting over completely.

 

Part of starting over completely is going from a village and schedule I know, with a support system I know, to somewhere completely new. And a part of that is feeling… honestly a little helpless. A little helpless when it takes me a long time to find the kiosk to pay my phone bill, or when someone introduces me saying I know very little Armenian, or when I honestly just have no idea what’s going on and have to go with the flow and cross my fingers.

Sunday I felt a little helpless on a school excursion when the timer on my Armenian language skills ran out and I was left feeling very foreign in a group of kind and welcoming people, and then feeling worse that I didn’t have the language or energy to be as invested in them as they were in me. Monday I felt a little helpless when my stomach hurt, and time seemed to drag by, and I wondered what it is I am going to do this entire summer. I felt helpless and overwhelmed when I was handed a list of 109 names and phone numbers written in Armenian and told it was for my English club. I couldn’t read the names, and it’s about 89 more kids than I know what to do with. I’m still not sure what I’m going to do with that. Tuesday I felt a little helpless when I couldn’t figure out why my host family didn’t want me to go for a walk. (It was because it was 3pm and 97 degrees out in the desert, that’s why, and it’s a good reason to not go).

 

I sat on a bench with two older women and sipped coffee. You’ll notice there’s a lot of coffee drinking here. It’s a social activity, as it should be everywhere frankly.

I sat, not really participating in the conversation, but keeping an open ear in case I was addressed. A girl ran up to us and started talking in quick Armenian.

She blinked and glanced at me, then back at the women. She spoke at a pace I had no hope of understanding, but in a tone I know well.

The woman who must have been her grandmother shrugged as if to say, “I don’t know what to tell you kid. Tough luck.”

The girl blinked harder, and spoke again, her voice trembling just a little.

I leaned forward. No one wants to cry in front of a group of people, especially not a twelve-year-old.

Oozoom es kaylel mi keech?” I asked. Do you want to walk a little?

She looked at me for real now, and nodded quickly, then grabbed me by the wrist. We started walking and she spoke in fast Armenian. I listened and gathered that she wanted to go swimming, but none of her friends did. She didn’t want to go alone.

“It’s okay,” I soothed in English while she cried frustrated tears and held my hand.

Ko mazere sirun e,” I told her, touching my own hair.

She grinned and tugged at her braids. “Oozoom es?

“Sure, why not?”

I sat on a log and she braided my hair. She told me her name, and that she is twelve and that she knows a little English but it’s not very good. We switched to English and I talked slow and patient and asked her about her sisters and what countries she wants to visit.

Her tears stopped and she dragged me by the arm back to her group of friends who all sat in a circle and asked me questions—how old are you? Are you married? Why not? You’re an English teacher? Will you be our English teacher? Two years?! Do you miss your family? You have sisters? Can we see them? This sister is prettier than you a little. Is she married? Will she come to Armenia?

I laughed so hard my stomach hurt. There in the shade of a tree by the river, sitting in a circle with a group of curious twelve year olds, I made some of my first friends.

 

During the weather mandated house arrest I had my first real conversation in Armenian. I mean a conversation that lasted a full hour and ended because we ran out of time, not because I ran out of words or energy.

I talked about the clubs I wanted to start, my plans for this summer, my life back in America, and understood most of what was said in return. It felt like such a relief after spending the earlier part of the week stumbling over things I could’ve sworn I knew well and feeling very dumb.

But my host mom was patient and spoke slowly, and gave me time to both process and answer.

“You’re Armenian is good today,” she commented.

I sipped at my coffee and smiled, feeling a little proud.

Mek mek, yerb senyak shat zvagbats e, yes klinem hoozvats yev kmorranem Hayeren,” I paused. Sometimes when room is busy I will be nervous and I will forget Armenian.

“Pordzoom em, uh, bayts mek mek hoknats em. Ha?” I am trying, but sometimes I am tired. Yes?

My host mother nodded. “It’s okay,” she assured me. “You are speaking well. Take your time. Kamants kamants,” she promised. Little by little.

It was an entire weight off my shoulders, to be given permission to speak poorly. To be told it’s okay if I am tired, if I am overwhelmed, that that’s allowed. I didn’t realize how badly I missed being understood, how important it was for me to not feel lost or stupid. And she went out of her way to create a space where I could feel safe with my language and vulnerabilities.

I swallowed, and thanked her in Armenian, then again in English, but there’s not really a word in either language that covers the thing I was feeling—the one where you realize you’ve got someone in your corner when you need them.

 

And I guess it turns out I’ve got a lot of people in my corner. I’ve got my people at home, a mom who calls and always laughs at my dumb jokes, who reminds me that not everyone could handle things the way I do, who reads every single rambling blog post. Thanks for always making me feel special mom.

I’ve got two sisters who sometimes reply to my texts but definitely don’t read this blog so I can write whatever I want about them so let me just say it’s really hard to be the smartest, funniest, and coolest of us. It’s really a burden.

I’ve got the world’s best college roommate/best friend who promises me one day she’ll binge read all of this so for when you do that Hannah sorry I left you 40 minutes of voicemails talking about tiny linguistics nuances you’re a real one for listening to that crap.

And I’ve got Peace Corps staff here who are always helpful, understanding and looking out for our safety.

I’ve got some of the greatest volunteer friends in the world—people who checkup when you’ve been feeling down, and participate in five-way FaceTime calls, pick up the phone when you’re in a tough situation, or promise you your language doesn’t suck as bad as you think it does, even when it definitely sucks just as bad as you think it does.

And I have met such wonderful people in the Ararat Valley, and I’m sure I will meet so many more. Please forgive my butchered transliterations and continued language errors.

 

Today, while drying dishes I looked out the window through the tangle of vines up at the profile of the mountain and thought about all the great people I’ve met here, twelve year olds, teachers, and friends alike. I tried to think of a word in any language that covers that feeling, but I couldn’t find one. So I wrote all this instead.

 

(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: With Dust in My Hair

The sole of my hiking boot split clean off halfway home. I stopped walking and stared at the mangled boot in some sort of humbled disbelief, a thin song playing in old ear buds. I had bought the boots for four dollars at a thrift store in Northern Wisconsin. I had put at least 200 miles on them between then and now. I’d stuffed them in a suitcase and lugged them to a new hemisphere. And now, after this, they had the audacity to disintegrate while I still had a quarter mile’s muddy walk.

I didn’t have a good fix for that. There’s no textbook solution for how to fix the bottom of your only pair of boots on a dirt road in the mud. So I kept walking, sole flapping pathetically against my sock, and wondered what the hell it was I wanted that brought me here.

Bees hummed in peach blooms so loud it seemed like the whole tree was buzzing. The smell of wood smoke snaked through the village, sparrows and small birds I didn’t know the names for shot across the sky. Two hundred miles for four dollars isn’t so bad, I reasoned with myself, my sock now soaked through.

I swallowed a lump in my throat, and tried to ignore the metallic taste in my mouth. I want to be here, I reminded myself. My shoe was broken, my language skills stagnant, and my feet wet. I didn’t feel like a good English teacher, or good Armenian learner, or frankly good at anything, while the loud flap of my broken shoe hit against my muddy sock.

Duct tape, I thought. You need duct tape in your backpack. I stopped walking, overwhelmed by the sheer task of a quarter mile.

That was the first time I really, really wondered if I’d made the right choice. I feel like I write about walking a lot, but I suppose that’s the only time I have alone, the only time I’m stuck with my thoughts, and the only time my boots break and I walk in the mud.

So I stopped walking on the muddy road and asked myself what it was I really wanted that brought myself to said muddy road.

I wondered if I remembered a year ago, in my writing tutoring job joking with a coworker about wanting to teach English forever. Did I remember her question— why not? Or how I came in the next week and told her I had thought about it, and I was serious, I was going to do it?

I wondered if I remembered how badly I wanted to teach and be that good role model, omni-positive, well-adjusted, with all the right flaws for the younger girls watching me, as if that were a good for thing for either them or me. As if you could ask someone what it is they want and get an honest answer.

I wondered what the point was if I wasn’t good enough at the language, or good enough of a teacher, or able to find a silver lining all the time. What is the point if I can’t even find a good fix for a broken boot on a muddy day?

Right then, there wasn’t a good fix. At least not one that I could think of. The best fix was to tough it out for a quarter mile, and then change my shoes and socks

But the rest of it? I am good enough at the language. I am a good enough teacher. And I do know what I want, why I want to be here. And next time that I stop and take a break on the side of that road, my hair caked in dust and my shoe breaking at the seams, maybe it’ll be a little easier, or funnier, or at least better. And next, I will have that duct tape in my bag.

IMG_2697.jpg

IMG_3490-2
Detail at Noravank

IMG_3511

IMG_2852.jpg
The muddy road

IMG_3493

IMG_2855.jpeg
Apple pie and coffee we made for my host family

IMG_3543

IMG_3497

IMG_2879
A literal page from my journal in case I didn’t already overshare enough on the internet!

Miss my previous post? Click here!

(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: Pre-departure Updates and Overview

Writing in with a minor life update (a minor one, really): in two weeks I am leaving the country to embark on 27 months of Peace Corps service in Armenia as a TEFL volunteer. Cool!

Why am I doing this?

While I was in school, I worked as a writing consultant and science ethics learning assistant. I absolutely loved both jobs. These were the sort of jobs that I would look forward to working, and would hang around long after class was over to help out.

Working as a writing consultant tutoring ELL (English language learning) was one of the best jobs I have ever had. I met so many interesting and brave people who had left their home country to come and learn in mine.

Last March, I started looking into possible other opportunities to continue ELL/EFL work, preferably while also putting myself in another culture with a foreign language like the students I admired had.

I decided that the US Peace Corps fit best with what I was looking for. They provide language training, offer a longer period of service than just a few months, and work to emphasize cultural exchange and respect for host countries. I submitted my application in March, with no country/region specified.

I graduated Michigan State University Spring 2018 with a degree in Neuroscience and additional major in Digital and Technical Writing, then headed up to Northern Wisconsin to sea kayak guide for the summer.

 

IMG_1636.jpg
I’m in the yellow boat 🙂

In late August, I interviewed for a TEFL Armenia position, and shortly thereafter was invited to join and accepted. I worked on medical clearance for ten thousand years, and am now in the process of learning Armenian and getting stoked!

What am I going to be doing? 

I will be in Armenia for the first three months participating in language and cultural competency training as well as skill building. After these three months, I will be assigned to a site where I will co-teach English with an Armenian counterpart for two years as well as work with my community on projects to meet community needs. I don’t know where in Armenia my site will be, but I pinky swear I’ll update you (*cough* dad) as soon as I know.

Background on the Peace Corps:

The US Peace Corps was founded after the Cold War, by President John F. Kennedy.

The Peace Corps itself states it’s mission as threefold:

  1.  “To help people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.”
  2. “To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.”
  3. “To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”

I could write a whole separate piece (totaling about 4000 words which I know because I actually did, then trashed because it’s annoying) on Peace Corps geopolitical context. But honestly, that would be super boring, I am nowhere near an expert on that sort of thing, and a lot of other people have already written about this, so instead I will direct you to some other sources:

  • Here you can read what the Peace Corps has to say about their mission.
  • Read this (brilliant, cannot overemphasize, should be required reading) article by Teju Cole to consider the implications of the narratives we subscribe to.
  • Through the Global Ethics Network you can check out an in-depth examination into the Peace Corps’ role in our world today.
  • This Instagram account offers really great insight into foreign aid work.

Snapshot of Armenia

Armenia is located in the South Caucuses, bordered by Georgia to the North, Azerbaijan to the East, Iran to the South, and Turkey to the West. It has one of the oldest spoken languages in the world, and beautiful mountain monasteries. In 1991, Armenia gained independence from the Soviet Union. The apricot is the national fruit. The area is largely mountainous, and they have one large lake, Lake Sevan.

Check out the PC Armenia page here, or the Armenia Wikipedia page here.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 1.59.08 PM.png
Map of Armenia (eurasiangeopolitics.com)

Armenia gets four seasons, and I think I remember hearing somewhere that the temperature is similar to Chicago year round.

I hope to learn lots more about Armenia and share here as appropriate, as part of the Peace Corps Third goal.

Application/ Preservice Process:

There have been three primary parts of the preservice process. The first was the actual application, which I filled out in March 2018. When I didn’t hear back within three months, I started applying for other jobs.

I heard back about an interview in August 2018, and after that interview had about a week to decide whether or not to accept my invitation.

Interview:

Honestly, I felt like my interview went poorly, especially compared to some of the other jobs I had interviewed for the same month, and I was a little surprised (but grateful) to get an invitation. If you’re prepping to interview, I would recommend writing out very specific responses to any questions they tell you to prepare for.

For example, I was told to be ready to answer questions about my experience with other cultures. I wrote down in my notes “EFL teaching”. What they are looking for is specific cultural aspects—food differences, language barriers, misunderstandings you have had. I would recommend writing out very systematic answers to the questions they give you to prep with.

Clearances:

In order to serve with the Peace Corps, you need both legal and medical clearance. Legal clearance was smooth experience for me; medical clearance was hectic.

It involved more appointments than I thought possible, especially since I have always had the luxury of good health. I did learn that I am not allergic to penicillin like I thought I was through penicillin testing.

Medical clearance took about three months for me, and even included follow up in February on the poison ivy I had in September. Very thorough, though I can assure you that if my poison ivy hadn’t resolved over the course of several months, my doctor and Pre-service nurse would’ve heard a lot more about it. None of this is relevant to PC service, but I just felt like sharing on the internet.

Online Language Course/ TEFL Pre-service Modules:

I’ve been working on the TEFL Pre-service modules for about three months now. These modules are designed to make sure everyone is appropriately trained and understands the expectations of the job they will be doing at the end of Pre-Service Training (PST).

I’ve found the modules very helpful, especially in evaluating my own strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, though each module has taken me at least double the amount of time projected.

IMG_2452
My tiny book of Armenian notes

For the past six weeks I’ve been taking the online pre-departure language course which has been incredibly helpful. My language skills are still practically nonexistent, but I know all 39 letters in the alphabet, can say some food words, and can introduce myself. I also know some super helpful phrases like Im siroom knel (I like sleep), chem siroom lolik (I don’t like tomato), and doo oones orakh vochkar (you have a happy sheep). All equally useful phrases. Also, still maybe not correct.

 

I am super grateful for this opportunity, and very excited for new challenges, learning the Armenian language (which is COOL google it), and the chance to grow as a TEFL teacher. It sounds corny when I write it, but it’s true.

Any questions for me? Drop me a comment, find me on Instagram, or shoot me an email!

And of course, all views expressed in this post are my own and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps, the US government or Armenia.

(Cover photo of my favorite hiking shoes and the Apostle Islands from the Bayfield docks; Basswood Island in the distance.)

 

Next Peace Corps Post linked here