Monday, December 22, 2008

The New Year

The New Year holiday is a big deal in Turkmenistan. It is celebrated
much like Christmas in America. At the bazaar, lots of New Year
booths pop up out of nowhere selling ornaments, masks, cards, and
decorations. School ends on December 30th and a two-week holiday
break begins (I will still be holding my clubs, though). Families buy
a "yolka" (tree) and decorate it with so many garlands and ornaments
that you can barely see that it is supposed to be a tree. On December
31st families and friends gather and exchange presents, cook a big
meal and celebrate together. "Ded moroz" (father frost) comes door to
door and gives presents to children after they recite poems or sing
songs for him. For the past 10 years Jennet has been the "ded moroz"
for my town and the children would always wonder why father frost had
a woman's voice. This year though, she has decided that she is going
to retire the "ded moroz" costume and pass the job onto someone else.
In the evening, before mid-night, the vodka comes out, various animal
masks are put on and dancing commences. I don't know where the mask
tradition came from, but wait until I send you the pictures!! A huge
spread of food is laid out on a long tablecloth—salads, fruit, cheese
and meat, soup, palow (Turkmen national rice dish), bread, tea, soda
and vodka. My host-family has requested, take a guess, chocolate chip
cookies. I am going to get a bit more courageous and will try another
pumpkin pie and an apple pie as well. I will be thinking of you all
as I bring in the New Year with my huge Turkmen family and friends,
wearing a plastic animal mask and dancing to American pop music in

My New Years Resolutions for the Year of the Cow:
1.) Learn Turkmen (continue with Russian)
2.) Learn how to make bread in the Turkmen tamdyr
3.) Keep running
4.) Make friends
5.) Be patient with myself and others
6.) Be the best teacher I can be
7.) Keep writing letters
8.) Save enough money for an airplane ticket to Taiwan
9.) Stop being a man carrot (erkek kashir)
10.) Don't fall into my toilet (or drop anything in)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Surviving Peace Corps Adolescence 101

I would say that pre-service training (PST) could be compared to going
through adolescence. Similar to the first days of high school, you
enter PST with a wide knowledge base but the teachers (meaning Peace
Corps) are asking you to start thinking in a new way, so everything
that you already know has to be reassessed. Of course entering high
school I had experience writing papers, but my teachers wanted me to
find my own voice and to take the leap and do something different.
Arriving in T-stan, I had already taught English as a Foreign Language
in other countries, but now Peace Corps is asking me to think first
and foremost about community integration and sustainability, two
things that I hadn't prioritized before. So, I am in the situation of
having to reassess how I approach my job and my community interaction
here. Again, similar to navigating the fishbowl that is high school
social life, you arrive thinking that you have a good idea who you are
and then you realize that you are going to have to really stick to
your guns so as not to forget what makes you an individual. For me,
high school was all about accepting who I was and finding people who
would appreciate my quirky and complex personality. In T-stan
training, I was struggling with how to define myself in a culture and
community so foreign to me. I know who I am, but trying to navigate
the culture and find my niche is a more complicated matter. Similar
to the clash between parental authority and teenagers, Peace Corps
trainees struggle with the loss of independence in a host-family.
During adolescence, a teenager has a love-hate relationship with their
parents as they want to break free, but the parents want to continue
their parental responsibility of protecting their child. When a Peace
Corps trainee is dropped into a host-family, our preconceived idea of
independence is left at the doorstep. I have become a daughter all
over again and my American idea of independence for a 20-something
year old doesn't fit as easily with Turkmen culture. Just as
adolescence is that last push to prepare you for life on your own, PST
was our 10-week adolescence with the aim of preparing us for our
permanent sites. When the classes, the homework and the group drama
get too much, the end seems like the next best thing to wearing pants.
But then when you are actually out on your own and you realize that
you are in completely over your head, you want to run "home" and enjoy
a second Peace Corps adolescence although you were so "over it" the
first time around.

I have been at site for two weeks. It seems like much longer. During
training I was always busy, always tired and always trying to find
time to sit down for a minute and relax. Now, for the time being, I
have too much time on my hands. I know that once things fall into
place, and I have a work schedule determined, my day will be less of a

During the first week of being here, I had one working day that
consisted of my counterpart and I going into Turkmenabat to try to
register me with the local migration office. It was a total failure
and we left the office, along with all the other T-17 Lebap
volunteers, with no registration stamp and a list of seven additional
documents we needed. As of this afternoon, my counterpart has me
registered in all appropriate offices so that everyone knows where I
am. Task number one accomplished. On Tuesday of last week, Gurban
Bayram began, the 3-day holiday that I wrote about in my last blog
posting. I walked out Tuesday morning, eyes still puffy, mind still
fuzzy from sleep, right into my eldest host-brother slaughtering a
sheep in my back yard. Holding the head back and giving the neck one
final cut, he looked up at me and said, "Good morning," with a big
smile. My host-family was very busy with cleaning, cooking, preparing
the meat and I was a little unsure where I could help. In Ahal, they
have an endearing term for a woman who isn't domestic- "erkek kashir"-
man carrot. I was, and still am, a man carrot. To try to break free
of my man carrot-ness, I helped with the dishes, which was my job back
in Bolshevik and I decided to fall back on a hidden American talent I
carry around with me…chocolate chip cookies. I would bring one plate
out to my host-family and by the time the next batch was out, the
plate was empty. I brought cookies to my counterpart and to the
director. I am preparing to make a double batch again today by
request. My attempt to simply find something to do with myself has
since then attracted much attention and I am sure that the entirety of
Garashsyzlyk will soon have the chocolate chip cookie recipe that the
"new" American brought. Apart from my cookies, my first week at site
was laid back and uneventful. Some evenings I would walk around town
with Jennet, Rahat and Baygul, babbling away in our
Russian/Turkmen/English polyglot mess, drop in at the stores in the
center and run into lots of students and acquaintances who were also
wandering around on the holiday evenings. The street lamps were
adorned in lights for New Years, small groups of people were bustling
around, wrapped up against the cold and in some way, it reminded me of
home during the holidays.

During this past week, I have been trying to coordinate a schedule so
that I can begin teaching. I didn't expect it to be this difficult,
but with most things here, I need to practice great patience. Things
are falling into place and I have been assigned my own classroom and
will soon being advertising for my 8th and 9th grade English clubs. I
have also spoken with the P.E. teacher about organizing a girls'
volleyball club. The teachers at my school are very eager to work
with me, but because there are 10 of them, it is not possible to go to
each of their classes on a regular basis. I am planning on holding
teachers' clubs and doing most of my team-teaching with 2-3 select
teachers. The director has also expressed interest in me spending one
day a week at the neighboring Russian school. It is technically a
Turkmen school now, but the students and teachers all know Russian
fluently and their English program in only a few years old. I know I
am the type of person to over-work and I am being very careful to take
small steps and not overwhelm myself. In the past two weeks I feel
that I have been unproductive in my American sense of the word, but I
know that is indeed incorrect because I have spent a good deal of time
visiting classrooms, observing lessons, trying to get to know the
teachers, introducing myself, sitting in the cafeteria with teachers
and talking in Russian and Turkmen (more like trying to understand
Turkmen), and drinking lots of cups of tea. People are beginning to
know me and teachers who I have not formally met know my name. One
teacher even knew my sisters name, that is how much people talk about
me. I am trying to keep my goals realistic, be patient with myself
and remember that I am not alone in this endeavour. Our country
director wrote to us in a letter, "I know that there will be days when
you feel frustrated and lonely as you try to accomplish things in your
communities and as you adjust culturally to a system very different
from your own. So, during these times I wish to encourage you to keep
in mind that we are not here to change the Turkmen government, but to
help the people of Turkmenistan. For those times, in the words of
Reinhold Niebuhr,

I wish you…
…the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace."

I think this advice is good for everyone to hear as we get ready to
being a new year, with new opportunities and challenges. I always
find it hardest to come to peace with the things that I cannot change,
and in the new-year, part of my resolution is to embrace differences
and challenges as they come (for they are sure to come). To all of my
family, friends and loved ones, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!!

Monday, December 1, 2008

A lesson in Turkmen (and then some)

1.) Koynek
This word is used to refer to traditional women's dresses and to men's
dress-shirts. I am using it here in reference to the first. In most
kichi obalar (small villages) you will see women wearing nothing but
koyneks on the street, in the house, daytime and nighttime. Most
koyneks are adorned with yaka, or embroidery. There are house koyneks
and toy koyneks. House koyneks are loose fitting for housework and
are made of cotton with less ornate yaka. Toy koyneks are often made
of more expensive fabric like silk or velvet and will include
extremely ornate yaka designs across the chest and sometimes all the
way down the front. To have a koynek made, you will need to find a
tikinchi, or a dressmaker and a woman who does yaka. It seems like
everyone's sister, mother and sister-in-law is a tikinchi, so it is
never a problem to track one down. The women make the yaka by hand
sometimes or with a machine that resembles a sewing machine yet moves
from side to side as the needle stitches. You can tell a lot from a
woman's yaka. The designs are different in each welayat, there are
traditional necklines for dresses and more contemporary designs, and
wealth can be seen in the amount of detail and size because the price
corresponds directly to the time needed to make it. The most ornate dress that a woman has in her lifetime is her wedding dress. In Ahal, the bride's dress weighs
up to 30 kilos depending on the amount of silver and gold sewn onto
it. She wears this for a month except for when sleeping and goes around to guest with all the women in her village, accompanied by a member of her husband's family at all times. When a woman has a new dress made, everyone will say "gutly bolsun" or "Congratulations." Tikinchis often have their own idea of what your dress should look like and the design process for my koyneks has been a true act of diplomacy.

2.) Chai
"Anya, chai iyjekmi?" 10 minutes later. "Anya, chai iyjekmi?" "Annie,
will you drink some tea?" Chai drinking here is so much more than
sitting down over a cup of tea. Here, chai drinking is a way of making
friends, getting to know someone, gaining their trust, socializing,
offering your hospitality, procrastinating…chai drinking is also
sometimes considered working and being productive. The chai is
steeped and then you can pour one cup and pour it back in the teapot.
Pour a second cup and pour it back in the teapot. Pour a third cup
and pour it back in the teapot. Three is a special number in Islam,
and many things are done 3 or 7 times. After the third cup is poured
back in, you can drink. Turkmen have a huge sweet tooth and chai is
always accompanied by candies wafflies (or wafer cookies) and other
sweets. My grandmother can finish two teapots by herself and doesn't
understand that I can only handle two or three cups. She has spent
the last eighty years building up her chai drinking stamina! Turkmen
culture is very indirect and people will not be totally forward with
you about what they want, this is part of the reason why business and
professional matters are often discussed over tea; the conversation
can flow between work and personal conversation with more ease. To be
friends, you must drink tea. It's a rule in Turkmen culture. By
sitting down for chai with someone, you are showing them that you have
time for them and that you want to get to know them and their family.
There is a personal relationship that can only be developed over chai.
American culture teaches us that we have to be busy to be productive,
but Turkmen culture is the opposite; even chai can be seen as
productive—maybe you are cultivating a valuable friendship that you
might not have had if you didn't accept that one cup of chai.

3.) Nesip Bolsa!
This saying is similar to "Inshallah," or "God Willing." Literally,
it means "if you have the chance." In Turkmenistan, if Allah wills
something to happen, it will happen. When praying, protection and
good fortune are asked for and Allah will listen and decide when is
the right time for things to take place. Turkmen say "nesip bolsa"
often and will tack it onto the end of many sentences as a last
thought. "My son will return from the army next month, nesip bolsa."
This reference to Allah takes form in many other greetings as well.
TaƱry yalkasyn is Thank you in Turkmen but can be literally broken
down as "Allah blesses you." And the response to this is
Bileyalkasyn, or "We both will be blessed." In Turkmenistan there is
toy (wedding) season in the fall but the season for Huday yoly never
stops. Our teacher first described a Huday yoly as a prayer party,
which is the basic idea. Huday yoly means "path to Allah" and a
family will honor their ancestors or a recently deceased family member
by throwing a Huday yoly. Everyone in the village is invited, a sheep
or cow is killed in honor and the local mullahs are invited to lead
the prayer. The animal's soul is a sacrifice to Allah so that he does
not take the life of anyone else in the family. When you are invited
to a Huday yoly, you say Kabul Bolsun to the family which means "I
wish Allah accepts your sacrifice." Because they have sacrificed a
soul to Allah, by saying this you also ask Allah to take notice of the
Huday yoly. One can say Huday yoly when you give a gift to another
person, and by saying this you are giving a gift to Allah. In
response to the gift, the receiver must say Kabul Bolsun so that Allah
sees that this gift was given in His name. Before I understood what
all these greetings meant, I had no idea of the importance that these
words hold in this culture. All of these phrases have Allah in them,
but none of them explicitly say Allah. Coming up in December, we will
celebrate Gurban Bayramy—three days of sacrifices, visiting all your
family and friends, praying and dedicating this time to wiping away
sins and asking for protection. Again, there will be much Huday yoly
and Kabul Bolsun to be said and I hope that Allah does protect my
family and friends here who have such strong faith.