Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Na, Na, Na

Peace Corps goal number 2: Helping promote a better understanding of
Americans on the part of peoples served.

I have been working with a group of five hand picked students on a
pretty regular basis. These five students from the 9th and 10th
grades have the highest level of English in my school of 1,400
students. They win the Olympiads, have dreams of studying in America
or England, enjoy learning English and show up on time, homework
prepared, ready to study English. When asked what they wanted to
learn in English club, one boy said, "everything." Okay, I'll try.

These kids know more about American culture than one might think.
They can tell you all about Britney Spears. They watch episodes of
South Park, Next!, Pimp My Ride, and Room Raiders on the Russian MTV.
TV programs like Lost, Scrubs, and C.S.I air nightly. From their
telephones blast ring tones of Rihanna, Enrique Iglesias, 50 cent,
Beyonce and Shakira. They ask me to translate phrases like
"Womanizer," "I'm from the hood" and "Smack That" (which I refused to
translate). I have never been the one to ask about the latest music
and I couldn't tell you who sings the songs that I used to hear daily
on the southern California radio stations. Now that I am in
Turkmenistan, it is highly likely that my students will know of
American pop-culture long before I do.

Last week, I decided to share with my students a jewel example of
American pop-culture that I had been sent over email. Out of all the
American artists out there, the one they have asked about the most is
Akon, and I happened to be in possession of an Akon song not found yet
within the borders of Turkmenistan (except for on my laptop of
course). I wanted to get them really excited about this, and blow
away all the skeptics of interactive teaching methods. Even with this
seemingly unintelligent and useless song, I was going to teach my
students grammar and phraseology. The song "Right Now (Na, Na, Na)"
has 4 verses and a chorus that goes like this: "I wanna make up right
na, na, na. I wanna make up right, na, na, na. Wish we'd never broke
up right na, na, na. We need to link up right na, na, na. (repeat)"
This song could be the only Akon song that doesn't have swear words,
uses smart examples of English language idioms and it repeats a lot so
it is relatively easy to understand. I had the students listen
through once for pure enjoyment and then it was down to work. I gave
each one a verse with words taken out and a complete copy of the
chorus (to sing along). I replayed the song and they filled in the
blanks to the best of their ability. Immediately the questions came
up. Teacher, what does "you're the apple of my eye" mean? That
doesn't make any sense. Students, Valentine's Day is coming up, and
this is the idiom you want to use on your valentine. It means that
you are my everything, that I can't see anything but you. Teacher,
what does "link up" mean? It means that we need to get together, like
a chain links (bad picture of a chain drawn on the board). Teacher,
what does "I want you to fly with me" mean? Humans can't fly, can
they? No. What can fly? Birds, airplanes. Good, it means that we
will be so in love that our hearts will be so happy that they fly off
together (bad picture of a heart with wings on the board). Heads to
the desk, pens to the paper, they madly scribble all of this down.
Valentine's Day is coming up and I happen to know all of them have a
boyfriend or girlfriend and they want to make sure they have all of
this material right. I teach them these idioms, explain how "I wanna"
is the slang version of "I want to" and how it is common for Americans
to slur the endings of words, blame it on us being lazy with speech.
We listen again for pure enjoyment, but this time everyone is singing.
They beg me to play it again, knowing they are quite possibly the
first Turkmens to hear this song. We all are tapping our feet,
nodding our heads to the rhythm, looking up occasionally from the
lyrics to make sure the others are doing the same. We sing the last
chorus with full enthusiasm, end the lesson, all out the door with it
stuck in our heads for the rest of the day na, na, na.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Dancing the New Year In

I talked about the pomp and circumstance of the New Year celebration
in past blog posting and I can now say that it is all it was hyped up
to be! The New Year parties for me began on December 30th with the
Russian school's student concert. I am working one day a week at the
smaller school in town still referred to as the Russian school
although classes are now taught all in Turkmen. Some of the girls
performed a dance to Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie" and topped her with
their hip shaking and belly-dancing moves. There is so much Uzbek
influence in the dance in Lebap that it resembles nothing like the
hand swirling dance the women did in Ahal. After the Shakira dance,
the boys brought in a board for break dancing. Outfitted in baggy
pants, hoodie sweatshirts and the attitude of Akon and 50 cent
combined, they spun, flipped and broke it down with every move they
had seen on Russian MTV. In these two performances, I was amazed by
the break from tradition. They were really pushing the boundaries and
expressing themselves in a unique way. These students broke away from
the conventional and did something different from the traditional
Turkmen performances that dominate the media and government sponsored
events. It may seem like a small thing, but it also demonstrates the
big generational gap that has happened. The new generation, the first
generation to grow up after the Soviet Union, has more and more
exposure to the western culture and they are increasingly drawn to it,
creating a separate identity from their parents' generation. Upon
leaving the Russian school to go to my school, I encountered a rather
sad looking cow tied to a tree outside the building. Some of the
students had take it upon themselves to dress him up and make him the
mascot for the year of the cow. Poor cow, you could tell he knew how
ridiculous he looked. But it did happen to be the funniest thing I
have seen in Turkmenistan, so of course I took a picture.

The poor New Years mascot that I found tied up to a tree outside the Russian school.

The 10th grade party was already underway when I arrived back at my
school. All of the 10th form classes and a hand-full of teachers were
sitting at tables surrounding the New Years tree. We ate a full meal,
but the real reason that they students were there was to dance. And
they LOVE to dance! A wedding singer was blasting out all the latest
Turkmen and Russian dance hits and the students would be up on the
feet at the first note of a song. It was nothing like the awkward
high school dances I remember. Everyone danced together and nobody
was excluded from the dance circle. Jennet and I danced with the
students and there was only one annoying kid who kept following me,
taking a video of me with his camera. I danced for several hours with
the students and got home so exhausted and worn out. I wanted to go
to bed, but some extended family members of my host-family were having
a New Years party and I was invited to go. I got my party face on
again and walked there with my host-sisters. The host was my
host-mom's, brother's, son's, daughter (I don't even know what that
would be classified as). I sat with the other women in one room, the
kids were in another and the men in yet another room. It is still
difficult for me to follow group conversations, and after a while I
was lost. It takes so much energy for me to just be present, that
when I am tired I can't understand Turkmen. I forgot how much energy
it takes to function in a non-English speaking environment, and I can
be exhausted at the end of the day not even doing anything. At about
11:30 I called it a night and the cameraman (yes, there was a
cameraman there too) followed me out of the house and had the camera
in my face as I put on my shoes and tried to explain to one of my
host-mom's sisters that there was nothing wrong, but that I was just
tired and needed to sleep. I know why celebrities get into fights
with paparazzi— having a camera a foot away from your face is so
annoying and invasive. I didn't get mad at him because I don't want
to be known as that volunteer who decked the cameraman in the face
(most likely he is somehow related to my host-family too, so better
not break his nose).

On December 31st, I attended the teachers' party at school. It is
still a little awkward for me to be by myself with all the other
teachers since I can't really have a full conversation with them yet
unless they speak to me in Russian. As I was sitting, trying to look
busy as I nibbled on some bread, my counterpart showed up and I was
relieved to have her there to talk to.

We ate the first course and with just as much
excitement as my students the day before, the teachers got up to
dance. In this country it is okay to be the only one up dancing by
yourself, but most likely everyone else will join in as well. In
America I feel that many people are self-conscious about dancing, but
here everyone is "the dancing queen" and has no hesitation to get up
and dance. Dance, dance, dance! That seems to be what this holiday is
all about! I went home early and took a nap and then spent the rest
of the afternoon in the kitchen preparing cookies, another apple crisp
(better than the first time) and spicy spinach and cabbage salad. I
went out around 8:30pm with my host-sister and one of her friends,
thinking we were going guesting at some neighbors' houses, but then
when we passed a friend on the street, my sister announced we were
going to the "discoteka." What? I wasn't at all prepared for this.
The "discoteka" turns out to be a big room turned into a "village
disco" as my sister referred to it. I love dancing, but the room was
full of all of my 9th and 10th grade students and I felt incredibly
awkward being there. I tried to play it incognito and sat in my coat
in a chair along the wall. We weren't there for very long, and I was
relieved to go. I don't want the students to start gossiping about
how Ms.Annie goes to the disco and then to have the other teachers
find out. Turkmen love to gossip and I know I am constantly being
watched wherever I go, so I have to be mindful of my reputation and my
actions. We headed back to the house and sat down to the huge feast
that we had all prepared earlier.

The photo of our table on New Years. There was so much food, you
couldn't even fit another plate on the table. My pie is on the very
end (soooo yummy). You can see the circular, flat bread in the front
and the dishes of fish and chicken. There were trays of salads, nuts
and raisins, cookies and candies, juice, beer and vodka. We ate the
same thing for the next two days. I pretty much just inhaled the

Food,food and more food! At midnight we ran out onto the street and lit
fireworks and sparklers and whooped and yelled along with everyone
else in town.

Back in the house we danced to
the new sound system my host-family recently bought, too bad we only
have one music CD, so the same 10 songs were on replay for hours. In
the early hours of the morning, I called it a night as the same 10
songs were still being pounded out as my host-sister and her friends
continued to dance. New year's day marked three months for me in
Turkmenistan. I can't decide if it feels like much longer or like
yesterday that I arrived. The New Years holiday was so much fun and I
really enjoyed feeling like part of the community as I went from party
to party, dancing the most I have ever danced in my life!

The ABC Party

When students in the first form have learned all of the letters in the
Turkmen alphabet, they have a party to celebrate. I was invited to
Jennet's niece's ABC party a few days before Christmas. The night
before we went to the "toy salon" where there were rooms full of
sparkly, dazzling wedding dresses and a little room with mini-wedding
dresses small enough to fit a 7 year-old, but with as much glitter as
the full-size version. We picked out a dress and crown to match, and
on the party day Jennet's niece had glitter in her hair and glittery
eye shadow. The little girls walked around knowing how pretty they
looked and with as much poise as someone four times their age. The
boys wore little suits and ties but were more concerned about kicking
around the balloons than keeping their clothes in order. The teacher
pinned a letter onto each of the students and they performed songs and
dances with as much organization and synchronization as a group of 30
first graders can manage. To make sure that the occasion be
remembered for centuries to come, the cameraman didn't stop shooting
for one minute. And when there was anything of importance said, the
electric keyboard man would pound out a few notes to drive the point
home. My favorite was when groups of students went to the front of
the room and announced what they wanted to be when they grew up. The
biggest groups were the future doctors and teacher (Jennet's niece
wanted to be an English teacher like her aunt), then there were some
potential business men and army officers, and the last little boy,
with as much gusto as all the rest declared he wanted to be a goat
herder! It made me remember how we did the same thing at my
kindergarten graduation and I had decided, after much thought, that I
wanted to be the tooth fairy when I grew up. Too bad it didn't work
out, I hope the future goat herder has more success.

This is Jennet's niece (center) and two other girls who sang a
Turkmen song accompanied by hand swaying and the electric keyboard
(notice the cameraman on the left)

Jennet's niece in her ABC party outfit. I like this photo because
everything else is a little out of focus except for her. She just
happened to turn around and look at me and I snapped the photo.

This is the "Father Frost" or "Ded Moroz" that came to the ABC party.