Friday, July 31, 2009

My English Summer Camp

Last week was the long planned summer camp that I had been stressed out about for the past month. It wasn’t so much the work that had to be put into the camp that was stressing me out, but it was the possibility that the director or anyone else could suddenly tell me I couldn’t have it and that would be the end of it. I had been promising my students that I would try my best to have this camp, and I know that they were rooting for me to get permission. I think that their undying support did help me gain permission in the first place. All the way back in the end of May I advertised for the camp at my school and had any interested students come take a test. They all thought that they had to get a certain score to get into the camp, but little did they know that the test was merely a tool for me to see how many students I should expect. Because the last volunteer at my site four years ago ran into problems from the director when she applied for a grant to cover the cost of a summer camp, I decided to avoid money all together and used some supplies sent to me by family friends and then got creative with everything else.

The camp was six days long and split into two groups of three days each. For the first three days we had 4th-6th graders and for the second part we had 7th-10th graders. I had three Turkmen teachers assisting me and another PCV from the neighboring etrap came to help, too. We had more than enough help, but the younger kids still exhausted us by the end! Each day of camp started with “Morning Assembly” that consisted of trying to wrangle all the students and then sing a few songs. I taught them “Boom Chicka Boom” and once they had learned it, we sang it different ways. I think they found my sobbing version of “Boom Chicka Boom” with my flamboyant fake crying and wailing the most hilarious. They don’t often see adults acting as silly as that, but putting myself on the extreme end of things allowed them to act goofy as well. Following the songs, we did group games and team activities. The girls turned out to be extremely skilled at carrying a ball on a spoon. My theory is that they have carried so many hot bowls of soup in their lives, that they know how to keep their hands steady while walking. They struggled to work together on the 3-legged race and got extremely competitive at the relay races. On the last day we filled up water balloons and did a balloon toss outside. Several students got wet eventually, but the balloons weren’t breaking very easily. One girl got completely soaked by a balloon and she was a good sport about it and just laughed at herself. With the older kids we had pairs of students make shapes with their bodies while having their eyes closed. The older students displayed excellent teamwork and communicated very well even when I had them blindfolded or not allowed to speak. I was impressed by how well they worked together even when given the difficult tasks that I had set (like the trust fall or leading your partner blindfolded through a course). Overall I think that we did lots of games with the students that they had never done before, using objects that they all have around the house. I was happy that I could do something new and creative with the students that challenged them to step outside their comfort zone and try something different.

After the games we split into groups and did different activities with the smaller groups. Despite the extreme weather, the first day we had a dance session. To see a group of Turkmen teenagers doing the Chattahoochee like they are in small-town Kentucky was incredible! Turkmen love to dance and although some of the younger kids had a problem keeping rhythm they were tapping, shuffling, turning and Macarena hand jiving away no matter if they were way off beat. In addition to the dance, one of the Turkmen teachers taught them origami and they made flapping birds and little dogs. The second day of camp was Christmas themed and we watched Mr.Bean’s Christmas with the younger kids and Elf with the older kids, made Christmas boxes out of origami and I taught a Christmas English lesson. The camp was conducted all in English and this lesson was the only official lesson, but of course it was fun. In addition to vocabulary and a reading activity, I taught them Jingle Bells and we played “pin the star on the Christmas tree.” For the third day we had a Halloween theme. The younger students made scary Halloween masks and went trick-o-treating through the classrooms. Definitely the highlight of the last day was the puppet show. With the first group I gave them printed dialogues with cats, bats, witches, ghosts and monsters. They made a puppet according to their dialogue, practices with their partner and performed behind a makeshift puppet stage for the class. With the older students I gave them freedom to write a dialogue themselves about anything they wanted. We had a Frankenstein monster and his love interest, Indians, rabbits, witches and one character called “Bad Boy.” Some of my more advanced students came up with witty and entertaining puppet shows that had us all laughing and enthusiastically applauding at the end. Because of the low English ability of the younger students, I was more limited with what I could do, but the older kids impressed me with their creativity and ease performing in front of their peers. The camp ended on a high-note after the puppet show as we tried to squish ourselves together to get one last memory, a group photo.

At the end of the camp I talked on the phone to my Turkmen friend with whom I went to college. During her childhood she attended PCV camps and looks back on them as some of her fondest memories. As I expressed that I wish that I could so something more for these kids, she reminded me that my little camp could be the most exciting thing that they do all summer, or that the “camper of the day” certificates could be their biggest achievement. Sometimes I forget to put my work here into perspective and that even the small projects I organize and the small changes I see in my kids are little victories I must not overlook.

Can Peace Corps Volunteers go on rescue missions?

When I get a chance to look at the news headlines each week I usually see a story about the war in Afghanistan. Since I arrived in Turkmenistan I have been scanning over these headlines, yet not often clicking on them to read the full story. Frequently stories of success are tainted by the overwhelming majority of stories about death and bombings. Sadly, these stories about soldiers and combatants who have perished during the war are so common that they have become trite. I do want to stay informed about what is happening in Afghanistan, and recently I read the story about American troops pulling out of towns and cities and I have been keeping up to date on the situation in Basra after the “changing of the knights.” Although Turkmenistan and Afghanistan border, one may live in Turkmenistan without even knowing that there is a war to the south. Life here seems so far from the turmoil across the border; the only evidence of the war is the refugee camp in southern Mary Welayat filled with mostly Afghan refugees. When my parents called me last week and told me that a guy who I have known since I was little had been taken hostage by the Taliban, I was shocked. This news made the headline I later saw on Al Jazeera (my English language news channel) of personal concern, and I would have probably barely noticed it otherwise.

All of a sudden, I felt so far away from home. And all of a sudden I realized that each soldier mentioned in those headlines means the world to their family and friends back at home. Here I am so close to Afghanistan and I thought about what my parents would do if they got news that I was in danger over here. I think about my safety constantly, and so does Peace Corps. Because of the government’s control, this country is extremely safe and despite my previous concern about the close proximity to Afghanistan, I have never felt in danger here. My heart goes out to Bowe and all of his family and friends back in Idaho. We all think about our family and friends back in America so often and find comfort in the memories and photos that we bring along with us. It is difficult enough being so far away from all of your loved ones, and I can not even imagine how much courage it takes to make it through the day in Bowe’s situation.

The second goal of the Peace Corps is to teach host-country nationals about American culture and traditions. The third goal is to educate Americans about the country where you are doing/did your service. After my primary work as a teacher, my job is to build an understanding between cultures. With so much resentment, anger and frustration across the border, Turkmenistan is next door to a country where America is viewed more as an invader than as an ally. I want to be a part of the process to build awareness about cultural differences and to educate about tolerance and appreciation of foreign cultures. I am not talking only about teaching Turkmen about America, but I believe that Americans also have a lot to learn about the world at large.

Did you know exactly where Turkmenistan was before you saw the little map on my blog?

Do you know that there are an estimated 2 million ethnic Turkmen living in Afghanistan?

Because I am cut off from most news sources here, I have been religiously reading any magazine (Economist and National Geographic have been my favorites) that I can get my hands on. Because of my lack of news, I am making a huge effort to try to stay informed, and the result has been me staying more informed that I often was in the U.S. I never thought that this would be the case. It is not easy to stay up to date, but with some effort (and everything takes a bit more effort here) it is entirely possible and necessary. I may live in an isolated country, but I do not want to feel isolated myself. I have spent this past week thinking a lot about my family and about the people I care the most about. I will be honest and say that it was not the easiest week for me, and it was probably the most homesick that I have been so far. Yet even when I miss all my loved ones so much, I know that I don’t really want to leave. I am so lucky to have so many people who are supporting me and encouraging me through all the hard times. In less than one week my feet will be on British soil and I will be gorging myself with avocados and digestive cookies, freezing my butt off in the 26-degree weather and catching up on the last 10 months with some good mother-daughter time.

Recently I have become addicted to watching Top Chef and I have almost blown through a whole season in a week. I basically sit in front of my computer and squeal about all the good food that I can’t have. The losing dish on each episode looks great to me. I have already started my list of “foods I must eat in England” and I want to write to Top Chef and recommend they do a Peace Corps volunteer quickfire challenge where the contestants have the rudimentary cooking facilities, supplies and equipment of a PCV. Let’s see just how good they are when they have cotton seed oil, rice, moldy carrots, onion, one pan, one gas burner that barely works and a knife that barely cuts garlic (those are the only ingredients my first host-family had available at one point last winter)!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Watching The News With My Host Family

On Wednesday I spent about 15 minutes scrolling through the one thousand plus television channels that my new host family has. Each Turkmen house, no matter how small, is towered over by a large satellite that picks up everything from Russian to Chinese to Arabic channels. At my former host family I was never able to have the television to myself, and very rarely watched TV at all. When my new host brother handed me the remote because he had to go out and kill a chicken for dinner, I relished in opportunity to look for news channels broadcast in English. Eight hundred channels later, I found Aljazeera in English and plopped myself on the floor in front of the television. The big story on the news was the unrest in Urumqi in western China. I was previously aware of the tension between the Han Chinese and the Muslim minority in the region, the Uighur [weegher]. Interestingly enough, this is something I didn’t know until I got to Turkmenistan, the Uighur speak a language very similar to Uzbek (See Uighur women in first photo and an Uzbek woman in the second photo). The region where the Uighurs live used to be in Turkestan and they speak a Turkic language. One of my friends here just went on vacation to China and she searched for a Uighur restaurant where she could show off her Turkmen language skills. She tracked down a restaurant, ordered entirely in Turkmen and ate a meal that is standard in Lebap—palow, yoghurt and naan. On Monday I had just talked with her about the Uighurs and we weren’t aware of what was going on in XinJiang. As I was watching this story on Aljazeera, my host family came in with lunch and we kept the television on as we ate. Although there were no sound bites of the Uighurs speaking, my host family drew the conclusion that they were Uzbek because of their clothing. My host family is educated and pretty aware of world events, but the resemblance was so uncanny that I understood their confusion. The materials, dress styles and hats are almost identical to those in Uzbekistan. The women on the television were wearing traditional knee length shirts, loose pants and square hats, similar to those worn by many women in my town. It took me several minutes to explain to my host family that these people they were seeing on the television were Chinese and not Turkmen or Uzbek. I don’t know if they actually ended up believing me, but I told them the story of my friend in China and my host mom’s response was, “mmm…maybe,” still pondering whether of not I was trying to trick her. “No, really, she spoke to them all in Turkmen and they understood,” I declared. Again, “mmm…maybe” was the response I got. I understood their incredulity because even for me it was unreal to see shots of demonstrations in what looked like my town on the international news. It reminded me of how recently Central Asia was full of nomadic tribes and how cultures and languages moved fluidly across non-existent borders. Now with immigration laws, and tight border control, Central Asian people are not able to wander like they did less than 100 years ago. Forced to settle in countries not necessarily split along already pre-established tribal borders, they have now taken up the identity of their country rather than as a more broader Turkic peoples who spread across former Turkestan.

Monday, July 6, 2009

"We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails."

-Peace Corps, 1992

In the past week I moved in with a new host family and went to Ashgabat for two days to attend the July 4th party. It seems like so much has happened in the last 7 days, that I almost feel like I have entered into a new period of my Peace Corps service. On July 1st I had been in Turkmenistan for 9 months. A friend of mine, a fellow PCV, sent me a text message that read, "If you had gotten pregnant on the day we arrived, you would be in labor right now—happy 9 months!" Thankfully this isn’t the case, but I have been here three-quarters of a year and I have indeed seen more babies born than I ever have in my entire life. I had previously decided to move host families and found a great family that lives close to school. My new host-mom, Maya is a gynecologist and my host dad, Genji works at a company in Turkmenabat. I have two younger host-brothers. Aziz is in the 8th grade and is rarely at the house, but out in the village where all of his cousins live. Azad is going to be a sophomore at a university in Ukraine and is home for the summer vacation. At my new house I have my own separate side of the house that consists of my room and a kitchen. I have my own entrance to my room and this gives me more privacy and more freedom to come and go as I please. Before I moved in, I discussed the food situation at my previous host-family and expressed my concern about the nutrition of my food. I had been cooking almost all of my meals myself at my previous host-family and I was spending too much of my money to try to compensate for the lack of nutritious food that they had available. Maya asked me specifically what I would like to eat and today she bought everything I mentioned and had placed it in my kitchen for me. We have an outside kitchen and an inside kitchen, and she has given me the inside kitchen until it gets too cold to cook outside. My host-mom lived in Cyprus for a year and she is so fascinating to talk to. We speak all in Russian together and last night we spent two hours together sharing photographs and talking about our pasts. I never spent that much time with my last host-family and I already feel more comfortable here than at my previous residence. It is common for PCVs to switch host-families and usually the families that the volunteers find themselves work out better than the Peace Corps selected families. Since I have been at my site for over six months, I have many connections and I was able to search for a family with certain characteristics that I had decided were important to me. Mostly I was looking for a family where I could have more privacy and where I felt more comfortable with the host-parents. Americans’ desire to spend much time alone is weird to most Turkmen because they are very communal people, but there are many times when I am so exhausted by the time that I come home that I just want to relax and feel like I came back to a place I feel comfortable. It was difficult explaining why I was leaving to my host-family and I know that they took it personally. I still hope that I see my host-sisters in my yoga club and I will see all of them in the cafeteria every day once school begins. I am sure that I will encounter challenges with my new host-family, but I am already much happier at my home and I know that this will positively effect my overall experience here.

It was a whirl-wind of a trip, but the majority of Turkmenistan PCVs went to Ashgabat for the July 4th US Embassy party. It was also our chance to say goodbye to our Programming and Training Officer who is leaving to work in the Peace Corps Romania program. She was one of the first people who greeted us at the airport when we arrived 9 months ago, and I am sad that I won’t be able to finish my service with her still here. She supported me greatly over the past months, especially in the beginning and I think that our new PTO has big shoes to fill. In addition to saying goodbye to our PTO, we said a really sad goodbye to four PCVs who are leaving this weekend to go home. It came as a shock that four are leaving at one time and we will miss them all greatly. Everyone deals with it differently, but I was extremely upset when I found out because I am especially close to one of them and Turkmenistan will never be as quirky and interesting without him (especially the dance moves at the Ak Altyn disco). Over the course of nine months we have had a total of seven T-17s leave. This most recent batch to leave was definitely the hardest because we have all grown so tight as a group. It shows how much we depend on each other and how much we have bonded as a group. I came here with 43 strangers and I was met by another group of 35 T-16s. Even if I have just met a new PCV, which did happen at the July 4th party, we fall into conversation like we have know each other for years. We are all so connected by this unique experience, that we will forever share a huge part of our lives together. As four of my friends depart Turkmenistan, it leaves me to think about my desire to be here and to analyze my experience so far. I have realized since being back from vacation that even on the most frustrating days, I can still say that I truly want to be here. I believe that everything happens for a reason and I am happy here in a way that sometimes I can’t explain. I found the quote at the beginning of my blog entry today in a teaching article I was reading and I know that the author was referring to changing our actions and the way that we do things to work with what we cannot control, but I also think that this quote can relate to emotions and the necessity to having a go with the flow attitude. My mom sent me a postcard that has a picture of roller skates and printed below, "just roll with it." She is right to say that this must be how I approach things in Turkmenistan. There are events, like losing 4 of my fellow PCVs, that I cannot change, but I must adjust my own sails and keep on going wherever the wind sends me.