Saturday, September 26, 2009

Big things and differences in values: Families

What is family for you?

I believe that the answer to this question will vary drastically according to your culture and heritage. Recently I discussed family with my advanced students. We are reading a book about an American family, and while pre-reading it, I realized that the family in the book is very different from what a family consists of in Turkmenistan. I asked my students to do a fifteen-minute creative writing assignment about what family is for them. One student wrote, “Family is such a difficult word to write about because it is the most important thing in our lives.” Family is everything in Turkmenistan. Sons may live with their parents their entire lives, raising a family under the same roof where they grew up. Daughters typically live at home until they marry and then move to their husband’s house and become part of a new family unit there.

My students were shocked to hear that I hadn’t lived at home for longer than a three-month period since I was eighteen. And more importantly, that this was my choice. Many families want their daughters to stay at home rather than to enroll in university because they need help with the domestic work. I told my students that my parents supported my decision to do Peace Corps, but if they hadn’t, I could have defied them and come anyways. Disobeying parents is viewed as a huge loss of face in this culture. There is a huge amount of respect for elders, and rebelling is rarely heard of. A friend of mine got married recently because her parents had decided it was time and quickly arranged a husband for her. She told me that it was her parents’ wish and that she could not confront her parents because then the entire community would gossip about her parents’, especially her father’s, lack of authority in the house.

Another of my students wrote, “I think that family is my mother, father, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles. My cousins are also my brothers and sisters.” Typical families in Turkmenistan are very large compared to the average American. My host-father has nine brothers and one sister. Family in Turkmenistan means extended family members and not just the nuclear family. When I speak about my family I will list my mom, dad, sister and my dog. My entire family consists of many more people, but my instinct is to talk only about the family members with whom I lived. When I ask my students about their families, they will attempt to list out every single family member they can remember (and most often they can’t remember all of them because the families are so large). One student wrote, “Family for me are the people I can’t live a day without seeing. If I don’t see my mother for one day, I am very sad.” Turkmen families tend to live in the same community, so they see each other often. My students couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen my mother’s side of the family for seven years, because they are constantly seeing family members float in and out of their houses.

My student, Chynar, wrote that she believes “family is more than just a mother, father, sister or brother. Family can be friends or, I know this may sound silly, animals too. Family is anyone or anything that you love very much.” What Chynar wrote was controversial in our class. Most of my students believed family consisted of only people you were related to. Chynar argued that it was how much you loved someone or something that should deem it family. I mentioned that I considered my friends at college as family because we lived together and were each other’s family when we were all away from home. I also argued that my fellow volunteers here are like family because we are all in this situation together and have to support and help each other so much. More than friends being considered family, it was animals being included that sparked some heated discussion. Animals in Turkmenistan are mostly kept outside and dogs are abused so much that they are either scared of everything that moves or want to bite everything that moves. Some students said they had pets they loved, but thought they were too dirty to be in the house and part of the family. I told my students that my dog is the best listener in the family because she will listen to you forever and snuggle if you pet her. They thought this was funny. But I have seen children kick dogs way more often than pet a dog. All in all, animals are not considered part of the family, or even close to it.

I believe that a distinction in family values is one of the biggest cultural differences between America and Turkmenistan. The family unit in both cultures is important, but defining exactly what family is unveils cultural values that run much deeper than just family. We value individuality, independence and personal success much more than Turkmen. Whereas Turkmen prefer to do things in a group, among family, Americans are more likely to want to distinguish themselves individually. If we fail, then it is our personal responsibility, but in Turkmenistan, if you are a disappointment to the family, then this will reflect poorly on your entire family in the community at large. But I believe that family here is less likely to allow something bad happen to one of their own than in America. The extended family is the social support network in Turkmenistan and if you need something, family will be there for you. I think that many families in America do not help support each other emotionally and financially like Turkmen families.

For me, a traditional Turkmen family meal is the perfect expression of the communal and family centered life-style. Sitting on the floor around a rectangular shaped mat, families will often share food off of the same plate. The entire family will sit down to eat together and the meal will last one or two hours until the teapots runs dry. There are so many families in America who don’t eat together, and this daily act of coming together as a family has been replaced by each individual’s hectic schedule that make family meals too inconvenient. Sometimes I think that American families would benefit from just sitting down together and drinking some tea. We focus so much on our individual pursuits and the fastest way to do things, that the need for a strong family foundation based around communal meals and conversation is more and more being seen as a waste of time. It might be wise to learn a little from Turkmen about family. With stronger families, there are more connected communities and a system of support and assistance when you need it. In Turkmen culture, the beginning of a relationship always starts with a cup of tea. Slow down and drink some tea!

Little things and differences in values

I would have to write a blog post everyday in order to fully describe my life here. And the honest truth is that I don’t have enough time each day to sit in front of my computer and write a recap of my day. This being said, I feel that lots of little things are being left out that I feel just as compelled to share as the big things. Sometimes the subtle details in my day are the most moving and have the biggest impact on my life.

There is one little boy in my sixth form class who is more interested in playing with his ruler than ever learning English. He fidgets and stares out the window until my counterpart yells at him or the other students call him “stupid” and “an animal.” This little guy would be a lost cause for most Turkmen teachers and would sit in the back of the class and never learn a word of English in ten years. When I am teaching, I consider all students equal no matter how the Turkmen teacher would treat them. I call on the students in the back and I immediately stop any snickering when the slower students stutter over new words. We were learning the days of the week and I throw a hack sack that I made to each student to drill them on the new vocabulary. I tell them to pay attention because it might come flying at them at any moment. Once again this particular student was giving all his attention to his ruler when I threw the hack sack at him and it slid onto his ruler in front of him. He looked up at me wide eyed like he was under the impression that nobody could see him. I asked him how to say “birinji gun” and after a brief pause he said “Monday.” Correct. So, he had been listening. I gave him a huge smile and said good job and he grinned back at me. Now, he had put down his ruler and was watching me. We played a memory game after this and he didn’t win. But he got second place and was so excited that he did a little dance in the aisle. This was a brief moment of celebration that I wish could have lasted longer; I was so proud.

My Turkmen tutor got married last month and she informed me ahead of time that she wanted me to make a toast. At Turkmen weddings the music and dancing are periodically interrupted by various family members and friends taking the microphone and making toasts. Ever since going to my first wedding back in training and being forced to say something in front of several hundred Turkmen, I promised myself that I would learn how to say an extraordinary toast that I could repeat at every wedding from there on out. But, I had failed to do this and still resorted to saying my toasts in English because I had yet to memorize anything past “congratulations…”

For Gowher’s wedding I sat down and actually memorized all of the toasts she had taught me six months earlier. At the wedding I was just asking my friend about how I would know when to go up there when the master of ceremonies announced that Gowher’s friend from America would come up to make a toast. Okay, so that is how I know when to toast. The wedding reception was in a large converted movie theater, and as I walked down the stairs to the stage in the front, my hands began to shake I was so nervous. Another English teacher from my school was making a toast after me, and a few of us lined up on the side of the stage. The cameraman stuck his camera 3 feet from my face and the bright light made me sweat even more than I already was from the nerves. I began my toast with the pedestrian line “congratulations on your wedding” but then continued in Turkmen with every congratulation that I still remembered. A few words into my second sentence, the English teacher behind me elbowed me in the ribs and hissed “In English, In English!” Through the entirety of my toast, she didn’t let up. I grabbed her arm and held it at bay so that I could continue until my final congratulation and wish for my friend.

Most people actually want me to toast in English at their weddings because they want me on film as proof that there was an actual real blooded American present, but Gowher had asked me to say it in Turkmen since she is the one who has taught me almost everything I know. The older women in Turkmenistan feel no shame in telling you what to do, and this 60-something year old teacher felt that it was completely acceptable to elbow me until I conceded. For me, this was an intrusion into my personal space and right to say what I want, but just like the babushkas in Russia, the older women here have been through enough, and have been around long enough, to have the authority to tell anyone what to do—even what language to speak, I guess.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Classes and cotton

The school year is off to a chaotic start. But I had expected this. The piles of handwritten documents, schedules, grade books and curricula have yet to be completed and everything is at a standstill until they are signed and stamped by the director. The Soviet system of "spravki" (paper documents) for everything from permissions to equipment requests is still very much alive. When I lived in Russia we spent a few months studying "spravki" in all its forms, and how to properly write them. After months of learning about "spravki" I never wanted to see one again, but they are asked for everywhere still in former Soviet countries. The schedule for all 10 grades had to be hand written. There are four groups of each form, so a total of 40 schedules were painstakingly written in cramped letters. With each change, a new schedule was written out. The schedule covered 12 pieces of 8" by 11" white paper. Of course it had the director’s stamp of approval as well. I too have gotten used to handwriting everything for classes because of a lack of a copier. If I don’t have time to individually handwrite all of the exercises or texts, I will write them out on the chalkboard and the students will copy them into their notebooks. My chalkboard doesn’t work very well and I must first wipe where I want to write with a wet cloth and then write. If I try to write on it dry, the words are barely visible. I appreciate the efficiency of technology and the convenience of whiteboards more and more.

It is cotton season now in Turkmenistan. During the Soviet Union, the government basically drained the Aral Sea by diverting the two biggest rivers in the area, the Amu Derya and the Syr Derya, to make Central Asia fertile cotton country. The Syr Derya runs west through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan until it empties into the Aral Sea. The Amu Derya runs north-west from Turkmenistan to Kazakhstan and also empties into the Sea. The fields around where I live are still watered by the Amu Derya. From about 1960 the Aral Sea’s water level was drastically reduced because of the diversion of water from the rivers for agricultural irrigation. The Soviet government converted large acreages of untilled land in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan into irrigated farmlands. By the 1980s, during the summer months, the two formerly great rivers dried up before even reaching the lake and the Aral Sea began to quickly shrink due to the evaporation of its unreplenished waters. The increased irrigation on the hot, dry regions around the Amu Derya has resulted in evaporation that has left salt deposits that make the soil infertile. Also, surface runoff has transported the salts to the river, increasing the salinity of the Amu Derya. The farms in my region water using a flood technique. They will open up the canals that come off of the Amu Derya and completely flood their fields. When the huge amount of excess water evaporates, there is a white blanket of salt on the surface. The water in the region north of Lebap, Dahoguz is too salty to drink and entire communities are suffering from health problems related to the salinity of the water. The salt is slowly leaching down to northern Lebap and I first noticed the salt left over after irrigation last fall when I was out on my usual running route. I run on the small dirt roads that weave through the fields, and with each step my shoes would break through a thick crust of salt that had formed after a routine flood irrigation. My town has been ripping up the streets to lay pipes for fresh drinking water, but the smaller villages have no such luxury. The Aral Sea is of great concern to environmental scientists, but the leeching of salt into the surface water in Turkmenistan has the potential to cause great health problems and is not being addressed. This entire environmental catastrophe began with the vision of creating a vast area of fertile cotton fields that would supply the Union with cotton enough for everyone. To this day, Turkmenistan is still very proud of their cotton. When the school children learn about the "riches of Turkmenistan," gas, oil and cotton are included. My sixth grade class learns the verb "to pick" before they learn the verb "to study." They learn the word "cotton" before they learn "family." The cotton season began last week and will continue for two months. There are some cotton-picking machines, but the majority is picked by hand, and not by choice. The teachers at my school are required to pick cotton each day after classes. Under the old president, children were allowed to skip school to go pick cotton, but this has since been prohibited. Still, I have seen a drop in student attendance in the last week (and this is even more true in the smaller villages that are still collective farms). At the end of a shift, they must weigh the cotton and fill out a "spravka" that states how much they picked. For each kilo they are given 1,000 manat (7 cents). My counterpart told me that she picks about 17 kilos in a four-hour afternoon shift (17,000 manat =$1.20). For those who don’t have time or don’t want to pick cotton, they pay someone to pick their quota of cotton. As long as the quota is met, it doesn’t matter who is actually out in the fields. No matter who collects the cotton, it is loaded onto huge trucks that take it to the cotton plant on the edge of town. The government owns the cotton. The entire cotton industry is government owned just like the gas and oil industries. Fittingly, it is called "Turkmen Cotton" and the green government trucks all share the same logo showing a cotton boll with white fluffy cotton fiber inside. For now, cotton picking is the priority and all of the fields must be emptied of "ak altyn" (white gold). During the Soviet Union the comrades were required to pick cotton as a collective, to gather it all together and to send it off somewhere. Now, the only difference is that they are paid a few cents for their work, but not much else has changed in the white gold industry.