Monday, August 31, 2009

"…and the only way to endure it all was the perfection of irony."

-Lenin’s Tomb, David Remnick

Although this quote refers to the tumultuous last years of the Soviet Union, it seems to somehow embody my life here. I wish that I could find all of the irony humorous, but sometimes it translates into frustration before I look back on it and see the actual absurdity of what happened. Sometimes I need to laugh at myself. Sometimes I need to turn my back and walk away to hide my laughter over situations that Turkmen find completely normal. Sometimes I laugh when everyone else does just because I have no idea what is really going on. Sometimes I laugh with my students about something that we know we couldn’t talk about anywhere else.

There is irony in my everyday life. I believe that it happens because of the incongruity between how I am as an American, how I want to be seen in my community, and how Turkmen actually see me. Also, the irony stems from my expectations and pre-assumptions as an American and the way things actually work here. I think that the best way to illustrate the irony that often escalates to ridiculousness in my life is by example:

"Get out the doctor’s alcohol."

One is often pressured into drinking shots of vodka while guesting but when the vodka runs out you can always have "doctor’s alcohol." There is already a room full of drunk Turkmen, one slightly displaced and confused American and no more alcohol. Oh, wait, there is some more! Get the wife to fetch the rubbing alcohol and continue toasting. See, there was never any problem to begin with. The gamble here: do you drink and wake up blind the next morning or do you not drink and hope that nobody remembers in the morning?


I changed houses. It has already been two months. I got permission from Peace Corps, the local police did a background check on the family to make sure there weren’t any suspicious characters, and I got the approval to move. Within three days of moving, I need to notify immigration of my new address. In my policy and procedure book the explanation of this process spans a few sentences. In reality, two months later, and four trips to the immigration office, it has not been successful. First, I had to track down my counterpart who has no cell phone and no house. She lives in the back of this farmer’s bank in the village and it took me a week to just find this random building. Turns out she had gone to the city with her family, so there was no way to contact her. I waited and waited. She turned up at school and I explained that I needed this registration similar to what we did when I first arrived. Easy enough, right? Wrong. We drafted a letter to the immigration. First trip—the address for the immigration office was wrong and they needed a new letter. Second trip—they need a copy of my host mother’s passport and a copy of the host family contract. Third trip—the letter doesn’t have the director’s signature or stamp. My counterpart tried to ask the director to sign the letter, but he refused because I did not ask his permission to move. I had told him about moving, but I didn’t think to ask his permission because since when does one ask permission from their boss to move? Even Turkmen teachers wouldn’t ask the director for permission. It all culminated at the local education ministry in a meeting with me, my counterpart, the director, the Etrap methodologist and the Etrap head of education. I tried to stand up for myself, but in the end the director refused to sign, stating that I needed to ask his permission before I moved and that I shouldn’t have moved. The conversation was in such fast Turkmen and I tried to keep up but ended up just going home and crying by myself. Fourth trip—the immigration guy said that the letter still needs the director’s signature since he is my supervisor. When my counterpart said that the director refused to sign, the immigration guy, who gave all of the new volunteers such trouble with the initial registration back in December, said, "why does he refuse when she has the right to move?" Even this guy supports me! Why is nothing as easy to accomplish as stated on paper? Two months of trying to deal with this and it has all ended with no registration and the director now not even acknowledging my "hellos" or basic existence at school.

"A PCV on vacation"

You can take the PCV out of Turkmenistan, but you can’t take Turkmenistan out of the PCV. We would like to think that we can still go back to the developed world and abide by the social norms, but when one PCV’s family had to extract her from the produce aisle after she had spent copious amounts of time fondling all the vegetable and voicing her great affection for the wild berries, this assumption turned out to be incorrect. We spend large amounts of time thinking about what we miss from home, mostly food and decent alcohol, and then when we come face to face with our fantasized Guinness beer or dark chocolate bar, we tend to overreact. This starts a cycle of wondering about exactly where we belong. Most people at home haven’t even heard of Turkmenistan, but they wonder exactly what goes on there when they see the weird habits we brought back. Don’t you tap the bubbles in your tea on your forehead for good luck? Don’t you spit several times into your shirt after something scares you? Right, that is in Turkmenistan. We go on vacation, but we have to stay on the middle of the bridge, not totally reintegrating at home in order to make returning to Turkmenistan easier. We want to throw ourselves into western culture, but only this is when we realize just how "Turkmen" we have become.

"Back from vacation"

One PCV told me that there is nobody who needs a vacation more than a PCV who just came back from vacation. Sadly, this is true. Coming back from vacation is a practice of difficult reintegration and a personal struggle with how badly you actually want to be here. The PCV boards the plane from London, Delhi, Bangkok, Istanbul and wonders if anybody has ever not returned from vacation and just gone home. Getting back to site is like dipping your toe in a hot bath—you can’t just get in all at once. The PCV tells and retells about the fabulous time "across the border," but also tries to forget how nice it was to have a shower and sharp cheddar cheese. Now we feel like we have a long ways to come back to our simple life in the village. After feeling worn out, tired and frustrated at site, we have spent the vacation trying to get a break from Turkmenistan, and once back it feels like that respite hasn’t made anything easier.

"2 years"

It seems like a long time. It felt daunting when I left, but now I have already been here for almost a year and I am starting to feel like I don’t have enough time to accomplish everything that I would like. I know that a year is still a decent amount of time, but when I look at it in terms of vacations (since that is a PCV way of telling time) I only have 2 vacations left. The new group is coming and the old group is headed out and I feel like I am still just getting to know them. I am in a mid-service crisis and I want some project to work on other than my clubs. But staying true to the grassroots philosophy, I am still trying to do community assessment to create the best project for them. Really, I just want to start something…but then I would feel like a Peace Corps traitor. Two years in grassroots time is enough to sit down and drink some tea. I have time, but things do seem more pressing than 8 months ago when I felt like I had all the time in the world.

"Intravenous drip"

I was over at my friend’s house and we were hanging out and talking when the nurse came over. It was time for my friend to be hooked up to an IV for her saline drip. Her mom got out the T shaped mop handle, used a scarf to tie it to a chair, and the nurse hung the IV on the mop. As I watched around the door as all of this happened in less than five minutes, everybody forgot I was there or didn’t know what to do with me and considered ignoring me the best option. The nurse asked for vodka and cleaned my friend’s arm. Then I watched as she inserted the needle and started fiddling with the IV drip to make it work. I don’t know if it ever started working because I went over and told my friend that I was leaving and the nurse gave me a look of surprise like I had jumped out of nowhere. It was another moment where I was watching all of this and analyzing from an American point of view, finding it all a bit strange and then realizing that it was all completely normal for them and that I was the most out of place thing in the room.

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