Saturday, September 26, 2009

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.

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