Monday, December 27, 2010

Running With Chihuahuas

Going running for the first time in a new country is always an unpredictable experience. I love heading out the door not knowing where I am going or where I am going to end up, but often a tall Caucasian girl running by herself attracts the wrong kind of attention or invasive curiosity from everyone passing by. Because it is so common for women to run in America, we tend to take the relative anonymity we have while exercising for granted. Despite the obesity problem in America, and the attention that it placed on our expanding girth, many Americans enjoy exercising and playing sports in their free time. There is a growing importance placed on staying fit and eating healthy, and this is reflected in the increasing amount of Americans who are exercising. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 35% of adults engage regularly in leisure-time physical activity, according to a nationwide survey done in 2009. This statistic was higher than the 2008 estimate of 32%. Yet obesity continues to plague America because exercise can only burn so many calories. Maintaining an all around healthy lifestyle is what Americans need to work on; eating better is crucial. I have always lived in areas in America where I could easily exercise, and in particular run. I took up running regularly because it seemed like the most convenient sport for someone who constantly moves around the world. When the stress of a new environment is wearing me down, I can always lace up my shoes and get lost in the hypnotic rhythm of my sneakers hitting the ground. But often running in a new place isn’t as straight-forward as running along a familiar trail back home.

When I lived in Costa Rica and tried to run along the jungle-enclosed street where my house was, I was stopped by one of the local drug gangs and prohibited from continuing along their road. In Russia I couldn’t stand all of the snide comments and soon resorted to working out in a local gym. In Turkmenistan I ran in a skirt and carried rocks to throw at the overly aggressive dogs in my town. The last three countries in which I lived all offered different challenges when it came to stepping out the door for a run.

In these I received a huge amount of attention from people around me and I tried my best to run in places and at times when I hopefully wouldn’t see anyone. My initial mistakes cautioned me, and taught me what was appropriate in the local culture. I would run in the dark, or run out of town, away from everyone. This didn’t ever completely stop the harassment I received, but it minimized it down to a point when I could get back to focusing on the rhythm of my feet and the sound of my breathing. I believe that the level of harassment I receive while running is in direct correlation to the level of women’s rights in the country. In countries where women are not allowed to exercise in public, or where it is highly frowned upon by the men, I have received the highest level of negative attention. In Turkmenistan there were a few women I saw who defied the social norm and ran in public. This was more common in the city, and in the countryside where I lived, a few women in my town started running in the mornings along the same path I took. When I first saw this young woman out jogging in her pale blue tracksuit, I broke into the biggest smile because I finally had another companion out on the road. Running in Turkmenistan was a lonely business, and when I moved to Taiwan I was excited to lace up my shoes and see what I ran into in Taipei.

If one wakes up early enough in Taiwan one can see groups of people in parks practicing Tai Chi, or speed walking around the local track. As the sun sets, another round of people will go out and exercise at dusk. There are lots of people, young and old, who enjoy walking outside. I see grandparents running up and down the track with toddlers, couples wheeling an elderly grandparent along the bike path, marathoners running in sweat soaked shirts. According to the National Council on Physical Fitness and Sport, “scientific research testifies that proper sport activities are beneficial to physical fitness…and contribute to a higher living standard, social harmony…” and there is a general understanding in Taiwan that physical activity is beneficial to overall health and lifestyle.

In rain or shine people are out and about. When it rains I see people jogging around the track holding an umbrella above them, an answer to my rain predicament question I had not yet considered. When it is sunny I put on less clothing in order to soak up the sun, and the locals wear long sleeve shirts to protect against tanning of any degree.

When I run in Taiwan I still get stared at, but the attention holds much less hostility than in other countries. It is not unheard of to see a woman running, and so I will often receive a glance but not much attention after that. I am and will remain the only Caucasian girl running in the neighborhood where I live, but there are other women who exercise and this is welcome company for me after my negative experience in Turkmenistan. I still feel a little silly in my running outfit and Ipod as I make my way to where I begin running because I stand out so much, but once I get to the running track or the bike path then there seems to be a general understanding of “this space is for exercising, so even that white girl running is normal.”

The bike path runs along the Keelung river embankment as it winds its way from the ocean down toward Taipei. I like to glance down at the water to find the dense schools of fish along the banks, hiding in the deepest parts of the river. There are two cows that are always happily chewing grass along the banks below me, and I occasionally meet the farmer along the bike path as he leads them to graze. Because of being wary of an animal’s reaction to a running human, I tend to slow down around the cows and this always causes the farmer to erupt in laughter and ask me questions I don’t understand.

Sometimes I am more entertained by the parade of dogs, than by the people I see along the way. Taiwanese women are always out walking their miniature dogs. Often the dogs don’t get much of a walk themselves because they are being pushed in a doggie stroller, leaning out the side with their tails wagging and tongues hanging out. I wonder if the women pushing the stroller realize that they have a dog in there and not a child. The other day a woman was weeding some flowers along the path, and her little Chihuahua decided to race over to me and try biting my ankles. I resorted to hopping around in order not to kick the little thing in the face, but the worst part about it was that the dog was wearing a bumblebee costume. And again, the owner responded to my reaction with a shrill of laughter and a slur of Chinese words. The most I could do was shoot the Chihuahua in its bumblebee costume a dirty look, and run away faster than its little legs could carry it.

Now I have a set route that I take when I run, but occasions like the Chihuahua attack still catch me by surprise and prevent my runs from ever being boring. I don’t want to carry around rocks to throw at the dogs like in Turkmenistan, because it is only the tiny ones who consider my ankles nice enough to bite, but I will never again underestimate a four-pound dog in a plush insect costume.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Human Rights Day: LGBT Rights in Taiwan

December 10th was the 60th Anniversary of Human Rights Day. The theme for this year is “human rights defenders who act to end discrimination.” Human rights defenders speak out against human rights abuses and violations, often taking risks themselves in order to raise awareness and create change. I recently had a Taiwanese acquaintance tell me that he thought Taiwanese did not care about human rights. I have to disagree with him.

Since arriving in Taiwan, I have been introduced to a unique and dedicated group of human rights defenders. They do the work of hundreds by mobilizing the general population, organizing volunteers and putting together large events and human rights demonstrations. From what I have seen, these Taiwanese do care about human rights. More than just caring, they are fervently passionate about human rights.

During my first weekend in Taiwan, I was invited to march in the annual Taiwan Pride Parade. I have been to several pride parades in America, including New York’s epic parade, and I was not sure what to expect in Taipei. The first parade was held in 2003, and it was the first of its kind in the Chinese-speaking community. It was a small event, but it drew big attention from the local and international media. Taipei’s Mayor, and current president, Ma Ying-jeou, gave a speech at the end of the parade, saying that major cities around the world have large gay communities, and that the support and respect of these communities is important to the city. Since 2003, the number of participants and support for the event has grown each year.

Taiwan is the most progressive Asian country in terms of anti-discrimination laws protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. In 2007 the Legislative Yuan passed a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in the work place. The Gender Equity Education Act prohibits discrimination in education, and beginning in 2011, school textbooks are required to include topics on LGBT human rights and non-discrimination. Taiwan’s Ministry of Education is hoping to promote an environment of tolerance and respect. A poll done by the National Union of Taiwan Women’s Association/Constitutional Reform Alliance in 2006 found that 75% of the 6,439 adults interviewed believed that homosexual relations are acceptable.

Despite having some legislation in place to stop discrimination, there is little written in law to give the country’s LGBT citizens the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts. “The concept of ‘partner’ does not exist in Taiwan,” Lu Hsin-chieh, convener-in-chief of the march, and director of policy advocacy at Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Association said. “Taiwan’s Civil Code defines a couple as ‘a husband and a wife.” The Basic Human Rights Law, which approved same-sex marriage, was drafted during former president Chen Shui-bian’s term, but has never been voted on due to opposition from cabinet members and legislators. This year three openly gay candidates ran in Taipei City’s legislative elections, and this new presence in local politics coincided with this year’s parade theme.

Taiwan Gay Pride - no comment
Uploaded by nocommenttv. - Up-to-the minute news videos.

On October 30th, the pride parade theme was “Out and Vote,” an attempt to focus on getting concrete legislation passed by the government in order to protect LGBT rights in Taiwan. Everyone congregated in front of the President’s Office, filling up the large square and spilling over into the nearby streets. Clusters of brightly clad men and women met at the closest metro stations to walk together, and drag queens paraded around striking poses and blowing kisses. Participating groups were split up into colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. As the parade snaked around the city, sharing the streets with cars, buses and motor scooters, at times it was hard to distinguish between the parade participants, spectators and people passing by. Every person along the sidewalk was filming the parade on a camera phone, either out of support or sheer curiosity about what was marching down the street. When people in our group waved to passing cars and buses, we received blank stares or big smiles in return. The weather could not decide to rain or stop, and this left us continually putting up our umbrellas and pulling them down as we walked. Because we were sharing the road with the usual traffic, we had to stop at red lights and then make a run for it when they turned green in order to catch up to the group in front of us. I heard one guy behind me say, “I didn’t know this was the gay marathon,” as we sprinted through an intersection. At the end of the march, all of the color sections lined up in a pseudo rainbow to get a panorama shot of the entire group from atop a nearby building. Looking at the picture later on the Taiwan LGBT Parade website, I could feel the enormity of over 30,000 people and the giant voice of a group of people united by one cause.

Despite only having one day out of the year designated the official Human Rights Day, in many peoples’ lives human rights is a constant priority. LGBT rights is a relatively new fight in Asia, and I believe that Taipei is going to continue to be the leader in this struggle against discrimination.

External Links:
Taiwan Pride Parade Slideshow

United Nations Human Rights Day Website

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cultural Differences: Part Two

Last week I went to a cupcake shop called “Ginjer” and I enjoyed a carrot cake cupcake complete with a little icing carrot on top. Across the street in this back alley was a number of restaurants, each one offering a different type of cuisine. There was Japanese, Korean, Italian and Cantonese food. Tucked into the tiniest crevices were Taiwanese street food stands—noodles, soup, dumplings and rice balls.

Taiwanese love food, and they like to enjoy different kinds of culinary delights. I am used to living in a place where there is limited availability of international foods. It is so exciting to be living in a place with restaurants every ten feet offering a broad selection of cuisine. There is fast food and traditional food. There is fancy dining and plastic bag carrying night market food. There is 7-11 on every corner for all of your snacking needs. There are chain style ubiquitous restaurants and cute vintage themed coffee shops and stylish modern cafes. Taiwanese are relatively adventurous when it comes to trying new food; otherwise, the abundance of international cuisine restaurants would not be in business. I have experienced plenty of places where people turn up their noses at anything unfamiliar. I find Taiwanese quite tolerant of new tastes, and willing to try anything once.

In Turkmenistan there were about five national dishes that were made of the same ingredients—meat, carrots, potatoes, rice and pumpkin. There was little left to the imagination. I taught my students how to make pizza and pumpkin pie. I taught my closest Turkmen friend how to make Thai peanut noodles and rich chocolate brownies. Some Turkmen I met loved to learn how to cook new dishes, but most sided with familiarity. In Taiwan I recently cooked spicy Mexican tacos complete with tortilla chips and salsa. Taiwanese love spicy foods, so this dish went over well.

Being new to the country, I need the same outlook as my Taiwanese counterparts—try anything once! In a country where the smell of stinky tofu wafts on countless street corners, there are many adventurous dishes to be sampled.

One of the most famous dishes in Taiwan is the aforementioned stinky tofu. I have heard many colorful descriptions of the smell of this dish. It has acquired the name stinky tofu because it is exactly that—very, very stinky. It used to be a staple for soldiers patrolling China’s borders, and as wars ended and Taiwan’s night market culture expanded so did the availability of stinky tofu on the street. It is made by marinating tofu in a brine made from fermented vegetables, shrimp or fish stock. The fermentation process of the vegetables or fish can take up to 5 months, but marinating requires only 6 hours. Taiwan has a famous stinky tofu eatery, Dai’s House of Stinky Tofu, which is famous for its vegetarian version. Once the tofu is marinated, it is cut into bite-size pieces and most commonly deep-fried. This is a dish that either intrigues you or repulses you. Taiwanese will admit that it doesn’t smell good, but they will try to convince you to sit down and take a bite. And you should try it!

I have tried stinky tofu a few times, but it does not make my favorites list. As for me, I love bubble milk tea, and specifically bubble tea from the “50 Lan” shop. I enjoy a large cup...half sugar...less ice...big go...phew! A lot of details for one cup of tea. I had to learn lots of vocabulary just to get the right cup of bubbly, chewy satisfaction. The teashop attendants pile soft, sweetened tapioca bubbles into the bottom of the cup and shake up milky tea and ice in a cocktail mixer. They pour the milk tea over the bubbles and drop in a little ice. The cup is dropped in a machine that seals a thin plastic top onto the cup. They give you a fat straw wide enough for the tapioca, and you have to poke the straw through the plastic top to enjoy that first sip of sweet tea and chewy tapioca. Bubble tea has become so popular that the fad spread all the way to America where a popular Taiwanese teashop started a branch in California. There are many bubble teashops to chose from here, but I am very loyal to “50 Lan.” The bubbles are always soaked and cooked perfectly, and they use rich milk that makes the taste of the tea really stand out. Maybe I end up over analyzing my cup of bubble tea, but when it comes down to it, the idea of mixing chewy tapioca into a traditional cup of tea is an example of the quirky and adventurous taste buds that Taiwanese have. They combine tastes and aren’t scared to incorporate different textures, which is what makes Taiwanese street food so interesting for me.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cultural Differences: Part One

Lately I have been thinking about cultural differences. I am not talking about cultural differences between America and Taiwan, but cultural differences between Turkmenistan and Taiwan. And I have been thinking about how living in one country can greatly affect your experience in the next. I am more prone to notice and appreciate certain things about Taiwanese culture that I may have overlooked before. Living in Turkmenistan for almost two years in an extremely isolated and politically rigid environment left me hyper sensitive to the lack of restrictions and autonomy that Taiwanese (and I) have here.

On November 27th was a special municipality election for mayors and city councilors in Taiwan. Five cities in Taiwan voted for mayors and local representatives. The streets of Taipei were lined with flags from all the different candidates and huge banners covered bridges and buildings. In the last few weeks leading up to the election, it was commonplace to see a candidate riding around in an open-air car waving to everyone on the street. There was a last minute break in social order when the son of former vice-president, a supporter of a Taipei councilor candidate, was shot while on stage at a rally the evening before the election. Political parties pointed fingers at each other, but there was little conclusive evidence compiled in the few hours before the voting booths opened.

There are two main parties in Taiwan, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), the more conservative, pro-China party, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the pro-independence party. There is a Green Party as well that is a much more serious contender in the elections than the Green Party in America. Taiwanese do not need to register to vote, but are eligible to vote at the location closest to their address on their national identification card. Voters need to bring their national identification card and their personal stamp that has their name carved into it. I peered into a voting booth that was situated in a tiny Japanese style building in a narrow alley at the base of the mountains in Nangang. Voters had their identification verified and were handed the ballots. They took the ballots into the voting box and stamped what looks like a peace sign missing one of the downward pointing lines next to the candidate they are voting for. Voters dropped the ballots into color-coded boxes and exited out of a different door. The weather was bright and warm, and less voters stopped their sunny day activities to go to the voting booth than if the weather had been rainy. Yet, despite the lower turnout of voters than previously recorded, about 70% of the residents in these five special municipalities voted. The KMT won three of the city's mayoral election, but overall majority of the votes went to the DPP.

Geographical political differences are common in many countries, and the “blue north and green south” still rings true in Taiwan. The KMT, or “blue party” held onto the capital, Taipei and two other municipalities in the north, while the DPP, or “green party” clung to the South. Watching the blue and green flashing election results on the television reminded me of a tiny reversed version of America where the conservatives rule the north and the liberals rule the south. It is common for a country’s capital to be the melting pot of the nation, full of people from all over the world with different ideologies and political expectations. In Taiwan, the DPP has only won a majority of votes in the capital with one candidate, former president Chen Shui-Bian. He was elected as mayor in 1994 and used his defeat four years later to run for president in 2000. Taipei has the largest concentration of Mainlanders, those Chinese who moved to Taiwan with the separatist government in 1949, and their descendants. Many Mainlanders hold allegiance to Mainland China, despite having fled with the ROC national government, and will pick a Mainlander candidate over a Taiwanese who considers himself/herself a local. An example of a "local" candidate is Chen Shui-Bian, who was born to illiterate farmers in the south of Taiwan and used education as his tool to getting out of poverty. The stronghold of KMT voters consists of the older generation, a group of people who was possibly born in China, lived through the Japanese occupation, and still has family in China. The younger generation seems to be more pro-independence and there was recently a campaign with the slogan “Taiwan is my country!”

Despite an obvious split in party ideology, there is a general consensus among Taiwanese about the importance of their democratic system. From what I saw, there is a genuine appreciation and respect for freedom of speech in Taiwan. After living in Turkmenistan, where elections take place for show, and nobody has the freedom to express dissatisfaction with the government, the respect for civil rights in Taiwan has bolstered my appreciation for this tiny nation, and the sovereign government they have built without the full recognition or acceptance of the international community.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Beautiful Videos of Taipei City

These are two beautifully done videos shot around Taipei City. They take the hectic urban landscape and slow it down in order to enjoy all the colors and movements of the metropolis.

Please click on the following links to take you to the cinematographer's personal site:


Taipei: Day to Night

Education in Taiwan: Cram vs. Care

Yesterday I was walking around downtown Taipei. My head was beginning to spin from inhaling the car exhaust along the busy road, and I had to zip up my jacket to block out the cool evening air. I went to toss my coffee cup in the nearest garbage can but I stopped in my tracks before I even got close. There, stuffed into the top of the garbage can was a red and blue school backpack, unzipped and scuffed with dirt. The name of the school was printed across the front of the bag in gold, and the tiny size indicated a young student in the first or second grade of elementary school. I don’t know how the backpack got into the garbage, but this abandoned school bag seemed to me like an appropriate act of rebellion by a young, exhausted pupil against the school system. At ten o’clock at night, I have seen the subway crowded with worn out students going home from a fifteen-hour day in school and after-school classes, sleeping standing up on the train, or trying to get a start on their home work while they can still keep their eyes open. A few hours later I walked by the garbage can again and the backpack had been extracted from the trash, zipped up and carefully balanced on top. This intentional act seemed an attempt to place things back in order—the action of an adult to give the young one another chance to pick up their school bag and continue marching with all the others.

As in other Asian countries, there is enormous pressure on Taiwanese students to excel in the classroom. Taiwanese children can start kindergarten as early as two years old. There are six grades in elementary school, three in junior high school and three in high school. Once students complete junior high school, they can take exams to enter specialized vocational high schools. After three years in high school, Taiwanese students can enter universities in Taiwan through high recommendations from their high schools, or entrance exams. Through out a Taiwanese student’s schooling, there is the option for them to attend what are referred to as “cram schools”—academies that specialize in one subject such as English, math, computers, art, and offer evening classes after traditional school hours. Over 17 thousand such cram schools are currently in operation nation wide, serving over 4 million students. On one hand, these “cram schools” can allow a student to focus on one subject that they enjoy, to socialize with their peers and to spend less time at home alone. Yet they can also end up as a babysitting service for parents who work late, and don’t know what to do with their children. In addition, “cram schools” often becomes mandatory for students who have parents that push them academically, and believe that taking additional classes is the only way to scholastic success. Attending classes until ten at night leaves little time for students to enjoy recreational activities, or to relax during unstructured downtime. Not all parents require this of their children, but in such a competitive environment, children are also left feeling like they must take extra courses to keep up with their classmates.

It has been a challenge for me to find a teaching environment here in which I feel that the children’s creativity and unique personalities are being nurtured. The environment is often cutthroat, and the system offers little room for free and creative thinking. After teaching for two years in a very constraining academic environment in Turkmenistan, I am eager to teach in an institution that values originality and fosters imagination. Unfortunately, I am beginning to realize that my ideal teaching environment is atypical in many countries around the world. In a system where children have their identification number embroidered on their school uniforms and bags, there is often more importance placed on compliance, order and repetition than there is on individuality. In a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Comparative and International Education Society in Washington D.C., professor Shen-Keng Yang of National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) wrote:

Serious educational problems [in Taiwan] are also caused by the imbalance between competition and social justice, between power of private sector, parents, school and government. Most of the teachers are in need of in-service training to adapt their teaching methods and attitudes so as to meet the challenges of educational reform.
(Dilemmas of Education Reform in Taiwan, pg15)

This is not to say that the education system here produces individuals who completely lack creativity. Taiwan prides itself for being on the forefront of technological design and production—a reputation that it has gained because of talented and ingenious individuals. In his Inaugural Address, former President Chen Shui-Bian stated, "We will seek a consensus among the ruling and opposite parties, academics and public to carry on with educational reforms and build a healthy, proactive, lively and innovative education system, which will allow Taiwan to cultivate first-class, outstanding talents amid the fierce international competition. We let Taiwan move gradually toward a "learning organization" and a " knowledge-based society.” The Humanistic Education Foundation, whose mission is to promote development of human-centered education in Taiwan, is a leader in the education reform movement in Taiwan; it has after school programs for at-risk children, and frequent meetings with the Ministry of Education about permissible punishments and practices in schools. There is a growing awareness of alternative educational methods, but the government is showing little sign of shifting away from its traditional methodologies. There are a few international schools, Montessori schools and alternative schools, but these are far outnumbered by the State run schools. The educational reform that is currently under debate is largely in response to the increase of globalization and internationalization. As the global economy becomes more competitive, Taiwan’s government feels the added pressure to produce students who are exposed to other languages and cultures in addition to a strong knowledge base about local traditions and social identity. On this small island, there is big pressure on the students currently sitting behind desks.

When I saw the little backpack crammed into the trash can, I couldn’t help imagining a little child stuffing it in there using all the strength in their eight year old arms. As global economic and social trends have strong impacts on educational development, the big wheels that turn this world are weighing down on the shoulders of those who are too young to understand the source of this immense pressure. While I believe that academic success should be encouraged, and achievements should be rewarded, there is much more to education than a 15-hour school day—a child’s education takes place both inside and outside the classroom.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Justice! Not Guilty! Free Men: The Hsichih Trio

This morning I stood out in front of Taiwan’s High Court of Criminal Appeals along with over one hundred other anxious and eager people to hear the verdict for the long running and controversial Hsichih Trio case.

Taiwan has over 200 ongoing criminal cases that have lasted over 10 years. In Taiwan’s appeal process, trials for murder and other serious crimes can bounce between the High Court and the Supreme Court (the highest level of judiciary in the country) because any appeals to the Supreme Court can be handed down to the High Court for an unlimited amount of retrials. This results in judicial ping-pong, and a stalemate in very serious cases. The most infamous ongoing case is the murder trial involving three suspects known as the “Hsichih Trio,” named after the place of murder in northern Taiwan. The trio—Su, Liu Bing-lang and Chuang Lin-hsun—have been waiting for a final verdict for almost 20 years.

In August 1991 these three men were arrested on suspicion of murdering a husband and wife. They were convicted of murder, robbery, and rape, a combination of offences that hold a mandatory death sentence in Taiwan. All three claim to have been tortured and forced into confessing, and there has never been any direct or physical evidence to link them to the murder scene. In February 1992 the three men were found guilty on all accounts and sentenced to death. In the next three and a half years the case was twice sent to the lower courts for retrials, but again, despite any direct evidence or witnesses, inconsistencies in the confessions and the coroner’s testimony that there was no evidence that the female victim had been raped, the conviction was upheld in February 1995. Allegedly, during the district court trials, the judges had refused some of the defense witnesses, including people who had seen the three men elsewhere on the night of the murder. Taiwan’s Prosecutor General made several attempts to have the Supreme Court review the case, but each of his appeals was rejected.

Thus, Taiwan’s justice system condemned three men to death without any substantial evidence, and based the conviction almost entirely on their confessions. This violates Taiwan’s Criminal Procedure Law, revised in 2003, that prohibits confessions from being the primary source of evidence, and forbids the use of confessions extracted through methods of torture. “Torture was clearly recorded during police questioning and the officials involved were impeached by the Control Yuan, while officers involved in the torture were found guilty by the court and sentenced to death,” Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP) executive director Lin Hsin-yi said.” “Yet the Court only deleted part of the confessions that were clearly the result of torture, while keeping other parts.”

In 2003, in yet another retrial, the courts overturned the previous rulings and after spending 12 years in prison awaiting death, the Hsichih Trio was briefly acquitted. Yet on June 30, 2007 the court overturned the verdict of not guilty and re-sentenced the three men to death. In the past three years the Trio has continued to fight for their lives while walking “free” on the street, trying to maintain some form of pedestrian life.

In a public statement from Amnesty International entitled “Taiwan: Miscarriage of Justice: Hsichih Trio re-sentenced to death,” the international human rights organization stated that they “express deep concern at the...2007 sentencing to death...Amnesty International considers the defendants to have suffered repeated miscarriages of justice over the 16 years that the case has been in the Taiwanese court system.” Amnesty International, along with other international organizations and Taiwanese organizations, that oppose the use of the death penalty have appealed to the President for clemency with no success. At the judicial level, there has been much hesitancy by the judges to overrule the verdicts of their predecessors even in the name of justice. “Experience shows that the longer a case runs, the less likely it is to be either truthful or just,” declares the Judicial Reform Foundation on their website.

On October 15, 2010 Taiwan’s Judicial Yuan passed the proposed “Fair and Speedy Criminal Trials Act,” which aims to stop long-running cases like that of the Hsichih Trio. It states that if a case lasts more than 10 years, the courts would be empowered to drop it or to commute the sentence; if a case lasts more than 6 years, and has been found innocent three times by the High Court, the non-guilty verdict would be final. This draft has yet to be put to a vote in the legislature, and continues to attract criticism from law experts, academics and local human rights groups. Critics argue that amnesty should be granted after a certain amount of years if lack of evidence prohibits the trial from moving forward. Even Myanmar, a country with a horrible history of human rights abuses has a law that prohibits defendants from being detained for more than 5 years without a final verdict.

Around the world there have been 129 countries, which have abolished the death penalty through law or practice. Today, what I saw on the steps of the courthouse is the core of one of the most active human rights movements in Taiwan. Busy bodied volunteers had strung hundreds of postcards written to the defendants, lawyers and judges between the trees along the street. Members from the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP) were handing out bright yellow banners, which people wrapped around their arms or heads. Prior to the appeal, dedicated supporters had purchased “We Are Free Men” t-shirts that have silk-screened shadow images of the Trio along with the slogan “waiting for justice since 1991.” The court allowed 112 members of the public inside, and the rest waited on the steps to hear the outcome. There was palpable tension in the air around 10 a.m. when the verdict was being read inside. After a 30 second delay, a shriek of triumph flew out of the courthouse and the news that the 2007 guilty verdict had been overturned brought tears of joy to many of those holding yellow banners. The crowd chanted in support as the judges came outside to speak to the press, and there was loud applause as the three members of the Hsichih Trio emerged from the court as free men (again). Everyone bowed their head in one minute of silent prayer, and as the heads came up and the tears were wiped away, the Trio was escorted from the court, trailed by a long line of cameras and microphones. The news spread quickly that the prosecution plans to appeal within 20 days, but this took little away from the day’s victory, and the shared feeling of accomplishment amongst all the people present. As the crowd began to disperse, a few drops fell from the one rain cloud in the sky, as if to remind everyone that fate, like the weather, can change very quickly.

For more information on the Hsichih Trio Case visit:

Taipei Times Article

Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty

Taiwan Association for Human Rights

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Taiwan's Cold Season

Today the weather turned cold and the rain never let up. The wind whipped the rain into the windows and the “tap tap” of droplets on the roofing echoed through the apartment. When I peered out the window, down onto the street, there were no bright umbrellas bobbing down the narrow ally. All I could see was the stream of glistening water running down the gutter. Everyone was staying inside. So, I pulled out my umbrella and headed out the door. Walking in the rain has never bothered me, and with the crowds off the streets, the tiny roads were open for me to stroll around.

I am living in Northwest Taipei County, on the tropical island of Taiwan. The apartment is close to the mountains, meaning lots of rain when the clouds hit the barrier and release all of their moisture. It is about 30 minutes into Taipei City by train, and from the station I can switch to the subway or a local bus.

But my walk today took me only around my neighborhood. Out the door I took a left onto a narrow, partially covered street that houses the morning market. Each day the street is full of stalls bulging with fresh produce. Amongst the stalls are small food carts that serve steaming bowls of fish ball soup or cups of soy custard with tapioca and red beans. This afternoon the street was nearly empty with all the metal doors pulled down to close the shops. I walked under the awnings to prevent walking in the downpour off the roof. Past the market area the street narrowed even more and I emerged into the courtyard of the neighborhood temple. The red and gold paper lanterns across the road blew in the wind and the chimes sang a melancholy song. Past the temple the little street intersected a main road and I had a feeling I should turn left. There were still no pedestrians on the sidewalk, but cars turned in and out of side streets and motor scooters sped by, forcing me to step back to avoid being splashed. My instinct to turn left onto this main road turned out to be correct, and I ended up at the train station, just a block from the apartment.

Because I speak so little Chinese, my ability to do simple, everyday things like order food is very limited. Because I have yet to learn food vocabulary, I chose to buy my lunch in a 7-11 convenience store, thereby avoiding the need to order off of a menu. I browsed through the prepared foods section and selected a nice pack of dumplings. To drink, I chose a box of soymilk. When the young man behind the counter asked me something, I knew that I should nod my head and say “I want” because he was asking me if I wanted my dumplings heated up. Head nod and mumble, “I want” in the wrong tone. I have never been so intimidated by a language. Chinese just reeks of obscurity and complexity that is beyond my intellectual understanding. I know that if I sat myself down with my Chinese textbook and started tackling it word by word, I would slowly begin to feel more confident about living in Taiwan. But, for now, I will get by on the occasional grunt, nod and look of complete and utter confusion to get me by. I stashed my dumplings in my shoulder bag and the shop girl said something to me that I took to mean, “the container is hot.” Again, I nodded my head and this time flashed her a quick smile and ran away in case she had asked, “Do you want a bag?”

My dumplings were cold by the time I had sloshed home through the rain, but I managed to successfully work all 4 keys to make my way into the apartment. Overall, I considered my outing a success. I had avoided as much unwanted attention as I could get by going out when few people were on the street, and I even settled my growling stomach with some warm(ish) food. I hope that in the next few months I can graduate from prepared convenience store food to fresh homemade cuisine, but first I need the vocabulary to get me there, and that will take hitting the books in the most diligent way.

Monday, September 6, 2010

When people ask me why I am traveling right now, I tell them that this trip is a gift to myself. One could argue that I don’t have enough money, that this trip was not in my budget, or that I should be more productive with my time and energy. I argue that there is no experience apart from traveling the world that gives me so much happiness. If this isn’t enough reason to have left home again, then someone had better correct me with a reason to stay in one place. This trip is a gift because I know that it isn’t entirely necessary, but that my feet would feel more comfortable on different soil. It started with a plan to visit the United Kingdom for a week, and then it expanded to a month-long excursion in four countries. When I had the UK planned, I couldn’t just stop there since I was already going to be across the Atlantic. I decided to add Spain, Morocco and Tunisia to my itinerary. A week before I was scheduled to depart, my travel companion found out she could not accompany me. With everything originally booked in doubles, it had turned out to be a solo expedition. It is always fun to travel with a friend, but traveling by yourself gives you an excellent sense of how much you can handle on your own—a test of strength, will, courage and patience.

But the one thing I really dislike about traveling by myself is going to the bathroom when I have all of my luggage. It is so much nicer when one person can sit with the bags while the other goes to the restroom, and then switch. Traveling with a carry on backpack I have to angle my body around the door, scooting inch by inch closer to the toilet, leaning over the toilet without touching my legs to the seat in order to get myself and my backpack in the stall. The useful hooks that used to be inside bathroom stalls have all been removed and this leaves me with the choice of either 1.) putting all my bags on the floor or 2.) precariously squatting and hovering with a backpack and my messenger bag. The first option ends up with who knows what on the bottom of my bag and the latter ends up with me getting a thigh workout and hoping my balance is pretty good that day. I usually opt for the second option which makes me feel like an accomplished traveler who has all kinds of tricks up her sleeve. I high kick the flusher with the bottom of my shoe, and reverse angle myself back around the door to exit. What people see emerging first from the stall is a backpack followed by a girl who looks as though she is a slave to the backpack.

I visited the UK often as a child, but this was the first time that I had gone on my own accord. And apart from the UK and Ireland, I had never traveled in Western Europe. I focused much of my travel on lesser known destinations, specifically choosing countries that were still developing and changing quickly. In my opinion, I knew Western Europe would be there in a decade; it would be probably much the same with updated technology and the same throngs of tourists from all over the world, walking around with money belts under their shirts and camera lenses pointed at the spires and towers of some famous cathedral or castle. I have always thought of taking wine tours in France and gondola rides in Italy, but I never wanted to see Europe on a “shoestring.” I wanted to do it right. Basically, I needed enough money to afford it. This time I had enough money to fit in two European countries, but that was the limit. Sorry, no October Fest this year (but every Aussie I have met is headed there).

Going to the UK always feels like going home for me. I can easily feel my mother there, and the life that she came from. I can remember the numerous trips to see my Gran when she lived out in little villages here and there. Her streets always had cute names, and there were baby bunnies hopping around her yard, nibbling grass—stuff from a child’s dream. For Easter she would hide giant Cadbury eggs, big enough for a stuffed animal to be placed inside and make us Queen’s Pudding in a crystal bowl. I also remember the time my sister and I were taking a stroll on the path across from her house, looking for the bunnies, but all we ever came across was a man relieving himself into the nearby brush. Most of it was out of a fairytale. Now, as an adult, things aren’t quite as picturesque as through a child’s eyes, but I still greatly appreciate the rolling green fields separated by mossy stone walls, overflowing hanging baskets of flowers, and tiny corner bakeries selling pastries with funny names like Flapjack and Eccelscake. My mother’s childhood town of Brewood (pronounced Brewd) was a quaint as any village I have seen. Cobblestone streets took you past the barbershop to the Jubilee Hall where my Gran used to star in local theatrical productions. Down the hill, behind the mossy church and gravestones was the local pub. Brewood Convent School for Girls was now masquerading as St. Dominic’s, but strong faith or strong architecture had kept it standing even through the difficult students like my mum, who was twice threatened with expulsion. In order to get to school everyday, my mum would ride her bike through the country lanes up to the village. Life back then seemed so carefree and relaxed compared to a child’s life today. The parents never had to fear for their children’s safety, and this allowed my mum and her brothers to bike miles away to see friends or have a swim in the lake. I suppose that my childhood memories of England compare to my mum’s upbringing—the same freedom in small town, rural England.

Google Earth image of Brewood

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Stuck In The Mud

When one guest asked me who was the most fascinating author attending that night’s dinner, I didn’t need to think for a second. I had idolized him since high school, referencing him like other teenagers did Brad Pitt or Leonardo Dicaprio. One of his books had fallen into my hands courtesy of a friend, but despite all of our talk about the author, I couldn’t remember the name of the book. Stuck In The Mud, a far cry from the actual title, Lost In Place, was my fabricated name. Since devouring the first book, and finally remembering the correct title, I swept through all of his titles, taking up each book like my next adventure—with eagerness and an open mind. He spoke with a humor and frank honesty about his awkward childhood that I related to. If he had been quirky enough to spend hours on end in a home-made cardboard spaceship, training himself for the real hardship of outer space exploration, then surely singing infomercial theme songs in the pantry with my sister was mere folly, to be outgrown at a later age. Maybe Stuck In The Mud, was more of a reflection of my childhood spent in rural Idaho than it was for his in suburbia, but I connected to his stories more than I had with any other author.

When I left for Peace Corps I decided to take one book with me—Iron & Silk, an account of his two years spent teaching in rural China in the 1980s. Not knowing what to expect in Turkmenistan, and not knowing how I was going to react to my new surroundings, I did know one thing; I needed a book that would be able to make me laugh. At that point, even looking at the book made me feel happier because I had read it enough times to remember each individual story inside the book. My memory conjured up images of him on the bank of the river, appearing like a ghost misted in the morning fog when the fishermen pulling up their nets spotted him and froze from fear and surprise. To free the fishermen from their fear, he smiled wide and offered a morning greeting, which created more disbelief because the white man spoke their language. Other than laughter, I knew that I would need a reminder—a push to get me out the door to meet people when I was sitting by myself at home. All of his great adventures in China happened when he put himself out there, and opened up to the locals. I had to remind myself that when I felt removed from the community, it was probably my fault for lack of trying. I did not re-read Iron & Silk while I was in the Peace Corps, but just knowing that it was always there if I needed an old friend helped me through some lonely moments.

After idolizing someone for so long, when you get the chance to meet them you hope they do not turn out to be egotistical and disinterested in you, their biggest fan. My chance to meet my favorite author coupled with my employment for the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. In its 15th year, the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference attracted some high profile authors and political figures, all vying to be invited to speak. Henry Paulson, Justice Breyer, Ethan Canin, Ishmael Beah, David Kennedy and Niall Ferguson were some of the lucky chosen to attend the conference. My favorite referred to himself as, not one of the warriors, but as the “conscience” of the conference. He was responsible for blowing on the little fire that kept things alight and awash in flames. Mark Salzman was not one of the heavy hitters, but presented one of the best sessions at the conference, definitely a crowd favorite by all means, keeping everyone laughing by mostly poking fun at himself. His talent for crafting entertaining stories out of seemingly banal everyday occurrences from his life back in suburbia might only be compared to that of David Sedaris. When this guest asked me who was the most fascinating author in the room, I don’t think he was prepared for the 90 second rundown of all Mark Salzman’s books accompanied by my personal opinion on each. My goal for the conference was to befriend Mark Salzman without him issuing a restraining order against me. He was shorter than I had imagined, but I was the one wearing three inch heels. His hair was parted on the left side and a few of his teeth were crooked, a detail only noticeable by looking at his profile. He shook my hand with an approving bob of his head and a firm grip. I jumped into my story about only taking his book with me to Peace Corps, all the while feeling my face heat up with embarrassment. He seemed genuinely flattered, but I immediately started to feel the stalker obsession come on. I had never understood those teenage girls waving handwritten signs and crying at the sight of their pop idol, but now, with Mark Salzman in front of me I had to stop myself from dishing all of my personal secrets (like he cared) or stealthily cutting off a lock of his hair (too creepy). In the end I decided that asking him to sign the very book I took to Peace Corps would be the most socially acceptable thing to do. While flipping through to find a blank page, he came across my friend’s note scribbled next to a young Mark Salzman photo, “can you believe he’s as old as he is? He’s so cute!” Mark slapped his legs with nervous laughter, and once again I felt myself turn into the color of a ripe tomato. Me opting for the easy route of book signing left me sweating, red in the face and wondering why I had not just snipped a lock of his silky brown hair and run far, far away.

Friday, July 30, 2010


Way back when one of my Russian tutors was from Kazakhstan and the other was from Turkmenistan. My tutor from K-stan explained what the suffix -stan means. Her explanation included a story told by her grandfather, whether or not this is fictional I don't know exactly, but I liked the story anyway. When most of Central Asia was nomadic, he began, the communities lived in small yurt villages. Each family was able to carry their home in carts or side bags carried by their animals. The yurts could be pulled down or put up in a matter of hours, and when the community needed to move, they could in a hurry. They selected the area where they would set up their yurts with care. It needed to be safe and close to food and water sources. The yurts were put up in a circle formation, and the people referred to this yurt community as their "stan." The word "stan" had tribal connotations as well as territorial implications. I have not done any research to confirm that this is historically accurate, but considering the implications of "stan" in today's language, it seemed that this explanation might well have been the origin of the common suffix.

Linguistically speaking, the suffix "stan" is an ancient Persian and/or Farsi word meaning country, nation, land or place of. The suffix appears in the names of many regions, especially Central and South Asia. The country Turkmenistan therefore means "place of the Turkmen." In Persian the suffix is used more generally in words such as rigestan 'place of sand' or desert. In Sanskrit devasthan, 'place of devas' means temple. The root of -stan, "sta" is also the source of the English words stand and status

Although I have left Turkmenistan, I have not changed the name of my blog Anniestan because literally this translates to "place of Annie," and that is exactly what this blog is. It is an expression of my place and journey on this earth. I may not be in a -stan country anymore, but wherever I go automatically becomes my Anniestan.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sustainable Projects: How can one create sustainability?

My training village was a tiny dot off a bumpy road leading into the desert. It was so small that there was no need for street names, let alone paved roads. Everything was dusted in a thick layer or fine dirt that never went away. Camels roamed through yards, and thorny tumble weeds blew down the streets. A walk through town took ten minutes, running from the growling dogs and brandishing rocks to scare off those brave enough to charge. The little white stucco buildings lining the roads were dwarfed by the plastic covered greenhouses behind them. When nobody answered from inside the house, one could be sure that the family was busy back in the greenhouse. Every house had at least one greenhouse to call their own. They were long 40 foot wooden frames that were covered in the cold months with plastic sheets. All year long tomatoes, cucumbers, lemons, oranges and apricots flourished in the warmth. Families connected their main gas lines to smaller pipes that fueled small stoves in the greenhouses. Children carted buckets and buckets of water from the wells to dump on the rows so carefully dug out months before. When everything was barren, brown and desolate outside, entering one of the greenhouses felt like stepping into a jungle--hot, steaming, green and lush. I never saw another village with a similar abundance of greenhouses. I asked around and found out that they had been a UNICEF project completed five years before I arrived. I witnessed the daily devotional routine practiced by every family in my village--water, weed, pick, prune. The growing produce demanded so continual manual labor, but the pay-off in the end, selling it all at market, was the motivation. For a tiny village with few jobs or opportunities, each family was able to support themselves with the help of the UNICEF project. I could see dedication and determination reserved specifically for the greenhouses. They were cared for, respected, and well used. More importantly, they had lifted the entire village up on the socioeconomic ladder--they had created sustainable economic opportunities for generations.
Just up the road, in the courtyard at the local school sat another UNICEF project. Most students tried not to use the bathroom at school, but waited until they got home. This was for good reason. One could smell the stench 50 feet away, and tried to stay up wind whenever possible. This bathroom was not the UNICEF project. Obviously they had seen the toilet situation at this village school, and had built a new bathroom to improve sanitation. Near the old toilets was a small building with containing a boys side and a girls side with locking stalls, flushable toilets, sinks and screened windows. Maybe at some point there was plumbing, but by the time I arrived, the desert sand had begun to take over the bathroom, and every hole was filled with dirt. The sinks were lizard homes, and the toilet paper holders were broken. Maybe, at some point, the door was unlocked. The sturdy metal door had a brand new lock, and only the school director had the key. "It's locked because it is new and we don't want to ruin it," he explained. So the children continued to hold it until they went home, and we learned that the teachers used the neighbor's outhouse behind the gymnasium, next to her cow. "She doesn't mind", we were told. This was my first encounter with a complete failure of a project in Turkmenistan. UNICEF had good intentions, but unlike the greenhouse project, this one had failed to be sustainable.
In my village I was faced with the challenge of developing a sustainable project in my community. Creating sustainability, for me, is the ultimate goal of the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps commitment is two years precisely for the reason that grass-roots projects are slow going. A sustainable project is not going to be accomplished in a short time, and proper community assessment is a time consuming and meticulous process. Much of community assessment is asking lots of questions to people spanning a diverse population. One must include all demographics to be completely thorough, and gaining the trust of so many people takes time and patience.
Because I spent the most time with my students, I brought up the idea of a project first with them. I had them draw a picture of their community, including everything important to them. This straight forward exercise caused a lot of tension between students because each had their own idea of how the map should look. They all suddenly became very territorial and possessive of their community. When they had each used their marker to

Monday, May 3, 2010

Shopping List:
I always take my time and walk along the rows before I start buying the day’s purchases. I look over the fruit and vegetables and causally ask a few vendors their prices. I have found that the lettuce and radishes are cheapest in the back where the vendors have their produce laid out on plastic tarps and crates. The apples are freshest in the front where the vendors display their shined and washed fruits and vegetables on recently renovated stalls. Women bustle around, hardly appearing burdened by the large bags they have hung over their arms. The men with carts yell “tachka, tachka” to warn you that you have about two seconds to move out of the way or else you will be run over. I pick up one of the apples and ask the vendor the price. “15,000 manat per kilo,” she says ($1.05). “No,” I say. “Give them to me for cheaper.” “12,000 manat,” I suggest ($0.84) and eventually she settles for 13,000 manat and I save a fraction of a dollar. Sometimes I evesdrop on Turkmen shoppers to hear the prices the vendors tell a native. By now I know the going rate for tomatoes or oatmeal, and I scoff at an inflated price and move on. The cell phone card lady greets me with a familiar “sen” used for friends, and she asks about my work. Every week I buy the same card from her, and when I skip a week she asks me where I went. The oatmeal lady lives in my town, and she gives me a good deal on a kilo of oatmeal that lasts me almost a month. The moneychangers incessantly ask me in furtive murmurs if I want to change dollars even though I have told them from the beginning that I only have manat. As I walk around I can hear people whispering, “she’s American” and this echo around the bazaar has become familiar along with the squawking of the birds, the pounding of heavy feet, the yelling of greetings across aisles and the crinkling of plastic bags as they are handed to the customers. Every Monday I take my reusable bag to the bazaar in Turkmenabat and try my hand at bargaining away at my shopping list.
As the weather warms, the stalls at the bazaar swell with fresh produce. The winter months bring slim pickings for fresh fruit and vegetables, and in the spring new produce appears overnight. My shopping list is incredibly simple and straight forward compared to what I used to have in America. I make everything from scratch here. Therefore, the products listed are raw products, straight from the local farms around the city. The strawberry lady assures me that she grows the strawberries herself in a small village 30 minutes outside of the city. The cauliflower that I happen upon also comes from a village in my region. Most of the vendors sell produce that they have grown from seed. Of course the occasional pineapple or kiwi is most definitely not grown locally in Turkmenistan, but the kinds of imported produce I can count on one hand. Although I complain about the slim pickings in the winter, I have come to respect the idea of truly eating what is in season, and what is available locally. If it isn’t grown here and now, you won’t find it in the bazaar! I am acutely aware of what I am eating, where it is from, and that it is in season. The idea of “locally grown” is not a choice here, and it is the way that all Turkmen eat. We have lost this in America, where we can get anything at anytime of the year. When are lemons in season? They’re in season in the fall in Turkmenistan, but in America who knows, because they are always available. There are few ready-made foods here, and by making everything from scratch I know exactly what I am eating. An oatmeal package that one can buy in America is full of processed sugars and chemicals, but here I am sure my oatmeal consists of oats, milk, water, apple and honey. Cooking oatmeal from scratch takes more time than 30 seconds in a microwave, but I am certain that what I am ingesting is good for me. This new style of shopping, cooking and eating has increased my appreciation for the clich├ęd “circle of life.” I don’t think Turkmen would need to go through this realization because they are used to eating what is in season, but as an American I can really see the difference between the shopping and cooking experience here and in my home country. When I return to America, I will take my reusable bag to the local farmer’s market, browse the aisles and select the best produce. Unfortunately in America part of the fun is cut out because the prices are non-negotiable, but the farmer’s market is by far a more enjoyable experience for me than a supermarket.

Global Youth Service Day

A few students at school number one, where I teach, have designed two
community service projects to celebrate Global Youth Service Day. To
celebrate Earth Day, on April 22nd, they picked up trash around the
school and made the school grounds look cleaner than I have ever seen.
Second, they are helping an elderly lady, who lives by herself, with
her spring cleaning and gardening work. On April 27th they will also
cook for her and bake her a cake, which they hope will make her very
happy. The idea of volunteerism in Turkmenistan is not widely
understood, and in preparation for Global Youth Service Day, I
discussed volunteerism with this small group of students discussed. I
posted our project on the Global Youth Service Day project (we are the
only project in Turkmenistan), and I hope that this small practice in
volunteerism will inspire these students to serve in their community
in the future.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

My Birthday

This past weekend consisted of a three-day ongoing celebration of my 25th birthday. I had little to do with the majority of the planning of the events, but the surprises kept coming. On Friday my intermediate level class organized a surprise party. None of them showed up for club, and then one student bust through my door out of breath and muttering, “May I come in teacher?” I asked her if the others were on their way and she shook her head and said, “No, come with me.” They had set up a huge table with all of my favorite foods. We spent the evening gorging ourselves with food and getting up to dance in between courses. I think that I have previously mentioned that Turkmen love to dance. Music or no music, they will dance whenever and wherever. They taught me some traditional Turkmen dances that I had seen done at weddings, but never learned before. Then I reciprocated and taught them a hip-hop dance I made up on the spot. All of the shaking and spinning didn’t help digestion, but it made for one of the most memorable evenings in Turkmenistan.

On my actual birthday I was bombarded at school. Students were skipping classes to go home to get me presents! With one of my sixth grade classes they wanted to sing and dance for me. I heard Turkmen and Uzbek songs and a perfect rendition of a Bollywood song and dance number by two boys. The grand finale was something planned by the boys. From what I saw, it looked like a human pyramid in the shape of a camel. I am not sure if this is what they were going for, but that is what came to my mind and I applauded vigorously for creative ingenuity.

On Sunday my host-family wanted to take me and my friends to the forest for a barbeque. I invited several Turkmen and American friends and we drove out sandy back roads to one of the Black Wood Forest areas. These trees are going extinct because, unfortunately, their dry wood makes for perfect barbeque firewood. My host-dad started the kebab fire with some of the fallen wood, and once the fire had died down to hot coals, we laid the kebab sticks across the fire propping them up on a few bricks placed on either side of the coals. We made salad, washed fruit, piled plates with candies and cookies, and cracked open bottles of beer. My host-dad makes some amazing barbeque and despite our best efforts, we were nowhere close to finishing all of the meat. I made a banana cake with dark chocolate frosting and despite the high winds that day, a few volunteers managed to get about 10 candles lit by using the flat, circular bread to shield the cake from the gusts. That move could only be done in Lebap where they follow to the sacred bread rules on a more lenient basis. We played volleyball with my host-brother and talked about hunting season with my host-dad. When the volleyball rolled into the river, Collin ran after it and ended up in the water himself. There was no way it was planned, but he happened to bring an extra change of clothes. An afternoon barbeque in the forest of by the river is real Turkmen recreation. There were several other families we saw driving out there. It made me really happy that I could top of my birthday weekend by enjoying a picnic with my closest American and Turkmen friends that I have here!

My Easter Present

I got back to Turkmenistan on March 2nd and, as per my plan, I hit the ground running and got back to work as fast as I could. I did give myself 24 hours adjustment time in Ashgabat before I flew back to my region, but I was anxious to get back to my town and see everyone. Nobody in my community knew that I was back in Turkmenistan until I called a few people from Ashgabat. When I left Turkmenistan I couldn’t say for sure if I was returning. My decision was pending on my mum’s health, and what I felt comfortable with. This left my community wondering whether or not they would ever see me. My students especially were anxious about my return. When I did get back I received an extremely warm welcome from everyone. When my students saw me at school it was like out of a scene from a movie. They would spot me in the hall, run towards me and throw their arms around me with big smiles and a whirlwind of questions.

As a coping technique to deal with the transition and homesickness, I busied myself with work. I immediately got started on my grant proposal. I had previously approached the physical education teachers about doing a project together, and on my first day back at school I had cornered them and asked if they were still interested in the grant ideas. From the start they were really enthusiastic about everything, and helped me compile all of the data, prices, measurements and information I needed for the grant proposal. Although I had lots of support from the teachers we still needed permission from the director—then the school director needed permission from his director, then the etrap director needed permission from his boss, then that left us with no other option than to go to Turkmenabat and meet with the head of the Ministry of Education himself. At this point I thought that our project was as good as dead. But with help from some other teachers we typed up a letter stating the project’s goals and objectives and I went with the physical education teachers to Turkmenabat.

The head of the Ministry of Education in Lebap region is widely feared and has a reputation of shutting down volunteers’ projects. In Turkmenistan everyone fears their director, and government officials have a talent of making any grown man stutter over his words. Before we got to his office one of the teachers had told me, “I am not afraid of him. The only thing I fear is Allah.” But as we climbed the five flights of stairs to his office, this same teacher looked at me and said, “Okay, now I am scared.” Because I have not been raised in this culture, I understood why everyone was afraid, but I was trying to play the part of the optimistic American. After waiting for almost an hour for him to come back to his office he saw us for maybe two minutes. As the sports teacher stammered through his reason for being there, the minister didn’t even notice me there—-maybe my dress blended in with the shiny wallpaper. It was only until I had squeezed my way into his office before the door closed that he realized I was part of the group. My name was included in the letter, and while he was reading he looked at the paper, looked up at me, looked at the paper and the nodded his head in understanding of why I had not said a single word. I have found that trying to hide my American-ness helps in circumstances like this, with basically any encounter with the Turkmen government. He tapped his hands on the desk, glanced at me and asked in Turkmen, “So, how’s your work?” Maybe I was more nervous than I will admit, because I said “Everything is great at my school,” and I gave him a juvenile thumbs up with a dopey look on my face. He asked how well students know English at my school, and this time I answered with my hands in my lap. Our letter and my spastic responses must have passed the test because he placed his hands on his desk and said, “I will call Ashgabat [the head of the ministry] and tell them about this.” Ta da! And in two minutes we had permission from basically every person on up to the president himself!

Somehow, with help from some higher power, within two weeks we had finished the grant proposal for a USAID Small Project Assistance Grant. We proposed to renovate our school gymnasium, buy new sports equipment, expand the after-school physical education program, and start a big brother, big sister program that matches older students with younger students to teach them about healthy living, sportsmanship and physical education. Now the rest is out of our hands as our grant passes through the hands of several review committees in Turkmenistan and in America. We should hear back in about a month, and then, if funded, we will begin the renovations after classes end in early June.

If you have read this far, you have committed to read to the end! My other big piece of news is that Jennet had her baby on Easter Sunday. She was born at 12:20am at our local hospital and because of complications I was not present for the birth, but I got there as soon as I heard the good news. My host mom delivered the baby and wanted to come home and tell me, but had to go deliver another baby immediately after Jennet. As I previously wrote, Jennet wanted to name her Enejan, after me. I didn’t know about the family politics of naming a baby until the second day after she was born. Jennet was in tears about pressure from her in-laws about names. They told her that she could not name the baby Enejan and that she would have to choose another name. To me this is absurd, and I told her that she should name her baby whatever she wants. But, this is forgetting that Jennet has to deal with these people for the rest of her life, and when your mother-in-law prohibits something, you had better listen. Turkmen women have a real talent for starting gossip and Jennet was afraid of backlash if she ignored her in-laws. Jennet decided to name her Aylar, which means “moons.” She thought that I might be mad about the name change, but I assured her that the name means little to me and that she is my goddaughter no matter what. They don’t usually allow visitors inside the maternal ward, but they let me in for a few minutes during my first visit. When I held Aylar, when she was only 8 hours old, I partially felt that instinctual maternal love for a baby that a mother has when she sees her child for the first time. She has Jennet’s nose. I noticed that immediately. Her tiny olive shaped eyes were so small. While I was holding her she started cooing at me, and I quipped that she already speaks my language. In my arms was my life-long connection to this country, swaddled in a blanket and weighing no more than 8 lbs.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


I recently started having my students write journals. I remember one
of my Russian friends telling me that she wrote her journal in English
because it was the best daily practice that she could get. My
intermediate students have been less diligent about writing than my
advanced students. For my lower level students the journals are still
like an annoying homework task because they can still struggle with
grammar in present simple. For my upper level students their journals
have become a place where they divulge their secrets, dreams and
thoughts. Over and over I have marveled at their writing skills, and
their ability to be quite precise by fully utilizing their vocabulary.
I decided to share a journal entry by one of my top students.

Journal entry by Leyla R.

Sometimes I sit in the yard and watch the sky. I saw it’s very big,
wide and high. Birds fly in the sky. Trees can’t touch it. It’s so
high. When I watch it, I realize that people can do what they want,
but it’s temporary. When I watch the sky I understand that time goes
and we must do something important then we’ll not be pity. I
understand people should not pass their time free. Even trees and
birds or plants don’t pass their time free. Trees grow, make leaves,
then drop their leaves. It’s their work. Blue color approach to sky.
Life’s color is blue. Water has blue color too. When I watch the
sky, I go to dream. I can do my work without problems. Sky’s blue
color is tender. So people can dream and fly. When I watch the sky I
think only about good.

I advise you to watch the sky and you can feel how that’s amazing.

At night I watch the moon. Of course if there is a moon. If there is
a moon it is so white and light. When the moon is clear it looks very
beautiful. When I watch the moon I feel the moon watches me, too.
Yes, when I watch the moon or stars I rest. When I watch the sky I
rest, too. They have an unknown power. This power helps us, give us
dreams, opinions and we can feel at ease.

Yesterday I had a dream,
In the dream I flew to the moon,
I saw the moon was hungry,
And she had in hand a spoon.
The room was dark and there was a flimsy divider that blocked off the
patient from the view of people passing in the corridor. I perched on
the edge of the table with my hand on Jennet’s leg as the doctor
spread cold jelly onto her protruding stomach. As the doctor pushed
the wand around, the fuzzy image began to sharpen on the television
screen. There is the head. Do you see it? Yes. There is an arm.
Do you see it? Yes, but are there two? There is a leg. Do you see
it? Yes, there are two legs also. Jennet, you have a girl! I let
out a muffled laugh as I caught Jennet’s eye, which I hope the doctor
didn’t interpret as indifference or mockery. First, let me take you
back a few months.

Last fall I was Jennet’s bridesmaid. This event was perhaps the most
remarkable and memorable of my entire Peace Corps experience, but with
the news of Jennet’s pregnancy, I realized that the wedding was just
the beginning. Her pregnancy has been difficult, and she has had
plenty of volunteers offering their advice, extra multi-vitamins and
knitting skills to make petite baby socks. Before I left for America,
Jennet asked me to help her during her birth, and I accepted but
quickly realized that I knew next to nothing about the real birthing
process. Despite having a mother who had my sister and I at home
without any painkillers, I have not bothered to ask her much about the
technicalities of giving birth. I realized how much Hollywood and
feet stirrups played into my idea of birth, both probably not really
applying to Turkmenistan very well. Back in the US, I perused the
birthing and baby book aisle not without a few furtive glances in my
direction. The book I finally settled on has recently been my go-to
resource more than any of my TEFL (teaching) books. If Jennet has an
ache in her leg, I dash to the glossary and find the most plausible
cause. Her nieces and nephews have taken interest in the book,
particularly in the live birth pictures, which caused an awkward
moment until their mother said that she didn’t care. Jennet had been
waiting for me to come back to go get an ultrasound. On my first day
back, we jumped in a taxi and went to the big hospital in Turkmenabat.
As far as I know, this is the only ultrasound machine in the entire
welayat (region). I had heard horror stories about lines out the
door, and pregnant women passing out from the congestion and hours of
waiting. We were lucky and our wait was two hours, and we spent most
of the time looking at the birthing book and talking to the other
women about exercises and healthy eating habits. They were all
fascinated by the book, and it made me sad that they don’t have any of
this information available to them. Practically every Turkmen woman
will have at least one child, and they go through pregnancy and birth
relying mostly on the advice of other women in their family, which
often can be outdated or inaccurate. For example, Jennet was
experiencing pain in her joints, and she was told by a family member,
who is a doctor, that she should drink vodka to get rid of the
infection. I practically screamed when I heard this, but was relieved
to know that Jennet ignored the advice and has not been taking shots
of any kind of alcohol. As we were waiting on the hard, wooden
chairs, we agreed that we didn’t want to know the sex of the baby.
Jennet has been wanting it to be a surprise, but in the excitement of
seeing the baby, both of us forgot to mention this important request
to the doctor. Woops, and it’s a girl! But both of us were grinning,
and quickly lightened up at the news. The baby is healthy—two arms
and two legs, about which Jennet made sure to ask. I hope Jennet’s
husband doesn’t get wind of my blog because he still doesn’t know the
sex of the baby. Actually, only Jennet and I, and now the entire
world wide web community if they so care, know about it. Jennet has
named me the Godmother of this baby, in another touching outreach of
her faith in me and in our friendship. I was secretly hoping for a
girl because in addition to being named the Godmother, Jennet told me
that she wants to name the baby after me. Her name will be Enejan, my
Turkmen nickname. Ene means mother in our dialect of Turkmen, and
–jan is the suffix to create a diminutive. So, in essence, Enejan
means, darling (or dear) mother. This might seem like a strange name
for a newborn baby, but adding the diminutive –jan onto words like
mother, father, grandmother and grandfather are common names. After
the ultrasound, Jennet told me that when he asked about the sex of the
baby, she told her husband that she didn’t know. Then when he asked
about baby names, she said that he can pick the boys name and she can
pick the girls name!