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!