Sunday, December 13, 2009

Hard Questions

Late last week, I receive a long list of questions from Meggers' 7th grade students (who is Meggers? Just wait for my posts about THAILAND!). Holy crickets could those kids ask tough questions. As I sat typing up my long winded responses, I, this is a great review of my past year of service. December 11, 2008, I moved to Zaqatala to began my 2 years of service and look where I am now... 

What is your job there? (J)

Well J, I am a Peace Corps Volunteer - which means I work toward accomplishing 3 goals: 1. teach the locals what I know 2. teach them about America & Alaska and 3. learn about Azerbaijan so I can teach people at home (so, while I spend the next hour answering all these questions, I am actually working!).

My specific program area is Youth Development, but Peace Corps worldwide considers any PCV a Community Development Worker. So...

I do several things. I hang out a lot and talk about America and learn about Azerbaijan with my friends here. I visit PCVs in other regions of the county to show locals in other areas that not all Americans look or act the same. I lead conversation clubs were young people practice talking in English and are able to debate topics (an example is why are ethnicity and nationality different - all Azerbaijanis are Azerbaijani - unlike America where we are Chinese American or American Indian or Puerto Rican). I am trying to raise money to buy photo cameras for a summer art camp. I am helping a local farmer co-op in learning how to combat a local chesnut tree blight and, I am teaching a group of young girls how to use computers and the internet.

3. What is it like day to day living there as a black female ?(R)

Good (but difficult) question R! Well, being Black is one thing. Azerbaijanis live in a homeogenous society where everyone looks the same. Seeing someone different is so odd, it is scary for them. They say hurtful things. Living in one place has really helped me build a great support network. After living here for one year, I have earned a lot of respect in my community. My host family played a crucial role in helping me build a positive reputation, which I will forever be in their debt. Now, people act as if I am just another piece of the puzzle for Zaqatala and I attract very little attention from locals.

Unfortunately, I leave Zaqatala rather frequently and have to deal with people who have no idea who I am. Most often, it is just straight forward curiostiy. Why is my hair so curly? Why is my skin dark? Where am I really from (I am definitely not American to Azerbaijanis who only see Americans on television and think we are all blond and blue eyed. Thank you Obama for helping to change that belief!)?

Plus, leaving Zaqatala, which has a pretty liberal policy of how to treat women and heading to more conservative communities is hard. In Zaqatala, I visit my market alone. I walk around unescorted, and I talk with males on the street. Anywhere else, I am treated like I am a female - which in this culture means I should be at home, having children and cooking food.

But do not get the wrong idea. For Azerbaijan, the gender roles are different and ingrained. It is how people have always been. Just because it is different than America does not necessarily make it wrong.

8. How do you stand helping a sexist society? (M)

Ah M. I laughed when I read this question. Not because I think it is a bad question, but because it is a question often debated in PCV ciricles. A lot of us talk about cultural relativism - which is the idea that you are viewing another culture through your cultural lense and judging it based on that. Just because it looks sexist from an American standpoint does not mean it is sexist.

Then again, maybe it is...maybe cultural relativism is just an excuse to do nothing when women are stripped of their basic rights.

Who knows. To be honest, after living here for a year, some things about how women are treated in Azerbaijan will never sit well with me. On the other side, I now know a lot of how men treat women here are because for them it is respectful.

This experience has been great for me because it forced me to open my eyes. Just because I was taught that women have to be treated one way does not make that one way right. There is gray everywhere and it is more important to be aware of the gray, the relative, than to believe it is all black and white.

I guess that does not answer your question. I work here because 1. I did not have a choice (Peace Corps places you). 2. I can teach about human rights. 3. Nobody will learn about alternatives unless someone brings those alternatives to their doorstep.