Monday, October 31, 2011

Flash Mob

Sorry this took so long guys...busy weekend. Enjoy a video of our summer art program end-of-program flash mob while I work on another blog post!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Peace Corps, Dating, & Marriage

Admit it, you've been waiting for this post. I mean, we all hear the rumors, the gossip, the statistics - now, let me blab on about it for the next 2 to 5 minutes.

When I first started telling my friends and family I was considering Peace Corps, I couldn't believe how many people insinuated that in 2 years I would return married. It seems like everybody and their grandmother seems to think Peace Corps is some sort of marriage agency. With only 10% of Peace Corps Volunteers being married when the enter service (stat [link]), the idea that the remaining 90% of us would pair off seemed a little unrealistic.

And it probably is. I mean, don't get me wrong. I have seen a few PCVs pair off and even more marry Host Country Nationals. I have talked with RPCVs and it seems like everybody has got a story of a couple that made it. Upon further review, I think it's probably higher on the RPCV end as it makes sense RPCVs marry other RPCVs. I mean, this experience changes you and for some reason, it just seems natural to think RPCVs marry other RPCVs.

Anyway, my point being don't bank on finding that special someone in Peace Corps. First off, dating while serving is hard. The potential partner pool is small and you often don't get to spend quality alone time (unless you think crowds of 5 or more constitute being alone). Awkwardness immediately springs to life when you watch people battle stomach issues or have mini-breakdowns because they cannot figure out how to pronounce the "g" with the little hat (gggghhhrr).

Then, you throw in the living in different communities, the focus on your work, and the attention you must give to cultural norms...Well, you end up with not a great recipe for a healthy and successful relationship.

Granted, some of these things do push you together. It's easy to latch on to someone when the rest of your life is beyond your control. You may date people you never considered before and even fall hard in just a short period of time. This happens and it's hard to gain perspective when you are in the situation. I often hear PCVs talk about the "real world" when comparing PC life to life in the US. I can't say for certain, but I think a lot of us feel like this is just a wild experiment at times. Unfortunately, even with that feeling, the consequences here are just as real as any others - especially the broken hearts...

Eh. My point is that PCVs do date and marry, but the percentage is just not as high as everybody thinks it is. I mean, if I, the most perfect person on the planet, am still single after 3 years, it probably means something is wrong with the situation, not me, right?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The End is Nearing...

I keep starting this post and then putting it off. I know I should stop writing, hit publish and then [really] begin the process of saying good-bye. I mean, in just a few short months, its gonna be that old adage
You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.
Geez. [This is usually the point where I stop writing and instead queue up an episode of Star Trek Voyager].

It's been such a wild ride. Just the other day, I came to another one of those big, life-changing realizations when I ran smack dab into another cultural habit that I have never heard of. It blows my mind that every day I learn more than a handful of new things even when I have been here for 3 (+) years.

I mean, come on!

It is just...whew. I cannot believe these past 3 years have gone by so fast. Wasn't I just celebrating turning 25 and heading off to begin my adventure? Didn't I just spend 30 minutes trying to explain to my host mom that it's not that I don't like milk it's that I cannot drink milk without horrible consequences (still have no idea how to say consequence in Azerbaijani)?

Time has really flown by and here I am, procrastinating on the next step. I still have yet to really get down to the nitty-gritty of job searching (I am holding out for my dream fellowship) and I haven't even confirmed my COS date with staff. All I got is a ban on out-of-country travel (during a PCV's first three months and last three months of service, travel outside of their host country is prohibited) and an email box full of end-of-service documents to start working on.

Geez (again)...I will keep you posted on what's what - unless you all have suggestions…

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Learning to Be Me...Part 3

Peace Corps Azerbaijan does a fantastic job preparing a Volunteer for service - maybe, they do it a little too well. When you get all those country documents in the mail, you become overwhelmed. It sounds like you are moving halfway around the world to a land unknown - and you kind of are. For me, when I got here, I started to assume (again, assumptions...) that Azerbaijanis were like Americans because people dressed similar, there was a lot of mainstream media and music going around, and nobody looked like a Vulcan [Star Trek reference!].

But don't be fooled. Azerbaijani culture is not American culture.

It took me a few months and a lot of frustration to slowly realized as much as much as they are same on the surface, the underlying factors are nothing alike (our countries' uniquely different histories should have been my first clue). I became scared to assert myself because I didn't want any more miscommunications. I wore the clothing style suggested by Peace Corps and I acted like I was told during training.

In retrospect, that was the best way to handle the situation.

My community had to learn to trust me and the only way they could learn to do so is if I showed them I was willing to adapt and integrate into their society. I had to build my own credibility before I could assert my individuality. A pretty popular linear chart shows the difference between Western and Eastern societies as the difference between individual and community-oriented cultures. Azerbaijan is a community-oriented culture. If I had come in here waving my individuality flag, I would have had an uphill battle on my hands. For a country with lots of access to mainstream media, they don't have a lot of access to Western culture. How could they? It's not like t.v. has developed a technology that inputs cultural concepts, beliefs, and traditions into your living room.

Anyway, it took me two years to figure out how to be an individual in a community-oriented society. Peace Corps had asked me if I was willing to wearing hijab to volunteer, but I never took that to the next step and asked myself if I was willing to mute parts of my personality to volunteer.

I understand that to be a part of Azerbaijan, I have to adapt accordingly. The better I integrate, the safer I am and the easier it is work. Now, there are some things that I refuse to mute:
My beliefs on child safety, human rights, the iconic influence of Star Trek...
But there are other things that are no brainers to me. I don't have to wave my individuality flag to know I am still American.

Finding this balance has been hard, but I have learned how to read the situations better. I generally wear what I wore in the US (after using my sister as a personal shopper and updating my wardrobe) and use my mad language skills to explain why I act a little differently. I think I can do this now because I took the time to invest in my community and just because I have convictions does not mean I have to be adversarial. It is work - but I think that is the point.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

FINALLY - A post about Ukraine!

Okay. Here I go. I am sorry it took me so long to write this post, but there were a few technical difficulties.
  1. My wallet was stolen.
  2. My camera was inside my wallet.
  3. I had to replace my custom made Etsy wallet [link].
  4. My friend had to email me pictures (Internet access, firewalls, and all).

Yup. Those were the difficulties. Of course, it did not help that my camera was taken in the first 2 days of my trip. What a way to make a birthday weekend spiral downward into a pit of despair...

Anyway, Ukraine was pretty darn neat. My friend Gio and I started off in Kiev and hopscotched our way to a few other key locations (Odessa and Lviv), with a day-trip to Sevastopol. Although I did not want to leave, I felt 2 weeks was a great amount of time to get a flavor for the country. The hostels were great and I very much enjoyed the change-up in culture and scenery. The backpacking scene was fantastic and we met some good people along the way. My only regret was (well, two if you count my stupidity with my wallet) not having a more solid grasp of restaurant Russian vocab, but eh. It just gives me more incentive to really get cracking on the books now.

All pictures courtesy of Gio G.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The First Two Years (Part 2)

Continuing on with this multiple parter, I am writing about how I came to be the PCV I am today. In this installment: Löki and the Miscommunications (I have just started reading Percy Jackson and the Olympians [link]).

Anyway...moving on...even with the 3 months of pre-service training, I was not prepared to deal with the miscommunications that arose between myself and my Azerbaijani counterparts. Now, Peace Corps doesn't shirk away from preparation, but you can only learn so much in the safe and protective environment of pre-serving training. PC staff, LCFs, training host families - they all have had ample exposure to Peace Corps and/or have relatively quick access to PC support services.

Take all that away and you got yourself a Peace Corps host site.

Now, don't get me wrong. It would take paragraphs to explain the amount of work PC puts into preparing a host site for a volunteer, but PC cannot cover every base.

I made the mistake of assuming my host community had the same amount of extensive exposure to the bureaucratic arm of Peace Corps Azerbaijan as my training site did. Of course they didn't. Peace Corps is not represented by the main office in [insert city here], but by the relationship a host community has with its Volunteer.

It didn't occur to me to really take the time to explain who I was, my skill sets, or why I was living in Zaqatala to anybody. I just assumed everybody knew what Peace Corps was and what I had come to do. Again...assumptions...

Anyway, I wish I had realized that I needed to build my own credibility on day one. It would have allowed me to circumvent so many miscommunications.

I get it though. We do it the US. When looking for work, I submit a cover letter and a resume. There are interviews and probationary periods. I have to earn the right to be considered a member of a non-profit team. Why would my Peace Corps situation be any different? Just because I am a volunteer does not mean people should automatically accept me, especially if I want to work with their kids.

The story ends with it took me almost a year to realize that I should be leading with the cultural exchange part and then moving on to community development. Now when I meet a new person (any new person), I take that first ten minutes to explain who I am, where I am from, why I am here, and who I work for. I try to be patient and answer all the questions in a culturally appropriate way. I drop counterpart names and talk about what I like about Zaqatala. Even if the person is just a passerby, I know I am meeting the vision of Peace Corps with every new relationship I make.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Salty & Sweet

For me, a meal is not complete without something a little sweet to finish it off. In Azerbaijan, I am pretty lucky because dining starts out with sweets and ends with sweets (the best of both worlds, moms!), so I never really have to worry about dessert when I am guesting at a friend's house.

Unfortunately, I do have to worry when I am eating alone. Making dessert takes forever! I have no idea how I found the time in the US, but just whipping up a batch of cookies here involves an afternoon of waiting for butter to soften.

Good thing I found a quick and easy recipe for kettle corn [link]! I eat popcorn. I love sugar. I can tolerate salt. Sounds good to me! Plus, you can make a batch in about 10 minutes. Check out the recipe here [link] (or look below) and remember to stick to the stove-top temperatures. Too high a heat and your corn will come out burnt!

Kettle Corn
1/4 cup vegetable oil (eyeball it)
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
1/4-1/3 cup sugar

You are gonna need a large pot and its accompanying lid. Don't ever reuse a kettle corn pot once you have whipped up a batch because the sugar will burn and make things gross (I learned this the hard way).

Over medium-high heat, heat the oil. Chefs the world around will tell you to put a couple kernels in the oil and once they pop, you are good to go. Do this. It saves time and reduces problems.

Once the oil is hot enough, add popcorn and sugar. Cover with the lid and beginning making those swirling stirs. I do this every 10 seconds from here on out.

When you start to hear significant breaks between the popping, turn off the heat and empty the entire contents into a large bowl. Salt and stir. Salt and stir. Keep stirring. The popcorn is really hot right now and it needs to be cooled down quickly. Sometimes I use a cookie sheet.

Grab the water and eat!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

How To Be A Peace Corps Volunteer (Part 1)

I've been thinking about this blog post for a while. I think it is kind of funny because most of the post is about how I came into this business standing on a soapbox and well, this is a soapbox post. Eh. What can you do?

Anyway, this is gonna be a multiple parter - so hang with me as I try to hit all the major pieces.

So, let us start with the obvious stuff. As an American, I got the American-colored glasses on. No matter what country I am in, I unconsciously (and consciously) compare it to America. I can't help it. Nobody can 100% separate themselves from [enter age here] years of socialization. I grew up in America. I am American. I know we got problems like everybody else, but when push comes to shove, I really like my home country.

When I first stepped foot in Azerbaijan I had my opinions. No matter how hard I tried to bury those opinions or pretend that I was completely open to a new culture, some things just rubbed me the wrong way. I couldn't help it. No matter how much I tried, there were times when I just couldn't help but put my foot in my mouth when talking with a Host Country National. This happens to everybody. I still do it. Three years later and I still do it.

Anyway, my first few months as a PCV were rocky. It's hard when you come in as a PCV with the goal of helping and teaching and developing. The assumption there is that the community you have been placed in has deficiencies and you want to be their savior. Anyone who signs up for Peace Corps has that hope in mind - to help. Of course, if the tables were turned, I would be damn skeptical of some random Azerbaijani showing up in my home town telling me they could teach me anything besides the Azerbaijani language.

As a first year PCV, I wanted people to see me as more than just an English teacher. I got skillz beyond my native English speaking abilities. I talked about civic engagement, I explained how I could teach people to market their businesses, I hosted Earth Day events...I spent a year pointing out the holes in Zaqatala and how I (along with local minions) could fill those holes.

I never stopped to really ask people about their own civic engagement, marketing, and environmental awareness. I just assumed they didn't have these things.

Yeah. Again, if the tables were turned, I would be pissed. Assumptions make an @#$ out of...well, just me.

Late in my second year (and through the miracle of Skype), I learned about asset-based development.

Nobody wants some big-headed foreigner to show up and point out what they see as problems. Defenses get raised, excuses are made...people stop listening. If my goal as a community development specialist is to get people talking and listening, this isn't the way to do it. It definitely is not the way to be a catalyst - it's being a pessimist.

In my third year, I really struggled with asset-based development. The whole idea is to build on what the community has, to acknowledge them as catalysts and leaders in their own right. I have worked hard to not make those inadvertent judgement statements or ask the leading questions (Isn't Star Trek the best sci-fi t.v. show out there???). It is almost impossible to not to look at things with a critical American eye and get up on my soapbox.

Yeah, it is hard. I still have my opinions. I occasionally slip up, but I know that my role in Zaqatala is to build upon the successes of this community - to continue their own development enterprises, not lead them down the path I want them to go. I see the easy path of, "use this American model to create this project and BAM! everything is solved". Of course, there is little sustainability in such a Löki-initiated and led projects and the community is less likely to back me up with their support.

Getting to the point where the community trusts you and uses you as a resource takes an exorbitant amount of time (about 1 & 1/2 years). My community does not need me to "solve" anything. They have the power within themselves to direct their own future - a future that meets their needs and fits within their cultural context. I am just here to support them and offer assistance where I can.

Anyway, I still have the American colored lenses on. I have accepted this, but that is a whole other post...get ready for Part 2!

For more on asset-based development and how community development specialists can actually do more harm than good, check out:
Asset Building and Community Development [link]
When Helping Hurts [link]

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Wedding It Up

Over the last three weeks, I have been to not 1, not 2, but 3 weddings! All the young women getting married have been my or other PCV's counterparts.

Now, I have talked about weddings [link] several times [link], but as I found out last night, not every tradition I have learned is expressed in exactly the same way. For example, I just learned that it depends on how far back the family holds the tradition, but at the girl's wedding, sometimes it is just the girl (all decked out) that shows up!

That definitely threw me for a loop. Never heard of that!

So, it goes to show that no matter how long I am a PCV, I have barely scratched the surface of Azerbaijani culture. Ugh. So much to learn, such little time left...

Yeah...that is right. I straightened my hair for this wedding...

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Confession: I read junk novels.

Maybe it's because I am getting older, but I have come to a few realizations these last few years (the last 3 to be exact).

  1. It is okay to write a contraction from time to time; and,
  2. I really do not care what people think about my reading preferences.

Second realization was kind of weird, huh?

Anyway, one of my first poignant memories of Peace Corps involves book reviews. Seems like an odd topic, but you get 60+ absolute strangers waiting in an airport terminal and what's currently stashed in your hand-carry is gonna come up - you've got nothing else to talk about because breaking the ice is scary.

The point being, PCVs are a lot like the rest of the American population - snobby when it comes to books. We all cart around our current non-fiction bestsellers, autobiographies, and travel accounts like we can't be seen with a Tom Clancy novel lest our credibility as a [insert job/community title here] be challenged. I do it. The amount of classic and non-fiction literature I got covering my [highly visible] shelves is ridiculous.

I stash my mind-candy in the cupboard below.

Yup. I admit it. With all my Jane Eyre audiobooks and Guns, Germs, and Steel historical accounts, I like to indulge in frivolity (daily). If you left me to it, I would go through entire junk novel caches in a matter of weeks, I am that into happy endings.

Actually, this all goes with my theory and a little unknown fact about myself.

  1. Every American indulges in junk novels; and,
  2. I would rather read than watch television.

The Peace Corps lounge is chalk full of junk novels - too many to point the finger at just me. Everybody reads them, so why not just admit it more? From now on, when somebody asks me what I got in my bag, I am going to say Lara Adrian.