Monday, November 28, 2011

It's game time

Last week I had to take a sick day from school, which I hate to do because I know a lot of the other teachers are sick as well and they don’t take the day off… But I remind myself that they too would take the day off if they weren’t getting paid for the day anyways… But none the less I feel guilty whenever I am sick so I had to do something to counterbalance it…. So I spent the only hours I was awake making a game for my third grade class. I basically structured it off of Candyland… I created areas of the board with seasons starting off in winter working your way autumn where home is… So today my kids actually got to play the game and they had so much fun!!! I separated them into two teams, each team would send a player up (taking turns of course) to spin the spinner, it would land on a color and they would get a word from that category, such as long E’s or Angry E’s or whatever lesson they had learned already in the book, if they read the word correctly they could move to the color that they spun… of course I added some tricks to the board, such as a go back two squares or go to the next purple… there is even a space on the board where the whole team gets a sticker if they get the question right!!! It’s funny because this kind of format for a game would be very familiar for American children, but my children were absolutely amazed. One of my favorite students Ramzik spun the spinner and it landed on lose a turn. I told him he had to sit down and couldn’t answer a question… his face was so precious, he looked like he was going to cry… my counterpart explained in Armenian that he landed on the spot that meant he would lose his turn, but he still looked so confused!!! It was adorable!! And of course the best part for me as a teacher was when the winners got to the home square and all started jumping up and down, pumping their fist in the air!! I love to see my kids having fun as they are learning!! I love when they ask me if they can play this game every day!! It makes me so proud to be a teacher!!!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The language of friendship is not words but meanings

This morning I took a half hour or so to meditate on all the things I have to be grateful for and trust me there were a lot!!! I could list hundreds, but this Thanksgiving I am most thankful for my Armenian friends. When I first came to Armenia I quickly bonded with a group of Peace Corps volunteers figuring that throughout the next two years they would be the people that I turned to. All during training we were inseparable, going to the nearest town to watch football games and drink beers, and calling each other when we were stuck in the village, and that is almost how we felt, that we were stuck in places when we were not with our American friends.

When I first got to my site, I was the only American for thirty minutes around. I would walk through the streets of Spitak trying to smile at people and make friends, basically to be ignored. I remember hating Spitak, thinking I would never make friends here, and leaving my site the first chance I got to see my American friends. I bonded with my host brother a lot, but could barely talk to him, and other than that I didn’t know anyone other than my counterpart who could speak English. I would often have tea and cookies or fruit at a neighbor’s house or a fellow teacher, but it never felt as if they were my friends, it felt more like I was being interviewed and was on stage, everyone just staring at me, and me doing my best to speak intelligible Armenian. I would like to say that this quickly passed and soon I made some good friends, but it isn’t the case. It isn’t until the beginning of last summer that I finally began to make some true Armenian friends here. I think living in my own apartment really speed up the process because I was forced to do everything on my own which often meant that I needed help and had to find people to help me. This has resulted in me actually trying to talk to people instead of shying away from them because my language skills were so horrible. Soon I became friends with my neighbors, and store owners and random people in the street who would offer to help me when they thought I looked lost.
I also became facebook friends with many of the people in Spitak who speak English, and in this way they send me encouragement and also help me when they see that I am in distress. If I need apricot jam, and write on facebook that I am looking for it, they all rush to help me find it. If the water is not working and I have no idea why, I merely have to write to them and ask what is going on, whereas before I was stuck trying to walk around my apartment complex hoping a neighbor would come out and talk to me so that I could ask what the matter was…  
The biggest surprise for me is that throughout my service, it hasn’t been that core group of Peace Corps volunteers that I have come to depend on for emotional support, it has been the Armenian friends that I have made in Spitak and in Yerevan. Now when I want to get away for a weekend and get out of Spitak, I run to my closest group of friends in Yerevan who happen to be Armenians, not Americans. I never thought this would happen, and I don’t think it is the case with most Peace Corps volunteers. But for me it really hit me when I was discussing my plans to go home for a short two week vacation. My best friend here in Spitak wanted to know how I was getting to the airport. I told him I would take the marshutka and then take a taxi. He immediately wanted to know everything about my flight and told me there was no way he would let me go to the airport alone, so he took me, but best of all he was waiting for me when I got off the plane to bring me back home. I can’t tell you how loved and cared for that made me feel!! So for me I can truly say the people I love most here in Armenia are Armenians, and I am so blessed to have made so many fantastic friends, who I will remain friends with for the rest of my life.  This thanksgiving I give thanks to God for all of the amazing people he has put in my life here in Armenia, because I know without them, this would never have become my home!

But that isn’t to say that I don’t equally love my American friends!!! I re-read this post and I want to make it clear, my American, European, and wherever else friends are just as amazing, and have also clearly been a huge support to me throughout this journey, but for whatever reason, I just felt the most thankful to my Armenian friends today, maybe because it has taken me by surprise how much I have come to love them, need them and turn to them, though our cultures are very different!! 
And now I am off to spend the rest of Thanksgiving having a small feast with my best Armenian friend from Spitak! A first Thanksgiving for them!!! =)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A grumpkin Thanksgiving turned upside-down!

Thanksgiving, the time of year we give thanks for all things big and small that contribute to a happy, healthy life… and the time where you stuff your face!!! Thanksgiving has always been my absolute favorite holiday! There is nothing better to me than a holiday where you cook together as a family and then eat together, not that this was rare in my family because it wasn’t, but Thanksgiving was always just so special… maybe it’s the turkey, I do looooove turkey!!
But I have to admit yesterday while trying to think of Thanksgiving lesson plans to share with my class, I wasn’t so enthusiastic… I basically did everything but make my lesson plan, including making a huge, larger than life Candy Land style game board for my third graders (more on this later)… But finally I found a good short reading for my students to do about the history and traditions of Thanksgiving, vocabulary words about Thanksgiving (can you say feast?!?! Great vocab word), and an activity where they themselves would list the things they are grateful for this year. Usually with any activity I try to make an example for my students, but as I said, my heart just wasn’t in it for some reason…

So today in class I introduced the lesson by telling the students that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and telling them why I love it so much. We then did our reading, but mostly the kids tuned it out, even my good students… I really couldn’t understand it. I tried to ask engaging questions, and comprehension check questions, but really they wanted nothing to do with it… So I went right ahead to the activity, even though it was a writing activity, it was only making a list, I thought it would be easy for my students. I mean I am talking about my 11th and 9th grade classes, making lists should be no problem. After walking around the classroom in frustration I listened to the complaints of the students and was shocked at what I heard.
“We have nothing to be thankful for”… What?!?!? I couldn’t believe it. I looked at my students and asked them, how is possible that you have nothing to be thankful for… Some rolled their eyes and shut me out, some made comments like I am an American so I don’t understand, but a few students dared to tell me their thoughts. They told me that they have nothing in this country, every day is the same, they are poor and life is very hard with no hopes of getting easier so they feel that they have nothing to be thankful for….
I thought about it for a minute and then tried to explain to them that thanksgiving isn’t about being rich or being thankful because life is easy, the pilgrims in fact were thankful for merely surviving the winter (something I now can relate to). I looked at one of my students who was wearing a new jacket. I asked him who bought the jacket for him, and he replied his mother did. I then told him, well if you have no money but your mother thanks what little money she has to buy a jacket for you, aren’t you thankful for having a good mother?? I saw a bit of light go off in his head, well yes of course he tells me. Well, see you have something to be thankful for then… So he returned that with a question to me: what are you thankful for Miss Alyssa…. The one answer that came to my head at the moment was that I was thankful for growing up with parents who always made sacrifices to keep me fed and clothed and going to dances and playing volleyball. I explained that I too grew up very poor and my father didn’t always know where he was going to get money to feed us with. I don’t think many of the students believed me though; to them it seems impossible that an American could grow up poor. But I guess that gives me another reason to be thankful that I am here in Armenia, there are many misconceptions about Americans in the world, that we are all rich and selfish, and every day I live my life trying to show Armenians that there are all kinds of Americans, and I for one happen to have lived a very different life from the one that they stero-type. Sometimes I get very caught up in my job to teach my students English, that I don’t take the time to share my culture with them and today I realized that it is my job to do both, to teach English but also to teach them who Americans are, even if it means I need to take some classroom time to do it.

So today I am thankful that my students woke me up out of my discontented content and made me realize that I have much to be thankful for and a lot to do before I leave… I will say that one girl did stand up and say that she was thankful for her teacher Miss Alyssa who gave her opportunities that she never had before and because of me she was able to attend GLOW Camp, a camp that teaches young women about women’s issues but that is also a lot of fun too. This warmed my cold little heart right up and gave me another reason to be thankful… I am doing a job a love and teaching some of the best students I could ever imagine… I am so thankful to be in Armenia, in Spitak, serving as a representative of my country… I only hope that my work here will be useful and remembered for a long time after I have left!!!
I have many many many more reasons to be thankful, though life has come with many difficulties I have learned to see the good and gained strength in learning to overcome those difficulties. Once again to my American friends, be thankful that you were born American, in a country where we are given great opportunities and freedoms. I know that life looks tough now, but we still all have so much to be grateful for.  Happy Thanksgiving!!

Friday, November 18, 2011


Winter has hit Spitak in full force!!! For the first time in my life I had snow on my birthday!!! It is so cold here that it’s pretty much unbearable!!  Part of it might be that I have just come from warm sunny California, so I have had to make a huge adjustment… but the other part is that it is just really cold!! This is the one time when I just wish I could go home… Last year I fared so much better, but that was because the snow didn’t come until January first.  Snow in November is just too much for this girl! To make matters worse I went to my sitemate Judith’s home last week and boy was it warm… I mean the kind of warm I can only dream about right now. She has a gas heater and it works so well!! I can walk around her house without a jacket. I only have my Peace Corps heater so I pretty much have to sit on top of it and not move!!! Even Sophie is cold, she has been snuggling under the blankets at night instead f sleeping on top of them as she usually does…
A lot of Peace Corps volunteers say that Peace Corps in Eastern Europe is the posh corps… and maybe in a lot of ways that is true, most of us do have things that a lot of volunteers in more remote regions don’t have, such as a steady internet connection. Hell the Bulgarian volunteers I met even have washing machines. But when winter comes and its 10 below, and we have little heating, have to walk everywhere in the snow, and have no sunlight for a 6 month chunk of the year, we struggle. I mean have you ever tried to hand wash cloths with freezing cold water?? Your hands hurt so bad sometimes to the point that they crack and bleed… There have been times I have left my cloths in a bucket to line dry the next day and have woken up to them frozen… There is also the fact that I get home around 3 in the afternoon and after that, there is nothing I can do but snuggle in a blanket and try to keep warm… I can’t even take Sophie out for walks and socialize because It is just too cold… Seasonal depression is huge in Eastern European countries. I mean wouldn’t you be depressed if every day you went to work, and came home and had nothing else to look forward to? You can’t really travel like you do in the other seasons because roads are snowed in and marshutkas are pretty wobbly in the snow which makes you fear for your life a little. So basically you travel on a need base, you see only the people in your town, and only really between you walking to where you need to get and back…. To say the least, I hate winter here especially now that it has come super early. I mean we had spitak until May of last year… November till May covered in snow??? Ugh no Thanks!
Ok done ranting, and now for a funny story… The cycle of weather goes a little something like this in Spitak right now, snow falling, snow on the ground but a clear sky, snow on the ground but its mostly icey and the sludge… and it rotates every few days… So one day I decided to take Sophie for a walk as she has been getting some winter time blues because she can’t go out and run anymore. So we were walking home from the grocery store in the center of spitak, her on the leash following behind me a little bit. I am not paying too much attention to her or the surroundings because I am constantly watching my feet so that I do not slip on the ice. Well as I am looking on the ground tip towing around Sophie see’s a bird or something, I never really saw what it was, and takes off running. I have her leash wrapped around my hand a good 3 times, because when I have groceries in my hands I like to make sure I have a good hold on her. So she takes off running and I am attached to her walking on ice. I feel my legs begin to lurch forward as my torso leans backward. I try to dig my heels into the ground, but it’s slippery and I fall. But to make things worse as I fall down, my natural momentum pulls Sophie back toward me. She stops for a second and looks at me and then continues to run, dragging me on the ice behind her… We didn’t go far thank God, but we went far enough for people to see and to laugh. I mean they were concerned but the site of the American with her huge ole snow boots and tons of grocery bags in hand being pulled across the street by a tiny little dog must have been irresistible, I mean I giggle just thinking of it so I don’t blame them!! Luckily I wasn’t hurt, my groceries broke my fall!!!  If only I could get the hang of walking on the ice… It’s only been three weeks of snow and I have fallen three times… once a week. At this rate I am going to need to walk with pillows wrapped around my body!!! 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bari Galust America... kinda

Going back to American has been a total mind fuck for me, sorry for the language but I seriously can’t think of anything else to describe it…. I knew when I joined the Peace Corps that I would be here in Armenia for 2 years and 3 months. Never did I think that during that time I would make my way back to America, nor did I want to. Not because I don’t love my family or miss them, but actually precisely because I do! I knew that going back would put me back into the American mindset, get me used to being around my family, and make it extremely difficult to continue my life here in Armenia. But my brother got married, so what choice did I have? And while I am so happy to have been able to spend time with my family and friends who I love and have missed so much, it has made returning to Armenia very difficult for me.

People always speak about reverse culture shock, that you will go back home and see it differently, and be a bit shell shocked by it. I never really truly believed in this, I mean I lived 26 years in America and only a year and a half in Armenia, so how can I feel odd in the place I spent most my life in???

Well I am not sure if I experienced reverse culture shock, but there were things that I just couldn’t get over! First and foremost America has really changed, especially with technology. Every single person has a smart phone now, and tons of people have IPads. When I left, iPhones were all the craze, but most people didn’t own one. While at church the pastor told us to take out our bibles or our electronic devices… I looked around to see if he was serious. I must have looked pretty confused as I saw people pulling out iPads and their smart phones to look up the bible verse, because my sister took her hand to my face and put my jaw back into place… I just couldn’t believe he was serious!!! Also while at church I couldn’t help but to be amazed at how tall Americans are. I have always known I am short and most are taller than me, but I never truly saw how tall our people are until my return. I guess living in a country where I have never once felt short, distorts your perception a bit. All I could do was scan the floor to see if the women were wearing heals, which they weren’t. I couldn’t understand how everyone could be so big!!! Church was really the most confusing experience I had all together. At church people of course smile a lot! As we were leaving the church people would smile as they walked by me and all I could think of was do I know that person? Why is she smiling at me? This brought me back to my first few months in Armenia, I would smile and say hello to everyone, and they would look at me confused or with disdain. I would think to myself how rude they were and want to go home and cry about it. I remember telling my mom, no one here wants to be my friend!! Now it’s just natural to me, if you don’t know someone you don’t talk to them or smile at them… how quickly I let go of my American ways!!

There were tons of small things here and there that took some getting used to again. For example while I was at a Starbucks a man stood behind me as if I was in line, though I wasn’t. So instead of me telling him oh I am not in line, I directed him to the line with my hands. I touched him. He looked back at me as if I had just made a pass at him, huge smile on his face, but I couldn’t figure out why until my mom told me, well you touched him… Americans enjoy personal space. Once again somewhere along the way a habit that I hated when I came here has become my nature. I didn’t even realize I got used to it, as I still hate when people touch me here!! I also stared at people as if they were aliens, something I hate when people do to me here, but I couldn’t stop myself back home. One guy was all tatted up and pretty scary- looking, so my eyes were just drawn to him. I kept thinking what the hell did he do to himself as I stared at the tattoo going across his eyes! He turned and gave me a dirty look, and I wasn’t even fazed, I kept staring. My mom gently reminded me that things like that can get you shot in LA… oh yeah...

I don’t really feel that this accounts for culture shock, because all of these things I knew somewhere inside of me, it’s more that I just forgot them and had to readjust to them.

Things that I couldn’t readjust to when I got home included American’s love of mean tabloids, something I use to enjoy reading. Now it just seems so cruel and evil to me. It disgusted me to see them lined up in the grocery stores. Also our obsession with weight, especially in Los Angeles. Most girls gain about 10 pounds in the Peace Corps while the men lose about 20, something about the way we handle stress, and I am no different. But I have never felt overweight in Armenia. I knew I had gained weight but I didn’t really feel like it made a difference. All of a sudden back in LA all I could think about was my weight. I don’t know why or how it automatically switched back to that mentality, but it was scary to me. Everything is weight centered in Los Angeles, even at the supermarket you are flooded with diet products which are basically telling you be careful about what you eat or you will be fat, and fat is ugly. Armenians don’t feel that fat is ugly. Sure there are girls with eating disorders here that strive to be skinner, but women here come in all sizes and shapes and the general view is a pretty girl is pretty no matter how much she weighs… Looking through magazines was the most shocking thing to me. Not a single girl looked normal to my eyes. They were all sooo skinny. I really could not get over it, and talked about it to the point where my family was pretty sick of hearing it, but it really just got to me.

One of the most surprising things that I discovered while back home was just how much I identify with the Armenian culture now. A number of times I caught myself explaining, “my culture” to people, as if I were truly Armenian! I longed to meet Armenians and speak to them in Armenian, and to listen to Armenian music and to share the Armenian culture with my family and friends. I wanted to shake people and tell them no listen to me, learn about my country, ask me questions and I will tell you how amazing it is, but for the most part no one really wanted to listen. It was difficult to see that no one really cares about this different life I live over here, they kind of just expect you to be the old you, but how can you be?? Every time I would hear someone complain about life, I wanted to tell them why they should be happy to be American, and about how difficult life is for the Armenians.

One of the happiest moments I had back home was while shopping at a jewelry store I looked up and noticed the man had a bunch of evil eyes hanging over the cash register. I looked at him and immediately knew he was Armenian. I asked him if he was and we just erupted into conversation. He couldn’t believe that I lived in Armenia and that I could speak the language. He called his grandfather and sister over and we all just began talking about Armenia with such joy. My mom and cousin stood by probably pretty confused as the whole conversation was in Armenian. I have never really had confidence in my Armenian skills because though I know the language and understand it, people here have a hard time understanding me, but this couldn’t be further from the truth in L.A. They understood everything I said, and even complimented my accent. I think that they learn Armenian out of Armenia and speak it with an American accent so they have the same ear for it that I have which makes pronunciation difficult. Anyways, suddenly a ten minute trip turned into 2 hours and I couldn’t have been happier just to spend my time with them talking about the old country =)

Armenia has really become a part of my soul, and I indentify with her and her people in so many ways, but somehow all of this was intensified while back home. I am so thankful for this experience that the United States government has given me. I am so thankful for the Peace Corps for selecting me to be an ambassador of my country to the Armenian people, but also for allowing me to give a voice and a face to the Armenian people for Americans. I am really very blessed to be where I am doing what I am doing, which going to America only reaffirmed for me. Sure I miss having hot water at my fingertips, (really I miss it quite a bit) or having a heater that actually keeps me warm, but coming back to Armenia and having a Armenian best friend greet me at the airport, a school who rejoiced in my return on my first day back rushing to hug and kiss me and tell me how beautiful I got again (yes implying that I was ugly for awhile here), and people in the streets of Spitak calling out bari galust to me (welcome) is second to no other experience in the world and I couldn’t be happier to be back and to complete my service.