The End is Near

So PST is finally coming to an end, and by the end of next week I will be living in Shabran, a rayon on the northern coast of Azerbaijan, about 2 hours away from Baku. I’ll be living in the regional center, which only has a population of around 50,000…just a little larger than my suburban town back in the states. I pretty much got everything I asked for in my site interview: a town, a site-mate, and an area with Azerbaijani minorities. I asked for the last one since I figured as a minority myself I could be a good role model, and I’m very interested in the subject academically. The host family situation at my site is very interesting: a 57-year-old single mother with two daughters, 25 and 30. Gender differences are really big here, so I’m interested in seeing how the dynamic all works out. The family is pretty un-conventional I think, with both daughters working for the government and the mom as a teacher…so I’m hoping that translates to a more open mindset.

 

Although I’m happy to put all the stress of language class, technical sessions, and just life in general I’m really sad to be leaving. I’ve gotten super-close to everyone in my cluster, and unfortunately we’ve all been scattered to the five corners of Azerbaijan. Only Joey is close, in the neighboring Rayon of Quba but everyone else is pretty far. I haven’t really hadn’t the chance to interact closely with anyone from the Taghiyev group, which perhaps PST’s fault more so than my own…so I’m looking forward to getting closer to a bunch of new faces.

 

These past two weekends our cluster has been making trips to the capital city of Baku. It’s a completely different world, so much so that it’s hard to believe that we only live 30 minutes away. In our communities the culture/social norms are very conservative. Male-Female intimacy is non-existent, and females are shunned for smoking, drinking, or even sitting on curb/floor/wherever without a cushion underneath them (something about freezing their ovaries or something). But in Baku there are none of these “crazy” rules. Another difference is how we are treated as foreigners. Everyday in our communities double takes are commonplace, and the locals yell out at us in heavily accented “Hello, Hello” or “Where are you from.” We only got one or two obnoxious comments when we were in Baku, and for the most part people seem to be worldlier.

 

I don’t know why the culture is so liberal in Baku compared to Sumgayit, which isn’t really that far. I mean, in the states the suburbs aren’t really that culturally/socially different from the city center, right? You would think that the city’s “liberal” influence would spread out to neighboring areas, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Perhaps the conservative mindset in the regions is so strong that not even a socially liberal place like Baku can do that much change.

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Bad Things Come in Threes

In the span of a week, I’ve already filled out my top three worst moments of PST. I hope that all this bad luck means that I’ll have an awesome site placement. The CED and YD volunteers have already found out where they’re going, whereas the TEFL volunteers still have a week to go. It’s kind of interesting how my preferences have changed since I came into this country. I had originally wanted to be in the largest city they could find for me. I doubted I could be far away from the conveniences of reliable transportation, the Internet, etc. After my site visit to a small village outside of Oguz, my preferences changed immediately. I learned that an outhouse was not as I thought it would be, and the PCV’s strong rapport with the community was something I definitely enjoyed. So for my site placement interview I asked to be placed in a small town or village.

Anyway, on to my tragic stories…Here in Azerbaijan, daily showers are out of question, so most of us go days without showering. Some have managed to go at least a week, but my threshold at this point is 4-5 days. With colder weather the idea of going that long without a shower might be more doable. When I took my shower earlier this week I forgot to lock the door, and imagine my surprise when my host dad walked in on me! I was like a deer in the headlights, and no words came out of my mouth. My hands automatically went down and covered my *ahem* area, and he quickly shut the door. We never talked about it, and I’m certain that the language barrier contributed to that.

This past Sunday I was organizing my room, and I nonchalantly tossed my jacket onto the floor. Unfortunately it didn’t land on the floor, it landed on the space heater in my room. Specifically, it landed on my hot space heater. Within a few moments I turned around to see my smoke, and quickly after that the fire alarm went off. I smothered the singed area of the jacket and I opened the window, fanning around with my towel. I ran into the living room, where the rest of my family was standing. They were speaking in rapid-fire Azerbaijani, and I was fumbling to turn off the fire alarm. Everything settled down after a while, and I inspected the damage. There is now a large gaping hole in my favorite jacket, a Ben Sherman military-style jacket that has gotten nothing but compliments. Alas, I only hope I can find a worthy replacement when I visit Baku next weekend.

This last incident just happened this past Thursday, and worst of all, it happened in plain sight for the whole community to see. I was leaving the school to head to Sally’s house, where we were baking a birthday cake for our friend Moses. I wasn’t watching where I was going, and a leg got caught in a manhole. I must emphasize that this was a lidded manhole, but the “lid” was a concrete lid that wasn’t secured properly. So my left leg went into the hole, and my shin was trapped between the hole’s edge and the concrete lid. Very painful indeed. Luckily Moses, Joey, and I think Michael came and rescued me. Quite embarrassing, since all my friends saw, as well as the school children and the people living in that neighborhood.

I’m inclined to think that burning the jacket was probably the worst out of the three, since the jacket had incredible sentimental and fashion value to me. Hopefully this string of unfortunate events has ended, and I have nothing but smooth sailing from here on out.

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Teaching for the First Time

These past two weeks have been our teaching practicum, when we get our feet wet and teach some classes. To my relief (and to the relief of worried friends back home), I fared much better than I did in my volunteer teaching at the migrant schools in Shanghai. The students are bright, if shy. Many students in my classes have been outright called “weak” by my Azerbaijani counterpart, but for the most part they were just really quiet. With patience and some coxing I even got the “weakest” student to be an active participant in my lessons.

The English education system in Azerbaijan is geared around the textbook, which is poorly designed. Teachers rarely, if ever, deviate from what’s written in the text. So when I come in with new approaches to the lesson, both the students and teachers are stunned. In one of my classes we were reviewing housework vocabulary. The students quickly listed off the examples in the textbook, and than the class got completely silent. I asked what other examples of housework they could think of, and just repeated the examples from the book. I clarified that I wanted examples not in the book, which led to blank stares or puzzled looks. To prod them I gestured the motion for ironing clothes, and then they were able to give me a few more examples.

This pretty much sums up the frustration of working within the system. It’s not that the students don’t know what to say, they’ve never been given the opportunity to think outside the textbook. Yet during my last lessons of this week when I asked the students about examples of grocery items (clarifying I wanted non-textbook examples), the students were able to come up with a dozen or so examples that weren’t in the book. This may not seem like much, but that moment is my proudest so far in my training so far.

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The Ones we Leave Behind

Even though it’s easy to think of the challenges we face as volunteers, whether it’s using a squat toilet for the first time or dealing with racial remarks, I think the hardest thing about Peace Corps is leaving those you love behind. For two weeks I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to my parents, and I’m finally getting the chance tommorrow. I’m sure they’re both worried and irritated with the fact, and from I hear from my sister that my mom is taking it pretty hard. I made dinner and everyone when I lived at home, so my mom is even busier now. Additionally, since my sister is busier with college and everything, my mom is feeling even more alone. I just hope I can be a better son from here on out, and hopefully be permanently based somewhere that I can contact my parents at least every once in a while.

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So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

Since my flight for NYC left in earlier morning, I needed to get up at 5 AM, so I went to a sleep a little earlier, around 11 PM. I woke up on my own, and felt pretty well-rested so I got up and took a look at the alarm clock. 12:37 AM. Fuck. I couldn’t sleep so I passed the time by catching up on chapters of Negima. I walked to the kitchen to get some water and I noticed my dog sleeping in her crate. What the hell. I scooped her off and she snuggled with me for the rest of the night.

As I walked outside our front door for the first time, I didn’t really feel sad or anxious. Nobody cried, unlike when my parents sent me off to college for the first time. Even now, as I’m typing this at Denver International, waiting for my connecting flight to Newark, it still hasn’t hit me that I’m leaving the USA for good (well, two years). Probably won’t hit me until I meet my host family and realize that I forgot how to say “toilet” in Azeri, and I really need to go. I’m sure my host family is going to laugh their asses off as I mime going to the bathroom.

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Breaking the News

Ever since I got accepted I’ve been breaking the news to family and friends. Explaining what I’m doing and where I’m going was a breeze with friends, and everybody was very supportive of what I did, and asked good questions about the kind of work that I’ll be doing. It’s also forced me to remember why I was applying for this in the first place, something that I had forgot in the course of a year long application process.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t so easy explaining to my non-intermediate family. Since most of my family still lives in Taiwan, not only do I have to tell them where Azerbaijan is (a difficult task when your Mandarin is only adequate), I have to explain what Peace Corps is.

Most of them think the idea of volunteering two years of my life is silly, especially when I should be working a “real” job like a “normal” person. They’re a little more reassured when I tell them I’ll have a stipend and everything…I just won’t come back with any savings (besides the coming back readjustment check I get from Peace Corps). Maybe it’s a cultural difference, or perhaps it’s just my family, but the idea of volunteering for a living seemed foreign to most family members I talked to.

Then there’s the misconceptions they have when I tell them where Azerbaijan is. They worry about Iran, the proximity to Iran, tensions with Armenia, etc.; however, they have even more misconceptions about Azerbaijan than the typical American. When I spoke to my grandfather over the phone, he expressed worries that I would come home with a “dark-skinned” wife. This kind of remark would be considered border-line racist in America, to him it seemed like a mundane question.

Then there’s the perennial question that’s always asked: “does it get cold over there?” I’m used to these questions, since they were repeatedly asked when I went to school on the east coast, but what’s amusing is that they never ask “does it get really hot over there?” I jokingly told my mom that if I was invited to serve in Africa my grandmother would still worry that the cold weather. I think it’s because Taiwan is a hot tropical place, that cold weather seems threatening.

Two weeks or so until I leave for Azerbaijan, and a week or so until I leave California. And I’m not even panicking yet.

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What I Expect

Between reading up on Mark Elliot’s guide to Azerbaijan, current PCV blogs, Peace Corps Wiki, and what little I about Azerbaijan I feel like I’ve crafted a list of expectations of what life is like over there. It’s awfully dangerous to create too many expectations, because I’m thinking what life would be like in a completely different country, where they probably have customs that I can’t even imagine. I can’t stop doing it though, since it’s going to be two years + some of my life. I just hope that my expectations aren’t too wildly impossible.

But what’s more important isn’t what I expect, but how I adjust myself to these expectations. Can I live in a country where I’m not going to have central heating, where I’ll have to hand-wash clothes, and not have hot showers on a daily basis? I don’t know. All I know is that at the very least I can deal with squat toilets, so hopefully that part won’t be too bad.

But I feel like those kinds of things are fairly trivial compared to the cultural differences. Things I take for granted here, like gender and racial equality, may be conceptualized differently over there. What if it’s not okay to “be myself” over there? In the United States peoples’ lifestyle choices are more or less respected, so what do I do when “being myself” is something bad?

Cultural accommodation is a big part of Peace Corps, and during my interview with the recruiter there was a heavy emphasis on flexibility in adjusting to foreign cultures. I wonder if this kind of cultural relativity is a one-way street though. I think it’d be nice if our Azerbaijani colleagues had to accommodate at least some of our strange habits.

The second goal of the Peace Corps mission is “helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served,” so maybe acting just a little American should be okay. I wonder how cultural tolerable a place like Azerbaijan is, not only to “American” values but also “Asian” values, which is a large part of my up-bringing.

I wonder how many of these expectations I have will become problems, and which ones will seem laughable when I compare my expectations in this post to what I see over there. Either way, I’m sure to learn a thing or two along the way.

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