Saturday, April 19, 2014

When It Rains, I Let It

I'm going to be writing a short article for the event booklet at the Pennsylvania Literary Festival ( 30th through June 1st) about how my Peace Corps service influenced my writing. While looking for inspiration, I found this article I wrote for my high school newsletter last fall. In the interest of posting on this blog more regularly, I thought I'd share it here.

Borovoe, July 2011
Whenever I mention I spent time in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan, someone inevitably makes a Borat joke or asks, “Where’s Kazakhstan again?” Even though it’s sometimes challenging to explain why I made the decision to go or what my time there was like, I love talking about it. I chose to serve in order to help others and learn more about the world, but I also ended up experiencing some strange and amazing things and learning more about myself.

Peace Corps service consists of approximately three months of language and technical training followed by twenty-four months of individual service. My group of volunteers, the 23rd in Kazakhstan and known as the 23s, was placed in the program for teaching English as a second language. For training, I lived with a host family in Ecik, a moderately sized town about an hour away from Almaty, the country’s largest city. In addition to cultural classes, teacher training, and language classes, we were treated to a school play by the elementary students, went to the Golden Man museum, and learned how to haggle at the bazaar, which I never quite got the hang of. We also had the opportunity to explore Almaty, including Ascension Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Panfilov Park, and Medeo, the highest-elevated ice-skating rink in the world, which can be reached by climbing over 700 steps (also by car, but that’s not too adventurous). Peace Corps service offers countless new and interesting opportunities, and I learned quickly that it’s up to volunteers to make the most of them.

We were lucky to arrive in the country only a few weeks before Nauryz, Kazakh New Year, and experience our host town’s celebration. Men and women dress in traditional outfits. They play a lot of music, both English and local pop music as well as traditional, which often utilizes the dombra, a two-stringed instrument akin to the lute. There are yurts to dine in and lots and lots of food. The national dish is called beshbarmark: noodles, meat (often horse, but beef, pork, or chicken, too), potatoes, and onions. They also have a mouthwatering dessert called baursaki, which are, simply, fried dough. Delicious fried dough. This past March, I made these, along with plov, which is rice with boiled meat and carrots, and cucumber-and-tomato salad for my family members to introduce them to Kazakh food. The good thing is that it’s generally easy to make; the bad thing is that recipes are somewhat difficult to find. However, it’s possible to find a few on recipe websites. If you’re intrigued and are looking for something new to eat, I would suggest plov, samsas (croissant-like pastries filled with cheese, meat, potatoes, etc.), or piroshky (fried buns filled with meat, potatoes, cabbage, etc.). As you can imagine, the meat-and-potatoes theme can get tiresome, especially as spices are generally not used. My babushka even used to tease me because I always brought salt to the table to give dinner a little more flavor.

Our country director was fond of telling us that our greatest asset in living in Kazakhstan would be flexibility, and we found out how right he was when we began teaching. English language classes are required in all schools, and some schools start English classes as early as second grade. I taught in secondary school, which is fifth grade through eleventh (there is no twelfth). The goal of the Peace Corps is not to take over jobs, but to assist country nationals in the learning and imposition of new tools. We worked with counterpart teachers and practiced a method called team teaching. Language education there heavily relies on memorization and translation, and our main goal was to practice different approaches to teaching within the classroom and to introduce our counterparts to these methods so that they could continue after we left. These included games, total physical response, group activities, the use of music and other activities, and an emphasis on speaking and listening rather than rote memorization.

Working with new coworkers was a challenge in itself, but limited language often contributed to that, and we even occasionally ran into resistance to try new methods. The school schedule was a trial in and of itself, as it would not be set until late fall. Every afternoon, I had to check which classes I’d be teaching the next day. This meant that instead of spending the weekend on lesson plans, I had to complete them the night before. Difficulties that came with living and teaching in a small village added to the confusion. My village was very close to two others, and the three often assisted one another. Much to my surprise, such cooperation involved my students traveling by bus to the next village over to help with the potato harvest. I walked into the classroom one afternoon after lunch and found no students. It happened the next day, and again and again, and my counterpart couldn’t tell me when the potato picking would be done. Add in a six-day school week (students go to school on Saturdays), and it becomes exhausting in more ways than one, though also rewarding. The students were always very receptive to new games and activities, although they sometimes would like one so much that they refused to go on to the next. During the summer, I assisted at my school’s camp, which was conducted mostly in Russian. I had an afternoon English class with the kids, and once I introduced them to Duck, Duck, Goose, it was impossible for a day to go by without playing it.

In addition to professional growing pains, personal ones came with the territory of living in a new country with new people and conversing in a new language. Every Peace Corps Volunteer experiences and expects trials. At about one million square miles (roughly four times the size of Texas and the ninth largest country in the world), Kazakhstan is a very large country. My first village, which boasted a population of about 1,000 people, was only an hour’s bus ride away from the capital city, Astana, but difficult transportation conditions prevented me from visiting or being visited by nearby volunteers. Being present in the community helped with integration, but going months without seeing friends or having a conversation in English that isn’t about school or the weather was isolating. On the days when lessons went poorly and one more word of Russian threatened to send your head spinning, chocolate and text-message jokes from fellow volunteers were the only things that kept us going.

Yet there were also rewards. The most satisfying was hearing a student’s ambitions to learn better English in order to go to university and even study abroad one day. As we learned as we went along, the Peace Corps is not about changing the lives of your whole village or about altering the entire educational system. It’s about changing one life, in our case, by teaching a student the communication tools they’ll need in the future. And once we saw the good ripples we created in one life, it was that much easier to keep trying.

As you can tell, Peace Corps service is filled with many challenges. However, one of the best aspects of the Peace Corps is the friendships you form, both with fellow volunteers and host country nationals. It was easy to be charmed by the students, who welcomed a new face in town and tried their hardest to impress you with their language skills. The more language we learned, the easier it was to converse with people of all ages, which led to some really great experiences. I lived in a boarding house where I met an older woman who would sit outside with me after school and tell me about her life. And once, when three fellow volunteers and I got lost on a short hiking expedition, a Kazakh man gave us directions and showed us the correct path. Above all, being thrown into a new country with fifty other strangers makes befriending them remarkably easy, and friendships made during new, scary experiences are friendships that last.

The Peace Corps often advertises itself as “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” Before I became a volunteer, even while I was planning to, that tagline always struck me as silly. Now, I believe it. Despite the hardships, or perhaps because of them, I carry good memories of my time in Kazakhstan, of the people I met and the unique experiences. I played in a basketball tournament with my village, held an eagle, learned a new language, ate horse meat, learned a few songs on the dombra, and made friends to last for a lifetime. Looking back, I also remember a valuable lesson that our Peace Corps Medical Officer taught us. A week or two into training, he tried to put us at ease by telling us a story about a very old man. He was so old that people often asked him the secret of his longevity. He would reply, “When it rains, I let it.” The lesson was simple—to take life as it comes, one day at a time, and, in the words of the Peace Corps, to be flexible. And when people ask me about my experience, that’s exactly what I tell them—I learned to let it rain.

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