Saturday, March 20, 2004

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So I have had two realization today. My first realization is that I am out of place, but not in the obvious sense. I am a twenty-four year-old with the mindset of a college professor with a passion for Religion, Philosophy, Theatre, and the social sciences, and the heart of a camp councilor. I enjoy teaching at the college level, because at that level I can give lectures about things like the history of Buddhism or the role of Eastern philosophies in the development of a conception of human rights. I love working at camps, because for a few months a year you get to live as a kid again with the additional intellectual stimulation of responsibility. My problem is that right now I have a job in which I spend 18 hours a week (I know that doesn’t seem like much, but that’s the deal here) teaching some utterly and completely uninteresting to a group of people most of whom would rather be damn anywhere else in the world. If only I was teaching something at least vaguely interesting, I think that I would be fine with the age and the lack of giving a damn, but that’s not an option. My second realization is that I love living in Kyrgyzstan. There are a whole lot of things not to like about this country. One could start almost anywhere, but for some reason, I am finding myself enjoying it here. The food is starting to grow on me like a friendly fungus. I actually sort of look forward to a lot of the different meals that we eat which are all distinctly similar. The epic struggle between good and evil (or Spring and Winter) that goes on outside my door everyday is entertaining. I have my one chore of getting water from the local creek, which I look forward to everyday. My weekends are great as I get to spend a couple of days a week with other volunteers, so that my sanity is saved. I remembered the other day that I love kids, so the constant chorus of “hello’s” that fallow me as I walk down the street in my village are welcomed amusments. I love the little child down the street from me who says, “Brian, Happy New Year” every time that she sees me. My students, despite their ability to drive one nuts, are fun to play with even if they are not fun to teach. The little random incidents like the man who insisted that I ride on his horse cart the other day while I was walking home despite my own insistence that I did not want the ride make everyday fun. Now all I have to do is figure-out a way to do something other than teach for the next two years, I would be much better off. Oh well, we’ll see. One word or something like that… I got one word for you, wait maybe it’s two words. Oh whatever, I’ve got multiple letters organized in such a way that they compose a feeling for you: mind-numbing. That is the feeling of doing the journals that are a requirement of teaching in Kyrgyzstan. Journals, whose inventor was undoubtedly soviet, are communal grade books in a sense. Students are organized from the first day they are at the school into a “class,” which is basically a group of less than thirty students in the same grade. From the day they are assigned to that group until they part with the school, they stay with the same students So, in theory, you will have every subject with the exact same twentyish students for your entire school career. Each class is given a journal maintained by one of the teachers. In the journal their is a section for each subject in which that subject teacher fills in daily grades, class topic, blood type, homework assigned, sexual preference, hair type, and a few other random bits of useless information. Okay so I’m joking about a couple of those, but you get the picture. Ideally, the teacher fills-out the journal everyday. Ideally, that is were the grading system here conducive to such forethought. You see, when you enter grades in the journal, you must enter everything the same. In other words, a test is equal to every other day of class. Beyond that, when the administration is looking at the grades they want to see that the final grade for the quarter is equivalent to the number written most often in the journal, so it matters not that little Bakket Sunshine has an average of three if he has more 5’s than any other number. What this means is that if you are beholden to assigning students grades based on the statistical indicator of their overall work for the quarter (roughly known as the average in layman’s terms), you have to assign grades in the journal retrospectively. In other words, you have to write down in your book the daily grades, journals, exams, and whatever other form of torture you have created for your students amusement, weight them as you would like, determine the average, and then go through the journal assigning daily grades that magically work-out in a manner in which the pops-up most frequently happens to be what you determined to be the average for the quarter. What that means is that you cann’t really do much with the journal until oh maybe two days before the end of the quarter. With six journals to complete for a total of 133 students, the last three days of the quarter proves to be one of joy and journal writing. My mind aches at the thought that I have a good six or seven more quarters of this to do before I return to a more reason based system in the states. I’m sorry that my students are useless and evil, but… I have often wondered over the years whether or not people actually ever think before they speak. Do they ever take the time to debate the logic of that which will soon be leaving their mouths? I don’t expect perfection, but instead something that often vaguely resembles logic. I was sitting in my classroom the other day preparing to start my first lesson of the day with one of my best classes when my counterpart and the zavooch (think assistant principal with more of an attitude problem) enter the room. I’m not certain if the look of dread made it across the cultural boundaries or not, but I know as soon as I saw them that this was not going to be good. The zavooch has never actually entered my room while I have been there in the ten weeks that I have been teaching in the school, so I knew it wasn’t going to be a social interaction. Besides I just finished writing several of my journals for which I am planning on receiving lots of words in Kyrgyz about how evil I am. I was a bit surprised when the zavooch did not say a single thing to me, but instead started yelling at my class (while my counterpart told me that my journal writing was not perfect because people had a hard time reading it. I graciously admitted that I had indeed corrected one of my numbers in the journal as I had written down the wrong final grade for a student. I apologized and acknowledged my mistake, and she told me about 8 more times the exact same thing while stood there nodding at repeating the same apology). After I had quieted my counterpart, I returned to the dressing down that my students were receiving because my classroom was like a “barn.” Now I’m not a hundred percent certain how that is those students’ fault. First, they have their own classroom the rest of the day as I teach all my classes in the same room unlike most teachers. Students here are responsible for the cleaning of rooms, but that class already has a room for which they are responsible. As a result, I end up finding some student to wash my room once a week to keep from getting yelled at too much by the powers that be. Second, I’m sorry that there is dirt on the floor of the school, but as it happens all bet two roads in the village are dirt roads, and one of the paved ones is covered in dirt. That means under current weather conditions, mud owns or village, so students walking to class get mud on their shoes. Ironically enough, when you have mud on your shoes and don’t have a place to clean them before entering the school, the mud comes with you. When mud dries after being inside for a period of time, some of it dries and falls off wherever you are at the giving moment. Part of my agreed with the zavooch. I mean the nerve of these children walking all the way to school on roads coated in inches of mud, not being given anywhere to wash their shoes before entering school, and then getting mud in the classroom. Obviously, it was these students as well responsible for all of the mud in my room as they had been in the room for about an hour since the room had been washed on Monday. I later apologized to my students for having dirty roads. Thanks again folks any thoughts, comments, or question feel free to e-mail me: cowanbp@yahoo.com

Friday, March 12, 2004

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Screw it, let’s dance… I love going to school, I really do. It is great if for no other reason than the shear absurdity of it all. Two incidents in one day sort of spark this writing. The first was as I was sitting in my classroom my counterpart entered the room. For me, her shear presence is enough to spark suspicions about what is going to happen next. The woman never fails in supplying me with wonderful material for my writings. This time, she observed how dirty my class was, which it most certainly was. We have only two pave roads in the village, which you wouldn’t really know by looking at them, because the mud from all of the other roads tends to cover them. So no road added to the fact that there is no janitorial staff means that there is a lot of dirt strewn around my school. Okay, let me correct myself there. There is a janitorial staff. It’s called the student body. So my counterpart proceeds to activate this make shift janitorial staff and order two of my students to was the room during class. Thus, there I am sitting on my desk as two of my students scoot around on their hands and knees washing the floor by hand. The second moment of absurdity came when a student entered my 11v class for our exam, and then learned that there was dancing going on in the hallway. I allowed my students a moment before the exam to go and watch the dancing. After a few moments most of the students came back in, but this one student decided that the dancing seemed like more fun than my exam, so he took his stuff and left to go dance. I guess it is hard to impart on a student for whom passing my class will have no relevance on the rest their life why the exam is more important than dancing. He has already sealed his fate in failing my class, so I guess in some ways why not have some fun. Maybe we can all follow his example: If you have already failed miserably at something, you might as well go dancing. In like a lion out like a lamb… After what has been one of the lightest winters on record according to the locals (only a few feet snow covering the ground from November through February and the temperatures starting to climb in the general neighborhood of freezing in the ungodly month of February), it seemed that we were well on our way to Spring. My host father in early 60’s was talking about an early March planting of crops for the first time since he was a child. The other farmers were starting to lament that we had not received enough snow in the valley to supply the necessary water for crops this year (never mind the fact that our actually water source is the mountains which seem to have received more that requisite snow for the winter). The snow had started to melt off exposing ground for the first time in months. In fact, the mud roads soaked from the melting snow had actually warmed enough to start to return to their alter egos: dirt roads. I was actually just commenting to my father the other day via e-mail about how warm it had been here. In the first week of March, we had started to see temperatures approaching the fifties. I actually started planning for the return of soccer to the countryside. I was anxiously anticipating my first game here. My running shoes even got to leave the house for the first time in months. My spirits were high with the coming of Spring. As many of you are well aware, in my life I should never start to expect things. It seems that I am blessed with unexpected on a rather frequent basis. So, I should have known better than to think that winter had given up so easy. Maybe if I hadn’t been so ready for Spring I would have seen it coming, but alas I lapsed into my own little dream world. On Monday night, I dosed-off to the sounds of the first rainstorm of Spring. At some point in the middle of the night that rainstorm took a devilish turn, because when I woke the next morning, the ground was covered in a couple of feet of snow. Somehow with a week and a half to go before the official start of Spring, winter had yet again flexed its grip over this country. The temperatures have plummeted, and it seems that we will have our snow for a while longer. So when will we actually get Spring? Don’t ask me it seems that I am about as accurate as the locals at forecasting weather. They say that March (I think) comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. It seems that this year it came in like a lamb, and a week into the month, the lion woke and ate the lamb. Okay, all take care. Brian

Saturday, March 06, 2004

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Okay, so now I am doing this sort of posting every couple of weeks thing. Please accept my apologizes. I had to give a teaching clinic in Balakchy last weekend, so I did not have much time to get to the internet to post another entry. A real quick observation: One of the most bizarre things about teaching English in the Peace Corps is idea that part of our project is running teacher clinics. Now I am happy to stand in front of a group of people and run my mouth as most of you are aware, but it still seems odd for me to teaching people who have been teaching for 20 years how to teach. Maybe the saddest thing is that after observing their classes, there is something that this 24 year-old without much teaching experience can teach them. We’ll see. We celebrated national men’s day on Monday. Fortunately, it was also my host father’s birthday. I say fortunately, because it is very odd to have sit and listen to people say “congratulations on the holiday.” It is honestly the first time that I have ever been congratulated on being a man, and as a good male feminist, I’m not particularly comfortable with the idea at all. Much less, the simple fact is that, well, I had absolutely nothing to do with it. Okay, sure, I have elected not to go through some extensive surgery to change the fact that I am a man, but beyond that I have had nothing else to do with it. Incidentally, for the women that may be reading this: the larger of the gender based holidays in this country is International Women’s Day, which is celebrated on March 8th, so here is an early happy Women’s Day from Kyrgyzstan. In my time here in Kyrgyzstan, I have created a brand new drink, which is all the more amazing when you consider the fact that I am quickly approach 3 months without taking a sip of vodka, which is the only real hard liquor available here. My new drink is called the Kyrgyz mind bomb. It is incredibly easy to make. Take any hard liquor that you might have lying around, pour it into any glass other than a shot class, place some ice in the glass, and add some amount of a mixer. That’s it. People here have no concept of ice, much less mixing alcohol with something else, and beyond all that, they have no clue what it means not to drink something in shot form. At the birthday party the other night, I was actually shooting wine. I felt like I had hit a new personal low. Okay, let me say that first, if one is going to drink Kyrgyz wine, then doing it in shot form is probably the best way, but still, doing wine shots? Come on people let’s have a little bit of class. By the way, the reason I was actually doing shots was so that I could be culturally sensitive and participate in the culture of toasts (of which I believe there were 7 or 8 at the party). With each toast, you take a shot. It was intense. One might truly call it one of the most elctrfying experiences of my time in Kyrgyzstan. My heart raced, the hair stood on the back of my neck, and found myself jolted into action. So what was this experience that seems to have sent a bolt of electricity through my heart and soul? Well, it was the sending of a significant portion of electricity through my body. In other words: getting electrocuted. Actually, it was getting electrocuted three times within about ten minutes to be accurate. In the years that I spent in the Elizabethtown theatre, I learned more than my fair share about electricity, and getting electrocuted for that matter. Upon my arrival to my site, I discovered the need for the recollection of such skills. Like it or not, things break here, and as one volunteer near my lives by herself, the only people really available to help are fellow volunteers or neighbors as there are no handymen to be called. My skills with electricity have come in handy on any number of occasions, so when asked to replace a broken outlet, I figured no problem. Then I made two crucial mistakes. First, I forget to shut off the power to the room. I know, I know, I make fun of the stupidity around me, and then I do one of the dumbest things possible. My second mistake was misjudging the Kyrgyz power system. In other words, I forgot that everything in this country is jerry-rigged. One should never underestimate the danger of a jerry-rigged electrical system. I survived the incidents quite well. There are no visual signs that I was shocked, but it did give my heart a nice little jolt. I promise I will be more careful when playing with electricity in the future (come on you didn’t expect me to say that I wouldn’t play with it anymore did you?) Several people have written asking me if there is anything that I could use over here. My cut response is to say that I feel bad having anybody pay to send stuff all the way over here. That said, enough people have asked, that I should say that if you really want to send stuff, I greatly appreciate it (by the way I really appreciate those who have sent me stuff). What I really could use are postcards, pictures, and other such things of America. I have a large room that I have very little to decorate it with. Beyond that, any little American snack foods or such, books, or burned cds of any kind of music (particularly pop or country) (don’t send new cds as they will probably disappear in the mail, and would feel bad for anybody to spend that kind of money on something they were sending me). You can either use the address that I sent-out a little while ago in Kyzyl Suu or my Orgorchor address: Kyrgyzstan/722402/Issky-Kul Oblast/Jeti-Oguz Rayon/Orgorchor Village/Brian Cowan/Kyrgyzstan. Okay, again let me put my little disclaimer that I feel bad even posting this. I really am doing fine, and I don’t really need much. E-mails me as much to me as anything that is sent in the mail. It is great just to hear from people, and to know that people haven’t forgotten about me. Finally, Monday March 8th is International Women’s Day, so let me take a moment here to give a shout-out to all of my female friends out there. You ladies are awesome, and there is no way that I can tell you how much each one of you means to me. I love each and every one of you. So today, do something special for yourself, and if you have a male significant other, make sure that he does something special for you. You deserve it. I’ll be thinking about you all, but then again I do that most days anyway. So here’s to each one of you. Give yourself a hug from me. I love you guys. Well, I’m outy folks Brian