Friday, December 31, 2004

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Okay, there are a couple of general notes that I want to make at the start of this posting. First, you may have noticed all of the "sign my guestbook" buttons around this page. I know that they are annoying, and they will get moved in the next month, but I wanted them highly visible, so that people take note of them at first. I feel like I am having fairly solid success getting people to visit my page, so I have grown a bit curious about who exactly is reading it. I know many of you are my friends and family from home, but I am a bit curious as to if there are other people out there reading it who I don't know. Feel free to drop a note (and ignore the obnoxious first post by the company I am using). Second, I need a bit of help on something. I am starting a project this Spring with some of my students during which they will learn about the approximate cost of living in America. The problem is that it is been almost 16 months since I was last in America. If you get the chance, and can drop me an e-mail with how much various food products cost by the unit (ie the pound or package (if you do cite packages could you tell me how much is in a package?)), that would be really helpful. Thanks. Brian So with the arrival of midnight on the night of December 31st, the calendar's shift, and it becomes 2005. 2005 is the year that I am set to return to America. It was one of the oddities of last New Years that the new year was not the year I returned home, but I had one remaining beyond it. 2004 will always be a very special year for me, if for no other reason that it is the first full calendar year that I have spent outside of America. That's right, all 366 days of it were spent in foreign lands. That will always strike me as odd. A couple of weeks ago, I would have written this entry about the joy of the arrival of the final year, and I suppose there is something to that, but that is not the entire story. With the coming of the new year and the subsequent celebrations that surround that event, I have started to really consider what the last year means. A couple of the stories that follow explain some of this change of heart. I have always loved this place, but a couple of the parties that have occurred recently have left me feeling more love for my village. So I guess while part of me is relieved to only have a year left, part of me is a bit sad that I only have one year left. It is the crisis of Peace Corps. A volunteer spends much of their time counting down the days only to start to realize in their second year that maybe this endless assignment does actually have an end. That end is still far away from me as the new year dawns, but with that dawning comes a bit of realization that the end will not always be so far off. It drives me crazy, but I love this place Kyrgyzstan is an odd country. There is no doubt about it my mind. I have been here for almost a year and a half, and there are still a lot of parts of it that do not totally make sense to me. Sure, I have my theories about the people and they way their lives have developed. I have mixed opinions about many things in this country. From some of the customs that confuse me to the people that harass me, but no matter how much I may complain at points about my students and my school I love my village, and I love the people in my village. I am not always certain about those people outside of where I live, but I am certain that I cherish this village. Most volunteers complain about corruption in their schools, teachers uninterested in teaching, and an administration that doesn't care, but not me. I must have come to what is as close to the perfect school as possible under the circumstances. The other night I did what many volunteers in Kyrgyzstan is like committing suicide except only more painful: I went to one of the school parties. I will grant that Kyrgyz school parties are enigmas in and of themselves. I have honestly never seen anything like them before, and after my first experience with one a year ago, I was pretty decided that one was enough for me, but then some of the students responsible for this year's New Year's party asked me to come, and I have I very definite policy about invitations (particularly when made by my students): If I am invited somewhere, I go (unless there is some compelling cultural or safety reason not to). So, I gracefully turned down an invitation to a fellow volunteer's birthday party on the same night, and I went to what I thought could be a painful experience. I was wrong. The word painful doesn't begin to describe it, partially because it is at the absolute wrong end of the spectrum of emotions (unless you are talking about so much fun it hurt). It was some of the most fun that I have had since I arrived in Kyrgyzstan. The difference from last year? I suppose it has a lot to do with the fact that now I actually know almost all of the students involved. Kyrgyz school parties suck if you don't know anybody or have any clue about what is going on, but a year in with more knowledge about how teenagers here celebrate, a bit more understanding of the language, and actual knowledge of the people involved, the party was a lot of fun, which is something that I never thought that I would say (and something I think other volunteers will suggest I seek counseling for saying). The party itself, for those of you unfamiliar with such events, was essentially a talent show (primarily dancing a lip-sinking) mixed with games and dancing. In answer to the question some of you who know me from home are asking, yes, I did dance. In fact, I danced for hours, and I loved every moment of it (not to mention that for the second year in a row I was selected the best dancing male teacher at the school). I bonded with my students and with my fellow teachers. It was awesome. We danced for a couple of hours, and I did not stop smiling for the entire four hours that I was at the party. My teachers couldn't believe that I was smiling so much (not because I am always unhappy, but because my face has a natural scowl to it). In fact, 12 hours later as I sit at my computer writing this, I am still smiling. The unfortunate things about the high's of living here, is that words are remarkably inadequate at expressing those feelings. In a sense, this what Peace Corps is all about. It is about having these moments when you are totally bonding with your community, and you know that everybody is having a wonderful time. I think in years to come after I return home, when people ask me if I felt that my time in Peace Corps was a success, I will point to moments like that, let that speak for itself. I hope that I have done some things to help the people here in more tangible ways like the books that are coming or the roof that may get built for one of the schools, for me personally the greatest accomplishment will be being a foreigner who came any spent two years as a part of their lives. Not for any real reason than it shows the willingness of people from America to come so far and try to adapt rather than making everybody adapt to them. Being the glutton for punishment that I am, I followed-up the student's party by going the next day to the teacher's party. In many respects, the teacher's party was similar to the students except without the talent show aspect and with lots more food and alcohol. For the past year, I refused to drink any vodka in my village. I let that little rule slip at the teacher's party, and I really hope not for the worse. I paced myself turning down drinks when I thought necessary, and I left the party sober, which is honestly more than I can say for some of colleagues. I had a lot of fun. Maybe not as much as at the student's party, but come on there is something weird about dancing with a group of 40-60 year olds. I did get forced into the traditional (or so I was told it was traditional) kiss on the cheek of all of the women teachers still there, which was a little less than comfortable. I also manage to give two toasts totally in Kyrgyz (with only one brief peek at my cheat sheet), which I think may have done a lot to continue to forge a bond with some of my teachers. The party itself actually lasted for 6.5 hours, and when we got out of the meal situation and just started dancing (as weird as this is for me say) it was just a good time. While I think given a choice, I may have turned down the teacher's party, and in many ways it was not nearly as fun as the student's party (although I think that speaks more to my experience at the student's party than anything else), I am so very glad that I went. As I said before I love my school and my fellow teachers. I hope that maybe this party made me a little more real to some of them, and that they will have as fond memories of it as I do. I know that I will be carry the previous two parties with me as fuel for the time I have left, and aren't those really supposed to be the experiences of Peace Corps service? Speaking of accomplishments, one of the ways that I have said that I would know that I was succeeding as a volunteer here is if I ever got invited on my own to a local's house for a celebration. That happened the other night at the party. One of my students, whose mother teaches Chemistry at the school (at was impressed at my knowledge of what substances various chemical equations stood for), and whose sister I have in one of my English clubs came to me and asked me to come to her house on New Year's eve in the afternoon to participate in some of her family's celebration. In a sense to me, that is when I know that many in the community are starting to feel comfortable with having me around. For some volunteers, this may not seem like much, because some entered villages and were immediately welcomed into the homes of all. Kyrgyzstan is a bit of a different beast. There are volunteers who in their entire service will never be invited guesting without their host family. It is not that they are not appreciated or accepted, but instead it is just a cultural thing (particularly in inviting male volunteers over when there are teenage females in the house). So for me the invitation is sort of a deeper level of acceptance, and a sign that as much as I love my village, there are those here or love me as well. A final story of success, and then I will get this lovefest concluded. I was sitting in the teacher's room the other day when one of the teachers sort of looked at me and asked me my age. I told her that I am 25, and she thought about that for a moment. Then she said that her son is 20. At that point, there was sort of a pause while she seemed to be collecting her thoughts, and then, through a translator, asked me what my mother thought about me being so far away from home. All I could think was that some of the people are starting to get it. I am starting to stop being some foreigner, some free help, or some source of income for the school. They are starting to see me as a person, a human, and for this teacher, somebody's son. As much as anything, that is part of the point of me being here. To show that people from the West are very real, and that they are willing to make sacrifices to help others (never mind all of the personal things like personal growth and lifelong memories that I get from this that they don't see). Ahh food... There are times in this country in which I am so very thankful of the decision that I made several months ago to start cooking for myself. The other night was one such occasion. Now, I should note that ones cooking repertoire becomes some what limited in the winter in a country like this. The notion of vegetables really being for sale is sort of an anomaly at best. When one goes to the produce section at the local bazar the options are onions, beets, cabbage, pickled peppers, and the occasional deformed carrot. Thus, on the night in question, I was once again preparing my choice meal of pasta. When I went downstairs to the kitchen, I cam across what the rest of the family was preparing to have for dinner. Let's just say that some poor sheep lost it's life only to be sectioned-up and spread around the kitchen. I have always been a person will to try just about anything. To that end, I have eaten every part of the sheep that the locals eat (thankfully there are some reproductive organs not on this list). That doesn't mean that I enjoy it. You can rest assured that when I return home in less than a year, I will not show-up at any of your homes looking for some sheep stomach for dinner. I feel like I have been a good Peace Corps volunteer having choked down those items for a year, and now I am perfectly comfortable eating on my own. I rest a little more at ease every day knowing that I can be certain of at least one thing about dinner that night: it will not include the inner organs of any animal, and that is something that puts my mind a little bit more at ease.

Friday, December 24, 2004

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I would like to start this edition of my weekly or so ramblings by wishing all the happiest of holidays. I hope that you all enjoy this season with those you love most. Now is a time to be with family and friends. I must admit that it is at the holidays that I miss my family more than normal. That said, holidays exist here only in the most theoretical of senses. I know, "what the hell is Brian talking about now." I really mean it though. One of the things that I have learned from celebrating numerous holidays overseas is that holidays exist not in the day, but in the celebration itself. Thanksgiving this year was certainly a wonderful celebration, but it was only such, because of the people and events that surrounded it. I suppose the other way of saying it is that holidays are what you make of them. One of my happiest Christmas moments of recent memory was last Christmas when I locked my door, sat in the far corner of my room, and opened my presents all by myself. I know that is a bit of depressingly lonely thought, but I had got a great joy by being able to celebrate in a way that allowed me to be joined in thought with my family. I love holidays like that overseas, but part of the joy in them is the memory of previous celebrations. A little bit of the joy of this Christmas will lie in the fact that I have every plan of enjoying the following Christmas with my family. Enjoy those moments, because they are ever so precious. In the spirit of the holiday season, I should take a moment to mention a recent success of sorts in my Peace Corps experience. A couple of months ago, I began writing to teachers at my former high school about doing some collaboration. My idea was maybe to have some students from the high school do some community service to help my school and to exchange letters between the students. Well, a group of students took on this idea, and they started a book drive to supply my school with some English books. My dream was a couple of hundred books at the very most. I recently received an e-mail informing that the book drive netted 7100 books, which are now on their way to my small village in northeastern Kyrgyzstan. Needless to say, I am astonished not to mentioned humbled and blown away at the generosity of so many people and the hard of work of those students. It is my sincerest hope that I will have the privilege of meeting some of the individuals involved with this project when I return in a little under a year. For those of you interested, you may want to read the article from my local paper about it it: http://www.thedailytimes.com/sited/story/html/180832 People has asked me what it takes to join the Peace Corps, and while I may have over time a number of different answers, let me offer you this as one of the traits that are desirable for a potential Peace Corps Volunteer: A Peace Corps volunteer needs to be a person who when looking at a glass does not bother to ask whether or not the glass is half full or half empty. The glass is well less than half way full. To succeed as a volunteer in countries like this you must be willing to recognize the virtual emptiness of the glass, feel completely justified in complaining to your friends in the emptiness of the glass, but also be willing to take the little that is in the glass as reason enough to stay and do your work. I work for countless teachers and students who really don't give a shit that I came this far or that I am so far away from the people I love for such a long period of time (much less any difficulties I may have in adapting to cultural expectations that are never fully explained to me until well after I have crossed the bounds of acceptability). However, for every ten or twenty who treat me with a mix of contempt and indifference, there are one or two who every now and then does something that makes every insult, dodged potato, and other frustration worth while. A student the other day gave me a Christmas card that said among other things in virtually perfect English (feel the glow of a proud teacher), "Brian... thank you for your labour." I'm still smiling hours later. Leave early? Yeah I half-heartedly think about it other day, but there is no chance I am bailing-out on that group of students before my time is complete. I know that when I leave a year from now there will be many people with whom I have interacted here who I will not miss whatsoever, but there are also some people who have forever left their mark on me. I love these kids with every ounce of my being. It is for them that I hope this country becomes a better place. That's my ounce in a ten ounce glass that keeps me going. There are times when it doesn't seem like enough, but then one of them will do something to remind me just how worth while it all is. I don't consider myself an especially strong person to need so little, instead I consider myself lucky to have been exposed to something so strong that just a little bit of it can keep me going through some of the tougher times here. I wish all of you the chance to experience something so strong and beautiful in the year to come. Merry Christmas all, and Happy Holidays. Peace, Joy, and Love Brian

Saturday, December 11, 2004

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Maybe auspicious is not the word for it, but December 10th marked the one year anniversary of my swearing-in as a volunteer. Some of my kids were kind enough to give me a card and a small present to commemorate the event. Beyond the feeling of satisfaction that I actually made it through a year as a volunteer, there are actually a number of things that make this event important. The first is that in Peace Corps' eyes, a person who has completed at least one year of service will be viewed as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (thus entitled to those benefits) once they return home regardless of whether or not they make it through the next (unless they are kicked-out of Peace Corps). They don't get the full return allowance, but they get most of the rest of the goodies. I say that with no actual interest in taking advantage of this part of Peace Corps policy, which leads me to the second, and perhaps more important, benefit of crossing this important day: it means that I have one year left on my Peace Corps contract. That's right folks, barring an attempt on my part to request an extension to my contract (I love it here and all, but come let's be serious folks, that's not very likely), I will be home (or at least no longer a Peace Corps volunteer) in a year (although I have the option of leaving up to a month earlier if I so choose). Perhaps now is an appropriate time to make some mid-point comments on my experiences thus far. It might be interesting to see how much my view of things changes in a year. Things I never knew: Okay, so this first one I have learned before, but it has been made more explicit over the last year. KANT WAS FULL OF SHIT (no I am not referring to the village where we did our training by the same name, but I suppose it is full of shit in its own way (careful where you step)). A very simplistic reading of Kant (and simplistic is all I am doing at this point (damn I am getting Kyrgyz :))) tells us that the morality of an action is found in the intent. In other words, for something to be moral, it must be done simply because it is good (sorry Brenda and Jenny I know this is not a perfect explanation, but I'm tired and don't have any Kant around me to make this a little clearer). As much as I am here trying to help people, if that were the only reason that I were here, I would have left a long time ago. I am here a year in, because I enjoy what I am doing. Maybe a better reading of Kant would say that what I am doing is still moral, or maybe I should just concede the fact that I am not doing something very moral. I suppose I can probably live with both. All Kant explanation attempts aside, I am more convinced now than ever that I enjoy trying to help people, and that I am just fortunate that one of things that I enjoy most is something others seem to find socially redeemable (maybe that is the direction Kant was gong, or maybe a half-sick tired person who is in the midst of studying 3 new languages (with a 4th being thrown at him everyday) and teaching a 5th should just give up the attempts at Kant.) Given my first observation, my second is that I am amazed at my own irritation with the people who I came to help. I love my students, my fellow teachers, and some of the people I meet, but in general, I have a had a lot of problems with other locals. You arrive in a Peace Corps country hoping to be accepted in the communities, but even those people with the best of languages are treated as outsiders who should give what they came here to give and then shut-up and leave. There is certainly not the view of all, but it does seem to be a pervading opinion. People in other parts of the world are appreciative of the help others give, while here many seem to feel entitled to it. My final observation at this point is just how blessed a person I am. As frustrating as the people here can be, I am stuck working in a beautiful place with people I love doing something I love to do. I am getting to see a whole new culture in a new part of the world, and once again I have managed to get somebody else to pay for it. I am also blessed to have such wonderful support from people back home. I love all of you guys have stayed in touch and given me your support. You don't succeed at anything in live on your own, and this is another perfect example of just that. You have no idea how much a few words from home makes my day brighten. I love what I am doing, but the words of encouragement to this point have served to help me through those down times. For that reason, I raise a glass to each and every one of you. Thank you, I love you all, and I will see each and every one of you in a years time. Brian