Saturday, March 12, 2005

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Howdy! The past week has honestly been one of most up and down weeks that I have had since arriving in Kyrgyzstan. There are a number of reasons for this some of which are included here. I have had two of my most extreme experiences (including probably my lowest since arriving in my village). At the same time, I have had a lot of fun. Vulnerability One of the toughest parts of being a Peace Corps volunteer is dealing with how exposed you are often left to feel. You work within a cultural context in which many do not accept you as an equal by any stretch of the word. As such, you often find yourself without the normal protections of the cultural norms. You are, in a sense, an element left outside to deal with others who may act inappropriately towards you on your own (as long as you don't violate the culture's norms.) Perhaps more concisely put, others may do whatever they choose to you without any restriction, but you are restricted in how you can by those same rules that do not protect you. It is a dehumanizing position to find oneself in. A note of warning: What follows I am posting, because I want others to read it, but there may be parts that while not graphic in a sense could be at least slightly uncomfortable for people to read. It may feel like you are reading something a bit too personal, but I am sharing it, because I want to, so please read on and take from it what you will. What provokes this writing? An event that happened early this week. As I finished one of my classes, and the students filed-out of the room, one of the boys reached down with his hand, and popped me in the crotch. It wasn't hard, and it didn't hurt, but it has proven to have an impact on the psyche nonetheless. There is something about being treated with such an incredible lack of respect makes wanting to continue teaching difficult. I know the words sexual harassment or assault carry very heavy meanings, and I am very hesitant to call it either of those, but it something that approaches that realm. It was unwanted, and it involved the touching of somebody else's sexual region. Perhaps more directly as such things so often are, it was a power move and intended to give the aggressor a sense of power. It put me an incredibly dehumanizing situation. I love my students, and those of you who have been reading this from the start know that it is my students that have kept me here to this point, but when somebody completely disrespects you, it is difficult to see the point in staying. I'm not going anywhere. Don't worry about that. I refuse to let some punk force me to quit, but one is forced to wonder how many times a person can take being treated as though you are not human by those for whom you have given up a lot. In America, that student would be gone. Here, I have to teach him for the rest of the school year. He has yet to come to one of my classes sense, so I am still waiting to see what will happen when I am finally forced to teach him again in a class. My apologies if this whole thing sounds overly dramatic, but honestly, I have never felt myself violated in such a way before, so part of this is my own attempt to understand what happened. It may sound odd to read a male writing about being violated in such a way, and there are certainly (and unfortunately) many people around the world who have been violated much worse, and I do not wish to take away from their experiences, but the fact remains that I cannot view this as anything other than a violation of that nature. Perhaps it is not to the scale of others, but it was a violation nevertheless. Perhaps I should end this on a bit of higher note, and say that I am extremely lucky to have other volunteers around who have legitimized my feelings, and who have been patient listeners as I have talked through this experience. I don't think the kid is a bad kid, and I really want to believe that this one an aberration from normal behavior for him. You don't make it through Peace Corps without the support of others, and I have been fortunate to have others around. How many wives do you have? I was sitting at our student's Women's Day party (of all places) the other day when a teacher sat down next to me. The look on her face said it all, "Let's see what this American kid is all about." I have dedicated any number of these postings to my up and down opinions on the parties at schools in the is country. Regardless of my feelings, I go, because it means something to the students, and the students are the reason that I am here in the first place. That said, once again, this teacher proved to me that it is never a good idea to enter anything with too many expectations or preconceived notions. Our conversation started innocently enough. She asked me why I had recently gone in to Bishkek (I don't go anywhere or do anything without the entire village knowing about it). I answered her questions (with the teacher sitting on the other side of me giving details which surprised me, as I am uncertain of how she obtained said details). Of course since this was our first real conversation, she had to ask me the standard question, "Are you married?" and of course the inevitable follow-up when they receive the answer in the negative, "Why not?" I explained the difficulties of trying to get married when you have only a marginal grasp over the local language, and so have primarily those people you know America left as options (excluding of course my fellow volunteers, but I didn't want to go there. A second note should be that explaining that you are not ready or some other legitimate reason is hopeless in this context.) After asking me my age and informing me of the number of children she had when she was my age (3 or 4 she changed it every other sentence), she launched into one of the most humorous diatribes I have heard since arriving here. In said speech, she informed me that I was slacking-off, and that in fact, I should be married to four women. "It's easy," she told me, "you have two Kyrgyz wives and two American wives." Okay, as those of you who know me well can attest, me trying to handle one relationship can be an adventure in social awkwardness. Me trying to handle four wives at once (keeping in mind I have had two girlfriends in my life) could prove to be one of the more entertaining things to watch on the outside, and one of the most tragically self-destructive things to experience on the inside. In response to the teacher's suggestions, I threw here some looks, was playful, and told her that she was naughty (they crack-up at being called that.) Ahh, but the teacher was not done with her sale's job. No she pulled-out only the finest in logic to try and sway my opinion. She looked at me and asked how many seats there are in a car. Of course, other than the driver's seat, there are four. "You see," she said, "four seats for four wives." That became the theme of her argument which lasted for the next 2 hours. I honestly don't remember that much about the rest of the goings on at the party, because I was having too much fun talking with this teacher (it should be noted that much of the conversation was just a joke by the teacher, and both of us, as well as the teacher on my other side, laughed solidly for a couple of hours about it.)