When I learned my first words in Armenian, I wanted to skip down the street, smiling, and shouting, “Barev dzez,” to everyone I saw. My blond hair, casual clothing, and dirty shoes did not stop me from wanting to stand out even more by waving hello to the tatiks sweeping or the papiks squatting and eating sunflower seeds, or the kids playing, or the young adults walking around, arm in arm.
But smiling and talking to strangers (or even acquaintances) in the street is not that culturally appropriate, so I reigned myself in and walked sedately like everyone else. Sometimes, I just couldn’t help myself, though. A car would drive past and the driver would be looking at me, so I would wave and smile out of pure reflex. Then I would chide myself on my over-friendliness and hope I hadn’t given the driver or his passengers the wrong impression of me.
Peace Corps Armenia is changing the way I relate to people. In the U.S., I used to be a pedestrian who said hi to the people I passed. Comes from growing up in a small town, I think, and walking to school everyday. So my first couple months in country, I cheerfully acknowledged the people I saw. But gradually, my smile and greeting faded to just a greeting, to just a look and a nod, and finally, to nothing at all. I don’t even look at the people in the street anymore. (I would make a horrible detective, at this point, as I do not pay attention to the people at all.) They are not friendly to me, and I am not friendly back. I just pass by, and they stare after me silently, a stranger in their midst, standing out enough, with my blond hair, casual clothing, and dirty shoes, without drawing extra attention to myself by speaking out loud.
Life goes on for Armenians, even when I am around. Couples get married, babies are born, people lose their jobs, get sick, die. This should not be surprising, and it’s not. But it is weird to be a part of it all, to witness it, to express feelings about these life-changing events.
The happy news is easy. “Shnorhavor! Congratulations!” “Urakh em, kez hamar! I am happy for you!” I can’t say everything I want to, but I can say enough and show them with my facial expressions that I share in their happiness.
Sad news is much harder to deal with. In America, it’s hard enough to express sympathy to someone I know, in a language I’m familiar with. In Armenia, in a foreign language, to people I don’t know that well, I don’t have a clue how to react.
Peace Corps Armenia is changing the way I relate to people, especially in sad news situations. I distinctly remember walking one day with my first host mom, to her sister-in-law’s house. As we walked, she said in Armenian, “Evelyn, I’m going to leave for a couple hours and you’re going to stay with Joseph [another volunteer who lived with her sister-in-law’s family] until I get back. Do you know why? Because my mother’s brother died. I’m going to the [she probably said ‘funeral’ here, although I didn’t know the word at the time]. Do you understand? My mother’s brother has died. He’s dead.”
I paused for a minute, as I sorted out the words in my head. I knew the word for “to die” and understood what she told me. My response to the news of the death in her family? “Yes. I understand.” I didn’t know what to say, or how else to react. And we kept walking. I realized later that I hadn’t changed my expression much, hadn’t told her I was sorry, not even in English where at least the tone of voice would have transferred, hadn’t asked if she was okay, hadn’t asked if there was anything I could do, hadn’t even given her a hug. The news didn’t seem to affect me, and I was baffled at my unemotional response, but I have reacted similarly since that time. It’s just not instinctual for me to have feelings in another language.
Who doesn’t love their family and friends? In some ways, they become more important than ever, when you are serving in the Peace Corps. You miss them like crazy. You want to share your experiences with them. You want to hear the mundane “American” things they are doing in the course of a day.
When I lived in the USA, I was pretty good at keeping in touch with my friends and family. In the States, our lives were fairly similar, so it was easy to catch up, even after not talking or seeing each other for quite some time. I would make a point of calling someone I hadn’t talked to in awhile. As I traveled, I would plan my trip through a part of the country where they were living, so I could stop by and visit. When I was back in town after a long time away, I would call my local friends and invite them for coffee or lunch. This was enjoyable for me. I liked to know what everyone was up to, in a more personal way than looking at their Facebook status update, or hearing third-hand from someone else.
It takes a lot to maintain a current relationship with anyone. I would call (or visit, if I was close) someone important in my life at least once a week, if not more frequently. If I didn’t get an answer, I would try again later, but I always made the effort to keep in touch. I realize it was usually me initiating the phone call or the visit, but that never bothered me. I know I was always welcome, and excused my busy friends’ lives with a shrug, realizing it was probably easier for (single, care-free, traveling) me to fit myself into their schedules than wait for them to find time for me.
Upon arriving in Armenia, I tried to maintain a level of connection with people back home. I called. I emailed. I wrote letters. But slowly, that has begun to slip. Not for lack of time, not for being distracted by my life here.
But Peace Corps Armenia is changing the way I relate to people. It’s not as easy to maintain relationships or catch up. It’s not easy for me to get a hold of people. We don’t have a lot in common right now. So I find that I don’t have much desire these days to work at keep in touch. It’s hard to admit that, but I want to be honest here. It’s not that I love my friends and family any less, or think about them any less, or want to sever any connections I’ve made. In fact, if other people tried to keep in touch with me, I would absolutely love it, because then I would be sure they were interested! But I don’t want to expend my energy in the opposite direction, and here’s why:
In Armenia, my life is different. If I haven’t spoken to someone in awhile and then try to have a conversation, I feel like I have to start from the beginning. The conversation is more explanations than a fun, newsy exchange. For example, I might start a good story with, “I was riding the marshutni on my way to Yerevan, when an aghbear got on and sat on the stool by the door.” Then I have to stop and say that a marshutni is a public mini-bus, similar to a very crowded van; Yerevan is the capital of Armenia, and is at least a 2.5 hour ride from my site; an aghbear is a male Armenian with certain typical Armenian qualities, including black pointy shoes; and the stool is not a normal seat, but is placed in the aisles when the marshutni is otherwise too full for a normal seat.
At that point, is it worth continuing the story? It gets too bogged down and isn’t fun anymore. So, instead of having to re-explain myself in excruciating detail every time I talk to a different friend, it’s less stressful to tell myself that if they want to keep in touch with me along this journey, they will. And if not, we’ll re-connect when I get home and we have more in common again.
Government-issued best friends (aka my fellow volunteers in Armenia) are a different story. They can chime in with their own aghbear-on-a-marshutni stories, and throw in a hot sweaty summer day with the windows closed for the entire 3 hour trip, and we can all laugh. We struggle through hearing the difference between the hard “k,” the other “k,” and the hard “g” in the Armenian language. We commiserate on our work stories of the meeting that started late and the cell phones that kept getting answered. We talk about how we were over-paid for utilities and wonder if the money will be taken back.
On a bad day, we cry on each others’ shoulders. On receipt of happy news, we emote in the streets. We make fun of each other’s dirty hair and complain about the time the muraba ran off the stale lavash and stained freshly washed jeans. In other words, through the circumstance of being thrown together in Armenia, we become very close.
I’ve never had a particularly easy time sharing my feelings, emotions, thoughts, secrets, hopes, or fears with other people. I think that’s partly due to my stoic Finnish roots.
Peace Corps Armenia is changing the way I relate to people. The other volunteers I spend time with know much more about me than I used to be comfortable sharing with almost anybody. It’s especially strange for me to realize, because at this point I haven’t known anyone in this country for longer than 11 months. How are they so special as to deserve to learn about the time I went skinny-di….. oh, wait. I’ve never shared that story with anyone!
It’s really interesting and unique for me to have such close, caring relationships, and is something I would like to retain, out of all the ways Peace Corps Armenia is changing the way I relate to people.
Peace Corps Armenia is changing the way I… This could be answered a lot of different ways, but this entry touches on one that has jumped out at me recently. Did you like this format? Let me know in the comments, and I may answer this question a different way in future entries.
P.S. Thanks for the comments on what you’d like to hear more about in my previous entry. This topic had the most votes at the time of posting, but I will be writing about some of the other ones as well, later on. So stay tuned!
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