Saturday, March 19, 2011

Time Flies Talking with Princesses

For some people, they might say every week is the same, but if you pay attention to the subtle details no matter how mechanically you operate, every day/week is different, whether it be from the progression of friendships/conversations/work or whatever. Well this week took the cake for different.

On Monday, we had our usual semi-annual VAC (Volunteer Advisory Council) meeting in Tbilisi. It was earlier than usual though, 10 am, which required me being at the marshrutka station to get to Tbilisi at 7:30, and waking up at 6:00 to be awake enough to put in my contacts for being up so early. In Tbilisi, I have never seen people move so quickly in the metro. I guess I’m never there in the early morning rush where people are trying to get to work on time? I didn’t think people rushed to get anywhere in Georgia… you learn something new every day.

I met up with an elven friend for lunch, who conducts teacher training workshops in my region through a US embassy-funded/managed program. We had wonderful discussions, and before you knew it, it was time to get back to my site. I almost missed the last marshrutka. Whew! Totally lucky. I was freaking out worrying if I had been stuck in Tbilisi.

Tuesday was pretty normal. I did a presentation for St. Patty’s Day for Thursday. The kids really liked it, and I gave out green shamrock bracelets (sent to me by my AMAZING class in Tallahassee! :))

Wednesday, I taught in the IDP village and returned to meet a PCV in town for a meeting with IREX the next morning. I have my book club (Currently reading: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) on Wednesdays, so we met and it went really well! Something seemed really odd to me though. You know how in college, people will stay after and talk with the professors about various things? Well, that’s now me after our book club! It’s very curious and feels strange to me, but I’m glad to be appreciated/valued on that level of respect.

St. Patrick’s Day threw me for a loop. We had our meeting with IREX to discuss civic education projects in several regions and our experiences with it in Georgia. Afterwards, getting to school, the students had skipped school for the day. I went to tell my director that I wouldn’t be at school next week on account of 2 conferences, and met 2 very different and interesting people:

1. Princess- That’s right. I met a princess. She claims to be the last remaining heir (granddaughter) of the lost Anastasia. She says she wasn’t contacted by Russian authorities until after the fall of the Soviet Union, but she has close contacts with Putin and various other political figures now. She was able to articulate every moment down to the times and explicit travel itinerary of what occurred after discovering that she was a princess. This lady could talk your ear off if you stayed around long enough. She discretely took pictures of me and my friend on her phone while I was talking to my director, but after listening to 30 minutes of her story before being rescued by a school administrator, I requested a photo with her and was shot down. Sorry bloggers! Another time.

2. College administrator- She is the one who rescued us from the princess. (Is that really how it’s supposed to work?) It turns out she’s opening a campus branch for a professional skills college in my town. She wants me to teach there after I finish Peace Corps. She offered to find me a good apartment and pay me a fair salary. She wants to create an incredible reputation for the college’s English program. She is pretty determined, but we’ll see. It’s always good to have back-up plans, and I’m flattered by the offer.

We departed and later showed up at the center where I hold the book club for an afternoon viewing of “Matilda” (1996), to watch a movie based on another Roald Dahl book. The students really liked seeing the similarities in style between the two. Everyone was sporting their green, and they put together a small party to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Then, they presented to me several bags of groceries from everyone to show their appreciation for me helping and teaching them. I was really touched and surprised. I don’t think anyone has ever done anything like that for me. Also, I have had a low balance on my bank account recently, as inflation prices have made some of the food products double, and I just felt like it was like God/karma/a higher power knew that and was helping me. I was wonderfully surprised. And so comes to an end, what was the best St. Patrick’s Day I have ever had.

Photo #15 - St. Patrick's Day Fiesta - While not too much, these goodies
made for the perfect St. Patty's Day snacks. Note: I love the walnut shaped
pastries on the far left. They are filled with caramel and sooo scrumptious. 

Today, I taught computers again in the village. We had a new student join us, and he corrected my Georgian while speaking, and my little students (circa age 10) all jumped in and defended me. I teach in Georgian. It’s not perfect, but they understand me. The little kids are so eager to learn. I asked this group of kids last week what was something positive in their day and again later for my book club. Maybe half of the group answered that that class was the highlight of their day. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that before, and I’m so grateful that I am given an opportunity to offer a course/class/something that the students can look forward to.

So Monday is Novruz Bayram, the Azeri celebration of spring and the New Year. Novruz, as a Muslim holiday is also celebrated in many other countries. A famous Azeri pop singer, Manana, is coming, along with the Georgian and Azeri presidents to my town! They’re doing a sneak-peek at the new sports complex, funded by the Azeri government, along with celebrating this holiday. They have been trimming all the trees, repainting road markings and anything else that needs painting, and cleaning. Slowly, my town is getting a little facelift. I talked with one of my students, and I’m so stoked to possibly get a membership to this new gym, if it will be affordable!

Side note: An interesting misperception I haven’t thought about since I was a kid: hamburgers, in fact, do not contain pork. They are safe to eat for Muslims. :) I had to explain this to several of my Muslim students recently.

There is only so much time in a day, and I’m glad to say that I feel like I’m maximizing it. Happy Novruz to you all!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Pearls of Wisdom and Women's Woes


I just had a really great conversation with my mom about relationships between other people (coworkers, friends, supervisors, mentor-mentee relationships, etc). It was really refreshing, and definitely made me feel good about the decisions that I have made in my life. In regards to behavioral change and personal growth, my mom said, "You know, growing hurts sometimes and isn't always easy." I could only think about the countless number of times where I have made mistakes, said the wrong thing, or just flat-out failed at something. They've all been learning experiences for me, and so I can't regret them. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and, in the case of a relationship, the mistakes you make weren't meant to work out with those individuals in particular, but rather to prepare you for some relationship down the road. Also, I feel like (once again for those who believe in it) a higher power, albeit God/god(s), will show you these paths and give you these opportunities to make mistakes, and it's up to you to make them. I constantly am telling my students with English that if they don't make mistakes now, how can they become better?

In short, conversations/encounters I have been dwelling on in things I shouldn't have said, actions I shouldn't have done, and/or just wondering why for SOME reason people drift apart under certain circumstances have all already happened. There's no sense dwelling or regretting on them, but instead how will those encounters influence who you will become tomorrow? When someone does you wrong, an option is to shut down that vulnerable part of yourself so that it will never happen in the future. My mom said, "There's no point in living if you shut yourself down to the world." Instead, a heightened awareness of self and others enables you to see events unfolding and playing the cards of wrongdoing are foreseen rather than by surprise, but the most important thing is to also identify those relationships which can be healthy and connect with these people with similar/harmonious motives/views. These are the people that matter.


As mentioned, I have been doing site visits to advertise and connect with minority schools in my region for placement of the next group of Peace Corps volunteers (G11's,you can thank me later :)) So far, with assistance from some local community members, I have been able to generate 2 school applications. It's not a lot, but I've still got some other irons in fire. In my meetings with the English teachers and directors, we have had some interesting conversations with women, in which I will also regale you with some other stories I have heard in my time in Georgia.

One teacher asks me the usual questions: Do you like Georgia? Do you like Georgian food? Are you married? How much money do you make? How much do you pay for rent? etc. In response to the question about marriage, I replied that I am still on the market *wink, wink* She insisted that I'm such a good boy, that I should stay in Georgia. I asked why, and she responded that it was due to the high rate of divorce in America. If I were to stay in Georgia, logically, I would be able to have a happy, longterm marriage. Several teachers join in this conversation to ask me about divorce rates in America, especially, why are they so high? I responded probably due to the individualism of the culture. I wanted to add that also probably most people's basic needs are met and in striving to meet their other needs, they become overly critical of those they date/marry on their way to self-actualization, however, I was interrupted with the most important reason- "It is because in America, women think they are head of the household. This is the real reason. In Georgia, men are the head of the house. They make all decisions. Our marriages are like stable, well-running governments." "Like unmovable mountains!" chimed in another teacher. "In Georgia, divorce is so rare, and you can say it almost never happens." Not entirely convinced, I smiled and chuckled along, perhaps a little nervous about what to say next. **Note: I have been around the block in Georgia a couple of times, I know that overall in most of the regions, this statement is true. There are of course exceptions, probably most married Georgian women with internet access able to read this. Divorce is quite rare, and most men run the households.

The interesting thing is that (as has been pointed out by many), the women in this country do a large majority of the work. Many men/husbands, unwilling to accept a job not respected for men, will sit at home smoking cigarettes, getting drunk with friends, and/or watching TV while the women do all of the housework while having a full-time job. I admire Georgian women so much for their courage, strength, and drive to keep going. I have shadowed a Georgian woman who is a teacher in another region for one week, and I was exhausted. This is how she and so many other women in this country live their lives.

Another regional/village mentality, most likely mentioned in an earlier post is that many women desire these male chauvinists and see them as ideal husbands. "We don't want momma's boys! We want REAL men!"

Another trouble faced by both men and women in Georgia is access to educational materials about reproductive health and birth control. (Not only in Georgia but in many other parts of the world) Women who use birth control are considered loose women. In an HIV/AIDS health training I participated in, one man said, "Women who want an HIV/AIDS test are not loyal to their husbands. If they only have relations with one man, why do they need it?" ***Note: Pregnant women or people about to undergo major surgeries are required by law to have HIV tests to determine measures to take afterwards. All blood donated in Georgia is also tested before transfusions are given. However, it is common practice for men to go to prostitutes on a regular basis for services that "good women/wives" are not expected/socially permitted to perform. In Georgia, the HIV/AIDS epidemic's most at risk group is IV drug users, however, according to research from the Georgia HIV/AIDS institute, this is shifting to cover larger populations. Most people have never had an HIV/AIDS test so it's unclear in projecting infection rates/numbers.

Something else that is misinformation is that people also believe women who buy/use tampons are also loose or that tampons may take your virginity. In several recent surveys, 70% of the Georgian men tested said they would not marry someone who is not a virgin. I'm regurgitating a lot of information from other articles, but this "sexual asymmetry" or perception of is created as a result. There are ads in newspapers for cosmetic surgeries for women to have their virginity restored. It's true that reputation is everything is Georgia.

A friend of mine was teaching a graduate level course at a well-known university in Tbilisi. One day for their assignment, somehow the students got on the topic of the reproductive system. My friend was shocked to discover that, for example, the women (graduate students) could not explain ovulation, fertilization or any processes related to giving birth connected to reproductive organs. My friend brought in diagrams for the students the next class to teach full-grown adults, for the first time, about their bodies.

In doing a teacher training in the fall of 2010, I taught a session on incorporating health topics in the classroom. I mentioned that at first, it's good to start off with light topics like the damage/dangers of smoking and move across a wide-range of topics, incorporating parents and school administrators for support. I mentioned that one of the benefits of talking about health issues is that it makes the teacher someone the students can talk to that they might feel ashamed to talk about with their parents. As the session went on, and we talked about reproductive health in the classroom. ***Note: Currently health classes are not a part of the education curriculum in Georgia. There have been some pilot programs, but nothing has really gone full-scale.

We debated whose responsibility it is in discussing this topic: parents? teachers? both? doctors? who? Then, I threw out something controversial- I asked, "What would you do/say if your student came to you, as another female, and said she was pregnant and wanted your advice?" The response: outrage. Comments like, "You cannot understand our country!" "This never happens in Georgia!" "This is not America!" etc.etc. The teachers took complete offense. Well, I have another story for you.

This may be rare, but here goes. One of the other volunteers had a 13-year-old student give birth to a child in the school bathroom. Her parents didn't notice, apparently. I have to say this is a failure on the part of the parents and the school. The school should be a comfortable place for the students. Can you imagine how scared this poor girl must have been, giving birth on the bathroom floor? or what it must've felt like to hide this from everyone? She went through this whole thing most likely alone, or at least not of anyone who could've been emotionally supportive to her needs. The volunteer asks the co-teachers who were at the training, "So now, what would you do if she had come to you for support?" Response: they would have taken her to and told her parents. That is exactly why she didn't. If I've heard about it once in two years, it means it does happen. **Note: Georgian media has discussed this as well as various NGOs. Abortion is Georgia's most common method of birth control. I'm pro-choice personally, but careless abortions like this make me sick to think about.

So the argument is: if you teach it in schools, the schools could be responsible for increased sex among the student body. For a culture centered around religion, the church is not for this. However, I think it's clear that sex is happening in these schools already, and students should know the myths and truths about what will happen to keep them from making bad decisions down the road.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Big Teisti for One

Nothing is more depressing than eating by yourself in a fast-food restaurant full of families, friends and lovers. You might be thinking they are cheap boyfriends to take their honies to a fast-food restaurant, but as was probably mentioned in previous posts: McD's is the place to be. So I sit down with my "beeg teh-ee-stee" sandwich with two chairs at a table that bairly holds my tray. Then a man comes up to me and says, "I'm taking these." So I'm now eating alone at a tiny-tiny table that looks even more lonely with no-one else at it.

As others have noted, the people and service at McDonald's in Georgia are great. They greet you when you come in. They are constantly cleaning the bathrooms and tables. They'll even continually mop the floors when people are tracking in mud on a rainy day. After you get your food at the register, they always smile and say a "bon apetit" of sorts.

In being alone, I am looking around at all the people around me. I see 2 friends/lovers eating. The guy has a blank stare towards the girl while she texts on her phone for 20 minutes. Rude much?

Then I see a mom sitting at a table with her kid. The kid is playing with his happy meal toy and the mom has this blank-minded look of despair on her face. You can see her glancing around and either wishing her husband could've come out with her and the kid or that she had a husband to help out with the trouble of raising a child on her own. She goes to get two ice creams and proceeds to eat the ice cream in such a melancholy way that suggests she is trying to fill some void in her life.

Another 40'ish old lady is sitting at a table with her mother. She could have sat across the table from her mom, but instead her mom seems to be having trouble eating from the shakes, so she is helping her with her food.

I feel that so much of this country tries so hard to maintain a facade of happiness, even in the most wealthy of places. Of course there are people who are generally happy, but it's comparable to the number of people who have PhD's in America. I was thinking about this. Take my neighbors, for example. I laugh a lot in my apartment (and in life in general), whether by myself talking to friends on facebook or skype, or when I have company over. I always think (these walls are paper-thin and I know they can hear me). After a good laugh, I always have a shudder of guilt that I'm disturbing someone. I have never seen my neighbors truly laugh on the countless occasions I have lived next door to and interacted with them. I can hear them put a coat on a coat-hanger, but I never hear them laugh. Sure, every now and again, they'll have a good chuckle, but it still seems artificial.

I can count on my ten fingers of people I know who know how to truly enjoy life out of all the people I've met. It makes me sad. If anything it motivates me to prove as a source of humor or relief from life for them. I don't doubt that life in this country is easy for anyone, but you have to learn how to enjoy it. I never thought about this in America, but I think this principle could also be applied there.

I officially taught my first full day with the IDP kiddos in the village I will commute to twice a week for three months. These students are so quiet and well-behaved compared to my average school students. In part, this silence comes from fear, mistrust, and low-self esteem. Some of them are just fine, but they have all been through the traumatic experience of having been kicked out of their homes and relocated to an unknown territory. Their parents in most cases don't have jobs and even more so, have a difficult time getting up in the morning at the thought of being in the middle of nowhere and expected to start over from nothing. Sure they have financial aid in place, but they really need emotional support. I am somehow going to make these computer classes interdisciplinary in developing growth of their self-esteem. For example, one girl was so shy she spoke in a voice that was almost inaudible. When she didn't know where the keys were on the keyboard, she looked like someone who wanted to cry but had no tears left. She easily clammed up, and there was so much dirt on her hands, I wondered if her parents didn't use her for labor or if even she didn't have any parents. Today affirmed that this is an area I can have a great impact. Even if what I'm teaching them they'll never use, at least I have a chance to encourage them to keep on keepin' on.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Footprints - Treading Lightly?

Hello all! I'm bringing you some substance in this one. A lot of this may be clear, but if there's anything that wasn't, feel free to comment or comment anyways! :)

So, I was looking on the recruiting website for English teachers to come to Georgia. On their website, they have information for prospective applicants for their program. I found some statements interesting and others I would like to know more about, were vague, or were just plain wrong. I have done some heavy recruiting in my day, and it seems like they could do a better job. I emailed them saying that I could help them to improve their website, at no cost, of course, to make their website information about Georgia more clear and attract the people who would be most likely to have a successful time in Georgia. I received no response.

Disclaimer: I love Georgian people and culture, and I mean absolutely no insult in questioning the following statements. Also, in no means am I directing this towards any English teacher in Georgia. I am a supporter of and believer in (the potential for) this program, as long as the organizers continue to listen to feedback and criticism to make changes to positively affect the experiences, future and present, of its participants.

On food....
Often dishes are made with nuts but they also use locally grown spices like coriander and saffron and garlic and peppers but a meal is never complete without some form of bread and often various cheeses."*
"Often called Georgia Pizza, Khachapuri is so good.  Kababi's are divine and Mtsvadi melts in your mouth.
On medical care...
"Medical facilities in Georgia are very similar to most public medical centers in any developed country in the world."
On host family selection...
"They are selected from a great number of applicants." 
On cost of living...
"It should be noted that an average public school teacher will make less than $300USD per month and that many of these teachers are able to live well, support themselves and their families." 
On Georgia's background...
"September 2009 was the first time foreign teachers began teaching in public schools.
"Mountains, seaside, countryside and rolling hills and grapevines are among some of the options you have in terms of locations in Georgia to teach."**
On the culture (this is all there was)...
"The country of Georgia is located at the crossroads of Asia and Europe and Georgian culture has evolved over thousands of years.  Georgians are renown for their love of music, dance, theatre and cinema.
On education...
"Classes are small, students are respectful and the schools are generally modern and well equipped.

(some) Marketing slogans:
"Summer in Georgia. Get a tan. Make a difference. Why not?
"Discover Jazz with the Black Sea Jazz Festival in Georgia!"  
*I am interested in which dishes use coriander and saffron?
**and... and? AND I teach on grapevines all the time. (this was just a catty one I thought I'd mention)

As those of you who have read my blog before, I have overall had a good experience in Georgia in the time I've been here. Given the above information (and seriously): Am I in this country? I realize I am in a minority area, but I have lived and taught in other parts of Georgia.

Georgia as a country deserves more than to be treated like an "almost new" apartment/house for sale with "charming wildlife," "intimate kitchens," and "cozy bedrooms" in the "paradise escape just steps away from the city."

Should this recruiting company change its slogan from "Placing Teachers First" to "Giving Grossly Inaccurate Information?" I am thinking of three possible scenarios as to why this happened: someone is not doing their fact-checking; this recruiting company is stretching the truth/completely fabricating things; and/or these people have just completely over-generalized an entire country. I believe there are people (like myself and my colleagues) who want to teach in a developing country. I know the goal of recruiting is to get people to sign, but if someone wants a developing country experience, and they don't do their research, they would most likely move on to the next teaching opportunity. Also, I feel that this information could mislead those coming through this company. There are wonderful English teachers who adapt, do their research, and are realistic, but I think you can still market to people and be successful by giving a realistic perspective right from square one.