April 12, 2009
You know that scene in movies, where the girl stumbles on to the stage by accident, or tumbles through a curtain and the whole audience is sitting there, all looking at her, and she squeaks “Ohmigod!” then runs backstage and throws up? (Well, either that or she miraculously overcomes her stage fright and goes on to perform a stunning rendition of a Whitney Huston song that brings everyone to their feet while the credits roll...) So about a week earlier my English Methodologist, who is a Belarusian woman who speaks about three words of English and Turkmen equal to my own, had mentioned she wanted me to attend both a open lesson and an ‘English party’ later that month. Like a lot of the open lessons, I figured it might be interesting, but driving all the way across town to watch a 45 minute class that wasn’t even at my school didn’t really appeal to me, as I had my own lessons to teach and I had just started tutoring a new student at home. So I put them in the back of my mind, and honestly forgot about them. Then, come the morning of the supposed teacher party, I was working with my student and the phone rings. Long story short, I was across town 10 minutes later, running through the school still putting on my coat. Suspecting the party would be a classroom, I poked my head through the door that the secretary directed me to, and lo and behold there was a full auditorium of teachers and students, which upon my arrival, all directed their attention to me. My director waved me over while everybody watched, and there on the stage was a group of waiting students, a panel of assorted teachers, several directors…. and an empty chair. Mine, apparently. The supposed teacher party was actually a Ruhknama competition. The Ruhknama is this sort of cultural guidebook that the previous Turkmen President wrote. All the kids have to take Ruhknama classes in school, and once a year they have a Ruhknama day to celebrate it. Apparently, I was one of the 5 judges for the competition, as it was preformed both in English and in Russian, so I and another teacher were the English judges. Kids from 15 schools and come, and were performing, and there I was…a no show. ‘Teachers party’, my ass. So I scurried up on staged while everyone waited, inwardly cursing my inept grasp of the Russian language for the confusion, and the show went on. After sitting through 3 hours of plays, songs, and readings and quotes from the Ruhknama translated into a bunch of random Central Asian languages, the judges had to confer, pick winners, and then give a speech to the crowd. After we had our selection, I stood up for my turn, having no idea what the Russian judges had just said, mumbled through some Turkmen, then copped out and just summed it all up in English, clapping dramatically at the end to congratulate everyone. I felt like a monkey.
In summary, I should also probably be better about studying my Russian grammar and the next time someone invites me to a party, I will ask for details. I must also kiss my stage fright goodbye if I am ever going to survive in this country.
In the last 6 months I have been to my fair share of weddings. Turkmen people, being the community-oriented folks they are, tend to invite everybody and their cousin, not to mention their cousin’s cousin’s cousin. Most weddings tend to host between about 250-500 people, on average. Because of this, most of them are Café weddings, held in a big Restaurants specially built for the events, because they can pile everybody in pretty easily, and they have crews of teenage boys trained to a science running around the room and feeding every body. In our town there are two restaurants that host weddings. So every time somebody invites me, if it’s a café wedding, I know pretty much what to expect, where to go, and what I’ll be eating, as it’s mostly the same event, just with a slight change of characters and a few menu alterations. My first few weddings were pretty intimidating, as inevitably the dinner part is over and the dancing commences. It usually takes about 20 minutes for most everybody to realize there is a non-Turkmen in the room, because 1) I’m over 20 and don’t wear a headscarf (I’ve decided to put my foot down on that one, it’s just not happening) and 2) I have no clue how to dance to Turkmen music. I have tried in vain, but I have absolutely no rhythm for the music here. Women dancing consists of walking in a circle elaborately swirling your arms, while side stepping and hopping to the right. I feel like a chicken trying to learn sign language- to put it lightly. So soon enough it comes to attention that there is an awkward Foreigner dancing among them, and in about 5 minutes all three-camera crews (hired especially for the event) have swarmed around whichever dancing circle I happen to be a part of, to commence filming ‘the dancing American’. I realize it’s a way of making me feel welcome, but jeeze. My first few Toyys I was pretty mortified, I dreaded thinking about how many people were going to be watching me on their home video tapes a month later, saying ‘yes, there’s that American who came to our wedding. Look at her dance, isn’t if funny?!” In fact, my fear of the camera crews and the observing crowd was so bad that I hid behind my six-year-old host sister for the better part of two hours at my first few Toyys, but inevitably, I was discovered soon enough. You would have thought after three years of being a tour guide and have Japanese tourists record me for three hours on a tour I would have gotten over it, but here it is a whole new ball game. The lights and microphones bring it up to a whole different level. Added to this hilarity, it turns out the assistant director at my school also happens to be a wedding MC, so literally every Toy I attend, he is there booming away on the microphone, telling everybody to have a good time and giving a running commentary of the event like he was broadcasting a wrestling match. “Look, so-and-so’s aunt is dancing now, isn’t she great! Come on everybody, eat that food, it’s Murat’s cow, fine meat, don’t you think!” Note to self: never get openly drunk at a Toy and call in sick to work the next day. Won’t work.
This past weekend though, I went to my first outside Toy, or Street Toy, as they are called. It was kind of unavoidable as our neighbors were hosting the event for their middle son, and the entire neighborhood, along with helping prepare the wedding, were expected to be in attendance. My host mother baked 30 kilos of chicken legs in about three hours in our kitchen, and shred about 5 kilos of carrots for salad-enough for about 300 people. The morning of the wedding, the traveling Toy stages showed up. Toy stages are large un-foldable trailers that are dead ringers to carnival trailers. They resemble the game booths of a traveling circus with a thousand flashing lights, cheesy lit up pictures, and circus music. Once they unfold, and all the lights are hung up, you can literally hear the music from about a mile away- the only thing missing is the creepy clown. I think this is why all the neighbors are invited, because if everybody is at the Toy, no one can complain about the noise. After the Trailers are set up in the middle of whichever street the wedding house is on, the preparing of the food commences. Or in this case, the killing of the food. I was sitting in my room grading some papers, when I heard the rather frantic moo of a cow. It persisted for a while, and lifting my curtain I noticed a rather sad-looking cow latched to the telephone pole in our front yard. In about ten minutes, I watched while poor Bessie was dispatched to the hereafter by my neighbor men and quickly quarted, diced and boiled for the stew, head and all. Well, at least I know now what I’m having for dinner tonight, thought I. Bessie. I enclose a photo of my unfortunate dinner as exhibit A. All in all it was a jolly Toy, besides getting my high heels embedded in the mud, stalked by several drunk random neighbor dudes who thought throwing pebbles at my shoes to get my attention was a ingenious way of courtship, and having somebody nearly throw up on my host brother. And although I will probably never get down dancing like a Turkmen girl, I can say at least that the Hollywood camera show is starting to phase me less. But in answer to some previous queries, no, I will most definitely not be having a Turkmen wedding.
April 27, 2009
Call me a mother hen, but this week I’m so proud I could burst. As of this week, two of my advanced students from the Russian School have passed the Flex exam, which gives them a full ride ticket to the USA to study at an American High School for one year come next Fall. Being as only about 60 kids out of the entire country get picked-I feel like a mother sending her kids off to Harvard. I also feel extremely lucky because while a lot of volunteers will be teaching “Murat is playing football” for the next two years here, I have a work site where I have students able to do advanced grammar and practice with, and I can actually see significant headway being made with them. In terms of a Peace Corps volunteer, I’m pretty lucky. Every once and a while, when I mention to another volunteer a comment one of my students made, they say in disbelief, “your kids know how to say THAT???” This is mostly because most volunteers have to start from square one- with counterparts that don’t speak a lick of English, with a school curriculum that is almost beyond unsalvageable, or with slim to none resources. Not I said the fly. Yes, let the jealousy flow. For example, a few weeks ago, I was giving my kids scenarios like, ‘if you found out you had 6 months to live, what would you do?’ And one of my girls, who is one of the most reserved, shy, well behaved, quiet Muslim girls you will ever find, said that she would spend her time speed-dating, at the rate of one boy every two weeks. I almost fell off my chair. One-because I don’t know where she learned the term speed date, and two, because I’m pretty sure she has never even kissed a boy before. It’s amazing how language can open some doors.
Though as much as I’m excited for my girls to depart to my Homeland, I am also extremely nervous for them. Young girls are so protected here in terms of the gender differences I am terrified to think of the shock they will have when they hit America. So this week I have been examining some of the differences between the Turkmen way of thinking and the American way of thinking in hopes of preparing them for the culture shock they are sure to have. A lot comes down to the American mindset of Independence. As a culture of rags to riches, most Americans are pretty keen on the idea of relying on ourselves, and view dependence on others as a weakness. This may be why we have such a competitive and go-getter’ type culture. We are also very straightforward. If we are asked if we want something to eat, we say no, sit down, and that’s pretty much it, case closed. Here though, you are asked if you are hungry about six times, you say no out of politeness, and then regardless, somebody puts a plate of food in front of you, so you eat out of respect-whether you were planning on it or not. So I had to tell my girls: “Ok, if somebody asks you if you are hungry, and you are, for petes’ sake, just say YES. Otherwise, they’ll believe you when you say no, and you’ll starve to death. And if you want more, ask for more. Because when you stop eating, people will assume you are full. If you are tired-tell somebody. If you are cold, tell somebody. Just say it”. Simple right? Yeah, not as easy as it sounds. People here are masters of skirting around the issues without actually getting to the real point (this I say in my annoying American mindset). In any case, I hope to get them mentally prepared by August, so they will be prepared for a year in my Motherland. I’m hoping they put them in Florida, just for the sake that they don’t freeze to death in the winter. So watch out America, Turkmenistan is coming your way. And it’s ready to speed date.
April 29, 2009
I am going to be known as the volunteer that brought the rain. Apparently we are having an unusually wet spring here in Tejen, and I happened to jokingly mention to my students a while ago that it tends to rain every time I do my laundry. Well, it seems quite a few of them remembered this little factoid, and Meteorological oddities aside, I think many of them have taken this quite seriously and come to the conclusion that the rain is my fault. This Monday, it happened to be raining AGAIN, and I was wringing out my skirt over the trashcan before class while my waterlogged kids dashed through the door. One of my better students sat down irately, her braids plastered to the side of her face, water dripping down her nose, and asked me accusingly “Megan, you wash dress today?” And as luck would have it, I had actually washed some clothes the day before.
“Well, nooo…” I said. It wasn’t really a lie.
“When you wash?” She said, crossing her arms.
“Umm...” I tried to avoid the question by scribbling something on the chalkboard.
“When!” She is a little bulldog when she wants to be, and wasn’t buying that for a second.
“Umm, yesterday.” I mumbled, and quickly commenced scratching out a complicated grammatical graph on the board in the hope of diverting their attention. This brought a resounding groan from my kids, though I am pretty sure it had nothing to do with the future indefinite tense. Imagine, if you will, the blame of a dozen small shivering children boring their way into the back of your skull. One of them mumbled something in Turkmen that I’m pretty sure had to do with confiscating my laundry soap.
So, as my mother would famously say: What did we learn from this? Well, it appears that I may have to be a bit more careful when it comes to mentioning things that might be taken as superstition in these parts, as the Turkmen hereabouts still strongly follow and abide by a plethora of superstitions and well cemented beliefs. I knew before coming here that I would have to deal with a lot of them. In fact, I would have been a little bit disappointed if there weren’t any, because it’s part of the fun of living, or even just traveling, in different countries. Each country and people has their own little oddities that make them unique, and I’ve found you can tell a lot about a countries people by the superstitions they have. Here, for instance, a lot of superstitions have to do with the preservation of money-pretty important for a culture that doesn’t have too much of it. Whistling inside the house, for instance, will cause the residents to lose money, or become poor. I did it once, and my host family shut me up faster than you can swallow sand on a windy day in the Sahara. You would have thought I had just stolen right out of their pocket. Needless to say, I haven’t done it since. This particular superstition though can be found in other cultures, not just Turkmen culture. In Russian Culture for instance, it has pretty much the same meaning; whistling inside=no money. In the Chinese culture, I’m pretty sure that indoor whistling invites angry spirits into your house. I also remember hearing that whistling at night also invites death in to your home, (although I can’t remember which culture that is, as I read something about ‘whistling the devil in’ a while ago and I forgot where I read it-could be Native American, could be South American…not sure). Bottom line: no whistling.
There’s another Turkmen tradition that says when you pour tea, if there’s any bubbles on the surface, you must quickly ‘snuff’ them out before they touch the rim of the cup, and then touch your ‘snuffing’ finger to your forehead. This is supposed to bring money into the house. I haven’t discerned exactly where the hell this one came from, or what basis it has, being as it’s one of the most completely random traditions I have ever heard of. But I’m not gonna’ lie, I actually do this one a lot, because by wishing them good fortune, it’s like you’re theoretically offering them five bucks. Tickles the hell of the women when I go guesting. There is another one that forbids throwing anything outdoors at night, like left over crumbs or tea. Which means every night after dinner we fold up all the crumbs from dinner, save the leftover tea water, and then toss them in the garden the next morning when it’s light out. There’s yet another belief that says that people should always bathe in the evening-never in the morning-and don’t EVER go outside with wet/damp hair. Something about protecting the oils in the hair. I made this mistake once, and walking down the street you would have thought my wet hair consisted of Medusa’s snakes.
However, after a while, some of these cultural oddities cease to be unique and interesting, and are just downright annoying. Lets take, for example, the superstition that Turkmen have when it comes to avoiding anything cold. I’m not sure if its because the country of Turkmenistan is located about three feet under the glowing ball of death in the sky they call the sun, and so thus the people here just prefer unbearable heat, but in any account, cold things are not that kosher hereabouts. Leaning against a cold wall? Well, this will cause you to instantly take a chill and become ill. You sit on the part of the floor that doesn’t have a carpet, and the wood or cement is cool? Well, if you’re a woman, this will cause you to become infertile. Naturally. This aversion to cold also stems to food items and liquids. I recently got reprimanded by a neighbor for drinking some water which I had put in the refrigerator to chill. Her and my host mother explained to me that cold things-in this case ice water-are harmful for the body, and disrupt the natural flow of your blood and the healthy function of your organs. New one to me. Added to this, at the moment of reprimand I had also been sitting against the wall, off the carpet, and I had neglected to put on socks that morning, as it was a balmy 65 degrees out. By all counts, the next day I should have been deathly ill, gone into cardiac arrest, and/or simultaneously become infertile. I explained to them that in my homeland we live in the cold about 8 months out of the year, so cold doesn’t phase my ‘organism’ and that if it does make women infertile, well then I was long past the point of no return. Although to give me host mom credit, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t give much sway to the cold liquids bit, because they’re constantly putting soda in the freezer to chill, and their addiction to Turkmen ice cream is a little scary. But I had to concede a bit and now always sit on the carpet.
So these are just a few samples of some Turkmen beliefs, quirks, and customs that I find myself adhering to in this fair land. So, added to being blamed for metaphysical anomalies such as excessive rain because of my laundry habits, my next order of business is convincing my students that talking in class will result in premature baldness and/or earthquakes…
Until next time,
Also: side note…3 weeks of school and counting until summer!!!! I don’t know who is more excited about the break, the teachers or the students…. I’m thinking it might be the teachers at this point.