On Being a Chinese-American Peace Corps Volunteer in Georgia

This is a blog post that is extremely important to me personally; although I’ve been speaking about making this post for a long while, I wanted it to be absolutely finished prior to uploading it. It’s not quite polished up, but I hope my series of thoughts helps in understanding daily life for me in Georgia.

Of course, no matter where I am, my race and ethnicity permeate all my interactions. Some in America claim we live in a post-racial, color-blind society, but regardless of if we do or not, that’s not the goal anyway.

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Which one of these is not like the others?

I want to make it clear that this blog post consists entirely of my own personal experiences as a Chinese-American Peace Corps Volunteer here in Georgia; and the resulting reflections are purely my own as well.

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PST Practicum Wrap-Up

Most of my fellow education volunteers and I agree that by far the most effective technical training we went through was practicum in PST. We were thrown into Georgian classrooms in our respective villages and created lesson plans and activities with our respective practicum counterparts.

Because Staging for Georgia occurs at the end of April, we had to jump into practicum almost immediately in May before school ended early June. This meant that we had only a few introductory technical training sessions (such as how to make a lesson plan) before officially teaching. It was only after we taught at schools that we had sessions, for example, such as “Multi-Level Classes” and “Critical and Creative Thinking.” There are upsides to the timing of our staging, however—it gives us just enough time to settle into site in the summer and two full school years with the students for education volunteers.

Anyway, practicum this year was unique for many reasons, one of which was that viral meningitis outbreak in small schoolchildren throughout Georgia. Although it really only happened in large cities, the Ministry of Education and Science made an executive decision to cancel all classes from 6th grade and below for something like two weeks—right in the middle of our scheduled practicum. Our dates kept getting pushed back, until it turned out that we actually taught the very last week of classes up to the very last day. 

Another unique part of practicum for my group was that we only had one teaching counterpart in our village, who only taught grades up to 8—so we weren’t able to get experience with any older students. There was a second English teacher who covered those other grades, of course, but she didn’t live in our village and due to the commute didn’t have time to work with us. This meant that our group of 6 trainees made do with the limited amount of teaching time available to us, so either 2 trainees would be teaching with our counterpart Ana, or three (! ).

Gomi Homies and our wonderful counterpart Ana, on our last day. Excuse Kyle’s sock headband. Photo credit: Alan Luan

In contrast, one of the other villages, Surami, had I think 3 counterparts and the trainees there were even able to conduct individual lessons with a counterpart. This is really Peace Corps reality, however; the situation we had in Gomi mirrors the situation some volunteers have at permanent site. Often, many of the teachers have other things going on—families, commute, private tutoring—and do not have the time to work with volunteers. Of course, at permanent site, there should be at least one motivated counterpart who would have applied for the volunteer to come to the school in the first place. In my case, said counterpart actually got married and moved to Russia, but luckily all 4 of my remaining counterparts are still quite motivated, and two of them have even worked with PCVs previously. 

I’m not exactly sure how many kids total attended Gomi’s school, but if I had to guess I’d say somewhere under 200. The classes we taught ranged from about 8 to 20 students, depending on which years were fertile ones for the village I guess. I’m looking to have a significantly different experience with my new school of over 800 students, and class sizes of about 30 and sometimes even more.

A typical class size in Gomi (note: 3 people in the back are PCVs, not students..) Photo credit: Alan Luan

One of my favorite and most rewarding classes was the 8th grade class I sometimes co-taught with Carmen. I have written about this before, but the first day we ever taught (of anyone in Gomi) was that 8th grade session, and the kids were completely disengaged. We had misunderstood their English levels and the activities we had prepared were not quite right. Classroom management was a huge problem, especially with a large group of disruptive boys. I think we began to gain their respect, as well as come up with more engaging activities specifically for them, and Carmen and I actually had an extremely successful lesson teaching compass directions (N, S, E, W) and transportation means with them. Then again, this should be taken with a grain of salt, because they were also our last class ever, and they were really not engaged with the games we had prepared for the last day of school. So, there’s that.

Photographic evidence of the pretty rough last class we had with 8th grade. Photo credit: Alan Luan

Another part of what made practicum so helpful was that we would have observers come to see our lessons and give us feedback. Our observers were typically Mari and Manana, our education trainers, and Asmat and Teo, our education program managers. The difference between the two is that Asmat & Teo are permanent staff members (currently Asmat is my direct boss), whereas Manana and Mari are only hired for summer and maybe other trainings. Anyway, one of these four women would sit in on our lessons and take notes on what we did well and what we could improve on, and then debrief with us after the fact. Even though we were always apprehensive when we had a visitor, it kept us on our toes and I really appreciated the feedback I got from them.

"Please get the right answer so my teachers think I’m a good teacher!!" Photo credit: Alan Luan

Once, as a result of the meningitis outbreak, we presented mini-classroom sessions to our peers in other clusters as well. Zach and I were partnered, and taught a mad libs course on parts of speech. I thought it went well, but it was also immensely helpful to get feedback from trainees who weren’t from our own clusters—the diversity of experience within our training group is crazy. For example, we have a guy named James who was a Fulbright English teacher in Kazakhstan for a year prior to coming to Georgia. We joked that James could lead our training sessions. 

Another difference between our practicum experience and what I anticipate for actually teaching is our relationships with our counterpart. Our counterpart Ana in Gomi was supportive in helping us with our lesson plans, and because of the sheer number of trainees, generally let us take over lessons. For 45 minute lessons, having 3 trainees was usually more than enough. Occasionally, we would ask her help in translations. It was good practice in terms of classroom management and teaching ourselves, but for our primary projects, we learned that just taking over the classroom is not the Peace Corps’ model of development. Everything we do should be in a partnership with our counterparts, and taking over the entire classroom session is not a sustainable way to improve our counterparts’ teaching methods after we leave either. I don’t think this will be a problem at all with any of my counterparts, as they all seem extremely competent already—hopefully I will be able to match up with them and bring something to the classroom! 

One of the biggest challenges in terms of teaching here that was highlighted by practicum is the English textbooks that the schools across Georgia use. They are, effectively, English textbooks designed for native British children. The texts constantly refer to “Big Ben” and the “London Bridge,” and are clearly not well designed for foreign language learners. In practicum, we learned to create lesson plans extremely loosely based off of each chapter in the books; and speaking to my new counterparts, this is what they generally do as well. One of my aunts is actually a TEFL teacher at a high school in Long Island (and has been for a while), and I will probably be asking her for tips and tricks to teach to foreign language learners as well.

I have some photos of my Favorite Practicum Lessons in Gomi (I figured that if I have photos of them, they must have been good). They include: Kaitlin, Kyle, and Alan teaching how to tell time, and using their bodies (and the childrens’ bodies) as the clock hands; Alan teaching numbers, body parts, and plurals by drawing monsters; and Zach playing Pictionary with body parts and trying to draw a stomach.

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5 of the world’s most beautiful alphabets…and why you’ll never learn to read them ↘

Squeezed between Turkey and Russia, Georgia has its own language and alphabet, both of which are threatened by Russian domination. In the last century, Russian imperialist policy resulted in the annexation of more than half of Georgia’s original area. Furthermore, continuing pressure for the small country to cede additional portions of its territory suggests that fewer and fewer Caucasians will be speaking and writing Georgian as time goes on, as Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet supplant the native systems. The Russian desire to control oil pipelines that run under Georgia also represents a menace to the sovereignty of the local culture.

It’s a pity: The Georgian alphabet shows an elegance that brings to mind Arabic, combined with a child-like simplicity expressed in rounded curves.

Still learning, still struggling, still proud of knowing at least a small portion of this language.

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Life at Permanent Site, My New New Host Family, etc.

I’ve now been at permanent site for almost two months, so I feel qualified enough to generalize my experiences thus far into a not-so-concise blog post. Unfortunately, I’ve been too brain dead from the heat to take very many photos at all, so sorry if this is a very text-heavy post. I’m just trying to get all caught up!

My new new host family consists of Cira, a single mother in her late 40s, Dato, my 17 year old host brother, Mari, my 15 year old host sister, and Lika, my 12 year old host sister. Their father passed away exactly ten years ago, and actually has the same death-versay (?) as my mom. We actually lit candles to commemorate the day and everything, as it was in July. 

Anyway, we live a bit further from the Gardabani city center than is usual—it is about a 20-30 minute walk to the school and center, where the markets and everything are. I don’t mind too much, though; as I’ve been going to school every day recently for camp, it’s been built-in exercise so I don’t just sit around and stew in the heat. What this also means is that we have a private house, not an apartment, as does everyone else living in our area of town. My director, who lives in an apartment in the center, calls where we live a “village,” but really it’s technically still in the center. We have a large field in the back where a few pigs and 4 cows, reside, and a small vegetable garden area in front with chickens and my host dog Bagira. Bagira is some kind of German shepherd mix, but is the sweetest dog ever (to humans). Sometimes at night he wakes up to bark at other neighbors’ dogs and is a bit of a pain, but that’s okay. He actually ‘ran away from home’ for a few days and I was the only one in the family who was concerned. It turned out to be okay, as he returned a few days later, and my host family told me he had gone to “be with woman dogs.” 

Anyway, as nobody in my host family currently works, they are living off of government pension—100 lari per month per child whose parent died—and now my volunteer living allowance. It’s a modest life, with fewer supras and fancy feasts than I had during training, but a good one. There is quite a bit of television watching—Turkish soap operas, Georgian comedy, Georgian news, even Mexican soap operas—and I think I now can recognize the different shows they watch. Other than the television, our main form of entertainment is their brand new computer. It’s only about 5 months old, and they only got internet about 2 months ago, so it’s definitely a new commodity for them. They are still exploring the wonders of the great world wide web—so far, they’ve found a couple of browser-based games, Youtube videos to play Taylor Swift and One Direction, and of course…watching marathons of the ice bucket challenge (which here in Georgia has completely lost its ALS fundraising origin). I can’t wait to see where the internet takes them next. My host brother, Dato, actually has discovered CounterStrike and some other first person shooter-type games, and is constantly on the computer killing people off. My host mom constantly yells at him to get off his lazy butt and help with the housework, and it makes me smile because it reminds me of my and many of my peers’ adolescence. Turns out things aren’t so different after all.

Dato stopped attending school after the 9th grade, as Georgian kids are allowed to do so. He did attend a vocational college afterwards studying something like handyman-ship? and is hoping to be employed sometime in the near future. My other two host siblings are still in school, and possibly will be my students as well. I have high hopes for all three of them!

Although Gardabani is a 40% Azeri populated-city, the neighborhood I’m in is more like 90-95% Azeri. This makes it difficult to create a working relationship with most people, as their knowledge of Georgian is null and my knowledge of Russian/Azeri is also null. Additionally, I was reading up on ethnic minority communities in Georgia, and found that women should never greet Azeri men first—so I’ve learned to keep my head down and walk directly past most random  men in my neighborhood. That said, again, I’m hoping to get started on learning Russian sooner rather than later.

With that in mind, my host family is very close friends with the few other ethnically Georgian families on the block. There’s Dima, a boy who just finished school after 9th grade, who lives across the street; Salome, my host sister Mari’s best friend and classmate, and her mom Xatuna; and Gvanca, my host sister Lika’s classmate, Gio, her brother, and their mom Eka. For unknown reasons, I have never seen or spoken to the men of the households, but I suspect it is because they are working and I have only been a part of women/children time in the neighborhood.

The heat (running around 105-108 F for 3 weeks straight) was a major deterrent in ever leaving the house. I was really excited for the mild winters here and thought I was prepared for summers as an LA native, but I was wrong. The other week, my host aunt Cico found out that 5 of her chickens had died from heat stroke, and a 6th was comatose. That’s how hot it’s been. This is also apparently the driest area of all of Georgia, but it’s still more humid than I’m used to out in LA, which doesn’t help at all. Most of our time, again, is spent visiting the other families/having them at our place, or in the living room; but occasionally we travel to Gardabani’s city center to do some grocery shopping. My host family seems to be fairly religious—my host mom crosses herself three times every time she sees a cross, which it seems only the most devout do—and I accompanied my host sister Mari and Salome to church services on the first Sunday here. It was a really interesting experience, as there is no formal “Mass” or congregation; just some standing room and the priest, or “mamao” chanting in Georgian. Of course I couldn’t understand anything, but it was still a good, albeit stifling and exhausting, cultural experience. Whenever the congregation would bow and cross themselves, I would too; and everyone present left at the same time after he had gone through his sermon for the day. I honestly couldn’t tell what marked the beginning or the end of the sermon and was startled when everyone else could. 

I guess the other main thing that’s been going on at site related to my host family is that my host grandfather passed way literally the 3rd day I was at site. It was a really strange time to be moving into my host family while they were dealing with a lot of grief, and in addition I attended his wake almost every day following. We went to Jandara, which is a village about a half hour drive from my site, where the body was on display (in a giant refrigerator/coffin) and I got to meet the entire extended family. It was intimidating, as I barely knew my actual host siblings yet, but a good bonding time. I was glad I had the “funeral” experience in PST, as I was used to many of the traditions and rituals that happened at my host grandfather’s wake. Because my new host family comes from Svaneti, they had slightly different traditions—the Svaneti region is an extremely remote, mountainous area and even in Soviet times kept many of its previous ancient traditions.

This time, I was able to attend my host grandfather’s funeral, which was held in a giant restaurant in Rustavi. First, all the funeral-goers walked and/or drove from the house in Jandara to the cemetery there—and the coffin was carried by a couple of young male relatives. It was slow going, especially in the 105 degree heat, but the feeling of relief when we reached the cemetery at the top of the hill was palpable. Then we were taken by marshutkas to the restaurant in Rustavi, where we had a feast (but without meat, because apparently that’s not allowed at funeral supras) and the men toasted until they fell over…literally.

Since then, I have been away from site quite often on weekends (future blog posts will explain why and exactly where I’ve been), but I’ve also had time to be part of weekly Saturday traditions. Until the 40-day mark, as I learned in PST, the host family prepares another large supra for guests and hosts their guests. I was also present at the 40-day supra, which was almost like a second funeral in just how many people were present—I think something like 150-200—but the only difference was that instead of everything being prepared and held at a restaurant, it was prepared by us (the relatives) and at the house in the village.

One side effect of having been to all these preparations for my host grandfather’s wake and funeral is that I really, really felt the gender norms and roles here. It had always been present, of course, but it really sank in when the other young girls and I prepared meals for about 30-40 Georgian men, set the plates out, and then waited for them to finish to eat their leftovers with our hands—because there were no remaining utensils. It’s not something I see changing in the near future, but it’s experiences like this that make me so glad I am part of Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), which was fortunately accepted into as part of the committee developing the curriculum. I was able to attend one of the two GLOW camps held this year in Tskhneti, a mountainous resort area near Tbilisi, and was incredibly impressed by the campers, counselors, and its organization. I expect my overview of GLOW camp to be one of my next blogs! 

July has also included my host sister Mari’s birthday, as well as my host mom’s birthday. My host mom’s actually fell the day before my host grandfather’s 40-day celebration, so we spent most of it in the kitchen…but we were able to spend it with their extended family, so there’s that. Unlike my PST host family, my family here isn’t big on the gift-giving tradition, which reminds me of my own (real) family back in America when I was younger. I was able to give my host mom a small fan I got at the Chinese store, that promptly broke the next day. I also promised Mari that I would buy her a pair of sunglasses when we went shopping for the new school year, as I remembered that a long time ago she told me she really wanted a pair. Otherwise, we baked a cake for Mari’s birthday and frosted it ourselves, and a few other family members came over for a small supra in her behalf. My host aunt Cico bought my host mom a cake to celebrate her birthday as well. 

A lot of what I read prior to coming to the Peace Corps told me that I would never have as much free time in my life, and to come prepared with tons of media to entertain myself. Although this has held true for many of my friends here, it really hasn’t with me—which is a shame considering the 1.5TB (yes, you read that right) worth of material I’ve accumulated. I really do want to get to Breaking Bad and True Detective and all these other shows I’ve put off, and I did make time to watch a few episodes of Lost. I also finished the 2nd season of Orange is the New Black, as well as of course the last season of Game of Thrones. Honestly, though, there isn’t much motivation for me to be in my room alone watching TV and movies. My entire host family spends all of its time in the dining room/kitchen/living room area, and although I do disappear into my room to do work, I try to limit that time as much as possible because they always seem concerned about me when I’m alone in my room. They constantly ask if I am sad, and that’s why I’m spending time in my room, or if I’m trying to nap. Sometimes I tell them I am napping when I actually just need to be working. Another reason I may be spending less time than usual on media is the fact that I actually do have internet at site. I have bought a plan for my phone, and can tether it to my computer, although it’s not a sustainable/efficient option; and my host family has Ethernet for their own computer. That said, it’s easy for me to browse Reddit or Facebook while also being in the living room for a Turkish soap. One last reason is that I have been spending copious amounts of time keeping in touch with my close PCV friends across Georgia. We are constantly in communication through text or Facebook message, and I spend over an hour, sometimes over two, on the phone with various volunteers every single day. I expect this might change once school begins for us education volunteers, but I do miss the constant interaction I had with them during PST, and it’s a great way of passing time.

All in all, I’m still acclimating to my new host family—it’s been a bit harder than it was in PST for a number of reasons (lack of other Americans to create conversation, a lot of watching TV, extreme amounts of sweat pouring down my body at all times, recent death in the near family, amount of time away from my host family at GLOW camp and other events), but it’s looking like a great two years will be spent here. 

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First Day of School

Here’s to journaling about my first ‘first day of school’ in another country, not to mention my first as a teacher and not a student. This is also my first post in Georgia that is actually being posted in this blog in real-time! Apologizes for not having any photos; my phone died in the morning and you’ll soon find out why. 

I returned from my trip to Batumi (post forthcoming) yesterday evening before, and after a night of catching up with friends on the phone and Turkish soaps with my host family, a thunderstorm began. As expected, my electricity went out, and I was unable to charge my phone or take a shower. It began raining so hard that I was soaked from head to foot on the way back from the bathroom to my room. My house began leaking in only one spot, as far as I know of, and it was right above the head of my bed. I moved my pillow to the other side of the bed and went right to sleep, hoping that the rain would let up and my wooden bed wouldn’t soak through and fall apart. It didn’t!

Anyway, I woke up at around 7:30 for a school start at 9am. For context, new volunteers usually spend our first two weeks observing the various classes at our school, and then we pick which counterparts to work with (if we have the option), and which grades. Because I have 4 counterparts with a fifth arriving in November from maternity leave and teach at one of the larger Peace Corps schools here in Georgia, I think I will need to actually take three weeks of observation to be able to observe almost all the classes. I’ve been constantly asking my counterparts for their teaching schedule for the past few weeks, so I can make a comprehensive observation schedule for myself so I can observe as many classes as possible, but alas the first draft of the schedule (or timetable as it’s called here) was released this morning. Only Monday through Wednesday’s schedules were released, and I was advised by everyone around to only trust Tuesday’s schedule for tomorrow. The rest, they said, will definitely be switched around. 

As I didn’t have a set schedule of classes or lesson plans yet, I didn’t feel the need to arrive extremely early at school, but I felt serious anxiety as we left the house at 8:30am and took the long way around (so our shoes wouldn’t get dirty in the mud). When I realized it was already 9:03am and I was still a few streets away from my school, I speed walked away from my host family to make it to school. It’s probably a mixture of American culture and my own personality, but being late if I can help it is so uncomfortable.

I arrived at school at around 9:06am and immediately proceeded to commit my first major faux pas as a PCV. I arrived alone and saw a ton of students and their parents (those who had arrived on time) amassed in the school yard. I didn’t see any teachers, and assumed (correctly) that they had arrived ahead of time and were in the school. Suddenly, I saw my wonderful director Nana on the school steps, standing and surveying the crowd. Nothing seemed to be happening, and I wanted to greet her and apologize for being five minutes late, so I walked up the stairs to her. She didn’t seem as enthusiastic as she normally is to see me, and nodded politely at me as I said hello. Then she put her hand on her heart, and I realized that the Georgian national anthem was beginning. I followed her lead, and slowly I realized that I had interrupted the opening ceremony by crashing the stage. If I had arrived on time, I would’ve seen the introductory speeches, but I hadn’t and just happened to arrive as they were waiting for the national anthem to begin. I didn’t want to disrespect the national anthem, so stood awkwardly on the stage until the national anthem ended. Halfway through, my director introduced me to a man in a suit near me on the stage, who ended up being our town’s Gamgeoba, or mayor. Clearly it was supposed to be just my school director and Gamgeoba up there… it was ridiculously embarrassing.

Finally, I made my way into my school and apologized profusely to my director. She smiled and passed me off to my partner English teachers, who asked me why I had even bothered to come on the first day. Apparently all that happens on the first day of school is that the homeroom teachers pass out their students’ textbooks and give them a small speech, and then the students are free to go. My counterparts encouraged me to just sit in the teachers’ lounge while they went to their homerooms, but I followed one to her class in an effort to get to know at least one class ahead of time. It ended up being our school’s 11th grade class. 

Side note: in many smaller schools in Georgia, there is only one class per grade because there aren’t enough students. For example, in our small village school during PST, each grade was around 10-30 kids depending on how many kids in the village were born that year I guess. Because I am at a larger school, most of the grades are split into Class A, B, C, and sometimes even D, with about 30 students per class. After 9th grade, however, students who don’t pass some sort of exam—or who don’t want to continue school—are allowed to stop coming, and so there are usually fewer 10th, 11th, and 12th grade classes with fewer students per class. Anyway, I mention this because 11th grade at my school is the only grade with only one class of about 30.

Two of the students in the class had attended my summer camp, and I knew them to be quite fluent and active, so I was pleased. Although it wasn’t really an English class, just a homeroom get-together, I was able to just observe the general class dynamics. It was rowdy, but they had a large amount of respect for my counterpart—possibly because she is their homeroom teacher, and she gave them some sort of inspirational speech. This is an important year for them, as they take half their national exams (think SATs and APs all in one) at the end of the summer this year. Additionally, the English part of the national exams used to only include reading and writing sections, but this year they are adding listening and speaking. Needless to say, my counterpart is really hoping I join her in teaching this 11th grade class, and as of now I think it would be a class in which I could be really effective.

After the students received their books and left, we returned to the teachers’ lounge, where it turned out there would be a supra! Soso, the male art teacher; Romani, my male English counterpart; and I went to the bazaar across the street to buy a few extra items for the supra. The other female teachers declined to go because of their stilettos, and I can’t even blame them for it. Georgian teachers take fashion seriously. When we returned, we set the table, and it was a feast. I was given a seat at the table next to my director, which was an uncomfortable honor, but an honor nevertheless. The male teachers and the female administrators gave toasts and presented some awards that I didn’t understand, and we drank a bit of that famous home-made Georgian wine.

Towards the end of the supra, the remaining teachers toasted to me and told me that today I was their guest, but from today onwards I am part of their family. They toasted to my family, my friends, and my long life, and I felt all warm and fuzzy inside (partially because I understood all that without needing a translator!) I definitely got to know many more teachers because of my presence and help during the supra, and I think it’s a great tradition to have the first school year every year if no educating is happening anyway. Soso, the art teacher, began playing a traditional Georgian instrument and most of the teachers joined along in singing traditional Georgian songs. I wish I had known them so I could sing along, but swaying to the music and hanging out with my colleagues for the next two years was still pretty great. Prior to today, I had only really known my counterparts and my director very well, plus a few other teachers who happened to be around school while I was holding summer camp. Today I really felt like part of the team, and hopefully that continues! 

All in all, although last night and this morning got off to a pretty rough start, I had an amazing first day of school ever as a teacher! Thank you, Georgia; and thank you, Gardabani Public School #1. Tomorrow I begin observing classes with my counterparts, and in three weeks I’ll be teaching. გაუმარჯოს! (The Georgian equivalent of “Cheers!” but more directly translates to something like “Victory!”)

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LIVING IN ETERNAL SUMMER:

howapcvputsitgently:

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- Costa Rica

Actually this is me, but without the fan. Unfortunately I can’t get myself out of the house into the 105 degree F heat to buy a fan. I learned the word for “sweaty” quickly.

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When volunteers in “hardship countries” call us posh corps

peacecorpsgifparade:

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As promised, here’s the video of Peace Corps Georgia, Group 14 (G14) Swearing In Ceremony.

The second part of the video can be found here

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July 4 - Swearing In (July 19)

Unfortunately, I am writing this blog in the beginning of September—two whole months after these events transpired, so you will just be getting the main gist of things. Also, it is likely that I forgot a lot of things that happened without photographic evidence to job my memory. We’ll make do. 

July 4 was the big day for which our 4th of July committee had been preparing—Alex S, Sarah S, Carmen, and I (along with many staff members) prepared the necessary materials and we had a big picnic. Each trainee was able to bring 2 family members, and we went to a new inn near Khashuri. Space was extremely limited, but it looked like everyone still had a lot of fun. We had face painting for the kids who came along, as well as some games organized—a tug of war competition, three-legged race, and water balloon toss. Honorable mention: the Gomi Homies came in 2nd at the tug-of-war, only taken down by the Khashuri Fury at the last minute. Fellow trainee Colin even busted out his balloon animal-making skills and was a biiiig hit. image

Setting up for the big day!

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Alex S and I helping set up the “burgers” (word used loosely in this context, much to our chagrin) Photo credit: Caitlin Connolly

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The party in full swing!

It’s really interesting because in the States, I never really feel extremely patriotic. I’ve never been in the kind of social circles (read: immigrants) who have large 4th of July/Labor Day/Superbowl parties, and although I dress up for ‘murica parties with the best of them, it’s not something I’m used to. I feel completely different while living abroad; when we sang the national anthem during our picnic and set off poppers and streamers, I felt a swell of pride in my nation that I normally don’t feel…but I guess that’s the entire point. America has a long ways to go before it’s anywhere near perfect, but it’s only when I’m living elsewhere that I realize just how far we are.

Soon afterwards, we held our 2nd cluster exchange. If you recall, I missed the first one because I was with my host family in Zestafoni—so I was really excited to participate in this one. It was one of my goals to see as many clusters as I could before moving out, but I couldn’t bear to leave my PST host family on one of our last weekends together, so instead I invited my friend Sara F from Khashuri. I actually met Sara almost a year ago, during an RPCVLA dinner, and it was really nice having her over. Because Khashuri is a larger city, she got to see “village life” in Georgia and generally my host family just enjoyed having other Americans around. We met up with the other Gomi Homies who had others over—Alan with Eugene, Kaitlin with Kate, and Carmen—and traveled to the Gomi ruins as well as the bridge. We had a small supra in Sara’s honor as the World Cup was playing outside for the men. image

Sara and I hanging out by the Gomi ruins. Photo credit: Carmen Mattox

During this period of time, my host family was absolutely inundated by relatives from all over Georgia—from Khashuri, Gori, Akhaltsikhe, etc. Unfortunately, one of my host mom’s extended relatives and host dad’s best friends passed away while he was working abroad in Germany in a car accident—he was only 32, I think, and it was a shock to all of us. I had met his wife, who lives in our village, many times as well. 

A really interesting experience for me was finding out that this close friend/family member had passed way, and closely observing Georgian tradition after the fact. We had all found out in the afternoon that this was the case—I found out after returning from trainings in the evening. The only people who didn’t know was this man’s parents and wife; the entire village knew, but was waiting until their extended family arrived for support to break the news to them. At around midnight, we walked in the dark to around their house, and waited in silence. Suddenly, a caravan of cars began to pull up—the deceased’s extended family from Tbilisi and other cities. As the family walked in, two things happened simultaneously: really loud wailing began to break out within the house, and a veritable mass of people wearing black streamed in from the darkness to the driveway (myself included). At first, I didn’t feel comfortable participating and observing in the family’s grief, considering I never knew the man, but after a while I realized that while it may be a faux pas in the US, here I was showing my respect and support for the bereaved.

 Many days after this occurred, we returned to the house in the evening to speak and provide support with the family. The constant wailing from the close members of the family didn’t cease until the funeral happened, weeks later—the delay was in the fact that the body had to be transported from Germany to Georgia, and then put in the house for a wake for a few days as is tradition. I think there’s something to be said about how socially acceptable it is to grieve so loudly and so unabashedly here; it’s a shame that it’s really not in the US. Then again, I have heard that sometimes family members feel extreme amounts of pressure to grieve “well” here—otherwise they are perceived as not truly feeling sad about the death. I was unable to attend the funeral because we were in class, but I attended the supra at the house after the funeral.

Also of note is some traditions that happen after a death in the family here: very close male family members or friends don’t shave for 40 days afterwards; you are not allowed to play music out loud for 40 days afterwards; every Saturday until the 40 day mark, close family members are obligated to set out a large supra and attend the grave; and at the 40 day mark, a huge supra is set out (almost like a second funeral) for everyone. Obviously the 40 day mark is huge, but I’m not sure what significance it has.

During this period of time, we also had our summer camp during PST—a small review of what was to come at permanent sites. It was only three days, I believe, and the Gomi Homies did the best we could with our limited resources. Of course, our best resource was Alan, who is a camp master. We played Sharks and Minnows, Freeze Tag, Frisbee toss, Lighthouse, Red Light/Green Light, and many other games—but all with English components as that was the main point of camp. As I look back on the camp, it was really helpful that there were 6 of us there, plus our English teacher counterpart Ana and our LCF Tamuna; currently I am running my own summer camp by myself, with 1-3 counterparts, and I wish I had my friends with me! Unfortunately, both Alan and I fell ill (separately) and were unable to make it to the very last day of camp.

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Just a typical camp planning sesh in Kaitlin’s yard with the bromies

We also had our first ever trip to Tbilisi—the land of hamburgers and all types of ethnic food! The point was for us to get to know where the Peace Corps office is, where in the office our staff members are, and additionally we all visited different organizations within Tbilisi to later present to the rest of the group. My group—Hannah W, Nash, Alex D, and I—visited IREX, which is a US-based international organization that provides exchange programs for Georgian students to attend school in the US. We also had some delicious Indian food, which marks the first non-Georgian food I’d had since staging.

My last weekend in Gomi, my host family took me to make mt’svadi (barbecue-like) on top of a mountain near my village. We took about 20 people in one Cr-V and one motorcycle wagon thing, and it was insane but it worked.

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(picture taken from inside the Cr-V)

It was extremely picturesque once we reached the top of the mountain, and we actually passed through the village T’sromi, which Kaitlin, Carmen, Eugene, Kaitlin’s host mom, and I had traveled to previously. Once we arrived, we set up camp under some large trees and near some fire pits, and the men got to work with the meat.

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As a woman, I sat around and prepared vegetables and fruits as the smoke from the fire stung my eyes. It was super delicious and my mouth is watering as I type this; I can’t wait until my next barbecue mt’svadi adventure, whenever that may be.

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Towards the end of our adventure, a different Georgian family came by to attend the church that happened to be near our barbecue spot. Our host family waved them over to join us, and although they declined, it was a really nice moment that really showcased Georgian hospitality. I’m so happy I had that last hurrah with my host family (one of many, actually); and we even had a photo shoot to commemorate it all. image

Words can’t express how much I love them!!

That week, we had our last language class, our final Language Proficiency Interview, and a farewell dinner planned with all the other volunteers and staff members. Our cluster did one better and additionally had a farewell lunch/picnic with all our cluster members and host families. After our LPIs, we had our very last host family lunch at my house. Teona outdid herself as usual, and afterwards all of us traveled to Khashuri to buy some gifts for our host families—we ended up all printing out photos, I think. We went to the Gomi cemetery (which sounds weird but totally isn’t a weird place to have a feast) and had one last potluck. I wish we had had more events in which all of us and our families were present.

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All the Gomi Homies and our LCF Tamuna who wouldn’t lie on our laps! Photo credit: Alan

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Teona, the one and only. Photo credit: Alan

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Kaitlin and I and our respective host moms, Tamta and Teona. Photo credit: Kaitlin

Immediately afterwards, we wiped the sweat off our brows (actually, entire bodies), and were carted off to a restaurant in Khashuri for the farewell dinner, where we had ridiculous amounts of food, a talent show, and a video that Alan had made for us.

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We thought about entering into the talent show but didn’t due to lack of talent…but put on an informal show regardless. Photo credit: Kate

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Swearing in: Gomi style… photo credit: Alan

Then we found out our final LPI scores on a small sheet of paper, and I made Intermediate Mid, which is great! I am hoping to be able to hit Advanced Low (only 2 scores above what I got), at some point during service, so I might be able to petition for Russian tutoring at my site. I can’t give enough thanks to our LCF Tamuna, who was such a pleasure to work with and was exceedingly patient with our class. We had planned on taking her out to dinner one of our last nights at a restaurant in Gomi, but it turned out the restaurant had closed… nobody was sure if it was permanent or temporary. Instead, we bought her some jewelry that we thought might fit her style from Khashuri and gave her a lot of hugs.

After I got back from the farewell dinner, I was exhausted, but I so did not want to say goodnight to my host family. We were scheduled to be picked up for our Swearing In ceremony at a crazily early time, like 6am, so I knew that when I said goodnight, that that would be it. I sat around on the couch, which had actually been the first time in a while because the last few weeks of PST had been so exhausting. I took some photos of my host cousin clowning around with my host brother, and my host mom came over and showed me her journal/diary spanning all the way back to when she was a high school student and dating my host dad. It had all kinds of doodles and notes between her and her friends, as well as her and her host dad; she even showed me calendars she had made when she was in university of when my host dad would be available to see her. It was so sweet, and I felt really privileged to have been shown it –even though I didn’t understand much at all. She then opened it to an empty page, and had me write in it. Although I had planned to write something on the backs of the photos I gave them, I wrote my thank you/final letter to her in her book. I then broke out the gifts—some of the better photos we’d taken throughout the three months, and a photo frame for the best one. They seemed to enjoy it a lot, and I think at that point we all knew that none of us really wanted to sleep and end the night/era of my staying with them. So, in usual Georgian fashion, my host dad broke out the cognac/cha-cha. This stuff is potent, and probably like 60-80% alcohol, so I’d been extremely careful about it throughout all of PST due to persistent (justified) warnings from Peace Corps and my insistence on being a good girl. For the last night, however, I decided to celebrate in Georgian style with my family—I linked arms and then took shots together—which indicates that the person who you drank with is now like your sibling. I am really glad that I was able to perform that Georgian tradition with them, especially in a super intimate setting—3am and with just them and my host brother and cousin. 

Of course, when I had to wake up and pack at 5am, I wasn’t super pleased, but most things got packed (I had to go back and pick everything else up) in time, and my host family walked me out to the main road where my bags and I were picked up. We blearily said goodbye, knowing that we would see each other again in Tbilisi for the ceremony.

The ceremony itself went just as expected, hosted at the Medical University of Tbilisi, with my good friend Kyle giving a presentation, along with two other volunteers. Ambassador Norland gave a speech, as well as a representative from the Georgian Ministry of Education and Science; as a result, a ton of Georgian media was there. I definitely felt like a big deal, and it’s definitely an experience that many Peace Corps countries don’t have, in part because Georgia’s government is one of the most supportive of our programs. My host siblings, when I got to my new house, actually told me they were watching us on TV. There is actually a dropbox of photos from the ceremony here—I was actually in the front row because they organized us alphabetically, with late last names in the front! I got to put my official Peace Corps pin on and everything, plus everyone looked way nicer than they ever had at any other point during training.image

Everyone, courtesy of the “official” photographer

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Photo credit: Alan

Dropbox link for your convenience, click through. I unfortunately have chronic angry/bored face on the entire time… Also, the entire ceremony was on Youtube, which I’ll upload next.

What I was probably more nervous about was meeting my new new host family. I actually am at a different host family from the first I visited during site visit, and so this would be the first time ever I would be meeting a member of the family. I had gotten the family’s bio (just names and ages) previously, but obviously it doesn’t mean anything. When I met Cira, my new host mom, I was nervous and it was awkward because she had no idea what my Georgian language level was at all, or even who I would be, but everything turned out great. Cira and her sister, Cico, got to meet my PST host family, who immediately started telling them everything about me. Actually, the majority of the conversation I heard was what kinds of food I like to eat the most, which suits me just fine.

There was also an amazing performance by the medical university’s dance and singing group afterwards. I wish I had recorded some of it, but it was truly impressive. There was such a large range of different types of traditional dances (from all over the regions), and it was nice to watch them and spend a last bit of time with my American friends. Afterwards, I met back up with my director and both host families, and even got a nice picture with everyone. We collected my luggage, and my new host family and I took off…but not before I said a very tearful goodbye to Mamuka and Teona.

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In order: Mamuka, Teona, me, Cira (new host mom), Nana (director), Cico (new host aunt)

They were really so good to me that they deserve a whole different blog post, which I promise is upcoming, but what I really want to say here is that I am generally not a very emotional/tearful person (I didn’t even cry when I said goodbye to my dad in the States…) but I cried when I hugged Teona goodbye. In the morning, she had told me that it was silly for either of us to cry because nobody was dying, I was just leaving for a bit, but when we hugged and I felt her shoulders shake, I couldn’t hold it in. Even though I am trying to visit them every month or two, the dynamic is so different from being able to come home to help Teona cook and to listen to Mamuka’s jokes. I became really good friends with the other Americans in Gomi, but I was just as good friends with this couple, and every day I immensely looked forward to going back home to be with them. I immediately missed them so much when we left, and I still miss them now. I never could have imagined how close I would become with a family I lived with for only 3 months, and I am really not looking forward to saying goodbye to this new family at the end of the 2 years—as well as goodbye to Teona and Mamuka, for real, in 2 years.

On that depressing note, stay tuned for the next blog post…Life at permanent site, as Angela tries to explain 2 months within a single blog post!

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When I found out new applicants get to pick their countries

peacecorpsgifparade:

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I love you, Georgia!

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