Most nights, when I venture outside, I can see my breath condense while I listen to the jackals and dogs howl at one another. I see so many more stars here than I ever did back in Phoenix, thanks to the utter absence of light pollution in my area. I can’t get over how beautiful this place is. While I am far from the modern conveniences of big cities, I get to live in an untouched mountainous landscape. Depending on the time of day, I’ll see flocks of sheep perched on a mountainside grazing across the gorge from my village. I always wonder how one guy gets all those sheep way up there without any help.
It’s finally November. I say finally because it feels like I’ve been waiting for fall forever. We came to our sites at the beginning of summer about a week after the last school year ended. As an English teacher this meant that I was coming to a place where I knew next to no one, with a job that wouldn’t start for about three months. When I asked my superiors what I should do for what felt like an infinite amount of time, they told me to “integrate.”
Integration, in the Peace Corps sense, is defined as simply becoming a member of one’s community. This process, however, varies so widely from one place to the next. Some volunteers live in small villages where nearly every family has known one another for generations. Others live in cities where they aren’t the only expat. Some communities have had a long list of volunteers come before the current PCV living there now, while others have their first American living among them. Even the seemingly slight differences between our permanent sites will color each of our experiences in such unique ways. Due to this, each volunteer’s integration story is filled with divergences from the norm.
So I came to this rural village with a vague, single word objective with a million ways to succeed and fail. I dragged my luggage into my room, unpacked what I had and fell onto the bed, wondering what I was supposed to do next. Should I introduce myself to the neighbors? Should I plan an English lesson for students I haven’t met? Should I wander into the mayor’s office and make an appointment to meet with him? Would I need to wear a suit for that? Keep in mind, that on top of not knowing anyone, I am still struggling with communicating in Armenian. This makes the space outside of my bedroom seem daunting.
Eventually, I left my room and house, forcing myself to interact with my community. I walked aimlessly around my small village, at least greeting every person I passed if not trying to have a basic conversation with them. After about two weeks I noticed I still hadn’t met hardly any of my future students. After asking around, I finally found that what I thought was the abandoned Soviet-era building across from the post office was actually the community center. A snooker table, some offices, a shabby piano, and a ping pong table had helped hide many of Vaghatin’s youth from the summer heat and boredom.
Here, I spent a fair number of my days mostly playing incredibly long games of ping pong and politely refusing to drink homemade vodka with boys from my school. It wasn’t much and it certainly didn’t feel like work but then again this isn’t a typical job. I’m here to make a positive impression of Americans to the people in my village. To do this, I need to do things like lose countless chess games to literally every person here (chess classes are part of the nationwide curriculum), play Taylor Swift’s greatest hits to teach English, attend spontaneous khorovats (Armenian barbecues) and have regular tea dates with the village tatiks (grandmothers).
In writing this, I realize that this doesn’t seem like work. It seems easy to professionally “socialize.” Isn’t that what Paris Hilton did for a living? But here’s the thing. We are dropped off in remote, unfamiliar places with limited resources. Many of us are the only English-speaking people in our communities. We are effectively alone in trying to carry on in these places. With cultural and language barriers ever present, easy days are hard to come by. In spite of these challenges, we are expected to change from a weird foreigner who has the language comprehension of a toddler to a respected member of the community on our own. Socialization might be the hardest and most important part of the next two years.
The English clubs I organized went unattended, lesson plans got swiftly derailed, organized sports turned into rock-hurling warfare. There are plenty of small victories paired with these failures though. Tatiks here say I am a good boy who’s extra smiley. My students are always appreciative of me letting them use my guitar as a prop for their latest Facebook profile picture. I introduced the kids to the addicting, cut-throat world of Uno. I’m learning this is just part of the process. After living in Vaghatin for about five months, I feel like I’ve only made the smallest progress. It’s still progress, though.