Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Time and Distance, part 1

A few of you may have read my post, "A Bad Case of the 'Can't-Hardly-Waits'", which I published a couple of weeks before I left Georgia in December. A follower of my blog posted a few questions in the comments and asked me to respond. They were pretty general questions and ones I was unprepared to answer for a while. And even now I feel my mind is ill-equipped to put such a cap on my time in Georgia. So think of these answers as fluid, not necessarily temporary but the product of a mind that is still processing everything that assaulted it last fall.

On my first full day in Georgia (the third for other volunteers) we stopped at a restaurant for an authentic Georgian meal

I have altered the questions slightly to accommodate the space. I believe that the commenter, whose profile is set as private, is not a native English speaker, and in one or two cases the meaning of the question was rather obscure, so I've done my best to interpret the meaning here.

Ups and downs: what do you think were your greatest accomplishments and disappointments during your time in Georgia?

Good starting question. It's always hard to analyze the success of volunteer work and my experience with TLG was doubly so. For one, the nature of the job means that my success was measured in small, nearly-undetectable ways. I was limited to only four months of teaching -- really only two in an area where I was actually utilized to my fullest -- and as such, I grew a lot more than those around me from what I could see. I expected this going in, having no misconceptions about glimpsing giant strides from my students. My mom was an English teacher for 30 years, and if there's one thing I knew going into the whole debacle, it's that teaching is an uphill battle. I guess my greatest accomplishment was, to borrow an idea from a fellow volunteer and dear friend, simply arriving in Georgia, having applied to the program and gotten myself shipped halfway around the world of my own volition. I found the listing for the program online, spent a week applying, planned my trip, purchased all of my necessities, and did everything short of getting myself to the airport (thanks for making the trip, mom and dad!). This sounds conceited so I'm going to wrap this up by saying that I wouldn't have gotten anywhere without the loving support of my friends, family, and academic peers.

I assume the poster meant "failures" when they wrote "disappointments" but I like disappointments better. Because, in all honesty, my biggest disappointment was the program itself. While many of the coordinators were helpful, kind, and incredibly devoted to the teachers' happiness, the program itself was running on a hobbled leg out of the gate. It was underfunded, understaffed, and lacked the cultural understanding to provide for such a large group of volunteers. That last one sounds a bit insensitive, but I don't mean that the employees of TLG are ignorant or intentionally frustrating. The Georgian government was making a massive push with this program, and one gets the sense that it bit off more than it could chew. As such, volunteers were routinely asked to accept things that would have been outrageous in other programs, particularly ones run by the U.S. government (the lack of sufficient training or information about host families, for example). These are cultural differences, I think, in that many countries and governments have experience running programs and hosting volunteers the likes of which TLG was charged with, and as such they know the do's and don'ts of a country-wide effort to, say, reduce illiteracy. With respect to this particular program, the Ministry of Education (or TLG specifically) was more like a confused yuppie tasked with running a startup business without ever having held even a shift manager position at McDonald's: well-intentioned but ill-equipped, lacking some foresight, and prone to lashing out at the wrong people.

Knowing what you know now, what would have done differently to record everything that happened, if you had such a goal?

I am not sure exactly what the poster meant by this question (the original word they used was "archived" instead of "record"). I included it because I figured I'd take a stab at it. Journalistic integrity and all that.

I would definitely have blogged more by allotting a regulated amount of daily time for writing. As it stood, I was frazzled and exhausted after a day of teaching, and usually felt like barring myself in my room for an hour or two and watching the first three seasons of 30 Rock. I would emerge bleary-eyed and disoriented when Lela called me for dinner, after which I would spend time laughing with her, teaching some new words to my host sisters, and avoiding my host father's calls for me to drink cha-cha. ("No, YOU dalie! You don't need to drink with an American every night, okay?")

Also, I would have purchased a Magti card early on, since my internet situation was null until sometime in November. Of course, I wouldn't have spent so much time on the phone with my friends, which would have meant my relationships would have suffered. I find hindsight, which they claim grants you hawklike vision, to be unrelentingly ambiguous.

Based on your knowledge, what would you recommend and advise to your colleagues who are already in Georgia and who will be volunteering in Georgia in the future?

I feel bad about this question, because I've had several soon-to-be-teachers asking me the same thing for a couple of months. Here's my honest explanation for why I didn't answer: I didn't know how.

It's not even a cop out. I was numb for at least three weeks when I got home. I withdrew into myself, only peeking my head out from inside my emotional shell to relate the occasional story to a friend or passerby. Those unfortunate enough to be caught in my verbal crosshairs were treated to a glimpse of my wildly fluctuating moods. This wasn't even a direct result of my experience, it was just my natural reaction to finally being home. I didn't know what to do with myself.

Now, I've had some time to reflect. Here's a couple of things I can tell my colleagues.

For one, you need to be prepared for a veritable barrage of confusing, sometimes upsetting cultural norms, and you need to let yourself experience those feelings...for a little while. Everyone gets culture shock, but the kicker is that everyone has a different opinion about it. For example, my time in Georgia wasn't exactly bookended by definite times of "shock." I slid into it gradually, as things became more and more overwhelming (and my unfortunate placement at the start certainly didn't help things). The loneliness and isolation of being in a village was perhaps the worst. I would stand on the edge of the small valley behind my family's house and think that I could scream as loud as my voice could go and no one within earshot would be able to understand the language, if they heard it at all.

It was difficult.

But you can't wallow in it. Acceptance and movement are important, and if you feel yourself being bogged down by what's going on, talk it out with other volunteers. The biggest blessing I experienced was the group of friends I gathered. I had two or three go-to people with whom I spoke on a daily (and later more like twice-weekly) basis. You can never be too prepared -- get to know your fellow teachers. You never know who will become a critical part of your time in Georgia.

The other piece of advice I'd give to my fellow volunteers is to know when to quit. "Quit" probably isn't the best word, but only you know your limits and while it's fine to push them, you can do serious damage to yourself if you push yourself too hard out there. This rings particularly true if you've never traveled abroad before. I'd been in Guatemala for some time before Georgia so I had a basis for comparison. This meant that I knew how to deal with the loneliness, culture shock, and homesickness. But others may not. If it gets to be too much, it's okay to rethink what you're doing and, as a last resort, get out of there. I don't feel like many people will wind up quitting if they come in prepared. Ultimately I think I'm just sympathizing with the few who decide either to leave early or not return for a second semester.

But don't quit. Stick it out, at least a semester, and have the adventure of a lifetime.

I'm going to publish this and return with part two soon. There won't be a three month lead time, I promise.