Before my first swearing-in (which makes me giggle a little as I type that, because it's ridiculous...), the Country Director shared some words of wisdom with us. There's no snark in that last sentence, just some general admiration. I took notes, but one thing that really stood out (again, as he mentioned it in his welcome speech) was that we were "real volunteers". I mean this beyond the sense that he'd be swearing us in from trainee status.
You see, Ukraine apparently has an image of being a "plush" assignment. We of course hear that we're just on a different "development" tier. I won't be the one to bring water to a village who previously had to trek 4 miles. I won't be the one who will be the first to tell a child they can do whatever they aspire to do. Hell, most of the kids have WAY nicer cell phones than I do!
Not only this. I mean, I knew that I was coming into a country that was at a different stage in "development" than many in the Peace Corps. We were assured we'd have our own challenges. There's a long history of "inner circle", a defense and survival mechanism of keeping to one's own and creating incredibly tight networks of trust - or alternatively, distrust. We were told that perhaps our counterparts would have no interest in us - since the Director need only appoint a person, who would be essentially saddled with us whether they liked it or not.
We were told that we could have some rough living conditions - the shift is going towards village living, and I was prepared to live there: I brought the majority of my clothing in the mindset that I would be handwashing it. Water would probably be drawn from a well. Transit would be tricky, slow, and potentially unsafe and uncomfortable. English levels would be challenging, teachers could be resistant or even antagonistic towards new methods or our very presence. Students could be disinterested - we would need to gain everyone's trust. The list of helpful precautions went on and on...
This is what I thought I was signing myself up for.
I was perversely disappointed when I looked down at my site announcement. A city?! But...but...but..what? Then, when my regional manager announced I would be living in an apt he wishes he could move his family into, I don't think I could have blushed any more. This is just all wrong. I thought to myself. This is not what I was expecting. (This is particularly amusing, as my mantra is usually "If you don't have expectations, you can't be disappointed.") Hell, I thought I'd pretty much talked myself into the most rustic experience possible in Ukraine. No water? No problem! No heating? I'm from Minnesota! I'm not the only one with a wicked sense of humor, apparently.
So I was in a slight state of shock.
Then I arrived. I'd hit the counterpart jackpot - Lila is smart, kind, funny, playful, speaks great English, is completely committed to the idea of our partnership, ready to take on new projects, and is down to Earth. She seems to know everyone, who are all lining up to meet with me, work on their English and hope to improve their teaching and English skills. I already have been contacted by another school who wants to work with me as well. I have been reached out to by a community member who has lived abroad and says I can call anytime for anything - and would love to help me in creating a community club!
You guys...I am being so welcomed!
My fears of not being a "real volunteer" have abated a little - their is a genuine need being expressed by the people I meet. I have already encountered some interesting challenges, quirks that perhaps come with being too popular...but I already have an incredible support network. I may not be having the "typical" experience, but as I have stated to myself - it will be what I choose to make of it.
My goals stem from my own abroad experience. Once I returned home from Germany, I had a new incite of how I viewed myself and America - a more critical yet somehow open viewpoint. I also humanized the world. When the Greek economy started to crumble, I had a face to put to it. I wondered how she was, and if her family was affected. Likewise with the tsunami in Japan, the typhoon in the Philippines, etc. Foreign policy was no longer abstract. I learned that despite cultural, language and philosophical differences that you can connect to people as humans. That all sounds rather lofty, but it was a very humbling experience. And it's the one I want to pass on.
Realistically, most/some (hard to say, as it's a higher-level school...) of my students will probably never use English in a practical way in their life. It won't matter that in 6th grade they can say a phrase that is technically difficult, but they will never use- "The woman is wearing a bracelet as a decorative element." But maybe, in the time when Ukraine is facing political upheaval, stretching to find where it wants to put it's future, I can give them a face that is not the "Big Bad US" or even the glitzy, Hollywood-based "reality" that they see in the movies.
I want them to see me as a person. To express that there are many facets to American culture, and that there is much that we have in common. I want to give them a spark of passion - for whatever is important in their life, for whatever goal they want to pursue regardless of the role of English. Through clubs, conversation, praise and even perhaps setting some boundaries, I want to express my respect for them as individuals and a culture. I want an exchange, to proffer what little I have and hope they will also open their hearts to me in return. I will work hard to be worthy of this.
Maybe I can also help push their English teachers to the next level of their professional development - inspiring them to push themselves and each group of students that they teach. My novelty factor will no doubt wane with time, but perhaps they will just settle for my friendship. I will try to bring the resources that they desire, and the methods that I have been taught, but mostly I just want to be able to look back and say that I was able to leave part of my heart in Ukraine, and take parts of my friends back with me. (Not that I'm getting ahead of myself at all here...).
So, that should be a breeze, right? At any rate, there will be many challenges and dark days ahead - you know, life. So I am putting this out there as a testament, a way to be able to look back and hold myself to a standard that only I am setting. This is not a competition, this is my life.
Hope all is well,