Friday, February 27, 2009

Hi, I'm from Driftwood village

27 February 2009

I believe all people should take great pleasure in describing where they’re from. After all, it’s an important part of their identity. Whether a person’s from California, Mississippi, Canada, or China, they hopefully take pride in talking about their homeland, or, at least, that’s the ideal situation. Understandably, this may not always be the case. Nonetheless, in my case, I got no problem telling people I’m from Driftwood, Texas (I mean, c’mon. We have a good barbecue restaurant, a vineyard, and a post office. What more do you need?).

This becomes a bit sticky, though, when you’re talking with folks in a village in Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijani, there’re basically two words to describe a community: şəhər (city) and kənd (village). So when someone asks me if I’m from a city or village, what exactly do I say? I’m from Driftwood, Texas, a community consisting primarily of nice housing developments. To say it was a “city” would be a lie, so I’ve stuck with the latter term. However, that seems kinna weird, too. People in Qumlaq village, Oğuz, Azerbaijan, where the roads are mostly unpaved and I run next to a sheep herd, may fall under the impression that I’m from Driftwood “village.” Hmmm…but how the heck else would I describe where I’m from? Balıcı şəhər (small city)? No, that doesn’t work. Böyük kənd (big village)? That doesn’t really make sense. My only solution has been to stick with “village” and try to describe Driftwood in decent detail so folks can have some kind of understanding.

But what a pleasure it is to do such things! Like I’ve said before, it ain’t always easy to describe where you’re from and what it’s like, but I feel like every time I make the effort to do so, I’m making a difference. I may not be providing everyone with every developmental need they may have, but I’m still giving them a better understanding of the United States of America (or, at least, trying to). So I’m from Driftwood village. Does it make the place sound more interesting? What do you think? Heck, if anyone has any bright ideas on how I can tackle this better, let me know.

Cup o' Tea

Here’s something I probably should’ve written about a long time ago. It’s been a prevalent aspect of my life since living with my first host family in Ceyranbatan. You can barely sit down anywhere in Azerbaijan and not have a cup of çay sitting in front of you. It just wouldn’t look right.

Tea is a funny drink, if I may just speak of the substance itself for a moment. I remember my dad speaking fondly of it, how it doesn’t jolt you awake like coffee can and kinna eases you up, like the slow ascent of a roller coaster (without the sudden drop later on). But in its funniness, I can see the appeal, and I’ve thought about it a lot.

If anyone knows me well, they know that I love coffee. I’m a Gahan, and we Gahans are coffee drinkers. Dad mixes his special blend of Cajun chicory and whatever else on a regular basis (although it’s a bit weak, but I won’t hold it against him.). However, with my favorite drink comes a limit. Eventually, I’ve had enough (albeit it may take a lot sometimes). I also don’t normally drink it at night, as it might disrupt my sleep.

Çay’s different, though. You don’t reach a limit. If you want, you can sit there and put away a hundred cups, pausing only to go to the bathroom. You can drink it morning, noon, evening, and, heck, even a spot before hitting the sack. It don’t make no difference.

So no wonder the Azerbaijanis drink it all the time. It not only tastes good and has a bit of caffeine, but it’s the ‘round the clock drink. If you come as a guest in an Azerbaijani home, chances are you’ll be served tea before and after the meal. If you’re sitting down, having a chat, or anything of the sort, why not have some tea as well?

As I continue to analyze tea’s social status around here, I come to a relative estimation of how much tea the average family must buy, and by “relative estimation,” I simply mean that it must be “a lot” of tea. Now, just think about it: Every family buying a ton of tea means that tea companies rake it in, and the last time I checked, that industry has played a big role in world history. Ah, it makes sense to me now. Millions of people hooked on a beverage makes a difference in world economics (Go figure, John.). The case is similar for coffee companies in Latin America or that beer company in Milwaukee that makes more beer every day than you could imagine (I visited the brewery.).

Alright, has this become boring yet? I didn’t intend that, and, for the remaining time, let’s toss the economic hoo-hah aside. To put it simply, I’ve become a fan of tea. I’ve said this many times about it: It’s relaxing and stimulating at the same time, if any beverage could accomplish such a thing. It gives you this comfy feeling and sets your mind straight.

I especially enjoy it at the snack bar at the school. After teaching a few classes, no matter how they went, it’s nice to sit down and drink a pot in the back room, whether by yourself or with others. Instead of being John Müəllim (Teacher), the English teacher from the United States, I’m just John, and the teachers and I can have a conversation, like normal friends do. I’ve come to appreciate that in a place where I can feel like an outsider, despite the warmth and goodness of the local people. It’s not to say we gotta have tea to be friends, but, heck, it doesn’t hurt.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Shaking of the Hand

21 February 2009

There’s a certain mannerism of all people around here, adults and children alike, that I find very respectable. Now, it’s not that people don’t do this elsewhere, but here, everyone does it, without fail.

Most days start out the same, as I walk across the creek, up the muddy hill, and down the road to the Qumlaq village school. People are usually making their own ways to school, and others are waiting at the little bus stop to be taken to town. Other folks are standing next to their cars in the area that the school and a couple other markets surround, waiting to see if someone’ll be willing to pay a little extra for a ride. And there’s one other thing I always expect, and that’s that several young kids will see me walking towards the school building, mosey up to me, and shake my hand. It doesn’t matter if they’re six or eighteen years old. They all reach their hands out and say hello. Now, all the attention can sometimes annoy even the most sensible person, but, still, what civility. I don’t recall shaking someone’s hand so willingly as a young child. I do remember my dad telling me to shake a man’s hand, but I was never too excited to do so.

On the same note, let me tell you about a couple young men in particular in one of my eighth form classes. It’s a common trend here in Azerbaijan, and in the States to a certain extent, too, that boys can some times be, well, not-so-strong students. I can’t say that makes me happy, and the, um, “unhappiness” comes out after I’ve called on the same handful of girls throughout the class period, and these boys haven’t said a word. I suppose it doesn’t matter where you are. These kinds of students are everywhere. Heck, at some points in time, I could’ve been one of those boys. Nonetheless, when I see them sitting together, their interest in the topic questionable, I call on one of them. Sometimes they surprise me with a good answer. Sometimes they just stand there, and snickering ensues around the room, causing me to become more irritated, at times to the point where I begin to rant about why the girls are always answering the questions and the boys ain’t doing nothing.

Well, eventually class ends, and I begin packing up my things. As I begin to make my way out of the classroom, these two boys always approach m and shake my hand. I might’ve embarrassed the crap out of them, but they still look me in the eye and lend me a sincere goodbye, and I gotta respect that.

What a display of character it is when you know you sometimes disappoint, and yet you still have the gall to shake a man’s hand. While growing up, I always knew that a great way to make amends was to do just that, as if to say, “Despite anything else, I offer myself to you as I am, and I hope you respect me as I respect you.” A real man returns the favor, no matter what.

I’m not so naïve as to think that every student in this Azerbaijani community is going to be overjoyed to learn English. For many students, I’m sure, it’s low on their list of priorities. Teachers everywhere know what I’m talking about. However, no reasonable person can simply shrug off a young man’s sincerity at the end of the day, and if he did, who would truly deserve the reprimand?

Tom and Jerry

Since I’ve been on the subject of T.V. so much lately, I suppose I’ll go ahead and talk about it a little more. This one, I must say, is the most fulfilling of them all.

Sitting around the white plastic table in my host family’s living room, loaves of bread laying on its bare surface, turkey stew or dolma sitting there, waiting to be eaten, we’re, of course, glancing, at least from time to time, at the T.V. It’s pretty customary around here to have the tube going, and I’m kinna neutral about it. On one end, it diverts our attention away from each other, but, on another end, it, well, diverts our attention away from each other. Simply put, I must say it’s nice, sometimes, to be able to just watch the T.V. without feeling like I have to make conversation (Sometimes, you can only think of so many things to talk about.), or maybe I’m just being lame. Whatever the case, I’m getting a little off the topic.

Every now and then, Rustəm’ll give me a nudge and excitedly tell me, “John, Tom and Jerry! Tom and Jerry!” You know this show, right? Well, I certainly hadn’t forgotten about it, but let’s get serious here. That show rarely comes on T.V. anymore in the States, so it was a lovely reminder of the simple fun those shows provide. And, yes, much like the other program featuring American jackasses jumping off their roofs, language isn’t a problem. Both Rustəm and I derive the same enjoyment from our favorite cartoon.

Perhaps you’ve picked up on it already. Yes, I get as excited as Rustəm does when Tom and Jerry comes on. I can’t help it. Number one, I love cartoons, and, number two, it’s so dang refreshing to watch such a show while I’m living far from home. I felt the same way in Brazil when I discovered The Pink Panther cartoon came on every now and then. It’s not only entertaining, but it’s also a reminder of such pure fun, which seems forgotten much of the time. Nowadays, things seem to be made more complicated on purpose. Instead of laughing heartily at Roadrunner and Coyote, we’re peering into people’s “lives” on reality T.V. shows (which they also have here…not a fan). Instead of enjoying another episode of Looney Tunes, we’re playing computer games about stealing cars (I only say that because the folks at the Internet café play “Grand Theft Auto”...all the time.) For me, it took living in Azerbaijan to remind me that there’s nothing wrong with kicking back and having a laugh at what we’ll hopefully never forget.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Watching Videos of People Doing Dumb Stuff on T.V.

11 February 2009

As I sit here at my desk, tired and weary after a pretty full day, I just gotta elaborate on something I’ve been meaning to talk about for some time. Now, as plenty can attest, Azerbaijani folk, like many of the twenty-first century, enjoy their T.V. It’s on morning, noon, and night. There’s a variety of shows people like to watch, but one in particular I wanna mention.

I can remember watching Spike T.V. back in the States. Familiar with that channel? Any clue what one of their most prevalent shows is? Yeah, you guessed it: Real T.V., the show made up exclusively of…well…stuff caught on tape. Pretty cool, huh? Well, let me assure you this phenomenon doesn’t stop at the border.

Nope, and it’s not without good reason. What’s so great about these kinds of shows? Well, who gives a darn what language they’re in? It’s sweet stuff caught on tape! That said, it’s one of the most popular shows on T.V. around here, and my host family and I indulge in it frequently. At first I thought it was pretty dumb. I mean, dude gets hit in the testicles by a teeter-totter. That’s not exactly high brow humor, but, yavaş yavaş (slowly but surely), as the Azerbaijanis say, I started coming around to the baseness of the jokes, and, I mean, c’mon, I ain’t that sophisticated. What’s the harm in laughing at a guy skateboarding off his roof or another dude riding a bike into a lake? It’s all in good fun.

Nonetheless, it occurred to me: Where do you think most of these videos come from? Yeah, you guessed it: The United States. I began to think, “Oh, crap. This is the impression being given to these sweet people about the U.S. of A?” And I can’t imagine what must be going through their heads. I didn’t know what to think when we’d see some guy from…wherever…riding a horse into a barn just to hear my host mother say, “Ay, Allah. Ay, Allah.” Let’s also not forget about the dude that can light his fart for an extended period of time (although he might be European. I’m not sure.).

I soon found myself embarrassed when Rustəm, my host brother, would ask me, “Is this is in America?” I’d try not to answer.

Luckily, I think the folks take it for its entertainment value, as they should. American or not, people do dumb stuff, and to be perfectly frank, if my host family’s opinion of the U.S. was based on a dude trying to do a back flip on a pogo stick, I don’t know how welcoming they’d be.

Letters from the Host Brother

8 February 2009

It’s 10:49 at night, about the time this guy hits the ol’ sack, but I just gotta elaborate, for a brief moment, about my host brother, Rustəm.

He’s a creative young lad, that Rustəm, and it comes out when we’re at the dinner table. The T.V.’s usually on, and Firuz and Aybəniz might be having their own little conversation while Hökümə might be doing a little homework and I…well…sit there I guess. Rustəm often prefers to spend his time drawing or writing random things he reads in books (An English textbook is a good example). He loves to see a picture and copy it as best he can. Then he’ll show it to me and say, “This is that,” while pointing to the picture from which he got his drawing. Of course, I’m always very impressed with his artistic ability. To be honest with you, it’s cool to see the little guy going at a drawing. It’s good for him, and fun to watch, too.

Today, I received two very special gifts from my host brother. This morning, he handed me a letter he wrote to me on the inside of a porcelain cup and saucer box. Although I had to use a dictionary to get all the words in the letter, I was touched, as you can imagine. I would share his words of wisdom, but, of course, that would be breaking brother-host brother confidentiality. And this evening, as I finished up the plan for my first English clubs, he knocked on my door and handed me another letter, as sweet as the last one.

Kids are amazing. Who gives a darn if you’re the foreigner and he’s the local and you can’t speak his language very well? None of that makes much of a difference. There’s so much you can learn about a person just by being there, by standing aside and seeing him do his thing. Dad would talk about how he’d swing by Sewanee Elementary just to watch by older brother play on the playground when he was little. I bet Dad learned a lot about his oldest son by simply looking on at eight year-old Clay, at a time in which he, like all kids, did his own thing, and I see the same in young Rustəm. The fact that he wrote me a couple letters doesn’t just illustrate how he feels about the American living in his house. It also says a lot about him, and that’s a heck of a good thing to learn.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


7 February 2009

Okay, so I’ve already told y’all about the "toy" (Or should I say "toys"?), but there’s another phenomenon related to this topic that I’d like to touch up on. As the title says, it has to do with the big electric picture box sitting in many Azerbaijani living rooms.

Do you ever watch old videos from weddings, or any old family event, for that matter? Birthdays? Holidays? First communions? Barbecues (The opening theme song from The Wonder Years comes to mind.)? You probably have, and it’s not without good reason. Old videos are fun, entertaining ways to reminisce.

Azerbaijani folk have the same idea, and this especially rings true with toys. Say company comes over for dinner. You put out the tea and candy and sit down to a word or two, but you gotta do something while the aş is being prepared. What do you do? "Oh, I know! Let’s put a toy video on the tube. Everyone loves those!" And so it goes, the video plays, and people watch, enamored by which family members showed up and what’s being served as the meal. Now, I’m not saying every toy is the same, but they tend to carry a general pattern I described in my earlier entries. People put on their Sunday best, sit at tables, eat plenty of food, dance with their arms in the air (but make sure not to smile when the camera’s on them), and a fair amount of the men put away plenty of vodka.

Although each toy may be unique to Azerbaijanis, to folks from the United States, where any given wedding can be different, thing get monotonous…fast. A friend of mine serving in a village in the rayon of Şəki was not allowed to stay at home alone with his host family’s teenage daughter, so what did they do? Well, every afternoon, he’d go guesting with his host family to another person’s house and watch…You guessed it…toy videos. This went on for six months. I also heard about another volunteer who watched a toy video in which the drive from Baku to Lənkəran, in the southeast corner of the country, literally hours away, was entirely filmed.
Let’s also not forget another phenomenon frequently discussed by me and Charlie, which also goes along with the title of this entry: Toy T.V….literally. Oh yeah, you can flip on the tube and watch Turkish toys at your heart’s content. It doesn’t matter if you know the people or not, because, well, they’re toys, and they’re totally awesome.

I won’t lie. From the perspective of us Americans, this concept doesn’t make a whole heck of a lotta sense. I asked my host father Firuz about it, and he simply said, more or less, that it simply has to do with comparing and contrasting what is, in reality, a very special event for friends and family.

Now, does that make sense to you all? Think about it. The "toy", as the Azerbaijanis call it, is the big event, the big hoopla in which two families are joined or a boy becomes a man. It’s something they really look forward to, and while they may seem monotonous to us, that might not be so for the Azerbaijanis, and I have to respect that. In fact, the significance they put on family and friends and the events that bring them together is inspiring.

What is that on the freaking roof?

5 February 2009

I figured I’d take a moment to describe an, if anything, interesting situation going on above my head.

I couldn’t help but notice one night, while I was lying in bed, a strange scratching/crawling noise coming from just above my room. Being the new guy in town in his first month, I was somewhat baffled and taken aback by such a noise, but it was clear the sound was being made by an animal of some sort. Now, if it had simply been a squirrel (Wait. Are there squirrels here? Heck, I don’t know.) racing across the roof real quick, I wouldn’t’ve bothered, but this critter, whatever it was, was aggressively making love to my roof, scratching away at it like it had something it really wanted. After about a minute and a half of this annoying raucous, I gathered all the wit I could muster, put together the pieces of the plan only a highly sophisticated Peace Corps volunteer could make, and came to a triumphant conclusion: I’ll hit the ceiling with something.

So, dim-eyed and cranky, I looked all over my room for something, anything to startle the little varmint off my roof. I looked at the peç, and, low and behold, the long pincher thing used to pick up logs caught my eye. I grabbed it, pointed it upwards, and knocked the roof silly with it. As you could expect, the rodent, frightened, changed positions to another part of the roof, where I only followed it to slam it out of its wits again…and again and again, until it was out of range of my precious ears. I then washed the black nastiness off my hands and rested in peace.
And the battle has continued.

Nope, wish I could say it was a one-time thing, but contrary to what could’ve ended with a funny little anecdote has developed into a tale of war. In fact, as I type at this very moment, the critter is continuing to scurry across my roof, doing, well, whatever it’s doing (Aybəniz, my host mother, says it has to do with gathering and eating nuts or something. Why it would do that at 11:22 at night is beyond me.), regardless of what I’d prefer.
Oh, well. I’ll do what I can, and, heck, it gives me a reason to be as tired as possible when I hit the sack at night, in hopes that no creature, whatever it is and whatever it’s doing, will disturb my slumber.

Now, I have two questions for all of you:
1.What do you think it is?
2. What should I do?