Friday, September 23, 2016

Two Years In Macedonia: An Honest Reflection.

          Yup, it’s been two years since I left Tennessee and started my journey in the Peace Corps. So pardon the bit of reflection this post will entail. However, I’ll share my difficulties in Peace Corps, what I've learned and what’s next during my final school year. 
          First, the reflection. What I expected by joining the Peace Corps was to be a diplomat first, a teacher second and an individual third.  All have proven true though the latter has been the most tumultuous. What I didn’t expect was the other people also joining the Peace Corps. If that seems foolish to read, it is. Despite my previous experience of working abroad, in leadership groups in college, on Capital Hill as an intern and within various sports teams I assumed most other Peace Corps Volunteers would be joining the Peace Corps for the same reasons and in the same order that I described earlier.  What a foolish mistake. 
          Additionally, I was utterly unprepared to be the only man not only from Appalachia but from the South as well. Being from those areas allowed me to connect culturally with Macedonians but it was more difficult with my American colleagues. Being open minded does not make one automatically politically liberal and being Southern does not ensure a person is automatically politically conservative. Many of my colleagues expected me to fit into their presumed stereotype about Southerners and I ensured that they were, politely, consistently yet unequivocally, reminded to not make that blunder.  However don't be fooled I've made great friends in the Peace Corps and have gained an appreciation for what having sisters must be like.  (Hint: Lots of feelings). As they begin their lives post-PC I will miss them all dearly.
        Next, I was in no way prepared for the mental butt kicking I received from learning a new language. I assumed, are you noticing a pattern here, that my oral English abilities would easily transfer. I was dead wrong. After our three month language training, when we swore in as volunteers I was, in full honestly, not only the worst language speaker in our class, plus the Sveti Nikole training site group but I was the worst out of everyone that swore in. It was a massive shock to my pride, my intellect. My greatest strength, my words, had become my weakest. 
          For the first six months I was here in my village teaching, I could barely communicate with my coworkers, students and neighbors. I'd signed up for the Peace Corps to positively represent the US but I couldn’t even communicate to do my job properly! Every night I went to bed with a splitting headache from trying to speak Macedonian and a deep sense of failure. 
          However, I wasn’t going to quit, to not give my best and improve. So I focused on the one thing I could remember: People’s names. My students, everyone I met in the village and in Ohrid. I waved to people when I rode by on my bike. Yes, they just stared at me. I said hello to people in the street. Yes, they just looked at me funny. Gradually, they waved back. My neighbors began to say hello to me when I was around. It was excruciating to see and feel people flinch when I spoke Macedonian, often incorrectly, my American colleagues included. Nevertheless, I refused to accept my Macedonian would continuously be awful. 
          Then after a year something funny happened, it started to click. Not smoothly and only for brief moments but I began to see the light. Those brief moments started to happen more and more often. The studying, and willful practice, began to pay off. The headaches slowly went away. As importantly my counterpart, and my coworkers, deserve major recognition for their patience with me and for their understanding to speak slowly with me.  
          As my Macedonian improved, more and more people began speaking English to me. You can imagine my shock when people who had only spoken Macedonian with me for months would suddenly turn to me on the bus, during a na gosti or just walking around and speak fantastic English! I figure it was because I was trying, and slowly improving, to speak Macedonian that they felt comfortable after watching me struggle. 
           I say this because I know that the pictures on social media can show a snapshot of the beauty, the people, the events here but not of the difficulty I’ve had. Every day, I've had to remind myself to relax, to focus on just one word and keep working at it. How do you take a picture of that inner frustration, that feeling of incompleteness? 
          Lastly, I have to say my host family has been remarkable. They had no idea who I was when they signed up to host me. We're very different people but they've welcomed my family, friends, other Peace Corps volunteers many times for dinner and visits. Sure it's strange to them I treat the cats with  affection, that I clean my place and that I exercise everyday but they roll with it. I do the same for them about the late night na gosti's, early morning music and we laugh about it. 

Moving on, some simple lessons I’ve learned:
  • Naps matter. A 20 minute nap will recharge you far better than a cup of coffee.  
  • Have a post-wakeup routine and a pre-bed routine. Those are your anchors for a day filled with the unknown. 
  • Consistency matters in everything you do. It matters in your preparation for work, it matters in the routine you create and it shows in your interactions with people. 
  • Every problem is an opportunity in disguise. 
  • Rakia, like a good whiskey, is to be sipped never shot. 
  • Just accept that everyone smokes inside, since everyone’s clothes smell like smoke it doesn’t matter that yours do too. 
  • Na gosti’s and slava’s are opportunities to connect with your neighbors, even if they’re different from you, to be reminded what you have in common, something we Westerners forget. 
  • Keep a bandanna on you at all times. It’ll be your handkerchief, napkin, hat, emergency wrap, mini-scarf, bag cover for the surprise rain shower and anything else you haven't thought of. 
  • Wifi is spotty, phones run out of power at the most inopportune time but pen and paper never fails.
  • 123.movies is the website to use for streaming tv shows and movies. 

So, what’s next? 

          Well, now that I'm beginning to see the forest through the trees I've realized how much more there is to do. My counterpart and I have our school activities to do and a SPA grant to apply for.  My coworkers are on board to do the World Map Project.  Outside of work, I’m the mentor for the high school boys YMLP Struga club so we meet twice a month for activities, workshops, cultural events and to just hang out together. (Follow us on Facebook)!
         Also, I’ve realized that I’ve done a poor job of describing my daily interactions here in Macedonia. I’ve been so focused on living here that I haven’t chronicled my daily experiences for you to enjoy. So I’ll be doing that much, much more. That being said, if you’ve got a topic, interest or question hit me up and I’ll write about it. Ajde cao. 

5 comments:

  1. 😉 Loving that last paragraph

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  2. loved reading this! looking forward to see what lies ahead in your future and also to our long awaited reunion (it'll happen!).

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    1. Kezia, thanks for the read and yes the Gwangju gang will get back together!

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  3. Logan, I have appreciated following you and your experiences/growth through your blog during this two-year period. (And, congratulations at having successfully reached this milestone.) The insights you share in this post are the most personal and helpful reflections I have read to date from one who is obviously an idealistic, dedicated PCV... and, a good man. I can't over-emphasize how important your honesty and willingness to share on this level is to someone (me) who is (again) in the throes of the process to do exactly what you have been doing. These are the human pieces of the story that I am longing to hear. So often volunteers seem to feel it is their duty to present their living conditions, the people, the scenery... in their most positive terms and through artistic photographs. And, that perspective is exciting. But, in the nitty-gritty of the rest of the picture, told with a balance with personal challenges, set-backs, frustrations, joys, fears, good AND bad days, I feel I can be most prepared for service in Macedonia as a teacher. I look forward to reading your continuing chronicling of your experiences and, especially, your running narrative of your personal views and responses to them. My appreciation of you has grown with this post. Thanks. Ted

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    1. Ted, thank you for the feedback it's much appreciated. If there's a topic you are curious about, don't hesitate to ask. Logan

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