Never-Ending Roller Coaster

Man, it would be enthralling to take a peek inside my head these days. I envision the occipital lobe would be a Jerry Seinfeld-lookin’ chap spewing out punch lines vis-à-vis the third-world lifestyle. The frontal lobes would be occupied by political civil war with one side supporting a wish for a salary, the other side relentlessly fighting for some sort of selfless pride; supplemented by the medulla oblongata encompassing a sobbing teddy bear for my students who own only one pair of clothes or who consume just one meal a day. I’ve come to realize that this feel-nothing world that I have been living in for the last few years has up and vanished. Before you let your mind wander to morbid thoughts, I don’t mean that I have been in a deep depression-related funk that causes me to be oblivious to my surroundings; just that it takes a hell of a lot to make this realist, this logically-based kid to stop in his tracks and truly be speechless. Perhaps, this is why I applied for the Peace Corps in the first place.

You know those moments where you ask yourself, “does it make me a bad person if…”? Well, those moments straddle a very fine line for a PC volunteer. On one hand, I’m thinking that considering my recent career decision, I get a big fat gratis pass on everything, much like a Monopoly get out of jail free card. What’s wrong with smoking a few cigarettes if it helps to bond with your host-brother or lying about being sick for a few work days because remaining in bed and streaming American sports and TV shows off the internet seems so much more wonderful? The other hand is a pugnacious representation of the perfect human being that is constantly watched and judged as “the American”. We must refrain from muttering motherfucker under our breath even though the 8th graders are substitute little monsters at 9am on a freezing morning or when asked if we sometimes enjoy a mouth-watering Jamison on the rocks, we must pretend we never touch the stuff.

There are so many aspects of this job that go unnoticed. Our main motive is to spread peace and friendship as an ambassador of the United States of America. One might think sacrificing fiscal earnings and the comfort of friends and family to teach Health Education at a lower than low-income school would revolutionize the perception of the cocky American. However, it only adds fuel to the “they’re just crazy” fire. My dependency on my close peers along with my rowdy actions of walking around a fraternity house devoid of any clothing (stone cold sober) has somehow morphed into traveling about a foreign country just to find some medicine and bargaining in the central outdoor market for a tie to wear to work. Conceivably, their judgments are correct but which one of those represents the crazier fella? That’s up to personal opinion.

So yes, even after being here for 5 months and fully immersing myself as a teacher in my village for 2, this trade still causes my brain to question and reflect on every little moment. The only difference between now and the moment I stepped foot into my new country: I can speak a little bit more of the language and now can rejoice in some petite victories week-by-week. Let me share just a few with you. Last week, I traveled into the capital to see the PC Medical staff, but stopped for a quick shopping spree with the street vendors. Due to an especially rough basketball practice with the 12th form boys, I was on the lookout for a new necklace to replace my shattered one and was lucky enough to stumble upon a small jewelry kiosk on the corner of the street. As I was picking up a few options, I notice the storeowner yelling at me as she remained proudly on her podium, gargoyle-like. Not understanding a word of her broken Russian, I faked an approving head nod and kept on. Ignoring a few more shrill rants from the woman, I tried on the necklace and decided I liked it enough to fork over a 200lei bill for the 120lei item. It only took me a few seconds to realize what had happened when she handed me back 130lei in change: she was negotiating! Turns out, my “silent treatment” was a pretty strong form of defense and my ignorant self somehow pulled off the barter of the month.

Unfortunately, a few days down the road I ran into one of those unavoidable situations. My incredible partner Olga had a very ill son at home and had to attend to him. As it was too late to call off the troops, I was forced into solo combat. Teaching 5th grade on my own seemed to ignite the same kind of fear as walking into a lion’s den unarmed but proved to be a rewarding move. Not only did I have a student recite the importance of self-confidence and how it can assist in life at school, at home, and with friends, but also I was able to teach them about Halloween while they taught me about some upcoming Moldovan holidays, exclusive of any additional language aid. I believe my reaction was as follows: an internal “BOOYA!” accompanied by a small and hidden fist pump, Tiger Woods style.

While I don’t wish to stereotype the masses, as this certainly does not apply to everyone, I have come to love a certain aspect of my radically changed lifestyle. In America, whether we liked it or not our society has programmed us to measure success in a certain way. If a person has a big house, owns a lavish material such as an original Monet, or drives a Porsche, it appears they essentially did pretty well for themselves. Once again, this does not pertain to the population in its entirety, but I think it’s fair to assume that we all cart some sort of agreement with this statement. In the Peace Corps, this same success is measured by a possible completed project, an efficient and completed lesson, and the amount of smiles we produce on a daily basis. It’s a conjecture that can’t possibly survive in every world, but I hope to bring a fraction of this mentality back to the states with me, whenever that might be.

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2 thoughts on “Never-Ending Roller Coaster

  1. Carole Millstein

    Brett….I think you would be amazed to know the effect you’ve had on your Moldovian “charges” in the five months you’ve been there. When I was teaching (in Ft. Apache in the S. Bronx), it was pretty much an urban war zone. Before I even set foot in the J.H.S. to which I’d been assigned as a resource room teacher, I learned that the parent who served as front desk guard had been shot in the head and killed by the 17 yr. old would- be suitor of her 13 yr. old daughter. The latter was shot in the jaw and hip.

    I grew up fast working there, you might say, and learned a great deal, some of which you’re learning now. I did my best and hopefully left my kids and parents in better shape than I found them in. Someone wise said to me (and now I say to you) , if you can help one person, improve one life, open one door, you’ve been successful. Aim high and persevere…but be realistic.

    I had to laugh reading about bartering for that tie. I was in Hong Kong with my friends many years ago. I had bought a Fuji camera in N.Y. but waited to buy a telephoto lens in Hong Kong. We “hit” the streets, browsing. My friend’s husband was a natural “hondler (sp?)” so he agreed to negotiate for me. When I saw a photo shop, I stood at the doorway ( there were no customers present) and said, “Do you have a telephoto lens for a Fuji camera?” The reply was affirmative. “How much”, I asked.
    “$60″ the man said.

    I told him, ” Thank you – I’ll come back later. I need to check with my friend.”

    “Do you want to see it?” he asked.
    “No, it’s. ok. I’ll come back later”
    ” $50″, he said.
    “O.K , you’re the first store. I want to see other shops”
    “$40”, he said.
    I was amused, nervous but still didn’t “get it”.
    “That sounds good, but I really need to get my friend”.
    “$30”, he persisted.

    When he shouted “$10” I ran out the door and found Walter. I told him the story. “Are you crazy, ” he said, “and you didn’t buy it?”

    So I went back to the store and the damn lens didn’t fit my camera because the model I bought had no treads. Are you laughing? Love,Carole


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Hayley in Cambodia

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