Monday, November 17, 2008

Not a Typical Family

Like almost all other Peace Corps volunteers, I've had two host families during my service. Some PCVs have more than two--mainly only if something is really bad with a host family and the PCV has to move, or a PCV has to switch sites for whatever reason--but I'm not sure there are any PCVs that have only one host family, at least not in this country. You see, PCVs are almost never--if ever--placed in their training villages as their primary site. This is for a couple reasons, that I know of. One is that the sites that are used for pre-service training (PST) are usually used multiple years in a row, after which Peace Corps chooses a different site to move PST to (in order, it's my understanding, to limit the possibility of a town becoming dependent on the money that flows in during PST). The second is that usually the sites, and their surrounding villages that we actually live in, that are chosen for PST are more developed than a typical site. Now, I don't know that I really buy into that second reason considering my own site and the sites of some other volunteers I've seen, but whatever.

My host family in my training village was much closer to what I would describe as a fairly typical Armenian family, in terms of the social roles and gender norms that they followed. I've mentioned it before, but Armenia is a fairly conservative society. Though this country was a part of the Soviet Union for about seven decades, the forced gender equality created only certain changes in the status of women, at least from my perception: girls go to school as many years as boys; girls go on to higher education in large numbers; girls and women are, by far, smarter and more ambitious than boys and men. But regardless of these things, within the home, gender norms don't seem to have changed much.

This paradox struck me particularly whenever I spoke to my host mom. I've described her before, with her sharp intelligence and wicked humor, her longing for an urban life, her keen perception. But after the end of the Soviet Union, during Armenia's particularly painful re-acquaintance with self-reliance, her role went back to the one that women have had in most conservative societies. She is responsible for all the housework, bringing up the children, tending the garden, and staying home most of the time, while her husband goes off to work in Russia and send money back home. My host sister was in a somewhat similar spot. When not in Yerevan at university, she is as much cook, maid, and gardener as her mom, while my host brother was really responsible for next to nothing except for occasionally helping when something needed fixed or some particularly strenuous task in the garden needed done. It was absolutely not out of the ordinary for him to tell his sister to go get him some coffee or candy, while he sat in the living room screwing around on his phone. While I liked the guy, and he was really funny and fun to hang out with, I wanted to slap him whenever he made his sister go do something that he was perfectly capable of doing himself; from most accounts, however, this is absolutely typical of Armenian households. Old-school, conservative gender norms are the rule, not the exception.

Which is why I continue to be amazed by what happens in my current host family.

For the first four months after moving to our permanent sites, we have to stay with a new host family. I've got just about a month left until I can move out, which I'm going to do just as soon as possible, simply because frankly, I miss the freedom to walk around my own apartment buck-naked. Tangent? Yes.

Back to the point, my host family here in Vanadzor is, for an Armenian household, quite progressive. My tateek ("ï³ïÇÏ" in the Armenian alphabet) isn't really all that different than any other in terms of her status within the family; by that, I mean she's ridiculously awesome. Really, tateeks rock. The rest of the family, however is much different. Yes, my host mom definitely still does a lot of cooking and cleaning; not really much different than my own mom in the states in that regard. But my host mom also has two jobs, even though my host father also has a job at the chemical plant. Speaking of my host dad, imagine my shock when, walking into the kitchen one evening, I saw him standing by the sink with his wife helping dry the dishes and put them away as she washed. Imagine my further shock when I saw him help cook breakfast the next morning and serve it to me and my host brother. After all I had seen in most first host family, and in other PCVs host families, this was not what I expected to see. In many ways, my host family here is every bit as progressive as my own family in the US. Bless my dad's heart, but I think my host dad here might actually help his wife more in the house than my real dad helps my real mom (granted, my dad in the US does a lot of work around our farm, but my mom helps with that sometimes while I don't usually see him helping with dishes). While the kids don't help a whole bunch (my oldest host brother is usually at university in Yerevan, so he gets just a tiny bit of slack on this), frankly, they're kids; it's not surprising that they're more than a little lazy.

I have a great amount of admiration for my host family here in Vanadzor, and especially for my host dad. It would be quite easy for him to not do anything to help out around the house; after all, most Armenian men aren't expected to and have no desire to--but yet, he does, and so he gets a great amount of respect from me, and so does my enormously hard-working host mom. Working full time with two jobs, and still doing so much of the housework and helping raise the kids, is no easy task, but she gets it all done. I have no doubt in my mind that even after I move out I will continue to come over and spend time chatting, drinking coffee, and enjoying the company of this family.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Bittersweet End

It's no secret that I am thoroughly a Democrat, and have been advocating for Barack Obama ever since the end of the primaries. By all means, today should be, and is, a happy one for me and all people who realized that our country needed change. But unfortunately, this day is all too bittersweet for me, and for many others.


The reason has nothing to do with the fact that I've lived and breathed news from this campaign for the last two years. I watched from the beginning as a set of candidates emerged to make their case for the nominations of their respective parties. I watched as the Republicans fretted about a candidate, and then as the Democrats fretted about the comparably quick choice made by their opponents. I watched as the Democratic side's candidates dwindled down to two incredible, ground-breaking figures, and continued watching as the race between them stretched into the summer. I watched as Democrats across the land became shrill and frightened, and I argued--rightly, as it turns out--that we all just needed to calm down; whichever nominee came out ahead had plenty of time to heal the divisions. And now, I've watched America make a turn for the better, and elect a stunningly bright, charismatic, passionate, and, yes, historic man as its 44th president, shedding the idea that the color of a person's skin is a qualifier, or disqualifier, for the highest office in the land. But frankly, as incredibly engaging and ground-breaking as this campaign has been, I'm glad to see it finished. Our country needs to finally be able to start the difficult work of rebuilding; of reclaiming our innovative spirit; of healing. And as long as the election was still going that couldn't happen.


Nor does the reason have to do with my initial choice for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton. I have great admiration for Sen. Clinton, which is why I threw my support behind her during the nomination phase (moral support, as I wasn't able to get off work to go caucus for her in Idaho). I think she is, by far, one of the smartest, most passionate, and most understanding political figures in America; however, I have long proclaimed that I would support either Sen. Clinton or then Sen. Obama, because both of them were clearly excellent choices for America. I had no regrets about Sen. Clinton not winning the nomination, because I knew that both candidates had the character and wisdom to integrate each others' ideas into their own, even if not fully. And I was proud and exhilarated when I heard that then Sen. Obama won the nomination, because I knew how much good he would, and will, do for America.


Make no mistake, I am incredibly proud of President-Elect Obama. I am filled with hope for our country's future because of the choice we have made. And I am relieved to finally be able to say it--Yes We Can, and Yes We Did!


But there is one thing that has been tugging my emotions from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows: the passage of California's Proposition 8, which has spitefully pulled the rug from under the collective feet of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens of California, and has dealt a blow to the hopes of the LGBT community across the nation. On Tuesday, November 4th, 2008 the residents of California decided to reinforce the notion that its LGBT residents are indeed second-class citizens. After being given another taste of a future in America in which we're treated as equals, we have been shown, once again, that majorities of even some of the most liberal places in the country still view us as lesser, as unworthy of the same class of citizenship as straight Americans.


I realize that these amendments have been passing in states across the country, and that other amendments passed on Tuesday in other states as well; however, California was the hardest blow to date. In any other year than this one, if California had passed this measure it would have been surprising, but not quite so painful. But the cruelty of seeing our newfound equality suddenly stripped away, in one of the most supposedly tolerant places in the country, is indescribable. It's like watching a lighthouse in a stormy sea, and then seeing it suddenly disappear, leaving you only knowing there's something bad out there, but with little left to give you hope of avoiding it.


What does it say about a country in which, years after the Civil War, after universal suffrage, after Loving v. Virginia, after the Civil Rights Act, and the day we elect our first African-American president, we're still looking for someone to call less equal, someone whose rights we can take away, someone who we can offer the hope of equality to and then dash that hope on the rocks of spite, and of hate? In a country I love so much, I'm heart-broken to see this travesty, this mockery of my claim to be an equal member of society.


I have wept more than once today.


I wept as I watched President-Elect Obama's speech, and listened to his stirring plea for sacrifice; his touching portrait of Anne Nixon Cooper and the history she's been witness to; his clarion call for a future in which we can be proud of things we will see; and his inspirational message of hope.


And then I wept as I watched some of my own hopes crumble into the ground. I wept as I realized that Proposition 8 would pass, at just how swiftly equality, once extended, could be torn away. I wept for myself, and for the millions like me who had been so bold, and so foolish, to hope that our journey was a little shorter, our destination a little closer in sight.


Have no doubts: we will overcome, someday. But our path just became steeper, our toil longer. Today, for me, and many like me…for us, hope comes with pain.