The other evening as I shoved potato chips in my face and binge-watched It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I was struck with this idea:
Never before have I been an “expert overnight” as often as I have in Azerbaijan. We’ve all done it, pretended to know everything about a topic to get through an assignment or bluffed our way through a conversation. “Here, talk to Hayley, she studied history.” “Uhh, what?” “Hayley, tell us, what is your opinion about _____?” Cue volumes of platitude.
We become experts on-the-spot to save ourselves from embarrassment, to persuade an opinion, to clear up misconceptions, to get the job done. When I explain to people here that I’m not a trained/professional English teacher, they often laugh and remark that I’m perfectly qualified because I’m a native English speaker. So it’s all good.
Therefore, even if I don’t profess to be an expert at something (or if I explicitely state that I am highly UNqualified), it doesn’t matter because other people say I am.
Fulbright pulls a similar trick and says that we’re “experts” on American culture. So we’re encouraged to give presentations, hold dialogues, and answer any question to the best of our knowledge. For me, it’s humbling — also scary. My God, I might be the only American some people are ever exposed to. What I say about my country and my time in Azerbaijan might completely form or alter someone’s opinion. So although I can’t say that I enjoy being an expert overnight, I can say that I’ve learned a lot, and hopefully I’ve helped others as well.
The rest of this post will explain some of the extracurricular projects I did at Baku’s American Center, projects that shoved me into the spotlight of expertise. Hopefully this will give you future Fulbrighters some ideas, and prove to people back home that I did more than travel in my free time. 🙂
“Michigan” as part of the 50 Stars Series
This last spring, the US Embassy started the 50 Stars Series. Each week a guest speaker gave a presentation on his or her home state, and created a short quiz for everyone to discuss at the end. The audience was a diverse group; equally men and women of all ages (youngest attendee was a kid who I’m guessing was about 10 years old). English skill of the audience was high-intermediate.
Tips for a project like this:
- Include LOTS of pictures, use text for points or facts that are very important.
- Take a minute to define special vocabulary (in my case, “peninsula”).
- Find a way to directly relate your home to Azerbaijan (e.g. “Michigan is made up of two peninsulas, Baku is also on a peninsula, called the Abşeron Peninsula”).
- Include excerpts from the news or music; it redirects their attentions and gives you a break!
- Try to include something that dispels or challenges stereotypes of American culture. I’d heard comments like, “Americans are afraid of Muslims” or “It’s hard to be Muslim in America because they hate us.” I try to explain that Americans, for the most part, don’t care too much about what people do in their private lives (which I think we tend to classify religious beliefs as “private”) as long as you seem like a decent, hard-working person. For this presentation, I included a slide about Dearborn, the city that holds the largest population of Arabs in the U.S. They were fascinated and had no idea that Islamic/Middle Eastern culture could have as strong a presence as it does in Dearborn.
- Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something. And praise those who bring up a fact that you forgot or couldn’t squeeze in. (e.g. “You forgot to say that Madonna was born in Michigan.” “Why I did, thank you for reminding me!”)
“Azerbai–WHERE?! Surveying What Americans Know About Azerbaijan” as part of the Getting to Know the United States Series
I don’t know what got into me — I HATE giving presentations. And why I signed up to do another one mere weeks after my “Michigan” presentation is beyond me. It’s something else to put on your CV, Hayley, I chided myself, plus, people here LOVE talking about what Americans know about Azerbaijan.
So I devised a little experiment that seems very selfish in hindsight. As you see, I have this blog. One of the main goals of maintaining this blog was to improve knowledge of Azerbaijan back home. Of course, I can’t make drastic changes, but if friends and family learned a couple things through my journey then I would consider that a successful outcome.
I created a survey (sent only to Americans who volunteered to take it) that tested general knowledge of Azerbaijan. The second part centered on the effectiveness of my blog. For the presentation, I went over each question and broke down how participants answered (I encourage you to check it out, it fascinated me). Then I shared some comments from the survey and encouraged the audience to use social media to express their own journeys and exchange ideas.
Tips for a project like this:
- Be prepared for any kind of audience. A class of elementary school children attended my presentation, along with university students. I was NOT ready for the school children, but the format of my presentation actually kept their attention (I was lucky). So, if you’re giving a talk that is open for anyone to attend, expect the unexpected.
- Do something that you really want to talk about. Duh, you might be thinking. But when you feel pressured to participate in cultural activities, the things you’re passionate about don’t always come to mind. Don’t fret about what you think others want to hear, do something you are comfortable with or have a lot of knowledge of, and the audience will take what they will from it.
I can confidently say that almost EVERYONE I’ve talked to here has made this comment, “I want to study abroad/work for an international company.” English is quickly rising in the ranks as a lingua franca of the region, and young people in Baku realize that if they want a decent job, they need some proficiency in the language.
The embassy recognized this too and hosted an “English Week” at the American Center in March. One activity was practice interviews, and several ETAs and staff members from the embassy acted as employers and asked basic interview questions. We only had 10 minutes with each person (there were a lot of attendees), but we were able to make notes and share some comments to the whole group afterward.
I remember one woman well, a local who worked with the Peace Corps as a coordinator. My jaw dropped. “You worked with the Peace Corps for 10 years? You should interviewing ME!” I confessed. She kindly insisted otherwise, but I’m still flabbergasted. Again, here I am barely getting started on a path to a career (whatever that may end up being), and, as a native English speaker, I act as an expert (of sorts) for interview skills.
Oklahoma Fancy Dancers
This last event I participated as an audience member. The embassy hosted members from a Native American dance troupe, the Oklahoma Fancy Dancers, and took them to several universities and centers in Baku. I commend those dancers — to perform and be sociable with that kind of jet lag is amazing.
For me, it was interesting to see the reactions of local audience members. They were star-struck, purely astonished. I could guess some of their thoughts when I glanced at faces, These people are from America? Do they always dress like this? Where do they live?
I was totally engrossed in their performance. First of all, just look at them — visually striking:
It took me back to my childhood, when I first learned about these cultures; to when I was 17 and visited the Navajo reservation in New Mexico for a mission trip (a life-changing experience for me); to 2 years ago when I took a class on “The Peoples and Cultures of Native North America.” I grew strangely homesick in that moment. My reverie was broken when I heard a young woman, about the age of my students, ask, “I don’t understand…how can a person fight like that?”
She was referring to the war dance one of the male dancers was performing. He was hunched over, his short, padded steps fitting the pace of the beating drum. I tried to explain that it wasn’t the actual way they fought, but his dance tells the story. She seemed to get it, and she continued along with another student, “Did you grow up knowing about Native Americans?” “Did you learn about them in school?” “Do they dress like this everyday?” “Do they speak English?” “Where do they live?”
Some hard-hitting questions, but good ones. Yes, they might seem insensitive, but you have to start somewhere. And for me, I would rather someone ask an ‘insensitive’ question to clear up any misconceptions than have it go unexpressed, and develop into something more. I can only hope that I’ve done my job well here, and God knows I’ve learned a lot in the process.
And I also hope that you’re not asleep by the end of this. 😉
Until next time… (: