Fulbright ETA Work

To Be An Expert Overnight

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!”)

 Click here to see the “Michigan” presentation

“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.

Click here to see the “Azerbai-WHERE?!” Survey

Click here to see my “Azerbai-WHERE?!” Prezi

Practice Interviews

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:

Fancy Dancers 1

Fancy Dancers 2

Fancy Dancers 3

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…  (:

Azerbaijan State Economic University

ASEU Sign

Not to make anyone jealous, but I think I have one of the best schools any Fulbright ETA can ask for. First, just look at it:

Walking on the perimeter, this is the front of the Main Building, right by all the fun things in Baku.

Walking on the perimeter, this is the front of the Main Building, right by all the fun things in Baku.

Courtyard during an assembly on the first day of classes.

Courtyard during an assembly on the first day of classes.

ASEU 2

 

ASEU 13

ASEU 7

 

ASEU actually has three or four campuses throughout the city. This is one of them.

ASEU actually has three or four campuses throughout the city. This is one of them.

 

An auditorium in the Main Building

An auditorium in the Main Building

Azerbaijan State Economic University (ASEU) has become like a second home, largely because I have amazing colleagues and my own work space in the International Relations Office (IRO).

America and Azerbaijan

As you can see, Azerbaijan and the USA have a close, friendly relationship (:

 

Unlike professors at any American university, teachers here are rarely guaranteed personal work space. There are department offices, but that’s where everyone hangs out for tea, to chat, and meet with students. It’s hard to concentrate in such an environment, so many teachers I know prepare their lessons at home. I, on the other hand, am extremely fortunate: Not only do I have space, but I have my own computer — not kidding. I can use the office printer too, a luxury. I can be productive, and have some division between ‘work’ and ‘home,’ almost like a real adult.

Yet I end up taking my work to-do list home most evenings. I’m regularly interrupted, but I don’t mind. I’m always amazed when my students visit. Wow, they’re stopping by to say ‘hi,’ I feel like a real teacher! Then I give them Russian candy, because what better way can I show my gratitude except through a sweet? Impromptu Azeri language lessons occur between me and colleagues regularly, and I hear the occasional request to proofread a letter or edit a blurb.

And since I’m in the IRO, students approach my desk and ask in Azeri or Russian if so-and-so is here, or if I can tell them about Erasmus/study abroad programs. “Muslim Müəllim is out now, but he’ll be back in a few minutes,” or, “The person you want is Afət and she is at lunch, but she’ll return before the end of the hour.” Of course I answer in English, my Russian is non-existant and my Azeri is nothing to celebrate. I also do it to see their reactions, sometimes baffled and amused, sometimes that classic deer-in-the-headlights look. I like being someone’s unexpected encounter for the day.

Anyway, back to the tour. If you’re like me, maybe you’ve noticed that the university building butts right up to this big stone wall.

Just like that.

Just like that.

And that.

And that.

That stone wall straight ahead represents the original boundary of İçərişəhər, or, the Old City (which I’ve talked about with plenty of pictures in this post and this one); some parts are reconstructed or older than others, but it is impressive. ASEU and several other Russian-inspired (i.e. pre-Soviet) architectural beauties line the main street, completely blocking the Old City walls. It was something I wondered about in the back of my mind, but I assumed it was the result of bad city planning.

It was a stupid assumption. My colleague indicated the wall one afternoon as we walked from the canteen to the office. She explained that, at some point, the Russians demanded that Old City’s walls be torn down to 1) make way for newer construction, and 2) erase medieval Baku/Azerbaijani history. The suggestion was made instead to construct new buildings right in front of the walls, enough to block idle gazes from noticing them, but without completely destroying valuable history. And that is exactly what happened:

Block the walls...block them!

Block the walls…block them!

Wall 2

Oil money enabled locals to construct too, such as this building, “Ismailliya” by I.K. Ploşko in 1913.

 

Wall 3

Old City — what Old City? Look at the fountain!

 

This perfectly demonstrates the indecisive Russification policy I’ve read about. The Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union, wavered between two opinions as it dealt with Azerbaijan and its other territories: Should non-Russians be forced to abandon their languages and histories to identify only with Russia’s? Or should some allowances of cultural autonomy be practiced?

So the Old City, a medieval-era symbol of Azeri power and source of ethnic pride, was forced to fade into the background while other buildings, such as ASEU, were constructed at the forefront. That’s good enough for a society struggling to maintain its identity in the face of a colonizer. It’s that option or have your history be decimated. (And some back home have told me that “history doesn’t matter.” Hm. This should give you something to think about…)

Another factoid about ASEU’s main building: it was built as a school for girls, funded by oil millionaire Musa Naghiyev. It was the first school for women in the area, in the mid- to late-1800s, just after Baku’s economy boomed from the first wave of foreign investment. I asked what the girls were taught, and it sounds like a combination of home and practical skills like reading and writing. For some reason, I thought about those young women multiple times in the week leading up to the start of the spring semester. I imagined their laughter and voices echoing in the cavernous, chilly hallways, maybe because it seemed too quiet without the intermittent chatter of teenagers.

So quiet.

So quiet.

Barren.

Barren.

The inspirational quotes were added over winter break.

The inspirational quotes were added over winter break. I can translate one for you. “Hər gün kitab oxuyun” = Read a book everyday.

ASEU Stairs 2

And here’s another translation: “Hər zaman gözəl sözlər danışın” = Always speak beautiful (kind) words.

 

But now young voices bellow down the halls regularly, and several of them are greetings aimed my way, “Hello, Hayley!” I encourage them to use my first name, I figure it’s good for them to practice a different name since I have to practice all of theirs…such as Günay, Əntigə, Fuad, Toğrul, Faik, and Ceyhuna. But I’ll admit that my heart thrills a bit when I’m called teacher. “Hello, teacher, how are you?” “Thank you for today’s lesson, teacher, we enjoyed it very much.” “What will we talk about today, teacher?” “Teacher, how long will you stay in Azerbaijan?”

I know it’s a simple title, but Jesus was called teacher (rabbi) in the Biblical New Testament by several who addressed him. Actually, if I’m not mistaken, several pioneers of religious movements from Buddha to Muhammad were viewed and recorded as teachers. I like sharing such a title with those great people.

Although the title is just about all we have in common. I teach conversational English to several groups of students that meet with me once a week. Those groups of students are also fluid, meaning that I see new faces weekly, others drop out forever, and some attend when they feel like it (like stopping by for the last half of class). It’s…interesting…definitely different from my personal university experience…and it constantly tries my patience. Taking that into consideration, and the fact that I come across a rather wide range of English skill (“Intermediate” is a very broad category and somewhat deceiving), I don’t take it upon myself to teach them brand new grammatical structures or introduce lists of vocabulary — that’s what their formal curriculum covers. Instead, I frame a discussion or class around a theme or activity, and give them the chance to use the English they already know. I like having that freedom, and I think they appreciate the change of pace.

I work in two different conference rooms. This one is on the top floor in the Honors section.

I work in two different conference rooms. This one is on the top floor in the Honors section.

And this one is right next to the IRO, on the lowest level. I hold my conversation clubs here.

And this one is right next to the IRO, on the lowest level. I hold my conversation clubs here.

There you have it, a little taste of ASEU. When my friend Esther visited, I made sure to give her a tour. “This is the kind of place I can see you working,” she said.

I daresay it is a good fit.

Until next time… (:

Cultural Chaos

Situation #1

“You are a very bad girl.”

Excuse you? I wanted to retort some smart, biting comment. I also had the urge to smack the speaker. Hayley — stop, have patience…

“How is that bad? Staying out late with friends was what everyone did in high school. You can’t do anything else in a small town. It’s normal…” I faltered to justify my past actions, which weren’t bad in any shape or form.

She continued, “All good girls should be back home by 10 at night.” My jaw dropped.

Obviously, I was annoyed during that conversation; I would die under that kind of cultural curfew. However, it did open my eyes to something: I don’t see many women out past 10pm in Baku, regardless of the day of the week or part of the city I happen to be in. And now I know why: married or unmarried; single or with a family; old or young…good girls are at home.

Situation #2

“It’s high time you got married.”

High time, huh? Right, because my drop-dead gorgeous looks will quickly pass by, like dust in the wind. Heaven forbid a 24-year old young lady should remain happily single. Better find a man now — snag one before it’s too late! Hayley — stop, have patience…

It’s the haughty and somewhat bossy tone that sets me over the edge, so I fail to control my own tone and word choice when I reply, “I will never get married!”

Some women laugh at my reactions, some question me further, others shake their heads and make a comment that I’ll change my mind when I find the right Azerbaijani man…

Recently I’ve built a higher level of tolerance for the topic, enough to ask one simple question: Why? Why is it “high time” that I get married?

“You just should.”

Situation #3

I love learning about a culture’s proverbs and anecdotes. So when a friend started with “We have a saying in our country,” while we were out for lunch, I got excited. She continued: “A woman can make three things from nothing: a salad, a hat, and a fight.”

I processed: salad, check. Hat, check. Fight, check. Wait — what? A raging battle took place in my mind: one side encouraged me to laugh along and go with the flow while the other induced me to scream in protest, “What kind of a saying is that, I don’t start fights from nothing!!” Hayley — stop, have patience…

Even now, I get weirdly defensive whenever I think about this saying. If anything, I justified it with my reaction. I know it’s ridiculous yet, it is?

Situation #4

I’ve been told by some women that “marriage is a game.” It tends to be said during dinner parties, over tea, with no men around. The implication is that a wife holds a household together, but she has to make her husband think he’s responsible. If she wants anything done, she has to lure her spouse into thinking he came up with the idea. She can’t be too forward, because that’s brazen. I doubt that’s the case with every marriage in Baku, but the half dozen women present during this conversation agreed with the speaker.

I admitted that I didn’t like the idea of marriage being a game. Can it be teamwork? Life is hard enough, why complicate your marriage? But, no one really listened. What do I know anyway?

Situation #5

“She wants to say that she hopes you will have many children. Children of your own.”

I looked from my friend, who was translating, to the young woman who wished me many children. The expression in her deep, brown eyes was genuine, almost bashful, and I knew she meant well by her wish. There was no judgement, she wasn’t going to demand that I get married, she was simply blessing me. Her toddler daughter scurried across the office for the second time, tempting everyone — even me — to smile.

Situation #6

I’ve been flabbergasted at the rate and severity a woman’s life can be destroyed in Baku if she is divorced. Her career, personal and professional relationships, and financial safety all suffer. Her past must be kept secret from any potential suitor. Otherwise, he’ll assume she’s an easy woman who might as well give him any favors he asks from her.

Additionally, hearing other women talk about a divorced woman is…devastating to me. We don’t know the full story, how can we judge? She has children, can we show some compassion? If she cheated, we might as well expect the husband to have cheated too, several people have told me “that’s what happens here.” I’ve found myself getting strangely caught in the middle sometimes, a few people have asked me if whether or not this woman or that woman is indeed divorced. Simply put, it’s awkward.

But what is a divorced woman to do, suffer in silence? Yes. Either that, or leave everything in Azerbaijan and start over in a different country.

Situation #7

I looked at the group that showed up to English conversation class: five students, all girls. I scraped my pre-made lesson plan, “So, do you want to talk about boys?” They laughed and immediately jumped on the topic. Of course we talked about marriage, and it was interesting to note that the girls almost definitely wanted children, but weren’t so sure about that whole marriage thing. Eventually one of them turned to me and asked that fateful question, “Do you want to get married?”

I fought my usual knee-jerk response of “NO! I shall NEVER get married!” and channeled my responsible, role-model teacher side. I appreciated that she asked and, for a brief moment, I double-guessed myself.

“I’m not planning on it, but if the right one comes along, then sure.”

“How old do you want to be?”

Huh, I haven’t thought about that… “How old do I want to be if I meet the right person?”

She nodded her confirmation as the other girls leaned in or cocked their heads to the side. In a country where many girls get married fairly young (about 18 to 22), my answer was doubtlessly interesting.

“It would be great if I could meet him before I’m 30. But if I don’t meet him until I’m older, even 50, then I would be okay with that.” I also explained that I do other things in my life, such as exploring the world, in order to find happiness. It’s important to make yourself happy and not rely solely on a boyfriend/husband/significant other figure to do that for you.

Their smiles melted my heart. Now, I can only hope that if any of them wants to take a bit of a detour from tradition, that she will find support from friends and family.


Those situational snapshots are examples of some of my (many, many) on-going, inner dialogues during my time abroad in Azerbaijan as an American expat: Relationships, (specifically marriage), and what it means to be a woman in Azerbaijani society.

A part of me wants to never again voice any question on dating, relationships, sex, or marriage here. Some take it that I’m passing judgement on them and their culture. I will admit that yes, I judge something when I first come across it. Yet with people and their culture, I’m careful to bite my tongue until I formulate the best, noninflammatory statement or response. Although, I’m human and I know that my words can offend when I very much do not intend that.

It doesn’t help that I become offended when others try to convince me the relationship scene/marriage dynamics here are perfectly natural and work for everyone. Or when people slap a label like “Bad Girl” on me. My only response is to dig in my heels, halt all discussion, and quickly change the topic. I don’t want to confess that I disagree with them. I don’t want to confess that picturing myself as an Azerbaijani woman, either single or in a relationship, makes me uneasy. The experiences outlined above (and much more) suggest that a woman’s ultimate role and responsibility in Azerbaijani culture is to be a wife and mother. Sure, have a career, but it’s more important to have a family with the career. If she is divorced or remains unmarried, then she must lack morals. But the alternatives of cheating or entering into a lifelong commitment without genuine feelings seem immoral to me too.

It’s always at this point during my inner dialogue that I get frustrated with myself. Doesn’t this happen in the United States? Yeah. Haven’t people back home told you to “settle down already”? A handful, yes. Don’t couples cheat on each other all around the world? Sadly, yes. So why on earth are you so bothered by all that here?

Of course I don’t have a straight answer. Basically, I’m a cultural mess…I’m in cultural chaos.

I like to think that I can separate the personal from any new environment I encounter. And I can do that for a short amount of time. However, staying in a different place for a fairly significant amount of time challenges the will power to remain purely objective. It becomes emotional because I’m invested. Invested in the country as a curious observer. Invested in people as a resource, teacher, and friend. Invested in the crazy journey because it has challenged me in unexpected and empowering ways.

So this foreign culture in which I’ve been inserted has unearthed questions about my own home culture, and questions about myself, that I’ll agonize over for a while. (If you can’t tell by the end of this post, I’m really good at agonizing.) And you know, that’s alright. I think it’s good for people to be thrown into chaos every once in a while. It helps us evaluate and analyze our lives, and forces us to step back in an attempt to see the bigger picture.

Even though my time in Azerbaijan thus far has been a roller coaster, I’m excited to see what the next three months will bring, even if it just brings more questions and little answers.

Until next time…  (:


A fellow Fulbrighter in Azerbaijan wrote a piece somewhat similar as this post, but much more eloquently and with far less agony. I highly recommend it. Click here to read “With a Large Grain of Salt” from Madeline’s blog Land of Fire, City of Winds

 

To Be a Teacher

The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts. ~C.S. Lewis

My first semester as a Fulbright ETA is quickly winding down, and of course, I have musings to share with you.

Story #1

I give up. I made it 50 minutes out of 60, good enough. I slumped down in the chair at the head of the extensive conference table, “Okay, I’m going to let you guys go early. You keep talking in Azerbaijani and I don’t know what to do with you. You can leave and I’ll see you next week.”

I couldn’t sense much reaction from my students as they continued chatting and packed their things. One student lingered a bit and said, “Teacher, I was sleeping.”

No, you were playing on your phone, I wanted to retort. But I channeled my patient teacher side, “Ah, you feel sleepy today?” He confirmed and I asked why. “I was up late [half-mumbled word] my computer.” “You were fixing your computer, repairing it?” “No, putting it together.” “Oh! I see, you were building a computer. That’s very impressive!” I was honestly impressed, and his project reminded me that my freshman honors university students are very bright, and can be very motivated. It gave me hope.

Lesson #1

Ugh, but the way they acted…I just don’t understand – why would you take the time to show up and then not try? 

Then they took it a step further and many of them stopped showing up. How am I supposed to interpret that? Do they hate me? Am I the most boring person alive and they can’t stand me? Dear Lord, did I offend someone and they told their group mates and then they told their parents? They haven’t given me the chance to ask for feedback so how can I learn how to fix this?

I painfully learned the lesson that I, in the role of a teacher, cannot instil motivation in my students (I know that many people disagree with me). Additionally, I shouldn’t dwell on those who cease coming. Instead of constantly reflecting on those students, my concentration and efforts should be devoted to those who are the most consistent and show the most effort. I’ve always favored the philosophy of “quality over quantity,” and students are no different.

Story #2

This semester I taught 5 student conversation clubs/classes. To keep it simple for myself, I have the same or very similar lesson plans for all of them. One week I chose to highlight this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan. (If you don’t know who she is, get to researching her – she’s truly a special young women.) This covered several topics relevant to my teenage students’ lives: current events, youth, world peace, universal education….so many things!

In the end, some groups were more receptive to the topic than others (as to be expected), but I noticed a trend in every class when I rounded everyone together from the activity to conclude with a large group discussion. When I asked questions such as, “What does ‘peace’ mean to you?”, “Is it important to think about peace? Why/why not?” “Can humanity achieve peace in the world?”, the ambiance became hesitant and conversation stalled.

Every class, my breath hitched; oh, I suck I suck I suck I suck I suck I suck…and I nervously bit my lip, wary to ask my question, “Is this hard to talk about because you don’t know how to describe it in English, or because you don’t think about things like this?”

Every class, several voices piped up, “We don’t think about this.”

Lesson #2

I was SO relieved. No, my material isn’t too easy or too difficult; no, my topic isn’t boring everyone out of their minds. They’re challenged by this subject. Some of my best teachers and professors were the ones who stumped me – who challenged me to conceptualize the world and my life differently. It’s my job to assist what is there, not tailor to my preferences or paradigms. As C.S. Lewis suggests, I’m there to irrigate encouragement by introducing new things. I’m nowhere near as fantastic as my educators, but if my attempts make my students think differently, even at least for a short time, then I feel I’ve done my job.

To Every Student I Had This Semester

So fate has introduced us to each other.

Students 2

Through you, I experimented with classroom management and class topics, experienced the group dynamics and camaraderie that play a significant role in Azerbaijani university culture, and have felt some of the most extreme ups and downs thus far in my life.

Students 5

If you attended just one class, or faithfully joined me every week; if I co-taught as a guest, or was a permanent fixture in your schedule, be assured that you taught me many lessons.

Students 1

Every group I worked with asked that loaded question: “Why Azerbaijan? Why are you here?” I always answered along the lines of, “I fell in love with Turkey, and it led me to Azerbaijan. But I want to experience what makes Azerbaijan different, what Azerbaijani culture is and where it is headed.”

Students 4

Everything I observed and experienced during class time with you has contributed to my growing fascination of this place.

Students 3

I’m fortunate to act as a link between my culture and yours. Know that my impressions of you impact the portrayal I paint of Azerbaijan to my culture. The growing awareness and respect I sense from home should encourage you, and I hope I’ve been a good representative of the United States to you.

Until next time….  (:

 

How to do Halloween in Azerbaijan

How to do Halloween in Azerbaijan

Step 1

Freak out when colleagues ask you to coordinate a fun Halloween party. “Make it just like in America!”

Step 2

Avoid the thought of throwing an American-style Halloween party for colleagues for about a week.

Step 3

Be guilted into your American/Fulbright duties from friends back home. Tentatively bring up the Halloween party at lunch two days before the holiday. Feel relief when they offer to help, and ask only for some ideas from you.

Step 4

Suggest a pumpkin carving contest. Tag along with some co-workers on their shopping expedition to get food and pumpkins for the party (the taxi driver might get slightly lost but that’s okay). While shopping, look at the cart in bewilderment as fresh fruits and vegetables are piled in. Remind them that American Halloween is about candy and junk food – healthy food is not allowed. Prepare to be hushed and ignored.

Why are we even in the produce section??

Why are we even in the produce section??

Step 5

Leave the store with a myriad of food items. Stop at a random produce alcove and buy a pumpkin – an Azerbaijani pumpkin. Assume that the original idea of having a pumpkin carving contest is off the table; one pumpkin is good enough!

Make sure your pumpkin has personality. This one obviously had a hat.

Make sure your pumpkin has personality. This one obviously had a hat.

Step 6

Get set up for the pumpkin carving extravaganza:

Convince your university's kitchen to lend you some supplies.

Convince your university’s kitchen to lend you some supplies.

Experience the jack-o-lantern process with the newbies….

Make sure everyone has a chance to pitch in.

Clean out the pumpkin.

Azerbaijan Pumpkin3

Make sure everyone has a chance to pitch in.

Practice face drawing. Debate if your pumpkin should be angry, or happy, or have curvy eyes versus triangle eyes.

Practice face drawing. Debate if your pumpkin should be angry, or happy, or have curvy eyes versus triangle eyes.

Draw the face....

Draw the face….

Carve the face...

Carve the face…

Take pride in the finished product:

Ta-Da!! Look at him...!!

Ta-Da!! Look at him…!!

Stick a tea light inside and bask in the Jack-O-Lanter’s glow

Mwahahaha!

Mwahahaha!

Step 7

Set up the food and EAT.

Halloween Bounty

Here’s one food station. It might not be candy, but it was nothing to scoff at. (:

If candy won’t do, then let it be fancy cake.

If candy won’t do, then let it be fancy cake.

Step 8

Set up the pumpkin in an honorary place in the office. Forget about it over the weekend and witness this sight on Monday:

Hahaha, eeewwwwwww!!!!!!

Hahaha, eeewwwwwww!!!!!!

And that, friends, is how you celebrate Halloween as an expat in Azerbaijan!

Until next time… (:

To Be a Fulbright ETA

I’m getting real sick and tired of this “adjustment” period.

Seriously. When will it end?

Actually, maybe I should ask the question, “When did I start to feel out of it?” I mentioned in my first post written from Baku that I felt surprisingly at home. But lately I haven’t. What happened?

The job started. My role as an ETA (English Teaching Assistant) went into full-swing about a week after I arrived and since then it’s been a crazy ride. I’m aware that I haven’t delved into much detail yet concerning my role as a Fulbright ETA. Part of the reason is that my role is being redefined or altered almost on a daily basis. I want to know 100% what I’m doing, what I’m responsible for, and what people need from me. That way I can tie this concept of “Fulbright ETA” into a neat little package and present it to myself (and you back home) as a tidy idea.

However, that has not the case. And I’m begrudgingly realizing that that might never be the case during my time here.

Because of this, I’ve had some intense periods of frustration and angst, and some days I’ve felt downright weary (just being completely honest, not seeking sympathy). I sincerely thank friends and family (both in Azerbaijan and back home) who have practiced great patience with my venting emails, texts, comments, and Skype dates (especially since you all have your own crazy lives to deal with!). Additionally, I’ve had an on-going dialogue with myself concerning the amount of detail of those struggles I should write on this blog. I don’t want this forum to be a flurry of daily frustration but a resource for future Fulbrighters, especially those considering going to Azerbaijan. But explaining some struggles will doubtlessly be helpful, and I want to be honest about my experience here…

What to do? What do to?

Well here, let’s discuss my role, in general, as an ETA. I’ll list most of the projects that are either fully-functioning or in development that I have been asked to do:

At Azerbaijan State Economic University (ASEU)

  • Lead weekly conversation classes for 3 groups of Honors College students (at my university they’re referred to as “Special Talent Groups/STG”)
  • Lead weekly 2 conversation clubs for university students (still in development at the time of this post)
  • Lead weekly 1 conversation club for university staff (This is slowly catching on…)
  • Assist English department staff at 3 weekly meetings (at the time of this post, this has been hit-or-miss)
  • Help in various first-year business English courses (I’ve had a few days where I visited or co-taught classes, otherwise this is so up in the air)

Other Commitments

  • Facilitate a MOOC (online) course entitled “College Writing 2.1” and meet with participants weekly at the American Center
  • Lead clubs at the American Center (I keep putting this off, partly because my schedule keeps changing but also because, seriously, look at how much of my time is taken up already!)

Personal Goals

  • Intensive language study (I’ve concluded that I need survival Russian skills and I want to develop my Turkish/Azeri to an Intermediate level)
  • Side project I promised Fulbright I would do (still not sure what this will entail; maybe I can make this blog be my side project? lol)

All this on top of maintaining/forming lasting friendships, getting to know Baku as my residence, exploring Azerbaijan, and traveling. Plus having enough alone time to prevent me from going crazy. Oh, and I’m applying to grad schools and fellowships right now. Where’s my American coffee? Or should I ask for a bottle of wine?

I’ve been here a month-and-a-half, and seeing my list of things that are still “in development” or “up in the air” makes me squirm. I’m learning that I find too much comfort in having a consistent schedule. I would say Americans tend to like consistency, but I’m attached to it to the next level. I can be flexible and understanding initially, but I expect my kindness to be returned with consistency in a timely manner. I also like to commit to a select number of things and devote a lot of time to them, versus having responsibility for a dozen ideas/projects that I can’t dedicate time to. Quality versus quantity.

However, I have to stop and remind myself that I haven’t been here that long. This is both comforting and terrifying. If things get better and more consistent, then great. If everything remains as hectic as it is now, my time here will seem never-ending. Ultimately, I take comfort in the fact that I will adapt.

Indeed, I will adapt.

It might take some time, but I’ll be alright. A lot of people have affirmed this and I’m slowly realizing it now. I adapted to crazy Turkey, and that country occupies a special place in my heart. So even though I’m overall uneasy about my role as a Fulbrighter at the moment, some things will fall into place and make sense.

So, dear fellow Fulbrighters or hopeful applicants, let’s explore a challenge I’ve been repeatedly facing lately, and see how it illustrates (in my opinion) what it means to be a Fulbright ETA, especially during the initial months:

  • Develop extreme levels of flexibility. So I get all dressed up for the day and arrive at the school only to learn that some of my classes I just started are cancelled/delayed indefinitely due to scheduling changes. Wait, what, how long will it take before the schedule is figured out? Can the school really change the schedule 5 weeks into the semester? Oh yes, it can….if anything, expect the worst case scenario to occur – brace yourself.
  • Practice self control. Great, my classes are delayed for God knows how long; that’s not the most pleasant news to be presented after spending time preparing materials, brainstorming ideas, and worrying myself sick because I want to do a good job. With such news, I react by first becoming distressed and wanting to shut down, and then I’m consumed by anger and want to swear like a sailor, or lash out with ethnocentric comments. Of course, I can’t control internal dialogue, but I can (and must) control how I conduct my words and actions aimed at my peers.
  • Take initiative and be persistent. In essence, I have a free day now. I’ve gotten good at going to other faculty members and asking, “Would you mind if I joined you for a bit and observed your class?” Some people have taken me under their wing and I can discreetly hop into their classes whenever I want. Not only am I there as an English resource to potentially help others, but I’m learning too. Learning the topic they are teaching about (I’m at a university that emphasizes economics, marketing, and business, so a lot of this is new territory for me), and I’m learning new teaching methods and ideas. So even if I can’t teach for a day, I can at least learn!
  • You are part of the team. If anything goes wrong, I know that I am not the only one hindered or disrupted – everyone is affected. For instance, when I asked about the kinds of technology available to me, I was assured that having a projector and internet would be “no problem.” It turns out, it is a problem – hardly any piece of technology in the classrooms is up to the task. I was promised these things, I will demand to have them! Nuh-uh, not so fast! Everyone has to work through the bureaucracy and fill out forms to explain what is broken and why they want it to work. Everyone? Even me? Oh yes, no one gets special treatment and everyone suffers. But one gets creative when challenges arise; and if I’m plugging myself into a community, I’m committed to it for better or for worse – as part of the team.

To conclude, I’m sorry that this post was a snore but, some of you back home have asked about my “job” here. It’s a bit of a mess, but I’m navigating my way….perhaps this is what the “real world” is all about?

Until next time….  : )