This year began in a cold, snowy village half a world away around a table of pork, rice and beef-stuffed grape leaves, deserts, fresh fruit and fried crepes. My Armenian host family and I exchanged gifts and I thankfully dawned a brand new lime green sweater before everyone ran outside into the dark night-no street lights- to set off homemade fireworks and greet the new year with screams and whistles.
Life after Armenia has been less festive, but certainly as challenging as I remember my first months in a new country. Moving to Seattle this fall has brought back memories of introducing myself, learning about the local culture and trying to find my place in Armenia in 2006. The anxiety today is similar to what I felt as I figured out how my primary assignment, teaching healthy life skills in a secondary school, would utilize my professional background, training and personal passions in that little village.
In fact, there are great similarities between my integration approach in Surenavan in 2006 and in Seattle in 2008. Informational interviews today involve my invitation to coffee at a local cafe, a strict 30-minute time limit, planned questions, direct objectives and exchange of business cards. In Surenavan, the interviews took place in a stranger's home, were rarely scheduled, lasted several hours, included excessive eating, personal discussions about my family and exchange of telephone numbers for future text messaging. Regardless of the approach, or the information exchanged, my objective is identical today to what I hoped for then: to develop a network. It was more important than ever in Armenia to meet those who would respect my opinions and trust my advice in the community. I desperately needed to know the right people connected to the mayor's office, leading the community youth group or gardening spinach in their backyard. Sure, life was different, specifically Armenian coffee and Starbucks lattes, but people are the same worldwide.
Another similarity is language learning. In Armenia, would sit in staff meetings and write lists of words I heard the director say. Afterwards, I would call on the only English speaking woman in the village for reference and translation. She and I would write out the Armenian and the correct pronunciation and I'd study the new vocabulary from flash cards. In Seattle, it's not such a process to understand what people are saying to me and how to handle responsibilities in a professional setting. Regardless, I had a lot of catching up to do in August. I needed to be able to recognize and define Drupal, Long Tail, News Feeds and Social Graphs. Thank you, Lara, for your mentorship in all things social media and to PRSA for providing me with seminars and panels to learn more about how the PR industry is embracing Web 2.0.
Finally, I learned the value of family from Surenavan and give thanks every day for my real one in Ohio. It was my Armenian host family that celebrated my successes, cared during difficulties and taught survival skills for life in a small community. My Ohio family took over in 2008 by celebrating my completion of service, understanding when I decided to leave home again and preparing me with survival skills for life in a new city (i.e. a AAA membership).
When I started 2008, I had no idea where it would end. Some people don't prefer uncertainty, but if there's one thing I learned in the Peace Corps it's resilience. Oh what a transfer of skills!