About the Blog

I recently accepted a position from Teach and Learn with Georgia, a Georgian Ministry of Education program designed to bring native speakers of English into classrooms around the country. I will be moving to Georgia in August of 2014 to begin my assignment.

Before this latest adventure, I studied at Bogazici University in Istanbul Turkey and at Azerbaijan University of Languages. I speak English German Spanish, Turkish Azerbaijani and Uzbek and am currently trying my hand at Georgian.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Why moving to Georgia when I was 22 was the best possible thing I could have done with my life

I’ve been working on this post off and on for a long time. It’s been a hard one to write. I’ll probably come back to this blog and tell some more anecdotes later, but I feel like some of this has to be said. Last spring I applied for a whole bunch of stuff: jobs, internships, scholarships, fellowships. I didn’t get a lot of call backs. Let’s get real, I got three, one  in Florida for two years, one to teach at a couple hours outside of Istanbul, and one to come to Georgia. Lots of things made me decide to take Georgia. Not money obviously, since I’m poor as a church mouse after earning less and less every month (thanks international currency market, nothing like a falling lari). Not prestige. Nobody has heard of Georgia, much less of the program that I joined. I wanted an adventure, as far away from the world I was living in, with its competition and often mixed up priorities and materialism and lack of ability to compromise and work together on the smallest little thing. I had no idea what I was getting myself in for. I didn’t even know where I was going to be sent in the country. I got a whole lot more adventure than I had bargained for.
I walked to Mulakhi one day. The sunburn was 100% worth it
I read a book recently about my generation—the oft despised Millenials. It said that we can’t focus on anything, that we flit from thing to thing, never settling down, never actually getting stuff down, waiting for signs from ‘the universe’ about what we should do with our lives. Let’s just say that the author didn’t have a terribly high opinion of us. You could almost hear this middle aged man spitting out the words at a meeting of the old-and-crotchety-before-their-time club, where everyone bitches about the kid they still have living in their basement.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of kids in my generation who are lost and who are just frittering away their lives doing essentially nothing. I don’t think mine is the first generation who has done this though. We grow up deeply disillusioned with the world we live in, the order which we must uphold. We grew up through 9/11 and the idea that the ‘bad guy’ could be anyone on the street, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with ISIS. We grew to maturity in a world filled with natural disasters, school shooting and terror attacks becoming so common that they are commonplace, normal, nothing to get upset about. Or if you do you share a hastag until the next tragedy comes along. And nothing changes.  Violence and poverty and disease and abject horror and desperation flit past our eyes every day and we flip through the television channels and many simply sink into the unreality of reality television. The rest of us are at a loss of how to make something, anything about this world better with our time and lives and energy. We seek that way but it isn’t always obvious, and so we are accused of being unable to settle ourselves. The frustration grows. We don’t aim to be lazy adult-children who live with no purpose, indeed it is the exact opposite, purpose in this often purposeless world that we wish for like a staving man looks at food. We have been told for so long that we need to go out and change the world that we berate and secretly hate ourselves when we can’t. 
Nika toasting me with wine on my birthday while the adult men laugh hysterically. Nika is an excellent tamada
I took a year off between undergrad and grad because I needed to get away from academe, and the world that I know for a bit, and to reaffirm what it is that I really want to do with my life.

So, why was moving to Georgia the best thing that I could have done? Because living abroad strips you of most everything. Your family, friends, community, comfort, safety net, safety blanket, pounds, illusions, pretensions, self-respect, baggage. You are cold and alone and frightened, a beast let loose in an unknown place. Sink or swim no longer seems like a glib motto, but a rallying cry, a piece of driftwood in a sea of sharks. It is in this vulnerable state that you can come to know yourself better. You find what remains is your truest self, because that doesn’t come off, slip away. You see the good the bad and the ugly. How little you actually you care for life as you stop batting an eyelid as animals are slaughtered in front of your eyes. How selfish you can be as you seek solace, alone time and get annoyed when host siblings break into your stash of nice makeup and girl scout cookies. You see who really matters in your life, when you get 3 hours of skype time a month and you see who makes the cut (ie Mom and Dad). Who you are willing to splurge time and energy on finding the postman and buying stamps so that you can write to them. What parts of life seem the most important to you—your social life? Family? Friends? Duty? Job? Relationships? Your own pleasure?
My birthday cake was delicious. Ask Ani
I’ve discovered some very ugly things about myself. I don’t flinch anymore when the teachers here pull students ears or hair. I myself have never done it, but I will be honest, there have been tempting moments. I have yelled at students, I have gotten in their faces and raised my voice, in English, Georgian, Svan and whatever language will get them to quiet down. I have dreaded going to certain classes. I haven’t loved all my students equally. I have been selfish with my time and resources. I’ve been jealous of the skills and lives of others. I’ve wanted things I don’t need, or shouldn’t have. Essentially, look at the 10 commandments and I’ve found it within myself.  This is disturbing, but it’s also good to realize that so much of what keeps us in check is the pressure of society, community, ‘fitting in’, and knowing what people we know would say. I’m perfectly aware of that now, and I’ve realized that I need to find more of the self-control within myself and not from without.
I’ve found some good stuff in there too, thank God. I’ve discovered that I love teaching and sharing information with others. Not every day, every hour, but that moment when your kid finally gets it, that’s amazing, one of the best feelings in the world. When your students start to love you, that amazing. When they ask you to go on a field trip with them, or want you to come home, or to their birthday, or ask you to never leave. It’s amazing to know that you’re having an impact on young minds and hearts. I've discovered that I want family. That family is incredibly important to me and that I want my own someday. Now, I don’t want to promise myself anything that it turns out I can’t have, but I want to make family and relationships a bigger priority in my life. I’m not going to give up on my professional aspirations and ambitions, but it won’t hurt to make space for other things in my life. There are other things worth pursuing, and I don’t want to find myself in a place where it is too late for something that I really truly want. I’m willing to admit that I want children. Not just one, several. Our culture has reached a place where for a young intelligent woman to say she wants children is faux pas, an admission likely to bring silent judgement for being ‘old-fashioned’. Bite me, is my response. Being here, now that I’ve found out my need to please others (in order to be a ‘kargi gogo’), is teaching me to let judgement roll off my back. I’m also getting much better at letting my emotions hang out. When I’m pissed, people are beginning to be able to tell.
I walked to the Cross with the kids one day. Obligatory selfie
Moving to Georgia when I was 22 was the best possible thing I could have done with my life because without it I wouldn’t be sure moving forward. I learned what kind of work I enjoy, the things that make me tick and get me excited to get up in the morning, it reaffirmed how much I care about public health, about women’s issues, about a region that nobody has heard of, much less visited, much less lived in learned the language the culture the people and grown to adore. Georgia taught me to enjoy the little things, to stop and think and listen for a moment (or an hour and a half if your marshrutka is running late), to toast with panache, to hike up a mountain without killing yourself, to be a big sister, to lead by example, to slaughter a calf, to hitchhike, to prioritize friends and family—the human connection. To write letters, to dance like nobody’s watching, to wish upon the stars, to conjugate in the optative tense, to light candles in a church without lighting yourself on fire, and how to chase with beer.  I learned to be comfortable with silence and uncertainty and to go with the flow. And I learned that I’m going back to Georgia at some point some how. Georgia infiltrates you, like strong liquor does, it’s not always pleasant, but you do have some awesome adventures, make some great friends and walk away a little wiser from each encounter. And so my friends, may we raise a glass, საქართველოს გაუმარჯოს! Victory to Georgia! 

Monday, July 6, 2015

My babies are growing up!

Whoo boy has a lot happened since the last post. I’m so excited to get home and see you all and tell you all the crazy stories about my life and the insanity that is it, but I should probably update this occasionally too, just to reassure you that I’m alive still. That is, again, till I’m home, when you will all know I am because I will spend hours afflicting my pictures and anecdotes on you. Until you regret asking me how Georgia was. I’m currently about 2 months behind on this blog and I’m not super sure that I’m going to catch up in my final 2 weeks in country. Let me give you a couple of highlights.
The main character in this drama. This is 13/16 seniors, better than I ever got in class
I’m sure my seniors would have to hear me call them my babies. But I’m so proud of those kids it’s a little ridiculous. I am betting I grow up to be at least as bad as my own father, who will brag to anyone on the planet about how exceptional his kids are. For hours. I apologize for everyone who gets stuck next to him on the plane with nowhere to escape. And now I know that is exactly what I am going to be, but worse. I’ve taught these kids for a single year and I almost started crying at their graduation ceremony. This ceremony is called ‘bolo zari’ or last bell. It started late (what else is new) and the kids had decorated the day before with balloons and posters. They had white dress shirts and aprons, each with its own distinctive drawing on it and the rest of the space was being written on by fellow students and teachers, farewell notes as it were. Some students insisted I write on their shirts, other siblings insisted that I write on their older brother or sisters’ shirts.
 Each kid got a dramatic introduction and to walk out in front of all their peers (we started during 5th period, but classes had essentially ceased after two periods). There were a couple of short speeches by parents/teachers (several of my seniors have parents who are teachers) and by the students themselves. Lasha read a poem, Jemo danced and a couple girls sang. I find the utter lack of insecurity here really refreshing. Of course you sing and dance and speak in public. It’s just what you do. The 11th graders had several dance routines and a ton of short comedy sketches, which were hilarious. I even understood some of the punch lines, which is surprising. A bunch of community members came to watch the proceedings, but not as many parents as I had thought. Just as the show was about to break up, Rashibo, the MC for the event (and most events in town it seems, he’s one of my 10th graders) announced that I had a gift for each of the kids (which I did). Being the conclusion wasn’t exactly what I had expected/wanted but with some translation help from Roma (newly graduated) I gave each of the kids a journal I had bought in the US with a personal note and my contact information. They seemed surprised and some were really pleased. I suspect most of them have lost them by now, but no matter.

And then we had dancing, pictures, clean up and a massive supra in the teachers room. I had cake at least once a day that entire week since parents kept bringing food to the teachers and I never say no to cake. I was teaching my after school program that week and I heard a knock on the door. One of the administrators was at the door saying that I was wanted in the kitchen. My first reaction was “oh shoot” I figured I was in trouble for something I had done (playing music too loud? Letting the class get a little crazy? Climbing out the window when we got locked into the building that one time? Giving the kids chocolate? Eating the edible plants on break with my girls?). I walked to the kitchen like I was facing a firing squad. When I got there, about 10 folks were seated around a table. They turned to me as I came in “Hannah, torti ginda? (do you want cake?)”. It was super delicious cake too. Full points to the hospitality class that includes my friends Gio, Lasha and Mischa. Good work boys.
The following Monday we had the final banquet. This is for parents teachers and our recently graduated 12th form. I had a full 4 hours warning of when it was going to be, but I decided that from what my kids had been telling me, I needed to put the effort into my appearance for this shindig. I got new nylons, since I can’t wear them more than twice without tearing them to shreds (whoever let me graduate the ‘this is how you be an adult’ class was sadly mistaken). I washed my hair and got out my dress from the wedding. I actually put on makeup and when I emerged downstairs the entire family was shocked. That embarrassing moment when people don’t believe you can look that good. I was told I looked like a doll, but I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. I was told that the banquet would begin at 7pm. I made the mistake of being ready at 7 as a result. At about 7:45 Jener Mas (who also happens to be my host grandfather) came over, dressed to kill. Nato was ready by about 8 and we went to the school to pick up the speakers. We made it to the restaurant where they were holding the banquet at about 8:30. We were the first ones there. After much cajoling and arguing we were let into the banquet room at about 9:15. Finally around 10pm the kids came roaring in, having clearly pre-gamed the event hard in some cases and the party kicked off.

We all sat around a massive table that was set for us with salad, bread and some cold dishes already. And drinks. There was pop along with a bottle of vodka for every half dozen folks or so and a huge plastic barrel containing about 30 liters of wine. At least. Did I mention we were about 50 with some abstainers? Now, I had walked in thinking that it might be a little awkward to get drunk with a) your coworkers (though this the least so since I’ve already gotten drunk with them on many occasions, a tradition I wish I could bring back to some staff rooms in the US. It certainly lightens up teachers meetings) b) the parents of your students, all of whom are a good 20 years your senior but still treat you with a great deal of respect since you’re a teacher and c) young men and women who ceased to be your students a week ago. I can now confirm, it’s not awkward at all! At least in Georgia it isn’t.
The hot dishes started coming out and Jemal was picked as the tamada since Lasha and Roma were both too terrified to do it. He was clearly nervous but he did a good job. I started wedged in with the other teachers, listening, eating and drinking (my 3 months of sobriety had just ended so I drank slowly figuring I didn’t need to be the hot mess of the evening). They put some music on and Jemal was also called upon to dance since he went professional about a year ago. Did I mention that my kids are insanely talented? I couldn’t resist hitting the floor when the ‘modern’ music came on and my kids who hadn’t seen me dance at the wedding were all pleasantly shocked. Maybe an hour and a half into the party we went outside to watch the fireworks that we had bought for the event and send up paper lanterns, the ones with wax that you light so they fill with hot air and then they fly. We managed not to catch anyone on fire though it was a close call with Mari’s dress. We went back inside to continue eating drinking hanging out and dancing. The kids insisted that I come join them at their end so I was placed next to Jemo, which I considered quite an honor since he was the man of the hour.
I might not be a Svan princess, but gosh darn it I am trying.
Round about 2:30am the teachers and parents got up to leave and I stood with them. Every student I went to hug said “Hannah Mas, you can’t go!”. Roma, my best English student, put it quite eloquently “Hannah, you’re not like the other teachers. Stay with us.” With Nato’s permission I stayed, since Dato (18) was DDing and promised to bring me home. I was very impressed with him and Beqa, who was the other DD. These young men just finished school and are at a giant party with their friends to celebrate. But neither of them touched a drop of alcohol. A couple of parents stayed out in the main room, saying they would wait for the kids to finish. It was then that I discovered there was perhaps an ulterior motive. The students assured the parents they could go home since “Hannah Mas is here. We have an adult to look after us”. Clever kids. The parents did eventually go at the urging of Murtaz Mas and the kids turned the banquet room into a disco. We danced and laughed and I had two boys ask for dance lessons so they can pick up girls in Tbilisi. Because isn’t that what a good teacher is for?

Around 4:30am I found Dato and said that I was done, being an old lady as I am. Roma walked me to the door and Dato drove me home. The cops immediately pulled us over but since Dato was clearly sober we were let go. I crawled into bed around 4:45 and woke up blissfully clear-headed and without school since it was Independence Day. Most of my kids went to the concert and Jemal was dancing. Average hours of sleep in the group? 1. Most of my students left within the next week for Tbilisi to study there for university exams which just started and continue until the 14th of this month. I saw a couple of them when I was in the capital for my final ceremony as a TLG Teacher. I plan to say goodbye when I get to Tbilisi before I fly out. I taught my seniors 4 days a week all year, and while I never had a day when every kid came to class, I grew to know most of them quite well, and they know me. I can’t speak as an expert since everyone in town has known them longer than I have, but I have had the privilege of knowing them in my own special way, since they seem willing to talk to me about things they won’t with other teachers. I get to ride the line between peer and authority, friend and teacher. And I love these kids, and am so exceptionally proud of each and every one of them. I cannot wait to see what their futures bring for them; because I have no doubt that they will be bright.
My home for this year. Not bad scenery.

 I miss you all so and cannot wait to be home and see you again!