Everyone says your first year at site is for integration. This means getting to know your community. Building relationships with your host family and neighbors. Having coffee, playing outside with kids. Building trust and friendships along the way.
As you probably guessed, this is easier said than done. Speaking Armenian, not fully understanding the culture and being an introvert have all been challenges in the integration process for me.
Being an introvert means that when I have free time, I would rather use it to relax alone than in the presence of others. Spending time alone is not common in Armenia. It is often looked at as strange if a person wishes for alone time and privacy. In fact, there isn’t even a word for “privacy” in Armenian because the concept doesn’t exist in this culture. Armenians like to spend lots of time together, often in close physical proximity. There is no “personal bubble” concept here like we have in the U.S.
On top of simply being an introverted person, I also find social situations intimidating here. When meeting new people, I am usually the only American in the group and often the first American many people have ever met. This comes with a lot of questions, which I often cannot understand or get too nervous to be able to speak. I feel pressured to make a good first impression, on the grounds of successful integration. I want to make people like me and like Americans and America by extension. I feel disappointed in myself when I can’t understand a question someone is asking in Armenian. I feel discouraged when everyone is speaking Russian and I am automatically left out of the conversation.
All of these things, on top of my introverted personality make me want to stay in my room and hide. Of course I know I can’t hide for my entire service. And I don’t want to. Every day I remind myself to take chances and try new things. I remind myself to look for opportunities to socialize instead of avoid them. It’s not always easy. There are some days when the homesickness gets me, or the real sickness gets me and I cant stand to be out ‘under the microscope’. I want to hide in my house, in my own room and watch American movies or Facetime with friends and family back home.
The weather often compounds my lack of social interaction. During summer my entire village looked like a ghost town from 11am until 6pm at night. Everyone hid inside where it was at least a little more bearable, a refuge from the 100+ degree heat that plagues my region of the country. Now the cold weather is setting in and I feel the same problems coming back. I often feel too cold to open up my bedroom door and socialize with my host family. I have my small heater that hardly takes the chill out of my room, and I am often unwilling to give it up for the sake of family time. After my work day at school, I always have the urge to spend time alone in reflection, usually while laying in my sleeping bag for warmth. As someone who is content to spend days and days on end all alone, I constantly remind myself that cultural exchange can’t happen with only me. I need to go out and walk around my village, to walk to school with my students and to eat meals with my host family.
Despite these days, I have made some progress in integration in my village. When I walk to the small store, many people call me by name and say hello. I have friendly neighbors who are happy to wait with me for the water truck to come and fill our buckets. My students smile and wave at me whenever they see me. I am often gifted candy or fruit from people on the street. My next door neighbors always volunteer to drive me to school. My counterpart and I spend long hours together drinking tea and eating cookies. These are the small victories of Peace Corps that me and my introverted personality have worked hard to achieve. And I hope there are many more to come.