by Steve Lynch, T-13 (Dashoguz City)
Former Peace Corps Volunteers do not call home. They do not buy phone cards. They do not page through scuffed tetrads (notebooks) filled with lists of digits from their village, calling codes cramped into the corners, hunting for their favorite dukançy's number. We return home, shake out the rug we bought from someone in the capital, and make a few drunken speeches to whomever will listen here about how this experience changed us and how we learned more from them than we think they learned from us and that's crazy, man. But we do not call home.
Almost every conversation between RPCVs (former Volunteers) will loop back through the same doorways of the same circular home of conversation: it's insane how it feels like forever ago; yeah, I was thinking about that, too; and then, finally, have you talked to your host family at all, like called them or something? There is the same look of guilt shading all of our eyes--no, I didn't but no one does and the land lines are terrible, right? There is comfort in knowing we are a type, that we have self-similar habits here. Because that guilt always turns to relief when the other person admits to host familial silence. Our communal guilt is a comfort.
I am the ugly duckling, for I have called my host family almost without fail once a month, almost every month, since I returned here in October 2006. I am a rarity. For almost three and a half years, I spend an hour on the phone with a family that suffered, stuffed, angered, adored, and amused me for two years and we, like Volunteers, cycle through the same conversations every single time. It goes like this.
1. They will always express relief that I finally called. I will apologize a lot and say I think of them all of the time (this is true, this is honest.) They will tell me which family member is at the neighbor's. I will say that I just woke up. They will call me lazy for waking up so late, I will agree because it's my eje (mother) and you don't disagree with ejes. They will ask if work is busy and yes, yes, like always, I am busy, I say. Too busy to get married? Yes, yes, eje, too busy to get married. Ah, wai ey, bay bo, etc.
2. And then in the middle of a sentence, they will stop, and declare, "Ok. We are giving the phone to pop now."
3. Pop will get on the phone, yell a lot about how I am, what I am doing, how my health is, and thank you thank thank you. Because that is how you talk with Turkmen men. After I respond, he will tell me how happy he is that I have not forgotten their language. I will remind him that Turkmen is in my heart, that it is my second language to me. And him, in English: "Ahhhhh yesssss. Velly gooood." And then I am given the list of neighbors who ask about me and I give him the same list of people I say hello to. I am wished good health and as I am mid-sentence to wish the very same, he trails off with a "Sank you."
4. The phone is suddenly in someone else's hands. Probably my sister, Gozel, whom I am closest to. 75% of my conversation is with her, about her fears of marriage, her exhaustion from working, and the reasons why I cannot/will not find myself a boyfriend. All of this makes both of us upset.
5. I will talk to another family member and they will remind me of a culturally inappropriate thing I did five years ago that still makes everyone laugh really hard. We all laugh really hard on the phone, as if we were still sitting around the kliyonka in our oturlyan jay.
6. Conversation grows stale, there is a lot of sighing on both end of the phone, many "ey way ey-ey's" and we say goodbye. I promise to call again next month and Gozel and I part with the phrase, "miss you, kiss you, bye."
This is all comfortable and it is all so well-worn. No matter how fearful I am that we will have nothing to talk about, we talk for an hour in a language I haven't spoken on a daily basis in years. I talk about a life they cannot picture, cannot imagine and they recite the news of neighbors whose faces I have long forgotten. I barely even remember the name of people we were all close to. But despite the enormous disconnect between us, I wake on Saturday evenings and log on to a website to retrieve my electronic phone card number, so that I may continue to love the people who provided the best support and love a Volunteer ever could want.
The cultural disconnect, though, is growing, sprouting shoots. There are parts about my life that I cannot speak about, sometimes because I lack the language and other times because I lack the courage. I remember how when I first bought my Nintendo Wii, the first thing I did was create Mii's for all of my host family so that I could, while I played the Wii Sports, see my host family's digitized avatars in the background, cheering for me as I bowled in that strange, virtual world. The following weekend on the phone with them, I tried as best as I could to explain the whole concept of a Nintendo Wii, of avatars, of creating something that looks like you; I became frustrated and disheartened while I tried to explain the process. They listened, confused and bewildered by my Turkmen spiraling outward in larger, more erratic circles, having no idea what I was talking about. I stopped and instead just had to ask about the neighbors.
The most concerning issue for me is regarding my marriage and sexuality.Where I could think of my two years when I was in my early twenties as a test of endurance and excuse-making about why I wasn't married, the exercise is stretching longer than I anticipated and will happen this way for decades. I could very easily tell locals that I was focused on creating a strong career so that I could support a family later and they would nod, yes, yes, so smart, American boys are so smart when it comes to marriage. But what is that excuse now? I am 27, at the edge of acceptable marriage age in Turkmenistan and I have no prospects, no interest in their eyes. How long can I tell them that I am building a life, a career, a home? How much money must I claim I have to save before marriage is an option for me?
I cannot tell them of the times my heart has been broken. I cannot tell them of how my inability to sustain a relationship has caused me depression. I cannot tell them that I am not certain how fit I am for a long term relationship with anyone. That is too personal, that is too uncomfortable to talk about. So instead, I feed the same lines: oh, eje, not now, later, later when I have a stable life. I want a good career. And I will always hear the same quiet and discontented, "Ay, Stevejan."
At my wedding, more than anyone, I would want my host family there. More than my real family, more than my friends. They have wanted the best for me more than almost anyone else I have known. I would even pay for the tickets to have them attend. But they cannot, for obvious reasons, attend a wedding between the son that makes them so proud and another man--this is an uzhis, maskara, kochmar. So I must keep my secret to myself on the phone for an hour, for a lifetime.
But I will always return, I will always call back. Despite the fact that a cultural distance keeps us all at two arms length at all times, I will need the comfort of a foreign family always telling me that it's not the same without me, that they are waiting for me, waiting for me to come back home. And I suppose they are not wrong at all.