Just when I thought things were looking up, they pull the rug out from under us and now give us two languages to learn. Essentially, spoken Egyptian and written Modern Standard Arabic (for reading). And then they hit us with triple the normal vocabulary and too many grammar rules and far too little English for me to feel comfortable. I’m that person in class, you know the one. That one person who drags everyone else down because I’m not up to speed. I just keep looking for the lightswitch and I can’t seem to find it. My biggest fear when I accepted this job and what I watched play out in A-100 is feeling substandard to my colleagues. And the hard reality is I might not be able to shine in a management GSO job for another 4-6 years. I sure hope I can find some confidence in the next few days. But in good news, my Twi and German are making a wonderfully swift comeback and improving by the day!
Phase One is almost over. I had some great moments and not so great freakouts. The learning curve was pretty steep, but I think I really like Arabic. For now. Hands down the most entertaining part of class so far has been learning words that sound like terms we use in Oklahoma that are highly inappropriate to be saying at work. I honestly feel like a kindergartner again, not just the learning a new language and script, but my complete inability to keep it together when a select few words are uttered.
1. Her brother. It sounds like whoo-ha to my ear. In Arabic, you might translate a sentence and say: “her brother is nice.” In Oklahoma, if you say “her whoo-ha is nice” you best be getting your mouth washed out or a slap across the face.
2. I was. It rhymes with blunt and is a not so nice thing to call a lady. So needless to say, I die laughing every time someone nonchalantly uses it in a sentence.
3. Only. Fuck it. There’s no other way to put it, simply sounds exactly like fuck it. On a scale of one to even, I just can’t.
I sit in class giggling like a little girl, because apparently I grew up in a barn. Maybe Arabic has taken over the part of my brain that also controls baseline maturity. I can’t help but laugh and my teachers can’t keep it together now either. I try using it in a sentence with a straight face and my teachers start snickering. It’s rather great actually, why? Because, I’m having a good time. I’d rather be laughing as opposed to crying. I’ll take immature giggles any day of the week. At least I’m getting an ab workout.
Next week, our class changes again and we move on to full Egyptian. All Egyptian all the time. I’m just excited that I’m starting to get the humour. Take this short skit for example. The guy says one thing the entire time – do you want to drink tea?
Missing: motivation, soul, and pep. If found, please return.
It feels like someone has usurped my soul and I’ve been left with a shell. I don’t feel like myself. I know exactly who the culprit is: language studies. More precisely: the combination of not knowing what I’m supposed to be doing, coupled with not understanding the grand scheme, and not knowing how to study. I feel lost and confused. I take one step forward and three steps back.
Full time language study makes me feel like a zombie. I’m tired, brain dead, and always hungry. I couldn’t stop crying for two hours this morning. It’s embarrassing, unprofessional, and a waste of time. But it was all I could do today. I just lost it. If there is one thing I can’t stand it is feeling inadequate. I’m not afraid of making mistakes, but it is the constant barrage of mini-failures that just wears me down. I sit in class defeated and unable to muster the energy to put my heart into the exercise. But the problem is these feelings come in waves. Sometimes I feel great about class, but the last two days have been brutal. My brain knows that half the words we are learning aren’t used in Egypt, so it filters them out. But then I’m expected in class to know the vocab. Once I hit the slippery slope of defeated though, the day is shot. There are no gold stars or measures of success, because language is like the universe – constantly expanding and no one knows where the end is, if there is one. Even in those brief success moments, you know that right around the corner is a new set of vocab or a new grammar rule.
I pride myself on my positive attitude and ability to look on the bright side of things, but I’m having a hard time even finding the energy to be grateful. I really do feel like my pep has been stolen. I hope that it finds its way home soon, because 8 months is a long time. It’s one of those moments when I really wish I just had my dog. I hate sounding whiny and pessimistic, but I feel like this is part of the culture cycle. I’m finally hitting that point where everything isn’t rosy anymore.
Gave a five minute impromptu presentation for my supervisor today. Felt crappy in the afternoon, but make me perform under pressure and it is like magic. I spoke in Arabic with only a few English notes (such as, “my family lives”) and a couple Arabic ones. It is so hard to remember the word for Germany in Arabic. And I did it! I’m reading and speaking. And it is awesome. Now if only I felt healthy enough to celebrate.
I grew up consolidating words, drawing out vowels, and being a little backwards. So naturally, Arabic is a wonderful fit! We had a wonderful word in Oklahoma that really reminds me of Arabic: d’ge’t. Did you eat (yet)? In Arabic, not all the vowels are written and ‘to be’ is implied. Let me get one thing straight though – this is hard. Am I enjoying it? Yes! Does my brain hurt? Yep. Is it fun? Actually, yes. Do I need a nap at every hour of every day? Oh hell yes.
I am sure there are plenty of studies out there evaluating how we learn new languages. But, ain’t nobody got time for that. So let me just tell you what it feels like. Imagine yourself walking into a pitch black room. What’s the first thing you try to do? Look for a light switch. You feel around for a switch and finally find something against the wall. You’ve never been in this room before, so you have no earthly idea how big it is or if it is even multiple rooms. You flip the switch and a very dim light turns on. It’s only enough light to illuminate a small portion of the room and the light is flickering. You stumble over to something that look familiar and feel around for something that might possibly provide more light. When you find nothing, you try to look around and get your bearings. Where am I? What do I need to do? Why am I here? In the faint light you see a door on another wall, you walk slowly and like a zombie towards the door. You test the handle to make sure it works. It’s locked. You go back and look for a key. It isn’t on the desk in the middle of the room, so you go back to the door and kick it. Why? Because that always seems like a good idea. The door doesn’t budge, you stub your toe, you curse profusely, but after you finish your pouting, you feel something that has fallen on the floor. It is the key. It fell from the top of the doorframe when you kicked it. You unlock the door, go through it and find another dark room. This time the light turns on and it is brighter. You can see more things and the room sorta makes sense now. You still have no clue what you are supposed to be doing in this house/room, but at least now you know where the light switch is.
Often times, you’ll see language students walking around like this:
It’s because our mental energy is completely drained by trying to figure out what we are doing in this pitch black house. After a while, things start to make sense, they start to click. It takes a while, it is frustrating and it is often hazy. But gradually, it gets better. Then you finally feel like you are making progress and you have to take on even more challenges. When I come out of class, after a particularly difficult and long day, I almost feel drunk. It is as if my motor skills no longer function and I can’t even walk straight. And it hurts. My brain can only handle so much at one time. Interestingly enough though, after a day of Arabic, my German comes back to me. My English is shot, but my German is fantastic! Clearly one part of our brain stores away foreign languages and once that drawer is open, all the files come spilling out.
It’s only day two and I’ve already found myself crying in the bathroom. No scratch that, I ran from the room crying. Is it really that bad? No. I just have a trifecta of crap going on, in addition to the learning a new language. I was sick last week and somehow the soothing tones of Arabic made my cold come back for round two. Add on top of that being calorie restricted – I want those damn boots! Then let’s throw on top of this pile an upset stomach from something I ate either this morning or yesterday. Cold, diet, and stomach problems. Oh, and because of my cold I can barely hear anything out of my left ear.
Three hours of Arabic into the morning and it’s still barely 10:00am. My brain felt like mush, my stomach was rumbling and gurgling, my nose was not having it, and suddenly I felt light-headed. I looked at my page of unfamiliar vocabulary words and all these new letters and it all looked like gobbledegook.
And that’s when the tears started. Everything was spinning and the only thing I could think of was to announce my sudden and running departure to the bathroom. What I really wanted was my couch at home with a giant bowl of soup and my blanket. After a few minutes of trying to stop everything from spinning, my female teacher came into the bathroom to check on me. She told me it’s okay to be overwhelmed. And I thought to myself “oh good, I’m not abnormal, but here have some tears.” She assured me that I’m doing a great job for day two, and it is only day two. I don’t have to know everything yet. She must be a fantastic mom, because it was definitely a mom pep talk. I called mine quickly after class for another round of mom talk.
I think back to my first moments in Ghana when I plopped down my bags at my training host family’s house. The door closed behind me with a screech and a bang and I was all alone. It all sank in that this was the start of my next two years, in a developing country. I sat on the edge of my beat up foam mattress and cried. I just cried. I did the same when I moved to my first site. When reality sinks in and the pretty patina wears off, that’s when I break down. It’s only for a bit, but I just need to get it out of my system.
Now if only this cold would get out of my system, maybe I could be a fully functional adult. Here’s to 8 months of brain mush and seeing the world from right to left.
Today marks the 53rd anniversary of Peace Corps in Ghana. Ghana was the first country to receive Volunteers. President Mahama shared some moving remarks about how Peace Corps impacted him:
When I think of the things I accomplished (and failed at) during my service, it pales in comparison to the impact the experience had on me.