Language Blues

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.

And…go

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 was made for this…

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.

How do you like your brains? Scrambled?

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.

It’s not about teaching, it’s about sharing

And a body to boot

Okay, it might be the corniest name, but the concept is solid. My colleague/friend/A-100 classmate/co-conspirator came up with a brilliant idea today while we were shopping in Georgetown. I refer to it as “and a body to boot” but I’m pretty sure it will just become the FSO fit challenge. The concept weaves together everything a good Foreign Service Officer possesses:

1. Competition
2. Drive
3. Goals
4. Extra weight
5. Never enough of something

In this case, we don’t have enough boots. In my case, I only have my cowboy boots. Winter is coming and all my boots are in storage. It costs less to buy new ones than to trek to the storage unit and pay to get them out.  My friend and I have been talking for a while about our need to get in shape. Training has made us into whimpy noodles who indulge in ethnic food too much. And you know what DC is great for just that. But I’m not about to waltz into winter with an extra 10 lbs hanging around my hips when I know full well cookies and pumpkin pie and soup are in my future. Plus I need to form good habits, I’ve been back in America long enough now, blah blah blah: lose weight you fatty! So the and a body to boot challenge was born! Full credit goes to my partner in crime and her devious ways to get me to do things I know I should do, but don’t wanna.

So what’s the scoop?

We both set fitness goals for the next month. We have a hard objective which we should accomplish in the next 30 days. For me I want to lose 7 lbs. I know a few of those pounds are just water, so I want to get back to my weight pre-A-100. Yes, I put on that much weight during 6 weeks. Gah, don’t remind me. It’s a realistic, but tough goal and I’m bound and determined to meet it. Why?

Because here’s the catch – if I reach my goal my friend will buy me new boots. If she reaches her goal, I buy her new boots. If she reaches her goal and I don’t, then I still need new boots and have to pay for hers. So there is not only a double incentive, but my pride is on the line! Plus, I just want new boots.

Doom and Gloom to It All Goes Boom!

Area Studies is over! Yay! In the end, I actually did learn something, but boy did I fight it.  The combination of doom and gloom, long lectures, and knowledge assumptions made it very difficult for me to learn. I think the people who got the most from this class already had most of the knowledge. A few of us thought there should have been an “Intro to the Intro” course. I survived, but not without a few mental scars.

I discovered something very interesting in this class though. This was my first time being in an interagency setting. We had folks from all over the alphabet soup of agencies ranging from DOD to DOA and lots more in between. Oddly enough, one of the DOD guys commented that State folks always call our coworkers colleagues. I didn’t realize that was a thing, but I say it all the time and hear it around every corner now. DOD always asked straight forward questions, while State would circle around a question and then finally just give a statement, instead of asking something. And most of us have only been at State for 8 weeks! Talk about really great indoctrination. So, let me preface the next part of this story with my own background. I’m half German and I grew up with Air Force parents. Time management is my thing. I dealt with it in Ghana, because that’s the culture. But here in the U.S. I expect things to be efficient and operate on a schedule. And when they don’t I fall back into my very German ways and get indignant.

For the past two weeks, our sessions have been going long and cutting into breaks or lunch. Today, our last day of class we found out that our lunch would be cut short by 15 minutes. Okay, fine, expectations managed. But don’t try cutting it down any further, mmmkay? This girl needs a mental break to process the information firehose. So before lunch we had 6 rounds of class debate about controversial topics in our region, which let me say coming up with the topics was not much of a struggle for the Near/Middle East. After the second formal debate, we got into the weeds pretty deep with a specific topic. A topic that we could talk about until we are blue in the face, but nothing we say or do is going to change the current situation. 30 minutes have been devoted to this topic out of a one hour session, and four groups still need to present and debate. My German side starts getting time anxiety. So I speak up and suggest we move on to the next topic since we are running short of time. And then something funny happened. Half my colleagues at State look at me like a traitor and everyone from DOD starts clapping for me. In my mind, I can see someone writing my yearly review and remarking ” needs improvement on undoing time management skills.” I remarked to one of my State colleagues that I’m looking forward to being a control officer (the person that herds VIPs when they come to post) and they just said “you’re going to get fired.” I just looked dumbfounded. But, but…I thought schedules were coveted! It was interesting to see the dynamic between the agencies play out and our own stereotypes rise to the surface. DOD loves their time and schedules, but State seems more willing to just talk about it. State needs to find the right words, with the least amount of negative connotations that will be politically correct and still get our point across. Some of the other agencies, were about direct communication or speaking in vague hypotheticals. We talked a lot about turf and equity in the interagency process during A-100, but we didn’t really touch on personalities. It was so fun to see them all come out during this class.

So my discovery? I need to be the GSO in Germany, that motor pool would run so efficiently, time would even tip its hat. Today’s incident made a few things clear to me:

1. My biggest pet peeve is beating a dead horse.
2. I love concise, except when it comes to writing blogs.
3. I’m going to be great at the interagency!