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Friday, December 30, 2011

Before I Go...

It’s hard to believe, but I am merely days away from entering a country I’ve never been to before – Rwanda. It was almost a year and a half ago that I applied for a Fulbright grant to teach English in Rwanda and it was over 7 months ago that I found out I got the grant and then (after a long thought process) accepted it. Since that time, it’s always seemed so far away. “I have plenty of time to get ready – that’s in the future.” I’ve adapted that mentality so well that it was only very recently that I convinced myself that it is no longer the future but the present.

Before I actually leave, I thought I’d give a little background in the form of an FAQ. These are actual frequently asked questions, in rough order of popularity.

Why Rwanda? Since I visited Uganda in 2009, I have had Rwanda on my “to visit” list. At that time, I heard stories or Rwanda’s beauty, peace, and cleanliness. They also drive on the right side of the road which is a perk for people like me who have trouble adjusting – even crossing the street can be tricky. Since my first visit to East Africa, I knew I would be back. The region has that kind of effect. Yes, I applied specifically for Rwanda.

Isn’t there a genocide there? There was a genocide in 1994. It lasted approximately 100 days. Rwanda is now in a period of reconciliation. The conflict has ended and the country is peaceful today, but the effects are still present in various ways that I hope to learn more about.

What will you do and where will you live? I will be an “English Teaching Assistant”(ETA) at a university called ISAE (The Higher Institute of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry; ISAE for its French translation) and will live on its campus.

What language is spoken? The official languages are Kinyarwanda, French, and English. In 2009, it became mandated that English replace French as the language of instruction in schools and universities, making this an interesting time to teach English there.

How are the hotels? This isn’t really frequent, but it has definitely been asked.

I hope to use this blog to:
a. Shed light on what I hear is a beautiful and noteworthy country. Disturbing images of Hotel Rwanda (referenced above if that wasn’t clear) are very salient in many minds, and while these are important images, I hope to show something beyond that.
b. Share my own experience through stories and hopefully pictures.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Some Final Thoughts on Oman

I have not written in this blog for eight and a half months and in that time a great deal has happened. In brief form:

1. I went home to New York for my sister Sarah’s college graduation.
2. I returned to Oman and resumed teaching the summer portion of the program.
3. My job ended and I had the chance to really enjoy Oman for a month. This included a trip to Salalah in the south part of Oman – a place which, since I first stepped foot on Omani soil, had been described to me as the most heavenly place on earth.
4. I returned to the USA and resumed a job as a research assistant at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.
5. I began packing for my next venture to Rwanda.

I did not want to begin blogging about Rwanda before bringing proper closure to my time in Oman. At the time of my last post, I was feeling a sense of not fitting in. I guess this was the closest I got to homesickness. The good news is that the feeling was fleeting. The truth is that by the end of my time in Oman, I felt right at home. Words cannot say I grateful I am for the time I spent in Oman. I loved my job and loved the people I met there. This includes my Omani family, my students, and my friends from Oman and all around the world. Since returning, I have subjected many to my musings about the good qualities of Oman. Luckily, recent news has made this job easy. I don’t know if my eyes are just more open to it, but I have been shocked at how many positive lists Oman (specifically, Muscat) has shown up on since I’ve returned home. Here is a smattering:

Lonely Planet Best Cities to Visit in 2012 (#2):

Mercer Quality of Living Report (Personal Safety Rankings) (#29):

Conde Naste Best Hotels for Honeymoons (The Chedi):

In this spirit, I thought I'd recall an old Nicholas Kristof article that initially helped convince me to go there in the first place:

It was interesting to see how many people from the USA and elsewhere were coming to visit Oman having lived there before. I was told that once to go, you always return. I can say confidently I will be one of those people. I thought about staying in Oman another year but decided instead upon the opportunity to go to Rwanda. I can only hope I will leave Rwanda with the same sense of fulfillment. First I need to focus on getting there. More on that to follow…

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Back and Forth

Over the past 3 1/2 months, I have become totally absorbed in Omani family life. This has involved an interesting progression of emotions.

I started off ecstatic to have the opportunity to see Omani life from the inside. I felt (and still feel, don’t get me wrong) so lucky to tread in territory that is often off-limits to expats. I had a goal when I arrived in Oman to attend an Omani wedding… I got more than I bargained for! I have been to two weddings but that’s not all. Family gatherings, barbecues, engagement parties, trips to get henna, and more.

It was amazing to see all this, but after a few weeks of constant Omani events, something hit me. I started to become almost painfully aware of my differences. It is not easy to blend in in Oman. I can sum it up this way: If traveling to Uganda taught me to recognize similarities across cultures, traveling to Oman has made me very aware of dfferences. I don’t mean this is a negative way. There are certainly many similarities between me and the people I am close to here, but these similarities were expected. Maybe I didn’t anticipate so many differences – that’s why they stand out.

Obviously I am not a family member, I don’t know all the customs, and I don’t speak the language. But oddly enough, what I find myself thinking about the most is the fact that my dress is different. Even if I am given an Omani dress to wear, I still don’t feel as though I am blending in. In fact, that makes me stand out even more because everyone gets a good kick out of seeing the American girl wearing Omani dress. After the initial excitement of seeing Omani life, but when I was still pretty new here, I started to really feel like a “tagalong” all the time. No matter what people were actually thinking or saying, I would always hear something like, “Who is this strange person you brought to the party and why is she wearing pants?” (I wore pants rather than a skirt to the first family party I attended and never did it again.)

I think no matter what I was bound to get over this paranoia as I got more familiar with individual family members and they got used to seeing me. Nevertheless, one big change gave a boost to this transformation of thought. The change was: I rented a car! Everyone has places to go and things to do but few people (i.e. the men) drive. [Side note: A great deal of women in Oman do drive; a woman driver is not remarkable. But this is the trend in this particular family.] So with my rental car, I suddenly carved out a niche for myself within the family. Need to go food shopping? Done. KFC for dinner? Done. Need to go somewhere for henna? I’ll be there at 8. For one thing, I could contribute something to the people who have done so much for me. More importantly, I got over the tagalong complex. Now when the someone plans a small visit to the home of a family member (a mother, sister, etc.) with me as the driver, I feel like more than a tagalong; I feel like an integral part of the plan. If I don't go, no one goes! (haha)

Nevertheless, there are still times when I feel like an outsider. I think it is inevitable, especially around the 3 and now 4 month mark of being away from home. I feel that am alternating between feeling like I am fitting in and not fitting in, seeing all my similarities and then all my differences. Overall, though, it is a good balance. I still can’t envision a better experience in Oman!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Hello Again!

I realize I have taken quite a long break from posting. I apologize for that. So much has happened since I last wrote that I don’t know where to begin. I get the ball rolling by posting this link to another blog:

This "Sohar Access" blog is intended to update any people involved with the program about the activities taking place in Sohar.

Enjoy the pictures and videos!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

One home with a family on the side, please

In a previous post I alluded that finding a place to call home was a bit of a challenge. Now here I am, writing from my new flat in the outskirts of Sohar where I cannot believe my good fortune.

About a month ago, the principal of my school helped me locate a one-bedroom flat on the compound of a big Omani extended family. After weeks spent planning my move and tackling layers of dirt during the day, I ventured to spend my first night. After coming home that first evening, I was not really sure what to do with myself. As I sat counting spiders and wondering whether I should have considered this problem before deciding to rent the place, I got a knock at the door. It was a few ladies who wanted to say hi. They didn’t speak English but I did my best to greet them kindly. A few minutes later, another knock on the door. It was more ladies, and now some kids. I invited them in, but it was obvious that my little living room and tiny couch was not appropriate for this occasion, so I was invited one of the homes where I got my first taste of the real life of a traditional Omani family.

The ladies are all sisters-in-law. I rent the apartment from their husbands’ father. There are a bunch of kids ranging from 1 to 8. They spend the nights hanging out, talking, and watching TV until 11 or 12 while the men of the family work. (But if the men are not working for some reason, they will hang out, too.) What a tight-knit and affectionate group they are!

The next day, I assumed I was on my own for lunch. About one minute after carefully preparing my specialty – the tuna fish sandwich, – 8-year-old Ahmed appeared at my door with a plate of rice and meat. Ahmed’s mother in particular has taken me under her wing. Now I have lunch sent to me each day and a permanent invitation to her home for dinner. I won’t try to deny I am spoiled. The feel of Oman as changed. Now I have gotten a sense of tradition at a family party where I joined in the ladies’ activities, had some pretty henna done on my hands (which lasted a week), am becoming a pro at eating rice with my hands, and learning to blend in more fashion-wise. I wore a dress today that was given to me by an Omani girl and as soon as I walked into the classroom, I was told that I “became beautiful today.” (“I just became beautiful today, Halima?”)

I like to travel to get a feel for the culture and everyday life in a new place. Up until now, this has proven difficult in Oman. Omani life mostly happens inside the home. If you don’t live in an Omani home, it’s hard to truly know what Omani life is. I believe this is why the expat social network is so strong in Oman (and I have met some incredible expats in Sohar). I am very grateful for the expats I have met, but I would be dissapointed to leave without an Omani network, too. I know people who have lived here for years and have barely interacted with Omanis on a personal level. I have unwittingly found my invitation to “inside”, though, and I am very grateful! The spiders are a small price to pay.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Being a Teacher

I haven’t writen in a while and during the hiatus, I’ve taught 3 ½ weeks of English classes with a weeklong break in the middle. I teach boys on Saturday and Monday evenings and girls on Sunday and Tuesday evenings (and I don’t plan on ever getting used to this work week). Each class lasts 3 hours… a long time to keep 14 year olds focused. Each class has 20 students and each student has received a scholarship (funded by the US State Department) to be in the progam.

Everyone anticipated a difference in the ability of the boys and girls and this difference really does exist. The girls soar far ahead of the boys! I can speculate a few social causes for this difference but maybe that is beyond the scope of this particular blog post. For now, I will stick to my own experience:

Working with the girls is legitimately fun. I always leave with some pep in my step after making it through a whole lesson plan, successfully testing complex new games (crowd favorite = alibi), and actually getting giggles after stupid jokes. When I feel like entertaining myself, I give the girls a writing assignment. Once, I had them shout 10 interesting words or people and then create funny stories using 5 of those words. Spongebob, Harry Potter, and Tom Cruise were among the list. A surprising addition was “emo.” I didn’t think I heard correctly, so I asked them to describe the word. “You know, Teacher, in your country, there are some people who dress in all black…” Here is what one group came up with:

And here is another describing a picture I dug up of Doug (Funny… remember that show?) and his family (I thought these zany characters would be a good springboard for descripive words….):

I usually leave the boys’ classroom with a distinctly different feeling. I learned the boys’ names more quickly than the girls’ and I think one reason is that every minute (or maybe five if I’m lucky), I have the opportunity to shout a chatty person’s name, sometimes repeatedly. As any teacher should know, repetiton is good for memorization. The boys are not actually bad kids – just following their 14-year-old boy instincts, I think. Plus, a lack of English skills makes it understandably difficult to follow instructions from an English-speaking teacher. But behavior has gotten better with time and warnings. The main lesson I have learned is to count things and keep records. All I need to do is write a person’s name on the board with a “+1” and all of a sudden everyone wants to impress me to get his “+1.” For now, I think it’s better if I don’t tell them that the points don’t count for anything.

So all in all, I am really enjoying teaching, despite its expected challenges. On another positive note, the students have a one-week break at the end of January to study for exams, so I have a break too. Another Access instructor and I booked a trip to Cairo in Egypt! Can’t wait!