Upon landing back in Chicago and venturing out on my weekend with my friends, everything felt normal. It was almost like I had never left. My roommates and I bantered and cheerfully insulted each other like we always do, I ate too much food, and I rode public transit like a professional as I did before I left for Armenia. It was almost like an episode of the Twilight Zone. I had been gone for a year and a half, but everything was almost the same. In such a significant amount of time, I had journeyed through so much of life so quickly that I didn’t even take the time to realize what life continued to be like back in the United States.
Everything felt normal until I walked into the local Walmart in Charleston, Illinois- the town my parents live in in central Illinois. Walmart is a fine line between necessity and excess and obesity. Walls are lined with bags of chips and corresponding dips, aisles of condiments in every flavor and every brand stretched out for at least two football fields. My dad looked at me, “are you okay?”, he asked. “Woah,” I interjected. Overwhelmed and foggy, I replied, “This is weird.” It was odd. I had gone directly from Armenia to Chicago, one of the largest cities in the United States with a population of the entire Republic in which I had been living, and it was this Walmart’s abundance that caught me off guard.
I had been thinking about leaving Armenia since August. I could feel myself getting deeper and deeper into depression as the first part of the school year began. I felt myself struggling to go to classes, disinterested in lesson planning, and I wasn’t investing the time with my students I felt I should have been as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I found solace in practicing yoga, and I was able to maintain a sense of mental neutrality for a few months by ending each day with routine breathing and fluid body movements. Yoga made me feel warm and healthy. Then, once winter hit, and my cement apartment became a refrigerator, it was difficult to get out of my sleeping bag, difficult to leave the embracing warm, loving heat of my electric radiator heater. I was becoming cynical towards my life, and eventually began to despise my surroundings.
People told me while I was leaving that they didn’t know I was so unhappy because I had been able to maintain such positive posts on my social media accounts. The truth is I posted things that truly made me happy. I loved, and I still love, Kapan. Living there was wonderful. I had a great placement for a Peace Corps Volunteer, and my conditions were Versailles compared to what other Volunteers in Armenia experience. What I posted online was to show the world what I loved about Armenia and to show myself that even though I was feeling dark inside there were still beautiful things to share with the world about the situation in which I was living. However, when I wasn’t happy with a great placement, with a wonderful counterpart, and excellent students, I knew I had to begin to seriously consider the changes I could make with myself in order to continue service or make the ultimate decision to leave.
What I considered:
I know I love children. I love seeing their eyes question the world and think about the encounters they are having with people. I love seeing them act like little adults and seeing their irrational decisions make so much sense to them in their young state.
Simultaneously, I learned that I may not be cut out with working with young children. I accrued so much more patience in life while living abroad, but I don’t think I’ll ever have enough patience to try to teach a classroom of 32 ten year olds in their third language. That sh*t’s hard. I also began to experience extreme compassion fatigue working with children. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you want to see your children succeed and make changes while feeling purpose living in your community. When the calendar months become fewer, and the time to leave approaches, sometimes you don’t necessarily see those changes you had hoped to experience while working with your students. I want the best for all of my students, but with time, it is hard to not see the writing on the wall to the kind of lives some of them may live due to the conditions in which they live culturally, politically, and geographically. A common phrase with Peace Corps is that you are “planting the seeds for a tree’s shade you won’t get to sit under”. That couldn’t be more close to the truth. As Peace Corps Volunteers, all you can do is provide an image of opportunity and then hope that it clicks with some students and someday they can use the knowledge you shared with them to provide opportunities for themselves.
I also eventually began to feel extreme amounts of guilt. As an American in an underdeveloped country you are bombarded with questions about how to get visas to the US, how to get green cards, how to get jobs in “America”. “I don’t know…”, I would reply. “I didn’t even know there was a green card lottery until a year ago. You probably know more about it than me.” In this political climate, I also found it hard to tell people they should try to go to the US. “Try Canada, or the EU, people there are nicer than in the US right now.” There I was, trying to represent the United States and its values when I wasn’t (and am still not) even sure about them myself. I met people trying so hard to make ends meet every day, and I knew that I had a ride back to the “land of the free and home of the brave” whenever I wanted it. It brought me to tears one night while talking to a friend. “Why can I not survive here? Why must Armenians work so hard and maintain their positive mentality when everything is working against them? What is wrong with me that I am so unhappy?” Walking through Walmart, I realized I took much of Armenia’s simplicity for granted.
So, when it came down to it, I realized I needed to separate myself. I had dug myself so deep in emotional and mental despair that the only way I could leave Armenia positively was by leaving early. I wanted to leave my service at a high point. I wanted to leave knowing that I would be leaving Armenia as a place that I could continue to look positively on; I wanted to leave knowing it was a place I wanted to return to. I deserve that; Armenia deserves that. Armenia deserves the best because it is a beautiful country with good people, but I couldn’t provide them with the service I had committed to, so I knew I had to leave.
I leave knowing this:
Armenian women are so wonderful and loving. Through adversity, they make it all work somehow. They are those who are affected most by war. They raise sons they know they must one day send away to a conflict zone, yet they keep such strong faces in situations that would leave most emotionally devastated. Their intuition is divine. They are the safe havens for many Volunteers I have worked with when they have felt unsafe and alone. They are loving and open and sharing and their humor is unique and incomparable.
Armenian children are not the best behaved, but they are so willing to be kind and to learn. They are good humored, they have yet to be corrupted by much of the political strain that umbrellas their country, so they look at the world with bright eyes. They are loving, and they see beauty in their environments. Even though it was frustrating sometimes, it was such an honor working with them. They taught me more than I could ever have taught them.
I know that Peace Corps Volunteers in Armenia do the best developmental work than any other organization in the region. These Volunteers put themselves in situations many diaspora Armenians wouldn’t even consider living in, yet they do it with love, they do it with patience. They struggle, yes, but they persevere. They’re frustrated, yes, but they overcome. They have grown to love the country they continue to live in for the little joys. I look at all of them and I say thank you for your service. You are doing wonderful work, and I am so proud of you.
I am grateful for Peace Corps Armenia and the opportunities it provided me, but I am also glad to be back in my comfort zone for a while. I am happy I got on the plane, I am happy I stayed for 18 months, I am happy that I was able to touch lives and my life was able to be touched, but when you know- you know. You know?