The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Monday, July 19

More than Language

Recently, I attended Peace Corps Summer Language Camp. It’s a chance to work intensively on language development. It can be either an albatross of frustration or golden opportunity depending on how you look upon it.

I try to be positive. Every day we’re immersed in the Russian language either attending classes or playing camp games. I marvel at the language expertise of some younger volunteers. They speak with a fluency that I can hardly imagine for myself. Often I do not know what is being said, but I keep trying. And sometimes, I surprise myself. I actually catch on to more than I ever thought possible.

I say to my classmates, “In Konotop, I am known as nominative case Jud. Everything I say is in the nominative case.” They laugh and smile when I say, “I have decided to make a change and take on noun endings.”

In Russian there are 6 noun cases with different endings for masculine, feminine and neuter. It gets more expansive. Each one can have as many as 4 variants. Do the math. That’s 6 x 3 x 4 = 72 endings. Repeat for plural forms. So deciding to take on noun endings is no trifle and speaking them can be daunting.
Wonderfully, I get lots of support from other volunteers. These gatherings bring us together. One of the best parts of my PC experience has been the chance to know energetic and dedicated younger people. We get to share many conversations.

I’m walking history. I tell them about the Viet Nam War and the Marches on Washington in 1968 and 1969. We all puzzle at why so many died and for what. Now Viet Nam has become a tourist destination. The government is still communist and the dominoes are still standing.
They talk about their generation’s war in Afghanistan, terrorism, human rights, alleviating poverty, the environment and more. I realize that they will be involved in many forms of public service. In a small ways, I try to encourage. But mostly, I delight in knowing that peace and justice ideals live on.

As the week progresses, I decide to take a language proficiency test known as an LPI.
For about 20 minutes I sit with a language instructor who asks me questions. I am able to respond and only miss one question. I am communicating in a language whose alphabet seemed impossible just a year ago.

I score intermediate low. It’s the same as I received after training a year ago. I think, “At least I did not fall backwards.” Even more, I now I feel like it’s a more solid score than before. I am actually encouraged.
Camp comes to an end. I say goodbye to friends and set off for the Train Station and a real-life language experience. As you know from reading my Blog, the Train Station can be a language and cultural challenge if not nightmare.

Heading the challenge list are the ticket agents. They are notorious for their attitude. Even Ukrainians complain about them.

“Please repeat,” I ask and I get a louder and faster response. It is not helpful. As I try my best to understand, from behind others crowd in. A lady is lurking over my shoulder adding here comments to my situation. It’s not unusual to have someone literally in your face – inches away.

Ukrainians and Americans have different needs for private space. Maybe the years of families doubling or tripling or quadrupling in small living spaces has altered their need for privacy and distance. Or maybe because Americans live in an expansive country, we expect more space. All I know, it’s unsettling. I leave the ticket counter to regroup for another try.

This time I am in a more buoyant and prepared mood. Although a lady behind me crowds in again, I am able to get, not only one ticket, but two for my connection. It’s a language and cultural victory.

Outside, there are five different platforms for departing trains. There is no posting of train arrivals and departures. Only loud speakers are gargling in Russian. It’s impossible. I decide to try a new strategy.

“Can you tell me what platform for the train to Neegan,” I say to an older looking couple. They do not know, but promise to tell me when the announcement is made.

I say, “Thank you so much. I only speak a little Russian.” They smile and say that I am doing very well. I continue, “I am a Peace Corps Volunteer in Konotop. I work with disabled children.” They ask me how long and I tell them for two years. A new friendship begins.

As departure time arrives, there is some confusion about which side of the train to board. The crowd surges to the left side. My new friends assure me that it will be on the right side and there is no need to move. They have taken me under their protective care.

But then, they decide that maybe they are wrong and they begin to usher me forward. Of course we are speaking some Russian in the midst of this confusion and I am only catching a part of it. Just then a young woman steps forward and offers her assistance in ENGLISH!!

Inside, we all sit together and begin a little conversation. I speak Russian and when my vocabulary fails, the young woman serves as translator. Others are drawn into our conversation. Stoic public faces that are typical of Ukrainian people get a hint of good humor. People are smiling at this American guest on the 3rd class Electrishka (electric train and least expensive way to travel) who’s going to Konotop.

As we wait, vendors are moving up and down the aisles. On an Electrishka, you can buy lots of things from socks to fly paper to food. My new friends say, “Here the bazaar comes to you.” We all laugh together and continue our conversation.

A young man, who is selling buns stuffed with cheesy potatoes, steps forward. He insists that I take one, but I decline. He insists more. I try to pay, but no. He will not take payment.
“It’s my gift to you,” he smiles.

The woman next to me says, “He is my brother.” When I say “your brother” using Russian, she corrects me. “No, brother in Jesus.” I say that I understand and with a smile she says, “Amen.”

A scene from Feeding the 5000 flashes across my mental screen. I try to share the bun, but a Babushka across the aisle tells me to save it for later. “You will be hungry.” Others agree and refuse my offer with much kindness. The train feels like a car load of friends.

It is interesting how reaching out is often met with kindness. I guess small kindnesses are contagious in any language. It's wonderful.

But then I get to thinking, why do we too often retreat and hold back when reaching out and helping one another can be so much more fun?

You can learn a lot more than language at Summer Camp.

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