The Power of Community

I try not to worry about safety in this country.

This may sound gravely irresponsible, but I am a worrier by nature. Too often the “what ifs” and “what could bes” consumed me, until I’d exhausted all possible courses of action I would take if ever they were to occur. Many times I deal with uncontrollable events by “forgetting” they can happen, “convincing” myself that I won’t be a victim, even though deep down inside I know that I’m not invincible.

Childish as it may sound, feigned ignorance gave me the courage to walk through the treacherous streets of North West DC at all hours during my 4 years of undergrad; in spite of the fact that my roommate had been held at gun point, and our neighbors had been robbed. But that was my life in DC.

Here in Moldova, no matter how hard I try to “forget” about the dangers of living abroad or being a foreigner in a village, I am reminded to never get too comfortable. For example: today, while walking around Chisinau (the capital), this toothless man stopped me and my friend on the street to tell us how beautiful we were. He then turns to me and tells me that I’m the most beautiful woman in Moldova, and he wouldn’t let us walk away until he could kiss my hand.

Roughly two hours later while riding the bus home, an elderly man sat down next to me on the bus. He leaned in close.  His breath wreaked of alcohol, and he said something I couldn’t understand. He then motioned for me to take my head phones off and tried to take them off for me when I was reluctant to do so. Then, he informed me that he and I were going to go into Chisinau together because I have “beautiful legs”. I turned my head away in an effort to ignore him but when he subtly attempted to touch my leg, I brush him away just as these two women got involved in a loud argument, which became a distraction for everyone. Divine Intervention!

Once I was off the bus, the brief encounter I had with both men weighed heavily on my mind. The fact is. I don’t blend in, which makes me an easy target, easy to track, and an object of fascination. Denying the reality of my situation doesn’t make it any less true, and it certainly doesn’t make me any safer.

What does make me safer is the concern and support of my community.

Last week I moved out of my host mom’s house, so I currently live alone. However, the owners of the house went through great lengths to ensure that every light switch worked, all the bulbs had been replaced, the locks were tight, my windows were covered with paper, my land line worked,  etc… It was blatantly obvious that they wanted to ensure that I felt comfortable in my new home. They even purchased me chocolate, champagne and bread as welcoming gifts! Right as they were about to leave,  my new host dad/owner of the house pulls me aside.

Host Dad: Laquia, you aren’t afraid of being here by yourself?

Me: No! I’m really excited!

Host Dad: (Slightly confused by my reaction) I’m going to buy more paper to better cover the windows in your room. People can see your silhouette.

Me : (staring at the window) Okay. That sounds good.

Host Dad: And the windows in the kitchen too. Are you sure you aren’t afraid?

Me: No, I’m not afraid.

My host dad then proceeds to ask me my age and is disappointed when he finds out that I am so young. He then goes into great detail about how important it is to befriend my neighbors and not to make enemies. He also ensures me that he knows EVERYONE in the community and to call him if I need anything.  Later that evening, he called to check up on me before bed and also called me the next day to make sure that my first night went well! Surprisingly, I received 4 different phone calls from different people (all before 11am) concerning my safety and well being in the new house.

It didn’t end with the phone calls.  A cleaning woman from the school stopped by every day last week to “work” in my garden, although it didn’t need work done to it. Also, my host dad stopped by two days after I moved in to check in on me. Almost every day last week,  the school director dutifully grilled me on the whereabouts of my new home. She even asked me if I had a bed to sleep on, which I found to be amusing!

I can’t pretend like I didn’t get slightly annoyed. After all, I moved on my own to have more privacy not less, but the truth is, having others look out for me can never be a bad thing. Even when I am in denial about how safe or unsafe I may be, there are people in my corner who aren’t pretending, forgetting, or being irresponsibly negligent. I know that the power of community will keep me safe, even when I don’t do a good job of doing it myself.

To be honest, that’s more than I ever had walking the scary streets of DC.


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Where Are the Fathers?

The love,  respect and pride that I have for my family isn’t a secret I harbor. They are the strength that I wrap myself in every day, as I go out in the world doing whatever I want, saying whatever I want, believing I am capable of whatever it is I choose. Furthermore, the special relationships I have with my father is evident through the stories I tell about things he has said, advice he has given, stories he once told me, what he believes in, what he hates…And on…And on… Again, the love for the patriarch in my family is no secret.

So this week, when my partners and I taught our lecture on Family Life to our 5th and 6th grade classes, I was genuinely enthusiastic. I wanted to learn more about who my students were and where they came from. This particular lesson was less lecture based and more analysis based. The goal was for students to be more introspective and examine the relationships they had within their family.

In one of our activities, the students had to answer the following questions in detail:

  1. Who do you consider members of your family?
  2. Who do you spend the most time with in your family? Why?
  3. Who do you feel closest too in your family? Why?
  4. What are some conflicts you have in your family?
  5. With who would you like to have a better relationship with in your family?

The students were given 15 minutes to respond to all 5 questions. Many times students rush to be finished first without providing adequate responses,  but with this activity we stressed the importance of giving complete answers with thorough explanations.

Let me start by saying that prior to this activity I was aware of the “common” issues within Moldavian families: alcohol abuse, domestic violence, poverty, parents are abroad, etc… However, I did not know which of my students were subjected to these problems…But quickly, I learned.

Here were a few surprises:

  • Gheorge is a one of my hyperactive 6th graders that is always joking and smiling, but is willing to work after the task is explained to him three times. I suspected Gheorge behaved this way for attention, but when he presented his responses and told the class that he had a bad relationship with his father because he drinks all of the time and sometimes hits him, I was caught off guard.  I am not a counselor or anything, but Gheorge has not exemplified withdrawn or even violent behavior. To me, he’s just a hyperactive 6th grader, a class clown with lots of potential. But no…He is a child in an abusive home.
  • Then there was the 5th grade Gheorge who has a father in a wheel chair that is an infamous drunk within the community. Gheorge’s mother lives abroad and has not been home to see him in nearly 3 years. Gheorge has no rules, no guidance, no structure at home and it is evident given his behavior problems in the classroom. And yet… Gheorge named his mother as the person he had the best relationship with. The mother that is never there?
  • Outside of fathers who were drunks or physically violent, the majority of the students didn’t mention their fathers at all. They claimed to be closest to their mothers and their sisters and on a rare occasion their brother. However, the father figure was missing from nearly every family profile unless he was emphasized in a negative capacity.

Moldavian’s place such a heavy emphasis on family, but it’s becoming more and more ambiguous to me as to who that includes. The father figure within my students’ family profiles completely vanished and/or were unnecessary to address, which didn’t make sense to me.

How is it that the father is not a person they are close to, but is also not the person they have the most conflicts with, nor is he the person they want to have a better relationship with? It’s as if he doesn’t exist. Doesn’t matter. Completely insignificant. However, the patriarch can’t be insignificant considering how formal gender roles are intricately interwoven within the Moldavian culture. Needless to say, a lecture that I thought would provide me with such great insight left me bewildered and unsettled. I know what a critical role my father plays in my life, but for my students, the role of the patriarch is simply forgettable.

I know that many fathers have to go overseas to work. The economic situation in Moldova is devastating  and people have to take opportunities wherever they can, especially when it comes to supporting their family.

Even so, I am still  left wondering…Where are the fathers? And what the hell are they doing?

That is all.


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Think Before I Move

There is a lot that has happened over the course of the 10 months that I have been in Moldova that has not been documented in this blog. Some of those events have led me to the decision to move out of my Host Mom’s house and explore other housing options. The process for moving consists of:

  1. Telling the Director of the School, partners, and anyone else that can help me that I am looking to move.
  2. Visiting the houses to ensure they meet all of the Peace Corps requirements. This includes taking pictures of the house.
  3. Completing the necessary forms, sending them to Peace Corps, paying my current Host Mom one last time and then moving into my new place!

Currently, I am still on step 1. So after two weeks of communicating to the School Director that I want to move, I thought by now she’d have SOME idea of what my options are. The truth is, I’m anxious to have my own space, cook my own food, and not have to worry about interacting with others when I really don’t want to. I suppose there is a part of me that is an introvert. Ironic I know, but hey, it could happen to anyone (said in my Carlon Burt Voice).

A little frustrated that I had yet to hear anything from the director, I had a meeting with her today regarding my options. Here is how the conversation went:

Me: Ms. Lidia, have you found other places for me to live?

Director: I wanted to verify something with you first. (Serious look on her face) You want to live in the same garden as another family correct? Not alone in another house…Right? You want a Casa Mica?

(For those that don’t know, a casa mica is a smaller house that is close to the main house that is used for a variety of things: gatherings, storage, housing guests, or for their adult children to live in etc… It is within the same gated area of the main house where the family lives.)

Me: It doesn’t matter. I just want to move, and I don’t want something very big. It’ll cost too much to heat during the witner.

Director: I agree. Here is what I think Laquia, I think we should ONLY look for places were you can live in the same garden with the family.

Me: Why is that?

Director: Because I am afraid for you to live by yourself. I mean, I cannot guarantee your safety if you don’t have the support of another family. I will worry about you and what can happen.

Me: (Hesitant) I think you know best Ms. Lidia.

Director: GREAT! I will have options for you this week!

After having that conversation with the director, waves of worry slammed into me and my mind went into overdrive.  Does she know something I don’t know about my safety in Mereni? Has she heard things? Have people said things? Are there warning signs that I have missed given the language barrier, etc…?

That’s when I realized that as independent as I want to be, I am still in a FOREIGN country. I don’t always know what is going on or what is best for me. Thus, I am forced to depend on others to be cautious for me, when I become the stupid American girl who just wants what she wants regardless of what anyone else thinks. The truth of the matter is, people always watch me and stare and document everything that I do. However, I don’t know WHAT people? I don’t know what families they come from, or how much they know, or what their thoughts/intentions are.

My entire life, people have told me to think before doing things. Think before you speak, Laquia. Think before you do that, Laquia. Know what you are doing before you do it, Laquia. Where I live for the next 17 months can determine my health, my productivity and my safety.

Consequently, I must slow down, be patient, and think before I move.

That is all.


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Nose Picking = Socially Acceptable

Let me just plainly state that there are a plethora of differences between Moldovan kids and American kids. However, there are a few differences in particular that I never really do get used too.

Moldovan kids don’t have ANY problems picking their nose. In fact, I’ve seen some adults do it without shame as well. I was sitting next to an older woman on the bus who started picking her nose, and I looked over in astonishment. I was amazed that she was openly doing this like nothing was wrong. And you know what…Not one person gave it a second look, second thought or anything. It was just me, completely unsettled that I had to sit next to this nose picking woman. Needless to say, I was GREATLY offended. Why? Because I’m American and in America nose picking  is NOT acceptable (at least not in public).

However, I’ve taught my students about how germs are spread and how important it is to keep our hands clean and to cover our nose and mouth properly etc… And for the most part, I have seen a difference in the way my students now cover their coughs and sneezes.

But,  THE NOSE PICKING is outrageous! The part that blows me away is that it is considered socially acceptable. Kids don’t make fun of other kids because they pick their nose. They don’t get grossed out by it and move away or tell the teacher. Students are not ostracized at ALL for nose picking. In America, if a kid gets caught picking his nose in class, he’s bound to be the butt of every joke for the rest of the day. I AM NOT saying that I think this is a good thing. To be honest, I don’t think any child should be ostracized for anything. I’m simply making an observation that in Moldova… A kid won’t be bullied for digging for gold. And being the semi-germaphobe that I am…It grosses me out.

In fact, today this 6th grader named Mihai was picking his nose instead of writing down his notes. I told Mihai that it is important to have “clean hands” and not to put his hands in his nose. He laughed and continued while the girls next to him laughed as well. That’s when I realized: I’m the only person in this entire school who has a problem with nose picking.

In Moldova, it’s okay for students/people to wear the same clothes (I mean the EXACT same outfit for an entire week). I’m actually really happy that this is acceptable here considering the poverty level of most families. Kids don’t have to worry about having a big wardrobe, because most of the students have one. In fact, if you have a really cute outfit that you wear all week, it is just as cute on Friday as it was on Monday, by Moldovan standards. However, you will be made fun of if your clothes are considered dirty for one reason or another. Many times this label is a reflection of the family the students come from. A good/clean family vs. a bad/dirty family. The labeling is another blog post all on it’s own. In America, if a kid were to wear the same thing over and over again, he would also be made fun of. Or people would talk about how “poor” they were.

I would love to say these two differences point out how tolerant Moldovan students are compared to American students, but that is just not the case. It’s merely a difference in what is considered socially acceptable and what isn’t. In case you needed a re-cap. Picking your nose and wearing the same thing every day is perfectly okay in Moldova.

That is all.


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Removing the Cancer

The day started off rather mundane.

In my 2nd hour 6th grade class, only 2 students had their homework. Knowing that I had an amazing lecture planned for them, I refused to let it discourage me. After all, students not having their homework (to my dismay) is normal.

And yet, an eerie feeling swept through me as I surveyed the class.

Every hand was up in the air as the students begged for the opportunity to participate…Not normal. When it was time to take notes, every student had their notebook and proceeded to write with the utmost concentration…Not normal. To my surprise, the typically disruptive Dumitru sat attentively in his seat for the entire lesson, and then, he proceeded to show me at the end of class how he had written down every word!

“Doamnișoara Profesora,” he called, running up to me. “Look!” And I looked, unable to mask my elation I embraced Dumitru and told him how proud of him I was…NOT NORMAL!

Furthermore, Ion, a student from a “Vulnerable Family” had a notebook today. Not only did he have his notebook, but he wrote in it. Not only did Ion write in his notebook, but he participated in the group work, as the students discussed short term and long term effects of alcohol. Ion wanted to participate. So when other students complained about working with him, I harshly chastised them. I didn’t want anything ruining this sudden metamorphosis in Ion. After all, it is not normal.

By the end of the class, the students could tell me the way alcohol is processed within the body and what happens to the liver when there are elevated alcohol levels in the blood. This was supposed to be a complicated lesson…But I truly believe every student understood. Not to beat a dead horse…But this is not normal!

Fast forward to my 5th hour 6th grade class, I found the same peculiar (though appreciated) change in behavior from my students. Mihai, a boy with wandering eyes, who catches flies, and refuses to ever sit down or write, or pay attention… He had his notebook today. And like Dumitru, he wrote Every. Single. Word.  I tried to give Mihai a high five after class, but they don’t understand high 5s in Moldova.  And when I tried to show him he ran. HAHAHA! I really wanted him to know how much I appreciated his effort.

So I know you are wondering…What is this cancer I am referring to in the blog title? Well, while all the other students were behaving brilliantly, Adrian, a notoriously disruptive student, was on his worse behavior yet! In the beginning of the year, I appreciated and even welcomed Adrian’s energy. He seemed engaged, but towards the end of last semester and even now into the New Year, Adrian has changed for the worse.

“Adrian sit down! Where is your notebook? Stop hitting Dan! Write something down! I’m serious Adrian, STOP hitting Dan! Adrian, SIT DOWN! Adrian, move over here! You can’t sit there anymore!….” I repeated these phrases and so many more throughout the lecture, while my partner gave me a look that said, “Laquia, give it up already.” She is rather good at ignoring the problem.

But I couldn’t give it up. Not when all of the other students, including Dan who usually is much worse than Adrian, were behaving so well. My biggest fear was that if Adrian kept it up, Dan would soon follow and so would Mihai. It became clear to me, Adrian was the cancer in the room. I had to stop his bad energy from spreading. I tried to take the gentle approach:

Me: Adrian you used to be a really good student. Now your behavior is bad. What happened?

Adrian: I have problems. (Adrian said this with a smile on his face)

Me: What kind of problems?

Adrian: Life problems! (Adrian began to laugh hysterically)

Me: Who is your Diriginte?

The next thing I know, all the laughter stopped. My partner teacher instructed one of the good students to go get their  Diriginte a.k. homeroom teacher. By the time she came, Adrian was writing in his notebook and pleading ignorance. But after I explained to her the problem, it was clear that he was in trouble. Adrian was getting a note sent home that had to be signed by his parents.  After his Diriginte left, Adrian didn’t say a single word and even had tears in his eyes…Not Normal.

Apart of me felt guilty for admonishing him that way. I was once the problem child that was always being reprimanded. This is probably why I had been so patient with him up until this point. However, I had a truly great lesson with valuable information that I wanted the students to learn, and Adrian was the only obstacle in my way.

I’m not sure where this sudden change in behavior came from. Perhaps the theme was so relevant to their lives that everyone was interested? Either way, I don’t care. I only hope to see the same results next week…Cancer free of course.

However, we all know these things have a way of spreading.

That is all.


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Kicked By a First Grader

I’m not the type of person to blog twice in one week…but I had to get this down while it was still fresh.

Today, on my way to teach  my 5th hour class, I approached a group of  first grade boys that I see all of the time. I used to think they were being friendly, until I noticed how Moldovan’s would chastise them when they said things to me.

So today as I approached them, I waved as always, until I noticed that one of the boys (the ring leader)  maneuvered behind me. I turned around to see what he was doing, only to see him run up and kick me!

He kicked me. I was kicked by a FIRST grader…And all of his little tiny first grade friends laughed.

Side note: I want to encourage you to take a moment and laugh. Why? Because if I were reading this blog about someone else, I would laugh HYSTERICALLY and make jokes about it!  So, in all fairness…Feel free to laugh.

Now, after being kicked I was literally stunned. It took me forever to process what just happened to me. And then I was stuck with the question of…What do I do? He’s a little kid. I couldn’t pick him up and beat his ass the way I really wanted too. Moldovans watch every move I make, and if I were to make the wrong decision it would undermine my influence within the community. Given that I am a Health Education Volunteer, I am supposed to set the example in situations like this. Luckily, before I reacted, a Moldovan woman who works at the magazine (corner store) saw what happened and came outside shaking her fist and yelling at the boys. They immediately took off running.

“Do you know their names?” I asked her.

“No, but they go to the Primary School,” She said shaking her head. “They are bad boys.”

I nodded, feeling the tears well up in my eyes. I continued to walk to school trying to tell myself to pull it together and that it wasn’t a big deal. But seriously, I couldn’t. It was a big blow to my ego, a huge insult, a slap in the face, or…. a kick in the leg. hahahahaha.

When I reached the school, it wasn’t long before my partner found me in the room with tears streaming down my face. She demanded I tell her what happened. When I did, her eyes widened in horror. “What are you going to do?!” she asked.

Before I could answer, another teacher came into the room. She saw my tear stricken face and grew concerned. “Why is she crying,” she asked my partner. Soon another teacher entered, but she was kind enough not to ask any questions. And then, Dan enters the room.

For those that don’t know, Dan is my site mate from MINNESOTA and is an English Education volunteer. So, Dan sees I’m upset and immediately asks “what’s wrong?” I quickly told him the story.

“Let’s go!” Dan said already taking charge. I grabbed my coat, and we marched towards the Primary School, clearly on a mission. We first stopped at the magazine where the lady was able to tell us the name and grade of one of the boys in the group. When we arrived at the School there was a teacher outside. Dan told her what happened, and she lead us to the appropriate classroom.

The moment I entered the class, I saw him.

He was wearing a red sweatshirt and had a Western Union backpack. The moment he saw me he turned away in panic. Already gaining satisfaction, I pointed him out. Impetuously, his teacher and the woman that helped us find the classroom made him stand in front of the class and began questioning him.

Nicolai. That was his name.

Nicolai pleaded ignorance until one of his ‘friends’ ratted him out.  Nicolai was made to apologize and currently cannot come back to school unless he comes with both of his parents.

They made an example of him in front of the class and apologized to me profusely. His poor behavior was not merely a reflection of the boy and his family. It was also a reflection of them, and they took his behavior personally. Immediately, they began to explain the familial issues within Moldova that could justify this type of behavior. While I understood where they were coming from, I knew that had I been anyone else that little boy would have NEVER thought to kick me. And that was what upset me most; the blatant disrespect the kid had for me that he didn’t have for anyone else. Not to mention, I had been kicked in the leg and told to “GO BACK TO AMERICA” all in the same freakin week. UGH!

After gaining my composure here is what I noticed: People helped me.

My site mate’s quick action helped me regain my control. The woman at the magazine came to my defense and provided valuable information which eventually lead us to  the woman at the school, who lead us to the very classroom that Nicolai was in. Also, his teachers rectified the incident by taking severe action and making an example out of Nicolai in front of his peers.

Today, I am accepting that the community, while being my biggest headache, will also be my greatest asset.

Besides, maybe this is proof that I need to do a seminar on violence in the Primary School????

There are opportunities everywhere!

That is all.


Filed under Peace Corps

Do you ACTUALLY think you are going to change anything?

“Do you ACTUALLY think you are going to change anything?”

I’ve been replaying this question in my head over and over again since last Saturday. It was a random conversation with a local that happened to speak English. I found the conversation rather enjoyable until he asked me that question. A question that quickened my heartbeat and left my brain scrambling for something to say in my defense. It wasn’t only the question that bothered me. It was the fact that he sat waiting for a real response, wondering if I was so naive, so idealistic to believe that I, little old me, could do something worthwhile in his country.

After a long pause,

Me: Sir, you can’t talk to me like that. I’m giving up two years of my life to be here. I have to believe it means something.

Man now grinning at me: Our problems are too big. Go back to America!

He then spent the remainder of the bus ride telling me about how “big” the problems are in Moldova, and how incapable I am of addressing them.

Man: You told me earlier that you were teaching the kids about goals and aspirations and they found the idea of  goal setting and future planning difficult. It’s not so much that it’s difficult, it’s that there is nothing for them to aspire to. The students finish university and the end up working in construction in Italy or Russia because there are no jobs in Moldova. You tell them to dream, but dream about what? Their only hope is leaving Moldova.

Me: But the world is changing, and when opportunities present themselves my students will be better equipped to seize them than other students.

Man smirking: What you are doing is good. I just don’t think it will change anything.

I’ve dealt with opposition before. I’ve dealt with cynics and nonbelievers in various other situations, and I had no problem moving forward in confidence. The problem with this conversation is that deep down I constantly wonder if there is truth to what he said.

Will I ever make a big enough difference to justify this experience? Am I learning more than I am teaching? Furthermore, am I doing it all in vain?

For example, I had my 8th grade students do a project in place of a formal written test. They were given a week to do a simple project, which came with an example. I even gave them class time to work on it and ask questions. The projects were due today, but only five of 16 students completed the project. Five. I used this a project based evaluation because too many of the students failed the written tests, and I thought it would be better for them to analyze and apply information rather than regurgitate it, but now the outcome is even worse.

My partner suggests that we just don’t give out a grade for this semester, but I asked her… “If we don’t grade them, why are we teaching? They don’t do homework. They don’t do the tests. If we don’t give them a grade the students that DO participate are going to stop. Then all of our work will have been in vain.”

Our work will have been in vain… What are you doing here?…Do you really think you can make a difference?…Go back to America.

Some may wonder why I give these statements so much power. To be honest, I’m not always confident that what I am teaching my students will help improve their future. I’m not sure if by teaching them to set goals, to dream, and to plan is going to aid them or set them up for greater disappointments, when after graduation they are doing manual labor in a foreign land. I speak of opportunities…but what opportunities?

If a man were to start a business in Moldova, and it were to become successful; it is only a matter of time before the government comes and takes it over. Where is the opportunity in building something only to have it snatched away by an inefficient, power hungry government? There isn’t any.

Thus, for the last 4 nights, I have laid awake in an insomniatic like state, trying to conceptualize my service up to this point. I’ve concluded that I’m discontent with this experience thus far. While it is hard to acknowledge,  I stay committed to my service by believing that I am helping in someway.  So when a random stranger tells me my work doesn’t matter, when he discounts the very idea I cling too, well…it makes for sleepless nights wondering if he’s right.

That is all.


Filed under Peace Corps