I Am Expressions
My training for Peace Corps Iran was held in a small town south of Tehran. This was in 1973. I remember some of those days very well. Other days I remember only being less than well, spending a lot of time on squat toilets. Some things I don’t need to remember. Some memories just reappear in the oddest ways.
One of the training exercises was to test our level of Farsi Language learning. I think it was also a test to help us discover for ourselves if the Peace Corps experience was right for us. Each of us was given the name of a city, town or village in Iran, a three page list of questions and an amount of money. We were to get ourselves to that place, spend three days answering the questions and return to the training site. I was to go to Bahar.
I went to the shop that sold bus tickets and was told that the bus only went as far as Hamadon. I could go from Hamadon to Bahar by collective taxi. I bought a ticket and left very early the next morning. The man who sat next to me on the bus spent the five or six hours trying to talk me out of spending three days in Bahar. Although he had never been to Bahar himself, he told me there were many more interesting things to see and do in Hamadon than Bahar. I explained that I really had to go to Bahar as part of my training and showed him my list of questions. “How many cinemas are in the town?” “Probably none,” he assured me. “What’s the name of the high school?” “You think they have a high school in that village?” he asked me. In true city dweller fashion he was sure the village had nothing but farmers. When we arrived in Hamadon and he hadn’t talked me out of going on to Bahar, he gave me his phone number and home address so that I could stay with his family when I discovered there was no reason or even place for me to stay in Bahar. He went with me to the collective taxi stop, made sure I got into the correct taxi, that I didn’t overpay the driver and waited with me till the taxi left. About an hour later I was let out in the middle of Bahar.
It was now afternoon. I had to get a hotel, inn, guest house or somewhere to stay for the 3 nights. But since I had left the training site before breakfast and not eaten all day, hunger was a higher priority than where I was going to sleep that night. I stopped a man on the street and asked to be directed to a restaurant. “What a pity. You just missed the collective taxi to Hamadon,” he said. I told him I had just gotten off that taxi to come here. “You should have eaten in Hamadon. Now you have to wait for the taxi to go back to Hamadon, return to Bahar, get on the taxi and go back to Hanadon before you can eat in a restaurant,” he cried. There were no restaurants in Bahar. “How about a cafeteria?” I asked. “No. Sorry.” How about a stall in the street where I could buy some food? “No. Those things are in Hamadon.” Several of my questions to answer were about the food market. “Yes. We have a fine market. It’s right over there and will be in full swing next Wednesday morning.” By this time, there were a couple of guys looking at me checking my list for other food related questions I could ask. “Is there a tea house in Bahar?” “YES! At last we have something the American wants. Come! We will take you to our tea house.”
By the time I got to the tea house I had about five or six guys with me. They ordered tea for me from the man running the place and sat down with me to discuss what I was going to do. The first thing I had to do was eat. “No problem,” said the man running the tea house. “I’m about to have my meal. There’s enough for me to share with the American.” I remember vividly my thinking and thought processes as I watched the tea house man preparing our dinner and while I was eating it being watched by half a dozen men. I remember not thinking. My brain wouldn’t let me think about what was being pulverized and poured over pieces of dry bread. I was at a cross cultural cross road. I knew if I thought about what the meal was, I wouldn’t be able to eat it and I knew I was going to eat it. I had to eat it. Not only was I hungry but I had a lot of eyes watching me. I had to eat it. I ate it. I do not at all remember what it tasted like. It wasn’t until a couple of days later that I let my mind go back to that meal and think about sheep’s brain.
After I finished the meal the group discussion started up again. What were they going to do with this American and his questions? Finally a decision was made. They would take me to the Americans who lived in the village. “Americans? There are other Americans here? Who? Where?” “Yes. Yes. They are a very nice couple. He works with the pottery makers and she works in the health clinic. They work for The Peace Group.”
There was a parade to the Americans’ house. Still not believing there were really Americans in the place, I tried to get as many of my required questions answered as I could. No cinema. One four-room primary school with four teachers, one acting as head master. Chief industry after farming was pottery for which the village was well known. Two police officers. The mayor lived in Hamadon. I got answers to quiet a few questions before we arrived at a modest house.
I was a lot more surprised to see an American than he was to see the parade or me. Perhaps he was used to groups of men coming to visit. He wasn’t at all surprised to see American me. “You must be JAY. Glad you finally made it. We’ve been waiting for you.”
My Peace Corps trainers hadn’t told me there were Peace Corps Volunteers living in Bahar. They had told the PCVs in Bahar that I was being sent there. It was all part of the exercise. I passed
Skip forward thirty five years to 2008. For the last few years while I was in charge of my late mother’s care, I couldn’t get out of the house. However, I could leave the country on the internet. I have gathered a long list of chat friend from around the world. I especially like finding people from countries where I have lived: Iran, Egypt, Madagascar etc. One day I was chatting with a friend from Tehran, Iran. I wished him a Happy Norooz (Iranian New Year, March 21). I asked him if he was doing anything special for the holiday. He told me he was traveling with his family and at the moment in a place he was sure I had never heard of, Hamadon. I told him I had been in Hamadon but only in passing on my way to Bahar. He went crazy. “You went to my mother’s family’s home village?” Just to make sure we were talking about the same village I mentioned the pottery. He was very proud that his mother’s family made pottery known as far away as America. We were talking about the same village.
I told him the above story about the start of my time in Bahar. I wondered if one of those friendly fellows who helped me could have been his uncle or grandfather or cousin.
“WOW! So you’re the American!” “I’m an American, yes.” “But you are THE American.” It was his turn to tell me a story.
In his mother’s family when someone got themselves into some situation about which they knew nothing at all, had no idea what was involved or was in over their head, that person was asked, “Who are you? The American?” When someone asked question after question after unrelated question, s/he was told, “You ask more questions than the American.” My Iranian chat friend has his Masters in Teaching English as a Second Language. His English is very good and always quite exact. The expressions are not “Who are you? An American?” and “You ask more questions than an American.” They are: “Who are you? THE American?” and “You ask more questions than THE American.” They refer to one overly inquisitive American in over his depth these people in Bahar encountered somehow.
There’s an outside chance that I am THE American of the expression. I am expressions