Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Day 101: Ach

Apologies for the delay. I've had more pressing issues to deal with recently.

I've been mulling over how I want to talk about some of the things that have happened recently, and what I'm thinking about this place and what I'm doing here. I will admit I try to make this journal as non-confrontational as possible, which puts me in a position of safety in terms of my varied audience (particularly regarding the people I reference who I am actually interacting with) but also leads to me leaving out a huge amount of what I think about and what happens, and leaves me feeling somewhat untrue to my photography and the entire experience. I realize I typically maintain a fairly flippant tone, but this place is bringing out a motivation to be significantly more...serious? Honest, perhaps.

So. I'm living in Scoresbysund on the east coast of Greenland. A million little stories make up how I am fitting into this place. Coming over on the flight from Iceland, I was on the plane with half a dozen missionaries from Denmark. I started talking to them when nothing in the Kulusuk airport (southern Greenland) was in English and I was hoping they could translate for me. However, this meant coming into Scoresbysund, since there were only about 10 of us, it was assumed that I was one of the missionaries (big pack of blond people come into town, it's reasonable). If you know me at all, you know why this is a huge problem to me. It's a first impression I am trying to break away from without insulting a largely Christian population.

I can remember coming home from China and of course it would come up in conversations where I had been. More often that I liked it was assumed that I was in Asia as a missionary, and when I said that I was not a missionary I got blank stares and "what WERE you doing there then?" I realize very much that I look like a young, white, well-off foreigner, and until you get to know me, what else would people think I'm doing here? While I can understand where the impression comes from, I find the global omnipresence of equating "white foreigner" with "missionary" to be extremely frustrating, especially considering my personal views.

I was very lucky to find a family that was willing to let me live with them for a very small weekly rent. They have taken me into the family as a (somewhat incongruous) daughter, feeding and treating me as one of their own. The father is Danish (he speaks decent English) and the mother is native Greenlandic. This family has become my entire social existence in this tiny town, as I realize that I am probably the tallest person for about 1000 miles and the youngest white female for the same distance. There are very few public gathering areas, and considering my language difficulties in the area I have had no one to talk to (beyond a few conversations with other teachers and my host father). The two sons living at home take up a large part of my day - although they don't speak English, they seem to have fully adopted me as their new big sister. Janu (age 8) in particular was falling asleep on my lap in front of the TV within a few days of my arrival, while Konrad (age 10) is thrilled with my willingness to pull his sled home up the hill.

My family is very kind and I am quite comfortable with my living situation. While I admire the incredible view from the living room windows, this town's stunning visual scenery disguises a depressing social landscape. I truly am lucky to have this family in a town rife with alcoholism and domestic abuse. I have heard more than enough stories of spousal murder, either through alcolholic rage or all-too-justified retaliation by someone beaten too many times. I spoke with one of the long-standing Danish townspeople, and while mentioning the end of his marriage to a native Greenlandic woman, he said that people wondered why he didn't just beat her. It's expected that abuse be part of the home in this town. At the same time, I'm often told that this was not always the case, that native Greenlandic culture is dying, and some parts are lost forever. It seems the transition into - and influence from - civilization has left this town of rock and ice with more problems than solutions.

The worst evidence of these problems comes to me through the school. I am teaching English for 5th, 8th, and helping with a combo 10-11th class. My second day with the 5th grade was a disaster. I could hardly keep the kids physically in the classroom, let alone remotely paying attention to what I was trying to teach. It certainly didn't help that this is only their second year of English, and I don't speak any Greenlandic or Danish. After making it to the end of class having sent two kids to the office for starting a fist-fight, I managed not to start crying and one of the other teachers started talking to me. He said that this behavior was totally normal for these kids. He said most of them have no discipline at home and some are abused or neglected. He explained it like this:

"A lot of the kids here have been hurt and betrayed by every adult they've ever known. They have no reason to trust you or want to please you, they have no reason to believe you'll still be here tomorrow. It doesn't matter if you're nice, they won't believe it or they'll take advantage of you. It doesn't matter if you're mean, they've seen worse. The only thing you can do is try your best and be an example for any kid who sees you and decides they can learn something from you."

I don't like generalizing any of the kids, but the experience is extraordinarily frustrating and stressful (at the very least from the perspective of a young teacher trying to assert some dominance over a class that throws every possible form of rebellion at her). I have no books, no records of anything the kids have learned, and I'm not really supposed to give them homework or tests. I make up a worksheet for them the night before class and hope its close enough to their abilities that I can get them to pay attention for 45 minutes. I feel bad for the ones who seem very bright and well-behaved - language ability differs drastically within the class, so some are always far ahead and some are always unable to do the work.

The worst is hearing from kids that don'’t have any dreams beyond what they know and live with every day - almost no one acting like they want to help people, or change things, or see the world. I'm used to asking kids what they want to be when they grow up and hearing "doctor" "astronaut" "president", and here - from the brightest and most motivated - I hear "tour guide" and "electrician". I don't know if I should recognize this as realism, particularly considering the environment they grew up in, but I feel like I don't hear the sort of crazy "dreams" that I'm used to hearing. I think that says a lot about the way America conditions its youth to expect perfection and greatness, but all the same it is somewhat disheartening. Very few seem at all interested that I'’m from far-away California (although all are fascinated by my height), and some (particularly some of the older ones) make me suspect they are only in school because they get money from the government to stay there.

And at the end of the day, this is a land that kills. I can't walk outside of the town without a rifle because of the threat of bears. A few years ago a young girl was chased through town by a polar bear. My own host family has seen more than its fair share of sadness. Connections to abused family members, a son lost through the ice while hunting, a daughter lost last Christmas to a car accident. She was my age. My host mother, who can only speak a few words of English, took her picture off the wall and told me all about her this morning in the kitchen while the boys were at school. She worries that her sadness will make me unhappy living here but says it helps her to have me around.

When the wind blows I can feel my eyes prickle with snow. The nights are getting longer as the sun rises at 10 and sets around 3. The cute colored houses checker the landscape and remind me of an idyllic Christmas town.

This is a different place.



(my host mom in a snowstorm)



More photos and a more typical tone coming soon.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Good luck