Winter 1996 (4.4)
A World Turned Sunny Side Up
by Jonelle Glosch
Someone once said that a teenager is two parts adult, one part child, all wrapped up in wonderment and awe. In some ways, this description fits Baku itself-some days it seems all grown-up and sophisticated, and other days it's like a teenager, reinventing itself according to the latest fads. Those who know this city and its international spirit can see the ancient and the modern, foreign and indigenous synthesized together, incorporating both Eastern and Western viewpoints.
In the past, the youth of Azerbaijan have traditionally looked to their elders for wisdom and guidance. Their language even developed special terms for the sages of society. Men were called "agh saggal" (white-bearded one), and women, "agh birchak" (the one with the white sideburns). Age was esteemed and respected, but this is diminishing today.
Many families are finding that the traditional ways of doing things are not working as well during this transitional period of adjustment to a free market system. Instead of young people being able to rely on their parents financially, often the tables are turned. These days, more and more parents must depend on the income of their children to make ends meet.
Less than a decade ago, a passport to a secure future came via mastering Russian. Today, parents are scrambling to provide their children with English lessons, instead. The incentive is often a salary that is 10-20 times greater than their own. Instead of $20 to $40 issued by the government every month, some of their children are bringing home $200-$400, and sometimes even more from foreign companies. It's easy to feel both the hope and anxiety that fall on the shoulders of these young people.
My friend Elena is fond of saying in Russian, "The eggs teach the chicken." That's part of the reality for many parents these days, and it's exactly what I feel, too. The young people of Azerbaijan are teaching me more about life every day.
I teach English here in Baku. I've taken a year's leave from my work in Houston, since my daughter has just started college and my husband is finishing a graduate degree. In 1995, the three of us had come to Baku for a few short weeks to meet the family of the high school exchange student whom we would be hosting in our home. Little did we realize what an impact it would have on our lives! In short, it inspired me to come to Azerbaijan to play a small part in boosting their efforts during this difficult period. And so I've come, entirely on my own.
To tell the truth, I'm learning so much from my students that it's often hard to tell which one of us is the teacher. Take Sabina, a self-reliant young lady whose father has abandoned her family. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she prefers to talk about her first job at a summer resort where she worked as a waitress, covering all three shifts-breakfast, lunch and dinner-including as many as 400 customers in a day. Her proudest moments come from sharing the photographs of the many friends she met that summer.
But Sabina is no exception. When I came here, I fully expected to find cynical, despairing kids. I knew how difficult the situation in Azerbaijan is right now. In fact, for many families, their financial situation is difficult to understate. This makes it all the more amazing when you meet youth like Zarifa. After working incredibly hard to qualify for a high school exchange scholarship sponsored by the U.S. Freedom Support Act, Zarifa finally received notification that she had been one of 40 students selected from more than 1,000 applicants to study abroad for a year.
But her dreams were shattered when her father said, "No, you can't go. You're my only child, and America is too far away. Study here in Baku, instead." Her journal captures the heartache of struggling under the weight of adult decisions. I'll never forget her essay on kindness when she asked, "Where does kindness come from? Is it learned or inherited? Can it be nurtured to choke out the root of bitterness?"
Or take Gunel who wrote an essay developed around the idea, "A promise made is a debt owed." Like Gunel, the young people in Baku learn early about the value of friends and what it means to keep one's word. Personal integrity is treasured. Keeping promises means keeping good friends for a lifetime.
The same holds true for me. I believe that some of the friends I'm making will be mine for life. I came to Baku expecting to give of myself to this community, yet everyday I receive far more from my students than I could ever hope to give back. I love to receive invitations from students to come to their homes and meet their parents. They are so proud of their families and proud of what they have learned. It's a grand occasion watching these kids hosting guests with all the graciousness of their parents.
Though they often appear happy and carefree, these young people can be equally as serious and determined. At a recent business class conducted in English at Western University, I challenged the students to suggest ways to save a fictitious business. I had given a similar task to a group of adults a week earlier, but they had given up. These young people, however, suggested ways to expand the company's sales and marketing department by developing a franchise concept. "A franchise in Baku?" "Why not?" they reasoned. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive here, and these young people are exactly the ones who can make their ideas turn into reality.
I asked my students to write what they would like the world to know about Azerbaijan. Naturally, I had as many different responses as I had students, which is exactly the point. Young people in Azerbaijan are just like the youth everywhere else. They laugh and cry, hope and suffer, just as kids in other countries do. It may be true that they have to overcome more difficult obstacles than those faced by young people in the West. But they want the world to know that they listen to rock music, make friends and plan their futures with hope and enthusiasm, even during this time of transition.
One trend among Azerbaijani youth which seems to coincide with a similar movement in the West is the decision to postpone marriage and having children later than their parents did. Due to the current economic difficulties, many youth feel it is wiser to establish a career first before taking on the additional responsibility of a family.
These students may be young, but they have a great appreciation for their own heritage. They're proud that Azerbaijan has a history which is so long and vivid. While the last 70 years have not always been kind to their people, the outlook of the youth remains optimistic. The future of Azerbaijan truly lies with its young people. These eggs have a lot to teach us chickens.
From Azerbaijan International (4.4) Winter 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All rights reserved.