The Third Question
- Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Romania
There are certain conversations and key phrases in Romanian that you get especially good at repeating when you become a Peace Corps Volunteer. Everyone you meet inevitably asks you one of three things: "What do you do?" "How much do you get paid?" And "Why did you come to Romania?" Questions one and two are no-brainers: I am a TEFL teacher (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) at Alexandru Lahovari High School in Ramnicu Valcea, a midsize city in the southwest of Romania, and I earn less than 200 dollars a month—almost double the salary of my Lahovari colleagues. Question three has stumped me until recently: "Why did you come to Romania?" Now, I can answer Mirela.
I was introduced to Mirela by one of my fellow English teachers: "Nina, this is Mirela. She is a computer teacher and she wants to practice her English."
"Oh boy," I thought. "After teaching English all week, just what I don't want to do is teach more English."
Lately I had been feeling like a walking dictionary. Someone would smile at me and then automatically test out some English phrase: "Good morning. How do you do!" and once even "What's up, my woman?" I longed to be something more than someone's encyclopedia of American idioms.
Mirela shyly shook my hand and whispered, "Could ... you ... help ... me ... pass ... a ... test?"—making a question out of every word.
Mirela said that you can tell good people by their eyes. "Ours," she assured me, "look just right." Maybe it was that something in her eyes or the way she treated each word she spoke in English like a jewel she had just discovered, but before I knew it, I heard myself answering, "Da, Da. When can we meet?" We set a date for the following Tuesday.
On the appointed day, grammar book in tow, I march up to Mirela's door. She greets me with the same shy smile and invites me inside.
Mirela, disillusioned by Romania's slow transition from communism to capitalism, is trying to emigrate to New Zealand. "I want my children to have better opportunities than I did," she explains. "I do everything for them, my children." All that is left for her to get her visa is to pass an English examination. She took the test once and scored a 5; she needs a 6.5 to pass. Her voice takes on a determined tone as she tells me her score.
She pours me a cup of coffee and, peppering her Romanian with bits of broken English, begins her story. Mirela has had a life of ups and downs. She married a Syrian man who now works in Saudi Arabia to support the family. He has been gone for three years, appearing only for a month in the summer while she raises their three kids, Fatima, Rasha, and Ryad, full time. She lived in Syria for three years with her husband. "I know what it's like to be different and alone," she says to me. "I didn't know how to speak Arabic, and I didn't know anyone but my mother-in-law. It was a very lonely time. I hope," she continues on an optimistic note, "that in New Zealand the people will be open to us."
I hope so, too.
Slowly, morning turns into afternoon and afternoon into early evening. I have spoken few words. I don't need my grammar book at all. I just listen; that's all Mirela wants—an ear to listen to her story. I can do that.
I sip down my last bit of coffee in an awkward moment of silence. Suddenly, Mirela grabs my hand. "Thank you. I have nothing to give you but my thanks." I look into her eyes and see my answer to question number three, "Why did you come to Romania?" You go into the Peace Corps wanting to change the world, but more often than not, the world ends up changing you.