Elizabeth L. Winship

Elizabeth L. Winship: World Traveler Who Often Calls Armenia ‘Home’

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By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN/BEIJING – Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Elizabeth L. Winship grew up in New Jersey. She studied at Indiana University and in Poland, Russia, Hungary, Austria and Italy. With over 15 years international work experience, Winship has taught high school and middle school students in China, Poland and America. In Armenia and the Republic of Georgia Elizabeth conducted in-service training programs that imparted new, student-centered methodologies to teachers.

She also led a US government-funded curriculum design program for vocational schools in the Republic of Georgia. Her own teaching practice has been informed by professional development courses in Socratic Seminars, Harkness, and Facing History and Ourselves. She builds group collaboration among students with highly interactive classroom work that promotes critical thinking and active student discussions and debate. With a background in music and performance, Elizabeth often incorporates music, singing, film and drama into her lesson plans. Having led experiential learning trips for Dalton students within Beijing and to London, Moscow and St. Petersburg, for the coming year she anticipates a Shakespeare-themed trip to England and a multi-disciplinary study visit to Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia. As she approaches her fourth year of teaching at Dalton Academy, she continues to seek innovative ways to build student confidence and foster a supportive atmosphere that can ease and facilitate high levels of class participation and learning…

Dear Elizabeth, although in your life you run public and educational activities, my impression is that the arts and culture were always a part of you, especially music and photography – am I right?

Music has always played an important role in my life. If I could start all over again, perhaps I would follow the path of a career in music. My love and understanding of photography came to me later in life. Fate brought me to the South Caucasus, where I had the privilege to meet some incredibly talented photographers. My love for art began with frequent visits to major museums in New York City (deep gratitude to my parents for this). It further grew and blossomed when I studied for a few months in Russia. I will never forget how the art historian who guided me through the Tretyakov collections in Moscow opened new worlds of understanding for me. And then… the enormous, almost overwhelming sensations I had, walking through the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museums. I experienced this again, in Yerevan, the first time I entered the Saryan Museum.

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While in Armenia you were actively interested in contemporary art and even somehow involved in it – I remember your action in one of NPAK’s events back in 1998. Do you think the modern art scene is really modern in Armenia or there is nothing new or special?

Expressions of art, no matter in what century, are so powerful and moving. It’s just an incredible mode of communication! When I lived/worked in Yerevan in the mid-1990s, I had the amazing good fortune to meet artists who would not let anything stop their creativity. But they faced all kinds of challenges, such as getting the materials they needed, finding ways to share their works, and keeping in contact with artists and people of the arts, in other countries. Information flow, sharing ideas, getting a platform to display/perform one’s art….There were always impediments, both financial and political…. As it is, everywhere in the world. I am not an expert on modern art, so I can’t say if the scene in Armenia is truly “modern.” Since I left Armenia I know the Cafesjian Foundation has made a tremendous contribution, in terms of helping Armenians learn about the world of art. Surely this has been helpful. There are other groups/organizations as well, doing their damnedest to promote art and artists. Modern artists take their inspirations from so many sources, internal and external. If they can travel, or if they have access to the world via the internet, or books… this can feed their creativity…. Connections, sharing…. these are vital for any modern art “scene” anywhere.

You lived and worked in various countries – USA, Poland, Russia, Armenia, China… Knowing different cultures and languages, how you characterize your Armenian experience?

I also studied and worked in Hungary! At the risk of annoying some people, or ruffling a few feathers… I can say that I found some traits between Hungarians and Armenians that are quite similar. Both are landlocked countries, with small populations that have experienced quite a bit of trauma, through history, and they are countries that face challenges of out-migration, both are fairly mono-ethnic, mono-religious…..So, having lived/worked in Hungary, when I first got to Armenia in the early 1990s, I could compare my first impressions with those I’d had, in Budapest. The people of both countries are very proud; they have extremely tough egos. They know that they are the best. I suppose sociologists or anthropologists can explain this by pointing to the geography and demographics and the trauma of both of these countries. There is an impressive, and much to be respected, emphasis on education. All of these are strengths that allow a people to survive and thrive, even in the worst of times. Well, but I see this, and experience this, through the prism of American eyes, and from the perspective of a child of the American Protestant culture. So, many aspects of life and culture in both Armenia and Hungary have always struck me as difficult to embrace. Because I was used to living in a multicultural society I often found myself longing to be in the company of people from other cultures and backgrounds. (Now that I’m in my fourth year in China… I can tell you, I feel the same way here!) Because I was raised Protestant, there is always a voice in my head that says: “Be modest! Do not sing praises of yourself!” And so, immersed in a society such as Armenia, or Hungary, or China, where people take a really strong position on their place in the world, their accomplishments, their talents, and so on…. I just have to keep reminding myself that this is normal, and necessary, in these places, even if it does not feel comfortable or normal for me.

What do you like and dislike most in Armenia?

Well, I may have answered this, partially, above. For an outsider, an outsider raised Protestant in a multicultural society, life in Armenia can feel very uncomfortable sometimes. One comes across attitudes of arrogance, and victimhood that can make a person cringe. But one has to keep a perspective and remember what the Armenian nation has experienced, these past 100 or more years. It can be difficult, for me, to hear Armenians express negative opinions or views about “others” who are living in their midst, or who are passing through, as tourists. I know, of course, that this happens often in mono-ethnic societies where there is just not much contact or interaction among different kinds of people. Still… it’s hard to take. Also, the system of patriarchy, the attitudes of men toward women…. all of this feels medieval and I often felt I was living in a feudalistic society. Yet, one must remember that these are social phenomena that challenge us, humans, all over the world…. not just in Armenia. In Yerevan I met amazing broad-minded people who had the most generous hearts and souls. I’m told by younger friends in Yerevan, that the generation coming up now shows great promise, in terms of treating one another with respect, and recognizing the need for healthier relationships between all people, regardless of gender. What did I like? On an individual level, person to person, I experienced deep, deep hospitality and affection from so many Armenians. How I enjoyed those long conversations, with much laughter, and sharing of sorrows, listening and hearing, and understanding. By comparison, I guess I could make a grand generalization and say that I have not experienced such deep connections with people in America. The notion of “friend” and “friendship” somehow is not as deep there.

Your daughter lives in Armenia. How is life for a half-American girl in Armenia?

 

I hope she does not read this interview! She will probably disagree with half (or all) of what I say. At age 15, after living in Yerevan these past 4 1/2 years, she is still developing her sense of identity. Most of the time she proclaims, proudly, that she is Armenian (and not American). I have heard her voice concerns that some kids or even teachers do not treat her fairly, as they don’t consider her an Armenian. I’m not there, so I can’t say for sure if this is a form of bullying. She has earned outstanding grades, even in Armenian language, and history. She speaks three languages fluently. She goes to TUMO, and loves it. I hope, with time, she will “remember” that she also has American roots, and that she can draw the best from both sides of her family. It is very difficult for me to be separated from her, but I am happy that she has this time to live with her father, her auntie and her babulia (granny in Russian) in Yerevan. Each year she and I travel outside of Armenia. I believe it’s important for her to experience other countries, other cultures. We spent 3 wonderful weeks in Tbilisi, last summer, a week in Beijing and a week in Paris. It’s not tourism. It’s building character and broadening her horizons. Now we are making plans for the summer of 2019.

Now you work in China – have you any Armenian connections there?

My closest connections in Beijing are with a few Armenians at the embassy, one Uzbek family from Tashkent, and a handful of Nepali and Indian engineers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. I am also in contact with a few Armenians who are students at the universities in Beijing. Everyone is terribly busy, with work, with their studies… so, when we have time to share a meal together, it’s wonderful. All of us struggle with an insurmountable problem – a lack of grape leaves for making dolma!

Taking into account your knowledge and connections in Armenia, do you plan any Armenian activity in China?

In at small way, I made a contribution recently, for the Day of Remembrance (Genocide) in April. Some months before, I made the acquaintance of an Armenian fellow, who is from Moscow. I discovered that he is a talented duduk player, so, I introduced him to the ambassador and then this young man played the duduk during the Genocide commemoration ceremony at the embassy. In a similar fashion… I struck up a friendship with an American musician who, it turns out, studied with a famous Armenian violin teacher at Yale University. He also performed, during the ceremony.

I am a member of a wine-tasting group. It’s my dream to organize an evening of Armenian wine tasting. This is not going to be easy, however, because it’s impossible to find/buy good Armenian wine in Beijing. I’m not sure I can bring, say, 10 bottles of my favorite Armenian wines, in a suitcase, to Beijing… ha ha. Maybe the ambassador can help me with this.

At the school where I teach, I designed an 18-week history seminar on the countries of the former Soviet Union. We devote three weeks to the study of the South Caucasus, so, you can be sure that I do my best to impart as much knowledge as I can, to my Chinese students, about Armenia. I will teach this course again, next autumn.

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