Monday, December 28, 2009

Kazakhstani School System

The Kazakhstani school system is quite different from the America system. For starters, students only study for 11 years, rather than 13; they start in first form and go through 11th. Kindergarten here is more like our preschool. It's not mandatory, and parents have to pay to send their children to it. Also, students study six days a week, including Saturday. However, they don't study for as long each day. The younger students are only at school for about four hours, although the 10th and 11th formers stay for about six hours. They can't study for longer because there are two shifts of students studying in the school, one group before lunch and and the other after lunch. There's not enough classroom space for everyone to study at the same time, so classrooms are used by two different groups of students. This means that teachers must often be at school from 8:30 in the morning until 6:00 at night. All of the students study in the same building; there's no separate buildings for elementary, middle, and high school.

Classes are divided very differently than in the States. Students are put into a class group, and they will stay with that same group of 20 or 25 students throughout their entire schooling career. The groups are divided based on a test the kids take when they first enter school at six or seven years old. The “smartest” students, who do the best on the test, are put into the “A” group, the next best into the “B” group, then “C,” “D,” etc. (Although, of course, the names are Cyrillic letters, not Roman.) For the rest of their schooling lives, the students will be identified by their class group, and everyone knows that the A's are the “smartest” and the D's aren't very smart at all. However, this is all based on one test when the children are very young, so it doesn't divide them up very well and there are still slower students in the A group and quicker students in the lower groups. Luckily, my school is quite small, so most of the grades only have 2 classes and the division is not as obvious. In fact, some of the B groups at my school are much better students than their A counterparts.

In addition to studying with the same students throughout their school career, classes also study with the same teacher. There is only one division, between primary (1st-4th forms) and secondary, so primary teachers start with 1a or 1b, and teach those students until they become 4a or 4b, then cycle back down to first form. After that, if a teacher is assigned to 5a for Kazakh history, then they will continue to teach those same students Kazakh history until they graduate. Therefore, you might find some teachers working with both fifth formers and 11th formers. And since English starts in third form at my school, I have both third formers and 11th formers. If I were to stay in Saumolkol for long enough, I could keep teaching my third formers until they graduate from school.

Some of the teachers from my school. The only man in the picture is our "director," or principal, and the lady with the flowers is one of our "zavuchs," or vice principals.

Because classes always study together, they stay in their classroom, and teachers move around. There are no substitute teachers, so if a teacher is sick the school can do one of two things. First, they can make another teacher teach the absent teacher's classes. This is what my school likes to do, and I've found myself standing in front of several different groups of students, without a textbook or any idea about what they're studying, and 45 minutes to fill. Right now, my counterpart is gone for one month to attend a session about methodology, and during that time another English teacher (who already has a full teaching load of 20 hours) is expected to also cover my counterpart's 22 hours. The other option for the school is to rearrange the schedule. If the history teacher is absent, then the periods she taught are dropped from the schedule and all of the other periods move up one hour so that the students get out early. This is what the school I worked at during Pre-Service Training liked to do. As a result, you never knew when in the day you were teaching, and a fifth period class might move up to third, with no reliable way to let you know about the change except a piece of paper hung in the teachers' room.

Grades here are not letters, but numbers from 1-5, with 1 being like an F and 5 being like an A. However, because you have to stay with your group, no one ever receives a 1. And even a 2 is very rare. You might receive a 2 for your daily grade, but never your quarter grade. Students are given a grade every day, in every class, and this is recorded in a giant class journal. The students also have a “kundelnik,” where teachers write their daily grades and they take them home weekly for their parents to sign. The grades are not normally based on tests or homework, but instead are very subjective, depending if the student was well behaved, participated in class, or did whatever a particular teacher wanted. There is no transparency, so teachers never have to defend why they gave a particular grade. At the end of each quarter, students are given a quarterly grade. These can be improved with a few thousand tenge given to the right teacher. Also, if your father happens to be the director or the mayor or someone else important, you're more likely to get a better grade.

A lot of the bribery is because teachers are paid so abysmally poorly. A starting teacher might make the equivalent of $100 or $200 a month. In a country where things are not cheap, this puts them below the poverty line. Teachers are paid based on the number of hours they teach, so everyone is angling to teach the limited available hours. Also, pay checks almost never come through on time. Last month, the teachers at my school didn't receive their salaries until the 20th of the month. This month, everyone was shocked when their money was already in the bank by the 4th.

There's the look of discipline and respect in the classroom here, with students standing when teachers enter the room and also standing up to answer questions. But discipline is normally quite terrible. There's no detention or vice-principal to send misbehaving students to; in fact, they can't even be sent out of the classroom because they are required to receive an education. The general discipline method here seems to be ignore the problem, until there's too much noise and side-conversations, and then yell at the students for several minutes. Immediately afterward, the students are talking again. But sometimes, I can hardly blame them. Most lessons are quite boring. There are no visual aids, just a blackboard. Most of the classes I've observed involved one student at the blackboard working out exercises, either grammar work or math problems, while everyone else copied them in their notebooks (or goofed off with their friends.) In English class, the focus is almost entirely on grammar, and students can barely speak, much less form a sentence. Whenever they are asked to speak, it's normally repetition after the teacher. If they have to come up with an answer on their own, they normally flounder and the teacher harshly corrects them, whereupon they repeat after the teacher and learn nothing but to fear speaking up in class. Everything is translated into Kazakh, so students hardly pay attention to English instructions because they know they'll be translated immediately afterward.

All teaching is geared to the two huge tests that all students must take, the PGK during their 9th year, and the ENT during their 11th year. Students can leave school after 9th form to go to college, which is four years long and either trains them in a trade or makes it easier to get into a university. The most motivated students stay through 11th form, when they take the very difficult ENT in hopes that they do well enough to go to university. The English section of the ENT is almost entirely obscure grammar questions, thus explaining why the teachers teach what they do.

Teachers from our school performing a traditional Kazakh song during a concert for Kazakhstan's Independence Day.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A few snapshots

My host family. My Dad, Oral, is unable to move anything but his right hand and his head; he got some sort of kidney disease about 15 years ago. He's still really positive and happy, though. My Mom, Zubairash, teaches Russian at my school. My sister, Aziza, is in 10th grade. My cousin, Aset, is in 9th grade. He's from Shymkent in the south, but is living with us now. I also have a 23 year old sister, Dana, who works at a hotel in Astana, and an 18 year old brother, Alisher, who studies engineering at a university in Kostanai.

In front of my apartment building.

Waiting for the bus with Aziza - it's really cold here!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Aziza plays the dombra

The dombra is the Kazakh national instrument. Aziza, my host sister, plays it really well, but she was really nervous when I was videoing her so this is the best of 5 takes.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A (Very) Cold Day

Monday it was -30 degrees Celsius, so school was canceled for grades 1-9. This is because it's so cold on the street that it's dangerous for the children to travel, and also because the heating system in the school isn't good enough to actually get the school warm. The trouble is, there's no infrastructure in place to inform the students that there's no school, so my host siblings both went to school anyway. I also tried to go, but the bus didn't come. I ride a special bus, that takes kids from a boarding house where they live during the school week straight to the school, rather than the (very unreliable) public bus. Of course, since the bus is only for students going to school, it wasn't running that day. But I didn't know that. Stepping out of my apartment building at 8am, I noticed that my face was a lot colder than usual, and my snot froze instantly. But since it's been around -2 for the past two weeks, I figured it couldn't be that much colder, maybe -10 or so, and I started to get worried about when it got even colder. By the time I reached the bus stop 10 minutes later, my face and, strangely enough, knees were frozen. After waiting until long after the bus should have come, I finally gave up and trooped home. My host mother called the school director and only then did I discover that school had been canceled. Actually, even though classes were canceled, teachers were still expected to come to work, but the director made special dispensation for me. I think I've told enough people that it never snows in Oregon that they all feel sorry for me and think I'm going to die, or at least get terribly sick, as soon as I walk outside. Then my host mother had to call all of the students in her homeroom class and tell them that school was canceled. How they would have found out if I hadn't stood outside in -30, waiting for the bus for 20 minutes, I'm not sure.

Actually, other than my knees, I was pleasantly surprised with my first encounter with -30 degrees. Sure, I was cold, and I'm not looking forward to when the winds come in February, because they always make everything feel much colder. Nonetheless, I didn't die and didn't even realize it was as cold as it was. It's probably a very good thing I didn't watch the weather report.

With an unforeseen free day, I spent my time writing this blog, doing laundry (this is a 2 or 3 hour intensive task) and making “tacos.” It's kind of an insult to the Mexican people that I call my creation tacos, but I really did my best. There's nothing remotely resembling a tortilla here, and all of the chips are potato chips with this strange “chicken” flavor on them, so my choices for carb were bread or potatoes. I went with mashed potatoes, and spooned seasoned hamburger, fried onions and some strange-tasting cheese over top of them. I think the hamburger was actually lamb, or else really freezer burned, because it tasted funny. The pumpkin pie I made the night before was much more successful. I think I'll stick to desserts.

Lonely Planet Readers Pay Money for This

The Lonely Planet guidebook dedicates a grand total of ½ page to my region of Kazakhstan. Half of that page is descriptions of rundown Soviet hotels you don't really want to stay in, and how to catch the bus or train to another town. The other half is more encouraging, however. There are several “ecotourism” villages in the area, where you can pay to spend the night with a local family in their home. As Lonely Planet puts it, “The main attraction here is the experience of village life amid unspoiled countryside with lakes, woodlands, rocky hills and walking and riding routes, green from spring to autumn.” Well, I don't know about the rocky hills, and it's definitely not green right now, even though it's still officially autumn, but other than that it's a pretty fair description of the trip I went on a few weekends ago.

Nazgul, my counterpart at school, invited me to spend the weekend at her parents' house is the village of Karatal. The village school has 99 students in grades 1-11, so that tells you about how big the town is. It wasn't one of the villages mentioned in the guidebook, but it should have been. It was everything a Kazakhstani village should be: rutted dirt road with geese scattering across it as your bus clatters over the ice, run-down houses with leaning wooden fences around them (but you know they're pristine if simple inside), and a forest of birch trees at the end of the road. And I didn't have to hire a guide or pay money for my room and board! I just had to bring some chocolate bars from the states as a gift, and be willing to butcher the Kazakh language as I made friends with the family.

Kazakhs are renowned for their hospitality, and Nazgul's family was no exception. They served tea with cookies, candy, salad and bread at least four times a day, and made sure to cook me the Kazakh national dish, besfarmak. Kazakh hospitality is different from the American ideal, however. Kazakhs will never begrudge you a place to sleep or a meal, even if you show up unannounced. They always have lots of food, and they never let the guest do any work. (I knew, even as my American politeness offered to help wash the dishes, that I shouldn't offer because it was almost offensive to think that a guest should do work.) But Kazakh hospitality does not necessarily involve entertaining the guest. If people are busy, either cooking dinner or cleaning the house or doing one of the multitude of jobs that needs to be done, they may very well leave the guest to themself, often for long periods of time. I've learned this is not rude, nor does it imply that they aren't happy to have you around. People just don't have the leisure time like we do in America to drop everything and spend the whole day talking to you. If they were required to do this, maybe guests wouldn't be as welcome as they are.

Therefore, I watched a lot of tv while I was in Karatal. But you know, Indiana Jones is still interesting even when you don't know what anyone is saying.

My counterpart Nazgul, on the right, and her friend in front of the Karatal school.

I also got a chance to go to a party with some of Nazgul's friends from high school. One of their classmates had just returned from the army, and so they were having a celebration to welcome him back. (Military service is mandatory for all males in Kazakhstan.) Everyone spoke in Kazakh, so I didn't understand much of what was going on and didn't say much. One guy spent about 5 minutes having me translate words into English, and then repeating them back and laughing. (This makes up the bulk of my conversations here, after “Do you like it in Kazakhstan?” and “Are you used to our weather yet?”) My other main contribution to the festivities was when they had me give a toast.

Everyone was giving toasts to the returned soldier. Fearful that they would call on me, I formulated in my mind what I hoped was an acceptable toast, then waited to see if I would be required to use it. It looked like I was going to get off free, until, almost at the end of the evening, they called on me. Feebly, I raised my glass of orange juice and said (in broken Russian), “May you always have friends as good as the ones you are surrounded by now.” I thought it was a very valiant effort, even bordering on eloquence, and was just settling back in my seat, very satisfied with my toast-giving skills, when everyone started crying out, “That's all? More, more!!” Well, I hadn't prepared for more! And on the spur of the moment, eloquence always flees me. All I could think of was the formulaic toast, “to love!” which, considering how many marriage hints I've been getting recently, did not seem like a good idea. Then, another toast we learned in class came to mind. “Za udacha!” I said, and, for good measure, followed it up with, “To everything good!” By this time, everyone was chuckling and repeating “za udacha” and chuckling more, so I clinked my glass with everyone else's and settled back to figure out what I'd done wrong. I realized later, the toast I'd been searching for was “Za uspeha,” which means “To success,” but instead I'd said, “To good luck.” No wonder they were chuckling. I must have sounded like I thought he frequented the many casinos here.

You can't find a weekend like that in a guide book.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lost in Translation

The things from America that become popular in Kazakhstan never cease to surprise me. Rarely are they also popular in America, and some of them I've never even heard of before. It seems like every week there's another old Eddie Murphy or Steven Segall movie on TV. The biggest pop hit of last year was Enrique Iglesias' “Ring My Bells.” Did that even make the Top 40 in America?

This phenomenon extends beyond mere pop culture. I recently read the book The Little Lady of the Big House by Jack London. In America, London is famous for his adventure stories set in the far north, principally White Fang and Call of the Wild. The Little Lady of the Big House, however, is set in California, and there's almost no adventure in it all. Instead, it's more of a philosophic treatment on love, strength, beauty, and what makes the ideal man and woman. In fact, it reads more like the Russian Turgenev's Fathers and Sons or First Love that it does the typical American vision of Jack London. Yet when I told my family what book I was reading, thinking they would never have heard of it (just like I had never heard of it), they nodded in understanding. “Yes, that is a very great book,” they said.

Another time, I was sitting at dinner when my host father started asking me about some American singer I'd never heard of. “How have you never heard of him? He's a great singer! He has an amazing voice. It is terrible that you have not even heard of your own great artists.” This last comment got under my skin a little, but he was still talking. He went on to tell me the history of this great singer, how he was a communist and so he had to flee America and made his home for most of his life in East Germany. “Well, no wonder I've never heard of him,” I thought, “he didn't even live in America most of his life.” If I'd been feeling argumentative, I might have asked him if he'd ever heard of Boris Pasternak or Alexander Solzhenitsyn, both of whom won Nobel prizes for their work but were repressed in their homeland. But, of course, I couldn't say this to my host father, both because of my broken Russian, and because, despite his great pride in the Kazakh people and their independence, he still has many good things to say about the USSR. So instead, I replied that we have many great singers in America, so it's impossible to memorize the names of all of them.

That conversation illuminated a common frustration I feel here. People seem to assume that, based on the American things that have filtered through to them, they know and understand American culture. But the American things they have here are, as often as not, not even what Americans like. Still, it's not the things themselves that are really frustrating (although “Ring My Bells” is a really annoying song.) Whether The Little Lady of the Big House is more popular than Call of the Wild doesn't really make any difference. The frustrating part is not that Steven Segall is popular in Kazakhstan, but when people tell me that Steven Segall is also popular in America. The rub is that people assume that they know American culture, when they actually only know their version of it.

But then, I have to turn the issue around. How much do we as Americans claim to know about Kazakhstani culture? If we claim any knowledge at all, it usually involves yurts or Borat. But I'll tell you this: I've only seen one yurt my entire time here, and people hate Borat, if they've even heard of him. Actually, more often than not, they haven't heard of him. Just like I'd never heard of that one singer who'd moved to East Germany, or The Little Lady of the Big House. What “Kazakhstan” (or Sasha Baron Cohen) exports to America is not necessarily what's popular in Kazakhstan.

Even when we know more about a culture than we know about Kazakhstan, we're still often off base. Take Russian literature. We all know and revere Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – great writers both. But who in America has read Gogol or Turgenev or the most beloved Russian writer of all, Pushkin? Pushkin is the Shakespeare of Russian literature, and every school child in the former Soviet Union has a fair number of his poems memorized. We can't really know Russian literature without knowing these great writers, yet we claim we do.

What is it that determines what aspects of pop or artistic culture will become popular abroad? I'd like to hazard a guess, based on Jack London. In America, we like exciting stories with lots of action, like Call of the Wild. Over here, a great deal of their classical literature is driven by strong characterization and philosophic discussion, more similar to The Little Lady of the Big House. So maybe that's part of what determines the ability of a book, painting, or song to cross a border: how closely it resembles the cultures it's entering. The more similar to that culture it is, the more likely it will become popular there. And then how does that, in turn, reflect our understanding of the culture from whence it came?

I think this calls for an in depth scholarly study of Enrique Iglesias' “Ring My Bells.”


To celebrate Thanksgiving, all of the volunteers (24 total) from Northern Kazakhstan and Akmola Oblasts got together for the weekend to cook a Thanksgiving feast and hang out. It was great to meet the Kaz 20s (the folks who've already been here for a year) and also to speak English very quickly, using many idioms and obscure cultural references, and still be understood.

We got together at the "Sportivnaya Sanitoriya" in the village of Zerenda. Molly might not have liked the sagging beds crammed 8 to a room, but she can't argue with the beautiful nature.

Hannah, Holly and Patrick on a stroll through the woods. I have a small forest behind my house, but other volunteers are out on the steppe, so they were quite happy to see something green.

Ultimate frisbee is great fun, anytime, anywhere!

We're already part Kazakh - we drank tea at least 3 times a day.

Myles mashes potatoes, while Patrick attempts to light the stove for more tea.

Tobin marinates the turkey before we BBQ it. None of the ovens here are big enough (or actually work at all), so we had to improvise.

Our yummy turkey "shashlyk," only a little burnt, plus marinated mushrooms and pumpkin bread. This really is a Kazakhstani Thanksgiving.

The mashed potatoes, carved into a goat head. You can't have a festive occasion in Kazakhstan without a goat head.

Thanksgiving dinner, complete with decorations thanks to someone's mom in the states.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Some impressions from my first week at site

I've been at my permanent site for a week now, and I just barely feel like I'm getting my feet under me. We were sworn in as “Peace Corps Volunteers” on Halloween, and the next day the group of us who were heading to northern Kazakhstan climbed on the train. It was a relaxing 27 hour ride across the vast Kazakh steppe, and a great chance for me to try to wrap my mind around the fact that I was finally going to start what I came here to do. Unfortunately, 27 hours was not enough time for that, so I climbed off the train in Kokshetau still dazed and not quite sure what I was about. My counterpart, or the teacher I will be working with the most closely these next two years, was there to meet me, along with our school's zavuch, or vice principal. After a quick goodbye to the last Americans I would see for many weeks, I climbed into an old Lada for the 1 ½ hour drive to my new town.

My site is a town of about 10,000 people on the shores of a lake (which, unfortunately, you can't swim in because it's polluted.) There used to be many more people here, but with the fall of the Soviet Union and the closing of the local uranium mines, a great many Russians left, leaving a lot of abandoned apartment buildings which are quite eerie at night, and about which my host family cannot apologize enough. I will be working in the Kazakh school here; there are also two other schools, both Russian language. Here are just a few of the things I've learned since I've been here:

1. You must wear a coat, hat, gloves, scarf, and boots when you go outside. If you do not wear boots, you will be stared at by everyone, and will get a scolding from the most outspoken people.
2. Be careful about smiling and nodding when you don't know what people are saying. They are probably asking you to give them English lessons, and you don't want to get yourself into that.
3. Be ready and willing to make up a lot of numbers. People will continually ask you how much money a teacher/doctor/your father makes in America, how much money a house/car/coat/toothpaste costs in America, how much money you spent on your coat/boots/apartment rent here in Kazakhstan, etc. It's not impolite, so just make up something quickly and hope it's close to accurate.
4. Don't touch the classroom walls. Whatever paint they use comes off in a powdery mess on your jacket, and it's very hard to get off.
5. Learn the lyrics to at least one Kazakh song. You will be asked to sing, and it's just easier to do it than protest that you don't know any songs.
6. Come up with a good way to decline multiple invitations to marry a Kazakh. You will constantly be told to marry someone here, and a smile and laugh are not enough to put off the most persistent offers. (I have yet to accomplish this goal.)
7. It's better if the director (principal) of your school is a man. Because the wife always cooks and cleans the house, in addition to her job, while the man's main occupation is watching tv, a man will have more time to do his job well. (This is what the teachers at my school told me.)
8. Don't for one second think you've escaped the fish bowl. You are still in one. Everyone knows that you didn't wear boots to school yesterday, you can sing “Kozimning Karasi,” and which families you went to visit as potential host families. (And what you liked and didn't like about each of them, if you were silly enough to admit it out loud.)
9. Learn to laugh at yourself. You will make multiple mistakes, and everyone will laugh. It's your choice whether they will laugh at you or laugh with you.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Around town

Our Kazakh language group, saying goodbye to our teacher Aigul. After spending 4+ hours together everyday, we've gotten pretty close.

Echo's awesome art project that she did with the kids. They picked up trash, mostly empty pop bottles, on the roadside and made them into flowers. Then Echo put together this awesome trash-flower mobile.

Walking around town, we saw a sign for "Tandoor Nan" scratched into a rusted gate. It smelled so good that even the sketchiness of the entrance couldn't keep us away.

The oven where they baked the bread - it was delicious!

The scariest bridge in the world. The floor bends under your weight, plus the whole bridge sways from side to side when you walk on it. Thankfully, I have brave Denise to keep me safe.

Kazakh fat-bottomed sheep, strolling through our village. Their fat bottoms are highly prized here as a delicacy.

The large pile of coal that will heat my house this winter.

Murphey's Law

In Kazakhstan, you can't procrastinate. Because if you do, then Murphey's Law will cause everything to go wrong.

Take, for example, the task of washing my hair. My host dad heats up the banya every Saturday, so I get a good bath once a week, but for the rest of the week I'm on my own. Greasy is the norm here, but I still feel the need to wash my hair once in the middle of the week. (That is, until I can find some baby powder. Apparently, comb a little of that through your hair, it soaks up all the grease, and you're good to go. One girl, in desperation, and without readily available baby powder, noted that the dirt on the side of the road is also fine and powder and rubbed that in her hair instead. As much as we laughed about it, her hair did look less greasy than mine.)

But for now, I still wash my hair twice a week. Normally, this process is simple, if time consuming. I heat up water in the tea pot on the stove, take it out to the banya building, and mix it in a bucket with cold water that I've carted in from the well in the yard. I have to be conservative, because one tea kettle of hot water doesn't go very far, and my back hurts after leaning over the bucket sitting on a low bench in the banya, but the whole process only takes about 30 minutes in total, so it's not too bad.

Well, it's not too bad until Murphey's Law comes into play. I haven't yet learned that I shouldn't wait until it's absolutely essential (ie, my hair is almost in dreadlocks) to wash my hair. One week, I put off the mid-week washing until Thursday night. Unfortunately, sitting at the dinner table that evening around 8pm, the power went out. We got out the candles, and finished our dinner, but I couldn't really bathe by candlelight. I decided to wait until morning, and woke up early to put the kettle on. I went to flip on the light, and found that the power was still out. I suppose I could have just worn my dreadlocks for the day (everyone here, at least my fellow PC trainees, would totally have understood.) But, getting creative, I took the cardboard out of the banya window that protects privacy, and then bathed as fast as I possibly could, jumping at every sound in fear that the neighbors were looking in.

Another week, I was silly enough to procrastinate until Friday morning. I got up early, to be sure to use the teapot before anyone wanted to drink their morning tea. Unfortunately, even a gas stove takes a long time to heat water, so by the time the water was hot Marzhan and my host mom were up. I graciously offered to let them drink tea first, then heat up the water again to take my bath. But when they went into the kitchen to get the water, they discovered why it had taken so long for my water to heat: we were out of gas. Gas here is not pumped into the houses through a line, but comes in big containers much like giant camping propane bottles. There would be no more hot water until the gas man drove by in his giant truck sometime later that week. Desperate, I washed my hair with cold water, but got a huge scolding for doing so because, apparently, anything cold will make you sick. So I guess that's the last time I'm doing that.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A hike in the mountains

One Friday, the Peace Corps took us on an excusion to the mountains. The day was beautiful, and we got to go hiking along a creek.

The mountains were incredible. This picture does not in anyway do them justice. Simply gorgeous.

At the end of the hike, there was a very nice waterfall where we hung out for several hours.

Our Kazakh teacher, Aigul, is amazing!

All 65 Kaz-21 Peace Corps trainees, in front of a giant "Golden Man" statue. The Golden Man, the greatest archeaological find in Kazakhstan, was found very near where I live now and is a national symbol.

The Russian Orthodox Priest

Several weeks ago, wandering through our little village, my friend Sarah and I stumbled onto a tiny Russian Orthodox church. It was perfect timing, because the service was just beginning. We donned headscarves from a box by the door and stood, enthralled, as a priest walked around the room, waving a censer of incense in front of the four elderly women in attendance and chanting in old Russian. We continued standing as he went behind a curtain and kept chanting. From an unseen balcony above our heads a woman would chant in reply, her voice drifting down almost like angels from heaven. It was all very beautiful, and the nearest equivalent I can give to the sounds would be Gregorian chants. We stayed for about 30 minutes, but not knowing how long the service would last, we slipped out early and spent the next 15 minutes talking about how fortunate we were to find that little church.

A few weeks later, a different friend, Denise, and I were also wandering around the village. Denise asked if we could go to the church, because I'd been raving about how beautiful it was. We made our way to the edge of town, where this time the service was just ending. Wanting to peek inside at the icons hanging on the walls, we edged toward the door. The same four old ladies shuffled past us, and last of all the priest came out. He was wearing a long, black robe, and had a beard that reached to his waist and a ponytail just as long hanging down his back.

As we stood in front of the church, he approached us, a welcoming smile on his face. Then, he asked if we were spies. At first, we didn't understand, but when he said “CIA” it became clear. “No, no, no!” we exclaimed. “We're certainly not spies. We have nothing to do with the CIA or even the embassy.” Then we tried to explain what we were doing in Kazakhstan, but when someone suspects you of being a spy, all of a sudden you're very nervous about what you say, and everything begins to sound suspicious. At first, I thought something like, “I'm here to learn about your culture,” but no, that sounds like I'm gathering intel. Then I thought, “I'm here with the Peace Corps,” but then he would be bound to ask what that is, and I would have to admit that it's with the US government. And all of this, of course, in broken Russian. Eventually, we ended up saying we were English teachers and then started talking about how Denise doesn't like the mountains because she's from Nebraska. It seemed the safest course of action at the time.

After we had established that we were not spies (although I wonder if he was convinced), he asked us if we knew why there was an economic crisis. “If we knew, we wouldn't be in one!” Denise exclaimed. So he offered to tell us. Below, I've given the best transcription of his speech that I can. It was very interesting, to say the least. I should note that this whole speech was given in a very nice and mild-mannered way, never accusatory or confrontational, so in person it seemed a lot less polemic than it does on a computer screen. That's probably why we didn't realize at first that he was accusing us of being spies. And why we stuck around even after we figured out that he was.

Before I begin though, I should say this: These are the words of one village priest, and do not necessarily represent the stance of the Russian Orthodox church as a whole. They also do not represent the Peace Corps (as none of my blog does) and they don't represent me. I hope that I've recorded them as accurately as possible, but something may have been lost in translation.

We are in an economic crisis because God told us not to lend money for interest, but we did. We have factories and farms built on nothing but promises to banks. How can we ever expect to build something out of nothing? We even lend to our own families, and expect them to pay us back with interest. We are only interested in earning dollars or rubles (the Russian currency; he never referred to the Kazakhstani currency, tenge). That is why we are in this crisis; God is punishing us for not obeying him.

Do you know the history of Carthage? It was a great empire. It had many great kings, such as Hannibal, who attacked the Greeks. But Carthage worshiped Mammon (money). They were very greedy, and they put Mammon before God. Mammon is the same thing as the devil, and because they worshiped him and not God they were destroyed and are not around anymore.

We are just as evil as Carthage, and that is why we're in the end times. The earth and human society is sinking into hell. Only a few people are hanging on with the tips of their fingers, fighting the descent. But most of the world is evil and soon we will all be destroyed.

That is, unless Russia saves us all. It is only Russia that can save the world, because it is a holy country. It's wonderful that we're learning Russian, because there are Russians everywhere, throughout the whole world. And Russia is a holy country, because it is led by a holy man. President Putin (this is how the priest referred to him) said that he was given two gifts by God. (I wish I'd asked him what these two gifts were, but I didn't.) Who would ever say that they were given gifts by God if this weren't true? And since Putin was given gifts by God, this shows that the government of Russia is sacred. Conversely, no American president has ever said that he was given gifts by God.

How can America expect to run well as a country if we're constantly changing presidents every four years? It's like driving a car and changing drivers every four hours, or running a factory and changing managers every four months; it just doesn't work. Besides, the president is just a puppet of the Anglo-Saxon and Jewish establishment anyway, and he doesn't have any real power.

America is a weak country now, because they don't work to produce anything. Thirty years ago, 30% of Americans worked in the production sector, but now only 10% do. And because we don't make anything with our hands, but import everything (and therefore have a huge trade deficit) we have become weak and fat. Both Americans as individual people, and America the country, is weak and fat. We just move money around and lend at interest, and that is why we are in an economic crisis now.

But we should come back and speak to him once we speak better Russian, and we can have many more interesting talks.

A Message from Bayan

Bayan, my 17-year-old host sister, wanted to say something to you all, but I made her write it in English, so this is what she says.

My name is Bayan.Im from in Kazahstan.Im 17 years,11 th class.I have a father,a mather,a brother and his wife,a sister and her husband.My hobby is listen to music and dansing.I like ice-cream,juise. My dream is tu graduate university.I want car.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Baursak is one of the national dishes of Kazakhstan. Basically, it is deep-fat-fried triangles of dough. One day, the staff in our village got us all together and taught us how to make it.

Sasha chops the wood to start the fire.

Once the fire is started under the giant kettle, Aigul pours two bottles of oil into the pot.

Meanwhile, Denise and Sarah cut up the dough. (Johnny and Marissa "supervise.")

Laura fries the baursak. Yum, yum!

How to Wash Laundry by Hand

Mix hot and cold water, add lots of soap, and then scrub, scrub, scrub. When you think you've scrubbed enough, you're about halfway done.

Wring out the clothes very well.

Hang them up to dry on the line, and hope it doesn't rain. 24 hours later, voila! Clean clothes that still smell strongly of the soap you clearly didn't rinse out well enough.

An Evening with my Family

In which my host sister has garlic stuck-up her nose, my brother plays fetch with our neighbor boy, and Barak Obama sings a Kazakh pop song

This particular evening starts when I come home to find my sister Marzhan with something stuck up her nose. At first I think it's a piece of tissue because she had a bloody nose or something, but on closer inspection I find out that it's garlic. (By “closer inspection,” I mean surreptitious glances out of the corner of my eye as we drink chai. I still haven't figured out the cultural norms for asking about ailments.) I'm still not sure why she had garlic stuck up her nose, but at least she took it out before she went to the store.

I'm getting used to strange medical practices around this house. Last week, my brother was complaining about an earache, so my mom got out a bottle and a hypodermic needle. She loaded up the needle with the medicine from the bottle and gave him a shot in the buttocks. Even if I have had to get 12 shots so far from the Peace Corps doctor, it still made me cringe.

But this particular evening, the illnesses aren't over yet. In addition to garlic up the nose, my other sister Gulya is wearing a SARS-style face mask. She says it's because she has a cold. I think, “How thoughtful of her, to think of the rest of us and not spread her germs,” until she takes off the mask to cough. And she still double dips in the apricot jam at dinner, so I eat the rest of my slice of bread plain.

Dinner is a real treat: pizza! I made pizza once before for my family, and I guessed they liked it enough to have it again. Or maybe they feel like they aren't feeding me well enough because I keep bringing home the congealed fat and slimy noodles that I get for lunch. This morning my mama insisted that, in addition to my fat and carbs, I take three handfuls worth of candy that she shoved in my lunch bag. And now we're eating pizza. I hope I haven't implied that I don't like their food; I just don't like it cold.

Luckily, I get in on the process of cooking dinner. I say luckily, because they keep asking if they can replace the cheese on the pizza with mayonnaise. And even though I keep saying no, they keep asking, so I'm glad to be in the kitchen, making sure that no mayonnaise ends up on my pizza.

Pizza is super easy to make over here. They already have a flat bread with a raised edge that works perfect for the crust. Then you just cut up and boil down some tomatoes to make the sauce, grate the cheese (tonight it was gouda), and cover it all with onions, peppers, and bologna, which was the only kind of meat we had in the house. Pizza is much more of a success than my other cooking attempt, Shepherd's Pie. One day, about eleven o'clock, my dad asked me if I wanted to make lunch. With nothing else to do, I said yes. He replied, “Great, so what will you need? You'll need meat, and what else?” Vegetarian is definitely not an option. Because of the time constraints, though, I ended up making a very interesting version of Shepherd's Pie. Basically, it was a little meat and a lot of onions with some Italian seasoning, and mashed potatoes on top. Although my dad said it was delicious, I haven’t been asked to make that again. I think pizza was a much bigger hit.

In the middle of our meal, a small boy walks into our house. He seems to be about one year old, since he's walking but not yet talking. There is no adult in sight. He's very cute, and comes right up to the table and grabs a handful of walnuts, still in the shell. We play with him; my brother throws walnuts across the room for him to go get and bring back, like playing fetch with a dog. At first, I think we might be babysitting him. But then he starts to get fussy and asks for his mom, so Bayan picks him up and takes him home. I think he might be our neighbor. I really hope he's our neighbor, and didn't just wander over here on his own.

After dinner, the whole family gathers in the living room to watch TV. Our favorite show is on, a kind of variety show with a lot of singing, some comedy acts and the odd juggler and fire blower. Tonight, for the last act, the guest star is “Barak Obama.” He's portrayed by a Kazakh guy in an afro wig, torn jeans and a t-shirt that reads “Roots Rock.” Is this really how Kazakhstanis see our president? I try to ask about the jeans, but my family is so into whatever he's saying in Kazakh (I hear “Hilary Clinton” several times) that they don't answer me. Then Obama breaks out into a Kazakh pop song, complete with back-up singers. I never knew he had such talent.

Next a show comes on called “Two Stars.” It's the Kazakhstani version of American Idol, complete with background stories and a panel of judges. Alas, there is no Kazakhstani Simon Cowell, because the singers are awful and need to be told so. I can actually understand their comments, because they almost all involve the words “zhaksi (good)” or “tamasha (excellent).” Unfortunately, not one of the singers or zhaksi or tamasha. Where are all the good singers in this country? I know they're out there, because I just listened to Barak Obama sing.

At this point my siblings start laying out their “beds” (mats laid on the floor) in the living room, and I know it's time to head for bed.

I really love living with a family, because it adds such an interesting dimension to my cross cultural experience and insight into daily life here. I mean, how else would I know that very small children are allowed to wander around at will, and this is a culturally acceptable child-rearing practice? Or that garlic stuck up your nose is a cure for…something? But in addition to that, I just love my family in general because they're such great people. There's a bit of a rivalry going on between the trainees in my village about who has the best host family, but I can say with (slightly biased) confidence that mine is by far the best.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Fishbowl

The Peace Corps' favorite metaphor definitely involves fish. For example, we are like fish out of water over here in Kazakhstan. We are also fish who have left their familiar waters of America. One day during cultural training, we wrote our greatest cultural problem on one side of a paper fish, then had to find something positive about that experience, ie “flip that fish.”

And probably the most true, even if it's the most cliché: We're living in a fish bowl over here.

I didn't notice the fish bowl at first, but that's probably because I don't speak the language, so I can't understand what people are talking about. For example, I'm pretty sure my family talks about me all the time, but since my name is the same as the word for “mother,” I can't be sure. The other night I was ironing my clothes on a cloth spread out on the living room floor, my family sitting around me and watching tv. At first, I was a little suspicious that they might be discussing my ironing abilities. (Considering that I probably ironed a grand total of five things before coming here, I'm sure my technique is not quite correct.) They were saying “ana” a lot, and as I ironed a button up shirt I definitely heard the word for “suit.” Then, the truth came out; they directly asked me how much a shirt had cost. My suspicions were confirmed! I wonder how many other times they've talked about me while I blithely ate my bread and sipped my tea, or attempted to watch Turkish soap operas on tv?

There are other subtle clues that people around town are also taking notice of the Americans. I often feel eyes staring at me as I'm walking down the road. Every child in school has the burning desire to showcase their knowledge of the English language to us, shouting, “Hello! Hello!” (Sometimes they also know “How are you?”) The people at the bazaar automatically know to use their limited English to tell us the price of those tomatoes. But, although we've been warned that everybody in the town is talking about what we're wearing, I've never heard anything about my lack of high heels. (Which we now refer to as “respectable teacher heels.” I might cave someday, but I haven't yet.)

I've realized, though, that information does travel. My host sister, Bayan, can tell me who every single American lives with, and her connection to them. She greeted me after school one day with the question, “Why was So-and-so crying in class today?” One of the girl's host mothers was concerned that she wasn't eating enough, and she scolded her, “Noelle (another PC trainee) eats everything she's given. Why don't you eat as well as Noelle?”

On August 30th was Noelle's birthday. We decided to have a birthday party, just a low key affair where the trainees in our town would get together at one of the staff's apartments and hang out. However, Noelle's family planned a trip to the hot springs (ie, warm swimming pool) for the day, and didn't want to come home early. We decided, since everyone had already cleared their schedule, we'd just have the birthday party anyway. And since most of us had already spent an hour trying to explain with charades that we wanted to go to Noelle's birthday party on Saturday, we decided that it would just be easier if we didn't bother telling our families that Noelle wasn't going to be at her own birthday party. We went, we had a great time, and when I returned home Bayan asked, “Why wasn't Noelle at her own birthday party?” “How did you know?” I asked, baffled. But she's not telling; she says it's a secret. The networks here are creepy.

This whole “fishbowl effect” is a little frightening. In America, I was relatively anonymous. Now, if I were to go outside in shorts (something that only children do, apparently), there's a very good chance that I would be the talk around many different dinner tables that evening.

Maybe I'm being too dramatic. But there's no doubt that I stand out as an American. I'll probably never realize exactly what I'm doing wrong. I try not to smile, wear dark shoes, and not swing my arms too much when I walk. But, judging from the stares, I'm still “one of the Americans.” There are advantages, of course. Just today, walking home from a friend's house, a little boy rode up next to me on his skateboard. “I heard you're one of the Americans,” he stated. “Yes, I am,” I replied, and then we had a very nice conversation about how he went to my school, that he was in sixth grade, and how he hoped he would have one of the Americans teach his English class. I'd never have had the conversation if I wasn't so obviously “not from around here.” But it does make you watch your actions a little more. We're the most exciting thing that's happened in this village since, well, the last trainees were here two years ago. I wonder if they still talk about how So-and-so wore jeans to school once?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A few photos

The view of the Tian Shan mountains from my village, complete with cow. There are many cows (and many more cow droppings) on the roads. Many families own a cow and walk it out to the edge of town to eat weeds during the day, then walk it home at night to milk it.

Papa Kozhabek, Mama Mubarek, and my sister-in-law Marzhan.

The spread for my birthday dinner. My birthday was also the last day of Ramadan, so although my family said it was all for my birthday party, I think at least some of this must have been their excitement at finally being able to eat during the day. As a side note, these are just the "appetizers." The beshfarmak is yet to come. (Notice the lack of personal plates; we all just dig in to the serving dishes with our forks.)

In our classroom. You can't really see it, but these are military posters, including different types of grenades and the parts of a Kalishnakov. We have other posters showing all the variaties of nuclear bombs. And in the front of the classroom is a photo of President Nazabayev in full military regalia. Military classes are required in public schools for boys and girls in 10th and 11th grades.

V Gosti

Going “v gosti” (in Kazakh, “konakka baradi;” in English, “visiting”) is an art here in Kazakhstan. You need only set foot inside someone's gate to be invited to “chai,” and then you're busy for the next half hour at least. Chai is the Russian word for tea, but we use it to refer to both the tea and the multitude of cookies, fruit, nuts, etc that is inevitably served with it. It is impossible to go v gosti without chai. And it is impossible to just drink one cup of tea and nip out after 10 minutes. Stopping by someone's house is, at minimum, a 30 minute and 500 calorie affair.

Only my second day in village I got my first chance to go v gosti. Although our village isn't that big, we still have to walk everywhere, so it often takes 15-30 minutes to get where you're going. When the PC staff came around to check how everything was going with our host families after our first night, they showed us where our nearest neighbors lived so we wouldn't feel too isolated. My nearest neighbor is Sidd, now known by his Russian name of “Sasha,” who lives only three minutes away. I was invited over to see where he lives, which (judging from American customs) I thought meant a quick stroll over to his front gate so I'd know how to get there. I quickly learned otherwise.

Sasha lives with an elderly Russian couple and their single 38-year-old son, Vasiliy. He has just started studying Russian, and so it's very difficult for him to communicate anything with his family. Because I speak some Russian, I got to be the translator of sorts. When I first entered their house, all three members of his family started talking at once, telling long stories that I didn't understand a word of. At first, I thought this was just their excitement at having someone around who could “understand.” I quickly learned, however, that they are like this all the time, and Sasha is constantly confused.

First things first: Sasha's mom served me tea, cookies, borsh, and salad. After we were stuffed full, she ushered us into the living room. Sasha is an incredible musician, and he was smart enough to bring his mandolin with him to Kazakhstan. He played and sang several songs for us, and though his family might be unable to understand a word that he was saying, the music was truly transcendent. Watching Sasha's host mom's face as he played made me wish I could play something more portable than a piano. She was completely happy and proud of her “American son.”

After listening to our mini-concert, Vasiliy offered to take Sasha and I on a tour of the village. Excited to see our new home, we agreed. We headed for the edge of town (5 minutes away) and then took a stroll through the countryside. At first we walked past a wheat field that had already been harvested, then crossed a river (very dirty drainage ditch/creek). We walked along the creek, through an area that Vasiliy said was a common space, so there were no crops growing there, just grass and some weeds. Some people had staked their donkeys and cows closer to town, but the further we went the more alone we became. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the majestic Tian Shan mountains rose up behind the village. Vasiliy kept us entertained with an unending stream of stories and information, ranging from the frequency of earthquakes around Almaty, to leeches in the lake we passed, to the problem of slavery in modern Kazakhstan. (I really wish I could have understood what he said about this, but since my vocabulary is so limited, I don't want to misquote him.) It was very relaxing and beautiful.

I've had the chance to visit several other PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) as well. At every single house, I have to have tea. Even when I went over to my friend Sarah's house to do homework together, her mom covered the whole table in cookies and fruit. They don't need any warning; for example, once my friend Denise and I walked another friend, Gambrill, home from an outing. Since Denise lives in a small apartment with a Russian family, she wanted to see how a Kazakh family lives. Gambrill brought us into the house briefly, just to show Denise the house. Gambrill's mom and sister welcomed us happily, had us sit on the couch, and promised us tea. Within 15 minutes they had brought out the table, covered it in melon and cookies, and had the water hot and ready. Then there was nothing we could do but partake.

It was on this same visit to Gambrill's house that I got to see my first goat's head. Her host dad and sister were in the back yard with the head speared on a stick, roasting it over a fire. They also had the goat's four legs speared on the four tongs of a pitchfork and were roasting those as well. Watching them char the head, I didn't mind that I was only staying to chai, not dinner. Only one of us so far has had the privilege of eating goat's head. Andrew, who's studying Kazakh with me, went to a big party on his first weekend in the village. A goat's head was served in honor of the occasion (it's a huge delicacy here, and a must for any big party). Luckily for Andrew, there were many elders at the party, so they received the more honorary parts, such as the eyes and brain. He was only served half the nose. I didn't get a chance to find out what it tasted like.

So far the food here hasn't been too bad. It's very meat and carb based, but since it's fall there's plenty of fresh fruit and veggies available as well. (Not that they make their way onto our dinner table.) I've eaten plenty of lamb, and plenty of chunks of fat that I mistook for potatoes. I've tried many different Central Asian dishes, including plov (lamb and rice), lagman (lamb and thin noodles) and the national dish of Kazakhstan, bisfarmak (lamb and wide noodles.) This is traditionally served on a big plate in the middle of the table, and everyone reaches in with their hands. Everything is served communally here; there is no such thing as a personal plate. Different dishes are put out on the table and then you stick your fork in and take a bite. Bread is sacred and is served at every meal. There's always a big basket on the table, and you rip off a piece and just set it on the table in front of you.

Ramadan just ended September 20th, so devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset for a month. My host mom and elder host sister, Marzhan, both practiced Ramadan, so although they sat at the table when the rest of the family ate their “afternoon snack,” we didn't have our big meal until 8pm, after the sun went down. But they still sat at the table even when they weren't eating; everyone in the family sits at the table when it's time to eat, and they stay at the table until everyone is done eating and drinking chai.

It's customary to have at least three cups of tea whenever you sit down, and quite possibly more. Serving tea is a complicated process, normally performed by the eldest daughter in the house. First she pours milk into the bowls that Kazakhs use instead of cups with handles. Then she pours strong tea from a small teapot, followed by hot water from a larger pot. Whenever you need a refill, just hand your bowl to her. She pours out the little bit that may be left in the bottom (cold tea is bad) and fills your bowl again. A full cup is a sign that she wants you to leave, because by the time you get to the bottom of your bowl it will be cold. Half filled or less is the most hospitable cup of tea. And I’ve drunk plenty of those!

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Tour of My New Life

So much has happened these last few days, I hardly know where to start. Our flight went well, and we first set foot on Kazakhstansky soil, very sleepy, at 1:15am Friday morning. The airport at Almaty was impressively clean and airy, with high ceilings and no visible mold or crumbly tile (as compared to Pulkovo, St. Petersburg!) We had two days of orientation at “Sanitorium Kok Tobe,” in the city, most of which I spent recovering from the flight while trying to absorb the gobs of information that Peace Corps was sharing with us. I did learn this though: I must state in this blog that everything I write is my own personal opinion and not an official statement from the Peace Corps.

Then came the most exciting and fear-inducing part of the trip so far: we divided into training groups and set off for the villages where we will spend the next two months learning the language and culture while living with a host family. I will be living in a small town of about 5,000-10,000 only 30 km outside of Almaty. There are two groups of six Americans each living in my village, a Russian language group and my group, who's learning Kazakh.

Because I'm learning Kazakh, I'm living with a Kazakh family. I have a papa, Kozhabek, a mama, Mubarak, and a 17-year-old sister, Bayan. Bayan is very helpful and nice, and kindly shows me how to do things and where to find everything. Living at the house is also one other son/brother, Sirek, and his wife, Marzhan, because in Kazakh culture one son always stays home and lives with his parents so he can take care of them when they are old. It doesn't matter, however, if it is the oldest or youngest brother, although it's never a daughter. Kozhabek and Mubarak have several other children, but they don't live at home. They do come “v gosti” (visiting) quite often, completely unannounced. It seems that everyone here goes “v gosti” unannounced, just walking in without knocking, and immediately food is put out on the table and chai (tea) is served.

We live in a big house with 2 bedrooms, a small kitchen, a living room, a dining room, and another less formal dining room. I have one bedroom and the parents the other. Bayan sleeps in the living room on the couch, and Sirek and Mazhan sleep on a blanket in the dining room. There is not much furniture in the house; I think my room is the most thoroughly furnished, with a bed, wardrobe, vanity, and table. When guests spend the night (which they do regularly) they just lay out some more blankets on the floor.

We live in a compound of sorts. There are two houses, plus many outbuildings including the outhouse, banya (bathhouse), and garage, all surrounded by a tall fence. All of the houses here are surrounded by fences. In the other house in our compound lives another family who, as far as I can tell, is not related to mine. Bayan told me they are just renting the house from her family. Still, they share many things, and often drop in without knocking or sit on our back porch and eat pears from our tree together. There is no concept of knocking or privacy here. When the Peace Corps held orientation for our host families, they shared certain American customs with them, including the American love of privacy. Therefore, my family rarely comes into my room. (Although, right now, they are in my room, Bayan reading this over my shoulder to practice her English. I'm not sure if she understands what I've written, though, and I know Mubarak doesn't, because the only time she makes excited noises is when Bayan reads her name. I did leave the door to my room open, though, so that's clearly an open invitation.) Still, so far I've had enough space, and I was wondering if Peace Corps had exaggerated the lack of privacy until some of Mubarak's friends came over for dinner. They spent the night and in the morning, after eating breakfast, I went back into my room to get my toothbrush and found one of the friends sitting at my vanity, doing her makeup. I let that one slide; I think I left my door open that time too.

Because my family is Kazakh, at first I thought they didn't speak any Russian, which was both a good thing (my Kazakh won't improve as quickly if I can use Russian as a crutch) and a bad thing (it's very difficult to get to know your family when the only things you can say are “Hello,” “How are you?,” “I'm from America” and “Goodbye.”) I discovered about 2 hours later, however, that they actually do speak Russian, which, for the exact same reasons, is both a good and a bad thing. We've been able to have several interesting conversations, though, especially when I showed my pictures from home. (They think “Julie” is a very funny sounding name.) We also talked about money at dinner last night; Kozhabek wanted to know how much money my father makes, how much a house costs in America, how much bread and milk cost there, etc. Good practice with numbers.

The home is very comfortable, but it definitely doesn't have many of the comforts that many Americans consider essential. We do have electricity, though it often goes out, as it did on my first night here (but only for ½ hour.) We have a sink, but the water rarely works in the summer. Instead, we always test the faucet just in case, then go to the giant pot of water in the kitchen that they've carted in with buckets and scoop what we need out of there. There is a faucet in the backyard that always works, and apparently in the winter the faucet in the house works much more regularly.

Because we don't have running water in the house, we also don't have a toilet inside. (Although, oftentimes, even with running water there might not be a toilet.) Instead we have an outhouse out back, and it's of the “squatty potty” variety. I'm going to have very strong thigh muscles before this is all done! The method (we learned the proper way to squat in language class) will take some getting used to, and I don't really like to get up and go outside in the middle of the night, but overall it's not too bad. Still, in addition to the dangers you can foresee (missing the hole, or, much worse, hitting your pants) there are some unforeseen difficulties. The other night, stumbling around in the dark as I went out before going to bed, I unknowingly slipped on the pair of “tapachki” (plastic sandals that you wear around the yard instead of shoes) that will not stay on my feet. Normally, it's only a little annoying when the shoe goes flying across the yard when I step forward, and I have to hop to catch up to it. That night, though, there was the very distinct threat that I would fling the tapachka down the toilet hole. Considering that they don't even throw toilet paper down there (but instead but it in a bucket next to the hole), a plastic sandal would have been bad news indeed. And I definitely didn't want to have to explain why one tapachka was missing! Thankfully, I survived, and now I'm more careful about my choice of footwear.

It's amazing how many things take running water! We don't have a shower in the house, but only a banya out back. Oh, the banya is wonderful! (As anyone with whom I've shared my experience in Russia will know.) This banya is, of course, a small family affair, and any more than three people inside would be crowded. You undress (all the way) in the small outer room, then go into the steam room. There's a large metal canister filled with the hot water, which the men started a fire under earlier that day. (Saturday is always banya day.) There's also a large tub of cold water, and you mix the two in your own personal smaller tub until you get the temperature you want. Then you splash some on yourself, scrub all over with soap, and splash some more to get the soap off. Next you dump out the water, get some more, and scrub your hair. A third bucket gets the rest of the shampoo out, and you're done. Apparently the banya building is used for all sorts of washing, because when I came back from a walk with dusty feet and asked where I could wash them, they directed me to the banya building. And later in the week, when I wanted to wash my hair, I heated water up on the stove, carted several buckets of cold water from the hose in the backyard, and mixed the two in the same plastic tubs in the banya building. A very cold endeavor in the winter, but luckily the weather is nice and warm right now.

I also got to learn how to do laundry by hand on my second day with the family. Apparently they have a half automatic machine somewhere, but for some reason (they explained why, but I didn't understand the Russian) I didn't get to use it this time. Instead, I filled up two plastic tubs with water, half from the hose and half from a large kettle of hot water that was over a fire in the backyard. I scrubbed, my hands in the soapy water, but it was clearly not right, because my sister and several of the neighbor ladies were all sitting on the porch, watching me and laughing. Finally my sister came over and gave me a lesson in how to scrub clothes. It involved about 5 times as much elbow grease and 10 times as much soap. And I'm still not sure if I got them clean.

The contrast here between the ancient ways and modern technology is amazing. We might have an outdoor outhouse and wash our clothes by hand, but everyone (including both of my parents) has a cell phone. And when my host sisters came over to check out what I was doing on my computer, and asked if they could see what I had on it, it was clear as they easily clicked around that they were familiar with how to use Microsoft Word. They even got out their flash drive and asked if they could look at pictures that their sister had given them. (Their computer is broken right now.)

Well, since this post is already much too long, I will write more later. Stay tuned for news about several different goat head incidents (all in the first week!), going “v gosti,” and eating with my hands.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


The anticipation, the frantic planning, the checking and double checking to make sure that I have everything that I will probably find out I don't need, but right now feels essential: it's all coming to an end. Well, maybe the anticipation isn't ending, and I'm pretty sure “frantic” won't be over anytime soon. But I'm stuck with what I packed, all 67 pounds of it, so at least I can check one thing off my list. I've arrived in DC and survived the first (and only) day of pre-service staging before climbing onto a plane tomorrow and heading off to Kazakhstan. I've met a small portion of the 68 people that will be going to Kazakhstan with me. I've sat through multiple hours of information and discussion about the Peace Corps' mission, safety, and the logistics of getting 68 people onto one plane, and then off of it and onto another, all without losing anyone along the way. But at least it's all been in English.

We spent a good amount of time at staging talking about people's “anxieties and anticipations.” Speaking Russian seems to be high on the list of worries. So is eating horse. And, of course, the weather. How will we survive somewhere where it's over 40 Celsius in the summer and 40 below in the winter? I'm not as worried about that, however, as I am about fitting into my village, making friends, developing deep relationships with those that I'll be living with the next two years. I'll have to wait a little longer to find out the answer to that question, though, because I'll be doing pre-service training for the next 10 ½ weeks. Our big group will be split into six or so smaller ones and we'll be sent to different villages around the Almaty area. There we'll spend the next two months learning Russian, how to teach English, and how to fit in to the local culture. We'll be living with host families during that time, too, and I'm really looking forward to meeting mine.

The staging event feels like this strange netherworld between the America we're leaving behind, and the foreign world we're entering. We're standing on the banks of the river Styx, waiting for Charon the Boatman to come pick us up. (Ok, maybe not the best metaphor; I don't feel like Kazakhstan is going to be Hades or anything, though probably certain points will feel like it.) And Charon is taking a long time to come back across after dropping off his last passengers, so we're waiting here, awkwardly crossing and uncrossing our arms and trying to make light conversation, not willing to go back but unable to go forward. So tonight, I'm sitting in my hotel room, writing this and trying to keep the butterflies at bay. Despite then nervous flutters, though, I'm so excited to finally be off!

Friday, June 5, 2009


There's much, much more to Kazakhstan than Borat. Thank goodness.

For starters, Kazakhstan in the 9th largest country in the world, right after Argentina and before Sudan. It's also the country that's the furthest from an ocean of any country in the world, meaning it has a very continental climate (not to mention an appalling lack of beach-resort developments.) So it's incredibly hot in the summer and incredibly cold in the winter, with not much time in between for my favorite season (autumn.) Packing will be a challenge.

Traditionally, Kazakh culture was nomadic. Turks, Mongols, and other empires had control at various times throughout history. In the early 19th century the Russians first started colonizing Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia. Cossaks, Tartars, Ukrainians, and Russians began to immigrate to the region and plow up the steppe, building roads and towns where none had been before. Kazakhstan became part of the Soviet Union, and when it declared independence in 1991, the head of the Kazakh Communist Party, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was elected president. He is still in power.

Nonetheless, the government is relatively liberal by regional standards. The parliamentary democracy has a secular, pro-Western approach, despite its authoritarian leader, similar to the government in Turkey. Working from its crumbling Soviet infrastructure base, Kazakhstan is attempting reform its economy, educational system and social services. Considering that it has about 60% of all of the former Soviet Union's mineral resource, including oil and natural gas, development is much more feasible than in the much poorer neighboring countries like Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan.

Kazakhstan is a very diverse country. Nearly two centuries of immigration means that only about 53% of the people who live in Kazakhstan are ethnically Kazakh. Another 30% are Russian, and the rest are a mix of Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Greeks, Germans, Tartars, Koreans, Poles, and many others. (Soon to include one more American!) This also means that there is a fair amount of religious diversity. About 47% of Kazakhs are Muslim, while 44% are Russian Orthodox. Another 2% are Protestant.

Both Kazakh and Russian are the official state languages, although Russian is much more widely spoken. Kazakh is a Turkish language, but is written in the Cyrillic alphabet.

One of the most popular sports in Kazakhstan is called kokpar. In kokpar, men on horseback ride around fighting over a headless goat carcass, trying to carry it across their team's goal line. I sincerely hope I will get to watch a match. I also sincerely hope I'm never asked to participate in one.

For more information about my soon-to-be home.