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.