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?

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