Wednesday, October 7, 2009

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.


  1. i love reading your stories anna. makes me feel like i'm a foreigner with you! your family is definitely the best. still curious about that garlic...keep me posted if you ever find out.

  2. I found out later that (maybe) they think it helps them keep healthy - and since my other sister was sick, that makes sense. Doesn't mean I'm going to try it, though!