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.