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.