Saturday, December 18, 2010

Have you ever read a poem about a saguaro cactus?

The English textbook that my school uses is so terrible that I spend a great deal of my time just trying to figure out exactly what I'm supposed to be teaching on any given day. The themes repeat every year (“Having Fun,” then “Healthy Living,” then “How Many or How Much,” and finally some variation of “Animals.”) The grammar is confusing. The vocabulary is useless. The exercises are boring and rarely helpful. And I'm pretty sure that the editors spent a grand total of 17 minutes proofreading each book, but only 14 minutes on the 6th grade book, which is particularly full of typos.

Recently in the 7th grade we had the topic “The Green World.” For this, the students had to learn useful vocabulary like “spine” and “giant,” and then read a text about saguaro cacti (which informed them that saguaros grow to over 50 feet in height.) After the reading, they had to answer a series of questions, which included what is quite possibly the best question you could ever ask at a cocktail party: “Have you ever read a poem about a saguaro cactus?” How do you fill one and a half hours with a lesson like this?

That was when I came up with a very daring idea. I decided to take a chance, teach the kids the names of some trees (including “saguaro cactus,” which is apparently an honorary member of the tree family), and then have them write poems about those trees, presumably so that, if any one ever asks them if they've read a poem about a birch tree, they can answer “yes” with confidence. The prospect of asking my students to write poems was daunting, considering that most of them can barely string two sentences together about what they like to do. Therefore, I was amazed when they got very excited about the assignment and churned out some surprisingly fluent poems – although I'm not nominating any of them for a Pulitzer. Below are a few of my favorites, unedited and in their original “poetic” forms.

“Saguaro Cactus” by 7b class
The biggest saguaro cactus
The evergreen cactus
Saguaro cactus – king of plants
It grows in Arizona

Now you have a definitive answer when someone asks you whether you've ever read a poem about a saguaro cactus.

“Apple Tree” by Asel
Very spicy apple tree
Very beautiful apple tree
When there is autumn
it falls down

I believe she's referring to the apples and not the tree itself, although there is a little confusion regarding her use of pronouns.

“Birch” (a riddle) by Dilyara
Color is white, green
and little black.
It grows in forest.
It's not a crab.

This rhymes quite nicely if you read it with a Kazakh accent.

“Christmas Tree” by Rizat and Kumustamshi
Christmas tree, Christmas tree
Evergreen, beautiful tree
It is very wonderful.
It makes us cheerful.

“Christmas Tree” by Aktoty
The holiday Christmas tree
It's light and big.
We are decorate it
and it will be beautiful tree.

“Oak” by Dana
Oak, oak, oak
You very big tree
Oak, oak, oak
You me love tree

“Apple Tree” by Aigul
The green apple tree
The sweet apple tree
The beautiful flower it is
I love you red apple

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Going to Work One Saturday Morning

A True Story
(Sung to the tune of “Hush, Little Baby, Don't Say a Word.”)

Going to work one Saturday morning
I go to catch the boarding school bus

If that boarding school bus don't come
I'll wait and catch the city bus

And if that city bus don't arrive
I'll call a taxi and tell them to hurry

And if that taxi breaks down on the way
I'll have to call another taxi

I'm thankful that taxi paid for regular maintenance
so I don't have to walk an hour in the mud

Monday, November 29, 2010

Jury Duty

Or, The Fall Ball

A yearly tradition at Kazakhstani schools is the Fall Ball. Although the name seems to imply a dance similar in importance to the American Homecoming tradition, in actuality the event bears almost no resemblance to anything American students participate in. Rather than a school dance, the Fall Ball is a competition, either between different classes (I guess in that way it remotely resembles Homecoming Week) or between girls from different classes. My school followed the latter pattern, and each class sent a representative to compete for the honor of receiving a special certificate of a different color than the ones they gave everybody else.

My school hosted two separate Fall Balls: one for the fifth through seventh graders, and another for the eighth through eleventh graders. I was asked to serve on the jury for both events. The jury is a highly respected institution in a Kazakhstani school. Its function is approximately equivalent to that of the panel of judges on American Idol, except that the jury in Kazakhstan has all the power and the audience doesn't get to call in to vote. There are juries for just about every special event at our school, from the New Year's celebration to classroom competitions. Usually, the jury is composed of whatever three teachers are standing in the teachers' room 15 minutes before the competition, and who are unable to think of an excuse about why they shouldn't have to sit through the whole two hour competition and actually pay attention. At least, that's how I ended up on the Fall Ball jury.

The Fall Balls for both the younger and older students were run in almost the same way, so I'll just describe them as one event. It started with the competing girls from each class parading out on stage wearing ball gowns whose elegance (not to mention amount of glitter) would put any prom dress to shame. I should note that, when I refer to a class, I don't mean the entire grade, but rather each group of students within the grade that take all of their lessons together. At my school, there are between two and three classes per grade; for example, in 7th grade we have three classes: 7a, 7b, and 7v, named after the Russian alphabet. Therefore, at the younger students' Fall Ball there were seven girls competing, while the older students had eight girls vying to be the winner. (I'd like to call the winner the Queen of the Fall Ball, but I don't think they use that term here.)

Once the girls were seated in a row onstage, the competition began. There were various tasks that they had to do, and for each task they received a score between one and five. My job, as a member of the jury, was to award these scores, which would be combined with my fellow jury members' evaluations and totaled to determine the winner. It didn't take long to convince me that I was probably not the best choice for a fair and honest jury member. The very first task for the girls was to recite a poem they had written introducing themselves. Since I hardly understood a word of their Kazakh, I was reduced to judging the competition based solely on facial expression and, most of all, copying the scores that the other judges gave them.

The range of tasks was varied. In addition to the poem, the girls had to solve riddles (I based my score on the reaction of the MCs as to whether they were correct or not) and perform a talent, ala the Miss America pageant. (Actually, a beauty pageant is probably the closest equivalent I can think of to this competition, except there was no bathing suit segment.) Most of the girls sang a song or danced for their talent, although one girl recited some poetry. There were also several tasks based around the theme of “autumn”: the girls had to see how many onions they could throw into a garbage can, and also who could peel and chop two potatoes and one onion the fastest. That last task was definitely the easiest for me to judge; a race to peel vegetables, despite any cultural objections to the implications about what girls are best at, still has a clear winner: the girl who puts her knife down first.

In the end, it didn't matter that I used unreliable and arbitrary methods to assign scores. When it came time to add everything up, one of my fellow jury members took her pen and crossed out each girl's total, saying that we should just ignore the numbers. She then proceeded to circle the names of her favorite students, and she and the other jury member debated the relative merits of each based on I-know-not-what criteria. I nodded along, relieved that my lack of language ability and cultural understanding had not affected the judging in any way, since my opinion was completely ignored. Thankfully, every girl up on that stage was a model student and deserving of the different colored certificate, so it didn't matter to me who received it. They all got a pretty certificate anyway. And even though I didn't get a certificate, I still have the self-satisfaction that I have served my civic duty on a jury.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Kazakh Wedding (take 2)

Actually, this is take four of my Kazakh wedding guest appearances, making the number of weddings I've attended in Kazakhstan in one year equal to the total number of weddings I attended in the US in 24 years. Do people get married more over here? No, they just have huge weddings where they invite every member of the family, however distant. This particular wedding was for my host father's sister's son. At first, I was misinformed and believed it was for my host father's sister's aunt's son – and really, that's not that unbelievable.

Rethinking my former statement, though, I think people actually do get married more over here. Not only is it completely unacceptable to live together without being married, you are also expected to get married the instant you find out the girl is pregnant (though this only applied to one of the weddings I've been to.) And most importantly, every Kazakh couple must have two weddings: one thrown by the bride's family, and one by the groom's family. So I suppose, considering this, there are more than two times as many weddings in Kazakhstan as there are in America. That still doesn't account for my 1:24 ratio, though.

Only my host sister, Aziza, and I went to this wedding as representatives of our family. We had to take the only bus per day to the small village where the event was held, and I was a little worried that when we arrived an hour late the salads would all be gone. The salads are, for me, the highlight of any party, both because I never understand what people are saying, so I can't enjoy the conversation, and because I don't get vegetables at home, so the vitamins and green color are, for me, far more desirable than chocolate, which I often have for breakfast. But I needn't have worried about missing the salads. Like every other wedding I've been to here, this one didn't start until two hours after the scheduled time. So Aziza and I hung out for a while with the bride, groom and wedding party at someone's house (no moratorium here on seeing the bride in her wedding dress before the wedding), then went to the cafeteria, where the dancing had already started, presumably to help pass the time until we got to eat the salads.

For a more detailed description of the stages of a Kazakh wedding, you can refer back to my earlier blog entry on the subject. Basically, the wedding goes like this: the bride and groom enter and stand on a white cloth while the MC sings a song and people put money on a plate on the ground (to pay the MC, not the newlyweds). Then, the groom lifts the bride's veil from her face, and the official ceremony is over. Everyone retires to eat salads, followed by beshfarmak, followed (much later in the evening) by tea and dessert. While everyone is eating, groups of people are called up to the microphone to give toasts and, often, sing a short song. In between toasts, the MC sings while people often get up to dance. Between the beshbarmak and the tea, everyone, of all ages, dances for an hour or two in a very spirited manner.

Although I have begun to lose some of my American-novelty in my home town, I was still a pretty exciting party trick for the hosts in this small village to show off to their relatives. Luckily, I've perfected my toasts since the first wedding I went to, and was able to wish the bride and groom “health, happiness, and love” quite fluently and without turning bright red. I even remembered their names! And, of course, after the toast I had to sing a song. I fell back on my old standby, the only Kazakh song I can remember all of the words to, “Kozimning Karasi.” I've managed to memorize the second verse, making me feel a bit more deserving of the praise people are always heaping on me for “speaking fluent Kazakh.” I'm going to have to work up a new song soon, though, as “Kozimning” has already made the rounds of parties and weddings multiple times, and I'm afraid people may be starting to notice that I'm a one-trick pony. I was well received there, though, and was given a strand of shiny Mardi Gras beads for the effort.

Every party in Kazakhstan, from weddings to teachers' gatherings to birthday parties, features a lengthy discoteca. I've discovered a pattern that I always follow while dancing, a inadvertent schedule of sorts. I spend the first 30 minutes or so warming up, letting go of my inhibitions and getting in the mood of the music. Then I have a really fun time dancing for about 20 minutes. The final 10 minutes I spend wondering when tea will finally be served and I can escape from this madness.

As an interesting side note, I discovered that if you stay at the party long enough, this pattern repeats itself, but on fast forward. I've always left after tea, normally at about 1 am. However, this wedding started later than usual, so tea wasn't until 2:30am, and then, because Aziza and I were spending the night with relatives in the village, we stayed until the very end of the party. The disco continued until 4:30 for the the benefit of the 15 or 20 hearty souls who stuck around to the very end. I warmed up for 15 minutes, then only enjoyed about 10 minutes of it before having hallucinations about my bed.

My main source of dance moves during these discos is observation and imitation of those around me. My favorite dancer of the night to watch was an older gentleman who danced exactly as I picture Wayne Brady dancing: tight on the top and loose on the bottom. Try as I might, though, I can't imagine myself ever mastering this technique; I'm currently working on swaying in time to the music while moving my arms at the same time. This is really all that's expected for the majority of bouncy pop songs that the MC/DJ spins. I got to enjoy a new song selection that I hadn't heard before: The Rasputin Song. I really enjoyed the informative history lesson that it provided for its listeners:

“Ra Ra Rasputin, Russia's greatest love machine.”

The Rasputin Song, along with Wayne Brady and the Mardi Gras beads, managed to eclipse even the venerable salads as the highlights of the evening. When I was composing this entry in my head during tea, I had included on that list of highlights “lack of creepy drunk men.” There were, of course, plenty of drunk men, but none of them could really be defined as “disturbingly creepy,” so I felt that that was a major triumph for this wedding. I should have knocked on some wood, though, because after tea, as the older, non-creepy drunks were leaving, I was forced to join the young people's circle, and my list of highlights lost a bullet point.

At the wedding there was a group of six young, unmarried men who were all friends of the groom. There were also a few young single women, but they had a tendency to disappear for several songs on end, leaving Aziza and I alone on the dance floor with a bunch of very enthusiastic partners. At some point during the evening, I acquired a self-appointed protector, Galim. (Pronounced just like Tolkien's Gollum, even down to the hard G at the beginning that comes from the back of the throat like a cough.) I and Samwise probably had similar feelings about our “helpers.” Galim was just as drunk as the men he claimed to be protecting me from, and had the same tendency to stand too close while asking for my phone number. In his role as protector, he asked several times throughout the evening whether I was being bothered by his friends, and offered to “take care of it” for me. Since I didn't really want to find out how drunk Kazakh men take care of things, I declined his offers and said I was fine.

The party at the cafeteria eventually broke up at 5am, but that didn't spell the end of the partying. Still drunk, the friends of the newlyweds headed back to a relative's house to continue drinking. Unfortunately, this was also the house where Aziza and I were spending the night before catching our bus home at 9am. I lay on the floor, tucked a pillow under my head, and pretended to sleep while the toasts continued behind me. When I got up at 7:30, I required Galim's services again, as the very tired but still enthusiastic bachelors gathered around me, kissed my hand more times than I can count, and asked numerous questions, many of them numerous times, about what I was doing in Kazakhstan.

I do have to admit, though, that even as I pretended to sleep in a room full drunk, raucous men (and some women too), or gave my hand to someone to be kissed for the umpteenth time, I never felt particularly unsafe. A bit annoyed, yes, and more than a little uncomfortable and unsure of how to respond. But I never worried that someone would do something wrong (other than make complete idiots of themselves, of course.) No one ever touched or grabbed me inappropriately, and I felt that their intentions, even muddled by 12 straight hours of vodka shots, were innocent. That didn't earn them a spot on the highlights list, but it did keep the wedding from being a total disaster.

In fact, the most unsafe I felt during the whole getaway was not with those drunk men, but when I went to the “toilet.” I don't even feel right using that word, because this bathroom didn't even feature a hole in the ground; rather, you went in an empty shed, did your business on the floor, and then threw your paper on a pile of bird feathers and rubbish in the corner. But keeping in mind my ardent suitors, I felt just as unsafe following Aziza's suggestion to just pee in the yard and leave my paper for someone to clean up later. At least the shed had a door. I used a colossal dose of hand sanitizer after my trip there, in an attempt to ward off the numerous diseases my tired mind could picture multiplying in that shed. On my Kazakhstan highlights list: the indoor toilet at my host family's house.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fun with English

My host brother Alisher speaks very good English. This is even more remarkable when you consider that he is completely self taught. He told me he started learning English because he loved The Beatles and wanted to understand their lyrics. Now he has moved on to Nirvana and dreams of a pilgrimage to Seattle, but in the meantime he has continued to study English to the point where he speaks better than some of the English teachers I've met. He likes to use big words especially, such as “notwithstanding,” which he pulled out of the blue once and made me stop the conversation to figure out exactly what that word means. One day I complimented him on how many English words he knew, and asked him if it was easy for him to memorize new words.

“When I'm in a good mood, yes,” he replied. “But it is much harder when I am stoned.”

We soon figured out that he actually meant “sad,” but he didn't want to use such a simple word. (Once he knew what the word “stoned” meant, he didn't want to use that word either.) We came up with “down,” “blue,” and “depressed” as better alternatives.

My host Dad Oral has significantly less English ability than Alisher. He studied German in school, so basically he can read the letters, and he constantly makes guesses about how to say things in English based on the word in German. (He's close a surprisingly large number of times.)

Sometimes he likes to practice his reading skills by reading the English brand names on the tv ads. The other day, he was throwing around the word “kotex.”

“What does 'kotex' mean?” he asked me in Russian.

“Umm, that's probably not a word you need to worry about knowing,” I replied, smothering a laugh.

“Is it a combination of the words 'ko' and 'tex'?” he persisted.

I couldn't smother it anymore, and a giggle broke through. “Definitely not a word you need to worry about.”

He spent the next day, though, watching the tv intently for more kotex ads so he could try to figure out the mystery of what the word meant. I must admit, I was quite unhelpful, since I did not really want to describe the meaning to him, especially since I don't know a lot of those vocabulary words and would have to use charades. Not something I wanted to pantomime for my host dad and brother.

My 3rd grade students know about as much English as my host dad. We were playing a game in class one day where I threw a ball to different students and they all had to say an English word they knew. They had already covered “grandmother” and “brother,” “dog” and “cat,” “teacher” and “pupil,” and they were beginning to run out of ideas. I threw the ball to little Shon and he said the first English word that popped into his head: “Anna Rodgers!”

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Little Things

No matter where you are in the world, eventually your life takes on a feeling of routine and normality, if only to save your brain from the constant stress of having to think about every detail of your daily life. They told us that this was part of the reason that we were so tired during our first few months in Kazakhstan; our brains had to spend lots of energy thinking about actions that previously took almost no thought at all, like figuring out how to brush your teeth without running water or how to buy an apple from the store. But your brain adapts and you find a sense of normalcy and, eventually, even boredom in life abroad.

It is during this boredom, extenuated by isolation from friends and the outside world, that I have begun to latch onto the small things to add interest to my life. This can be as simple as getting excited about the fact that we have cabbage soup rather than potato soup for dinner (cabbage has more vitamins, right?) or being able to carry on a five minute conversation with my fellow teachers about how the bus was actually on time today. It also means that I am currently very excited about a blister I got while washing clothes. (Obviously inordinately excited, since I'm writing a blog about it for the whole world to read. But I see my blister as a type of battle scar, worth bragging about.) It's on the top of my palm on my left hand, right where I have to ring everything out after each of three rinses before hanging the clothes up to dry. This blister has prevented me from washing my black tights, therefore reducing me to wearing nylons instead, which leaves me in deathly fear of getting a run in them so I walk extra slowly across any patches of gravel and rocks, almost making me miss the bus this morning. But I don't mind, because I'm very excited about my blister!

I'm also overly excited about my new haircut. Most of the styles sported around my school are varying degrees of the fem-mullet, so I put off getting my hair cut for much too long because of my deathly fear of emerging from the barber's with my own mullet nightmare. Finally, I gathered up my courage, practiced the motions I would make to the hairdresser showing her how I didn't want a mullet countless times in front of the mirror, and then went to one of the most expensive beauty salons in the nearby city. (I'm nowhere near brave enough to face my village's barbers yet.) Considering the year's worth of buildup to this moment, it's no surprise that I emerged from the salon completely ecstatic about my new bob. Granted, it was a little lopsided, and I had trim it up myself, but I don't have a mullet, so I'm satisfied.

And you can just imagine the excitement I felt when I actually understood what they were saying on the news. Russian newscasters speak even faster than their American counterparts, and use all sorts of educated vocabulary, so I usually rely on the pictures to tell me what's going on in the world. These pictures are invariably of a giant flood somewhere in the world or a row of shiny John Deere combines cutting swaths of golden wheat. So, understandably, my knowledge of world events is slightly skewed. It's reached the point where I often don't even listen anymore, because, after straining to understand the rapidly spoken Russian, it turns out that they're just talking about the newest shipment of tractors from America. But recently, there's been a lot of news coverage about the education system in Kazakhstan. And since anything about schools deals directly with my life, I decided to listen closely. And, how exciting, I understood what they were talking about! In the report they interviewed the Minister of Education and Learning, and he was talking about how Kazakhstan has the best school system in the world. He also mentioned how they were going to increase the prestige of teachers by raising their salaries by 25%, although the government has been promising to do this since last year and it hasn't happened yet. I hope the funds come through this year.

So it's these little things that I've been turning to lately for entertainment and a sense of accomplishment. I wonder what it says about a person if they feel proud about a blister or a non-mullet hair cut?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Family Tree

Before the Russians came to Kazakhstan, Kazakhs didn't have family names or patronymics. They had only their first name and the name of their tribe. In order to identify their tribe, people usually gave the name of a famous person who came from their tribe. Kazakhs only adopted last names and patronymics when the Russians made them. Therefore, most Kazakhs have Russian-sounding last names, or else, like my host family (Setkasim), the first name of some great-grandfather turned into a last name.

A patronymic, by the way, is a way to identify a person's father. Russians and Kazakhs don't have middle names, just patronymics. For example, if I were Russian, I would take my father's name (Jerry) and add “ovna” because I'm a girl: Anna Jerryovna Rodgers. (It sounds even more hilarious to Kazakhs, since they've never heard the name Jerry before.) My brother, on the other hand, would add “ovich” since he's a boy: Chris Jerryovich Rodgers. People here think it's really neat that I get to have two names, my first and middle name, but they don't really understand the point. Not that I do, either, so I can't really explain it to them.

The lack of last names never stopped Kazakhs from keeping track of intricate genealogies. In fact, all Kazakhs should memorize the names of their ancestors back 7 generations. My host father made my host brother memorize this when he was little. My host father also claims that he can recite his ancestors back 20 generations, and he takes great pride in this boast. Of course, this lineage only follows the male line. So when a woman marries, she must memorize the genealogy of her husband's family so that she can teach it to her children.

My host sister, who is very artistic, recently drew a family tree. She traced her family back through the male line, including all brothers and their children, to create a beautiful graphic of all the people that are considered her relatives. As you can see from the picture, that's a lot of people! And down at the roots of the tree are written the three ancient peoples that Kazakhs claim to be descended from: the Sakans, Sythians, and Huns.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Assimilation (part two)

I wrote a blog earlier about my “adaptation” to Kazakh customs. I got a rare opportunity to further my observations on this subject when I spent a week this summer with 14 other Americans running an English camp in a Kazakh village. You'd think that when you put 15 Americans alone in an apartment together, we would act like Americans. But I guess almost a year in Kazakhstan can change you, even when you're not trying to “fit in.”

For example, this apartment we were in was very small: a kitchen, a bathroom, and one main living room. (We did have another one room apartment, though, where half of us were able to spend the night.) However, other than a slight bit of concern about the ability to fit that many bodies in a prone position on the floor at night (we weren't sure we would have the other apartment until the day before everybody showed up), nobody was phased by the “crowding.” In fact, it was rather cozy.

Even the one bathroom was no big problem. When several of us arrived a day early, the hostess, Laura, told us with excitement that we could take a shower (and by shower, I mean bucket bath) right then because the water was on. (The water only came on for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening.) But even after our hot and sweaty taxi ride, we shrugged her off. “Nah, we took a bath yesterday morning. We feel pretty clean, so we won't bother today.” And then we wore the same outfit the next day, and the day after that, and considered wearing it again the day after that, but admitted that four days in 100 degree weather was pushing it.

The one bathroom presented other issues. Of course, we knew the right questions to ask about these issues. It didn't even cross anyone's mind to query whether you could flush the toilet paper; of course that's what the trash can is for. But someone did remember to ask Laura if we could flush the toilet at all. The answer, by the way, was “yes,” using a bucket of water taken from the tub that we filled with water each morning.

And when the bathroom door didn't lock, no big deal. Of course, that didn't mean that we actually knocked before opening it. It just meant that when we opened the door and someone was in there, it was no big deal, you just closed the door again and waited your turn, no blushing or embarrassment required.

By the middle of the week, some of us did start to feel a little grimy. And someone had an amazing solution for this problem: banya! You'd think that a bunch of self-conscious Americans wouldn't be comfortable hanging out in a sauna naked together, but you'd be wrong. The excitement about the banya trip was palatable, and there was no awkwardness or hesitation as we stripped in the changing room. Someone even proposed a break for hot tea and cookies, but there wasn't enough time because we all wanted to sit in the steam room for so long.

Food was another area where we sometimes acted more like Kazakhs than Americans. Many of us wanted hot tea after every meal, even when it was 100 degrees outside. Laura didn't have enough dishes for everyone to have their own plate, so we all just ate out of the dish in the middle and drank out of the same bottle. We didn't even ask if we could, we just grabbed the bottle and chugged. And when it came time to do dishes, rinsing them off with cold water while running your hand over them was completely sufficient.

Gender rolls were firmly established in the Kazakh tradition; even the most ardent feminists in the room said nothing. When a heavy table needed to be carried up several flights of stairs, all the boys were asked to help. But when it was time to sweep and dust the house, the girls were the ones who stood up.

We spent long hours sitting around and talking. No one had a watch, and often we had somewhere to be, but no one was overly concerned. If we were a little late (which we were most of the time), the people we were meeting would probably be late too (which they usually were.)

Even the phrases of “Kazakhstani English” that we used sounded normal to us. I remember when we first arrived in country and some older volunteers asked us if you could say some phrase in English. We wondered, how could they forget their own language? But at this point, “tasty” comes out much more easily than “delicious,” and I cannot for the life of me think of another way to say “the nature.” In fact, when we were playing Catchphrase, someone gave the clue “the nature,” and the only guess we could think of was “trees.” (The answer, by the way, was “environment.”)

But here's one very American thing we did do: we made this list of all the Kazakh things we did.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Camp Seagull

I spent 10 days this summer in the woods at
“Lager Chaika,” or Camp Seagull. It was an overnight camp for kids from ages 8-16, on the shores of a lake in a National Recreation Area. They still call it Pioneersky Lager after the Pioneers, the Soviet youth organization (similar to the Boy and Girl Scouts) who used to run the camps. Before I went, I was a little nervous because all I knew was the day that I was supposed to show up, the name of the camp, and the name of the camp director.
Luckily, somebody had told them I was coming, and I got to stay there for free while helping out however I could. At first, they weren't sure quite what to do with me, and I would have one main daily task such as to lead one 10 minute game or to make sure the 11-12 year old girls didn't make too much noise during the afternoon nap. But by the end I was filling in for counselors when they were sick or needed to run errands. People there, both staff and campers, were really friendly and I had a great time.
The cabin where I stayed. There was a little room to the left of the main door that I had to myself. My neighbors were the 13-14 year old boys. I played thumb wars and uno with them, and answered all their questions about what kinds of cars they drive in America and whether I'd seen any movie stars, so we got along well.

Inside the boys' cabin. There were about 20
beds in each cabin, and 11 cabins, although none were completely full. There were about 150 kids total at the camp, divided into five “otradi,” or groups, by age. Each otrad had about 15 boys and 15 girls, and one boy counselor and one girl counselor.

The main path between the cabins.


 Neat “portable” teeter totter that the kids could play on.

Every morning after breakfast the kids had an hour to clean up their cabin and pick up trash around the camp.

Kibutsu Emblem
The first day one of the activities was to make an emblem on the main square to represent your otrad.  The emblems were made out of pinecones, moss, rocks, and sand.  This is the emblem for my neighbors, the 13-14 year olds.  Their otrad was named "Kibutsu," which I think is supposed to be Chinese.  Each otrad also had a "devis," or chant, that extolled the virtues of the otrad and that they chanted while marching around the camp or at the morning meeting.  For example, there was an otrad called "MTS" after a Russian cell phone service provider.  Their devis was:
We are mobile children
from the MTS team.
MTS is a higher class.
There's no one better than us in the world.
(Of course, the devis is in meter and rhymes in Russian.)


Campers gathered outside the dining hall, waiting to eat one of their five meals of the day: breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner, and second dinner. We ate a lot of kasha (porridge.) Even for lunch. And a lot of kutleti, or meatballs.

The 4th otrad eating lunch.

On the shore of our lake, with the “Two Brothers”
mountains/hills in the background. Everyday the kids got to go swimming in the lake, except for when it was too cold. But they went swimming in a very regimented fashion. Each otrad had a certain time they could go swimming. They would come at that time and line up one the beach for inspection by the sports director/lifeguard. He would blow his whistle, and all the kids would run into the water. They had about 10 minutes for swimming, and they would all have to get out again, dry off in the sun, and then march back to their cabin as a group to change.

One of our first days at camp, everyone climbed to the top of a nearby hill, one of the “Three Sisters,” to get a better view of the Two Brothers and the surrounding forest. There was a legend associated with these names that the camp director told the kids before the hike, but I didn't understand it well enough to repeat it back to you. Everything at the camp was in Russian, which was great for improving my language skills but not great for my knowing what was going on most of the time.

At the top of most mountains, or at the end of just about every hike here in Kazakhstan, there is a wishing tree. You tie a piece of cloth on the tree and make a wish. Unfortunately, the kids didn't have any pieces of cloth with them, so they took the plastic labels off their water bottles and tied those on instead.


A few days later we climbed to the top of one of the Two Brothers. The ascent approached rock climbing at certain points. Thankfully, we took a less treacherous route back down.

View from one of the brothers to the other, with the valley floor below.

Counselor Roma made friends with this little lizard, called a Yaisheritsa. He was trying to release it into the forest, but it liked him too much to say goodbye. If you can see, the end of its tail is a different color. That's because it can lose the end of it's tail to escape a predator.

My last day at camp we went into the woods to pick berries. The only berries ripe were these tiny little strawberries called “zemliniki.” They were delicious, but tiny. I decided they were too miniscule to merit the effort of collecting them, so I just ate everything I picked immediately. Yum!

Sunday, July 25, 2010


As part of the Soviet legacy, Kazakhstan is significantly more
centralized than the US. This means both politically and in their
collective thinking. For example, the nightly news on the non-cable
tv channels is always about all of Kazakhstan. I think about prime
time news at home, where channels devote most of their time to local
stories, with national news coming on later in the evening. But
watching the news with my host family the other night, I noted reports
about a new school opening in Kostanai, northern Kazakhstan, a
conference in Almaty, southern Kazakhstan, and a kymyz tasting
festival in Semei, eastern Kazakhstan.

When people talk to me about American politics over here, they
normally bring up one of three things. Sometimes they mention how
much they like Obama. Sometimes they talk about how much they
disliked Bush. And sometimes they ask me if we really have different
laws in each of our states. This must be standard school curriculum
here, because a number of people have asked me about this, and it's
always a fascinating subject to them. Here, each "oblast," like a
state, is basically in charge of carrying out the laws of the central
government in Astana, not making its own rules. They can't imagine
how a country can hold together when each state can make its own laws.

On a completely unrelated note, my new nickname is "Obama."
Apparently we strongly resemble each other in some way that I was
hitherto unaware of, because as I was riding the train with a friend
the conductor kept calling me, and only me, "Obama." And he
introduced me to other passengers as "Obama." Unfortunately, the
other passengers didn't believe him. Maybe the resemblance isn't so
strong after all.

And on another completely unrelated note, my parents are coming to
visit soon (yay!) so I won't be able to update my blog for awhile.
Stay tuned for summer news in the fall.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Why is it that Americans always have to know why?

A while ago, every volunteer had to travel to their nearest city to meet the Peace Corps Medical Assistant and get a shot. For just one shot, we had to miss an entire day of school. We were upset, but understanding. A few days before we had to convene, though, we all got a call from one of the two PC doctors, telling us that the shot probably wouldn't happen in the afternoon as planned, but later in the evening, forcing those of us from the villages to have to find lodgings for the night. Then she hung up to call the next person.

To a man, we volunteers were angry. Now, we had to miss two days of work, plus either pay for a hotel room (very expensive!) or cram 10 or so village volunteers into one older volunteer's tiny city apartment. “Why?” we asked each other in a furious round of text messaging.

The next evening, we received another call from the other PC doctor. It was a bit repetitive and unnecessary; he simply wanted to reiterate what we'd already heard, that we might not be able to get our shots until late evening. But then he went on to explain: the Medical Assistant was coming down from a city in the north that same day, and she might not be able to get a bus, and so they'd purchased a train ticket for her, but the train didn't get in until 10 pm.

It was funny what that little explanation did. It didn't change any of the facts of the case. We were still inconvenienced in our schedules and our sleeping arrangements. Nothing was materially better. But suddenly, everyone was pacified. There was a perfectly good reason for having to get the shot later, we recognized it, and the angry text messages stopped. We just wanted to know why.

Kazakhstanis are not like Americans in this regard. They do not have a need to know why; if something is, it just is. I have asked my counterpart on numerous occasions, after receiving an edict from the director or zavuch of our school, “why do we have to do that?” She looks at me funny, and sometimes tries to offer an explanation, but more often than not just shrugs her shoulders. And so I shrug my shoulders too, and concede that if the zavuch says so, we'd better do it, and my counterpart breathes a sigh of relief that her crazy, questioning American is learning to just let things be.

Anna's side note: Asking “Why?” is, I think, one of the main reasons why America has less corruption in their government than Kazakhstan does. When you have to explain why you needed something, you're less likely to just take it or build it or spend your time on it.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


I sometimes get to wondering how much I've been able to assimilate and integrate into the Kazakhstani culture. I know I'll always stand out like a sore thumb, the “foreigner” (people usually assume I'm German) who draws surreptitious stares wherever she goes. This isn't for lack of trying to blend in. I've tried to adapt my facial expression on the street, hiding my American smile behind a bland, uninterested look as I wait for the bus. I've also tried to wear the appropriate clothes, although I know on this front I fail miserably, because I refuse to wear high heals or see-through lace shirts (with a leopard print bra!) or so many rhinestones I look like a disco ball. Nonetheless, I find Kazakhstani fashion a lot less shocking than I did when I first came here. Some of the dresses and sweaters that I probably would have joked about before I now think are pretty cute. Not that I'd wear them, but they aren't hideous anymore. Does that equal a step toward adaptation?

I also find myself making small steps toward cultural assimilation. For example, as I talked about in an earlier blog entry, here it's considered rude to set your cup down on the table too loudly. When I was out at a cafe recently for a Kazakh friend's birthday, I felt my nerves jar a little when one girl set her glass abruptly down on the table. “How ru...,” I thought, then caught myself and smiled a little at the cultural thinking I'd just unconsciously been engaging in.

Another time, I was standing in my director's office for a meeting with several other teachers. The room was not crowded, but nonetheless one of the other teachers was pressed up against my arm as if we were sardined on a bus. For a full five minutes, I didn't feel as if my personal space was being invaded, and I had no inclination to step away, because frankly I didn't even notice anything strange. (Kazakhs have a much smaller personal bubble than Americans do.) It was only after the director had kept droning on about something I didn't understand, and I began looking around to entertain myself, that I noticed a full five feet of space on the other side of the teacher and began to wonder why she didn't move over to occupy the free space. But since the room wasn't hot and I didn't want to seem rude, I stayed where I was and was less uncomfortable than I was curious about my own belated observation.

Food is becoming less of an issue as well. I'm beginning to wonder how you could possibly be hospitable to guests if you don't have tea in front of them within five minutes of them entering your house. And who ever thought that cookies for breakfast was strange?

And then there's mental assimilation. I noticed how this was happening to me when I was looking through some pictures of a friend from America having fun with her boyfriend. I felt a strange disconnection from my friend, who's 24 and the same age as me, as the two of them made silly faces at the camera and documented their trip to the bowling alley. Such behavior is abnormal in Kazakhstan, and as I looked at the photos I thought it just a little abnormal too. Over here, when a couple goes on a date, they might walk in the park or sit on a bench, but they always know that people are watching and making assumptions, so they don't do anything too crazy. The dating period is fun, certainly, but there's a definite end in sight: marriage. My friend, at 24, is pushing the boundary of being an old maid, which is definitely a bad thing. She should be working to secure her man as soon as possible so she can start her family. “What is life without children?” my host dad has told me rhetorically. “Children are everything.” People marry at 18 or 20 and start having babies soon after. At 24, my friend should be thinking about baby pictures, not silly pictures. And for a moment, I thought the same thing.

I'm the most curious about anything I may have assimilated into so completely that I don't even notice it. (Because, of course, just the fact that I noticed the previous incidents means that they are still somewhat foreign to me.) What additional habits or ways of thinking will I acquire over here that, on my return to the states, might make me seem like a foreigner to my own family? But will I ever even get close to fitting in over here?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Victory Day

One of the biggest holidays in Kazakhstan is the 9th of May, or Victory Day. It celebrates the day when the Soviet troops marched into Berlin and defeated the Nazi troops to end World War II. Or, as they say here, the day the Soviets defeated the Fascists to end the Great Patriotic War. And this year was the 65th anniversary, so it was an even bigger deal than normal.

The TV showed a short historical segment everyday about the “Road to Berlin,” detailing the Soviet army's movements in the days leading up to the Fascist surrender. Commercials for a concert of patriotic war songs began playing in early April. Signs and billboards went up all over town in preparation for the big celebration.

My host father Oral used to be a history teacher, and he gave me several lectures about how the Soviets won the war. He conceded that the Americans helped by giving them arms and money (but they never gave enough.) And the Soviet army played the most important part in defeating the Fascists. Historically, this is probably more accurate than giving the most credit to the Americans, at least in regard to the Nazis. The Soviets definitely took the highest toll and paid the highest price in the war. And many historians argue that the battle for Stalingrad was the turning point of the war. Oral went on to point out that Kazakhstan also played an important roll in the war. Many of the factories and even government agencies (including the forerunner to the KGB) were relocated to Kazakhstan when the Nazis got too close to Moscow. And there was an all-Kazakhstani division, called Panfilov's division, that won an important battle, only to be overwhelmed by enemy forces following a huge tactical error by Moscow. Afterward, Moscow covered up their mistake for many years before finally admitting wrong. Now, there are monuments all over Kazakhstan in honor of Panfilov's brave soldiers.

The Victory Day celebration in my village began at 10am on a slightly-chilly Sunday morning. First, the local veterans walked into the town square, accompanied by their wives and bedecked in their many medals and ribbons awarded during the war. There were not many of them; in fact, people were constantly telling me, with a mixture of pride and sadness, that there are exactly 32 WWII veterans still alive in our region.

Next, there were speeches by the akim (mayor) and other important dignitaries honoring the veterans. Then people filed forward to lay baskets filled with flowers at the base of our town's Great Patriotic War monument and eternal flame (which wasn't burning in the winter, so I only realized a couple of weeks ago that we have an eternal flame.)

After the ceremony, the parade began. It was nothing like a small-town America parade, with kids riding streamer-bedecked bikes and local charity groups throwing hard candy at the spectators. The parade started with a review of the local schools. Each school sent a delegation of boys and another of girls, and they (literally) marched past the spectators in rank and file.

Earlier that week, our school had held our own Victory Day celebration, and all of the classes from 5th through 10th grades marched around the school yard. It was quite interesting to watch my 11-year-old students marching in not-quite-perfect rhythm, chanting loudly “bir, bir, bir eki oosh!” (which means “one, one, one two three.”) Each class made two passes around the field, the second time singing a military song, and they were graded each time, with certificates and ranks awarded to everybody at the end.

And so, having seen the marching earlier that week, I was not surprised to see it now, although the older students were much better at staying together as they marched. After the review, the parade began. It was a “theatrical parade,” as the announcers said, and so every group had a story to tell. The hospital filled the back of an old truck with wounded soldiers wrapped in bloody bandages, while nurses in white robes ministered to their wounds. Another group had a full-blown tank with soldiers sitting on top, heading off to war. Our school had an entire skit put together portraying families saying goodbye to their husbands, sons and fathers and they went off to war.

During the parade rehearsal a few days earlier, I had not been aware that we had planned such a complicated presentation. I'd come to the center of town with the rest of the teachers after school had let out early for the day, ready to participate and help wherever I was needed. As the teachers lined up at the staging ground, I cautiously asked my counterpart if they were going to march like the students, because I wasn't quite ready to do something they'd obviously had much more practice with. But when she said no, I impetuously joined the other teachers, looking around for handfuls of candy to throw. (It was just rehearsal, so when I didn't see any, I was unfazed.)

Then I noticed all the teachers grabbing the hands of one of the small children who were standing around. Ready to fit in, I looked around and noticed little Ruslan from my 4a class standing on the edge of the road. “Ruslan!” I called and waved him over to me. He gave me a confused look, but Ruslan often looks confused, so my confidence didn't sink as he approached, I took his hand, and we began walking.

I was soon to find out, however, that there was never going to be any candy involved in this parade, and also why Ruslan had given me such a confused look. Our group stopped walking in front of the town square, and a complicated script that had been prerecorded began blasting over the loudspeaker. First we had to gather together and cry as we said goodbye to our soldiers. I pulled Ruslan into a hug, and even though we didn't have any soldier to say goodbye to (apparently I was a single mother), we cried just as hard as the rest of them. Then we all squatted and prayed for something in Kazakh before the men jumped into a waiting lorry and the children ran behind it, waving, as it drove away. (Ruslan seemed remarkably happy to run after that truck and away from me.)

Needless to say, when the parade practice finished, I was feeling a bit confused and incredibly hopeful that nobody was watching our performance (that is to say, my lack of performance) too closely. Soon, though, my host mom told me there would be at least two more run-throughs that day but I might as well go home because, on the day of the parade, I should be watching it and enjoying my first Victory Day. I had no objections, and I did enjoy watching the parade on May 9.

Several times people have asked me if we have a similar holiday in America. I replied that we don't, and my answer got me thinking about why. You could argue that it's because America has two victory days, one over the Nazis and one over the Japanese, so logistics don't work. You could also argue that America is not a military state, like the Soviet Union was, and so had no need to manufacture military spectacles as propaganda to bolster citizens' national pride. But, I think maybe a large reason is because, difficult as the war was for Americans, we suffered nowhere near the hardships that the Soviet Union experienced. The war was on their land. Not only their soldiers, but their civilians too, died in battles such as the sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad. Millions upon millions of their people died protecting their homeland from invaders at their backdoor. The stakes for them were much higher, the battles won with more difficulty, and therefore the victory sweeter.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Cross Cultural Manners

We all judge other people based on the values we hold and our beliefs about the best way to do things. This becomes glaringly clear when you travel to another culture, and everyone around you has different values and beliefs. When you interact with people who do things completely differently from you, you can chose to accept that, or you can think the worst of them for it. When you're dealing with heavy issues like freedom and equality and the like, you have to face the fact that maybe, what you've always thought was a basic human desire and right might actually just be a cultural construct.

But not every cross-cultural conflict you face has deep meaning and weighty consequences. Sometimes, the things that we use to judge other people are completely meaningless, and yet they're the things that create rifts or prejudices that harm our respect for others.

I'm thinking in particular about the issue of manners. Manners are completely subjective and culturally based. For example, in America, it's rude to eat meat off the bone with your fingers (as my mother is constantly reminding me.) In Kazakhstan, however, it's completely fine to eat with your fingers, and even expected that you will eat beshfarmak with your hands. In America, it's invasive to walk into someone's room without knocking; in Kazakhstan, if you need something in the room, or need to talk to the person, why would you bother waiting until they're done changing? My host sister in Almaty walked into my room on my birthday to give me my present. I was standing in my bra, searching for a shirt, but she was completely unfazed. Nonplussed, I took the proffered present and set it on the bed, then grabbed the nearest shirt and slipped it over my head. I was bright red with embarrassment, but she saw nothing awkward in the situation.

At that point, I could have chosen to think her rather rude. If someone did that in America, I would wonder what was wrong with them. But it would be unfair and baseless for me to make the same judgment about her. No one ever told her it was rude to walk into someone's room without knocking, even if they are changing. She has no cultural reason to not walk in.

I found myself in an even more superficial situation recently. I began to notice just how much people here slurp their soup. And the more I noticed, the more the sound annoyed me. Soon, though, I stepped back and thought about the judgment I was making. To put it in perspective, I thought about the week before, when my host mom had told me that I always set my mug down too loudly on the table. In a similar situation to mine, the more she noticed, the more the sound annoyed her. She responded by telling me that only people who have not been well brought up set their dishes down heavily on the table. Then she showed me how to gently set my dishes down so they didn't make any noise. She wondered aloud, hadn't my mother taught me anything?

Of course, my mother taught me lots of things, like not to eat with my hands and to knock when I enter a room and not to slurp my soup. She taught me lots of inconsequential, meaningless things that nonetheless tell everyone in my culture whether or not I am “well-brought up.” It's only when I cross cultural boundaries and am faced with a completely different set of inconsequential, meaningless things that people judge you by that I have to face the fact that they are inconsequential and meaningless. And yet people still judge you by them. The burden is on me, of course, to adapt, since if I don't, everyone here will wonder just what my mother was thinking. But it makes me reevaluate the lines we draw based on shallow things like clothes styles or grammar or manners. Who are we to judge people based on our own set of cultural values, when they might not even be aware that that set of values exists?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Growing Food

People in Kazakhstan are still very closely connected to their land. In America, it may be hip and progressive to have a vegetable garden in the back yard, but it's not the norm. Here, everyone has a vegetable garden. In fact, people don't have back yards with grass and landscaping; they have gardens. If you don't have your own land, like my family who lives in an apartment block, then you find another patch of ground to grow food in. Ours in through the forest on the edge of town. For big city dwellers, they have a dacha. Dacha literally refers to a patch of ground in the country, though most dachas include a basic dwelling. The houses are nothing special, though; they often don't have running water or even electricity. Dachas are not summer vacation homes, like people in the US have. Instead, they're a vegetable garden with a place to sleep.

Even my school has a garden. Every teacher is required to water and weed the garden for a week during the summer. The potatoes and other foods grown there will be used in the school cafeteria during the winter.

People are always coming to the school to sell fresh milk and eggs straight from the farm. I know the milk is straight from the farm, because it comes in old Coca Cola bottles with a layer of froth and fat on top. The people pull up into our parking lot, and the teachers who don't have class right then all hurry outside to buy plastic bags of 20 or 30 eggs, or plastic bags of salted butter. Another time, a teacher from our school put up a sign up sheet in the teachers' room. She was killing her cow, and wanted to know how many kilos people wanted to buy from her. My host mom signed up for five kilos. What with the 40 eggs in our fridge, it looks like my protein input should be increasing exponentially.

Friday, April 16, 2010


You can only sing “The Hokey Pokey” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” so many times before you begin to wonder how camp counselors and kindergarten teachers keep their sanity. I teach six hours of English clubs per week, three of which are with younger children up to sixth grade, and after countless repetitions of the aforementioned songs, I decided we needed a goal other than “make Miss Anna completely exhausted.”

And so, I decided to write and direct a short play, where the kids could continue to sing and dance but I would get to watch. Not being particularly creative in the script-writing department, I decided to adapt a traditional fairy tale: the kids learn about American culture, and I don't have to worry about plot development! The final choice was “Cinderella” because it has lots of parts, both large and small, as well as many “extras.” This turned out to be a fortunate choice, because they have the same story over here, only her name is “Zolushka” instead of Cinderella. So even though the entire play is in English, which most of the audience won't understand, they should get the general gist of the story. And, to keep it interesting, I added several musical numbers and dance sequences, as well as some self-composed poetry:

To open the play:

A girl, Cinderella by name,
will quickly attain lasting fame
when her sisters two
can't put on the shoe.
I tell you, this story's not lame.

The fairy godmother says:

Right now you have not got a dress.
I'll do what you never would guess.
I'll wave my small wand.
Your rags are all gone!
You're beautiful, like a princess.

Mother Dies
"The opening scene of the play is very heartbreaking; right after Cinderella's mother says her one line, “I love you, Cinderella,” she falls ill and dies. The funeral scene is quite moving; a few kids even pretended to wipe away tears"

"I think my narrators' acting skills were wasted in their roll: they cried more in the funeral scene than even the widower did"

I thought that “like a princess” was a nice bit of foreshadowing. I must confess, however, that this literary device was inspired not so much by my poetical prowess as by my lack of a rhyming dictionary. Likewise, my writing poetry in the first place was not brought on by my overflowing creative genius, but rather by my lack of access to any other poems. (Curse that once-weekly internet!)

A lot of things in this play (one could say everything) are driven by my lack of resources. For example, my special effects budget is approximately 0 tenge. Therefore, we haven't got the capability to turn a pumpkin into a carriage, or, for that matter, even a large piece of orange paper into a larger piece of carriage-shaped paper. And so, the only thing keeping Cinderella from the ball is her lack of beautiful dress. This may seem a minor and rather vain problem, but it is insurmountable to Cinderella, who weeps over her lack of beautiful dress in a very touching scene.

"Cinderella, in her working clothes. (The transformation scene was too short for her to completely change her clothes, so we had to improvise with costuming. I think she looks a bit like the little mermaid)"

I'm afraid my play in general might be teaching some less than noteworthy values. Or maybe, in its extreme simplicity, it reveals the shallow values that have been driving the story of Cinderella from the very beginning. For example, the story tells young girls that if they dress up in a beautiful dress, a prince will fall in love with them. My play helps drive this point home when the prince laments Cinderella's disappearance (in a poem I also wrote/adapted.)

Oh where, oh where has that pretty girl gone?
Oh where, oh where can she be?
With her beautiful eyes and her beautiful dress,
Oh where, oh where can she be?

Are her beautiful eyes and her beautiful dress the only things that the prince can remember about Cinderella? The shortness of their acquaintance, not to mention the rhythm of the poem, dictate this.

"The evil stepfamily, who make Cinderella work all day while they watch tv and eat chocolates"

I did take a bit of artistic license when I adapted the story. There's one scene I added where the king tells his son that he must get married. (We needed more male parts, and there was a big scuffle over who got to be the prince and wear a cape. So now the king gets to wear a cape too.) The king's line is: “Son, I want you to get married.” The trouble is, the king is always getting mixed up, and keeps saying, “Son, I want to you get married.” I'm not sure, legally, how this would work. The son's reply is even more disturbing: “Father, I do not love a girl.” Every time he says this, I keep thinking, “Well then, who do you love?” Sadly, I did not spot this unfortunate turn of phrase until it was too late to change it because the prince had already spent countless hours memorizing his line. I think, when I wrote this, I was trying to teach the vocab term “girl.” Or else my time in Kazakhstan has hindered my ability to speak English.

Prince and King
"The King, telling his son, “I want to you get married”

I also took artistic license with the opening scene. In order to squeeze another musical number into the production, not to mention another female character, I started the story with the death of Cinderella's first mother. She has one line to say, “I love you, Cinderella,” before she kicks the bucket. This makes her the perfect role for one of my shyer students to play, and also allows me to write a moving funeral scene where the chorus sings, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The chorus is my most inspired idea yet. The attendance at my club is constantly fluctuating, and if I were to be always reassigning parts I'd probably give myself a headache. The chorus and dance group, therefore, gives every hyperactive child who shows up to club something to do, without leaving a glaring hole when they never come back. (Probably scared away by my dance choreography.)

"The herald, announcing the ball with the coolest prop ever!"

Lack of resources also drove me to choreograph all of the dances. The trouble is, I have very little dance experience. I danced a couple of times in the Bollywood dance at my college's International Fair, and also joined the hula one time for the Hawai'i Club's Lu'au. And I took one semester of ballroom dancing for a PE credit. But there was a reason I was always put in the back row during our performances.

I started dredging my memory for any fragments of dance moves that I remember. It was a pretty poor haul. I started with a short dance another volunteer, Noelle, created during Pre-Service Training. She performed this dance with her host sister during a school concert. It's a variation on the electric slide, keeping the foot movement while adding some arm movements. But it wasn't very long, and if I was going to drag out the play, I'd need some more steps. And so, without any respect for the cultural nuances of these dances, I mercilessly stole, cut, combined, and otherwise butchered the few dance moves I knew, putting together the strangest conglomeration of Bollywood meets Hula meets where-on-earth-did-that-come-from. And we dance it to the song “Jai Ho!” from “Slumdog Millionaire.” The good news is, the kids love it (at least, the girls do) and are constantly begging to dance it. I wouldn't be surprised if Broadway came knocking, looking for the next up-and-coming choreographer.

Fairy Godmother
"The fairy godmother comforts Cinderella"

Next, I added some songs; people here love singing, and will sing karaoke at the drop of a hat. My lack of resources, however, continued to plague me. The only songs I had to work with were any folk songs I could remember the words to and the songs already on my iTunes. I really wanted to stay artistically honest, so even though my audience won't understand the lyrics, I still wanted them to have some bearing on the context. This led to an eclectic mix that rivaled my dance choreography. When the stepmother and stepsisters are getting ready for the prince's ball, they sing Carly Simon's “You're So Vain.” Then, after they leave Cinderella at home in her rags, she sings Switchfoot's “Only Hope.” (Only I had to change the word “pray” to “say” to prevent any religious conflicts.) Finally, when the fairy godmother arrives to help Cinderella, she sings The Beatles' “From Me To You.” (The first verse of this song is perfect, but the bridge, where the godmother tells Cinderella “I've got arms that long to hold you...I've got lips that long to kiss you,” is a little disturbing.) The final scene of the play features the chorus again, singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as Cinderella gets married to the prince (and is carried into his home – see the connection? Yeah, me neither.)

Jai Ho!
"The dance scene, complete with my groundbreaking choreography. The girls all complained about dancing in their ball gowns, but I insisted. It's incredible: every girl here owns a super fancy dress, and they are dressed to the nines for any special occasion"

"The prince fell in love with Cinderella as they danced the rumba. Well, tried to dance the rumba; my prince didn't have any sense of rhythm"

"The prince tries the shoe on the stepmother; I guess Cinderella's dad isn't good enough for her"

Swing Low
"The play ended with a rousing rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” complete with arm movements I learned in Sunday School"

We're planning a big performance of our production this Monday, with many of the teachers in attendance. I'm looking forward to showcasing all our hard work, and also being done with rehearsals, since the kids are starting to be bored of the songs. But I worried: what on earth am I going to do now? I guess it's back to the “Hokey Pokey!”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Warm Toes

Over the past several months I have added enough new items to my wardrobe that, when I dress to go outside, the only things visible are from Kazakhstan. Not that this helps me fit in any more; I'm still “the American” wherever I go. But at least I'm warm.

First I bought a “fur coat.” This was back in October, right after I found out that I was going to Northern Kazakhstan. (Which, by the way, is the northernmost region in all of the Peace Corps.) All along I had planned to buy a winter coat over here, but somehow the prospect of -40 degrees gave the search a new urgency. I asked every Kazakh person I knew for their advice, and got mixed reports. My host family told me I needed to buy a “shuba,” or what we think of as a fur coat. But since these run about 80,000 tenge, and I was given a total of 25,000 tenge for all of my “settling in” allowance, this wasn't feasible. So instead, I took my Kazakh teacher's advice and searched for a coat with rabbit fur lining – much cheaper (20,000 tenge), if not as fashionable. As I walked through the bazaar, reaching inside every coat I passed to see if it had the desired fur inside, I felt a bit like a traitor to my liberal, Pacific Northwest upbringing – images of the protestors that always gathered around the fur coat store in downtown Portland flashed through my head – but the expediency of affordable warmth won in the end.

Upon arrival in the north, I quickly found my gloves wanting and bought a new pair. And the constant critiques of my plain, navy blue hat (“It looks like a man's hat,” “It's too square.”) led me to buy a rhinestone-bedazzled Kazakh wool cap. Now all that was left showing from America was my boots.

Despite the fact that I'd searched long and hard in the States to find warm yet fashionable winter boots (no small feat in rainy Oregon in August), and despite the fact that the reviews raved that my purchase would be “the warmest boots you've ever worn,” and despite the fact the I took to wearing 2-3 pars of socks every time I went outside, my toes would still get cold if I stood on the street for more than 15 minutes. (And, considering how often the bus is late, or just decides not to come at all, this is pretty regularly.) So, I finally broke down and bought myself a pair of Valenki, or, as the Kazakhs call them, Pima.

Fashionable they are not. But pima are so warm!!!

Pima were clearly invented by someone who shared my problem of cold toes and didn't care how incredibly unfashionable they had to be to solve this problem. Pima could best be described as “felted wool boots,” and maybe I should just refer you to the picture I've posted. They're quite funny looking, really, and considering how many women here totter around on impossibly high stiletto heels for most of the year, it's surprising how popular they are. The main wearers are babushki (old ladies), who share my love of comfort over fashion. But a fair number of younger women, and even men, also wear pima. They even make adorable children's pima for the concerned parent.

My quest started when I told my host mother that I wanted to buy some pima. She was thrilled. (She, along with everyone else at my school, seems to think that I am in distinct danger of shriveling up and dying from the cold, and therefore is constantly asking if I'm cold, and telling me to put on more clothes.) She said she would ask around and find out where to buy them. (Apparently, they aren't sold in the bazaar downtown, but in private houses.) Soon, the whole school knew that I wanted to buy some pima. “Did you buy your pima yet?,” the teachers asked me. “What color are you going to buy?”

One helpful math teacher pointed us to a place that sold pima just behind our school. My host mother and I trekked through the snow and entered the rundown-looking, unmarked building, me cautiously, her without the least feeling that anything was out of the ordinary. Inside, there was an entry way strewn with old tires and three men smoking. They politely pointed to a door with “entrance” written on it. Pushing through the door, it was immediately evident that they made the pima here as well as sold them. We'd come straight to the factory, as it were. The whole place smelled very strongly of sheep due to the large piles of wool lying in many of the corners. An open stove kept the place warm while ancient machines that looked as if they were from the dawn of the industrial revolution clanked in other corners. A lady ushered us into the “office” and set about finding me a pair of pima.

When I'd searched for dress shoes in the bazaar in Almaty, I'd discovered that, apparently, no women in Kazakhstan have feet larger than a size 39, or 8, and therefore no one sells shoes in larger sizes. I'd always thought of my size 9 feet as average, but I'm a Sasquatch here. When the lady brought out the largest pair of pima they had on hand, my toes were smashed in the front. And so I had to special order my pima in a larger size. Luckily, we were at the factory, so I only had to wait four days. When they were ready, the son of one of the workers, an eighth grader at our school, cautiously peered into the teachers' room and gave me the message, and I trekked through the snow to pick them up.

Pima are popular at any age.

My new pima were the talk of the school for at least a week. Everyone wanted to look at them and to complement me on how Kazakh I'd become. Even my Regional Manager from the Peace Corps, when she came for “site visit,” exclaimed over my pima and had me roll up my pants so she could take a picture. My pima even earned me an invitation to tea. News of my pima must have spread beyond the walls of the school, because the conductor on the bus (the lady who collects bus fares) wanted to know how I was liking my new pima. The lady sitting next to me was slightly confused by this question, until the conductor explained that I was from America. The lady immediately complimented me on my pima and began a five minute discussion of their merits as winter footwear. Then she told me she had lots of jam, and I should come over to her house and eat some of it. A few weeks later, I called her up to accept her invitation. It was a very nice visit; I got to eat pork for the first time in three months (even though my family doesn't practice Islam, they still buy halal sausage and don't eat pork) and watched rugby on tv. Unfortunately, she forgot about the jam.

My host father loves to tell a story about a famous cosmonaut from the USSR. This cosmonaut said, “The two greatest inventions of mankind are the space ship and pima.”

My warm and happy toes wholeheartedly agree.