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.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

African Hut Syndrome, aka The Posh Corps

Sometimes, I feel like I didn't really join the Peace Corps. I have a cell phone, hot running water, and weekly access to the internet. I certainly don't feel very hardcore. Other countries have nicknamed Eastern Europe and Central Asia the "Posh Corps." Many volunteers in Kazakhstan claim disappointment over the widespread availability of modern conveniences here, and a few even ET(Early Terminate, or quit and go home) because of it. I think the official name for this is "African Hut Syndrome." We join the Peace Corps with the romantic notion of living in an African hut, washing our clothes in the river and walking along a dirt path to work. Then we get here, and we're faced with a Soviet block apartment building, an old-but-still-functioning washing machine, and a bus to get to work.

All this leaves you feeling like everything isn't as hard as you thought, and maybe even hoped, it would be. If I don't have to cart water from the well, am I really entitled to call myself a Peace Corps volunteer? If I can go to the bathroom in a flush toilet, is my life being transformed by my experiences here? I joined the PC to be challenged, but I have a gas stove in the kitchen and running water in the sink. Where's the challenge in that? Of course, I know that my work will still be hard, and that learning the language and culture will still stretch me way beyond my comfort zone, but somehow those don't carry the same bragging rights as going outside to the squat toilet when it's 40 below.

I had a choice, when I moved to my permanent site, between living in a house without indoor conveniences or in an apartment with them. I chose the apartment, because I really liked the family who lived there. But it was a very difficult choice. The house fit all my romantic notions about Kazakhstan: an outdoor kitchen for the summertime, a rundown banya building, and a woodburning stove inside. It had cute gingerbread trim and a view of the lake. It would be much more "Peace Corps" to live there. In the back of my mind, I remembered what I learned during pre-service training: that, after the first time, washing clothes by hand isn't romantic, it's time-consuming and boring. Squat toilets aren't worth bragging about, they're just smelly and cold. If you don't have running water, just taking a spit bath involves hauling the water, heating it on the stove, taking it out to the freezing cold banya building, and then cleaning it all up afterward. Doing any basic chore takes 10 times as long as it does in America. I remembered how hard it all was, and yet I still wanted it. Why? The bragging rights? The feeling of having accomplished something really hard? The cultural understanding? Some indefinable desire that, somehow, all of this hardship would make me a stronger person?

Not everyone here struggles with this. Some of the volunteers complain about the lack of conveniences, that you have to bucket bathe or that the internet is really slow. And I start to wonder where this dissatisfaction comes from. Part of me thinks to myself, "What's your problem? You did join the Peace Corps after all." I start to sound like a babushka, lamenting the entitlement that my generation feels. Maybe it's the fact that these things are available to some people, so that when we don't have them we feel their lack. Maybe it would be better if the internet wasn't in Kazakhstan at all, if no one had a cell phone, if everyone had to haul water from a well. But then again, maybe my generation is so used to these things, that we simply can't live without them. It's not like in the old days, when the Peace Corps simply dropped volunteers off at the end of the road with a map, a name of a contact, and a donkey. Now we're babied through pre-service training, where they try to meet our every need and answer our every question, and when they don't we complain about it. Because even those of us who are lamenting our lack of an African hut are also disappointed when the power goes out and we can't get on the internet this week.

I have to conclude, for the sake of my personal sense of growth and accomplishment, that the Peace Corps isn't about going back in time to the bronze age. It's about meeting another culture where it is right now. And right now, Kazakhstan has cell phones and half-automatic washing machines and unreliable electricity. This is how Kazakhstanis live. And since I came here to learn about Kazakhstanis, not some people group I'd imagined but that doesn't exist, then my life also includes a cell phone and a half-automatic washing machine and electricity that goes out when you try to get on the internet. And, according to my earlier musings, that faulty electricity should be making me a stronger person.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

I have a confession to make: I'm a terrible teacher. I don't know most of my students' names. I've come up with plenty of justifications: I have at least 200 students, some of them only once a week for 45 minutes; I'm also supposed to learn the names of about 50 teachers at our school; plus, all of these names are Kazakh, meaning they're completely foreign to my American ears. And I have been trying. I have a list of all the teachers at our school, and I spent a day with one of our English teachers, surreptitiously asking her the name of everyone who walked into the teachers' room and making notes on my list about hair cut, tone of voice, and number of gold teeth in hopes that I would remember who's who later on. In the meantime, I've become the master of pretending like I know who people are. This is especially valuable on the street or while waiting for the bus; as the only American in town, everyone knows who I am, and if I even once said "Salametciz be" (hello) to someone, I think they expect me to remember them as well. At school, though, I actually do recognize everybody's face, I just don't know their name.

Kazakh names are very beautiful and unique. Most of them mean something; for example, Aigul means moon flower because 'ai' means moon and 'gul' means flower. Altinshash means golden hair, because 'altin' means gold and 'shash' means hair. Akbota means white (ak) baby camel (bota.) Assel means honey, Kumbat means dear one, Bakut means happy and Marzhan means pearl. I have to think about the meanings of the names, because the sound of them is strange to my American ears. For example, when I first heard that my counterpart's name was Nazgul, all I could think about were those evil, black, hooded creatures in The Lord of the Rings. But once I learned that Nazgul means beloved flower (and once I started using it everyday so I didn't think about it as much), I liked her name much more.

Some common female names are Aisulu, Nurgul, Asemgul, Zhanar, Guldanu, Gulzhanat, Bibigul, Ainash, and Aida. Some common male names are Bogenbai, Erkibolan, Talgat, Kuanish, Amangeldy, Serik, Kozhabek, and Temirhan.

I do know some of my students' names, and when I do I like to use them
as much as possible, as if I'm atoning for the lack of turkey at Thanksgiving dinner by putting extra mashed potatoes on the table. Sometimes, though, I accidentally mix up even those few names I know. One day, a third grade boy from my 3a class came to my English club, and I was absolutely certain it was Sanjar. I was so proud of myself for knowing his name, that I made a point of calling him "Sanjar" every time I talked to him. At first, he looked at me a little funny, but he didn't say anything, so I pressed on in my triumph of finally knowing someone's name. It was only after we'd been at club for over an hour that one of the girls leaned over to me and quietly said, "That's not Sanjar, that's Nursultan." Poor kid! He'd been taught not to question teachers, so he'd probably spent the last hour completely confused and not a little affronted.

I tried an experiment in my two 7th grade classes. I remember back in middle school Spanish class, when we had to pick Spanish names and use those in class. I was Mariana, and I loved it. So I made up a list of common boys and girls names in America and let them chose what they wanted to be called. I hoped this would make it easier to remember, since at least the names would be familiar to me. The plan backfired, though. They were very excited to chose a name, but unfortunately they all wanted to chose the same name. All the girls wanted to be Jessica or Ashley, and the boys David or Tom. Of course, I made everyone take a different name, and so both classes chose them like clockwork. The first girl to be called on chose Jessica, the second Ashley, then Angela, Mary, Emma, and Emily. (The boys were a bit more variable.) So now, I was faced with two of everybody, and their names all started with a vowel. And then, on top of that, they can't always remember each others' American names, so we still have to use their Kazakh names sometimes, meaning that now I have twice the number of names to memorize.

Back in January, one of my (very enthusiastic) 6th grade boys gave me an invitation to his birthday party on April 15th. That prompted everyone in the room to tell me when their birthday was, and invite me to their party as well. Mercifully, most of them were in the summer or next fall, so I have time to figure out whether I want to attend a birthday party for every 6th grade boy in the school, and maybe give them time to forget that they invited me. However, one kid's birthday was February 28, and he wasn't forgetting. Every time he saw me, he reminded me that I said I would come to his party. I asked my host mom if it was appropriate for a teacher to go to a student's birthday party, and she said it was fine, although she warned me to buy a modest gift because if I went to one I'd have to go to them all. (Was she hiding in the room when I was mobbed by my enthusiastic students?) "Whose birthday is it?" she innocuously asked. "Umm, I can't remember his name!," I admitted, embarrassed. "Then how will you know how to get to his house?" she wondered. I described how another student, who had walked me home from the bus a couple of times and lived in the same apartment building as us, was going to meet me out front at 12:20 and we would walk together. "What's his name?" "Umm..." I described how he lived next door, in the first entrance. "Oh, that must be Adilet," she replied. "Yeah, Adilet," I said, thinking, "I don't know! I hope that's his name!" Then she asked if I had any idea where the birthday boy lived. I hazily remembered a conversation on a crowded bus, five 6th grade boys pressed around me, excitedly talking in Russian about cartoons and summer and the Terminator. It was one of many occasions when I'd been reminded that I'd said I would go to this birthday party. And he'd told me where he lived. "It's somewhere in the next group of apartment buildings, across the field," I said, waving my hand to indicate the direction. "There's two 6th grade boys who live in the same building, one in the apartment right above the other." "Is the birthday in the apartment on the top or the bottom?" my host mom asked. "The bottom, I think." "Then it's Mediet," she said with authority.

My embarrassment was complete. I couldn't even remember his name after he'd invited me multiple times to his house, and my host mom knew exactly who I was talking about from a vague description and a wave of the hand. But now, at least, I knew what name to write on the birthday card.