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.