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.

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