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.