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.