Saturday, May 22, 2010

Victory Day

One of the biggest holidays in Kazakhstan is the 9th of May, or Victory Day. It celebrates the day when the Soviet troops marched into Berlin and defeated the Nazi troops to end World War II. Or, as they say here, the day the Soviets defeated the Fascists to end the Great Patriotic War. And this year was the 65th anniversary, so it was an even bigger deal than normal.

The TV showed a short historical segment everyday about the “Road to Berlin,” detailing the Soviet army's movements in the days leading up to the Fascist surrender. Commercials for a concert of patriotic war songs began playing in early April. Signs and billboards went up all over town in preparation for the big celebration.

My host father Oral used to be a history teacher, and he gave me several lectures about how the Soviets won the war. He conceded that the Americans helped by giving them arms and money (but they never gave enough.) And the Soviet army played the most important part in defeating the Fascists. Historically, this is probably more accurate than giving the most credit to the Americans, at least in regard to the Nazis. The Soviets definitely took the highest toll and paid the highest price in the war. And many historians argue that the battle for Stalingrad was the turning point of the war. Oral went on to point out that Kazakhstan also played an important roll in the war. Many of the factories and even government agencies (including the forerunner to the KGB) were relocated to Kazakhstan when the Nazis got too close to Moscow. And there was an all-Kazakhstani division, called Panfilov's division, that won an important battle, only to be overwhelmed by enemy forces following a huge tactical error by Moscow. Afterward, Moscow covered up their mistake for many years before finally admitting wrong. Now, there are monuments all over Kazakhstan in honor of Panfilov's brave soldiers.

The Victory Day celebration in my village began at 10am on a slightly-chilly Sunday morning. First, the local veterans walked into the town square, accompanied by their wives and bedecked in their many medals and ribbons awarded during the war. There were not many of them; in fact, people were constantly telling me, with a mixture of pride and sadness, that there are exactly 32 WWII veterans still alive in our region.

Next, there were speeches by the akim (mayor) and other important dignitaries honoring the veterans. Then people filed forward to lay baskets filled with flowers at the base of our town's Great Patriotic War monument and eternal flame (which wasn't burning in the winter, so I only realized a couple of weeks ago that we have an eternal flame.)

After the ceremony, the parade began. It was nothing like a small-town America parade, with kids riding streamer-bedecked bikes and local charity groups throwing hard candy at the spectators. The parade started with a review of the local schools. Each school sent a delegation of boys and another of girls, and they (literally) marched past the spectators in rank and file.

Earlier that week, our school had held our own Victory Day celebration, and all of the classes from 5th through 10th grades marched around the school yard. It was quite interesting to watch my 11-year-old students marching in not-quite-perfect rhythm, chanting loudly “bir, bir, bir eki oosh!” (which means “one, one, one two three.”) Each class made two passes around the field, the second time singing a military song, and they were graded each time, with certificates and ranks awarded to everybody at the end.

And so, having seen the marching earlier that week, I was not surprised to see it now, although the older students were much better at staying together as they marched. After the review, the parade began. It was a “theatrical parade,” as the announcers said, and so every group had a story to tell. The hospital filled the back of an old truck with wounded soldiers wrapped in bloody bandages, while nurses in white robes ministered to their wounds. Another group had a full-blown tank with soldiers sitting on top, heading off to war. Our school had an entire skit put together portraying families saying goodbye to their husbands, sons and fathers and they went off to war.

During the parade rehearsal a few days earlier, I had not been aware that we had planned such a complicated presentation. I'd come to the center of town with the rest of the teachers after school had let out early for the day, ready to participate and help wherever I was needed. As the teachers lined up at the staging ground, I cautiously asked my counterpart if they were going to march like the students, because I wasn't quite ready to do something they'd obviously had much more practice with. But when she said no, I impetuously joined the other teachers, looking around for handfuls of candy to throw. (It was just rehearsal, so when I didn't see any, I was unfazed.)

Then I noticed all the teachers grabbing the hands of one of the small children who were standing around. Ready to fit in, I looked around and noticed little Ruslan from my 4a class standing on the edge of the road. “Ruslan!” I called and waved him over to me. He gave me a confused look, but Ruslan often looks confused, so my confidence didn't sink as he approached, I took his hand, and we began walking.

I was soon to find out, however, that there was never going to be any candy involved in this parade, and also why Ruslan had given me such a confused look. Our group stopped walking in front of the town square, and a complicated script that had been prerecorded began blasting over the loudspeaker. First we had to gather together and cry as we said goodbye to our soldiers. I pulled Ruslan into a hug, and even though we didn't have any soldier to say goodbye to (apparently I was a single mother), we cried just as hard as the rest of them. Then we all squatted and prayed for something in Kazakh before the men jumped into a waiting lorry and the children ran behind it, waving, as it drove away. (Ruslan seemed remarkably happy to run after that truck and away from me.)

Needless to say, when the parade practice finished, I was feeling a bit confused and incredibly hopeful that nobody was watching our performance (that is to say, my lack of performance) too closely. Soon, though, my host mom told me there would be at least two more run-throughs that day but I might as well go home because, on the day of the parade, I should be watching it and enjoying my first Victory Day. I had no objections, and I did enjoy watching the parade on May 9.

Several times people have asked me if we have a similar holiday in America. I replied that we don't, and my answer got me thinking about why. You could argue that it's because America has two victory days, one over the Nazis and one over the Japanese, so logistics don't work. You could also argue that America is not a military state, like the Soviet Union was, and so had no need to manufacture military spectacles as propaganda to bolster citizens' national pride. But, I think maybe a large reason is because, difficult as the war was for Americans, we suffered nowhere near the hardships that the Soviet Union experienced. The war was on their land. Not only their soldiers, but their civilians too, died in battles such as the sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad. Millions upon millions of their people died protecting their homeland from invaders at their backdoor. The stakes for them were much higher, the battles won with more difficulty, and therefore the victory sweeter.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Cross Cultural Manners

We all judge other people based on the values we hold and our beliefs about the best way to do things. This becomes glaringly clear when you travel to another culture, and everyone around you has different values and beliefs. When you interact with people who do things completely differently from you, you can chose to accept that, or you can think the worst of them for it. When you're dealing with heavy issues like freedom and equality and the like, you have to face the fact that maybe, what you've always thought was a basic human desire and right might actually just be a cultural construct.

But not every cross-cultural conflict you face has deep meaning and weighty consequences. Sometimes, the things that we use to judge other people are completely meaningless, and yet they're the things that create rifts or prejudices that harm our respect for others.

I'm thinking in particular about the issue of manners. Manners are completely subjective and culturally based. For example, in America, it's rude to eat meat off the bone with your fingers (as my mother is constantly reminding me.) In Kazakhstan, however, it's completely fine to eat with your fingers, and even expected that you will eat beshfarmak with your hands. In America, it's invasive to walk into someone's room without knocking; in Kazakhstan, if you need something in the room, or need to talk to the person, why would you bother waiting until they're done changing? My host sister in Almaty walked into my room on my birthday to give me my present. I was standing in my bra, searching for a shirt, but she was completely unfazed. Nonplussed, I took the proffered present and set it on the bed, then grabbed the nearest shirt and slipped it over my head. I was bright red with embarrassment, but she saw nothing awkward in the situation.

At that point, I could have chosen to think her rather rude. If someone did that in America, I would wonder what was wrong with them. But it would be unfair and baseless for me to make the same judgment about her. No one ever told her it was rude to walk into someone's room without knocking, even if they are changing. She has no cultural reason to not walk in.

I found myself in an even more superficial situation recently. I began to notice just how much people here slurp their soup. And the more I noticed, the more the sound annoyed me. Soon, though, I stepped back and thought about the judgment I was making. To put it in perspective, I thought about the week before, when my host mom had told me that I always set my mug down too loudly on the table. In a similar situation to mine, the more she noticed, the more the sound annoyed her. She responded by telling me that only people who have not been well brought up set their dishes down heavily on the table. Then she showed me how to gently set my dishes down so they didn't make any noise. She wondered aloud, hadn't my mother taught me anything?

Of course, my mother taught me lots of things, like not to eat with my hands and to knock when I enter a room and not to slurp my soup. She taught me lots of inconsequential, meaningless things that nonetheless tell everyone in my culture whether or not I am “well-brought up.” It's only when I cross cultural boundaries and am faced with a completely different set of inconsequential, meaningless things that people judge you by that I have to face the fact that they are inconsequential and meaningless. And yet people still judge you by them. The burden is on me, of course, to adapt, since if I don't, everyone here will wonder just what my mother was thinking. But it makes me reevaluate the lines we draw based on shallow things like clothes styles or grammar or manners. Who are we to judge people based on our own set of cultural values, when they might not even be aware that that set of values exists?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Growing Food

People in Kazakhstan are still very closely connected to their land. In America, it may be hip and progressive to have a vegetable garden in the back yard, but it's not the norm. Here, everyone has a vegetable garden. In fact, people don't have back yards with grass and landscaping; they have gardens. If you don't have your own land, like my family who lives in an apartment block, then you find another patch of ground to grow food in. Ours in through the forest on the edge of town. For big city dwellers, they have a dacha. Dacha literally refers to a patch of ground in the country, though most dachas include a basic dwelling. The houses are nothing special, though; they often don't have running water or even electricity. Dachas are not summer vacation homes, like people in the US have. Instead, they're a vegetable garden with a place to sleep.

Even my school has a garden. Every teacher is required to water and weed the garden for a week during the summer. The potatoes and other foods grown there will be used in the school cafeteria during the winter.

People are always coming to the school to sell fresh milk and eggs straight from the farm. I know the milk is straight from the farm, because it comes in old Coca Cola bottles with a layer of froth and fat on top. The people pull up into our parking lot, and the teachers who don't have class right then all hurry outside to buy plastic bags of 20 or 30 eggs, or plastic bags of salted butter. Another time, a teacher from our school put up a sign up sheet in the teachers' room. She was killing her cow, and wanted to know how many kilos people wanted to buy from her. My host mom signed up for five kilos. What with the 40 eggs in our fridge, it looks like my protein input should be increasing exponentially.