Saturday, November 26, 2011

Peace Corps is leaving Kazakhstan

The Peace Corps recently announced that they are pulling out of Kazakhstan. Needless to say, I'm very sad to hear that all of the wonderful work that volunteers were doing in Kazakhstan won't continue. I for one had many wonderful experiences in Kazakhstan and miss my friends and "family" there terribly. The Peace Corps hasn't explained why they are pulling their programs from Kazakhstan; they've only announced that all volunteers are leaving the country with no view at the present time to go back in the future. If you're interested in the "why" of it all, another volunteer's blog explains her theories thoroughly, and I generally agree with her (coming from the north of Kazakhstan, where there are a lot more "old guards" who are suspicious of any foreigners, I'm more inclined to blame the pullout on certain hostile elements in the government rather than safety issues.) Here's another, more impassioned blog from one of the volunteers who only arrived 8 months ago. The comments on the bottom also offer some interesting perspectives about the...interesting understandings that some people have about foreigners.

Finally, if you want to read something "official," here's an interesting news article you can read, featuring yours truly in a picture I'm not sure where they found.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Spending time in “Peace Corps Uzbekistan” and “Peace Corps Russia”

I may be serving in Peace Corps Kazakhstan, but this summer I got to help at summer camps in Uzbekistan and Russia. Ok, maybe I didn't actually go to those countries, but I was within 10 miles of their respective borders. And I even got a text message from my phone company welcoming me to Uzbekistan!

As I was planning out my summer, it wasn’t my goal to go to the far south to help a volunteer with a summer camp, followed a week later by travel to the furthest north site in the entire Peace Corps. But the 35 hour train ride was totally worth it for the fascinating contrasts I was able to observe in the extreme ends of Kazakhstan.

Let's start with the obvious one: climate. Down south, we were boiling every day. A lethargic air overtook the entire village, and we all took naps in the middle of the afternoon. The landscape was scrubby steppe; even near the huge Syr Darya River there was only a mile or so of flooded swampland before the near-desert took over again.

Up in Siberia, however, everything was still green. The grass was knee high when it wasn't swallowed by birch forests. It even rained the first half of the week, and we woke up to 20 degrees F one morning. (Although by the end of the week the temperatures had soared to the low 80s.)

Language and ethnicity were also very different. On the Uzbek border, the people are mostly Kazakhs, with a fair number of Uzbeks mixed in. Uzbek plov, Kazakh beshbarbak, and Central Asian samsa dominate the menus. Despite being a desert, there are many villages built close together. And most of the people speak Kazakh all the time.

Up on the Russian border, however, there's a large mix of European nationalities: Russian, Ukrainian, Cossack, Armenian and German, in addition to the Kazakhs. In order to communicate with such a varied group of people, most people speak Russian with each other, although within their ethnic groups some people speak their native tongue. The food was Russian kotleti and gulash, although we did find some very bland plov. And despite being so apparently lush, the villages were built far apart. (I guess in the dead of winter it’s not quite so green.)

The main event of each week was, of course, the English camp that we were running for three hours a day. However, one other major event happened at each site that I think illustrates how different the cultures of the north and south are.

In the north, we attended a “Festival of Nationalities” where each of the different ethnic groups in the village did a short presentation about their culture. Groups danced, sang, put on a short play, showed off their national costumes, and brought out dishes of their national foods. (For some groups this included such interesting dishes as “boiled eggs” and “butter.”) The festival felt very Soviet to me. The Soviet policy, in my opinion, was to celebrate the superficial aspects of culture, such as music and costume, in order to give people a sense of individuality and prevent charges of cultural suppression, while at the same time subjugating all the deeper aspects of culture under the socialist agenda of equality and respect for authority. (And also a healthy dose of the superiority of Russian “high culture.”) The “Festival of Nationalities” followed the same agenda of unity together with superficial diversity as it celebrated each of the different “nationalities” of the people in the village. Talking to the German girls beforehand, it quickly became clear that they were much closer to a Russian/post-Soviet worldview than a German one. And I can only assume that the same applies to the other people there; the Soviet Union, at least the most “Russified” places in it, might have been an even better melting pot than America.

“Russification” hasn't got nearly as strong of a hold in southern Kazakhstan. Although there are certainly aspects of the Soviet culture there, Kazakhs in the south are much more traditional. This became clear one day when the volunteer who was hosting the camp got a phone call from her former host family. Her host sister, who was 16 years old, had been bridenapped. Bridenapping is one of the traditional ways that Kazakh men get themselves a wife. They grab the young girl they want to marry and take her to their home. Once the girl has spent the night at his house, whether anything happened between them or not, the two are considered married; at the very least, it would be incredibly shameful for the girl to leave and go back to her family, who will often refuse to take her back. To prevent the girl from running away before the night is over, often the grandmother will sleep in front of the door, since it is considered very terrible to step over an older person. Once the bridenapping is complete, the girl is considered a part of her new husband's family and she cannot leave.

Bridenapping is relatively common in south Kazakhstan (although 16 is younger than most bridenapped girls are.) Volunteers have been asked by their unmarried female students to walk them home because they are afraid of being stolen. However, in the north I have never heard of a bride being stolen. A volunteer from western Kazakhstan said that they sometimes have bridenappings, but usually the couple agrees beforehand because they can't afford the wedding; in this case, stealing a bride is more like a eloping.

Everyone at the camp felt terrible for the stolen girl, because, unless her new husband grants her special permission, she won't be able to attend college in the fall or do any of the other things she was planning for her life. There was nothing her family could do, however, because her mother was unmarried and therefore already in a tenuous social position in the community. The volunteer from that village has had people ask her if she is afraid of being bridenapped. She honestly replies, “no,” because she doesn't fear the social stigma of leaving and has no problem stepping over the grandmother in the doorway to do so. The fact that such ancient practices still exist in some parts of Kazakhstan, however, shows me just how different the traditional south is from the northern Kazakh village where I live.

Assimilation (Part 3)

ie, How I've changed and will need a lot of time to "de-crazy"

when I come back to the States

I recently gained a fascinating opportunity to get insight into just how much I've changed and adapted to the Kazakhstani culture around me. I spent three weeks helping to train incoming volunteers, giving them technical sessions about teaching and culture, observing the practicum lessons that they gave, and just being a general resource for questions or cry-on-able shoulders. Since these “trainees” were quite recently off the plane from American, they gave me some interesting insight into the American perspective on Kazakhstan.

For example, I was appalled when some of the girls showed up to class without nylons on. “Aren't you cold?” I asked them, secretly wondering how they could think that bare legs were professional enough for school. “You're so Kazakh!” they replied, having already been harassed by their local host mothers and Kazakh language teacher.

Another time, riding on the train, a girl put her feet up on the edge of the bed with her shoes still on. Not wanting to sound bossy, I said nothing, but was happy when the local Russians scolded her and I got to translate the message.

Clothes in general have become a bit of an obsession for me. I am very concerned that I look both professional and fashionable when I leave the house. The definitions of these two words have certainly changed for me, as I compared my clothes with those of the trainees. A baggy shirt causes me major concern. But I’m not nearly so worried about matching colors. In an attempt to prepare for moving back to the States, I’ve started playing a game with the new volunteer at my site, Michele. I point out an outfit or a shirt that I like and ask, “Cute or not cute?” I’m happy to report that it’s cute about half of the time.

Walking around with the trainees in a big group of Americans was a painful experience for me. I was acutely aware of just how much our loud voices and dirty hiking boots projected our “foreignness.” Speaking to locals also caused me consternation. Even though people say that they speak English, their grasp of the spoken language is often very limited. To really communicate, you have to speak slowly and use very simple words. I didn't realize how naturally I've started to do this until I was talking with a local teacher who I know speaks impeccable English. Nonetheless, my first reaction, when I heard her foreign accent, was to slow down and enunciate each word very clearly. The trainees, though, spoke so quickly with their students that, with my Kazakh mindset, I could barely keep up.

I also have trouble speaking normal English. Isn't "the nature" a perfectly acceptable phrase? Food is "tasty," children at school are called "pupils," and the way that teachers teach them is called our "methodology." I use "must" much more often than I should, and all events in the future happen in the future simple tense, including things that I want other people to do in the future; ie, "Nazgul, you will talk to the director about changing the schedule, yes?" And that silly little tag word, "yes," now gets put on the end of nearly every question sentence that I ask.

I observed one of the most striking of these cultural adaptations when I visited the director of our regional education department with Michele. Our school director introduced Michele and told a little about her qualifications from America, and then the education department director welcomed her to our village and gave a long speech about how important English is for our students. Then the director asked Michele if she wanted to say anything. Michele gave a typical, very polite American response, saying she didn't have any questions now, but if she thought of any would be sure to ask. I knew immediately, though, that this was not the type of response that the director was looking for. If Michele had any questions, she should go to the school director, or, actually, an English teacher or someone else much lower down the power hierarchy. Actually, when the director asked Michele for some words, she was giving her the opportunity to extol our wonderful village and say how happy she was to be here and how much she loved Kazakhstan. Basically, she wanted Michele to give a long-winded speech like she had just done. The fact that I was ready to give such a speech the moment she called on me makes me a little worried about how well my first few job interviews will go when I get back to the states.

Drinking Camel's Milk

Like many things I've experienced here in Kazakhstan, I didn’t even know it was happening until the last minute. One moment I was sitting in my room at seven in the evening, settling in to read The Hunger Games for the next three hours, and the next minute my host mother had stormed into my room announcing that we were going to see the camels in 10 minutes. I did the only reasonable thing I could do: I asked no questions, threw on a different pair of pants, grabbed my camera, and hurried into the living room to drink the obligatory cup of tea before we left.

That was when I got my explanation. Some distant friends in a nearby village own a herd of camels, and my host sister had run into the son at the store earlier that day. This had reminded my host mother that his family owes my family some favor from a long time ago, and she decided to cash in on that to give me and Michele, the other volunteer in my village, an interesting look at Kazakh culture. The bus left at 8pm, so I quickly called Michele, then trooped over to the bus stop with my sister, Aziza, and brother, Alisher.

A man was sitting in his car at the bus stop, which is at the top of a small hill, enjoying the view. Alisher chatted with him and asked if he didn't want to make some extra money and take us out to the village, but he declined. He did ask where we were from, motioning to Michele and I (even after two years I still stand out like a sore thumb!), and Alisher introduced us as relatives from America.

Eventually, another passenger came to the bus stop and told us that the bus had broken down and wouldn't be going today. So Alisher started bargaining with the man in the car in earnest. By “in earnest,” I don't mean that the process got any more heated or moved more quickly. Rather, it took a good 10 minutes for the two of them to come to a conclusion. First, Alisher asked the man how much money he wanted, and the man stated a ridiculous price. Alisher shook his head and then stood in silence for several minutes. Eventually, he offered to pay a little more than we would pay for the bus, but the man said he wasn't from around the area and just wanted to have a relaxing evening while on vacation. Several more minutes of silence ensued, all of us standing patiently around, then the man stated a price halfway in between. Alisher made one more plea for something slightly lower than the man's quote. After a minute or so of reflexion, he nodded and Alisher motioned us into the car.

The camels were totally worth the trip. The herd consisted of about five or seven full grown animals. The family who owned them was Kazakh, but they had lived in Uzbekistan for many years and brought their love of shubat, or fermented camel milk, back with them when they moved to northern Kazakhstan. The youngest babies are allowed to stay with their mothers, but after a certain age they are separated and put in a pen, from which they are only released three times a day when their mother is being milked. (This is an interesting contrast to horses, which have to be milked every two hours.) A person milks the camel from one side while the baby suckles on the other side, so it's important to milk a camel very fast so that you finish milking at the same time the baby finishes.

After watching a camel be milked, and petting the baby camels in the pen, we were invited inside to try some shubat. It's a thick, sour drink that is definitely an acquired taste, although I did manage to drink an entire cup. (Everyone else asked for seconds, though, even Michele, so I was still the “rude” guest.)

After the camels, our hosts took us on a tour of the nearby lake as the sun was setting. Finally, they fed us a full dinner before taking us home. I was in bed by midnight after another successful, completely unexpected Kazakhstani cultural experience.

Planting Potatoes

Even though my family lives in a five-story apartment block in the middle of a mile-long stretch of identical five-story apartment blocks, we still have a family garden. Our patch of land is a good 15 minute walk from our home, and was assigned to our family when they were given their apartment by the government. Nearly everyone in Kazakhstan has some piece of ground where they can grow basic foodstuffs, and although not everyone bothers to tend to theirs, keeping a vegetable garden is very common. Fresh vegetables are expensive here, and growing your own is an economical solution. Also, the memory of empty store shelves during Perestroika prompts even well-to-do families to ensure a reliable source of food.

Most people use their gardens for the basics: mainly potatoes, with some onions, beets and carrots. People like my family, whose garden is far from their home, plant only potatoes because they need no watering or tending. In northern Kazakhstan, potatoes should be planted in mid-May. And so on one warm and sunny day my host mom, sister, and I headed out to the garden to prepare for next winter's stock of food. I called the new volunteer in my village, Michele, and invited her to come along for the “cultural” experience.

Luckily, we have some family friend with a rototiller, or something of the sort, and he had prepared the ground for us ahead of time. My host mom cut all the potatoes in half, and then began the long process of putting each of those in a hole in the ground. We planted the potatoes in rows, not mounds, and took break midway through for tea. This was definitely the best part of the afternoon. Kazakhs know how to make any work enjoyable. First, we sang songs while working, and told stories. Then, just as our backs were beginning to complain, my mom stopped us all and called us over for a picnic in the grass. She had brought along a samovar, a Russian contraption for boiling water. A samovar is a metal canister where you put water, and it has a pipe in the middle where burning twigs are put to heat up the water surrounding it. Once the water is hot, there's a little spout at the bottom of the samovar for you to fill up your tea cup. But “tea” never involves just tea; our picnic also included bread, sausage, cucumbers, cookies and candies.

After tea we finished planting our patch of potatoes. Unfortunately, I won't be around this fall to harvest them, although I did get to help last year. Last summer was especially dry, and so we only got a measly one and a half bags out of our entire garden. When you consider that we got 38 bags the year before, you realize why we didn't eat very many potatoes this last winter. This summer has already been quite wet, however, so we should have a large harvest this fall. Considering how much work planting those potatoes was, maybe I'm glad I won't be around to dig them out of the ground!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Teacher Training

The last week of March another volunteer and I organized a teacher training in the city of Semey. Semey, formerly called Semeipalatinsk, is located in the northeastern corner of Kazakhstan. During the Soviet Union, a large area to the west of the city, known as the Polygon, was used as the center for the Soviet nuclear testing program. Some 460 nuclear bombs were exploded there from 1949 to 1989. As a result, the area has a high rate of genetic mutations, mental illness and cancer. Because there's still a lot of radiation in the area, no Peace Corps volunteers are stationed there.

However, there are still English teachers in Semey, and those English teachers still want to improve their English and their teaching skills. So Becky Johnson and I joined with the head of the local English Teachers' Association to organize a two-day training for teachers from the city. We invited two other volunteers, Denise Nyffeler and Roshan Devaraj, to join us. Together we hosted different sessions on the theme “New Methodologies in the English Lesson,” which was purposely vague so we could all teach whatever sessions we wanted to.

Nina Nikolaievna, on the far right, went all out to welcome us to her home and organize every logistical detail of the conference. She found a location to hold it, her school “Zhas Ulan Lyceum,” which is a bordering school for 5th-11th grade boys who are training to be future officers in the army. She got us an apartment to stay in, bought us lunch in a restaurant every day plus food for breakfast and dinner, and even arranged a driver to take us around the city. She also put together two excursions in the afternoons, and finally invited us over to her house for dinner on the last night. Needless to say, we all felt like we got the VIP treatment.

I gave sessions on “Fun and Easy Grammar Activities” and “Working with Ayapova.” Ayapova is our national abysmal textbook that needs all the help it can get. One 45-minute session doesn't even begin to correct all the problems that book has.

Roshan gave presentations on “Lesson Planning” and “Using Visual Aids in the Classroom.”

Denise's presentations were about “Setting High Expectations” and “Critical Thinking.”

Becky talked about “Teaching Vocabulary” and “Teaching Speaking.”

At the end of the training, the English Teachers' Association gave us beautiful books about Kazakh history. Like I said, VIP treatment!

Because of train schedules, we had to be in Semey for three days. Since the training was only two days, we spent the last day holding English clubs with the students from Nina's school. About 40 boys total came to two different sessions of two and a half hours each. Like I mentioned, these boys are training to be future officers. As a result, they have the coolest school uniforms I've ever seen.

Their uniforms for outside.

For the English clubs, we planned to play a lot of games, both to practice their English and their teamwork. As soon as we found out we would be working with teenage boys, we immediately tried to think of ways to tire them out so they couldn't cause as many problems. We did a big team competition, and one of the stations was how fast the team could do 30 pushups each. Standing there with my cellphone/stopwatch, I felt like an army captain, although I didn't yell as much.

Denise and Roshan demonstrate a teamwork game, where two people have to move three pop cans across the table to form a pyramid using only spaghetti and their mouths.

The boys race to complete the task.

For another game, the boys built a tower of cups and index cards. Then they had to pull out the index cards without touching the cups, but in such a way that the cups stacked neatly together.

Another station in the team competition: answering a crossword puzzle using Scrabble pieces.

Our standby game, and a guaranteed crowd pleaser: Uno! I can't begin to count how many times I've played Uno in this country.

Nina organized a couple of excursions around the city, and one of them was to the local art museum. It was a very nice museum, with several pieces from western Europe as well as a large collection of Russian and Kazakh artists. The local guide was excited to practice her English on us.

Our other excursion was to the Dostoevsky museum. Dostoevsky was exiled to Semey for 5 years. He met his first wife there, and they lived on the second story of this house during their first years of marriage, from 1857-1859. Now it's a museum.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Oral Culture

Before the advent of Kazakh written literature in the mid-19th century, the Kazakh literary tradition was completely oral. Like the epics of Homer, which were told and retold at Greek parties for centuries before Homer committed them to paper, so also the epics of the Kazakhs were told for centuries sitting around the yurt. Although that oral cultural tradition is mostly gone, you can still catch glimpses of it in modern Kazakh culture.

For example, the Kazakhs love to recite poetry. At almost every event that students put on, groups of kids will come to the front and say poems from memory. Even at teachers' parties we have one man who, instead of singing a song as entertainment, will recite a long poem while a music track plays in the background. Kazakhs have a real ear for the lyricism of words, and when reciting poetry even the most shy students' voices will rise and fall with the rhythm of the lines.

Another bit of evidence about this oral past is the respect with which younger people listen to their elders as they lecture them about anything and everything. Often, the lecture will contain no new information, but will instead be a rehashing of some bit of Kazakh history or will explain a custom that all the listeners already know about. At first, I found these lectures rather annoying; why were these people wasting my time telling me something I already knew? But I think this is just part of the oral tradition. When you have no way of writing things down, you have to remember everything, and repetition is a great memory aid. By repeating information and stories many times, you ensure that you pass the communal knowledge on to your children.

When my host father lectures me about Kazakh traditions, beliefs or history, he doesn't expect me to interrupt with questions. And he definitely doesn't want me to share my opinion. (The liberal arts grad in me found this hard to stomach at first!) But I think most of his conversations are one-sided because we're not having a discussion about a new idea, but rather because he's passing on ancient knowledge to me. That knowledge needs to be kept intact for the next generation, not meddled with by my own individual whims.

When my parents came to visit, they got a taste of this lecturing. During a two-hour taxi ride into the city my host mom gave my real mom a full blown speech, talking for an hour and a half straight about everything from why the Kazakhs love President Nazarbaev and never speak ill or joke about him (because it's a Kazakh tradition to respect your elders) to why Kazakhs build their villages on rivers while Russians build theirs on lakes (because the rivers carry away the sewage.) My mom, not understanding that the expected response is to listen and nod, tried to insert her own observations as if she were having a discussion. But my host mom would have none of it, and just continued on telling my mother the things she needed to know.

Here's one more example of non-written culture. I was cooking a pumpkin pie for my host family for the third time and had the recipe out on the table. My host mom came in and told me that if I still needed a recipe after making a dish three times, then I would make a terrible housewife and no man would ever want to marry me. Well, at least I know how to scare away any potential suitors!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Nauryz Kozhe

It seems like most major holidays have a special food associated with them: Thanksgiving and turkey, Christmas and cookies, Easter and eggs, Halloween and any form of candy. In Kazakhstan this trend continues, especially with the biggest holiday of the year, Nauryz. Nauryz is the Kazakh new year, and it celebrates the coming of spring. Nauryz has been traditionally celebrated all across Central Asia for millennium. In modern Kazakhstan, the official date of the new year is March 22.

Nauryz is celebrated like most holidays in Kazakhstan: people get together with families to eat giant feasts of food, concerts are put on in every city and town of any size, and there's a day or two off from work. Nauryz has several additional traditions. Usually, on top of staging a concert, every city and town will set up a yurt in the town square for people to look inside. The largest cities sometimes host a game of kokpar, the Kazakh national sport, which features two teams riding around on horseback and fighting over a headless goat carcass. And finally, there is the special food associated with Nauryz: Nauryz kozhe.

According to tradition, kozhe must be made from seven ingredients which symbolize the seven important attributes of man, such as strength, wisdom, and knowledge. These seven ingredients can vary, but typically include: airan (similar to buttermilk), kurt (a rock hard, very sharp cheese), meat, wheat, salt, rice, and raisins. The mixture turns into a rather soupy concoction which is halfway between a drink and something you need a spoon for. As a result, I've seen both methods of consumption. The first time I was served kozhe, mine was one of the last bowls dipped up, and so it was more on the “solid” side of the spectrum. What I got looked remarkably like mushy rice pudding, especially with the raisins mixed in. My first bite, though, quickly proved otherwise. As you can gather from the list of ingredients, kozhe has a very unique taste. But despite my aversion to the dish, most Kazakhs I talk to like it, so I guess you can acquire a taste for Nauryz kozhe.

Most of my encounters with kozhe happen at the Nauryz parties each class puts on at school during the week before Nauryz. At these parties, the kids dress up in traditional costume (or, often, throw a Kazakh hat on their head and call it good), sit around a low table covered with food, and watch their classmates perform songs and dances for about 45 minutes. Then, after the kids are done eating, any teachers and parents in the room descend on those tables and do a number on the leftovers. Although I mostly attend these parties to support my kids and get cute pictures of them in Kazakh hats, I don't mind the calorie-filled reward at the end.

Kozhe always makes an appearance at some time during the festivities. Sometimes, it is served during a break in the concert to each of the adults watching the show. This is how I got caught with several cups of it last year. I politely took a couple sips of the kozhe and then passed the nearly-full cup to the person sitting next to me. (There are rarely enough dishes, so only “honored” guests receive a serving. Luckily, nobody minds sharing a cup, and I never had any problem giving away my extra kozhe.) I was ready for the “honor” of kozhe this year, though. When I saw the jar come out, I quickly busied myself with taking lots of extra pictures of the children stuffing their faces, and so managed to avoid notice.

At other Nauryz parties, though, the kozhe comes out later, when the adults are gathered around the tables eating. Sometimes, all I had to do was avoid eye contact, and since the supply was limited and the demand was great, I prevented anyone from even offering me a cup. At one party, though, the jar of kozhe was huge, and the number of teachers sitting around the table smaller than normal. I was trying to decide if the half inch of orange juice remaining in the bottom of my cup was enough of an excuse, when I saw another teacher quickly polish her juice off and offer up her cup enthusiastically. Then, by a stroke of luck, the man sitting next to me offered me some Fanta. Eagerly I held out my glass. I couldn't possibly down an entire glass of Fanta to make way for kozhe. Thank goodness for limited dishes. I don't think the man realized that he was my savior, but I harbored a lot of gratitude to him getting me out of a possible disaster.

Well, I'm sure I could have taken a few polite sips. But at this point, I consider it a real triumph to have sampled all the pleasures of the Nauryz holiday...except the kozhe.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

In the Classroom

My Regional Manager, plus our “Programing and Training Officer” (basically, the second-in-command in Peace Corps Kazakhstan), recently came to my site to visit my school and do some other Peace Corps business in the area. They observed my lessons, and the PTO had his camera out trying to capture some action shots.

My PTO's lens helped show what's really going on in my classroom. For example, in almost every shot there's a child looking at the camera. I'm going to soothe my ego by saying that 3rd graders are easily distracted, and not that my lesson was incredibly boring. (Although we did spent a lot of time repeating the phrase “The ball is in the bag.” Not exactly Hollywood blockbuster material.) Also, I apparently make some very strange faces at the children when I ask them questions. I think I'm trying to look encouraging, but mostly I just look confused or about to fall asleep.

That face is definitely not “encouraging.” Maybe I'm just concentrating really hard to try to hear some form of “The ball is in the bag” in this boy's attempts to speak English. The other teacher is my counterpart, Dinara Mironovna.

I love this picture only because I look so completely confused. Maybe I've also forgotten the English word for “машина,” just like most of my students have. Or because I can't figure out what compelled me to color my car picture pink.

I think this student must be worried that I can't find my ball and he's trying to help me out. Because I can't imagine why else you would be so excited to tell me where that ball is. I wish this was a video, because then you could see just how excited my students get to answer questions. They stand up in their seats and wave their hands rapidly back and forth (I call it the “karate chop”) as they call out “Anna Rodgers, Anna Rodgers, Anna Rodgers” so fast that my PTO couldn't even understand what they were saying.

The lesson continues and we branch away from balls and bags. When my students will ever need to say “The doll is next to the elephant,” I have no idea, but they're prepared, just in case.

Time for new vocabulary. This is the part of the class where we repeat “tiger, tiger, tiger” at least 150 times.

And now we combine the grammar we were reviewing with the new vocabulary. “Where is the monkey?” “The monkey is in the tiger.” Apparently I agree with the tiger that he was a very tasty snack.

One of my 3rd grade classes. Please observe Nursulu, aka Godzilla.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Standing Out

I've gotten used to being special. In Kazakhstan, I don't have to do anything out of the ordinary and I stand out. In fact, even if I try to be completely ordinary, I still attract attention. When I first got here, that attention was flattering. Then, it was annoying. And now, it's just the status quo. It's so normal, in fact, that I didn't notice how much I'd come to expect it until I wasn't special anymore.

In January, I took a trip to visit an American friend in Thailand. Walking down the streets in downtown Bangkok, I saw as many foreign faces as I did Thai ones. On the one hand, foreigners stand out in Thailand even more than they do in Kazakhstan. In Thailand, if your face is white, you are not from around there. At least in Kazakhstan you can buy a local fur coat and hat and boots and convince yourself, as you shuffle down the street, that you look Russian. In reality, just the way you walk often sets you apart as a foreigner, and something is always a little wrong with your wardrobe. But you can at least think you're fitting in. In Thailand, there's no way to change the way your face looks; you are not Thai.

But, despite this stark feeling of standing out, in reality westerners in Thailand blend into the tourist landscape almost effortlessly, at least in the touristy places that I visited. Unlike in Kazakhstan, where foreigners, even in the big cities, are rare, it seemed like every other face in downtown Bangkok wasn't local. My white face was nothing special. Not interesting, or different, or annoying because I couldn't speak the language. Thais were completely unaware of me, because they'd seen a hundred others just like me that very morning.

I didn't realize how much I'd come to expect that other people saw me as special. The shopkeepers in Thailand treated me the same as everybody else, never asking where I was from or striking up a conversation about whether I liked Barak Obama or was planning to marry a local man. The people selling food were unimpressed with my paltry Thai skills, and never once told me I spoke perfect Thai after only saying, “Hello, how are you?” And the other tourists completely ignored me. This was the hardest part for me. At first, every time I saw a white face I wanted to go up and introduce myself and ask where that person was from and what they were doing there. Of course, this would have meant talking to every other person on the street, so I contained myself. And anyone I talked to probably wouldn't have been too happy about it; they'd come to Thailand to get the “Thai experience,” not spend the whole time talking to Americans. They could do that at home. But for me, expats are an exciting oddity. Thailand was closer to America, at least in terms of the population I passed on the street, than anywhere I'd been for the last year and a half.

I realized, as I blended into the tourist crowd, that I liked being different. In Kazakhstan, I don't have to do anything extra to get people to know that I exist. Just walking down the street, people say hello to me, people that I'm sure I've never seen before. On the bus or in the store people will strike up a conversation with me. Sometimes, this can be annoying, but when else am I going to have people so interested in everything I have to say? When the teachers from different schools in our region held a volleyball tournament, I was asked to play for our team. Even after my teammates figured out that I'm terrible at volleyball, they kept asking me to play, although my allotted position on the court was always the far back corner. But they made sure I always shook the opposing team's hands.

I often get extra honor, even though I'm younger and not in a position of authority. If someone has set out tea and cookies in the cafeteria for some holiday, I'm always invited. When I give a toast at a party, people always listen, and often ask for a song afterward. I was asked to sing in a concert with my fellow English teachers, and then, even though we sang quite terribly, we were asked to sing again at the next concert. I'm sure this was solely because of my minor-celebrity status. At festivals, people always shove food on me, and when I visit other schools I get the full tour, plus a free lunch in the cafeteria.

I've started to expect these little honors. When I heard about a wedding for one of the teachers at my school that I thought I wasn't invited to, I felt a little slighted until I realized it was just the wedding announcement. The actual party will be this summer, and I can only assume that I will be invited to that. My ego was soothed. When I invited another volunteer to my school to help with a teacher training, I expected that the cafeteria would serve her (and me, as her companion) all their best dishes for free. They did; but for a moment, as I wondered whether they would, I contemplated what my reaction would be if there were no cookies on the table.

The Peace Corps warns you that one of the most difficult transitions back to America is the fact that you no longer stand out in the crowd. When, for the hundredth time, someone asks me if I'm going to marry a Kazakh man, I look forward to this anonymity. But mostly, I realize, I'm going to find it difficult to have to earn the right to be called special.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Kazakh Parties

I think I'm finally getting the hang of the Kazakh party.

It always follows a set routine, similar to a Kazakh wedding: eating salads, then the main dish, and then dessert with tea. While you're eating, everyone is called on to give a toast to whoever is being honored. There's normally dancing, singing, and often a game or two. Everyone leaves stuffed and happy.

In the beginning, one of the most intimidating aspects of a party was the toasts. Everyone has to give one, and you'd better bet that everyone would notice if the American didn't. Thankfully, we were taught the basics of giving toasts during Kazakh language training when we first arrived in country. I didn't pay much attention during that lesson, thinking, like a typical American, that toasts were rarely necessary. But I quickly learned otherwise, and studied up. Now I've got my few pat phrases in Kazakh down cold: “Congratulations with the holiday. I wish you health and happiness.” Saying those words is completely natural at this point. I can even improvise a little. Mostly, this involves listening to what everyone else is saying and copying them. I challenge myself to say one different thing each time. For the last party I went to, I managed two. I started with “Dear Patriots of our Country” (it was Veterans' Day for everyone who had served in the Soviet army) and then I threw in “I wish safety for your family” at the end.

I was really proud of that second phrase. So proud, in fact, that I'm bragging about it here on my blog. “Safety,” or “aman” in Kazakh, has been my word of the month. I first learned in when I was bored in the teachers' room one day, so I and a fellow English teacher started translating the meaning of as many Kazakh names as we could think of into English. One name, Amangeldy, we translated as “safely arrived.” (This name is often used for a baby that the parents have been trying for for a long time, and they're so happy that he finally came.) After that, I started hearing the word “aman” everywhere. Every day as I leave the house, my host dad tells me “aman bar,” or “go safely.” I guess I'd just never bothered trying to figure out what he meant before. And then, when I heard several other teachers wish the veterans something involving the words “family” and “aman,” I quickly translated what they meant and was so excited that I kept repeating the phrase in my head until it was my turn to give a toast. I think I messed it up a little, because everyone chuckled when I was done, but they also clapped, and I even got a couple of “amins” as if I'd just said a prayer.

Other parts of a party in Kazakhstan are also becoming second nature to me. The dancing gets easier and easier with practice; I can now sway from side to side without running into anyone, and sometimes my hands even get in on the action. Everyone has learned that I'm a terrible dancer, and I've perfected the ability to not make eye contact, so my celebrity status as “the American” normally only earns me one turn in the middle of the circle. This dance in the center is usually my fault because I looked up at the wrong time and made eye contact with the overly zealous librarian, who is always more than happy to pull a man and a woman into the middle and insist that they dance together.

I'm also getting better at singing; even avoiding eye contact doesn't stop people from insisting that I sing a solo following my toast. But I have some go-to songs tucked in my back pocket that make this easy: one Kazakh folk song (I'm still trying to get down the words to a second one) and, when the crowd insists on an English song, the theme from “Titanic.” This latter song is not my choice; inevitably, if the crowd is chanting for an English song, they're calling for “Titanic” in the next breath. I still don't have all the lyrics down, but luckily, neither do they, so I mumble my way through the first verse and everyone's happy. Sometimes, though, people will throw a curve ball at me. At my most recent party, since it was “Veterans' Day,” the former soldiers called for an army song. I'd spent the time leading up to my toast running through the “Titanic” lyrics in my head, just in case, so I was caught completely off guard. I wracked my brains, but the only song I could come up with was the one that starts “From the hills of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” Unfortunately, these were the only lyrics to that song that I knew, and I was pretty sure even the non-English speakers would notice if I kept saying the same thing over and over again. Everyone was staring at me, and my face getting redder by the second, so I knew I had to start singing right away. And so, out came the American national anthem, which, I realized as I was singing, is a very long song. I had to keep increasing the tempo as I went; good thing there was no metronome. The irony of my choice didn't fail to hit me either, as I belted out the American national anthem on a holiday dedicated to the soldiers of the Soviet Union.

Kazakh parties still have some surprises up their sleeves.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Fun with Language, Take 2

Earlier I wrote a blog about how much fun I have listening to Kazakhstani English. To be fair, though, I should follow that up with some examples of my own misadventures in speaking Kazakh or Russian.

Like the other day, when I confused my question words and, instead of asking the school cook what was inside the pie, I asked her who was inside the pie. I guess Sweeney Todd really got to me.

Or the time I confused the Kazakh words for holiday and country, and wished my host mother a “very merry country.”

Then there was one afternoon, when my host father, brother and I were drinking tea after we'd stopped waiting and given up hope that my host mom would come home before evening. We were munching on cookies in silence when my host brother said something in Kazakh that I thought sounded like, “I'll bet mom will walk through the door any minute now.” I replied, “That's what always happens.” I earned myself a strange look, and then my brother said something to my dad that sounded like, “I don't think she understood me. Please translate.” And so my host father explained in Russian, “He was just commenting on how, when nobody's talking, you can hear everyone chewing.” That's what always happens.

Another day, I was in the teachers' room and someone asked me if I taught the 11th graders. “No,” I replied, “I don't teach the old students.” But apparently in Kazakh they are “big” students, not “old,” because a fit of laughter ensued that lasted for at least 10 minutes as everyone repeated my phrase several times. As far as I could gather, my choice of words is most closely approximated in English as “old fart.”

And it turned out to be an even bigger joke than I thought, because that night at home my host mother, who wasn't even in the room to hear me, quoted me to my host father. Which means my “old fart” joke was apparently hilarious enough to be repeated later, to who knows how many people around the school.

More often than not, though, I have no idea that I've said anything strange. My only hint is when people stare at me strangely, which they do all the time. Then I wrack my brains to try to remember what I just said, but the problem is, I can only remember what I wanted to say, and the words that I used to get there are completely lost in the fog of my poor language skills.

The trouble is, as my Russian and Kazakh slowly improve, my English worsens in direct proportion. Often, I find myself unable to think of the word I need in English, but it pops right into my head in Kazakh or Russian. And so I use the foreign equivalent, which works just fine as long as the person I'm talking with also speaks that language. But sometimes this can be a little dangerous. Like the time I couldn't remember the word for “guest,” and so I used the Russian equivalent: “gost.” As in, “Oh, I'm just a gost here.”

Or another day, when I couldn't bring to mind the word “choir,” so I used the Russian “hor” and told my fellow English teachers, “I'm going to practice with my hor children now.” It was only as I was walking out of the room that I burst out laughing at the realization of what I'd just said. The other teachers, however, only chuckled politely, which let me understand that they didn't get the joke. I feel like there are only two natural responses to such a sentence: to laugh uproariously, like I did, or to chuckle awkwardly and with a disapproving glint in your eye, because, really, that is a terrible thing to say. I think it's probably best that they didn't understand, or that disapproving glint would definitely have judged my laughter.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Characters on the Train

Riding the train in Kazakhstan is a great cross-section of the local populace. You never know just who you’ll end up sharing your space with. I’ve had experiences ranging from the enjoyable (a 14-year-old who was finally able to help me understand the Russian card game “Durak”) to the annoying (grandmothers pushing their unmarried grandsons on me) to the painful (drunk men who just won’t leave you alone.)

This last trip found me spending 27 hours surrounded by three very different “babushkas,” or grandmothers. They politely asked me about what I was doing in Kazakhstan, if I like it here, if I was married, and how much money I make; basically, the same questions everyone always asks. Then, they delved into their own conversations, leaving me to read my book in the corner and surreptitiously make completely biased and probably incorrect assumptions about them.

I started with their tea. Since we spent the whole time on the train either sleeping or drinking tea, you can understand that there was a lot of tea drinking going on. I formed a theory that each particular type of tea reflected on each (completely biased and probably incorrect) personality that I had formed for each woman. The old Kazakh babushka across from me drank traditional Kazakh tea from a traditional Kazakh keshe, or handle-less tea cup. She took a handful of granular black tea and in a separate mug brewed a batch of very strong tea. Then, in her keshe, she poured a small amount of milk, a little of the strong black tea, and then filled the rest of the cup with boiled water. She must have downed at least 4 or 5 cups in each sitting. From this, I determined that she is a traditional woman who likes to maintain her Kazakh culture; she preferred to speak Kazakh rather than Russian, and kept her headscarf on the whole time.

The other babushka across from me was a Russian woman probably in her early 60s. She had an industrial metal mug that was probably from the mid-1960s. In it, she sprinkled loose green tea leaves. I connected this to her constant references to healthy eating and eastern medicine and decided that she was a health nut who loved to give other people advice about alternative medicine options.

The third babushka didn’t look more than 40, although she said she had several grandchildren. She was wearing a fashionable jacket under her fur coat. Her tea was also green, but she drank it from a brightly colored mug with two cubes of sugar. All day long, she only ate 2 cups of yogurt and a packet of instant oatmeal, plus at least 10 pieces of chocolate. Therefore, I judged her to be a fashionable fad-dieter who really needs to read a good nutrition handbook – or to listen to the too-readily offered advice of her fellow green tea drinking companion.

The food that was spread out during our meals was also a great excuse to make snap judgments that fit nicely into my stereotypes. “Kazakh Babushka” ate exactly what a traditional Kazakh matriarch should eat: chunks of boiled meat with the fat still clinging to it, boiled potatoes and bread. “Medical-Advice Babushka,” on the other hand, proved a bit hypocritical in her meal options. For breakfast, she had an entire half of a meat and onion pie. For lunch, she downed bread with caviar, potato salad and some sausage. And for dinner, she enjoyed fake crab straight out of the package. She offered me some, but I politely refused. (I did eat a piece of Kazakh Babushka’s potatoes, though, after she insisted that I eat some at least 5 times.)

Their topics of conversation, when I bothered to listen (they talked the entire train ride, except, of course, when they were sleeping, which was a significant portion of the day), were just as interesting as their food choices. They got into a lively debate about which region of Kazakhstan has the best tasting potatoes, decidedly concluding that it must be the north. They complained about the number of foreigners in Moscow, especially how many blacks there are. And they complained for at least an hour straight about how expensive medicines are, and how everything was so much better during the Soviet times because everything was free.

I wonder what completely biased and probably incorrect judgments they made about me? You can try, if you want: I drank rooibos tea and ate sausage with bread plus my grandmother’s dried apples that I got in my last package from home. (I also offered these to my train mates as a sign of solidarity, but they were all much more interested in the Ziploc bag than they were in my food.)

Snow City

It's a New Year's tradition in Kazakhstan (and I believe all of the former Soviet Union) to build a “Snow City” in the center of town. For the first time in a long time, our school is also building one in front of our building. They started the work on a day when it was -30 Celsius and school was canceled; I'm not sure why they chose such a frost-bitten day to work outside for several hours, but due to a combination of curiosity and a desire to integrate, I joined in. The work continued all week. Luckily, it got warmer. (-19 Celcius by Friday afternoon!)

The Snow City is basically a collection of carved snow figures, similar to very intricate, painted snowmen. You start by building a rectangular base made of packed snow.

Because the snow is so dry here, you pour water on it to make it stick together better.

If you want to be really high tech, you can use a watering can to get better water distribution.

The base must be flat on top and on the sides. Make sure everything is perfectly straight by filling in the holes with snow. (Wearing only your thin wool mittens. In spite of my attempt at “integration,” I refused to touch anything that cold. I volunteered to cart buckets of water out from the bathroom in the school instead.)

Once the base layer is finished, you can start a second tier.
Another way to make that second layer – just pile it on. And keep sprinkling water to make it all stick together – this time, using a broom to spread it around.

Now we begin to carve the shapes. Mix snow and water together to create your “plaster.” Then grit your teeth, ignore the fact that it's -30 outside, and sculpt away.
Instead of building out of snow, you can also build out of ice blocks. This is better for the more intricately carved sections, especially heads.

We're ready to carve the head of our snake from a couple of stacked ice blocks!

To carve the ice blocks, you use an ax...very carefully.

After everything is carved, then you paint your creation.

Oops, I think I broke his nose!

A bull and a horse in various stages of completion.

When the Snow City was finished, we had to take senior pictures in front of every single animal. I'll spare you the details and just show the highlights. Because there are now 11 statues out in front of my school, of varying beauty and skill. This is my favorite statue of all. I think he could brighten the most dreary January day. I'll put this theory to the test next month.

Our finished snake! (I helped carry out two buckets of water to make the "plaster," so I consider myself a part of the snake-team.) I especially like his forked tongue.

Everyone loves to take senior pictures! Ainur, my fellow English teacher who could be a model if she wanted to, poses with her friend the snow leopard.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Grandfather Frost Comes to Visit

An annual tradition in Kazakhstani schools, and across the former Soviet Union, is the Yolka (Christmas Tree) party. The party is to celebrate the New Year, which is the big winter holiday that was created by the atheist communist party to replace the Christian Christmas. It brings together all the non-religious aspects of the western Christmas, adds some elements from Russian culture, and then, just for fun, has everyone dress up like it is Halloween.

"Children join hands and dance around the New Years tree while a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle croons a Kazakh pop song"

New Years still features a decorated evergreen tree. It also has a legendary man in a large coat and white beard who brings presents to children, although “Ayaz Ata” (in Kazakh, “Ded Moroz” in Russian, “Grandfather Frost” in English) has to walk everywhere using his giant staff – no reindeer to help him! He does have a human helper, though, straight out of Russian folklore: “Aksha Kar,” (in Kazakh, “Snegorechka” in Russian, “Snow Maiden” in English.) Aksha Kar was originally the heroine of a Russian fairy tale. An old, childless couple desperately wished for a little girl of their own, and one day they woke to find a snowgirl come alive. Things were wonderful until spring brought warm weather and the macabre end of the old couple's happiness. Somehow, this vivified snowgirl underwent a Pinocchio-like transformation and became Ayaz Ata's helper as he delivers gifts every New Year's Eve. (Or to Yolka parties scheduled the last week of school.)

"Why is it that Ayaz Ata has three times as much food in front of him as Snegorechka? Then again, considering that he pulled down his beard and ate at least 10 pieces of candy, while Snegorechka didn't open her mouth once, I guess it makes sense."

Our school hosts Yolka parties for every grade, in groups of two; that is, first and second graders celebrate together, then third and fourth graders, etc. The parties rotate through the decorated gym, two a day for several hours all week long. These parties are sacrosanct; even though temperatures on Monday were -30 degrees, which means that classes up through 9th grade should be canceled, the 5th-6th grade and 7th-8th grade Yolkas still went forward. Considering how much work those girls put into hairspraying and glittering their hair for their costumes, it really would be cruel to postpone.

Every Yolka party is attended by Ayaz Ata and Aksha Kar, usually played by older students. Inevitably, in the 9th-11th grade Yolka, Aksha Kar is played by a boy, which never fails to draw a giant laugh from the audience. The students have to summon Ayaz Ata by chanting his name loudly over and over. In he sweeps, his shoulder bag loaded with candy which he throws to the children in greeting. Throughout the party, whenever anyone wins a game or does a performance, they are rewarded with a handful of candy from Ayaz Ata.

"The evil Russian witch, Baba Yaga"

Other characters can also make an appearance at the Yolka. Because each party is organized by the classroom teachers of the grades that are participating, there are differences in the program. But at different times throughout the week I met a tiger (because, according the Chinese calendar, 2010 was the year of the tiger), a rabbit (for 2011), and Baba Yaga, the evil witch character from Russian fairy tales. For one party my host mom played a very convincing Baba Yaga, making me slightly concerned about accepting any candy from her that night at dinner. Did she want to roast and eat me?

And of course, all the children are dressed up too. Halloween is fun in the States, but there's something about seeing batman, ninjas, musketeers and tigers dancing around a Christmas tree that makes for a very entertaining spectacle. I discovered, though, that there is a certain age line (between 5th and 6th grade) where children stop wearing adorable costumes and start wearing party dresses covered in tinsel (for the girls) or regular clothes with a mask on top of their head (for the boys.)

Tinsel plays an integral role in the Yolka. After crossing the age line, it become absolutely essential that you wear a garland of tinsel around your neck. The resulting shininess-factor in the room tends to overload the pleasure sensors in the brain and dull the senses, therefore ensuring an enjoyable holiday party no matter what the reality. At least, that's my theory.

The Yolka party, aside from enjoying the spectacle of your classmates dressed up as tinsel-bedecked pirates, basically consists of song and dance performances alongside silly games organized by the teachers. The performances are remarkably similar: an “Eastern” dance performed by girls in belly-baring costumes, a Kazakh dance in glitter-covered costumes, and some form of boys cross-dressing, be it a ballet dance, a fashion show, or a song. There are always multiple songs sung to blaring pop soundtracks and a handful of poems which you know the students only recited for the handful of candy Ayaz Ata will give them. Also popular are “American” style hip hop dances. These were rather sloppily costumed until I came along and set the record straight. At the beginning of the year, some of my students came up to me and asked me what kind of traditional clothes Americans wear. What do you say to that question? It’s like the question, “What’s America’s national dish?” Hamburgers? Hot dogs? Pizza? As far as our “national costume” goes, I told the girls we wear jeans and t-shirts. The message must have sunk in, because since that day every American hip hop dance that has been performed featured the girls wearing jeans and white t-shirts. I’m glad I get to leave a legacy to my school.

At the end of the Yolka, for the younger children, it's traditional to join hands and circle the tree in the middle of the room while singing a song. The party ends with Ayaz Ata delivering his presents to the children. These are usually bags of candy and a small stuffed animal, although a couple of seventh grade classes were given mugs. Mugs? I came away with a handful of candy thrown at me by a very generous Ayaz Ata.

"Ayaz Ata works hard to get rid of all the candy in his bag"