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"