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.