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.

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