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.