Saturday, June 25, 2011

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.

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