Saturday, June 25, 2011

Spending time in “Peace Corps Uzbekistan” and “Peace Corps Russia”

I may be serving in Peace Corps Kazakhstan, but this summer I got to help at summer camps in Uzbekistan and Russia. Ok, maybe I didn't actually go to those countries, but I was within 10 miles of their respective borders. And I even got a text message from my phone company welcoming me to Uzbekistan!

As I was planning out my summer, it wasn’t my goal to go to the far south to help a volunteer with a summer camp, followed a week later by travel to the furthest north site in the entire Peace Corps. But the 35 hour train ride was totally worth it for the fascinating contrasts I was able to observe in the extreme ends of Kazakhstan.

Let's start with the obvious one: climate. Down south, we were boiling every day. A lethargic air overtook the entire village, and we all took naps in the middle of the afternoon. The landscape was scrubby steppe; even near the huge Syr Darya River there was only a mile or so of flooded swampland before the near-desert took over again.

Up in Siberia, however, everything was still green. The grass was knee high when it wasn't swallowed by birch forests. It even rained the first half of the week, and we woke up to 20 degrees F one morning. (Although by the end of the week the temperatures had soared to the low 80s.)

Language and ethnicity were also very different. On the Uzbek border, the people are mostly Kazakhs, with a fair number of Uzbeks mixed in. Uzbek plov, Kazakh beshbarbak, and Central Asian samsa dominate the menus. Despite being a desert, there are many villages built close together. And most of the people speak Kazakh all the time.

Up on the Russian border, however, there's a large mix of European nationalities: Russian, Ukrainian, Cossack, Armenian and German, in addition to the Kazakhs. In order to communicate with such a varied group of people, most people speak Russian with each other, although within their ethnic groups some people speak their native tongue. The food was Russian kotleti and gulash, although we did find some very bland plov. And despite being so apparently lush, the villages were built far apart. (I guess in the dead of winter it’s not quite so green.)

The main event of each week was, of course, the English camp that we were running for three hours a day. However, one other major event happened at each site that I think illustrates how different the cultures of the north and south are.

In the north, we attended a “Festival of Nationalities” where each of the different ethnic groups in the village did a short presentation about their culture. Groups danced, sang, put on a short play, showed off their national costumes, and brought out dishes of their national foods. (For some groups this included such interesting dishes as “boiled eggs” and “butter.”) The festival felt very Soviet to me. The Soviet policy, in my opinion, was to celebrate the superficial aspects of culture, such as music and costume, in order to give people a sense of individuality and prevent charges of cultural suppression, while at the same time subjugating all the deeper aspects of culture under the socialist agenda of equality and respect for authority. (And also a healthy dose of the superiority of Russian “high culture.”) The “Festival of Nationalities” followed the same agenda of unity together with superficial diversity as it celebrated each of the different “nationalities” of the people in the village. Talking to the German girls beforehand, it quickly became clear that they were much closer to a Russian/post-Soviet worldview than a German one. And I can only assume that the same applies to the other people there; the Soviet Union, at least the most “Russified” places in it, might have been an even better melting pot than America.

“Russification” hasn't got nearly as strong of a hold in southern Kazakhstan. Although there are certainly aspects of the Soviet culture there, Kazakhs in the south are much more traditional. This became clear one day when the volunteer who was hosting the camp got a phone call from her former host family. Her host sister, who was 16 years old, had been bridenapped. Bridenapping is one of the traditional ways that Kazakh men get themselves a wife. They grab the young girl they want to marry and take her to their home. Once the girl has spent the night at his house, whether anything happened between them or not, the two are considered married; at the very least, it would be incredibly shameful for the girl to leave and go back to her family, who will often refuse to take her back. To prevent the girl from running away before the night is over, often the grandmother will sleep in front of the door, since it is considered very terrible to step over an older person. Once the bridenapping is complete, the girl is considered a part of her new husband's family and she cannot leave.

Bridenapping is relatively common in south Kazakhstan (although 16 is younger than most bridenapped girls are.) Volunteers have been asked by their unmarried female students to walk them home because they are afraid of being stolen. However, in the north I have never heard of a bride being stolen. A volunteer from western Kazakhstan said that they sometimes have bridenappings, but usually the couple agrees beforehand because they can't afford the wedding; in this case, stealing a bride is more like a eloping.

Everyone at the camp felt terrible for the stolen girl, because, unless her new husband grants her special permission, she won't be able to attend college in the fall or do any of the other things she was planning for her life. There was nothing her family could do, however, because her mother was unmarried and therefore already in a tenuous social position in the community. The volunteer from that village has had people ask her if she is afraid of being bridenapped. She honestly replies, “no,” because she doesn't fear the social stigma of leaving and has no problem stepping over the grandmother in the doorway to do so. The fact that such ancient practices still exist in some parts of Kazakhstan, however, shows me just how different the traditional south is from the northern Kazakh village where I live.

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.

Drinking Camel's Milk

Like many things I've experienced here in Kazakhstan, I didn’t even know it was happening until the last minute. One moment I was sitting in my room at seven in the evening, settling in to read The Hunger Games for the next three hours, and the next minute my host mother had stormed into my room announcing that we were going to see the camels in 10 minutes. I did the only reasonable thing I could do: I asked no questions, threw on a different pair of pants, grabbed my camera, and hurried into the living room to drink the obligatory cup of tea before we left.

That was when I got my explanation. Some distant friends in a nearby village own a herd of camels, and my host sister had run into the son at the store earlier that day. This had reminded my host mother that his family owes my family some favor from a long time ago, and she decided to cash in on that to give me and Michele, the other volunteer in my village, an interesting look at Kazakh culture. The bus left at 8pm, so I quickly called Michele, then trooped over to the bus stop with my sister, Aziza, and brother, Alisher.

A man was sitting in his car at the bus stop, which is at the top of a small hill, enjoying the view. Alisher chatted with him and asked if he didn't want to make some extra money and take us out to the village, but he declined. He did ask where we were from, motioning to Michele and I (even after two years I still stand out like a sore thumb!), and Alisher introduced us as relatives from America.

Eventually, another passenger came to the bus stop and told us that the bus had broken down and wouldn't be going today. So Alisher started bargaining with the man in the car in earnest. By “in earnest,” I don't mean that the process got any more heated or moved more quickly. Rather, it took a good 10 minutes for the two of them to come to a conclusion. First, Alisher asked the man how much money he wanted, and the man stated a ridiculous price. Alisher shook his head and then stood in silence for several minutes. Eventually, he offered to pay a little more than we would pay for the bus, but the man said he wasn't from around the area and just wanted to have a relaxing evening while on vacation. Several more minutes of silence ensued, all of us standing patiently around, then the man stated a price halfway in between. Alisher made one more plea for something slightly lower than the man's quote. After a minute or so of reflexion, he nodded and Alisher motioned us into the car.

The camels were totally worth the trip. The herd consisted of about five or seven full grown animals. The family who owned them was Kazakh, but they had lived in Uzbekistan for many years and brought their love of shubat, or fermented camel milk, back with them when they moved to northern Kazakhstan. The youngest babies are allowed to stay with their mothers, but after a certain age they are separated and put in a pen, from which they are only released three times a day when their mother is being milked. (This is an interesting contrast to horses, which have to be milked every two hours.) A person milks the camel from one side while the baby suckles on the other side, so it's important to milk a camel very fast so that you finish milking at the same time the baby finishes.

After watching a camel be milked, and petting the baby camels in the pen, we were invited inside to try some shubat. It's a thick, sour drink that is definitely an acquired taste, although I did manage to drink an entire cup. (Everyone else asked for seconds, though, even Michele, so I was still the “rude” guest.)

After the camels, our hosts took us on a tour of the nearby lake as the sun was setting. Finally, they fed us a full dinner before taking us home. I was in bed by midnight after another successful, completely unexpected Kazakhstani cultural experience.

Planting Potatoes

Even though my family lives in a five-story apartment block in the middle of a mile-long stretch of identical five-story apartment blocks, we still have a family garden. Our patch of land is a good 15 minute walk from our home, and was assigned to our family when they were given their apartment by the government. Nearly everyone in Kazakhstan has some piece of ground where they can grow basic foodstuffs, and although not everyone bothers to tend to theirs, keeping a vegetable garden is very common. Fresh vegetables are expensive here, and growing your own is an economical solution. Also, the memory of empty store shelves during Perestroika prompts even well-to-do families to ensure a reliable source of food.

Most people use their gardens for the basics: mainly potatoes, with some onions, beets and carrots. People like my family, whose garden is far from their home, plant only potatoes because they need no watering or tending. In northern Kazakhstan, potatoes should be planted in mid-May. And so on one warm and sunny day my host mom, sister, and I headed out to the garden to prepare for next winter's stock of food. I called the new volunteer in my village, Michele, and invited her to come along for the “cultural” experience.

Luckily, we have some family friend with a rototiller, or something of the sort, and he had prepared the ground for us ahead of time. My host mom cut all the potatoes in half, and then began the long process of putting each of those in a hole in the ground. We planted the potatoes in rows, not mounds, and took break midway through for tea. This was definitely the best part of the afternoon. Kazakhs know how to make any work enjoyable. First, we sang songs while working, and told stories. Then, just as our backs were beginning to complain, my mom stopped us all and called us over for a picnic in the grass. She had brought along a samovar, a Russian contraption for boiling water. A samovar is a metal canister where you put water, and it has a pipe in the middle where burning twigs are put to heat up the water surrounding it. Once the water is hot, there's a little spout at the bottom of the samovar for you to fill up your tea cup. But “tea” never involves just tea; our picnic also included bread, sausage, cucumbers, cookies and candies.

After tea we finished planting our patch of potatoes. Unfortunately, I won't be around this fall to harvest them, although I did get to help last year. Last summer was especially dry, and so we only got a measly one and a half bags out of our entire garden. When you consider that we got 38 bags the year before, you realize why we didn't eat very many potatoes this last winter. This summer has already been quite wet, however, so we should have a large harvest this fall. Considering how much work planting those potatoes was, maybe I'm glad I won't be around to dig them out of the ground!