Tuesday, December 6, 2011

My Dad's Moustache

Well, I’m home, and what a tumultuous ride these last few weeks have been. Less than two weeks after the Kazakhstan PCVs got “the call” informing us that our program was being closed and the country evacuated, I was on a plane on my way out of the country indefinitely. At our Close of Service conference in Almaty just before we left Kaz, PC staff gave all the volunteers pages and pages of information about going home and the challenges of the readjustment process. I’ve already read much of this information, hoping to glean some tips on how to adjust to life in America, but there are a few lessons I haven’t found in any of the pamphlets. On that note, I’d like to share some of the things that I miss the most about Kazakhstan (and the way those things are affecting me now), some of the things that I was glad to come home to, and some of the difficulties of returning home after almost 9 months of living abroad.

Lessons from Kazakhstan that have stayed with me:
1. People never set their bags on the floor in Kazakhstan. This is for two reasons; firstly, the floor is dirty, and secondly, there is a superstition that if a person sets his/her bag on the floor, they will lose all their money. I now find myself avoiding setting my bag on the floor at all costs, and I’m slightly appalled when I see others being so careless with their own bags. Don’t they know how dirty the floor is?

2. Lines (or queues, as we say in British English), simply do not exist in Kazakhstan. People crowd service windows, bus doors, and food stands in ungainly yet astonishingly organized mobs. Despite the lack of a single file, orderly queue, people know who was before them and will wait for their turn to come around (except the babushkas (grandmotherly-type women), who always seem to elbow their way to the front of the mob). If you’re not paying attention, however, someone will jump ahead of you and you’ll have to fight your way in to regain your turn. It’s vicious, yet effective. Back home, I now have a total disregard and lack of patience for quiet, orderly lines. Why can’t I just cut in front of the man at the head of the line? My business will probably take less time than his, and besides, I’m bigger than him.

3. Where’s the tea?! In Kazakstan, every time I sat down to a meal, whether with my host family, at the school cafeteria, or when eating alone, I enjoyed at least one cup of tea, and usually more. I’d say I averaged about 7 cups of tea a day. My host family would joke that I must be Kazakh because I kept up with them when it came to tea consumption. Not only was the tea tasty and refreshing (especially in the cooler months), but it was a way to make mealtimes more social, slower, and more relaxing. In my host family, we would start drinking tea just as we were finishing our food. Obtaining tea is a silent, instinctive exchange for Kazak families. The mother (or eldest girl in the family, if the mother is absent) sits next to the tea pot, and as family members want tea, they hand her their cup, she fills it (she knows how every member of the family likes their tea—strong, weak, with milk, black, etc.) and hands the cup back to the owner. There is no need to ask for more tea, remind her of your tea preferences, or say thank you after receiving the cup from her. The whole process is done without words and she pours the tea without skipping a beat. I once witnessed my host mom feed my 4 year old sister, eat her own dinner, talk on the phone, participate in our table conversation, and pour tea for my host dad simultaneously. These women are amazing.
As we drank our tea, my family would casually finish dinner and enjoy some down time together. Tea time was when we would talk about our days, upcoming events, successes, and failures. Tea time was when I got to practice Kazakh. Tea time was slow and could be extended as late as we wanted, since my host mom would make more tea whenever the pot ran low. Tea time was when I really felt like a member of my Kazakh family.
More than anything else, I miss tea time in Kazakhstan. Compared to the last 8 months of my life, it seems like time at home moves so quickly, mealtimes especially. We finish eating, we get up and clean, and then it’s time to move on to the next thing. There’s no specific thing to bind us to the table, to make us relax and listen to each other, to prolong our time together. Where’s the conversation? Where’s the time to process the day’s events? Where’s the tea?

Things I’m glad to come home to:
1. My family. I had an amazing support system back in Kazakhstan and I was blessed with loving, inclusive host families both during PST and at site, but nothing quite compares to my family at home. I’ve been waiting almost 9 months to hug my parents and have a face to face conversation with them. I’m now in the same time zone as my sister, and very soon I’ll be able to see my brother and sister-in-law and my 16 month old niece, and I’ll be able to welcome my new niece or nephew into the world in about two months. Family in invaluable, and I’m so lucky to be able to come home to mine.

2. Food! Since being home, I’ve enjoyed a burger (with avocado!), homemade pizza, meatloaf, Christmas cookies, and more fruit and green vegetables than I’ve had in the past 9 months, combined. Don’t get me wrong, Kazakhstan has some choice foods that I will miss (like monti, orama nan, beshbarmak, laghman, borsch, plov, and shubat- ask me for descriptions of these foods later, if you’re curious), but it’s refreshing to come home to the familiar, comforting foods that I’ve grown up with.

3. Customer service. There’s a myth in America that Russian people never smile. This is not true. I know plenty of Russian and Kazakh people in Kazakhstan who smile easily and often. The thing is, they prefer to smile at people they know rather than at any old stranger like we do in the U.S. I got used to this fairly quickly in Kazakhstan, and I eventually got to know the Russian saleswomen at my local store well enough that even the crabbiest one would smile when I came in. But for those salespeople who you don’t know very well, customer service isn’t usually a priority. If you don’t like the way a business operates, the manager will tell you to shop somewhere else. If you slip and fall on the icy steps of a café, it’s your own fault- watch where you step next time. If there’s a hair in your food, deal with it. If you can’t find something, look harder.
While many of these policies are totally agreeable by my standards, it is sure nice to go into a store at home and be greeted with a friendly smile and a good attitude. I’ve worked with the public before, so I know that “the customer is always right” policy can be annoying and hard to maintain sometimes, but it really is noticeable when customers are catered to. In fact, I was so surprised by this on my first day back in the states that I’m afraid I was rather rude to several airport attendants. Sorry.

Challenges of homecoming and readjustment:
1. Purpose. This may seem melodramatic, but after living abroad and being identified as “teacher”, “volunteer”, “American” (in a positive way), and “Kazakh speaker” for the past 9 months, it is difficult to find my identity and purpose back at home. Of course I’ve only been home for a few days, and I do not expect to form a new identity overnight, but it is difficult to picture myself not fulfilling my former roles. Never again will students call me mugalim (Kazakh for “teacher”). I can no longer describe myself as erikticimin (Kazakh for “volunteer”). I won’t be referred to anymore as Americanka (Russian for “American girl”). No one will get excited if I speak Kazakh to them. These are all identity roles that I had gladly embraced in Kazakhstan, and it will be difficult to leave those roles behind as I find a new purpose and identity back home.
2. My dad’s moustache. Now, don’t misunderstand me. My dad’s moustache (accompanied by a goatee and soul patch) does not look bad. In fact, he wears it quite well. But here’s the thing, for my entire 23 years of existence, I was under the impression that my dad was physically incapable of growing facial hair. I have only ever seen him clean shaven or with a little stubble, so imagine my surprise when he greeted me at the airport sporting a well-groomed moustache! As I said before, he pulls it off, but from my perspective, it is so different. In the grand scheme of things, whether or not my dad sports a moustache is a small change, but the longer I’m home, the more I’m realizing that it’s the compilation of small changes that are difficult to adjust to. Small changes like driving everywhere as opposed to walking or taking the bus, like having internet available everywhere I go as opposed to once a week, like being able to understand every conversation around me, like eating from my own plate with silverware instead of from a communal dish with my hands, like no longer having three little sisters who look up to me and greet me when I come home, like the loss of tea time, like my dad’s moustache.

These past 9 months have been a rollercoaster of hi’s and lo’s, triumphs and flops. It’s impossible to put into words exactly what I’ve taken from this experience, but I know that it has left an incredibly positive impression on me, as I hope to have left upon the people I knew in Kazakhstan. At our Close of Service conference last week, a PC Kazakhstan staff member said this about volunteers, “Peace Corps Volunteers plant the seeds of the trees under whose shade they may never rest.” While I may never fully know the impact I, my group, or the 22 groups of PCVs before mine made on Kazakhstan, and while our families, friends, counterparts, and students in Kazakhstan may never fully know the impact they had on us, I am positive that we have all been changed because of our incredible shared experience and time together. Достық үшін, бақыт үшін, Қазақстан үшін!


Teaching. What an amazing, impactful, frustrating, inspiring, exhausting, uplifting profession. If someone had told me a year ago that I would learn to love teaching, and my students in Kazakhstan would learn to love me as their teacher, I would have been skeptical. I entered Pre-Service Training last March with an open mind about teaching because I love kids and I love school, but I had no idea of the skills I would develop as a teacher, and whether I would be good at running a classroom, being responsible for my students and what they learn, and making English interesting for a class full of village students who may never want or need to use English as long as they live.

I gained confidence during my student teaching practicum in PST, but when the time came for me to run my own classes with my counterpart at site (in my village in North Kazakhstan Oblast, Saumalkol), I was skeptical, nervous, and downright scared. Despite my anxieties about teaching, I went into my classes with energy, enthusiasm, and care for my students. My main goal was not to teach English, but to create a safe space for my kids to ask questions, be wrong, be right, be supported, be understood, feel important, and feel smart, regardless of grades, learning styles, or social status. I had whole classes of bright students who could sit in their desks and learn so quickly that I had to adjust my lesson plans to incorporate more information for them. I also had whole classes of students who learned best through action, through working with their hands and bodies, and it was these classes who had previously been known as the “slow students” because there was a lack of understanding among local teachers about different learning styles and different ways of teaching introverted or shy students.

It was in one of these classes that I had my most memorable teaching moment. A moment where all of a sudden it struck me that something I did had made a real difference to my students, that my students and I were learning something new together and we were all benefiting from what we had learned.

We were playing a game in one of my 5th grade classes called Running Dictation. In this game, the students work in pairs and one partner is the reader/speaker while the other partner is the listener/writer. The teacher puts a poster on the wall with 5-10 English sentences and the reader/speaker runs to the poster, memorizes a sentence, then runs back to the listener/writer and relays the sentence to them. The listener/writer then writes the sentence down as correctly as they can, and the reader/speaker runs to memorize the next sentence. The first pair to relay all the sentences with the fewest mistakes is the winner. Students love this game because they can be up out of their seats, running around the classroom, and working with their friends while competing against their other friends. It’s also a great game to practice reading, writing, speaking, and listening all at once. One day we were playing this game in 5th grade and my students were running amuck, shouting and laughing and racing one another. One pair of students, however, Yerbol and Kanat, were sitting in their seats, looking around in vague dismay.

I ran over to the boys and asked, “не болда?” (What’s wrong?), to which a defeated Yerbol replied, “Miss Michele, I can’t read.”

“What?!” I said, “Of course you can read! We’ll do it together.” With that, Yerbol, Kanat, and I went to the poster on the wall, filled with 10 short yet intimidating English sentences, and sound by sound, letter by letter, we worked out the first line.

With a sudden light of trust and comprehension in his brown eyes, Yerbol looked up at me and I could tell by the joy in his little round face that for the first time, maybe ever, he got it. He and Kanat ran back to their seats and wrote down the sentence, painstakingly slow and careful, and proceeded to play the game with as much enthusiasm and vigor as the rest of the class until the winning pair had finished. From that day onward, Yerbol was no longer one of the quiet students who sat in the back, uncomprehending and indifferent. He still needed extra time and one-on-one attention, but he cared and he tried.

In Kazakhstan, a student who has an unique learning style or who needs extra help in order to learn, like Yerbol, is told by teachers his whole life that he is stupid, that he can’t do things, and that he isn’t worth slowing the rest of the class down. This is not the fault of local teachers; this is the result of a lack of understanding of learning styles, interactive teaching methods, and one-on-one mentoring and guidance between teachers and students. These methodologies were all important pieces of information that Peace Corps Volunteers brought to Kazakhstani classrooms and encouraged local teachers to implement.

For Yerbol, I believe that that day in class was perhaps the first time a teacher has ever told him, “You can,” and then helped him to realize his own potential. “You are smart.” “You can do this.” “I will help you learn.” “You are important.” “I want you to succeed.” These are the messages I hoped to leave my students with during my short service in Kazakhstan. That was my biggest goal, what I strived to do.

That day with Yerbol, and countless other days with countless other students, I attempted to leave my kids with the knowledge of their own importance and worth. Despite the frustrations of teaching, the days when it just didn’t seem like my kids cared, when my classroom management was at an all-time low, when I came away from school feeling utterly exhausted and even defeated, it was worth every bit of spent energy to know that my students felt capable and smart when they were in English class. Knowing that I accomplished that much, in only 8 short months of service, was more than I ever could have imagined I would take away from my time as a teacher.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Battle

For the last month, I've been waging a personal battle against an infamous foe. I'll admit that this battle has been fruitless, as my foe is not a living being that can be physically vanquished, is much stronger than the force of man, and will most definitely bring down its wrath upon me regardless of my obstinate fight. Despite full knowledge of my most certain eventual defeat, I've been wholeheartedly resisting my enemy…until today. Today I lost the battle.


The foe of which I speak is, of course, winter. My village lies in the sub-Siberian tundra on a plain surrounded by rolling hills which are beautiful, but not quite large enough to block the wind. Since late September, I've been greeted almost every morning by frost, overcast skies, and biting wind, and these signs of the coming winter have greatly increased in intensity over the last month. I've heard from locals that winters in North Kazakhstan oblast are accompanied by a great deal of snow (kop kar in Kazakh), frigid winds (soukh zhel), and temperatures approaching -40 degrees Celsius (which is the same as -40 degrees Fahrenheit). I've been hearing stories about these winters since I first arrived at site in the beginning of summer. That's how horrible the winters are—even in the height of warm weather, locals still revere the winter that's 6 months away.


It's true that I've lived with similar winters my entire life, both in Montana and in Minnesota, but something about the fact that I live in sub-Siberia, only a few hundred kilometers from Russia, makes the impending winter more frightful to me than ever before. So how, you may be wondering, have I been fighting against an impregnable force of nature? Through the use of my mental strength and stubborn attitude, that's how. For the last month, I've been telling myself that winter was a long way off, and I needn't concern myself with it until it hit me in the face. I've kept my winter coat, long underwear, thick wool socks, winter hat, warm scarf, mittens, and snow boots hidden away in a suitcase on top of my wardrobe ever since I moved into my host family's home in mid-May; out of sight, out of mind. When someone asks if I'm cold, I've refused to admit that I am, even when I'm shivering. "I've felt worse," I think, "I can handle this." I've been inadequately dressed every day for the past month, because I simply wouldn't let myself break down and get out my warm clothes. That would be admitting defeat, and succumbing to the inevitability of winter.


But today, on the morning of October 27th, 2011, I lost the battle. I woke up to 2 inches of snow on hard frozen ground. Snow that's here to stay until March at the earliest. Snow that's white and blinding and cuts like a thousand tiny knives when the wind whips it into my face. Snow that's impossible to ignore, that's undeniable proof of winter's arrival. Winter's here, and I can't shut it out any longer. The battle is over.


So this morning after recovering from the shock of seeing the first snow outside my window, I made some coffee, climbed up on my bed and pulled down my suitcase, full of winter clothes. Today I wore thick long underwear to school, I wore a hat, my puffy green winter coat, mittens, and thick wool socks. And despite the snow, the wind, and the cold, I'm comfortable and warm for the first time in a month. The women teachers at school who have been berating me for weeks are overjoyed to see that I'm finally dressing for the weather, and they assure me that I'll be much happier now that I've broken down and donned warm clothes. They're right. I am much happier. Maybe I should have thrown in the towel a long time ago. Maybe I only damaged my health by refusing to acknowledge the changing of the seasons up until now. But I'm fairly certain that next year I'll do the same thing, because no matter how many times I encounter it, change is scary and difficult to accept. So next year, I'll hold out as long as I can against the approaching sub-Siberian winter, hoping against hope that I can keep it a bay for a few extra weeks. Stubbornly, I'll try again to control a force that's far greater than myself or my will power.


Here's the beautiful thing about change: it is frightening for sure, but it has possibilities. Every opportunity for change I've encountered since coming to Kazakhstan has been scary and disconcerting at first, but I've realized that change isn't all that bad once you finally turn and face it. I've discovered that when I force myself to embrace the inevitable changes that surround me, I'm actually comfortable and happy, all wrapped up in something altogether different than what I had experienced before.


Friday, September 9, 2011

Fun Times in the Village

I know I’ve said this before, and I know I’ll say it again, but thank you. Thanks to all of my loving family members, friends, and community members from the various places I’ve lived. I couldn’t be here and do this work without your support and encouragement. I recently received an e-mail from a friend to whom I had been venting about some small frustrations of life at site. He gave me some much needed words of kindness, and then challenged me to think in another way. He said that instead of always hearing about the challenges of my life away from home, he’d love to hear about some of my favorite parts of life in Kazakhstan. He posed the simple question, “What do you do for fun?” And then I realized that this topic has yet to be seen on my blog! Let me enlighten you all about some of my hobbies in the village, and how I spend my free time.

Now that I’ve started teaching (huzzah!), I’ve got much less free time than I had this summer, which is just fine by me. Many of you know that I love to be busy, so teaching 20 hours a week plus planning for future extracurricular English clubs and summer camps is my cup of tea. But I still find myself with a lot of free time compared with my life in America. One PCV, when asked about what she does in her spare time replied, “here my hobbies are staring at stuff, walking around, drinking beers on my balcony, reading, banya, and walking around.”
Caitlin’s words are not only funny, but true. I’ve taken up hobbies in Kazakhstan that I never liked in America, such as running. When I have free time here, I’ll go for a long run in the forest around my house or on the road that runs out of my village and through the steppe. In America, I hated running. It was a means to a healthy body and cardiovascular system. In the village, running provides me with personal space, time to think, and a pleasant way to take in the area around Saumalkol. Six months ago, I never dreamed that I would one day describe running as pleasant.

Unfortunately, winter is rapidly approaching, which will put an end to my outdoor runs (I’m not brave enough to attempt to run outside during a sub-Siberian winter). But don’t fret, I have a plan. My host mom, Bebegul, knows how to knit! She knits clothes for my host sisters, sweaters for herself, and doilies for our kitchen table. I’ve already bought some yarn, and I have her word that she will teach me her skill when winter comes and I’m house bound. I’m not sure that knitting will provide me with the same satisfaction that I’ve found in running, but I’ve always wanted to learn to knit, and this winter will be the perfect opportunity.

I’ve never considered myself a bookworm because I never had enough time to read for pleasure in America, but I love to read, and I’ve found that taking in the written word has become one of my favorite pastimes here. I’ve been here for 6 months and I’m well into my 11th book, and I usually do a crossword puzzle every night (thank for the puzzle book, Mom!). Eleven books in six months is actually a fairly low number compared to some other volunteers, but as far back as I can remember, I’ve never had this much time to read. I’m so grateful for my kindle (thanks, Aunt Sherrie!), because with it I can access practically any book I want, and I’ll never run out of stories to take in.

There are also hobbies that I did a lot in America that I can still do here. For example, in the states, playing volleyball with my friends was one of my favorite activities. In college I was on an intramural team every year, and I played on a community team the summer after graduation. Well guess what? People in Kazakhstan love volleyball, too! The teachers at my school usually play once a week, and they are always sure to invite me to play with them (this is not because I’m good, mind you, but because I’m competitive and I’ve got a good 6” on many of the men here). This summer I spent many an evening playing volleyball with my host dad, sister, and cousin, all of whom love to play and never seemed to tire of peppering.

Speaking of pepper, let’s talk about food. The best part about food is that in one form or another, it can be found all over the world. In America, I loved to cook. I baked pies, I experimented with sauces, I helped with holiday meals, and I cooked with my friends. Food here is very different from food in America, but this hasn’t stopped me from cooking. If I ever find that my host family is gone and I have the house all to myself, I immediately head for the kitchen. I can cook if my host family is around, and I sometimes do, but I love the freedom of an empty house and a quiet kitchen where I can experiment and create anything I want. I’ve cooked for my host family on two different occasions, and the record stands as: Pizza- hit! Banana bread- miss (I tried not to be offended that they didn’t like my banana bread, which happened to be one of the best batches I’ve ever made). Next time I cook for them, I’m going to make tacos.

I’ve also cooked with my host family a few times, and every time it has been a wonderful experience. When Kazakh families have visitors over (this occasion is called a konak), there’s usually a lot of food provided by the women of the family for their guests. The first time my host mother asked me to help her cook for the konak, I took it as a real compliment because it meant that I was no longer thought of as a guest, but rather as a part of the family. Since then, I’ve helped prepare for several other konaks, which means spending some time with my host mom and host sister in the kitchen, cooking together. For a konak, my family usually makes several types of salad including shredded carrot salad (slightly tangy and very tasty), and an Asian rice noodle salad with bell peppers and garlic (one of my favorite foods in Kazakhstan), and monti is the always main course (these are steamed dumplings that usually have either pumpkin or meat, potatoes, and onions inside- the pumpkin variety is fantastic). If we’re expecting a lot of people at the konak, my host mother also prepares baursak, which is like small pieces of fried dough that taste very similar to funnel cake/elephant ears (or “scones” if you’re from Havre) in America. Since I arrived in Kazakhstan, I’ve learned how to make Kazakh salads, stuff monti and fold it properly, and fry baursak. Despite all of the differences between life in Kazakhstan and life in the states, food can be found all over the world, so I can enjoy cooking here just as much as I did in America.

As I have become more acclimated to life here, I have started to join in the activities that local people do for fun. When the weather is nice in Saumalkol, the most popular pastime for local people is to walk around the town square and eat sunflower seeds. They talk, they people watch, and they eat seeds. Kazakhstani people love their seeds. This summer I was invited to sit in the town square and eat sunflower seeds with a teacher from my school, and while I’ve never been partial to seeds, I gladly accepted her offer, because that’s what people do in the village. People here also like to konak for fun, so I do too. I’ve gone over to the homes of some teachers at my school to konak, I’ve gone konak-ing with my family to their friends’ homes, and I’ve gone on picnics with my family and other families (like a traveling konak). A Kazakhstani konak revolves around food, tea, and conversation, and can last anywhere from several hours to all day or night. At first, the idea of being surrounded by fast-paced, unintelligible Kazakh for several hours at a time was very intimidating, but as my Kazakh gets better and I am able to speak and understand more, I’ve come to look forward to konaks as opportunities to eat tasty food and meet new people.

Living in a new environment, far from home, family, and friends is riddled with challenges, many of which all of you have heard from me before. But the more time I spend in Kazakhstan, the more things I find that give me joy and help me overcome the challenges. I’m starting to feel like I’m no longer a guest here, and like this is not just a trip anymore. This experience—the culture of Kazakhstan, working as a teacher, building relationships with the people in my village—is finally starting to feel like my life.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Let's Talk

     As many of you know, the language barrier is one of the most difficult challenges to overcome for Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide. Without language, the simplest tasks are transformed into seemingly insurmountable barriers. Just the idea of mailing a letter, finding a bathroom, using public transportation, or ordering at a restaurant makes your heart race and your palms sweat. Establishing genuine, meaningful relationships is next to impossible without language. Even the most talkative people can be forced into silence by the language barrier—not out of choice, mind you, but because they haven't got the skills to understand (much less contribute to) the conversations flowing all around them. The sudden loss of speech makes a person feel stupid, vulnerable, and helpless. Likewise, each small gain in language learning and each successful linguistic interaction is accompanied by a triumphant feeling of accomplishment. For example, a few weeks ago, my friend, Suzanna, and I purchased long-distance train tickets and (thanks to a mixture of Kazakh and Russian) we successfully communicated to the clerk that we wanted seats next to one another, despite the fact that we'd be getting onto the train in different cities. As we walked away from the office, tickets in hand, we gave each other a congratulatory hi-five. What else could we do? For the first time in 4 ½ months, we had just communicated a somewhat complex need using two foreign languages (Suzanna used Russian, I used Kazakh), and our need was met! Hi-five!


            I started learning Kazakh the day I arrived in Kazakhstan, and in PST we had 5 hours of Kazakh class every day where we would speak and speak and speak. Within the first few days of moving here, however, I became a listener. I am not a listener by nature. Until I came here and my voice was literally forced into submission, I was constantly talking. I wouldn't necessarily call myself a "one-upper", but at home I sure do love to throw around my 2 cents. And even now, when I get the opportunity to speak in English (on the phone or with other PCVs), I find the thoughts tumbling out of my mouth with reckless abandon, much to the detriment of my English grammar (which is taking a turn for the worse, I'm afraid). But when I'm confronted with Kazakh, I become a listener again. As I learn more Kazakh from my host family and through independent study, I'm becoming bolder with my speech, but it's a slow process. I'm comfortable speaking freely with my host family because they don't mock my poor grammar and limited vocabulary, but my palms still sweat and my cheeks still burn when I have to speak to strangers.


            As if the challenges of learning Kazakh aren't enough, I happen to live in a village in North Kazakhstan that is half Kazakh speaking, and half Russian speaking. Most Kazakh people in my village can speak both languages freely, but the Russian people in Saumalkol typically speak worse Kazakh than I do, if they speak it at all. Despite all the gains that I've made in Kazakh over the last 4 ½ months, I'm still fairly helpless when it comes to Russian. Up until a few weeks ago, whenever I had to communicate with a Russian person, I would use a series gestures, grunts, and about 5 poorly placed Russian words (mostly "niet" and "da") to get my point across, or I would spit out the only Russian phrase I knew ("I don't speak Russian"). I finally resigned myself, however, to the fact that to get by in northern Kazakhstan, I needed to learn a little Russian. So I went to a Russian language camp in the northernmost city in KZ, Petropavlovsk, with about 27 other PCVs. During that week of camp, I learned how to count in Russian and recognize a few verbs and personal pronouns, so when I came back to my village I still wasn't able to speak much Russian, but I was able to understand far more than I had before. Now that you have a little background regarding my language struggles, let me relate two short stories that perfectly illustrate my epic, unfinished battle with the language barrier.


            Story #1: I arrived in Petropavlovsk for Russian camp and was faced with the task of taking a city bus to the university, where the camp was being held. I knew that I needed the number 5, but I had no idea when to get off the bus, or what the university looked like. I got onto the bus and asked the driver (a Russian, as luck would have it) "University?" To which he nodded and furrowed his brow quizzically at me. As I took my seat, I scanned the bus and did a little racial profiling, hoping that the Kazakh-looking woman seated near me actually spoke Kazakh (in northern KZ, many people who are Kazakh by descent primarily speak Russian, and while they can usually understand Kazakh, they are sometimes reluctant to speak it, especially with someone who looks more Russian than Kazakh, like myself). With a sudden spurt of courage, I leaned over and busted out my best Kazakh to the friendly-looking lady across the way:


Me: Excuse me, do you speak Kazakh?

Friendly Lady (bewildered): Yes… Do you speak Kazakh?

Me (very relieved): Yes! Can you please tell me where the university stop is?

FL: Hmm…I'll ask the driver, and then I'll help you. Where did you learn Kazakh?

Me: Thank you! I learned Kazakh in Almaty- I'm an English teacher in Kazakhstan.

FL: You speak so well! (Leaning over to the Kazakh woman in the next seat and pointing to me) She speaks Kazakh! Isn't that excellent?!

Me (aw, shucks): Thank you very much…I'm still learning.

Small talk for several minutes…

FL: This is your stop! Are you meeting someone? The university will be closed now.

Me: I'm meeting my friends…somewhere.

FL (getting off the bus with me): Let me help you.

Me (shocked and even more relieved): Thank you so much!


Zhanna (aka Friendly Lady) walked several blocks with me until we found my friends, only to bid me farewell and turn to walk back to the bus stop and wait for the next bus. I have no idea what stop she needed, but I know that she greatly inconvenienced herself to make sure that I would be alright, and all because I was brave enough to open my mouth. I was blown away by Zhanna's kindness (and also pleasantly surprised that she has the same name as my host mom from PST who, if you'll remember, rescued me when I was lost on my 2nd day in KZ), and I had to congratulate myself for using my language so successfully. Hi-five!


            Story #2: After successfully completing a week of Russian camp and conducting several successful Russian transactions in my village (such as buying fruit from the Russian vendor at the bazaar and asking a Russian pharmacy clerk where I could find contact solution and then successfully following her directions and finding it), I felt on top of my linguistic game. And then one fateful morning as I was waiting for the bus, my confidence was dashed to the ground by a disgruntled dadushka (grandfather-type man, pronounced dad-oosh-ka).


DD: Hey girl! What time will the bus get here?

Me (mentally preparing to knock his socks off with my Russian): In 5 minutes.

DD: blah blah blah…(lots of Russian)…blah blah?

Me (oh crap, my cover's blown…what did he say?): I'm sorry, I don't know. I only speak a little Russian. I speak Kazakh and English.

DD (confused): (I didn't understand what he said for pretty much the rest of the conversation, but from his gestures and facial expressions, I'm going to venture some reasonable guesses at what he was trying to convey) What do you mean you only speak a little Russian?! Why do you speak Kazakh?! Look at you! You must speak Russian!! Blah blah blah (I think this was the same question he tried to ask before, maybe something about work…)?

Me (getting flustered and forgetting how to say "I don't understand" in Russian): I don't know…I…Kazakh school…work…English (forgot how to say "teacher" in Russian)…

DD (visibly agitated): What!? Blah blah blah (another question of some kind)??

Me (getting defensive): …I don't know…I speak Kazakh and English…just a little Russian…

DD (pissed): You speak Russian!! You just told me when the bus was coming! You said 'I speak a little Russian' in Russian! You speak Russian! Blah blah blah (more questions…)??

Me (really defensive and giving up on the idea of reasoning with this man): I don't know! I don't speak Russian! I don't speak Russian!!

DD (seriously pissed, waving his cane in the air in my general direction): You speak Russian! You speak Russian! Why I oughtta…!

Random Passerby: What's going on?

DD: Who is this girl? She says she speaks Kazakh and not Russian!!

RP: That's the new English teacher at the Kazakh school. She doesn't speak Russian. She speaks Kazakh.

DD: How do you know?

RP: (didn't quite catch what she said, but there was a small article in our village newspaper about my arrival, and I think the random passerby told the disgruntled dadushka that she read about me in the gazette)

Me (told you so): I don't speak Russian.


That was perhaps the longest 5 minutes I've experienced since I arrived in Kazakhstan. It's a hilarious story now, but at the time, this disgruntled dadushka ruined my day. I was feeling so good about all I had learned at Russian camp, only to find out that I had miles and miles to go before I could justly give myself a hi-five for my Russian language skills.


            As I said in my last post, there are mountaintops and valleys in every aspect of Peace Corps service, and I think that language learning has a set of highs and lows of its own. The smallest interaction can foster a new friendship, or it can put you in danger of being smacked with a dadushka's cane. Language learning isn't easy, and it's going to take me the rest of my 23 months here to gain full confidence in my language abilities. Despite my frustrating, labor-intensive, Troy-esque, siege of the language barrier, I've learned that it never hurts to speak. I'm not a listener by nature. I'm a talker, and I intend to continue as such, even in this new environment, with its assortment of challenges. If nothing else comes of my attempts at speech, at least I'll get some good stories.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Mountain Tops and Small Victories

Let me start this post with a short apology; I'm sorry for not posting blogs more often. The main reason for my delay is that my transition to my permanent site has been a real challenge, and I had reservations about posting blogs that were anything but entertaining, uplifting, and resounding with positivity about my experience thus far. I had the idea that I could only post about my "mountain top experiences", because no one would want to hear about the valleys. But guess what I've discovered? When you move away from home, family, and friends, and when you are stumbling your way through a language barrier, and when you are confronted with cultural differences every day that push you out of your comfort zone, those mountain tops are elusive. I e-mailed a friend about my frustrations and that I felt I had nothing to write about on my blog, and he suggested that instead of searching for the mountain tops and being disappointed when I can't find them, I should write about my small victories- the little things that keep me going from day to day. What a concept! So this post will site some examples of the small victories that keep me going through even the toughest of times in Kazakhstan.


Many of you know that my transition to my permanent site has been difficult. I am adjusting to a new host family, the absence of my friends from PST, and the inadequacies of my Kazakh language skills. June 15th was the first month-iversary of my arrival in Saumalkol, and frankly, it was a tough month. The morning of my month-iversary was spent helping out at the summer camp at my school, which I've done every morning for the last few weeks. Usually when I "help" at camp, I sit with the kids while they draw pictures or try to keep them from killing each other while they play outside. Regardless of the fact that I don't feel like I am really much of a helper at camp, it is always nice to see the kids and know that they are glad to have me here. After camp, my site mate, Anna, and I walked home together and enjoyed the sunshine and topped off the walk with samsas (little Russian dough pockets filled with some kind of meat…mysterious but tasty!) and freshly made ice cream (always a highlight in my day). When I got home I cooked French toast for lunch (familiar food made by my own two hands is a rarity here), had a nap, and went for a run. In my village life, any afternoon where I get to cook for myself, take a nap, and go for a run is a pretty productive day, and on top of that, I mastered the clothes agitator/centrifuge machine and did my laundry all by myself! Later in the afternoon, I even got to talk to my dad on the phone, and any day in which I get to have a conversation with my loved ones is a good day in my book.


In the evening, I was invited on an excursion with Anna and her host brother and sister. We hitchhiked our way to the next village, which has a population of about 1500 people, one school, a beautiful saltwater lake, and a camel farm. That's right, a camel farm. Not only did we get to pet the camels and play with their botas (babies), but we got to watch the evening milking process and were then treated to as much shubat as we could possibly drink. Shubat is fermented camel's milk that's a huge favorite of the Kazakh people. I first sampled this particular beverage about 3 months ago in Almaty, and it was…less than tasty. What we were given at the camel farm, however, was surprisingly drinkable—we were told that shubat is best when the camels have been eating very green grass (it's similar to the way the soil in which grapes are grown will affect the taste of wine, only instead of wine, we were drinking a salty, sour-ish, frothy, milk product…made from camels). 


After we had our fill of shubat, our hosts took us on a tour of the beautiful lakes of the area. The lakes are surrounded by rolling hills covered in forests of birch and pine intermixed, and the sights, sounds, and smells of the area reminded me of home, and of so many family vacations to Washington and Oregon. And the armies of mosquitoes that emerged at dusk reminded me of nothing more than summertime in Minnesota. We left the lake and headed back to our host's home, where we were served mounds of food and gallons of tea, in the typical Kazakh fashion of unending hospitality. As if that was not enough, Anna and I were then handed the traditional Kazakh wedding costumes of a husband and wife, complete with the small whip that every Kazakh man is given on his wedding day to "keep his wife in check"—and yes, this traditional whip is still given to newly married couples and is proudly displayed in traditional Kazakh homes. Of course, we put on the costumes (Anna got the whip) and took plenty of pictures, to the great delight of our hosts.


After we were given a ride back to our village and I was reflecting on my day, I realized that not only was that a wonderful day by my standards for Kazakhstan, but it was a wonderful day by any standards. In the morning, I did my best to help the kids at our camp. In the afternoon, I had some personal time and I overcame a challenge (I mastered the clothes agitator!). In the evening, I learned all about camels and Kazakh traditions, and regardless of my poor grammar and limited vocabulary, I spoke and spoke and spoke with my hosts and was treated not as an outsider, but as a neighbor—sharing food, transcending cultural barriers, and even laughing at the same jokes. I was invited back in a month (when the camels will be done shedding their winter coats) to ride a camel, drink more shubat, and have a picnic at the lake. Let me tell you, I can't wait for July 15th!


Here's the best part: I started writing this blog post to provide you with a few examples of the small victories that carry me from day to day here in Saumalkol. But upon finishing this post and looking back on the events of June 15th, I now realize that while the day was, indeed, overflowing with small victories, it was more than that. I now realize that without trying to, I spent my first month-iversary on a mountain top.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Learning Cliff

Since I arrived in Kazakhstan almost a month ago, I've been told again and again that I'm going to go through phases of culture shock and acclimation. The typical Peace Corps Volunteer's curve starts high (the excitement of a new country and experience), gradually drops to a low point (the excitement wears off, homesickness sets in), rises fairly high again (learning language, making friends with other volunteers, adjusting to the food and culture of host country), drops to a new low (leaving the training village and going to the permanent sight, saying goodbye to friends from Pre-Service Training), and only then does the curve steadily rise to become constant and level (host country finally feels like home). I've been in Kazakhstan for about a month now, and I can say that I haven't experienced much in the way of "typical" ups and downs. From day one, my host family has made me feel welcome and comfortable. They have fed me, helped develop my Kazakh language skills, and turned their home into my home.


I've realized that while I haven't followed the typical Volunteer's learning curve, I can describe my Kaz experience with an even more picturesque metaphor. This is how I see it: arriving in Kazakhstan was like walking out of the ocean and onto a beach. Walking on the sand feels very different than swimming in the water, but one isn't better or worse than the other. Some aspects of life in Kaz have taken some getting used to, like using a hole in the backyard instead of a flush toilet, eating meals that are mostly comprised of tea, meat, and rice products, and not understanding the majority of conversations that are happening around me, but overall I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here, and the hospitality of the Kazakh people is beyond comparison. Going back to the metaphor, for the first few weeks I walked along the beach, and then I started to notice a gradual incline in my path. I learned new Kazakh vocabulary and grammar, started developing deeper relationships with my host family and other volunteers, and began to do activities that pushed me out of my comfort zone like visiting the big city (Almaty) and striking up Kazakh conversations with kids at school. At this point, I've walked from the beach and gone up a gradual hill, but now I've come face to face with a large, seemingly impassable obstacle. I've walked straight into a cliff.


This cliff represents the obstacles that stand in the way of my true acclimation to Kaz, mainly referring to my language skills- I simply can't build deeper relationships here until I become fluent in Kazakh.  I now have the necessary tools to build sentences and convey basic ideas in Kazakh (vocabulary, sentence structure, basic tenses, etc.), but I'm far from being able to speak. Every day, I have a Kazakh conversation with my host mother which goes something like this:


Me (after several minutes of careful mental composition): Tomorrow I will go to school at 9:00.

Zhanna: I'll leave breakfast out for you and put your sack lunch in the fridge. What would you like me to pack in your lunch for tomorrow?

Me (after several minutes of decomposing her sentences to glean the main points): Uh…this. (Pointing at whatever food we are eating for dinner at that moment.) Thank you.

Zhanna: Would you please lock the house when you leave and bring the key to school with you?

Me (silent for several moments, still not entirely sure of what she said, but being able to pick out the word "school" and understanding her main point with the help of many exaggerated hand gestures): …Ok.


I may have the tools to build sentences, but I wouldn't exactly call myself fluent. It will take an incredible amount of practice and time until I'll be able to speak here. Thus, it will take a long time to build relationships here. Making friends and learning a language always take time, but in the Peace Corps, the challenges that normally accompany these tasks are compounded by the setting in which we are living. Thus, I feel like I have come very far since my arrival in country, but now I feel like I'm standing at the bottom of a cliff, staring up at its sheer face.


Here's the good news: I know how to rock climb. My equipment consists of my constantly improving language skills, a good sense of humor, a strong stomach, and my intense desire to make the most of my time in Kazakhstan, and hopefully make a difference in a life or two while I'm here. My belayer is represented by my amazing family and supportive friends on the ground who listen to my stories, help me process challenges, and who have made me feel loved and missed since the day I left home.  Finally, my hand and foot-holds for this climb are represented by the small victories I experience here every day. Things like playing Frisbee with local kids after school, teaching my first successful 5th grade English class, understanding an entire string of sentences that my host mother says over dinner, getting over 100 students at English club and playing FLBC games with them, looking at the breathtaking mountains every day on my walk to school, discovering that the local duken (market) sometimes sells Magna ice cream bars, understanding a joke and laughing with my host family, getting kids to talk to me in Kazakh instead of shouting "HELLO WHAT IS YOUR NAME?!!" over and over…and over, getting permission to set up an English resource room in our village school, and learning how to make the most of my weekly bath in the banya (3-room Russian sauna). These are just a handful of the small victories that guide, encourage, and help me truly appreciate this experience and this country. Getting up this cliff will no doubt be a challenge, but it's a challenge that I'm fully prepared for. One thing's for sure, I'm really going to enjoy the view from the top.





During my first week in Kazakhstan, I have been lost the majority of the time. I get lost when attempting to understand Kazakh grammar, I am lost regarding food (particularly the incredible love that Kazakhs have for meat), and I am still lost in the ways of some cultural norms (mastering the art of making Kazakh bread will take a lot of practice!). Even the most basic activities such as bathing, excreting, and eating were slightly confusing when I first arrived in Kazakhstan. My host sister, Gaziza, had to show me how to properly use the banya (Russian sauna/bucket bath operation) and explain when to use the outdoor toilet (#1 only in the toilet inside the house, #2 goes outside, no matter the season…thank goodness it's almost Spring!), and my host mother, Zhanna, is continually answering my mealtime inquiries, e.g. What's this? What's that? I've found that the more questions I ask, the more I learn about my new home, so I always attempt to ask as many questions as possible, regardless of language barriers. Getting a little lost when trying to understand an unfamiliar culture is normal, but on one of my first days in Kaz, I felt more mentally lost than I have since I was a kid.


During our first 9 weeks in Kazakhstan, all of us Peace Corps Trainees (PCT's) are busy with Pre-Service Training (PST- Peace Corps really loves acronyms). My PST site is a small village just outside of Almaty (the largest city in Kazakhstan), and there are 10 other PCT's in my village, all living with different host families. On the average day, we have lessons at the local school from 8:00am-5:00pm, and during that time we focus primarily on Kazakh language, English teaching methodology, and the occasional session on cultural norms, staying healthy, etc. After lessons, we head home to our respective host homes for dinner and family time. I am lucky, as my entire host family spends their days in the same school where I have PST classes. My host father is a biology teacher, my host mother is one of the vice principals, and my three host sisters are all students at the school. Every morning, we walk to school together, and every day when we all get home we have tea time and talk about our days (using a lovely mixture of Kazakh, Russian, English, and exaggerated hand gestures).


On our first day of PST, our lessons ran about an hour later than expected. For many PCTs, the delay wasn't a problem as they knew how to get home and most of their host families lived near each other, so they could walk together. My host home, however, is in the opposite direction from most of the other PCTs, and as our class was dismissed, I realized that I hadn't coordinated a way to get home with any of my family members. I walked outside with the other trainees and watched them pair off and walk into the distance, wishing me luck with my solo trip along the unfamiliar, unmarked roads of the village. One trainee, Pete, stayed with me while his host cousin and a Russian student kindly attempted to give me directions to my house. But alas, the directions were in Russian, and I only speak Kazakh…barely. I stood on the side of the road, staring into the abyss in the general direction of my house, wondering how on earth I was going to make it by myself. Did I remember the way? No. Did anything look familiar? Nope. Was I comfortable walking home alone among strangers, very obviously a foreigner in this Kazakh village? Not at all. Could I ask for directions? Tried. Failed. I was lost. Suddenly I remembered the Montana wilderness safety tip that I was taught as a kid, "If you get lost in the woods, stay put! Hug a tree! Someone is looking for you and will find you if you don't move!" So I stayed put. I probably stared down the street, my feet rooted to the ground, for only 5 minutes or so, but it felt like several hours, and with each passing minute more and more Kazakh school kids stopped to look at me- a poor, sad, American girl, who was desperately confused and scared. Walking home from school never seemed like such an ordeal.


Then suddenly, out of the darkness, came a voice! "Michele! Michele!" Zhanna! My dear, sweet host mother was still at the school and had tried to find me after PST class only to realize that I had already left the classroom. She panicked and ran outside to find me before I attempted to journey home alone, and found me rooted in front of the school, pondering my predicament. Zhanna was as worried about me as if she were my real mother (and as if I was about 5 years old…which I am, when it comes to this culture). All that concern after we'd met only two days prior! Sweet relief. Zhanna walked me home, clutching my arm along the way so I wouldn't run off. Although it may seem like a small incident, I truly felt as if I had been lost and then found. That afternoon, my host mother saved me. Stay put. Someone is looking for you. Someone will find you.


Despite all of the moments during this first week in Kazakhstan when I've felt confused, alone, and totally lost, in reality I have always had an army of people behind me. My host family has been beyond phenomenal at teaching me their culture, opening their home to me, and appreciating my differences, and like me, they love to laugh; my fellow trainees have been wonderfully supportive and sympathetic to my anxieties and concerns, as we are sharing this experience and thus we have the same anxieties and concerns; and the PST staff is working as hard as they can to keep me healthy and safe, and to improve my Kazakh language skills with every lesson. Yes, of course Peace Corps is already challenging, but I am not alone. Even when I feel lost, I know that I have an amazing support system here, and also back home. Stay put. Someone is looking for you. Someone will find you.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The journey begins!

It's finally real! I'm back home in Montana, fretting over the task of fitting my life for 27 months into 2 suitcases, saying goodbyes, and taking care of last minute logistics. I leave for Kazakhstan in 11 days, and it seems like there aren't enough hours in the day to finish everything I need to get done! I'm caught up in a bittersweet mix of anxiety and excitement, but mostly I'm intensely curious about what my life will be like in Kaz. I know that many of you, my close friends and family, share my curiosity, which is why I'm writing a blog!

I've given my blog the title "river teeth" because of a book recommended by a good friend from FLBC. In the introduction to River Teeth by David James Duncan, the author explains that when a conifer falls into a river, the majority of the tree disintegrates very quickly in the rushing water. What remains after the tree is reduced to pulp, however, are hard, oddly shaped pieces of wood that once formed the joints between the living tree's trunk and branches. Duncan dubbed these immortal pieces of wood "river teeth". If you run with his metaphor, you'll understand that we are the trees and the river represents the sweeping current of time. One day, many of our memories will fade and the details will blur, but there will be a few memories and stories that will never completely disintegrate. These are our river teeth.

I want this blog to be a forum where I can share my would-be river teeth with all of you; not just my day-to-day activities (although I'm sure I'll write about those, too!), but the really powerful events and moments that I'll experience in Kazakhstan. With any luck, I'll be able to update this blog every month, if not more.

I'll be leaving for staging in Washington D.C. on March 7th, and the other "Kaz 23" volunteers and I head overseas on the 9th, when we'll start PST (pre-service training) in Almaty. Almaty is the biggest city in Kazakhstan and is located in the south-eastern corner of the country. There's between 30-40 other volunteers in my training class, and for the next 10 1/2 weeks we'll be busy getting to know each other, starting to learn either Russian or Kazakh, and bonding with our host families in Almaty. I'll write again when I arrive in Kazakhstan and let you all know how things are shaping up! Thank you for your continued love and support as I start this journey!