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.