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.





  1. Michelaki mou!! I am so happy you made it there safely, and that you are beginning to settle in. I can't imagine how hard it is being plunged into a completely different culture, but it seems like you are tackling it head on and making the most of it. I'm sure you'll be completely native before you know it :P I'm already looking forward to the next update.. Now, chalk up your hands, have a quick swig of water, and start climbing up that cliff!! xxxxxx

  2. Belay is on! I loved the climbing metaphor, perhaps just because I'm a climbing junkie and like anything climbing. Nevertheless, the metaphor makes a lot of sense. Glad to hear things are going along pretty well and, of course, you're up to the challenge. Go get 'em kid.

  3. Hey Michele! Somehow your email fell between the cracks, and I just remembered that you mentioned updating your blog. Sounds like you're having yourself an exciting and challenging adventure. Just remember, wherever you go, however rough the terrain, it never hurts to have an extra bag of cookies in case wild dogs (or were they wolves?) appear. :)

  4. HI Michelle, I enjoyed reading your recent comments on life in K. Wow! What an experience! we just finished confirmation, faith statements and all! Jacob is home for a few week before going to Flathead as a counselor. I'm on the FLBC Board and we're in the process of calling a new executive director to replace Gary who will retire the end of May. The new dining hall will be called "The Cockrell Center" in honor of his 30+ years of ministry. Jessica Obrecht is co-ordinating the Corn Feeds. Kaylee shubert is heading to the big C. Just wanted to let you know you're in my prayers. I have a book that a World Mision Prayer League Missionary gave me called "Foreign to Familiar" that I'd like to send you. It's about how different people communicate differently depending if they are from a warm or cold culture. Thought you'd might like it. What's your address? Or how can I send it to you? Have a great weekend!
    "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace so that you abound in hope by the power of the Holy spirit! Romans 15:13.
    God bless you!
    Pastor Brad
    We are starting a "Jesus and Jeans" 6;29 Wed night mid week service during the week. Should be fun. Also met with the Pastor's on Tues and celebrated Syttende Mai- Norwegian Indepence DAy- complete with Viking Horns, fish, cheese, an international parade of "nations" and lefsa and the best Ole and Lean Joke contest! Take care of yourself.

  5. Hello Boda! (I can't remember how to say hello in Kaz...)

    I just wanted to say I give you props for taking on this challenge the way you do. Lots of people would go running (flying) back home (me). Keep on keepin' on! I love you!


    p.s. You need to tell me more about the Russian sounds awesome!