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.