Thursday, August 26, 2004

The first days in Kokshetau ...

Kokshetau may not be Switzerland, but it's not so far from, say, Boise. My information sheet said 675k people, but most people here agree that it's more like 150k. Of course, everyone who joins the Peace Corps dreams of an exotic middle-of-nowhere assignment, but it was with a sinking heart that I imagined calling some of the little piles of concrete that we passed on the train home. The American West is impressive for its huge emptiness, but it's nothing compared to central Kazakhstan. And after a couple hours of seeing nothing but nothing on the train, you roll through a pinprick town that might only be holding on by selling food to passengers on the trains that pass through. Sometimes a volunteer works there.

But I don't. I live in a very beautiful city that has some pretty hills, if not exactly snow-capped mountains, theaters, restaurants, internet cafes, a central square and park (with a ferris wheel! 150 TGZ for two pi radians!), several conference centers, kung fu, and large, clean schools. The worst problem might be the sweet temptations of soft city life which are the bane of so many volunteers. O, Ryan! Moderation and chastity! Certainly moderation.

My new host family is a good one. I live on the seventh floor of an apartment building by the train station, with a balcony of my own looking south. My host mother works as a legal aide and government inspector for labor disputes, and earns a fair income of about $100 / month - less, she says, than she could make, because she doesn't take bribes. My host father works in Korea and sends money home. Jenghis (as in Genghis Khan), my host brother, just turned 20 and is the leader of Green Team, which is one of the five rock bands in Kokshetau. He's a cool guy, with cool friends, and as I said before, speaks excellent English. The tentative plan is that I'll teach him harmonica if he'll teach me to play the guitar. In the aparement, there's even hot water, when there's water, which there is about half the time.

Working at the school may be challenging. I saw the schedule of classes from last year, and the most English any sixth grade class took was two hours a week. I'll start teaching math in English right from the start of my teaching schedule (that is, after one week of observing classes). There's some sort of weird idea that a lot of people have that the kid's don't need language to learn math, since it's all just numbers after all. The textbooks that I'll be using haven't arrived yet. The "syllabus" published by the government is little more than a half-page list of topics reordered and repeated several times to fill a page or two.

Yesterday, I went to the city-wide conference of teachers for Kokshetau. There were a lot of speeches about how valuable the teachers were and what a fine job the shools were doing, and then a ten minute break, after which there was to be a concert of (European) classical music to celebrate their accomplishments. I took some tea and returned to my seat after ten minutes. The lights came up, an emcee announced a suite from Carmen, the musicians came out, sat down, and waited. And waited and waited, for ten minutes. Finally, the emcee came back out and said that we were going to wait for some Kazakhstani State education officials who had given speeches, and who were now taking their own sweet time eating lunch. My counterpart and I got up and left, but most people stayed. "I can't leave!" one teacher told me. "My director is here!"

My counterpart speaks good English, my host brother speaks excellent English, and I'm worried about learning Russian when everyone just wants to practice their English with me. Kazakh will be a struggle - even people in the "Kazakh" school where I work usually speak Russian with one another, and their Kazakh is a great hybrid of Russian vocabulary and Kazakh grammar. (Occasionally it'll leak the other way - I caught my counterpart saying "Jeyaning podrugasi" in the middle of a Russian sentence, for example. That's "Jenya's girlfriend" with Kazakh possesive suffixes on Russian vocabulary.) Maybe after a while we'll all speak a three-language pidgin of Russian, English, and Kazakh.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Leaving! ...

This'll be quick. I'm leaving tomorrow for Kokshetau, far from my best friends from PST (and romantic interest of intentionally undefined status because she is moving to Uralsk, about a hundred hours of train travel away). PST will be a drop in the bucket of Peace Corps service, but it feels like it's been years since I've arrived. Citizens! Maladtzi! Azamattar! I will miss you!

I was officially made a volunteer yesterday (before we were "Peace Corps Trainees". Yes, when people called us volunteers the staff corrected them.). Shortly thereafter I blew an interview on Kazakhstan national television - they asked the questions in Kazakh to two volunteers, and I didn't understand questions like "What is your parents' impression of your desire to serve?" Of course Theresa, who is the better speaker, went first and got questions like, "Do you like Kazakhstan?" It wasn't live, fortunately. Hopefully editing will be kind to me.

The other weird news is that evidently I'll be teaching three hours of math right away, in English, by myself. Peace Corps fortunately stepped in on my behalf and insisted that I be paired with a faculty member who can be my mentor. I think they might have unrealistically high expectations of me. My couterpart is awesome, though. I'm her fourth volunteer, she had thirty years of teaching experience, won Accels last year, is the head of Kokshetau's English Teachers' Association, etc.

And at last, here are the links to our KokTobe2 computer secondary project webpages!

* Jyldyz
* Medet
* Saltanat

Friday, August 06, 2004

Assignment ...

Assignment day has come and gone. And I am going to Kokshetau (Kokshetav) in the Akmola Oblast, in the deep dark Kazakh north. Yes, my winters will be long and dark. But everyone I talk to calls that part of Kazakhstan the "Switzerland" of Central Asia, the most beautiful part of the country. Perhaps that's because they only visit in the summer. I'm thrilled anyway, and will be having my camping gear shipped to me. I'll also be living in a big city - it was the capitol of the northern Oblast before the borders changed, putting it in the same Oblast with the capitol of the whole country. 675k people will share my streets, and this means, among other things, internet access. I think I'll miss village life, to tell the truth.

I'll be working in a secondary school (where volunteers have worked before, some time ago) teaching math to seventh graders - yes, math, in English. This is part of a new English immersion program that the Kazakh government is hastily putting together and with which the Peace Corps is helping with fifteen volunteers who will teach non-English subjects in English. I hestitate to express much optimism or pessimism in such a public forum as this, but I know a number of volunteers who were assigned to non-English teaching assignments and who are now teaching English, because nobody understood them. We'll see. I'll give it my best.

I also will get a host family. I'll be living in a three-room apartment with a young man and his mother. There will be hot water. O! There will be hot water! The young man is described as 18 years old, "really smart" and a "character" who speaks English very well (which is a downside, really), and with whom it's ok to pair me because I "don't let people push me around". He plays guitar and gets in trouble at school. I think this'll be a lot of fun.

Another side note: there will be another volunteer in Kokshetau city with me. His name is Brian, and he will be leading discussion sections on English literature at a local pedagological college (early twenties) that's 95% women. At least three male volunteers who have served in Kokshetau ended up marrying locals. Now, before I left, my Uncle Ron gave me some good advice in Washington D.C. on this subject in the form of a story he heard in the navy. A cadet married while in service, and five years later the marriage was in ruins. While arguing one day, the wife said, "I was so stupid when I married you!" And the former cadet answered, "I know, but I was in the Navy, and too horny to notice." "Always ask yourself," Uncle Ron told me, "are you too horny to notice?"

I've made it through one week of practicum, too. It went pretty well. They have a lot of vocabulary (they know "rhino", for instance), but almost no speaking or listening skills. They're also expert at pretending to understand, so unless you're careful to do cheating-proof content-based questions, I can imagine an English teacher going weeks or months mistakedly thinking that their students understand everything. The question, "do you understand?" is completely worthless - the answer is always yes.

Since I got so many people remarking about how cute the puppy is, I'd like to talk about a dog's place in Kazakh culture. Akhtaban was in a litter of six, of which two survived. His brother, Sartaban, has a long hairless scar on his back where he was burnt with scalded water as a puppy for playing too close to the table. Sartaban is very sickly, and will probably not last too much longer. At my house the dogs are only fed bread, and mostly when they're puppies and the family likes them because they're cute. They don't have water dishes, either. Akhtaban's mother just gave birth to eight new puppies, of which five have already died, and the remainder of which my host mom says will be "thrown away" - we don't need any more dogs. Aktaban and Sartaban were caught the other day playing with the corpse of one of their new brothers. Given all this, I'd say there's as much of the photographer as the subject in those pictures of Aktaban. It was a very American thing to take those sympathetic pictures of our dog.

By the way, all you prospective volunteers should remember during pre- service training that the Peace Corps absolutely doesn't take relationships into consideration when making your site placements. There isn't a couple from PST that isn't placed less than twenty hours apart. I personally don't like it, of course, but I would do the same thing if I were them.

After playing in a concert put on by the volunteers a group of us went to a cafe (bar) in Turgen. Because of the concert I had my harmonicas with me and Dan, a great guitarist who lives in the next town over, had brought his guitar, so we went outside to jam for a while. A crowd gathered and started clapping and hooting along. After a while, one of the guys told us that we had to come inside, so we did. They had the DJ shut off the dance music, brought a couple of chairs to the middle of the dance floor, and we played while the whole drunken Kazakh bar stood around us in a circle, grinning and yelling and dancing. Afterwards, everyone wanted to shake our hands and clap us on the back and ask us questions we didn't understand. And I felt like a real ambassador.