Friday, October 29, 2004

I bite my tongue ...

This'll be short. I wrote a long blog entry when I was angry about something, and I decided not to post it. Long story short: I'm not going to a math teachers' conference in Almaty, I'm going to Kyzylorda for a language camp instead (with my own money, of course), and the government here wastes a lot of money and time. I mean, my school can't afford chalk, they haven't paid teachers' salaries yet this year, and then the ministry of education blows such enormous sums on such absolutely transparent wastes of time - why, it's enough to make a fresh, rosy-cheeked, idealistic volunteer spew spittle and fume.

But I'm not going to write about that. Instead, I have posted pictures of me. Every picture has me in it. Which a few readers have been asking for. Enjoy!

P.S. I do have good news - today I figured out how to make a new kind of complex sentence in Kazakh. I had a guess about how to do it from some ways I had heard a grammar structure used, and tonight I tried it on some Kazakh speakers, and they not only understood, but repeated it back to me the way I had said it, so I think I got it right. I wanted to say "We say what we think". There are no conjunction words in Kazakh like "what" or "who" to form embedded clauses, so I was just unable to say stuff like this before today. The way you do it is you use the pronoun for we, the verb for to say, the ending that usually corresponds to "used to be doing something", as in "used to think", add the personal ending for first person plural that means identity, and then to think conjugated for first person plural. A literal transcription sounds to me like "We are used to think we say" - "Biz oilaitynbyz aitamyz". What a crazy language. This language camp is going to be great.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Winter ...

The weather is cold already, and two days ago snow fell and hasn't yet entirely melted. Last weekend I went to the bazaar and bought boots with fur inside, a hat with fur inside, and a sweater. To demonstrate that the hat was real fur, the salesman took a lighter and burned a little bit of the lining. "Can you smell it?" he asked. Smells bad, I said. He said, "Right! It smells bad like real burning fur!". So I have the real deal.

I was working at school one day and a Kazakh man walked into the room. "I have business with you," he said. Did I know a girl named Olga? Um, no. You met in the center, he said. Um. She's my girl, he said, and I wanted to tell you that face to face. Ok. You don't remember her? Can't say I do. Is this your phone number, he asked, holding up his cel phone. No, it isn't. Are you an American volunteer? Yes. Is your name Brian? Ah ha.

Brian and I had a favorite place for shashlik. One time when we were eating there a couple of girls, one homely and one pretty, asked us to join them for shots of vodka. (This happens to us everywhere we go.) We joined them, and the pretty one took a liking to Brian and the uglier one to me. Long story short, the pretty one hit on Brian, insisted that she didn't have a boyfriend and lived with her parents, and kissed on a bench while the other girl and I talked. Brian had a new cel phone, so they exchanged numbers, we all went home, and that was that. The girl called Brian a few times, but he wasn't really interested for whatever reason, so didn't call her or meet up with her again.

But it turns out that she had a boyfriend of five years, and he caught her text-messaging Brian. He asked her who it was, and she evidently told him that he was an American volunteer named Brian, and he managed to track me down. The Kazakh guy was very friendly, polite, and articulate, and angry but not hot-tempered. He just wanted to confront the problem and get it over with. So I went with him to where Brian worked, he said his peace, Brian protested that he didn't know she had a boyfriend, and that was that. The guy invited us to the cafe he owns sometime, took me back to my school, and that was that.

The fact is, I was there, and Brian was 100% in the right. This girl lied to Brian, cheated on her boyfriend of five years, and it was Brian (and nearly me) who caught flak for it. If this guy had been less reasonable it could have been much worse for him. From talking to him in the car, I think the Kazakh man didn't even know they had kissed - all he knew is that his his girl has text-messaged Brian. And this was enough for him to track down where we worked and visit in the middle of the day.

One meaning of this is that maybe there is some small kernel of truth to the reactionary disdain my host mother has for women who smoke cigarettes and drink in public without their "man". At least I see my perception has changed. I was hanging out in a disco with Jen Otten, and American female volunteer who's a virtuous(if I may say so) woman who smokes. As she was standing smoking, a man came up to her and tried to hit on her, bold and uninvited. She shooed him off, and complained to me about Kazakhstani guys and their aggressive treatment of women. But my gut reaction was to say, well, of course he thought you were easy, you're smoking. Which was the wrong thing to say to her at that particular time, and for which I apologized later.

At any rate, the real conclusion - or "action item" as my friends at HP might say - is no meeting girls anymore through any means other than mutual acquaintance.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

041014 Uralsk ...

Here's a glimpse into another PCV's assignment. My city-mouse lifestyle is an exception rather than the rule for Kaz PCVs. Susan sent me this shortly after she moved to Uralsk, and I meant to post it then, but I just now got around to it. She has since moved to a new town because of the phone situation herein described. It's good reading; enjoy.

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The phone situation is worse than I'd thought. Today, I had to call my warden and had to wander around the village with my host mother, trying to find someone with a phone. The public phone was closed, as it has been since I arrived. And in the end, I was not able to call my warden; I called Amber instead. We're meeting at 9 by the hideous green hotel in Ural, although I hadn't wanted to go until the afternoon. However, taxis leave at 7 am and return in the evening. There's no other way to go, unless you have a private car, ha ha. But the situation is not safe - I can't on my own reach anyone outside, and no one can reach me. Amber had been trying for a few days. All the other volunteers have been seeing each other this whole time, and I've had no contact at all. I'll look into getting a cell phone, but I seriously doubt that's an option out here. I don't really know what to do. Today, when I was imagining how nice it would be to be put in the mountains, my neighbor, a student, came in and we talked for almost an hour. And there's a great group of volunteers over here. Those aren't advantages that every volunteer has.

So, yes, I'm a pretty solid case of Failure to Thrive.

Central Asia airlines
Serve omelettes at noon. That sound good?
I said yes. Regrets.

Nope, I can't marry
A Host Country National yet -
Peace Corps sayasat.
But thanks.

My counterpart and I get along okay - well. Sometimes, she drives me nuts. But she is usually helpful, if less tenacious than I'd like. She tried calling Jackie once for me, there was a busy signal, and she said oh well. It's busy and began to walk away. I tried to impress upon her that it was necessary to try again. But really she just wanted a nap. She's not very good at thinking what it would be like to be me. She insists on writing Kazakh words and names in my notebook in Latin letters. (Please, let me write it myself in Kazakh. Just tell me and I'll write it. Silence as she takes my book and writes in English, using way too many y's for vowels.) I believe she thinks I can't read or understand Kazakh at all. But her English is quite good. It's not the language that gets her - sometimes I say something that blows her mind, and then she squints and is quiet (Let's try to call my parents in an hour - right now, it's 5AM in Chicago. Silence. )

I have a lot of work to do in order to teach these students. Today I observed Kumbat's (my counterpart) lesson. In an entire 45-minute class of 11th graders who've had English since 2nd grade, the only words in English they spoke were Good Morning. In fact, that was all they spoke in an academic capacity at all. The teachers speak, and the students listen, or don't. But it was obvious that the students didn't know any English at all. Which seems like a waste, since their teachers speak it well. The teachers here are fantastically nice to me.

My host mother is funny about me. When she thinks she's waking me up, she calls me Susie. In the kitchen just now, she got on to me for always wearing - you know how I dress. Don't you have shorts? She asked, and demonstrated with her hands hitting at daisy duke height. Every day, she evaluates what I wear, and she's not checking for modesty. She's checking for style. If there's a wrinkle or an oil stain, no matter how subtle, it will be pointed out. She whaps dirt off my butt. When I went to the concert, she made it obvious that my shirt and skirt combination wasn't sexy enough. It's funny. So, while I was under the impression (as was Kumbat) that she was going to Ural to buy herself a new suit, she was going to oversee my purchase. She chose the store and the suit, shot down my request for a dress, and even hunted through the bazaar afterward for new shoes. But by that point in time, I was poor. (I feel like a big jerk for buying an expensive suit) No new shoes. I seriously hope to make some of my own clothes this winter, if I need them.

Of all the things that could bother me here, it gets my goat that everyone believes 1) Americans use machines to do absolutely everything. I've been asked if I cooked on a stove, cut tomatoes with a knife, and ironed by hand in the United States. (You don't use a machine to cut tomatoes? You don't use a machine to iron?) My counterpart simply doesn't believe my answers. 2) That there are no fresh fruits or vegetables in America. Sitting at a table with what really wasn't far off from a Midwestern Sunday dinner (not that fresh, mind), everyone was trying to force me to say we have nothing this good in America. In America, we don't have this type of berry. Oh, but this is not grown in a garden. It's grown in a forest. You've only seen blackberries from gardens. I remember the huge wild blackberry patch in the middle of Meredith Beem's field, where we hid from a coyote. And the blackberries growing along Forest Hill Irene that Mom and Katherine picked on the way back from school. Not in a garden. Not in a forest. Stains red. Not the same berry. But the jam was nice. Small, edible seeds that don't wedge between one's molars. I was really annoyed for some reason.

A couple days ago, I did the family laundry (and mine) in the rain. It hasn't rained for weeks - it's steppe, for crying out loud- and the day I do laundry . . . actually, it was nice. Weird birds here. The amazingly tangled copse of gray trees is the favorite perch of what seem to be some kind of buzzard. When they fly, no matter how high, I can hear the wind in their feathers, which leads me to believe they're not aerodynamic. I mean, it's not a whooshing, but a whizzing noise. And then today there was something that looked vaguely like a cockatiel with a non-big-huge-nut-cracking beak. Long white tail, white pointy feathers on its head.

At lunch, I burned my mouth on pilmeni, as I always do, so tonight at dinner, the poor little rags of skin on the top of my mouth were flapping as I drank my tea.

More on animals - the gentlest dog in the world lives here. She's a German Shepard-type who leans comfortably against anything human. The other dog seems to always be gnawing on her hind legs, but VanDamme doesn't mind, she just licks him occasionally. Maybe having one's hind legs gnawed isn't so bad after all.

The cats, though, are another story. There are three: Mama cat and two kittens. They're as cute as any of those kittens on the calendars (yes, I once had the calendars. Went through a pink/cat stage, believe it or not. Soon enough repented and switched over to orange and goats.) but good grief, they're violent! To each other. It's like a blood feud. The blue-eyed one seems to be ahead. She hides behind things and rips into the green-eyed kitten whenever he comes by. They were fighting in the house today, and I thought my host mama (not a wispy woman) was running. Really, I did. I withhold affection from them, and I don't think they care, the little brutes. They'll probably kill me in my sleep.

But the kittens are starting to warm up to me. One of them lives under the sink When I'm brushing my teeth, he'll suddenly flash out a little arm and bat at my toes. Boy, did it ever scare me the first time.

I'm thinking about getting my hair cut short. I was looking at a photo of Katherine with chin-length hair that looked really good, and I hope that would also work for someone who's closely related to her. On the other hand, I don't know whether short dirty hair or long dirty hair looks dirtier. It's chancy.

Monday, October 04, 2004

I am a rock star ...

This weekend instead of writing much I put up some pictures.

The language lesson of the week is that the Kazakh word for "palace" is "sarai". And in Russian, "sarai" means "shack where animals live." I would like to see some research done on this.

The last two weekends have been big holidays for Kokshetau. The 25th was Den' Goroda, or Kokshetau's 180th anniversary. Besides a day off school, this meant a giant parade through the city, with all the students of the city wearing creative homemade costumes and doing dances to techno-pop. It meant old dudes in chincy Kazakh costumes riding in pickup truck beds holding balloons. It meant a strange outhouse float that I got a picture of. It meant a giant "carnival" in the stadium with sports events, falconry, dancing, and, of course, karaoke. The thing was, none of the volunteers could find anyone who knew when or where anything was supposed to happen, and so we missed most of it because we were in the center when the party was in the stadium, and in the stadium when it was in the center. What we did see was cool, though - they know how to celebrate here.

Then this last weekend was "Den' Uchitelya", or Teacher's Day, so there was a big karaoke concert put on for teachers by lots of talented little kids. Besides the songs, one of the highlights of the ceremony for me was a speech by a former soviet education minister who really got into it and said that we needed to "build a bright future for our Sovie--ah, um, Kazakhstani youth." Then all the teachers went to various cafes and got drunk and sang and danced.

I say I'm a rock star because I played harmonica with Chingis' band. His band really does put on a good show, and they're really popular in Kokshetau for a reason. They're a hard-core punk rock band, and my harmonica was signed up for a toned-down acoustic number. To be honest, I had my doubts that it would go over well with the leather-and-chain wearing head banging audience. But it did, and afterwards a girl came and sat on my lap. Hooray, rock and roll!