Tuesday, November 23, 2004

A Newspaper Article, Q-tip and the KETA ...

My new host dad came back from Korea. He's laid back, plays chess, and speaks Kazakh. I think he will be a positive addition to the apartment. Of course, I haven't seen how he and Chingiz get along together, since Chingis is doing his practicum in Astana.

For this month's Kokshetau English Teachers' Association meeting I did a fill-in-the-blanks listening exercise with A Tribe Called Quest's "Check the Rhime". Imagine me and a room full of middle-aged Kazakh women:
Me: Teachers! Fifer lets it rip into what?
Teachers: The microphone!
Me: He keeps his hoes in what?
Teachers: In check!
Me: And what goes out to all the wack emcees?
Teachers: The middle finger!

This weekend I'm going to Karaganda for what promises to be a disgustingly American Thanksgiving weekend. All the older volunteers, even the laid-back non-party types insist that the Karaganda Thanksgiving is a must-see, and that we will be so sick of American culture by Sunday that we won't want to see other volunteers for a month.

I've gone soft, and I can't figure this out. If any of the geeks who read my blog can help me, I'd appreciate it. Can you prove that if n is a positive integer and x is prime, that x divides n^(x-1)+1? It's driving me crazy.

Finally, I have labourously translated from Russian a newspaper article written about me by a reporter whom I met an a wedding. I didn't know eighty-seven of its words. This article illustrates the dangers of a reporter who wants to be sensationalistic and who doesn't speak English very well. Despite the misquotes, inferences, and a couple insulting passages, I have to say it could have been much worse. So I think I'll turn down future requests for interviews. You can get it here.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Trains, Another Look at Yelling, and Sticking it to Canada in The Red Capitol ...

I didn't post last weekend because I was in Kyzylorda, learning Kazakh, spending time with my jingle good friends from PST, and cooking American food. Or having American food cooked for me. Although I did stir the chili.

(By the way, my counterpart came back from the "math conference" and confirmed that it would have been a total waste of time for me to have gone. (We didn't talk about whether or not it was a waste of time for her to have gone.) Not one single other math teacher from Kazakhstan came, although there were some people who were teaching physics, biology, or geography in English. The most useful information she came back with was the names of the other two schools in Kazakhstan who are actually attempting to do the math teaching thing. I'll see if I can contact them by email, without a conference.)

So the train ride to Kyzylorda from Kokshetau is a fat forty hours long. On the way there I took "platscar", the cheaper of the two kinds of seats. For 2500 TGZ, about twenty dollars, you get a bunk and shelf in a barracks-style car with lots of other people. There are two levels of bunks, and there are six bunks per pair of windows, two pairs perpindicular to the direction of travel of the train and one pair parallel, which gives you an idea of how close together they are. If you have the top bunk you can't really sit on it, and if you have the bottom bunk everyone else sits on it, or on you, whether you're sleeping or not. There are two little tables for every six bunks, but to use them you have to sit at the head of the lower bunks or dismantle the lower parallel bunk, so if a beefy, mean-looking Kazakh grandma is trying to sleep on the lower bunk and you want to sit at the table, you are out of luck, sir. Your feet will stick off the end of the bunk, and people will bump them all night. There are two bathrooms per car, which is per hundred people or so, and after dark a sort of light turns on, but it's too dim to read by. It gets quite hot and you can't open the windows. I imagine the smell is pretty funky, but having been a generously contributing component of that smell myself, I can't say it bothered me much. There's hot water for tea.

That doesn't sound so bad. What, then, you may be asking, is the downside of platscar? The biggest problem is that you have no way of isolating yourself from mean, groping drunks, if you have them on your car. Drunks love foreigners. The second biggest problem is the way people play free and loose with tickets. It's normal to come on the train without a ticket and bribe the conductor for a spot. Once the conductor gets his bribe, he's not on your side anymore, if he was on your side to begin with. You sometimes have to be really aggressive to defend your bunk, and if you're a woman or don't speak the language very well, that's not easy. Some of the PCV girls who came to Kyzylorda had people drop their bags on top of them while they were sleeping, yank their mattresses out from under them, and refuse to give up the bunks that the PCVs had paid for.

That having been said, I had a fine time. I met a lot of people, because they were sitting on my bed. There were no drunks, but there was an alarmingly realisting looking fake gun. I also learned a new card game called "jyndy" (pron. "Juhn-duh"), which means "idiot".

Yelling at people in Kazakhstan has different social meaning than in America. When I went some other PCVs to buy our train tickets home, I was put in charge of making sure with the ticket window attendant that we had understood the schedule correctly before we bought it. So after waiting our ten minutes in line, I got up to the window and asked in Russian whether the train to Ural left on Wednesday. The lady told me that this was the ticket buying window, and I had to go to the question window to ask that. I told her that we would buy the ticket if it left that day, could she please tell me whether it left then or not. She yelled at me to go to the question window. So I yelled at her to tell me when the train left and we would buy the ticket. And with that, she did what I asked.

My friends don't speak Russian and didn't know what the fuss was about. When I looked back at them they looked a little surprised at my behavior, and I realized how naturally and without actually getting viscerally angry myself I had raised my voice at a woman to get what I wanted. My tone would have been very rude in America, but here it's just the way you talk sometimes. And it doesn't mean anything personally. The rest of our lengthy ticket-buying transaction with the woman was no less unfriendly-sounding. We all had the impression that she really didn't like us. We asked if three of us could be put together on a train towards Kokshetau, but were told we couldn't because we had different destinations. "There's no way?" "Absolutely impossible," she snarled back at us. So we backed down and bought our tickets, and after some more shouting with the woman about passports and who was going where and whose money, we got our tickets and left. Only when we got outside did we check our seats and discover that she had put us together after all, possibly against the rules. Despite the ugly tone of voice and our being certain that the woman hated us, she had secretly done us a big favor.

The realization, which has been dawning on me slowly since the beginning, but which this example beautifully confirms, that the confrontational grouchiness and anger that you see all the time here doesn't belie actual animosity takes so much stress out of day-to-day life. I would go so far as to say that this realization is the number one survival skill for working in Kazakhstan.

Kyzylorda is a beautiful city of 150k without stoplights. How do you cross a busy street in Kyzylorda without a stoplight? You step out in front of a speeding car and stare his ass down. It's nerve-wracking, but it works, and there's no other way to cross the street.

There's a Canadian oil company based in Kyzylorda, so people were more used to seeing foreigners than in my site. Once, while we were getting on a crowded bus, the fare-taker told me in Russian to take my backpack into my arms, and I did. Then she said to the bus driver in Kazakh, "they're Canadian, and they speak Russian." And I answered in Kazakh, "No, we're Americans, and we speak Kazakh," and all of sudden we had a bus full of new friends.

Don't scrimp when buying electrical adaptors in Kazakhstan. We almost had a fire when the space heater shorted through the plastic between the prongs of a cheap adaptor. It's a good thing we had been in the habit of turning off the space heater at night. I wish we had had more blankets, though - they hadn't turned on the heat in Kyzylorda yet when we were there. That's something to be said for the North - the winter may be colder, but at least up here in Kokshetau people take staying warm very seriously.

It was just wonderful to see all my friends from PST, especially Saltanat, our language teacher who is tough as Kazakhstan and cute as Japan (saying goodbye to all of us, she said "my hug isn't big enough"!), and Susan, whom I miss again already, dammit, that all over again. Some of us are doing well (I count myself among them), and some are having a really hard time. I think it was good for all of us to get together and talk about our problems over tacos and homemade chili, and only regret that there aren't any easy answers. You can talk a lot about sticking with it, argue back and forth about what might be valuable about our service and what is clearly bullshit, but advice and talk have a way of getting stuck in the ankle-deep mud on the way to class.