Saturday, December 18, 2004

ET ...

It may be that Amanda's reading this from America. If so, Merry Christmas, and I hope your trip went well - I'm sure after train travel in Kazakhstan your flight was a breeze.

ET stands for "Elective Termination", a melodramatic Hollywoodish term that means leaving Peace Corps service before two years are up. It is a term to which too much value shouldn't be attached - Peace Corps volunteers leave for all sorts of reasons, some of them good, some of them bad (for example, the Peace Corps will usually give a wrongdoing volunteer the option of ETing before they actually expell them). One of my good friends from PST, a Kazakh-language trainee, excellent writer (who wouldn't let me link her blog, but maybe now she'll change her mind, what do you say?), long-suffering Kazakhstani guy magnet, thoughtful and loving volunteer named Amanda has ETed from Kazakhstan for good, and, I hope, for better. Amanda was my first real friend in Kaz-15, since I was friends with her identical twin sister in college and had actually met her years before in college during a night as packed full of Slavic strangeness as any Peace Corps could produce. I guess the difference was that then there was a pancake restaurant to calm our tattered nerves after all that stress and sleeplessness. There are no pancake restaurants in Kazakhstan.

Amanda was a careful thinker and tough woman (as opposed to girl, in the American sense), and I have great confidence that her decision to leave was the right one. For her. But we're going to miss the hell out of her this January and whenever we get together until we hang out again in Chicago after two years are up. And Amanda, remember, that's a date.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Some Dangers of Winter. ...

The roads don't really get plowed in Kokshetau. The snow gets packed down and will stay packed down until May, I think. Cars take a goodly distance to ski to a stop. Under such dangerous driving conditions, one might expect marshutka (minivan-as-autobus) drivers to be meticulous about keeping their windows free of frost. No such luck - usually, the windshield is usually the only non-opaque surface in the marshutka. Under such even more dangerous driving circumstances, one might expect the marshutka drivers to pull out into traffic cautiously, since they can't see if anyone is coming or not. No such luck. I imagine that, to avoid accidents, drivers must slow down and get into the next lane whenever they see a marshutka stopped at a bus stop. But I'm not really sure what happens because I can't see out the windows. Whatever happens, it usually involves a lot of honking. Where the brake, mirror, and window fail the Kokshetau driver, the horn must hold sway.

"Neither fluff nor feathers" is a Russian idiom meaning "good luck". I would say to you, "Neither fluff nor feathers!", in response to which you would most commonly say, "To the devil!".

I helped run the school's English language olympiad, which was overall an extremely antagonistic affair between me and my counterpart. When I first wrote this entry, I thought I'd catalogue everything that went wrong with it, but when I was done it was two pages long. You don't want to read two pages about how badly the school olympiads were run. But there's a bright side - my students evidently didn't do too well, which made me worry until I saw what the olympiads actually consist of.

In the end, she attributed our differences to me being the kind of person who "always follows the rules". Which is a frustrating disconnect between us. I suppose I do try to stick to rules like "you shouldn't decide before the olympiad who is going to win irrespective of their performance" and "a multiple choice question with all correct answers is a bad multiple choice question" as closely as I can. But I'm willing to bend a little on the Peace Corps' rule about spending six months with a host family, for example.

By the way, I've finally put my finger on it. My host father sounds like Popeye

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Anti-Phillipinesism is not a word. ...

When we were on the train coming back from Thanksgiving in Karaganda, the usual crowd of locals gathered around the Americans' bunks to ask questions about America and politics. This time it was a teenage Judo team coming back from a competition. I was with three other volunteers, two of whom have only been studying Russian for six months and another who was born in Russia and speaks fluently but was nowhere to be found, so I was left to manage the crowd. I did well enough, but was helped by the fact that when one boy brought up September 11th, the rest of the crowd silenced him and moved on to other things.

After the crowd left, politely offering to let me get some sleep, I found out that the fluent Russian speaker - the bastard - had been sitting in the next alcove listening to the whole thing. He told me that the Kazakhstanis in the bunks next to him, believing he didn't speak Russian any better than I did, had quietly responded to the September 11th question with comments like "good riddance" and "they got what they deserved".

Kazakhstan doesn't enjoy freedom of the press. And it occurs to me that I don't have a good idea what kind of freedom of speech - I mean conversational speech - the people feel they have. As I've said, I haven't encountered any significant anti-Americanism (there's plenty of anti-Bushism and anti-War-In-Iraqism, but plenty of very American people oppose these too), but now I wonder how much of this is politic silence. Suddenly I feel like the Ambassador in The Ugly American who didn't know the local language well enough to understand the political cartoons about him.

This sounds a little paranoid. I'm not afraid of persecution here by a long shot. But I've been taking my acceptance as an American for granted. The Peace Corps may be, too - I think there are too many volunteers that simply don't do any work, or behave in an undignified manner. (In fairness, I may have been one of the latter once or twice.) We aren't really held accountable to anyone - managing us is too great a task for such a large area and so few regional managers. How hard would you work if the only thing making you work was your own motivation? But this is a subject for a different entry.

And in contrast, there's a Filipino volunteer here. (The poor girl speaks only a couple words of Russian, has never seen snow before in her life, is only here for a year, and has an ill-defined objective to organize community health projects. But I'm glad to have her here - through her we can possibly get some women's rights groups started, which is something that this community clearly needs but which I am anatomically unqualified to initiate.) Whatever the failings of the way her volunteer program is organized, she's automatically here representing herself much more than she's representing the Phillipines. Anti-Phillipinesism isn't a word.

Now, I'm an American, I'm proud to be one, I'm glad to have the substantial political weight of my country behind me, and I'm glad to be here representing America. But my job here is to represent the fact that America is composed of real people and not a monolithic homogenous culture, that Americans can be both lazy and industrious, both like and unlike MTV, and that Americans were instrumental in starting both the Iraq War and the United Nations. This is - to show that "Americanism" or "Anti-Americanism" are meaningless phrases used to oversimplify issues for political goals on both sides of the fence. In this regard, the Phillipines are way ahead of us here in Kokshetau.