Wednesday, February 27, 2008

February is the Windy month

We’ve been having a wind storm for awhile now. The first couple days were really crazy, and you had to fight your way upwind sometimes. It’s mellowed out lately, though apparently February in general is really windy. It’s pretty fun actually, except when the wind blows up gritty snow that pelts you in the face. The ground has been scoured pretty well, so all the loose snow is getting piled up wherever it finds a break from the wind. It makes for some really deep drifts in places, though the rest of the ground is icy and slick.
We celebrated my little host cousin’s birthday last night. She turned 8 and there was a big feast (typical Kazakhstan affair). We had bisparmak, which is the traditional dish here: big flat noodles with horse meat, and occasionally a goats head, though I’ve only seen that once (and it saw me too…creepy). The horse meat is really pretty good, though there was also some sheep meat, which is the most fetid meat you can imagine. I took a piece by accident, and then the man sitting next to me threw a big piece on my plate telling me to try it. I politely pushed it to the side and hoped he’d forget about it, but I heard him laughing and telling somebody that I was eating around the meat. True, but what can you do. Is it less polite to avoid the meat, or to gag and hurl on the table? I’m not a fan.
Lots of toasts with shots of vodka as well. I gave my toast, which basically praised the awesome family, and they all told me that they understood me…a plus. I was also told by my host aunt, Inga, that my Russian has improved. It was a fun meal in general, with some relatives and friends I had never met. Inga’s parents were in from the city, and her father enjoyed talking to me. He was funny, because he’d often turn to me and say “more questions” or something. He was unsure how much I understood, and did a good job talking slowly for me. It’s actually funny what some people think you don’t understand, like simple verbs that everybody should know.
Anyway, he asked me what languages I know, telling me it’s important that I study Kazakh while I’m here. Everybody tells me that. It’ll happen eventually. They were impressed that I’ve now studied 5 different languages (only one has stuck so far), including English. They pointed out that there were 8 different ethnicities there, though surprisingly they didn’t ask mine. Normally everybody wants to know where your ancestors came from, and it’s a major point of pride for them. The grandparents were Azerbaijani, another grandfather/uncle was Uigar (in China), and there were Russians, Kazakhs, Tatars and an American.
I got to talk about my family as well, who’s in it and all that. I was asked about my feelings for the president. “Do you like Bush?” they asked. “No.” “Why?” “Uh…many reasons.” They proceeded to list plenty of reasons for me. According to grandpa, Clinton was good, Bush Sr. was also good, and Reagan was great! I listened and enjoyed it; he seemed up on American foreign policy and whatnot. He talked about Iraq and the first Bush just getting it done and getting out. Interesting stuff, it could have been a debate from the states really.
I wasn’t asked but I managed to follow a brief conversation about patriotism. According to grandpa (he had a lot of opinions) we Americans are the most patriotic people in the world. His example was that we say “My President” whereas everybody else just says “the President.” I thought it was interesting, but not sure I agree, at least with his example. I will say my President, but I think so does everybody else in their countries. Anyway, the main point of this was that patriotism is still a big topic for everybody, and how they compare to the United States and other countries.
I spent the weekend in Pavlodar, which was a good break for me. I went in to take care of some banking stuff and spent the morning in the train station reading my book, waiting for my friend to be free so he could help me out. Nora was in town for a ski competition, and a couple other volunteers came into town for other reasons. I went to a café near the station for lunch and ran into my taxi driver there. He ate with me and we talked about his daughter, who is in my 10th grade class. I’m in charge of telling him if she doesn’t work hard or something like that. It was a good time, he’s a fun guy. I still don’t know his name though. Minivan taxi guy. The best taxi guy.
I met up with Nora at a café near Adam’s apartment to wait for him. The café was pretty nice, and I had my first beer in about two months, much needed. Adam showed up and we headed to his apartment where I dropped off my stuff, then trucked down to the bank, where we met Jeffrey OCAP, another Kaz-19. From there, we headed to the train station to buy train tickets for a coming trip.
Earlier I had stopped by the ticket window to check on the train schedule. My mission was to find out if the train left on the 19th of March, and at what time. I figured out how to ask, when to the window and fired my question at her. I got a yes, at 1 o’clock, and I promptly turned and walked away before something happened that I didn’t understand. Complete understanding of strangers is a big cause for celebration for me, and I didn’t want to ruin it by her talking more and me not following.
Anyway, turns out I didn’t understand (or she lied to me, which doesn’t hurt my understandingness, so we’re going with a lie) and the train leaves on the 18th or 20th. We figured to buy our tickets then, but apparently the schedule was getting changed or something (the ticket woman actually had no clue) so she couldn’t sell us tickets, and now Nora and I will be going back into the city in a couple weeks. Long trip, but definitely a fun time if you can get a beer or two out of it.
We ran into Nick, another out of towner visiting for the day, and began to bar hop a little bit. He took us to a metal shack that had a sign outside, handwritten, that only said “Beer.” Inviting. We went in; there was a small room with a bar and a few chairs around the outside. It was Veterans Day (Saturday), and people were celebrating in style. Plenty of mostly empty bottles of vodka sitting on tables. We took the corner and it wasn’t long before we were getting some questions from one table and friendly banter. They wanted us to drink with them, we didn’t want to. Eventually they left and were replaced by the man with the pickled watermelon.
The pickled watermelon. A new concept for me. Pickled in brine, the man cut it up and served it to the patrons. We got our pieces and gave it a shot. Jeff OCAP described it as eating sweaty socks. Not too far off, but overall, edible. We all ate a piece, and left the extra two sitting there. Finished our beers and headed back out to find some food. We managed to get some pizza, which wasn’t half bad either. Mine had beans on it. I gave Nora the mushrooms.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. Our ski team got first place overall, Nora thinks she got 4th, and a couple of our individual skiers placed 1st and 2nd. We’ve got a pretty good team. I hitched a ride back with them and spent two hours sitting and staring out the window because most people were too tired to talk, and my head was flailing all over the place on the bumpy road, making it hard to sleep.
A PCV I know from training recently asked if I feel like I’m just along for the ride. He’s getting frustrated feeling like we’re not really doing anything here. I can definitely get that impression at times. It’s hard working in a school where English levels are so low, that any production is small and far between often. It’s necessary to see the small victories in what we do though. Getting my students to say Good Afternoon instead of Good Morning always makes me feel better. Seeing students doing well in class, being greeted by people on the street and all that makes me feel really good. It’s hard to see the results of what we do, especially so soon, but I think there’s enough small things that it can add up to a lot. Even if it’s just being able to answer questions about America for people interested.
I was in the shop buying a Pepsi when a man came in. He asked the woman if I was the/an American, and I turned to him with a smile. Apparently I understand! Anyway, I introduced myself, I think he introduced himself and we shook hands. He seemed happy to meet me, and that’s what I like. Volleyball players that tell me about their Aunt who live in Minneapolis and want to visit her are great. Interacting with the people is where I think I accomplish the most.
On the other hand, I had a really terrible class last Friday. Tanya had to teach another class at the same time, so we chose between the 7th graders and the 8th graders. I chose 7th. They were loud, disrespectful and not doing any work. It’s not good when students are just asking me to translate song lyrics (especially when it’s The Black Eyed Peas – My Humps). I got fed up and gave up on the lesson. I stood there, telling them to be quiet, not getting much response. I gave them grades for the lesson that they were not happy with at all. All of this taught me one thing: choose 8th graders.
We had the class again yesterday, and they were almost as bad for Tanya as they were for me, which actually made me feel a bit better. Their disrespect didn’t have as much to do with me being the American teacher, as it was just being a teacher. They don’t want to learn English, though sadly, there are a couple kids in there that really try. They had to take a test and they kept asking me to confirm their answers. I wasn’t giving in, but I’d try to help them understand why. Anyway, you’ve got some good days and some bad days. My 6th graders still love me and treat me like a real teacher.
I think that’s about all that I have to report on. Our puppy is still a little terror, and he’s getting bigger. He goes outside for a few hours every day (doesn’t stop him from pooping all over the floor in our hall) and frolics in the snow. We play together, and now that he’s big I can play rougher with him. He jumps at me and I knock him aside, or he chases my hand around trying to bite it. We’ve become buddies. I’m now playing the game where I throw snowballs at him or toss him in snow drifts, which he seems to enjoy. Anyway, life is good here, I’m still enjoying myself. Take care all, write back.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy V-in Kazakhstan Day

I must be blending in well here. Wednesday night I was mistaken for a five foot Kazakh man as I was leaving volleyball. I man followed me out the door and along the street for a few seconds before he spoke and I turned around. He seemed surprised to see me, excused himself and walked back in the building to find his friend! I had a good laugh.
Speaking of volleyball, just to throw this in, I rocked it Wednesday night. I had a number of good blocks and even a couple spikes that actually went downward. And best of all, none of my hits went wildly out of bounds like at least a few do every time. I did manage to hurt my back though last week stretching to far for a ball, and I’m still working that off. I tried taking some days off, but I’ve gotten more and more bored every night I stay home, so I went, and was glad I did.
I just finished my fourth book in three weeks. I read a book by an English bloke, Jasper Fforde, in a series called Nursery Crimes. They are murder mysteries based on nursery crime characters but set in a real world where the characters live alongside real people. Fforde has a great sense of humor, and you can see some of the goofiest and most outrageous lines being delivered with a perfectly straight face. I recommend the two I’ve already read, The Big Over Easy, and The Fourth Bear. Both are exceptional.
I think I’ve been given a magic pair of skis. I went an entire 2.5 km loop through the forest without falling on Saturday. It blew my mind. There were some near misses and some wobbling, but I made the whole way! I finally got a long term loan pair of skis to keep at home with me. Nora trailed me on this first loop so she wouldn’t leave me in her dust (or snow). During the trip, she told me a little story about a married man asking her out on a date (she didn’t find out until the next day that he was married). After my 2.5 loop and a rest, I went for a shorter loop. It wasn’t long before somebody came up behind me and when I looked back, my skis slid apart and I hit the ground. As I was falling, Konstantine (one of my students) skied past and hollered “Fsyo Narmalna! (Everything’s fine/good!). It wasn’t. I had one other fall when I hit the hardest substance on the planet with a ski…a mound of horse poop. That was all though, and Konstantine later fell in front of me, which I took great, but private, pleasure in.
My kids in English Club love doing the Hokey Pokey, though I think it’s mostly to watch me dance around waving my arms. We’ve been doing some body part vocabulary, and they keep wanting to do it. I admit, I love it too. Who doesn’t love a good Hokey Poke? I think English Club is my favorite time with my kids, cause I’m doing whatever I want and being goofy and all of that. I’ve got only good kids in there that are all interested in learning.
I tried starting an “advanced” English Club. It only on its second week now, but the goal was to focus more on grammar and discussion. I wanted to do a grammar lesson one week, than a discussion or something the next, using whatever grammar we had just covered. It’s not really going to work, at least not for awhile I think. It’s for older kids, my 10th graders pretty much, and English is just too low to be able to do any discussing. I think it’ll take a couple months of practice and build up before we can get some discussions going, but I’ve got some good topics when we finally do. I’ll let you know about them as they come along, and you can contribute some thoughts.
The dogs have been extra aggressive lately. I think I’m on the verge of a kick or be bitten moment. Some have gotten dangerously close and my leg has been tensed and ready, but the dogs sense it and back off at the last second. Others require some threatening foot stomping or waving ski poles to get them to back off. One little bastard (or is bitch more appropriate?...sorry mom) came running a couple hundred feet along a street just to get in a few barks. He kept running at me until I waved my ski pole at him, then he’d run along next to the street. It was getting really irritating because it slows me down so much to keep having to stop, but then the dog made it all worth it. He was leaping through the snow when he suddenly disappeared in a big snow bank. I second later he jumped out, looked embarrassed, and I thought he’d have to bite me just to save face in case any other dogs were watching, but he ran off instead and I had a good chuckle.
Flu season seems to be in full force, and people have been dropping out and coming back a few weeks later at school. The latest victim has been Slava, my counterpart. He’s been gone all this week so far, not sure how long it’ll last. It doesn’t seem to be especially bad, no epidemics, but I’ve gotten an extra bit of advice on how to keep from getting the flu. Apparently, if I take a spoonful of something really spicey, I’ll be protected for a week. I couldn’t find the logic in this, but other things make sense, like drinking tea with lemon, eating fruits and all that. I haven’t suggested that getting a flu shot can also help quite a bit.
I gave my speech on patriotism, and it was well liked by everybody, as far as I can tell. Nora’s assistant principle told her she really liked it. I kept it light, tried to be a little humorous and not get into too much political debate about patriotism in all its forms. I mentioned how we all recite the pledge of allegiance at school, about ASB and Teen Councils, and about sports being some of the most patriotic events in countries. It was only a few minutes long and I got a round of applause at the end.
I was glad I did it, and it wasn’t nearly as terrifying as I thought it might be, since I was speaking in English and Slava was translating, I couldn’t really make a mistake. The sad part for me was there weren’t many questions. Maybe it wasn’t quite so thought provoking, but usually I’m battered with questions, no matter what topic I’m talking about.
That’s all the updates for this time around. Things are generally still looking pretty good. I’m tired of the snow and ready for some green, but other than that I really enjoy it here. I’m almost at the six month mark, which blows my mind. This has been the fastest six months of my life, and though a day can seem to drag on, when I look back I can’t believe I’m at the end of a week or month. For me, that’s the surest sign that things are going well. I look forward to everything at home, but I’m still happy being here.
Actually, to expand on that; for awhile, in my first few months here, and still occasionally, I think about all that I’m missing out on back home. Things that I really enjoyed that I can’t have here. An idle conversation on any topic I choose, sitting around doing nothing with my friends, staying up late and drinking beers, Sunday dinners with my family and all of that.
Then I also think, what’s the point of all that? It may feel at times that all of that is leaving me behind, and all my friends will have outgrown that by the time I get back, but then I think about my brothers. There’s still plenty of time to party and be a big kid for awhile. I would probably have some boring, job working in some shop somewhere, agonizing about having to get up and go to work every day, where as here, I still don’t like waking up in the morning, but once I’ve gotten going, I never really have a low point in my day.
And with that said, I’m going to leave you all with your day to day living and return to my wild and unpredictable life here in Siberia. Sorry.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Peanut Butter Jelly Time

John Drotos, the Peace Corps Kazakhstan director, came up to my oblast for a visit, and spent an afternoon with me and Nora in Zhelezinka. The highlight of the trip, or at least the most lasting memory, was the Peanut Butter he brought. Most people in Kazakhstan have never heard of this product, and you can only find it in mega supermarkets in Almaty (and hopefully Pavlodar, I'm going to check). Anyway, he brought a jar for me and one for Nora, and I didn't realize how much I missed it. Combined with Auntie Eileens Pomegranate Jelly, I have been making dozens of tasty sandwhiches. I'm going to have to find some more.

The main point of this article, however, is to talk about patriotism. I've been asked to give a short speech about patriotism in America, and how it's developed in the youth. It seems the young country of Kazakhstan is looking to foster love of the motherland in their children, and are looking towards America to see what we do. I don't really want to talk to you all about that. You know about the Pledge of Allegience, the National Anthem at baseball games and all of that. I want to discuss patriotism in a former country of the Soviet Union.

I brought this up with my counterpart last night. I was trying to think of how American patriotism compares with Kazakhstani. I asked if he thought that the fact that we fought a revolutionary war to gain our independence, compared to Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries that had to be practically forced to become independent after the fall of the Soviet Union. Many people here still seem to feel loyalty to either the Soviet Union, Russia, or any number of other countries. The older generations especially. Some of them were brought here under the system of Gulags. They don't feel as strongly as Kazakhstan as they might about other countries.
In Kazakhstan you are constantly asked about your nationality. Where are you from. Most Americans answer that question with "I'm American." Kazakhstani's however, answer with, "Chinese, German, Russian" etc. Does this affect their patriotism, since they seem to identify much more with their nationality than many Americans do. It's an interesting topic, though one I"m not comfortable trying to discuss standing at a podium quite yet. I'm not quite sure if it's even something I can discuss without breaking the Peace Corps rule about staying out of politics. I figure if I ask questions and keep it to a small group, it shouldn't be too much of a problem. I'd like to hear all your insights into this idea. Patriotism in a post soviet country vs America.

Okay, a change of topic now. Lessons. To answer some questions that I've gotten.
The Interactive Boards are largely unused, but it seems to be changing. I am going to ahve a lesson on them on Thursday, and many other teachers are eager for them and wondering when they will get one in their classrooms. It's interesting and exciting to see this, but I am afraid that they aren't getting used to their full potential. I'll know more when I've seen a few lessons, but it seems that they will mostly be used to put pictures up and write on like a normal blackboard. I was under the impression they can do a lot more, so I will have to look into it and see what I can figure out with it.
My classes are often limited in how much English speakign they do. A lot of work is done with translating, which I'm trying to break away from. I want the students speaking, and creating their own sentences, rather than reading a text aloud and translating it into Russian. This is the normal system for teaching, and the teacher is often the focus of the classroom. Peace Corps has taught us to put as much focus on teh student as possible, but it can be hard to change the teachers ways, and intimidating to basically tell them their system is ineffective (even if it is painfully obvious). Luckily, I have English clubs all to myself, and I encourage the students to speak more, rather than just reading and writing. Most classes the students will listen to the teacher explain the grammar, listen to some examples, then maybe write some sentences or do some sort of activity, rarely with much speaking at all. Hopefully within the next month or so their will be a blog post that talks about an amazing breakthrough and some great classes where the students are putting together sentences and actually speaking their ideas in English. We'll see how that goes.
Students in Kazakhstan begin studying English in 3rd grade, and continue through 11th grade, their final year. I am teaching 6th, 7th, 8th, 10th, and 11th. Some of my younger students are actually my best speakers, in the 7th and 8th classes. I also run two separate English clubs, one for beginners and younger kids who will enjoy goofy games and songs, and a club for older kids that will (this is my first week for it) be discussions and more grammar work.

Okay, that's all for this blog, just had the patriotism thing on my mind so thought I'd write something up about it. Let me know what you all think, maybe we can get some dialogue going.