Monday, March 17, 2008

Things are looking up

It’s amazing the difference one day can make. Those of you that read my last blog may have noticed that it sounded a bit depressed and lonely. It was. I was. The day after posting that, however, I had a complete turnaround. I was teaching on my own that day, the English teacher I usually work with, Tanya, had gone into the city for a few days. The first two days she was gone, I didn’t know I’d be alone. This day, however, I knew. I made lesson plans and got myself prepared. I ran a very good class with my 8th graders that they all enjoyed. One student told me I should always teach the class on my own because it’s better than when Tanya is there.
It was an awesome compliment and made me feel so much better. Just that one little thing to make me feel that much better. I told her that it wasn’t likely to happen that I’d teach this class all myself, but thanks anyway. My other three classes that day went well also, and I had English Club with my older students, which is also pretty interesting.
I also traveled into the city to pick up train tickets for the coming holiday. It is Nauryz, the biggest holiday of the year, and I’m going to Shymkent with a bunch of other volunteers where the biggest celebration in Kazakhstan is held! It’s been a blast every year I’m told, and I’m really looking forward to it. The city was uneventful this time, nothing particularly interesting going on there. Didn’t even get a chance to visit the other volunteers there. I’ll see most of them in a few days though, so no biggie.
There isn’t much else to talk about here. I just wanted to reassure you all that I’m doing good, though still adjusting. Times are hard, especially after a few months of isolation from my friends (from training) and in general being away from the family. I’m closing in on my 7th month in this country. I’ve been here already a quarter of my time, which seems amazing to me. Time is flying by, even when I’m depressed and faster still when I’m in a really good mood. I’ll see you all in no time. Thanks for your comments and for taking an interest. Take care all.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Nightmares, Monty and Stuffy Guys

Proof of God is receiving a letter from a friend on the day you are feeling the most depressed. I had a nightmare recently in which I was back home at my parents house (that wasn’t the bad part), but I was crying and incredibly depressed because I had quit the Peace Corps early and was embarrassed and humiliated. I woke up from that dream feeling pretty bad. The thought of leaving early has crossed my mind. Life would be easier (at least I tell myself) and a lot more comfortable. I have plenty of reasons for staying though, not the least of which is how disappointed I would be with myself if I left just because I wanted an easier life (complete with Xbox and cable TV).
Anyway, I got through my classes, which were a good distraction from my funk, and came home around 2.30 to find a letter from my friend Courtney. To give a little praise to her, she’s been really good about writing letters; this is the third I’ve received since training ended. The rest of you, take note. It was a very encouraging letter and picked my spirits up.
That evening I was a judge for our end of the quarter pageant for the girls of the school. A couple girls from each class competed in a variety of categories. There was a musical number, which some of the girls wimped out on. One girl I have to give credit to for being brave enough to at least try, even if she couldn’t really sing on key. Another girl began her piano piece and there were some loud boys in the audience and without missing a note, she turned and gave them a dirty stare to shut them up, which one it in my book for her. Anyway, there was a baking competition, but I only got to look, not eat at the deserts they made. Bummer for me. Good stuff there, lots of cakes.
One of the questions asked of the questions was how they would take care of their home. Answers basically followed the pattern of vacuuming, scrubbing floors, washing dishes and the like. I was thinking how sexist this portion might seem to many of our American viewers, yet for Kazakhstani’s, it’s natural. A good woman will keep a good home and it’s a matter of pride how their houses look. Maybe it’s still wrong that that’s how it is, but for now it’s a part of their culture, and I respected it.
There was a pretty dress contest and another where they had to talk about how beautiful they are into a mirror. Props to one girl who went with “Look how sexy I am,” which every post-pubescent boy in the audience loved. I think she won that contest solely on that one line. In the end, all the girls won some type of award, and the overall winner of Miss (couldn’t figure this word out) 2008 went to Christina, my 10th grade English protégé. I was happy to see her win, she worked hard for it.
Saturday was International Women’s Day. We don’t celebrate this international holiday in the states, but it’s a big deal here. People were surprised and confused when I told them we don’t have it in America, but they seemed to accept Mothers Day as an acceptable alternative. The celebrating went for two days actually.
On Friday we celebrated at our school with the men preparing some food and a small lunch time event for all the teachers and staff. Most people got dressed up, I was in a t-shirt. Slava has a habit of not telling me when things are happening, and I wasn’t invited to the planning part of it. I was actually pretty disappointed by that, I thought they’d try to include me in this, or at least let me know what’s going on. Anyway, there was booze, which I found interesting. It doesn’t really surprise me, but it’s a sharp contrast to our schools where you would be in big trouble for drinking in a school. Being in Kazakhstan though, I partook in this tradition, though not too heavily.
All the men gave toasts to the teachers, and I was one of the first. I had expected this and prepared a toast in my head while I was sitting and eating. It was pretty short, but I was applauded, and Slava told me they think it’s funny to hear my Russian. That sounded more like an insult, but I’m pretty sure Slava meant it nicely. I don’t talk a whole lot at school, so some people weren’t even aware that I could speak as well as I do. I knocked em dead with my toast though.
Other than that, there were some games, a little dancing that I avoided as much as I could, and some singing and dombra playing. One of our teachers is Mongolian, and when most people had left and the men and a few women were still sitting around drinking, I think the Mongolian man got a little offended by some comments about his nationality. I didn’t follow exactly, but one teacher was saying something about Mongolians versus Kazakhs, and this man didn’t seem to appreciate it. Nothing really developed, and the insulter tried to make up for his words later, so I think everything turned out okay.
The next day was the big family celebration, and all the relatives came over to our house for dinner. We had Full dishes of Monty (dumpling things), salads, fruit, spaghetti stuck through hot dogs (not a traditional Kazakh dish) and some fish stuff. Lots of drinking as per usual. We were also celebrating my host mom’s birthday which was on Friday. Again, I gave me toast that was completely understood and much appreciated by my people here. There were questions from grandpa about Americans and what we drink and generally what’s going on there. Some more politics came up and some people favored Hilary Clinton while others favored Obama, even though he’s a ni****.
I’m offended by that word, but over here I shrug it off and let it go. Actually, I do it the same when other people I know say it back home, mostly because I know they don’t mean it offensively, but I personally won’t say the word. Over here, it’s the same thing. Usually, it’s not offensive, that’s just the word they know for them. I thought it interesting though, when they made the distinction of Condoliza Rice not being a n*****, because she’s Latin American.
Racism is still extremely prevalent though, don’t get me wrong. I’ve heard plenty of opinions on the usefulness of all sorts of different races of people. It’s all said as a statement of fact, and it’s not an opinion that’s easily changed just through words.
There was also the great debate after dinner about where exactly the Andes Mountains are. One man, our neighbor, insisted that the Andes ran through Washington state. I tried to explain that he is in fact, wrong, but he wouldn’t listen to it. My uncle and I worked hard to convince them that we have other mountains in the Americas, and maybe he’s thinking of the Rockies, which run through states like Colorado, and Washington has the Cascades, which aren’t as well known. No evidence on maps or in atlases would change his opinion either. So for all you folks back home, you live next door to the Andes now. Start speaking Spanish.
Opinions are often a hard to thing in general to change in people. I have had several arguments with my host mom about various topics that usually end with me throwing up my arms in exasperation and telling her I refuse to talk about it anymore. The most recent (today) was about traveling in foreign countries. I asserted that I can travel in a country without knowing the language and without traveling in a giant group of tourists, which she maintained I couldn’t. I had example from Switzerland, Italy and France, but it didn’t matter, I was wrong. We’ve also argued about the benefits of vitamin tablets, with her claiming that there are no benefits and that, in fact, they are bad for your health. You all have your opinions too I suppose, but I think most would agree that she is just plain wrong.
I’m getting to the point where I could use another vacation, and thankfully the end of the term is coming and I’ve got some time to travel and meet with my friends. Frustrations tend to compile, and before too long little things start to irritate more and more. I think about the ease at which I communicated back in English speaking territory. I’m much better at speaking in Russian now, and I can say things without having to reason them out completely in my head, but I prefer English. Even talking with my counterpart, there’s some information gaps. For example, I said things were winding down at a party and he misheard and thought I said wining down and took it to have something to do with getting drunk (true for many parties I suppose). Also, there are the disrespectful students that I can’t get mad at because I don’t have the language skills to tell them to sit down and be quiet with enough force to make it stick.
When the frustrations compile, you think about home a lot more and at times wish you were there. I think of how much fun I had with my friends and all that, and how much easier it would be to be back home with all you guys. I know, also, that it’s the hard times that I’ll look back at and feel the most pride for having got through.
Not to end this on a down note, on Sunday was the village festival for Women’s Day. I went with the family and got to see some fun stuff. There were games like tug-o-war, singing and dancing. Those of you that have read Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” series will appreciate the burning of the stuffy guy that took place. Why? I don’t know. There had been a concert earlier in which the fabled saxophone that I’ve heard so much about made an appearance. A woman played and I was sitting in the back thinking, “I could totally rock this house,” safe in the thought that I never really would have to. Anyway, Sunday comes around and the director of the concert house finds me in the crowd of this festival.
“Did you see you saxophone on Friday?”
“Yeah, I saw it…”
“We can get you to play it.”
“Yeah…sure…sometime.” (They’re calling my bluff).
Anyway, I think I’m actually going to have to do it now. Actually, this little conversational setup here reminded me of another. Let me set it up for you:
We were sitting around our kitchen table, me, my sister Ramzea, her best friend Julya, and Julya’s husband Murat, drinking some beers. The girls went off to dance in the living room or something and Murat and I stayed behind, not dancing. Murat likes to prove how strong and masculine he is, so of course we had to arm wrestle (this isn’t the first time), and he teases me. I can’t really do much with him, he’s pretty strong. Let’s try left arms, maybe you’re strong. No, I’m not. He’s very strong. He then explains how he got so strong.
“I have my truck right.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen it, it’s big.” (Don’t tell me you lift that, I won’t believe it).
“I pick up these really big things when they break.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Mmmmm, the big things, they turn.”
“You mean the wheels?”
“I don’t think you understand. They are big, and they spin on the truck.”
“Yeah, wheels. I understand.”
“You don’t understand. Let me show you.” Murat searches around the kitchen for a good way to show me, and then settles on spinning his finger in a circle. “Do you understand?” “Yes Murat, I understand.” The whole problem was I don’t actually know the word for wheel, so I couldn’t say it. It took about 2 minutes for him to accept that I understood. Then we get into how much they weigh. Apparently they weigh much as me. Murat hasn’t yet accepted that I understand Russian, and occasionally talking to him devolves him pantomiming without any speaking, which is really ridiculous to me and I sort of laugh. Actually, that’s another of the frustrating things, though I laugh it off usually. People are learning that I can manage with this language pretty well. Okay, that’s all, this got a lot longer that I planned. Sorry. Take care all.