Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Grammar, Common Sense and Heartiness

Russian grammar is like improvisation in jazz band. For me, whenever Mr. G would stand at the front and start pointing at people to throw in a solo during some song we were practicing, my heart would begin racing and I’d do everything I could to avoid eye contact. Inevitably he would cunningly call my name, thus avoiding any chance that I wouldn’t notice, and I would have to stand and plug out an awkward and rhythmically painful twelve bar stretch of notes.

Let me explain the metaphor. Russian grammar has a lot of different endings that identify the purpose of the various nouns in a sentence. There are a total of six cases and depending on which you use, the noun can have very different meanings. The classic example is “The father gave the son a car.” In English, it’s the word order that matters. Thus, “The son gave the father a car” has a whole new meaning (and of course we know this would never happen in real life). Also, “The car gave a father to the son.” Just think about that one.

In Russian, any of those word orders can be correct, as long as you put the correct ending on each word. Now the metaphor will become clear. I studied musical theory in school and could write out the scale for different keys with few mistakes. I am studying Russian grammar and am getting better at writing the correct endings and figuring out what goes where. When it came time to play these scales, my brain became befuddled and I couldn’t identify the correct notes fast enough. The same with Russian, unless I’ve had lots of practice orally, I mix up or forget altogether the endings.

Frustrating, to say the least. But there is progress, and it keeps me hopeful that by the time I leave this country I will have a tenuous grasp and be able to apply what knowledge I have effectively in conversation.

I am nearly the senior (along with a few others) volunteer in this crazy oblast we call Pavlodar. The old guys are all leaving for America to join the ranks of the unemployed, stressed out over the economy, growing beer gut American middle class. I have another year for you guys to get it all straightened out before I come home. I am excited and a bit apprehensive about instilling my vast knowledge on these new, wet behind the ears volunteers we’re getting soon, but I think I will do my best. I would like to provide a short list of the common sense I have picked up here:

1) If you have an indoor toilet, it’s always best to make sure the water is running before going number two

2) If you have an outdoor toilet, wait until the afternoon when it’s warmest to go number two

3) Bring your own plastic bottles to fill at the beer stations to save money

4) Avoid complications. Get a signature every time you give money to your host family

5) Count the stray dogs around your favorite shashlik stand. If there is less every day, don’t eat the shashlik.

6) Be assertive about what your name is from the beginning or it becomes awkward to correct people later. “Yes, I know you’ve called me John for twelve months, but I thought it was finally time to tell you…my name is actually Jeff.”

7) Vodka is good for any occasion. Wait four or five toasts in before giving your own, you’ll be much more articulate.

8) If you shine your shoes, people will forgive frumpy hair

9) Kazakhstani fashion may look silly to Americans, but we aren’t in America. Buy the pointy shoes, wear the jean jacket and strut your stuff like JT (that’s John Travolta).

10) Ask where the tram or bus is going, don’t rely on the sign or you’ll find yourself stuck out in the boonies.

I have to add an amendment to this entry since writing it yesterday on my computer. Last night I had a great time with my English Club and post English Club. It was my adult class, and today I only had one student, but he is very enthusiastic and already can speak English decently. Anyway, he asked a question and it led into a side topic that developed into a full, improve lesson. We were speaking about excuses and how to use phrases like “I’m too tired” or “I’m too busy.” I started to feel a bit like Robin Williams during it, explaining situations. Afterwards he said it was the best ever.

Upon leaving, he invited me to his house for dinner. I accepted, thinking this is a great way to get out of the house and meet new people. Long story short, I met his mother, brother, uncle and his niece and nephew. We talked, ate good food and shared some vodka. It was a really uplifting experience, and let me tell you exactly why.

Earlier that day I had read a short essay in a book called “At Home in the World: The Peace Corps Story.” The essay was about a woman who helped build a school, and ended up getting it named after her. I was thinking, how can I leave a mark like that on Zhelezinka when I leave? This dinner made me realize that the mark the woman left was more in the hearts (sappy, I know) of the people, and the school was just a result of how much they had come to accept her and love her. By going to this dinner and talking, making them laugh and sharing stories with them, I was doing the same thing.

That’s all I wanted to add, it was a great night for me and I hope I can have more and more like it. Sorry there are no pictures.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Deep Thoughts

Nothing interesting or exciting has happened lately. This update is more to talk about a couple thoughts I’ve had. First is the ability to adapt and change. The second is thoughts about home.

I realized today that some things that I couldn’t stand or completely baffled me about this country have become completely common place and even enjoyable at times. This epiphany came as I was buying a bottle of mineral water. When I arrived I could not understand why anybody would carbonate plain drinking water! It was difficult to gulp down, tasted funny and was in all ways unpleasant. Now I realize that I prefer it to normal water. It’s like a party in throat every time I take a sip and the tiny bubbles race around inside my mouth.

It was teachers’ day on Saturday and like is usual we had a big lunch at school with the teachers and other staffers of work. At about 9.30 one teacher came to work, already having drunk a significant amount and was obviously drunk. He explained that it was okay because it was a holiday, plus it was the 30 year anniversary of him teaching. He showing up like that was a small shock still, but not so much as it would have been. What was totally ordinary was drinking vodka at 11.30 with all the other teachers in our school cafeteria and making toasts to everybody, then going home slightly tipsy at about 3 o’clock. Drunkenness is not looked down as much, as long as you aren’t wild and out of control, as it would be in America. It’s just a result of having a good time. Maybe college prepared me for that a bit too.

My point is that this country seemed very foreign and bizarre when I came here, and now it’s nothing new. I feel pretty well adapted and at home among these folk, though I’m pretty sure I still baffle them at times, but that’s part of my charm as an American.

This other epiphany was my big one, concerning homesickness. I believe that there is a large distinction between wanting to go home and wishing you were home. Wishing you were home usually comes because you are bored; sitting around in the afternoon or evening, and wish you were with your friends or family. It’s much more fun to sit and hang out with people you can freely chat and joke with, than playing out their awkward lives through a video game (The Sims 2 takes up much of my free time lately). Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing Ian fall in love with Nick and Tim or Randy electrocuting himself trying to fix the dishwasher, but I’d prefer to see it in real life.

The thing is, wishing for home only comes from boredom (or having to poop outside in the middle of the winter with -40 degree temperature surrounding your bare…skin) and is not a result of my actual situation. I still love going to school and teaching the kids (those that aren’t a pain in the ass) English and chatting with teachers about home and whatever else they want to talk about. It’s a desire for more meaningful human contact that you can only get through deeper relationships (which are much easier to develop when the two parties fluently speak a shared language).

Wanting to go home is a symptom of an unhappy situation. You don’t like your school, or the family you are staying with. Maybe the climate is not to your liking or Peace Corps didn’t turn out to be at all what you thought it would be (in a bad way. I think most of us had our opinions changed upon the first two months in country). In the end, your situation weighs down on you until you crumble and have to go home. It’s not an easy choice and it can take months and months to come to the point where it’s just too much.

For me, I often have the desire to be at home among all my entertaining friends (and the fact that half of them have also scattered to different parts of the US doesn’t really factor into it). Rarely have I ever wanted to go home. At this point in our service we are pretty solidly entrenched in our communities (and I have an indoor toilet) and those feelings will be less and less.

Plus, I’m getting a new volunteer. Thought I’d mention. Her name is Megan; she’s from the D.C. area, which is really going to confuse people when they hear she’s from Washington as well. Most people can’t grasp the difference between the two Washington’s in America. Anyway, she’s coming to visit in about a week and change along with my old matey Nora and I’m pretty excited. Hopefully nothing happens to chase her off. I won’t mention the outdoor toilet.