Sunday, November 9, 2008

Cynicism, seeds and send offs

My first draft of this blog was full of cynicism and bitterness. I had had a run in with a local, all of ten seconds, but it had left a very bad impression on me and I wrote this immediately after that. I’m rewriting it now because I believe the first iteration showcased too much of the bad, and not enough of the good. I’ll now repeat the cynical part, though in a less grumpy and fed up manner.
I was walking home from school when a car pulled up beside me. The driver rolled down his window and, without a word of greeting or an excuse me, asked me where a certain address was. I informed him he was on the correct street but I didn’t know which house it was he was looking for. He drove off without a thank you or goodbye. This was made me so bitter and angry. Just writing about it reminds me of how annoyed I was at this man.
My mother and grandparents worked hard to raise me to be polite. I was taught that if you want something, including directions, you should use a please, maybe say excuse me and thank the person afterwards. I believe most people would agree that this is a mark of a civilized, cultured person (though “your face” jokes and bodily functions at the dinner table often contradicted my manners).
In Kazakhstan, it is rare to hear a person say “thank you” for dinner, or include a please in their request. In America this would be considered rude. I’ve spent many a wasted breath on a thank you that goes unanswered or gets just a grunt. It’s not as normal here as it is where all you guys live. That doesn’t make it rude; it’s just a difference in culture. I realize that now (and probably did at the time it happened as well). I think some of the bitterness came from a long downward spiral I feel I’ve been on, starting with the theft of my wallet and bank card and ending with the director of my school getting very angry with me. Allow me to elaborate.
My new sitemate came up for a visit a couple weeks ago, along with Nora. They spent a week in Zhelezinka where we saw the sites, attended a lip/accordion synched concert and baked chicken flavored cookies. At the concert we were approached by the director of the concert hall, as well as a government man who I take to be the minister of culture or some such. He had asked me (repeatedly) if I would play the saxophone in a concert. I always told him yes, then avoided him as long as I could. I’m not big on taking solos in front of large crowds of people, even if they wouldn’t know good saxophone playing from bad.
Anyway, this time they asked Megan, my sitemate, to play. She whole heartedly agreed (she’s much more enthusiastic, in general, than I am). Anyway, this made me jealous so I’ve played since then, though not in a concert. This event put me in a bit of a funk. The big downer was when we went into the city, as Megan and all the other new volunteers had to leave. Let me make an aside here.
New volunteers are so incredibly American! They dress, talk and act totally American, and stand out like nothing else. I realize now how much I have changed in this one year and have become pretty well integrated into the culture. They things they talk about as so silly or outrageous seem fairly commonplace to me at this point. Now I am one of the experts on this country and will be helping (and laughing) all these new souls.
I also want to give a quick shout out to the group of volunteers before me (Kaz-18’s) that at this point are all back in the states. Likely, now that they are free and clear, will never read this blog, but thanks anyway guys. My Pavlodar boys, and Nora (especially Nora), were a great help in keeping me sane. It’s hard to imagine service without them, but as I said, I’m the old volunteer now, so I’ll have people relying on me. I hope I can do as much for them as the older volunteers did for me.
Okay, so in the city we were going to meet up with a group of these new volunteers. Along the way I realized that my wallet was missing. It had been stolen, and I’m pretty sure (in retrospect) I know who took it. If I see him again, he’s gonna pay. Literally, I want my money back. That put a damper on the whole trip and my lack of money made it so that I had to skip a soccer match and borrow money from my new sitemate just to get home again.
The next weekend I went into the city to apply for a new bankcard so I could withdraw money. Normally this process takes about a week. After waiting outside in the cold for an hour for the bank to open they informed me that because of some problems in Almaty, it would take three weeks. This was three weeks without money. I had to borrow another large sum of money from another volunteer in order to pay my host family for November. Another bump down the ladder of happiness and stability.
The final shot came when what I thought was going to be a huge pick me up, turned out slightly disastrous. We celebrated Halloween at my school on Monday with a party in our school auditorium. I organized games, kids wore costumes and it was a lot of fun. It included bobbing for apples, pin the nose on the pumpkin and guess how many sunflower seeds are in the bottle. It was this last game that would prove to be such a problem.
I had spent the last night counting out 4929 sunflower seeds and filling a liter bottle with them. The winner guessed 4000. I awarded her the bottle. Thinking that students would be responsible and wait until they were outside to start eating them, I was way way way wrong. When the lights came on, after the students had left, I observed the destruction. There were shells all over the floor.
Needless to say, when my director saw the mess, she was not happy. She yelled at my counterpart, my counterpart got mad at me, then the director got mad at me. It all helped to drop me into a deep funk. The mess got cleaned up, but it left me in quite a bad mood. I’ve already started feeling better, but it’s definitely a couple weeks that will live in infamy for me.
So that’s that. I’m now sitting in my school killing time. We are on break, which means the students all get to go home, but for whatever reason us teachers are required to be here from 9 until 1. I miss being a student frankly. This weekend I will be house-sitting for my counterpart, where I plan to cook French toast and other tasty treats, abuse his internet and walk around the house in my underwear. It’s going to be my trial at living alone, the idea of which is becoming more and more appealing in general (not because of problems at home, but because of the extra freedom and independence [and maybe loneliness] I will have).
I have about 11 more months of service. That’s less than a year. All the volunteers leaving recently has made me think a lot of what’s waiting for me at home, and that thought is very exciting. Until then, I’ll persevere. Think happy thoughts for me.


Alex said...

Ish happens everywhere, even K-stan. Just imagine how catastrophic this all would have felt if it had happened when you first arrived. I think you'll make it through just fine and be the better for it.

I can't imagine you have come to expect manners after living in the whitehouse.

And I have a hard time believing you bothered to count out 4929 sunflower seeds. I would have just weighed one and then weighed them all together and hoped they all weighed the same. (or maybe you did that and were afraid to reveal it)

Randy and/or Ellie said...

weigh 100 and then weigh them all. then you have a good average. It sounds like you've run into a few bad apples (to abuse an old cliche'), but remember all of the good ones you've seen and met. next time though, give them candy instead of sunflower seeds!

Mr. Svenska said...

I heard candied Бешпармак always goes over well at parties ;-)

Wendy said...

We're always sending you good thoughts! All you can do is chalk it up to a bad week and don't make the same mistake twice. And think of the countries where it's polite to belch to show your appreciation of dinner. I know that was always the Whitehill brothers excuse for some of the odd noises at the dinner table, no excuse for the other! xxxooo

Nora said...

Hey Jeff,

Suppose I could write an email, but this is more fun... Just wanted you to know that I understand so much where you are right now and how you're feeling. Remember last fall when I was all grumpy? Or how I got totally culture shocked about haircuts (just like you sound a bit culture shocked by please and thank yous)?
Plain and simple, second year of Peace Corps is just freakin' tough.

Don't want to give any pithy advice, I know you have your own ways (and a new matey) to deal with stress. But I agree that Americans are pretty strange folk, isn't it wild how they can talk for so long (and so loudly) about books and movies and music as if they were the most important things in this world?

I'm proud of how assimilated you are, how good your Russian is sounding, and how much work you are putting into your school. Keep checking down the days till MST!

Get someone to give you a hug from me... hope that bankomat card arrives soon.