Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hallowe'en Reflections

Although my schedule here in Almaty is usually pretty busy, there is still quite a bit of time to stop and think about things. It can be good, but at the same time there is also the downside of focusing too much on what is in your mind—it can border on the self-absorbed and begin to be detrimental. Whenever that begins to occur—or whenever you begin to feel rather self-satisfied with the ways things are going—something has a way of giving you a reality check, though.

The last few days I have been a somewhat out of sorts—overwhelmed at the amount of work to get through this week, frustrated with my geopolitics students, and a little tired of being asked so many personal questions by those who are—at best—acquaintances. In addition, I went from thinking that my allergies were just worse than usual to a major sinus infection almost overnight. It is normal not to feel quite the same physically over here as you do at home, so the normal cues that something is off just don’t seem to work.

This morning really helped to put everything in perspective, though. Wednesday mornings I teach my American Studies classes. The first hour is the Russian group (all of their classes are in Russian or in English) and the second hour is the Kazakh group (they have a few classes in Kazakh). The students are getting ready for a 6 week teaching practicum, so today was a rather relaxed class as they gave their presentations on different elements of American culture that they find interesting. In between presentations, we spoke a little about Hallowe’en and—in my first class—told some ghost stories. As my second class ended, one of the students from my Russian group came back to the room to invite me upstairs for a few minutes. One of their other classes was having a Hallowe’en party, and they wanted me to be their guest. The Hallowe’en party was great fun. We told more ghost stories—as well as some rather silly stories—and ate lots of cookies and tortes. We took quite a few pictures, and then they presented me with a small glass bead to put under my pillow to ‘make wishes come true’. I don’t know what to wish for, though. I have so much already.

The Hallowe’en party this morning is easily one of the best I have ever attended. Not because of the party itself, but because of the realization of how happy such a simple thing on my part—just attending—made my students as well as their other instructor. Since arriving here, I’ve been struggling with the hospitality that is such an integral part of the culture here—it’s a mixture of guilt because of the awareness of the disparity in our economic situations, as well as a little of that innate New England reserve. My students, though, are teaching me more than I could ever teach them. They are so enthusiastic and openly generous that it is impossible not to reciprocate. They teach me to be more spontaneously open and to give more of myself—and that doing so does not take anything away but instead leaves you with more than was there before. It is impossible to spend time in their company and depart untouched. I could not begin to imagine what my stay here in Almaty would be like without them.

The events of the day did not end with the Hallowe’en party, though. The consulate had asked me to speak at Suleyman Demurel University as part of a presentation on studying at US colleges and universities. The panel included the US Consul to Kazakhstan, so we had every possible courtesy extended to us. Suleyman Demurel University is sponsored by the Turkish government (it is also known as Kazakh-Turkish University). We were met at the front door by the assistant to the Rector, and then escorted to his office for a real Turkish tea (which was incredible). The rector spoke little English and no Russian, so we communicated through an interpreter. We were asked if any of us had been to Turkey and, when the rector found that I was born there, he was very excited to find that someone representing the US also had ties with his country. Such a simple thing (and something I had no control over—it was the US Army that sent my parents to Istanbul), but it was clear that it meant a great deal to the rector.

Returning home this evening, I could not help but feel overwhelmed by the incredible opportunities and experiences I have had here in Almaty. In so many ways, I am in awe of how life here is unfolding. Maybe I do have a wish after all—never to forget the importance of the people with whom you cross paths, however briefly.

Happy Hallowe'en!

Happy Hallowe’en! It’s been another busy day here—teaching and a presentation at Suleiman Demeral University. I just now returned home, and am heading off to fix some dinner. Before I do, though, I wanted to send a picture of my students from the Russian group of my American Studies class earlier today. As you can see, they were very enthused about the holiday! More later, after I get something to eat….

Monday, October 29, 2007

A busy day...

Well, it’s been another long and exhausting day here in Almaty! But definitely a great day. The next few days are going to be insanely busy, so I wanted to do a little writing tonight before I stumble off to bed—otherwise, I don’t know when I’ll have the chance. Between teaching, student presentations, and another unexpected lecture to prepare, there's not going to be much free time (the consulate just asked me to speak with a State Dept. rep at the Turkish-Kazakh University--the topic is "educational opportunities in the US". They want me to participate because--as Asiyat said--I've been in school for a very long time. Ouch.)

I’m writing from the kitchen right now, sitting at my table sipping a cup of tea. And playing Sweet Caroline as loudly as possible on my computer (not loudly at all, but it suffices). Sweet Caroline, good times never seemed so good! Messages are starting to trickle in from back home—Boston must be absolutely insane right about now. When I flew back in 2004, there were championship signs all over Boston for the Sox and Patriots (plus, I was on the same flight as Tim Wakefield. Too cool!). I’d like to see the same thing again when I get back from Kazakhstan.

Okay, that is enough New England elitism (for now, at least). In all seriousness, though, it has been a great day here in Almaty—and not because the Sox and Pats both won. I started off the morning by giving several lectures at the Kazakh-British University. Lyudmilla teaches there, and several weeks ago she asked if I would be willing to come speak to the students when they begin learning about different types of celebrations in English-speaking countries. As with many things, it became somewhat political—the university wanted me to speak to classes other than Lyudmilla’s. So…I had to tell them that I would be happy to present several lectures to Lyudmilla’s students—and other professors were welcome to attend with their students. After all, it was Lyudmilla’s idea to ask me to the university, and she was so excited about being able to do something like that for her students. It helped both of us, too—I will be giving some seminars at the university in January, and it was good to establish some clear boundaries in relationships with the administration (it is very easy to be taken advantage of here, if you allow it to happen). At the same time, it let the university admin know that I was there specifically at Lyudmilla’s request.

The presentations began this morning at the ungodly hour of 8am. Yes, I know, that is not that early—in the US. Here, that is well before the crack of dawn. The city doesn’t really wake up until 9 or 10am. I had two lectures—at 8 and 9—and spoke about holiday celebrations in the United States. It was great fun—we told ghost stories for Hallowe’en, talked about why my mother makes the best apple pie anywhere for Thanksgiving (seriously, it’s the truth), and listened to all different types of Christmas carols. At the end of the second lecture, the students presented me with a completely unexpected—and totally charming—gift. It’s a small statue of a Kazakh man holding a stringed instrument—absolutely beautiful, and something I will treasure.

Following the presentations, I had tea with the department chair. Wow. I completely love these teas. There are all sorts of dried fruits and nuts, small pastries, black or green tea, and great conversation. As it turned out, both Lyudmilla’s supervisor and her department chair spent time at KU through some of the cultural exchange programs. They all spoke very highly of the university, and it was nice to be able to share stories of Lawrence all the way over here in Almaty. I also made the acquaintance of someone else from UNESCO (an American, this time), who will be a valuable contact when I begin the actual fieldwork portion of my work here.
I’m finding that giving these brief presentations and lectures have rewards that I never imagined. The interaction with the students is always fascinating—they are so curious about American culture and traditions, and in turn they make you enthused. It is addictive—for such little effort on my part, they give so much in return. Additionally, I’ve made contacts with people in all different professional realms—the connecting factor is an interest in education and improving the educational system in Kazakhstan. Oddly enough, the gender divide that is so apparent across the country works to my advantage. It is mostly women working in these fields, and they have welcomed me as a peer into their extended network. Before arriving here, I was unsure how I would be able to make the contacts I need for my research—but those connections are being made almost without thinking. The hard part will be deciding which ones to use.

Well, it’s rather late now and I need to head off to bed. Last night was a rather late evening, and there was no time to relax today. Sarah and Amelia hosted a Hallowe’en party for Sarah’s students from Ablai Khan. I joined them, and we had one of the more intriguing Hallowe’en parties I’ve ever been to. Just imagine 11 Kazakh students in costume, trying to bob for apples or hit a piñata, all the while giggling and admiring their costumes. Once all the students left, we headed over to the corner store to get something so we could spike what was left of the punch. And how could we resist “Thumbs Up” Vodka? For all of $2, you get a 1 liter bottle of vodka—complete with plastic thumb instead of a bottle cap. You really can’t make these things up—it is just everyday life over here.

Who said that Mondays are no fun???

Although it is completely unrelated to Kazakhstan, I just have to say it...


Definitely a great day in New England--wish I could be there to see all the mayhem (and the boys doing the Papelbon Dance--send video if you can, Catherine!)

Happy, happy Monday. And now Mom and Dad can start getting some sleep...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

message from a student

I just received this message from a student in my American Studies class. What more can I say, except that I am so fortunate to have a job that I absolutely love and that gives back so much more than I put into it.

I'd like to thank you again for inspiring us and giving a hand. It's so nice of you! Special thanks for attached files on American Studies. I'll probably
use them on my teaching practicum,if you don't mind. Besides, I find
them practically useful on my current job. I'm working as a teacher
of English now (at one university). I really like my job! I find it so
interesting to work with my students. Unfortunately,I have no idea how
to make them speak! They're so shy! Sometimes I just run out of
patience! I go on repeating them the same thing we have learned
before,lesson by lesson. I surely do not blame them for that. Like
they I was too shy to speak English when I was at the same age and
level. However,I see how they are trying hard. All the time I carry on
telling them what a great leap they've made when comparing with the
previous times. I believe they'll do their best very soon. And,as you said,they ll
never let me down.

I loved your lectures we attended. In fact,I got more than I expected
to. Usually,as soon as I leave the class,I forget everything that was
told. But I remember almost every topic we discussed in your
class,that's the most amazing thing for me! ))

From the bottom of my heart,

Thursday, October 25, 2007


My friend Amelia took the GRE exam on Monday, scoring a perfect 1600. What is one to do afterwards but celebrate??? That evening, Sarah and I took her out to our first Kazakh discothèque. Wow! What can I say??? Mere words cannot describe the experience.

We went to a club near my house—about ¾ mile away. It is called the “Shishibar” and—according to our source—was 20% off on Monday nights (not true, but that is what the ads all said). The décor was rather unusual—a mix of Egyptian and Indian motifs. However, the bathrooms were labeled “Women” and “Men” in English, against the background of the Harley Davidson logo. Drinks were on par with clubs in the US, if not a little more expensive. One cosmo was 1300 tenge, or just over $10. Ouch! The music made it all worth it, though. We arrived around 10pm, which is very early by Kazakh standards. The music started at midnight, and was an amazing mix of incredibly obscure 80s music. I’m sad to report that I was the only person who knew all of the songs and their lyrics—including that classic by Laura Branigan, “Self Control”. It really didn’t seem to matter, though. As long as you could keep up with the drum machine, you were fine.

As to the dancing—let’s just say that American men all dance like Fred Astaire in comparison with Kazakh men. They dance in groups, in a rather homoerotic fashion. You would never see two straight men dancing together in quite the same fashion at home. Women dance separately—also in groups, but they essentially stand on the dance floor swaying ever so slightly and giggling. They don’t appear to have the first idea of how to move their hips when ‘dancing’—Sarah, Amelia, and I all attracted a few stares because we were actually dancing. Apparently we must have confirmed some stereotypes of American women. We had a great time, though. We stayed until about 2am (early by Kazakh standards), then headed home. I wouldn’t want to stay out so late on a regular basis, but it was well worth it.

The Surreal Life, Part II

As mentioned earlier, today is Kazakhstan’s Independence Day. The fireworks have just begun, and my windows are rattling from their force. I’m only a ten minute walk to Old Square, where the celebrations are centered, so the noise is not surprising. I had to take a brief break from writing, though, because I’ve been laughing so hard. Every time the fireworks go off, so do all the car alarms. There is a brief lull while the city organizers reload the fireworks, then it starts all over. It’s been going on for about 15 minutes, and will probably recur all night long. I’m glad I brought earplugs with me, although I have nothing schedule in the morning and it might be interesting to see how late this goes on.

Back to last Thursday, though. After I left the conference at the university, I was able to head home for about 1 ½ hours before I had to leave for the US Consulate. The former ambassador to Finland (under the Clinton administration) was speaking at the consulate that evening, and all of the Fulbrighters were invited. Of course, when I asked the Peace Corps volunteers at the university if they would be there, they were a little peeved. Apparently they had been asked to give out candy on Hallowe’en, but had not been invited to the evening’s discussion. Oops! I’ll have to remember not to mention the lectures in the future. Anyway, I had to leave the house about 5:30pm to get to the consulate in time for the lecture—just enough time to grab something to eat, shower, and relax for about 30 minutes. I like walking to the embassy rather than taking the bus (in traffic, it takes longer on the bus anyway). It’s about a 50 minute walk due south from my apartment, which means that it’s uphill the entire way. In the evening, it is beautiful since you can see the sunset striking the western slopes of the Tien Shan Mountains. It almost makes you glad for the pollution, which amplifies the dramatic effects of the sunset.

As I was going to be at the consulate rather late, I did not take my camera with me. The area around the consulate is a rather upscale microdistrict, and the odds of being robbed at night are significantly higher than where I live (rents are around $3-$4000 per month near the consulate, which makes it more attractive to pickpockets and the like). I wish I had, though. Around 6:15pm (the peak of the sunset) I arrived at the city theater. It’s a beautiful neoclassical building located at the top of a wide boulevard. There are parks on both sides, and a large fountain out in front. The theater opens each night at 6:30, so there were people strolling out in the ploshad’ (square) in front of the building, dressed in their best clothes (this is also a country in which you can never be overdressed for anything, so imagine what it must have looked like!!). I walked along the front of the square, and then cut through one of the parks to continue to the consulate. I was feeling rather pleased with myself. It had been a productive morning at the conference, I was heading off to meet a former ambassador, and also needed to change several times before I left my apartment since everything I had tried on had been too big. Definitely time for a reality check! Immediately after entering the park, I had to stop and pretend I was having breathing problems and needed my inhaler. Just imagine four men sitting on a park bench next to the theater, dressed in polar bear costumes. Additional polar bear heads (no costumes, just the heads) were on the bench next to them. And each of them had a bottle of Baltika 9 in their paws—Baltika is a popular beer, which comes in strengths of 0 (no alcohol) to 9 (incredibly strong). I have no idea why they were there—they weren’t part of the evening’s production at the theater—but it was one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while. I laughed the entire way to the consulate, so much so that I had to fix my makeup before entering the building, since my mascara had smeared as a result of the tears running down my face.

My fellow Fulbrighters (Sarah and Amelia) were just as amused as I was, although I think they thought I was exaggerating. A few days later, though, they called me from the bus. Four men in polar bear costumes had just climbed onto the bus and were pretending to be conductors. We’ve been laughing for days about it, although no one else here thinks it’s funny or has any idea why people would dress as polar bears. I asked my American Studies students whether they knew anything about it, and they had no idea. Of course, we had just been discussing potential topics for next semester and they wanted to know more about American humor since they really don’t understand it…..maybe that’s why they didn’t think polar bears were funny and I thought they were ridiculously hysterical.

As to my students—they really are wonderful to work with. They have been doing presentations in class (they are presenting different cultural aspects of regions of the US), and are a joy to listen to. They are so excited about what they are doing, and also that they have been given complete free reign to explore their own interests. As a result, the presentations are wonderful. Afterwards, they all want to have a group picture taken with me, and to have an individual picture with me. One student in particular—and I have to admit, she is one of my favorite students although I can’t let that be known in class—was nearly in tears because she didn’t have enough time to demonstrate all she had done., since there just wasn’t enough time. Afterwards, she wrote me to let me know how disappointed she was in her performance (I had already given her a 5, which would be an A in the US). She’s a wonderful student, who clearly loves learning and applying what she has learned. Apparently, she has been calling home (she’s from Kostanai, in the north of the country) and telling her family all about her American teacher. It’s one of those situations in which you suddenly realize the weight of responsibility you have with your students. Over the course of the semester, I have become one of her role models. She doesn’t quite fit the typical model of a young Kazakh woman—she strikes me as more individualistic and independent, which can also be problematic for her since this is an extremely traditional society. I’ve arranged to meet with her outside of the university so that we can talk about how she is doing in class (I don’t have an office on campus, and don’t want other students to interrupt—which would be the case at the university). One student like this one makes up for 50 disruptive students. I just want to make sure that I don’t make a misstep. At times like this, I am so very thankful for the many opportunities available to me as an American. I know that I can accomplish anything I want to, and have few societal restrictions placed on what I can do. It’s incredibly difficult for me to know what the future likely has in store for students like this one. At the same time, it is incentive for me to keep doing what I do, to finish this degree so that I can work in some capacity to help change these situations. If I ever start to forget, the pictures from this class will remind me.

The Surreal Life, Part I

Happy Kazakh Independence Day! Today marks the day that the Kazakh SSR declared their sovereignty from the USSR—although they did not become truly independent until later (16 December 1991). The celebrations that I observed throughout the city were very similar to those for the city’s birthday two weeks ago, with the notable exception of billboards celebrating the “Kazakhstan 2030” campaign—President Nazarbaev has established a plan to have Kazakhstan be a world leader by that year. And, of course, there were images of Kazakhstan all over billboards, and—on the façade of the old government center—a large poster of Nazarbaev standing in the middle of the steppe. Absolutely fascinating—and more data for the dissertation, too.

The last week has been pretty hectic, and I haven’t had much time to sit down in front of the computer and finish writing some updates. Between conferences, lectures at the embassy, teaching, visiting a Kazakh discothèque, Russian homework, there just hasn’t been much free time. But I do want to describe some of these events, since they are so far outside of everyday experience back at home.

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, I was asked to participate in a conference at Ablai Khan University. The theme was “Innovations in Education in Kazakhstan as Key Factors in Achieving International Integration”. At least, that is an approximation of the translation of the conference theme—in actuality, it was much lengthier and more ponderous in name. When I come home, though, please remember that I am next in importance after the ambassadors from Germany and Greece, and the UN Delegate to Kazakhstan. Or something. It was great to be invited to the conference, and a fascinating experience. However, I don’t delude myself that it really was me that that they wanted at the conference. The university really wanted to be able to include my credentials, and to be able to glean some prestige from the Fulbright name. Presenting entailed relatively little work on my behalf, and also earned some goodwill from the university both for myself and for Americans in general. In the end, everyone gained something.

As a direct result of participating in the conference, I made a contact at UNESCO. Apparently her team is in the process of finishing a final report on the status of elementary and secondary education throughout Kazakhstan. At the current time, the report is being translated from Russian into English. The problem is that they need the report in “real English”, as understood by a native speaker of the language. She asked if I knew of anyone who would be willing to undertake the final revision. Since this is data that I would want to include in my dissertation, I volunteered to do the revisions myself. The end result is that I will be paid to do research that I would be doing regardless, plus it’s another line on my CV (which is getting rather lengthy these days, thanks to these conferences and other volunteer activities).

Back to the conference, though. It was completely unlike anything I’ve ever participated in. I was in the plenary session, which meant that I sat at a long table on the stage in a large auditorium. There were about ten speakers, and we each had our names and affiliations listed on a placard in front of our seat (I was Kristine Byork—a slightly different translation of Burke than I am used to. Normally, I’m Kristine Boork. Plus, I discovered that I represented Massachusetts University. Sorry, KU!! I let the Rector know later on—discretely—that while I am from MA, I am here as a representative from Kansas).

In order to fully appreciate the situation in the conference hall, I should first explain that I normally deal with the vice-rector, Gulnara. She is a rather physically imposing woman (it seems that any woman in a position of authority here is rather large—approaching what might be considered battle-ax stature). Gulnara has been tremendously helpful to me here at the university, and is a great person to have for support. She has ensured that my teaching has gone well, and that the departments have given me an extremely hospitable welcome. I like working with her a great deal, although I understand that others consider her rather intimidating.

At the conference, Gulnara was responsible for ensuring that all of the logistics went smoothly. It was the rector who was clearly running the show, though. I first met the rector at the conference, and spent the next three hours of presentations trying not to laugh at the absurdity of the entire situation. If Gulnara is physically imposing, compared to the rector she is dainty and petite. The rector has a very commanding physical presence, as well as a surprisingly deep voice. She sat up on the stage with everyone, and occasionally pulled her microphone toward her to tell the students to be quiet or—when the conference ran late and people had to leave to go to other obligations—instructed the ushers to lock the doors and not let anyone out. It didn’t matter if anyone else was presenting their material at that time—she still went ahead with her instructions. As soon as we all took our seats—with Gulnara scurrying around ensuring that all of the rector’s demands were being met—I had the sudden urge to start laughing (which would have been incredibly rude). All I could think of, though, was an old cartoon (Merry Melodies, I think) that had a lily pond with all of the happy insects running around and a large bullfrog sitting in the center being waited on hand and foot by all of the smaller frogs. The image stayed with me throughout the entire conference, and I was later complimented on how much I seemed to enjoy all of the presentations. As long as they don’t know the truth….

Afterwards, as I was trying to get to Gulnara’s office for the special tea for the presenters, I was accosted by a student who is studying in the English Translation department (as it turns out, she is a student of my friend Sarah). She was determined to convince me to agree to speak English with her every day, so that she could practice her language skills. It took me 15 minutes (with the rector calling for me too!) to get away. Apparently, as I am a native English speaker, it is my responsibility to ensure that others learn to speak the language as well (?????). At least, that is what the student tried to convey. My reality is a little different—the US government is paying me to learn Russian, not to practice a language I’ve spoken for over thirty years.

Overall, the conference was a great experience. The rector now wants me to work on a university-wide training session for teachers. She’s pretty intimidating, even for me, so I found myself agreeing. It’s something that I will be working on with other universities, regardless, so it really isn’t a problem for me to do. Plus, since I participated in the conference, my paper (which discussed the need to develop critical thinking skills among university students—perhaps not the best topic, but all I could do with 12 hours of preparation time) will be published in the conference proceedings—complete with my picture. Gulnara emphasized that this publication should be included in my CV, along with my more recent article “Observations in Almaty” for the university paper “World of Languages”. Perhaps in a separate section of the CV, since they really aren’t peer reviewed articles. Either way, it was great fun to be involved. It was a serious conference, but with incredibly delightful absurdities. I’m still smiling.

more observations...

It’s a rather rainy, dreary day here in Almaty—a good day to do some housecleaning, and to sip tea and reflect on life over here. I’ve had to adopt some new habits, and break others. For the most part, they’ve been positive changes—although I’m going to have to break the habit of (over)indulging in the wonderful, fresh bread that costs pennies at any of the shops in town. A few of the adjustments and observations on life here….

It is necessary to go to the grocery store every few days to see what is available, because the inventory changes. Having bought a particular item there in the past is no guarantee of future availability—especially if it is towards the end of the month.

The $8 bottle of Old Tblisi is good, but so is the $2 bottle of local “Bakhus” (Bacchus) red wine—even if the vineyard owner is Armenian (this last comment is from my Russian instructor, who has very intriguing views on different nationalities—especially the Uzbeks). As a note—red wine costs more here than white wine. I haven’t figured out the reason for this difference, though.

You need to be careful with most brands of Kazakh wine—they generally come in 3 grades: undrinkable, not terrible, and vaguely palatable. Bakhus is one of the exceptions. Maybe because the vineyard owner is Armenian.

There are two standards of clean—clean, and clean enough. Clean is an impossible goal—there is so much dust everywhere that you would have to clean continuously. These standards particularly apply to laundry. It takes about 1 ½ hours to get clothes “clean enough” in the agitator. However, laundry is hung outside to dry, and immediately begins to collect more dust before you bring it inside to put away.

It is necessary to clean the bathtub after finishing the last load of laundry. I no longer have to drain the water into buckets, since I bought a ridiculously expensive—$7—drain cover. The water now drains into the tub, but so does all of the dirt and grime from the clothes. Once the water has drained away, there is always a layer of sediment left behind.

Soda tastes different over here—it’s made with a different type of sugar than we are used to in the States. I really don’t like the taste, so with the relatively rare exceptions of Diet Coke and Schweppes Ginger Ale (imported from the US), I’ve given up on soda. Plus, I don’t want to have to carry heavy bottles of liquids back to my apartment—and up 4 flights of stairs.

Potato chips are readily available, but most stores sell out of Lays fairly quickly (and a small bag costs about $2.50). The other brands are all flavored chips, which I have never liked. So, as with soda, chips have pretty much been scratched off of the menu. If profits for Frito-Lay and Coke fall, you’ll know why.

I don’t like taking gypsy cabs, and prefer not to take buses during the day when they are most crowded—probably because I have a strange (?) aversion to being groped by complete strangers. If I want to go anyplace, I will usually walk. It is great exercise, too—I use the time for thinking and reflection, and it really helps me to keep my perspective and enjoy being here.

Now that it is getting colder, it might be a little more difficult to keep up with the walking, but several of my friends and I have decided to take belly dancing lessons. It should be absolutely hysterical, since none of us are coordinated. At all! Imagine trying to follow directions in Russian, too. Lessons are very popular, although I have a suspicion that at the times we will be able to go, it will be mostly babyshkas (grandmothers). Sarah, Amelia, and I could go pretty much any time, but Inga works at the consulate and actually has a set schedule (what is that??? It’s been so long since I’ve had one that I’ve forgotten).

Heat and hot water are unpredictable. Fortunately, the Arasan Baths are less than ½ mile from my house—they have Turkish, Russian, and Finnish baths there (although the Turkish baths have not worked since I’ve been in Almaty, and no one knows why—including the employees). When there is no hot water, at least it is possible to go to the baths in the afternoon or evening. However, I’ve garnered some strange looks at the baths, as it is apparently extremely unusual and rather risqué for a woman to have a tattoo here—especially a (small) world map on one’s back.

Clothes shopping is extremely intimidating, and not something that I’m anxious to do on a regular basis. The stores are ridiculously expensive, so the only real option is to go to the bazaar. However, the idea of a changing room is non-existent over here. Instead, someone holds up a sheet while you try on the article of clothing behind it. Of course, people here are generally of a shorter stature, and they are not always able to provide the sort of privacy that would be desirable when hordes of strange people are walking by and leering into the stall to see what is happening. And everyone has to offer an opinion, too. It’s absolute insanity, and I’m trying to avoid it as long as possible. However, with all of the walking and other exercising I’ve been doing, my clothes are all several sizes too large and I will soon have to brave the bazaar. Who knew that clothes shopping could be so traumatic???

Speaking of clothes, I will probably have to buy long-legged jeans over here. Compared to the majority of Kazakh women, I have extremely long legs. Stop laughing, Dad!!!! I’m not exaggerating—women here seem to have very long torsos, but very short legs. I’m going to enjoy this experience while it lasts, since when I return home I will once again have to buy jeans and roll them up at the cuffs.

Well, that’s it for now. The weather has cleared up some, and I need to get out of the house and walk for a while.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

More on music, and other news

Earlier today I taught my American Studies class—the students are in their 4th year, and are planning on becoming teachers themselves. They really are wonderful to work with—they are interested, ask questions, and I find them to be irresistible. How often do you get to walk into a building and have everyone rush up to say hello, compliment your outfit, and tell you about where they have been in the States? It’s going to be hard coming back to KU after this experience. I’ve asked if I can continue working with this group next semester, even though my language classes at the university end in December. It really is a high point of the week, and really energizes me for some of my other projects.

This morning, I planned to talk about American holidays. However, the class took a different turn as students started asking questions about the States. They were interested in knowing about what sports people play/watch (by the way—Mom and Dad, you need to move the television BACK to my room. The Red Sox lost 3 straight to Cleveland after you switched televisions around!!), movies, and pop culture. One of the students asked why Americans don’t like pop music, and what sort of music they listen to instead. I couldn’t resist—I had my computer with me, and played a bit of Guns-N-Roses for them to listen to. When I looked around, everyone had an expression of abject horror on their faces. My students then asked if “Americans really listen to THAT?”. They couldn’t understand why some people might prefer GNR to Brittney Spears. The cultural difference can be vast sometimes!

Tomorrow I will be making a presentation at Ablai Khan University on ‘opportunities for change in the educational system in Kazakhstan’. Of course, I only found out about this conference at noon today, and am presenting at 10am tomorrow. Apparently, after the Ambassador from Greece, Ambassador from Germany, and United Nations Delegate all cancelled at the last minute, I am the next best thing. Or something. But I get to have my picture taken and my presentation recorded in the university journal. I’ve been told that I can put a “photographed publication” on my CV, too. In the evening, I’m attending a reception at the US Consulate for the former Ambassador to Finland. It should be a busy day, in exalted (?) company. One of my favorite things about Almaty is never knowing what strange and wonderful situations you find yourself in.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Observations on Almaty

Almaty is a great city, and a fascinating place to live. But I could not imagine living here without the years of preparation. Things happen that you cannot imagine, but are just part of everyday life. The only way to deal with them is to laugh and to shrug things off as much as possible. I thought I’d share some of my favorites.

Bookstores where not all of the books are for sale—only the books on certain shelves. If you pick up a book on one of the other shelves, the woman who works there (and whose hair is a strange shade of burgundy not found in nature) will take it out of your hand and scold you.

15-page menus, but you need to ask the (surly) waitress what is actually available

Water that is turned on and off at random. No one knows why, or when it will be turned back on. It can take weeks sometimes (we lost hot water for a week, and my landlady’s friend had no hot water for 3 weeks). Ditto for gas. And electricity.

Controlling the temperature by opening/closing the window.

The complete absence of clothes dryers.

Lint. On everything. Because the agitator (not washing machine, as I noted in an earlier posting) doesn’t have a lint filter.

Dust. Also on everything. And everywhere.

Probki, probki, probki. There are traffic jams everywhere. It can take 2 ½ hours for a trip that should take 35 minutes. (probki= traffic jam)

Crowded buses. 125 people crammed into a space meant for no more than 50, with no one getting upset. Then there are the people who take advantage of the crowding to get closer than they probably should, and just smile at you when you remove their hand from some portion of your anatomy.

All of these are just part of life here, and aren’t going to change. It’s a great way to learn patience—I’ve found that the most invaluable thing to have brought from home is a sense of humor. Some days, it’s like living in a painting by Salvador Dali since everything is so surreal. As my friend Sarah from KU recently commented, fieldwork is like living someone else’s life. I couldn’t agree more!!


It seems that there are quite a few celebrations this time of year. As I mentioned before, there was just the city’s birthday. It was soon followed by the end of Ramasan/Ramadan (it’s called both over here). I didn’t see much evidence of Ramadan being observed—although it may well have been. However, the celebrations marking the ending of the fasting were quite notable. Friday night, people were out all over the city. Bakeries were emptied of their cakes and pastries, and there seemed to be quite a bit of alcohol being sold in the stores. Several of my friends gathered to have an American-style dinner, and to decompress after what had been a rather long and difficult week. It was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to sample Sovyetskaya Champagne (Soviet Champagne). Hmmm…probably the last time, too. It’s rather strong, and not particularly good. Think Boone Farm and you won’t be far off.

Last night, I had the opportunity to experience a different type of celebration. Olya, the daughter of my landlords, turned 15 and there was a large family dinner in her honor. She invited me to the party, and I had the chance to see how a Russian family holds a birthday party. It was a multi-course meal, beginning with many types of salads, breads, pelmini (think Russian tortellini, served with smetana—a rich and delicious sour cream)and cold cuts. The second course was roasted chicken, potatoes, and was followed by a strawberry torte, profiteroles, and tea. There was also lots of vodka and wine. I hadn’t realized that you cannot take a sip without someone offering a toast to the guest of honor (Olga—Olya is a diminutive form). It’s a good thing that I didn’t have far to go after dinner—just next door. My landlords have really ensured that I feel at home, and it was a special treat to be included in the birthday celebrations. I will return the favor, and have invited them to my apartment for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

The Day of Independence is coming up soon—October 25th. I’m looking forward to seeing what types of celebrations can be seen throughout the city. I plan on leaving my apartment early—with my camera—and exploring the different areas of the city for the day. It’s fascinating to see what you can stumble across just by walking around different neighborhoods.

Rock and Roll, Almaty style

Last Tuesday, I turned off my lights at about ten to go to sleep—I teach early on Wednesday mornings, so usually don’t stay up too late the night before. I had just started to drift off to sleep, when I suddenly began dreaming that my bed was vibrating. But it wasn’t a dream. It was one of Almaty’s many earthquakes. The walls of the building were all shaking, and I began having flashbacks to the earthquake drills we had in second grade in Monterey, CA. The quake went on for several minutes, but it was about two hours before I could fall back asleep. My friends on the other side of the city had no idea that there was an earthquake—it mainly seemed to affect the city center. Definitely not an experience I’d want to repeat anytime soon, though!

As a result of conversations about the quake, though, I learned that my apartment building is one “Stalin-style”. I’m not quite sure about how I feel about that, but I’m told that these buildings are MUCH more desirable than the Khrushchev-era buildings. It’s easy to see why—the Stalin-era buildings are smaller, only 4-5 floors, as opposed to 15-20 floors. The construction is also supposed to be somewhat better, and they are definitely much more attractive.

Other than the earthquake, life has been fairly calm here in Almaty. As I noted before, the university faculty took me to see a ballet about a week and a half ago. It was “Legends of Lovers”, and was a Turkish ballet. Very different than what I’m accustomed to seeing—although beautiful. The symbolism was difficult to interpret without a program (which I only had after the ballet ended, but at least I could read what the different scenes were supposed to represent). The day we went to the ballet was also the day that the city’s birthday is celebrated. There were gatherings at many different sites throughout the city, but the largest was at the Old Square. It is located in the shadow of what had been the government center of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Normally, the major celebrations would have been at New Square, but there is quite a bit of construction. New Square is on the other side of the city, and the location of the 1986 Alma-Ala riots that occurred at the beginning of the protests that helped to end the Soviet Union—more on these at a later time, though. They deserve their own description.

Arriving at Old Square, one of the faculty members was able to convince the police to allow me and another visiting American to take pictures from the official stands. It was quite a show! The band was “Dveri”, or “Doors”. But they didn’t resemble “The Doors” in any way other than the name. Cheesy pop music, complete with lip synching and choreographed dance moves. Not a single brooding, disgruntled teenager in sight. Instead, it was a sea of people dancing, singing, and celebrating. It was a fantastic experience to be able to take part in the event.

Music over here is very much in the Euro-pop vein, but raised to the nth degree. Even with my love of 80s music (how many people do you know who can sing along to almost anything by the Pet Shop Boys, Falco, and Erasure?), the music here is quite cheesy. It’s not unusual to hear that great mid-80s anthem by the well-known (??) band Opus—“Live is Life" (If you want to know the words, they are something along the lines of “We all need the music, we all need the power, every minute, every hour. Live! Live is Life! Na na na na na”. Repeat as needed.) The song was drilled into my head in 1985-86, in Germany. Imagine being at a beerfest and hearing everyone in the beer tent sing along. Every half-hour. Over and over again.

Most days here, I leave the radio off as much as possible and instead listen to music on my computer. On the days that I do listen to the radio for any length of time, I find that I need to play Guns-n-Roses as loudly as possible (which is actually not loud at all). There’s just something about hearing the guitar at the beginning of “Welcome to the Jungle”. Or any guitar, for that matter. Strange the things you miss--I never would have thought that I'd wish my collection of guitar music was larger.

Monday, October 8, 2007


Well, last night was my first opportunity to see a ballet performed live. It was a Turkish production of "Legendary Lovers". Quite an experience--I'll write more about it later on. Following the ballet, it was off to a concert in the center of the city--right next the building that was seat of government during the Soviet Union. There is NOTHING quite like seeing "The Doors" performing in Russian in downtown Almaty. Of course, "The Doors" is the translation of their name. They were actually more like "Take That" or some other lip-synching boy band. Wow. What can be said??? It was an absolutely wonderful time--my friend convinced the police that I was a member of the press, so we were able to go into the restricted areas and take pictures. It was a fantastic night--and definitely one to remember. Right now, it's time to do some homework, so I'll keep this short. However, I did want to post a picture from the ballet last night--I hear some little boys in Kansas want to see if their aunt looks different over here. You be the judge!