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.