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….