Friday, November 23, 2007


This year has been the first time that I have been both away from family and outside the US for Thanksgiving. While I do miss all of the traditions and the people, this week has been an extraordinary opportunity to reflect on what Thanksgiving really means. The holiday is really what you make of it. For me, it has been about spending time with several groups of teenagers, sharing stories of the US and trying to encourage them to explore opportunities to expand their horizons beyond thoughts of their immediate future. Exhausting, draining, exhilarating, and wonderful all at the same time.

Along with the other Fulbright students in Almaty, I was asked to travel to Taldykorgan (the regional capital) to speak to a group of teenagers living in an orphanage. We were presenting material on the educational system in the US, but were really there to provide encouragement and support for these teens who have been given few opportunities to think of a future beyond leaving the orphanage. Most of these kids are not orphans in the true sense of the word—instead, they were left at the orphanage by teenage parents, families who did not want more children, or parents with substance abuse problems. While it was apparent that they are well taken care of physically, there is little support and encouragement for these teens to think beyond their immediate future. If this group follows the well-established path of those who have already left the orphanage, many of the girls will marry young in order to have a family of their own—and likely be divorced within 2-3 years. Lacking connections and the requisite education, the young men will drift to the areas of town where the unemployed gather, hoping that someone will drive by and offer them a temporary job as a day laborer.

After a six hour trip to Taldykorgan (a distance of only about 300km), we arrived at the school where we were to speak. Most of the afternoon was spent giving presentations and spending time with the teens. I don’t know whether our talks inspired any of the teens to attempt the long and difficult process of changing their situation—but I hope that we did something positive. If nothing else, the students will remember the day that four American university students came to spend the day with them. A change from their usual routine, and maybe something that will make them smile in memory.

The following day, the four of us spoke at different middle/high schools around the city. The topic was the same, but the audience was very dissimilar to the day before. We were met at our hotel and driven to the schools—where we were met with great pomp and circumstance. There wasn’t the opportunity to interact with students individually—in my case, I was escorted personally around the school by the rector and was proudly shown all of the English language classrooms. It was clear that my role had changed—rather than being there as a mentor, I was instead an official representative of the US and treated accordingly. After speaking at the schools, it was time to drive back to Almaty. Fortunately, the return trip only took 4 hours (since we missed the traffic in Almaty). The trip was short and mentally exhausting, and I would leave again in the morning to start it all over again.

After returning home, I barely had 12 hours to prepare for my next public speaking event. And that 12 hours included time to sleep. Previously, I had been asked by the consulate to speak at the National Children’s Library in Almaty, describing Thanksgiving traditions in the US. With preparations for an early Thanksgiving dinner, as well as the trip to Taldykorgan, there hadn’t been any time to think of what to say—so I was a little worried. It does help being from Cape Cod, though. A few postcards of the area where the Pilgrims landed, a map, and the memory of Glenn Miller’s lecture on the human geography of the cranberry industry made all of the difference! The students were an incredibly audience, and my five minute presentation ended up being nearly thirty minutes. Afterwards, several of them remained behind to congratulate me on the Thanksgiving holiday (it is customary here to offer your congratulations for holidays, birthdays, etc.). Then, while drinking tea with the library director, the students came back to ask if I would come to their school to speak with them again. Naturally I agreed—their enthusiasm is irresistible! As soon as they left the room, they let out a loud cheer—it was one of those moments that I know I will never forget.

Tomorrow (Saturday), I will have Thanksgiving dinner with friends. It will be a real Thanksgiving dinner—complete with turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. As I sit in my kitchen writing this update, an apple pie is baking in the oven and an empty pie shell is cooling on the counter. So, some things are just like home. And the recent outreach activities really make me appreciate how many things I have to be thankful for.

picture from Monday

There have been several comments on the picture I posted yesterday. For the record, I am NOT living on a secret commune in western Kansas, contemplating my naval. The picture was taken on the road between Taldykorgan and Almaty. However, there is a local term for the scenery in the picture. It is called the “Kansas Steppe”.

Also, if you click on the picture from the blog itself, you can see more detail.