Sunday, February 17, 2008

Picture from Medeu

I meant to post this picture with the last message, but hit the publish button too soon. So, for your amusement, here is a picture from Medeu last Friday. As my friend Hilary pointed out, the big sparkly blue earrings are also further proof of cultural assimilation. At least you can't see the jeans under my coat.....

Universities and Yurts

It has been a while since I’ve sat down to write. The last weeks have been rather busy, not to mention stressful, and by the time evening arrives I have not felt like sitting in front of the computer for any purpose other than checking email.

The main drama this past month has revolved around Ablai Khan University. At one time, this university was one of the top language centers in the Soviet Union. Today…well, the situation is far different. The rector, a very imposing woman, has caused the vast majority of professors to leave the university in search of better situations. The jobs of the remaining professors can be jeopardized if they do not pass all of their fee-paying students. After all, they are paying for their classes and should expect a decent grade! The university is also falling apart structurally. Holes in the floor are covered with metal sheeting that is nailed down, the heat often does not work, blackboards that are so old that they cannot be written upon anymore—even if you could find chalk. Those working at the university (with the exception of the rector) know that the once-high standards have all but disappeared, and they need assistance from universities and experts outside of Kazakhstan if they want to improve their programs.

Unfortunately, while outside assistance is desperately needed, university staff members do not know how to get the aid that they desire. Fulbright fellows doing research in Almaty are one way to bring foreign scholars into the university. The difficulty is ensuring that the university understands that while we are often willing to help, we also have research demands that must first be met. I was left with no option but to end any affiliation with Ablai Khan after repeated conflict over the nature of my role as a volunteer at the university. The breaking point came after several weeks of pressure to work full-time for the university, when they expected me to write a paper on ‘distance learning’ (on-line education) for a conference; another faculty member would translate this paper into Russian and be my co-author. Of course, the conference was in English so this translation would not be necessary. I was also expected to report my progress/display my research on several occasions before the conference. After declining to attend one such meeting (at which time my ‘co-author’ began using some extremely derogatory language in Russian, thinking I could not understand what she said. Of course I understood what she said! Those were some of the first words I learned over here!), it was clear that the situation would not improve and would only get worse instead. So, I ended my affiliation with the university.

I have to admit, I am rather sad to have ended the university affiliation. Most people at Ablai Khan were extremely kind to me, and did their best to welcome me into their university. I will definitely miss the students from my American Studies class, too. They were delightful to work with, and always made me smile. I will miss them, but have sent an email message to the students letting them know that, while I will not be returning, I hope that they will keep in touch.

Of course, not everything in Almaty has been stressful this past month. I have a new second home here in the city, at the 4-A coffee shop. They have REAL brownies. And cheesecake. And GOOD coffee. Sheer bliss. Strangely enough, the owner is from Massachusetts. Make that Dracut, Massachusetts. Yes, the same town where my mother grew up. He even went to high school with some Mattes (Mom’s maiden name was Matte), and lived on the same street (but the other end) as Uncle Bob. Now he and his wife run a wonderful coffee shop that I can walk to in less than ten minutes. Yes, it is a small world!

As I sit here writing, it occurs to me that I have definitely become accustomed to living in Kazakhstan. There are not many things that surprise me anymore, although I am finding that some of the things my friends and I now do surprise those back at home. A few months back, I wrote about buying a pair of jeans at the bazaar. Those first jeans were Levi’s—a quality American brand, even if purchased at the bazaar. Well, I bought another pair of jeans this week—also at the bazaar. Except these are much more Kazakh in style—with decorative beading and designs on the pockets. Of course, they are the equivalent of a US-size 8, which is considered a “large size” over here, so there is not as much of a selection. I thought they looked pretty nice, as did my friends in Almaty. If anything, they are rather subdued—too bad I don’t have a bedazzler!! The reaction of friends back home? “You’re actually going to wear those??”.

I have also begun to think of fur as a necessity, not a luxury. Temperatures have not risen above freezing since Christmas, and my fur hat is currently one of the most essential items in my wardrobe. I often find myself wishing that I had brought the fur coat that was belonged to my grandmother with me. Fur is for everyday use over here, and when the high temperature is 10F, you begin to have thoughts like “if I were to buy a fur coat over here, it would really look GREAT when I’m heading across campus next winter”.

Becoming acclimated is not just restricted to clothing. On the bus to China, my friends and I discovered a new and fascinating element of Kazakh culture. At 10am, someone took a bottle of vodka out and started passing it around. Once enough vodka had been consumed, another person took a whole roasted chicken out of a bag and everyone had a snack. This procedure was repeated at regular intervals throughout the bus ride. Was this just an isolated phenomenon? Clearly it was not, as we have seen other people do the same thing at other times. There was only one thing to do, then. We took a chicken and a bottle of vodka up to Medeu on Friday to experience part of Kazakh culture. My recommendation? Spend more than $3 on a bottle of vodka! Of course, we bought the “Manly Strength” vodka simply because of its name (and the fact that the bottle says “We wish that kings and wise men could talk about the properties of our vodka, but they can’t. Let your wife be the judge of its properties”). At least the chicken was good! After spending the afternoon in the mountains, we ended the day with another popular local activity and went to the banya.

It is going to be hard to top the experience of eating chicken up on the mountain, but we’re going to try. Just about everything shuts down during the month of August, and it won’t be possible to get much research done during that time. My friend Sarah and I have a plan, though. We’re working on the logistics of living with a nomadic family for the month of August. Yes, that would mean living in a yurt. And probably doing many other rather crazy things that we would normally never be able to experience (plus, it would provide some fascinating insights for the dissertation, and help with Kazakh language skills). Planning is still in the early stages, so we’ll see what happens. At least we will never be able to say that life is dull in Kazakhstan!