Sunday, June 21, 2009

Coming from Kazakhstan Update Part II Including Photos


Coming To Kazakhstan: (teaching photo)

Finally I’m getting caught up on the details of our arrival to the K-stan. We arrived that evening around 2130, but my phone didn’t work-too long not using it and so it had been deactivated. Luckily, Jake’s phone got some signal in Almaty (but never in Korea…) so we called Symbat, who was meeting us at the airport with his girlfriend and they got us to a flat the school had for us that evening. It was tough to get all our luggage to fit though-and damn heavy-but that’s partially the school’s fault since we had to bring all those darn books. Dinner that night was burgers, which was kind of funny—I guess they wanted to make us feel at home, not knowing that we had done our darndest to avoid them in Korea.

They weren’t too bad though, quite funny actually—in Kazakhstan they stack ‘em wrong. Go to McDonalds, Burger King, or even just the Dining Hall and look at your burger. It’ll be two pieces of bread, on the bottom you might have some mayonnaise or ketchup, then on top of that, the patty, some cheese, and your veggies—lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles. Kazakhstan they do it completely opposite: on the bottom the lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers (not pickles) then the patty, no cheese, mayonnaise, and ketchup. After dinner, Jake and I cleaned up, but I think that made Alyona (Symbat’s girlfriend) uncomfortable, since we were guests and she’s a girl. In this country it seems that girls generally do all the work and I don’t mean like what women in America do—I mean literally all the work around the home. Alyona made dinner, breakfast, and lunch the next day and tried to do the entire cleanup herself, though at least for lunch we didn’t let her.

That night I got in touch with Leyla, Damy, and Victoria, the girls Jeff, Mark, and I had met last year in Almaty. They came by the next day and were really glad to see me again. I was pretty surprised at how excited they were. It was very good to see them and we had a lot of fun talking and taking photos. Alyona made permini (which is like ravioli, just boiled and eaten with sour cream or mayonnaise—most food here is eaten like that) for the five of us (Leyla, Damy, Victoria, Jake, and myself) and was going to clean up, but I wouldn’t allow her to do that—her and Symbat had left us alone with the Almatians and I didn’t think it was right for them to do that much stuff for my guests. But my high intentions were thwarted when the girls refused to let us do the work of cleaning dishes—women’s work in Kazakhstan and they thought it was too weird for guys to do it.

There’s some culture shock there for me—everyone is extremely hospitable and generous to guests, too much so. I hate being taken care of like that; it makes me feel uncomfortable. Yet, as Danny said to Peachy: “Different Cultures, Different Customs,” and I resolved to try and not make them uncomfortable by refusing their hospitality. That sounds really easy, but it isn’t. Americans (or at least me—I’m doing my best to not over generalize) are not comfortable with people waiting on them like this.

After lunch, I said goodbye to the girls and we hope to hang out a bit before I go back to Korea, but I can’t guarantee anything since I don’t know what Nailia will let me do. Then we headed onto the train and rode for the next eighteen hours to Semey. It was kind of warm on the train—AC isn’t so common here in Kazakhstan and the trains didn’t use it very long. We were lucky when we had it, which wasn’t for very long. The view was interesting, but pretty much standard flatlands and no trees. I spent most of my time shirtless in my bunk (above so the rest of the group didn’t have to look at my hairiness) getting my journal up-to-date, which took a long, long time to do.

We arrived in Semey the next day and were taken to our new flat by Valentina and Zarina, two teachers at our institute who help us out at the school. They showed us our flat and had stocked it with some sausage, bread, cheese, cucumbers, mayonnaise, and tomatoes. We’ve since learned that entire meals can consist only of these items. Many of our meal consist of these items; however, we’ve started to add ketchup to this combination. Turns out there are several kinds of ketchups over here (and types of mayonnaise, but we’re sticking to good old fashioned normal flavor for the time being on that). For the ketchups, I’m particularly fond of a brand called “Baltimore” (no idea why it’s called that, it is from Russia), but pretty much any hot pepper ketchup is good.

We started classes the next day and that hasn’t been easy. I’ve already complained a lot about high expectations from us and how difficult it is to teach, but I’ll just reiterate: I find it difficult to teach English to these people. I’m not sure how you make them talk—especially when some will talk, but others are too shy…just ain’t easy…

We spend a lot of time with the students however, and that is very good. Kazakh people (and I mean as in the nationality, not the ethnicity—you must be careful with that, people get a little offended) are extremely hospitable and kind, especially to guests, so they’re always taking care of us. I feel a little guilty actually, as they will pay for us when we go out, which makes me feel a little bad, because even though the cost of living is cheap, people aren’t paid that much (and not that often; learned it wasn’t uncommon for pay to be withheld for months sometimes) and it can’t be cheap to take us out so often. But different cultures, different customs…

Some of the events we’ve done with the students include going to a beach on the banks of the Irtysh river (the same river that the bloody Chicomms are diverting away in violation of international law, of course—who’s the imperialists now Hai-Xiao?) and having a barbecue, going to various museums and the zoo, hitting a local pizza joint and crashing for some Shashlik at a café nearby, going for a traditional Kazakh dinner at a local restaurant owned by one of our students’ family, and visiting the local military park—the location of the famed “Battle of Semey.”

This park is one of the reasons I enjoy being out here in Kazakhstan so much. Back in the US, they don’t have parks in the middle of a small city that’s just full of old tanks and personnel carriers. And you absolutely are not supposed to climb all over them and a have a great time like you’re nine years old playing army all over again. This place is great dad, you’d have loved it. Several T-64s, a T-34, a Katushya, a BRDM, BTR, a Ural truck, a BMP, a mine clearing vehicle…it’s just wonderful. And you can climb all over the equipment.

So I call it the battle of Semey, since you’ve got two Yanks and a crowd of their followers climbing all over the symbols of the Soviet Union and its military prowess. That day was a great victory for capitalism, freedom, apple pie, and America in general. However, the Red Army did get its licks in—whilst jumping off the BTR, my back pocket got caught on the symbol of Soviet Oppression and the dirty communists ripped my jeans a new one…literally. All is well, however, as one of the students has taken my jeans to sew ‘em up because they’ve got a sewing machine. I wanted to get some practice sewing again, since it’s been a long time since mom showed how to sew by hand and I haven’t had any causes to do so, but the student tells me I’d need a sewing machine to make it stick, so she had to take it.

I’m pretty content here. Life’s not exactly a picnic, but it isn’t too bad. Worst compliant is I’m very nervous about teaching, since our salary is tied to the number of pupils that we have, and it’s been hinted that some students felt very let down by our teaching experience and are not planning to sign up again for the next course. There is one spot of brightness for me however, because Dr. Lee told me that Nailia and the other teachers have been impressed by my effort and my classes and that she’d be extremely happy if I came back to teach the next year. I wish I could, but darn ROTC and the rest of my life.

To be honest, teaching isn’t that bad…and certainly I think that teachers in the US complain WAY TO MUCH. I’m getting by here with no training, no more than a rudimentary knowledge of the specifics of English, students who don’t speak the language as first one and are taking the class to learn it, I’ve had to work Saturdays, I work more hours than they do daily, and I’ve got to balance this whole deal with limited resources on everything. I’ve got exactly one pot, one pan, two regular sized plates, four tea plates, one serving bowl, two regular bowls, two ladles, two spatulas, two forks, two knives, four tea spoons, two serving spoons, one regular sized spoon that Jake stole from Korea, two sets of chopsticks (one a gift from Kyung-Hee University, one stolen by Jake as well), a microwave, and an electric stove with two burners. We don’t have an oven—so that kind of ruins mom’s brilliant idea of giving us those cookies and stuff since the school won’t let us use their ovens. There still might be a way around that; I’ve got to ask the students for help.

Teachers here in Kazakhstan have it much worse than any teacher in the US has it. They do more work, for less money, less prestige, have more responsibilities for their students, and they have to work in the summer term. If I ever hear an American teacher or a student studying to become a teacher complain (I’m remembering the folks on the trip to Russia and their constant griping about it) they’ll have no pity from me whatsoever.

I’m sure you’re all wondering about my status on facebook—yes it is true, I now have cavalry whiskers. It wasn’t an easy process; I decided to grow out all the facial hair first and then shave it after about a week, to make it easier to keep the distinction. Not that it was a mistake, but that’s tough. First its itchy, second—a beard just doesn’t look good coming in and I had to listen to basically every single young woman (and even the older ones) in this country tell me it looked bad and that I should shave it. However, I stood strong and finally cut the stuff off and went into cavalry whisker mode.

Not really sure what I’ll do about it now. The plan was just to go ahead and grow it all summer, but the backlash against growing facial hair was pretty strong—to the point where I decided just to cut the whiskers, get a few pictures and go back to clean shaven. However, reaction to the cavalry whiskers has been a little bit more different than I expected: Jake whom I expected on my side on this one is against it, but a lot of the students are telling me to go for it. Some say that people shouldn’t be afraid of being different (which sounds a lot like saying “Yeah, you look weird, but you should be able to do what you want”), some say that the look is good on me—kind of perfect for my personality: old fashioned. So, I’m not really sure how to take that, but my big problem is I kind of like how I look; yeah its goofy, but when I see myself in the mirror I really feel like I’m getting out there ready to battle the Zulu or head off to relieve Chinese Gordon.

So I think I’ll put it to a plebiscite and let the students decide…but it’s cool…even if I do look extremely goofy. Any thoughts from home?


And one of me teaching:


  1. Can't wait to see more photo-goodiness with some cavalry whiskers. I'd vote to take a good photo and then shave-- I just find a beard too hot and too itchy for the summer time. The park in Semey sounds great, hope you get some good photos for future model building reference. There is at least one 7-72 there--you are standing on it in your FB profile picture.

  2. Wow! I thought it was Danny in the Khyber Pass until I looked closely. did you just find the pith helmet lying around?
    By the way, in the teaching photo-- it looks like a smirk on your face. What exactly are you teaching them?

  3. You shaved it? Right? RIGHT?!
    Just actually doesn't look as horrible as I imagined. It...suits you. But shave it.
    I have to second dad here...what exactly are you teaching?

  4. Wrong photo-the teaching one is the first one with me and the computer. For some reason the formatting messed it all up.

    I found it at a store called "Komfort" for 4900 Tenge-~$29 going to use it when airsofting I think.