Okay, so I’ve basically set myself up for failure by not updating for so long. There’s almost no way that I can put down all of what has happened in the last three months without forgetting tons of stuff. What can I say, I’m really lazy, and I kept expecting that that would change, or that I would miraculously get internet at my house and then be able to write all the time to everybody. Yeah, neither of those things came true, so here I am, trying to write the history of the last three months of my life and it seems simultaneously like nothing exciting has happened, and that so much has happened I may as well abandon hope now. However I do feel the need to reassure the folks across the water, and lots of land too, that I am indeed still alive and kicking, if only for the time being.
Lets start where I left off, shall we? Christmas, 2010. It passed, no big deal. Spent it with friends in Shymkent, white elephanting random Kazakh eccentricities. I count myself a winner in that I actually scored some peanut butter that someone had sent from home. I’ve been carefully rationing it and still have half a jar left. It’s sort of like my safety blanket, a beautiful cylindrical red, blue and green safety blanket that’s there to keep me in touch with the things I’ve left behind. Who knows what will happen when it’s gone. By the way, if anyone wants to send along any more of that glorious substance I’d be eternally grateful, *cough MOM cough*.
Anyway, what I was looking forward to was the New Year’s celebrations. They got a fair amount of hype and my school had been preparing for weeks. The last week of the term was basically pointless as over half the students were missing from every class to practice plays or dances or songs, and then they finally just started canceling classes. We had two concerts, one for the 7th and 8th form students and one for the 9th and 10th form students. The concert is pretty much the closest thing to a prom these guys have, so out came the taffeta and lace, the sequins and glitter. Luckily the boys’ school uniforms are suits, so they didn’t have to do much, but the girls skipped classes to go to the hair dresser and be made into Asian Fara Faucetts and Goldie Hawns. I had been teaching the younger kids “Jingle Bells” and the older ones “Auld Lang Syne” but most of them chickened out when it came down to it. I sang “Jingle Bells” with one brave 7th former and an English teacher who really only knew the words “jingle bells, jingle bells” and that’s it. “Auld Lang Syne” went slightly better with three girls stepping up, but they still made me sing with them. It felt a bit weird to put myself up there seeing as most everything else was entirely student run, but we made it through with limited mistakes, and only about three key changes. After the concerts there was a disco-tech and tons of picture taking. The students also got sparklers, which they lit in doors, in the school. A little bit different safety standards here than at home, but what the heck, its fun, right? On the 30th, the teachers had their party, which, unlike at home, we all had to pay 2000 tenge for, but it was a lot of fun. Tons of food, lots of drinking, dancing and games. For being such a conservative part of the country many of the games were pretty risqué, ie: men eating an apple that a woman is holding between her chin and collar bone. Basically necking, right? And musical chairs, where only the men run around and women are sitting, waiting for some guy to jump in their lap. That one got pretty violent too. As the odd duckling I got to be the last lady sitting, so got squashed a fair number of times.
Oh but wait, the best has yet to come. Family time. All families are precious during the holidays, and Kazakhstan is no exception to that rule. I’m really just surprised that no one ended up in the hospital, or in jail. My favourite way to start the story is “so there I was, sitting in the back of a soviet era sedan with 8 other people, and still wondering how we’d ended up there.” How did we end up there, you ask? Well, it all happened because of the red apple. That and a lot of vodka. My host mother had to work half a day on the 31st, which meant I got to stay home alone with the little ones. Have I mentioned before how much every member of my family likes yelling? Let me now. They all like yelling, a lot. This is understandable for the three-year-old and maybe even for the five-year-old, but really not for the ten and thirty-five-year-olds. Not in my book anyway. So I was left alone with the three youngest screamers, and eventually just couldn’t take it any more. I can’t exactly explain in Kazakh why screaming at someone doesn’t teach them that screaming is bad, so I gave up trying and just took the two little ones out for a walk, to get away from the noise and enjoy what was actually a pretty nice day. By the time I got home my host mother was back from work (screamer #4, by the way) and we started preparing the mass quantities of food that were needed for the celebration. I’ve talked about the food already, so I won’t get into it again except that to say we spent hours and hours in that kitchen. Then we set the table. Then we waited for Daddy dearest and his friends to show up. And we waited. A couple of his friends stopped by, but when they saw that he wasn’t around they left quickly. My host mother and I finally cracked open the vodka and wine respectively. A few minutes before the clock struck 12 my host father came stumbling through the door with a couple of cronies. He’d clearly opened his own bottle of vodka, or two or three, and was having trouble standing. He wasn’t, however, having any trouble socializing. I went to bed shortly after midnight because I’m just that cool, but he kept my host mother and 10-year-old sister up until 3 or 4 in the morning. She had to stay up, you see, to keep pouring the men their tea. Yay for equality.
Fast forward about twelve hours. My father, still drunk, has managed to gather my oldest sister and my mother’s parents from the next village. Luckily he doesn’t actually have his own car, so he just makes his friends drive him, and us, everywhere, which means his drunk driving is limited. One can only hope that his friends don’t drink half as much as he does. So, the family’s gathered, eating again, still, and all of a sudden a meltdown occurs and everybody is shouting. Through all of this the only words I understand are “kizil alma,” which means red apple. Also, many women are named Alma. Did my host father sleep with someone named Alma, or are they really fighting over apples? I had no idea, I only knew that it was a painfully awkward thing to be in the middle of. Everyone except my father and grandfather was crying. Once again I took the munchkins on a walk to get away from the worst of it. When I came back the fight was in full swing and more relatives had arrived. My father’s brother ended up tackling him up our staircase, which I think was the only violence in the whole incident. Luckily my father, while loud and obnoxious, is not really an aggressive or angry guy. So, eventually Anilla, Ali, Ayo, Samal, Aisulu, the grandparents, myself, and the driver piled in the tiny car and headed for the next village. My mother, Aisulu, was taking us away from the madness and to her parents’ house for a few days and I was seriously contemplating finding a different host family first thing the next morning.
But wait, there’s more. We all settled down to sleep that night, and of course there was a wicked storm with wind and snow and all of it. I couldn’t sleep because all of these images of horror stories were running through my head. Why, oh why did I read all that Joyce Carol Oates? Men killing small children in floods, doctors dissecting live specimens, uh. And then, over the wind, the sound of the gate slamming. Was it the wind? I had opened that gate earlier myself and new that it took a couple of stout kicks before it would budge. In my mind my host father had acquired a large pitchfork and torch and was come to burn down the house and murder us all. No, no, that’s only in stories. It was just the wind. But then someone knocked on the door, and sure enough we heard the slurred shouting of a drunk man. Lucky for the rest of us, the only person he wanted was his son. Once again, yay equality. However, no one was going to let this man run off into the storm, inebriated, with a sleeping three-year-old. In order to placate him Samal said she would go with him, which obviously was a slightly less worse idea. An 18-year-old stands a better chance of survival. The rest of my family, myself included, was still hiding out in the bedroom, but after they left my host mother sat up and looked at me and was like “Clara, I’m sure you want to go too, right?” which I actually did, but the whole situation was still a bit too sketch for me. Whatever, I happen to like Samal, and really didn’t want her dealing with this alone. So, I gathered my things and sprinted into the night after them and managed to catch them before they drove off. I was very relieved to find that once again, a friend was behind the wheel, not my father. Nothing else exciting happened that night but just to add insult to injury we woke up the next morning to find that the water wasn’t working, and continued not to work to for three days. The family also came back after three days. As far as I can tell the fight was never talked about, never really settled, but I asked Samal later and it really did start over red apples. Amazing what several bottles of alcohol and years of misogynistic culture can do to a couple.
Well, there’s what, three days I’ve made up in as many pages. Let’s hope the rest can be told in a somewhat more concise manner, but you can see why that one might be particularly vivid in the memory of someone who grew up in a painfully normal and passive family. On to the next event.
Oh yeah, way before that a cool cultural experience. I went with my family to what is called a “byet ashada,” or a face opening. This is what happens after a girl is bride-napped (stolen by a man who fancies her and forced to marry him). She has been staying in his house with his family for some time, and now gets dressed up in a traditional gown and has her head covered by an opaque white veil. 70-100 of the grooms closest friends and family gather to eat a giant feast, which the bride prepared the day before. During this feast the bride stands in her fancy get up, flanked by female members of the grooms family and says “salyem” (hello) to members of the family by bowing to them while they put money in a jar to help pay for the upcoming wedding party. At the end of all the bowing, her face is uncovered and she is shown officially to her new family. Very interesting to watch, but also a bit tragic once you realize that underneath the veil the bride is almost always sobbing uncontrollably. A bit of the old culture left over, but mainly only in the south of the country. The great thing is that this all happens at someone’s house, so a rug is laid down over the mud of the driveway, and the woman that was so dolled up was standing about fifteen feet away from some cows just hanging out, doin’ their business.
So this term is the longest of the year. All the other quarters are seven, eight, and nine weeks, but the third is eleven weeks. That’s a long time to go without break and due to my inability to say no to people, coupled with the fact that overworking is the easiest way not to get homesick, means that I’ve pulled some pretty long weeks of late. I’m not nearly so sugary to my poor host family as I was at first, and I feel bad about that, but I can’t help it. All I want to do when I get home is cuddle up with a book, or a movie, or write my lesson plans for the next day. I really don’t want to do my sister’s English homework with (and by for I mean for) her, I don’t want to run around and play with the munchkins, and I don’t want to watch my exhausted host mother pour cup after cup of tea for my host father, who is drunk about 65% of the time. I try not to be too antisocial, but I’m not sure I’m doing very well with that. I got used to living by myself at home, at having quite and no demands on my time except those I set myself. I am a selfish creature and it takes me a long time to adjust to new settings. A really long time, apparently. Actually, as of last week I am now able to move out and live on my own, or with people my age, but I really do like my family an awful lot, and it would be terribly lonely to live on my own in a foreign country. Plus then my language skills would improve even slower than they are currently. They might even deteriorate.
On March 8th Kazakhstan, along with all other former Soviet countries and a handful of others, celebrates Women’s Day. Sort of like our Mother’s day, only the women still have to work in the house all day, their husbands just give them flowers for their trouble that one day a year. You tell the guys here that in America sometimes men prepare food for their wives, clean the house, even occasionally do laundry, and they almost die of shock. Anyway, we spent all of last week preparing for the concerts that would celebrate the day. One of my extra-curricular activities has been a music club. Not many people come, usually around five, but those that do come are really in to it, and it is something that makes my week better, so I will always continue it. There are two girls in the 10th form to whom it really means a lot to be able to sing and to be able to choose the songs their own songs rather than be dictated to. They also happen to be the two students with the highest level of English in the school, so I enjoy working with them immensely. We decided to prepare two songs for the concerts, one by Avril Lavigne, a favourite of the girls’, and one by Greenday. What can I say, they like soft, modern emo-punk? Girls after my own high-school heart. The first we found music without lyrics for so they could perform it karaoke style. The second we were not so lucky on. Happily , it’s one of three songs I can stumble my way through on guitar, and I just happen to have acquired on of those over here (thank you Tobin). So, I brought my guitar to school one day. I don’t know why I didn’t do that earlier, only that I’m actually glad I didn’t. it was a sensation. The kids and teachers alike were entranced by it. Music is very important here, and musicians highly respected. They all just wanted to touch the instrument, and then take pictures of themselves holding it. We practiced our song a few times, until my finger-tips began to ache, then in came one of the schools maintenance guys. Guess what? He can play the guitar beautifully. By this time quite a few students had gathered and we basically had our own concert going on. The maintenance aghai played for a little while, then the school president brought out his dombra, the traditional two stringed instrument of Kazakhstan, and rocked out for a while. One of the things I love about this country is the fact that the coolest kids in school, the most modernized and punked out teenagers, still have so much respect for their history and tradition. I can’t imagine my high-school class president rocking out on banjo, or harmonica, or whatever America’s traditional instrument might be. And bringing a guitar to school in the states is just sickeningly passé. Heck, there was a kid who wandered the halls of my school playing the ukulele during breaks almost daily and he barely stood out from the crowd. That night my spirits soared. The kids were so happy, and its so great to watch people who are so willing to share themselves and their talents with those around them. Of course I butchered the song during the concert, and then the guy running the concert lost our recording of the Avril Lavigne song. Let’s just say that it was the middle of the week that counted and forget about the end of it. I got myself mighty riled up about it. The girls were pretty disappointed, and it took, well, is taking, some time for me to forgive certain people at the school.
So, Women’s Day came along, a marvelous two day break from school. These one day weekends really wear on a girl after a few months. Oh yeah, in case you aren’t counting as religiously as I am, the 6th month mark came and went back on February 20th. Needless to say I was ready to laze about solidly for two days. Well, a day and a half. I worked part of Monday, went to the nature reserve to teach a for a few hours, and to be given the ceremonious Women’s Day flowers by my tour guide “students” all but one of whom are older than me. But after that I was enjoying my Tuesday off. Oh, yeah, we worked on Sunday to make up for one of the days off we took. So, I slept in, cleaned my room, read an ever so cheery Ayn Rand novel, took a nap, then decided to go for a walk. The screaming of my younger siblings let to that decision, and ended my nap much earlier than I’d have liked, but it was also just a ridiculously beautiful day. So, I headed out in the direction I ran the day the farm boys rescued me. So long as I live here I will never walk that direction again. Twice is quite enough. Before I really dive into this story any further, I feel I should mention, in case I haven’t already, the nature of guys in this country, and of being a foreign female. Marriage is important, at an early age too, and being from a rich country I am of course perceived as rich. Either that or I’ve just gotten much prettier here in Kazakhstan than I was at home. That’s probably it, I’m just gorgeous now. Anyway, I’ve gotten countless marriage proposals in passing, and four or five somewhat serious ones. Two guys continue to date, but I’m pretty sure its all just fun and games now. One is a relative of my father’s, and the other is a guy who works with him. Nice, reasonable guys, both of them, of which there are quite a few in and around these parts, they’re just quieter than the not-so-nice guys.
So, anyway, guys hit on girls all the time and its just supposed to be okay. Girls don’t really get much say in it. I already mentioned the whole bride-napping thing. My own host sister is afraid to come visit her family in the village now that she is 18 and has a college diploma. It makes her a likely target for being napped. I get to be her escort when she does come around. But I’ve never felt threatened myself. They tend to only seriously target Kazakh women. So, I went on a walk by myself in the bright, warm, afternoon daylight. There were tons of people out and about in the streets, mostly young guys. That should have been enough of a clue to turn around. But they all seemed cheery enough, wishing all the ladies out-and-about a happy holiday. No, that’s a lie. They wished it in a rather menacing, leering way. I made the mistake of saying thank you in Kazakh. Never, if you look like a Russian, speak in Kazakh to people who already think you look a little different. It just solidifies that assumption. So, a couple of the guys started to follow me, asking my name in Russian, even though I’d already spoken Kazakh to them. After I ignored them for a while they stopped and I continued down the road. I kept getting stared at, but remembered from then on to say thank you in Russian, but even so, I look different. I dress different. I walk different. So, the reason I got rescued that one day by farm boys is that this particular road dead ends in the farmland. So, my choices were to either wind my way through the fields again, or double back through the gauntlet. I got even more stares the second time around, and some giggles from some smaller kids. When I passed back through the first group of guys again, they started following me again. I ignored them as long as I could, but eventually a couple got close enough to my bubble to make me angry and I had to tell them to stop. They laughed at me for a bit, but eventually did indeed stop. I walked on, nearing home, and growing increasingly proud of myself for not getting scared, for standing my ground and for not overreacting. Then I heard the sound of galloping hooves. For a brief moment I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if it was one of those guys went back and got a horse to come after me? Then I realized how actually unfunny that would be and picked up my pace a bit. But there was no way was actually what was happening, right? The pounding of hooves got closer and closer, and sure enough slowed down near me. Oh shit. I refused to look up. This was not actually happening. This sort of thing didn’t happen. Guys don’t chase down girls on horse-back just because they look a little different than other people, not in my world anyway. He asked again and again for my name and where I was from, mainly asking in Russian. Unfortunately for him, I’m not easily intimidated by horses. He kept steering his horse in front of me to cut me off, but all you have to do is push back and they move right along. Actually, I’d rather deal with having to push off a horse than having to push off a twenty-something guy. Eventually we came to a place where I could go through a gate that he couldn’t follow on a horse, and I managed to get away without him seeing exactly where I live. Never, ever again will I walk in that direction, or ever talk to strangers on the street again, at least not male strangers. But hey, it’s a story, right? And at least I know I don’t panic too easily. Happy Women’s Day. Maybe I should have talked to him after all. Might have gotten a free horse back ride out of the deal.
So, now I’ve gone on way too long, in way too much detail about the boring parts of life, but that is what stands out in my mind. Once again it seems too easy to focus on the negative parts of the story, but at this point I think of them less as negative and more just as colorful. Without them the last several months would seem a lot less exciting. In order to end on a positive note I’ll briefly mention a good bit of color. I’ve been planning a young women’s camp with a fellow volunteer who lives about an hour away. We’re trying to teach young women what there can be in life outside of getting married at 18, popping out babies and serving tea. Tomorrow I’m going to visit her to do some more planning and seeing as the days have been gorgeous of late we’re planning on teaching some Kazakh ladies how to play Ultimate, get some mud on their knee-high heeled black boots. I anticipate good times will be had by all. Hell, maybe I’ll even tell you all about it in another three or four months.
Oh yeah, something else glorious. I was at school late yesterday, doing club and work stuff, and all of a sudden one of the girls came and found me and literally dragged me into the physics room. All the girls that live at the school, which is probably around 60, had gathered to wish me, just me, a happy Women’s Day, give me a card and a rose and thank me for working with them. If I were a cryer, I would have been sobbing. It was so sweet, and awesome that they all did it and all got together. Its going to be so fun to work with them and see where they go in the next year and a half.
PS, it is now tomorrow, we played Ultimate, and it rocked. Especially the fact that girls in skirts and boots were body checking left and right. Whatever they lack in skill is more than made up for in enthusiasm.