Monday, December 29, 2008

Я не понимаю

Language is definitely an issue that you have if you join the Peace Corps. I mean, they do a great job during pre-service training, but you still get to site with such low capability, the simplest things can sometimes be difficult. But then again, sometimes you understand what people are trying to say, and you still don’t understand.

1. A guy shows up at my new office and asks if my boss/counterpart has faxed anything to him yet from another city. I tell him that I don’t know what he’s talking about. And my counterpart didn’t say anything about a fax to me (and we had spoken five minutes before on the phone.) The guy seemed frustrated, talked with some other people in the office, and then left.

2. Business plans. That’s what I do now apparently. Everyone in the office knows it. I hear it all the time. You do business plans, right? Yeah, I reluctantly say. Somehow, that makes sense to everyone else. Business plans. No direction on how many to do. Who to do them for. Etc. Just business plans. This is completely vague to me, but it’s so obvious to everyone else, they don’t even understand when I try to tell them I don’t understand.

3. Computers. That’s my other job. Although I am no computer whiz by any means, I would say I know more than average about most of the machines. (Highlights include fixing a scanner here, fixing the Internet (okay installing modem drivers), and installing printer drivers. Failures include two scanners, a printer, and an operating system crash. Sometimes it’s the Russian; sometimes it’s the hardware). Anyway…one of my new coworkers asked me about an accounting program and a video card. There were some other words in the sentence, but those were the main ideas. Accounting program. Video card. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how they would ever go together in the same sentence. Maybe when my language improves, I’ll understand what he was asking; I’m excited to know.

4. I had the following conversation with my new workplace today:

Me: Okay, say I want to open up a new business. A discoteque here. How can the business center help me?
Business Center: Right now, we don’t have any money to give out. We only have funding for our salaries. So we say, sorry, we have no money.
Me: So what help can you give me? I want to open a business.
BC: We can give you information.
Me: What information?
BC: Information about how to write a business plan.
Me: You mean, I could give them information. The information I wrote about business plans last week.
BC: Yeah.

So I still don’t understand what they do at the business center. Or maybe I do understand. And my brain just refuses to accept it.

(Written several weeks ago. Some of these have been cleared up. I help anyone out with business plans when they show up. One person has come. Once. The business center also gives out gifts to certain business men at the end of the year.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

Oh yeah, I forgot to say it in my holiday post. Merry Christmas to all
my friends, family, and readers of thisblog!

Merry Christmas

Oh yeah, I forgot to say it in my holiday post. Merry Christmas to all
my friends, family, and readers of my blog!

Monday, December 22, 2008


I don’t think you can really appreciate what Christmas means in America until you spend the holiday season in a country that has no concept of the holiday. It’s now December 22 in Kazakhstan, and it feels like any other time of year. There are no lights on houses. No Salvation Army volunteers ringing bells for donations. No ABC Family movies about someone finding the true spirit of the season. There’s the Christmas music I play at work, a Santa Claus wreath I bought last week hanging in our foyer, and the thought of celebrating somehow this week.

In a way that almost makes it worse, New Year’s here is kind of like Christmas. They have a Santa Claus (Ded Moroz (Father Snow)) that gives presents to children. They put up yolka (New Year’s trees) with ornaments on them. They give small presents. They have friends and family over. But Christmas? It is not Christmas. So when I explain Christmas, I can’t begin to capture what it really means. The complex religious and secular struggle that occurs every year that ultimately results in a spirit of giving and charity whether its for the right or wrong reasons. I don’t know how to express that yet in Russian, and even if I ever learn, I don’t think people can really understand how much it permeates the culture of America. For them, they hear Santa Claus, trees, gifts. Oh, like New Year’s. And that’s their association.

But when you aren’t there, you realize what Christmas is. It’s an industry. From Thanksgiving until December 25, America focuses on Christmas. The outward appearance of houses changes for weeks. Stores decorate. Commercials incorporate holiday images. Store displays have to have red and green. Churches schedule events and nativity scenes. Charitable giving increases. There are holiday parties for the office, for the schools, and for the needy. Hundreds of songs are written, records are produced, and radio stations change their entire programming. Some (maybe most) of it is commercial, just another part of American marketing taking an idea and milking it for capitalist greed. But despite that, the “spirit” of Christmas is hard to avoid. The idea that this is a special time of year for giving and family and thinking of others. And this season lasts almost a full month. That’s about 8% of the year. Which is really a long time if you think about it.

And really, I think it’s great. And I miss it. I’ll probably buy a New Year’s tree tomorrow. Decorate it Christmas Eve with my host family and give some presents to my host-niece Toma. And it’ll be great to share “Christmas.” And I’m sure they’ll love sharing in this American tradition in a novel sort of way. But they won’t understand. They can’t understand.

They say that living in a new culture often teaches you as much about your own as it does about the one you are exposed to. And I’m definitely beginning to believe that’s true. I can’t help but think of that ridiculous song about African children knowing whether or not it’s Christmas. They probably don’t. And Christmas there wouldn’t mean what Christmas mean in America. It’s gone beyond religious and secular; it’s something that’s cultural. And while it can be easy to share culture, it’s a hard thing for others to really understand.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

One of the most popular questions for people who are applying for the Peace Corps is the well what are you going to do. I used to joke that I wouldn’t know until I was in country for a year. But then I would tell them whatever information I knew at the time. It evolved from helping an organization, to helping an organization in Kazakhstan develop vague skills, to working in my current town at the organization Mynbulak. Well, my first answer was probably the most accurate. Four weeks at site, and I still have no idea what I’m doing here.

See my organization was a great organization a few years ago. It won grants, did projects, had an office, etc. However, then the people who worked at it moved to a new city. Organization put on hold. The people who had worked there heard about Peace Corps though and had some experience working with a volunteer in another town. So they applied for a volunteer at their old organization, and they got one. Namely me. Problem is, that’s it. Me. I was working sami (by myself), and the whole point of the Peace Corps is to collaborate with local people. So Peace Corps said that had to change.

So now I am at the business center in the town’s city hall. I am supposed to help write business plans and develop small business in the region. It sounds like a good overall plan, but I am not really sure how it will all work. My current impression is that the business center does not do such projects, and it may be me once again doing projects all by my lonesome. I’ve only been here three days, so there’s still a lot of information to learn. Hopefully, I will have some sort of good work plan established by the New Year though.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Turkey Day

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday back in the States. And being so far away from it this year allowed me to reflect on why that is. I realized it’s just so simply celebrated. There are no costumes, no gifts, no cards, and little decorations. Just friends, family, and food. (One of the volunteers pointed out that I must not be preparing the Thanksgiving dinner if I think it is simply celebrated. Point taken, but still, there’s a simple nature to how you celebrate it).

This was the first time I was away from my family on Thanksgiving. The day itself came and went rather unceremoniously, but I did celebrate in a number of small ways. One. I printed out little cards in Russian saying that today was a holiday in America and I was thankful for all of the hospitality I had received in Kazakhstan. I gave out small pieces of candy with this note, possibly forever confusing Halloween and Thanksgiving in the minds of dozens of Kazakhstanis. Two. I smsed Thanksgiving notes to other volunteers with text from, which is how I celebrate holidays back home. Three. I made mashed potatoes, with lard substituted for butter (making me realize what that distinctive taste in all of their food finally is).

However, for me the real holiday was celebrated on Saturday. And it was awesome! Six of us PCVs gathered in Taraz to put on a Thanksgiving to remember for ourselves and about a dozen locals. Dave managed to buy, kill, and clean about a ten pound turkey. Susanna cooked apple and pumpkin pie, as well as took care of cooking the turkey and the stuffing. Jenny made some glazed carrots and whole grain mac and cheese. Matt cooked some amazing fish cakes and corn bread muffins. Jamie covered the mashed potatoes, tomato and cucumber salad, brownies, and pumpkin bread. I made a Hotard casserole and sweet tea. Each of us spent time over the hot stove and used the oven in shifts to get everything ready.

Seems pretty authentic, right? Well, we were missing football. Until Jamie remembered she had the Fiesta Bowl game between Oklahoma and Boise State saved on her computer. Not just a football game, but maybe one of the greatest football games ever played. The game finished as the guests were arriving, which allowed ten locals to watch me freak out over a game I had already seen. Part of the emotion was real, and part of it was trying to recreate what I had felt that first time watching the game. I wanted to expose them to what watching football was like in America. Not a single one of them had any real idea what was going on, nor why the hook and ladder play was just ridiculous. They did understand the proposal at teh

After the game ended, we finally got around to eating our feast. Amazingly it really felt like Thanksgiving. The food, the football, the friends. And everything was really good. There honestly wasn’t a weak dish among the bunch. Apparently, we have some good cooks down here in the Zhambyl Oblast.

In order to spice up the post-eating party, we decided to play a few rounds of Bear, Ninja, Cowboy. Except someone wanted to make the game more seasonal, so we played Bear, Cowboy, Indian. It’s a variation on Rock, Paper, Scissors in which full body motions and sound effects are required. Then finally, pie was eaten, food was gone, and the guests all went home. And we were left there with tons of dishes and the immense satisfaction of having done Thanksgiving right. It felt great.