Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Perfect Weekend (one)

The Perfect Weekend

I plan to move to Taraz in a couple days to work at my new site, but it’s days like this that make me wonder if I made the right decision. (Of course, it’s a weekend, and that means I’m not at work.)

Saturday was the KVN Zhambyl Oblast Finals. Our team got a late start practicing, but we spent all day Friday running through our skits. I had a small role. I would read a few questions in Kazakh and sit there while they sang some songs. We left for Taraz early in the morning and on the way our van stopped in a field of wild flowers to take pictures of the group. We also rapped and sang to the sounds of Kairat’s sweet guitar playing during the ride. I felt like I was with a group of people who I was really friends with, and we were just hanging.

The competition itself flew by. I doubt I’ll be asked to be on a team in Taraz, so this is probably my last competition. We ended up placing second and winning a digital camera. I also broke the news to the team that I would be moving to Taraz. They were sad, but eventually agreed I could probably be a more effective worker there. (They also claimed we were going to Astana in the winter. Of course, no one had ever told me that. I maybe could have held on to make my dreams of being a Kazakh Superstar come true.) After the competition, I met someone from my new organization and we looked at an apartment together. It’s near the center and furnished, but soooooo small. I’m going to live there at first, but I want something bigger with a balcony I think. But for now I just need to get into the city to start my new job. I made me way back to my site and stayed up late watching a movie in Russian with my host brother.

Sunday I slept in and then worked in the garden some. Nurdalet and I threw the Frisbee around and then played soccer in the street with some neighborhood boys. I watched some KVN on TV, spoke with some of my Peace Corps friends on the phone, helped make dinner (okay, I watched. But I was about to put some of the dough through the noodle-cutting-out-machine before they stopped me. Okay, I also watched them work in the garden, but I did use a scythe for a little bit for photos which unfortunately didn’t work.), and now I’m just working on some computer stuff.

A great weekend. Fun, relaxing, completely local. I’m going to miss the days like this. I know I’ll eventually make friends in the city, but for now I’m leaving this support system for something unknown. And I’m leaving weekends like this.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

I changed sites

I changed sites. The reasons are complicated, but not. I felt like my organization was not providing me with enough quality work. The director was having a lot of things going on and was being pulled in different directions by his bosses. I spent most days sitting in our office trying to find things for me to do or planning projects that would never be implemented. Back in March, my manager gave me a deadline: work by June or you’re moving.

I had fought a site change for a while. I wanted to stay. I wanted to make it work. I had (and still have) this great vision for what the business incubator could be. So I accepted the deadline and thought we’d do something. Anything. And I could stay.

But then we didn’t. And I realized that I wasn’t sure if we ever would. So when my manger came to visit my site again, I said I was ready. I was tired of trying and trying without seeing any results. Without seeing any reciprocation from my coworkers.

Sadly, I was beginning to feel more integrated into my community, especially over the last four weeks. I had joined the comedy team. I have been playing soccer twice a week for months now. I made more English speaking friends and have been hanging out with them. My host brothers have been home for a while and will start to do some remodeling work soon on our house. I was going to help. Spring is here and people are more active. The sun doesn’t set so late so I can stay out later walking around. I’ll miss this place. It felt like home. My little community that no one else appreciates. I was the American here. And now I’m leaving all that.

But I’ll be closeby. Only 40 minutes (truthfully 2 hours with waiting, but 40 minute travel time.) I’ll be in Taraz, which is my favorite city in Kazakhstan. I already have friends there through other volunteers and through family and gostings and the train. I’ll move out on my own (which I wasn’t planning on doing quite yet), so I’ll cook more and eat better. Vegetables will be a regular part of my diet, especially with summer coming. But most importantly, I’ll have work.

I’ll be at Zhambyl Zhastara, an organization I’ve actually worked with a few times in the past. They focus on youth development through education, leadership, and volunteerism. I actually have a certificate in Leadership and Service from UGA, so I feel uniquely qualified to work there. They also want help marketing their programs to the community, which I think I could also be good at. They’ve had a volunteer in the past, a few years ago, but not recently. But that means they know how to work with a volunteer. They speak Russian (and English), but both of those are much better than the Kazakh spoken in my current office (not an overall judgment of the language but simply because I didn’t study Kazakh). Maybe most importantly, they have pre-existing programs and projects. I’ll be able to jump right in with helping them and hopefully eventually propose my own. They understand what a volunteer can offer and they want that.

So now I’m saying my final goodbyes at my old site. I’ll certainly miss the people. The people were always great. My acquaintances, my friends, and especially my family and coworkers. I’ll miss my morning exchange with the security guard, being jokingly pestered by the drivers, and the office culture that I finally warmed up to. This was an experience I could have never gotten anywhere else, and I’m happy to have gone through it. I’ve enjoyed it here. Thank you to all the people here who have made my life wonderful during my time in Zhualy. I’ll be back to visit.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Kazakh Superstar

A week earlier I would have never imagined it. There I was standing in front of hundreds of applauding people, dressed in authentic Kazakh clothing, receiving an award that I wasn’t quite sure what was for. I had just finished my first KVN competition and apparently was given the award for best overall performer. My team placed second and received a DVD player. More importantly, I felt like I was making real friends with locals my age.

Okay, so for those of you that aren’t living in the former Soviet Union or are, but are living under a rock, KVN(w/link) is a popular form of entertainment that doesn’t really exist in the United States. Basically, it’s a competition where teams (of anywhere between three and ten people) are given around ten minutes to be as entertaining/funny as possible. It’s like improv, except you prepare for the show beforehand. (So I guess it’s not really like improv, but it feels like that to me.) Most of the skits are about 30 to 60 seconds long, meaning in your allotted time you perform about eight to ten skits. It’s extremely popular here, in Russian, and maybe in other CIS countries, especially in the schools, colleges, and universities.

So when some people from work asked if I wanted to join their team, I jumped at the opportunity. However, like the rest of my life here, all of it was in Kazakh. Except for most of my lines, which were in English. Yes, I am pretty much an English-speaking prop for the team, but being the token white guy is a role I’m comfortable with (see India Nite 2006). However, because it was all in Kazakh, it meant that I didn’t understand most of the jokes. And even when they were translated, I didn’t think they were all that funny. But humor is probably one of the last things you acquire when you assimilate into a culture.

My friend Hanman says that KVN reminds him of Boy Scout campfire skits. Since I wasn’t a boy scout, I don’t know. To me, it’s like Robot Chicken, but not as funny. You want the jokes to be quick, and the laughs usually hinge on a radical change in expectation. At least that was our style. It’s not so much a skit with funny characters, as a joke acted out with a punchline at the end. An example is one of our guys crying longingly over the apparent dead body of a girl, and her waking up and asking what’s wrong.

We practiced a lot for a week before the show. Mostly staying after work, saying we would practice, running through the skits one time, sitting around for an hour hanging out, then going home. It wasn’t very efficient practicing, but we spent a lot of time doing it. But it was fun to sit around and joke with locals. And one of the great things about KVN is that the people that do it are usually funny, entertaining people. The people you’d want to pal around with after work.

Finally, the big day came, and we ran through final rehearsals. I would be in five of the twelve skits we had planned. First, I’d recite a Kazakh poem that I learned by heart to endear the crowd to me. Next, there would be a skit in which I’d be in the mountains and there’d be an echo, but it wouldn’t be able to translate my English. Next, I’d have a line in Kazakh about alcohol being the best translator in a skit involving being stopped by the police. Then I was in a skit contrasting American and Kazakh music videos. Mine was made with a cameraman, theirs was made with a cell phone. Finally, I’d close the show by saying local Zhualinski (my region’s) girls are the most beautiful. I’d also be wearing traditional Kazakh clothes. Why? Because it’s always better when you make the guy who already stands out, stand out even more.

We drew the third slot, and anxiously waited backstage for our turn. The team before ours ran out of time before finishing, and left the stage angrily. Then us. Of course, it was a blur once you actually begin to perform. I do remember that the audience was laughing quite a bit. That was unexpected from me, but like I said, I don’t understand the humor. No mistakes. Under time. Awesome. I watched the rest of the show from backstage. Only one other team was definitely funnier than us. Everyone else seemd to get less laughs. When the judges gave out the scores, we received all fives, and were tied with the other team that seemed funny. (Should I mention somewhere that our team made up of people from the local government and the local political party, and two of our coworkers were on the jury. Not that that sort of thing matters here.)

Oh, and the skits are just one part of the competition. The other part is either having to answer questions from the judges or tell prepared jokes. For our show, we had questions from the judges. So once everyone was done, all the performers went out on the stage. I answered one question using complicated English words, the joke being that I had given them an answer, but they couldn’t understand it. Funny? Maybe? My team pushed me out to the mic a few minutes later and told me to do it again. I resisted, got there, froze, and said, “Kazakhstan Kutti Bolson.” I don’t know what that would mean, but you always say kutti bolson after the holidays, so it’s something good. Finally, the judges went off to deliberate and the audience was given their chance to ask question. That’s when someone asked “When did Michael learn Kazakh?” and I learned “None of your d*#n business” in Kazakh. That got a lot of laughs.

Then the judges came back. And I got a diploma. And then my team got a DVD player. And I got a lot of congratulations.

Since that original competition, my team placed third in the oblast semi-finals, but that earned us a spot in the finals in two weeks. When I came to Kazakhstan, I had the unrealistic goal of becoming a star in one of their horse games. That’s shifted now. I’m going to be a KVN star.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Help out volunteers from America

While I’m pretty much waiting for my organization to want anything before writing a grant, one of my friends here just wrote one for his organization and got it posted online. Specifically, it’s a Peace Corps Partnership Program Grant. It allows people in America to fund volunteer projects abroad. His specific project is teaching Kazakh to local citizens so they can get better jobs. As someone that works in a local government office, I can attest to the severity of this need. So check out his blog and his grant. If you have some extra cash you lying around somehow in this crisis, maybe think about giving. And consider making PCPP grants part of your annual giving. It’s a great way to fund grassroots projects in communities that really need them all around the world.

Kyle's Blog
Kyle's Grant