Monday, August 23, 2010

Two Years and the surprises keep coming

Two Years!


I haven't been to America in two years. (I arrived in Kazakhstan 8/21/08). For the past 730 days, I have been in Kazakhstan for all about sixteen of them. Fifteen were spent in India and one was spent in Kyrgyzstan. It's been a long time. And it feels longer than I expected it would. Despite that, Kazakhstan is still full of surprises.


Example one: The other week I had some people from England visiting me. We were playing Frisbee with a local school and then the person who had organized the event invited all of us (four English guys, two PCVS, and Asela) back to her house for dinner. But the organizer was Kazakh, so big mass invites are not a big surprise. She calls home to find out that her family is actually at their grandmother's house. Slight change in plans, but we'll just go there for dinner. We hope they have enough to feed us.


After driving way outside of the center of the city, we find out that her family being at grandma's house meant ALL of her family. There were probably twenty to twenty-five guests already at the party. And there was plenty, plenty of beshbarmak for us. We sit down in the dining room and I'm just happy these English dudes are getting the gosting experience. They'd been in K-stan for two weeks already, but this is their first trip to someone's home. (Easy to get invites when you live here, but when traveling the big cities it can be difficult.)


This all is still pretty normal. Really, I mean there are seven people that a family barely knows eating at their house, but that's normal in Kazakhstan. These are hospitable people. Then one of the uncle starts talking about something. I don't understand and Asela is having trouble translating. Something about cutting. Oh, it's the circumcision talk again. It comes up sometimes, people talking about circumcision. Usually in the banya, but this still isn't out of the ordinay. Then the guy asks if we want to see what he's talking about. This isn't new either, but usually it's a joke.


He's not joking. All of a sudden, he lifts up a small boy, probably about two years old up on the table. The boy is only wearing a long t-shirt. The uncle lifts up the t-shirt and well there is an example of circumcision. From the telltale green antiseptic in the area, it seems like it is a fresh circumcision. The boy's smile is beaming as his uncle shows him off. Apparently this whole party was for him, some sort of Muslim version of a bris. I've been to many a gostings before, but that part was new. SURPRISE! (A friend later said that we should have given money to the kid as part of the tradition. If that ever happens again, I'll be ready.)


Example two: I was walking home the other day and I noticed a girl on the street had something in her hand that I hadn't seen before in Kazakhstan. It looked like a cup full of colored ice. It looked like a…. Then it hit me. The blini café. For the past two weeks, they'd had a sign out front with really blocky, pixilated pictures advertising a new "slosh". What's a slosh? (In my mind I associated it was cole slaw somehow, probably because it's written like "слаш" in Russian, which kinda looks like slaw if you read the c as a Russian s and the w as an English w instead of a "sh" sound.)


I went there to see for myself. Yes, there is was. Two nozzles attached to two spinning tanks. One purple. One yellow. Slushies! Slushies in Kazakhstan! SURPRISE. A country where most people are afraid of cold drink because it will give you a sore throat and ice is only seen in the winter usually on the ground. But here it was, in Taraz! Slushies! I immediately bought one.


Example three: Although, I'm getting tired of writing and want to eat dinner, so this will be short. We went to this café we though was Uzbek because it looked all fancy and stuff. Turns out its Moroccan, and they have couscous! Couscous in Kazakhstan. SURPRISE! It was so light and fluffy and awesome. Unfortunately, it was way too expensive, the rest of the food was awful, and the service was disappointing. But still, it's nice to know it's there if I ever really really want it.


Even after two years, this country is still full of things I'd never expect. And that's what makes me excited still heading into my third year. I may be experienced now, but the adventure is far from over. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Goals Two and Three

I often pick my English Club topics strictly based on what I want to talk about. So this week, there's been something on my from all the news I've been reading. It seems to be a controversy the media can't stop talking about. And no, I wouldn't dream of talking about Prop. 8 with my club. It's whether the "mosque" should be built in Manhattan at a site in the area near the 9/11 attacks.


In general, I try to avoid the subject of 9/11 with the people in Kazakhstan. It doesn't mean as much to them, not like it does to us. It's hard to hear them talk about it. Although, maybe for that reason I should talk about it more than I do. Here there is a lot of misinformation about the attacks. Apparently, if you put something in documentary form it must be true, and much of the population saw a documentary about how Americans really planned the attacks. Or how Jewish people were the masterminds to make Muslims look bad. People say these things as if they believe them; I think they do believe them.


Today, I thought that's where we needed to start the conversation. What happened on 9/11? I first heard their accounts. Some said that America planned it. Most knew about the two buildings, but had forgotten the two others planes. I decided to fill them in. Terrorists hijacked planes and attacked America. It was an attack by Al-Quida. Al-Quida was based strongly out of Afghanistan, and that's why American invaded. (These facts are true right? I also brought up the fact that some Americans still think Iraq was related to 9/11 somehow. Americans (and everyone) distort and confuse their history.)


I then asked them to describe the terrorists. What adjectives would they use? Crazy. Radical. Male. Extreme. Angry. Suicidal. The list went on. And I couldn't help but think what Americans would have said? What would the first adjective out of most American mouths? Muslim. It wasn't in their top ten. It wasn't even on their minds.


There were about fifteen people in today's club. Fourteen of them were "Muslim," in that if you asked their religion, they would probably say that. Although I don't think any of them abide strictly by the Muslim tenants. I've only met a handful of people here that pray every day, keep the fast during Ramdan, refuse alcohol, etc. Most Muslims here are really like most religious people in the world, their stated beliefs do not always match up with their actions.


I told the club that in America, Americans would have said Muslim terrorists attacked on 9/11, and they immediately responded by saying that isn't Islam. That's not their faith. Those people distorted Islam. They are like any radical group, using faith to masquerade their hatred and extremism. It's what everyone in Kazakhstan has ever told me about the hijackers on 9/11. The terrorists say that they are Muslim, but they aren't.


The topic of the club then moved on to the current controversy. Should Muslims be able to build a mosque near Ground Zero? In America, this is causing an endless debate that is entangling politicians, religious leaders, and pundits on all levels. For them, there was no debate.


Why not?, they asked. Why shouldn't they be able to build a mosque there? It's not like the radical terrorists are building a mosque there? It's just regular Muslims. They didn't cause 9/11.


I countered that many victims of 9/11 feel that it's offensive to them. They once again were confused. Why would it be offensive, they asked. I told them I didn't understand myself.


Then one of my sitemates asked if this was really an issue in America (she doesn't have Internet regularly and therefore hasn't seen this in the news). How many Americans really feel this way, she asked. Over 60% I told her, a clear majority of Americans oppose a mosque being built there.


Really? she asked in shock and disappointment. She sighed a familiar sigh of partial disbelief and confusion. I am familiar with that sigh.


See, it's part of Peace Corps goals to talk about America. It's always quoted "Goal 2: Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served." And it's great when I get to talk about how great America is. Our roads are paved so smooth. We have tons of amazing music artists. Our food and beer selection is out of this world. But sometimes I'm faced with the hard trust about what America really is. It's not perfect. At times, it has problems. There are homeless. There is racism. There is intolerance. Anyone familiar with America, knows that it has its fair share of problems. But usually, I get to talk about the progress we're making. Here, in this situation, it seems like we're moving backwards.


Maybe it's because I've been in Kazakhstan for two years, where a majority of the populating is Muslim. Maybe it's because my first three months were spent with an amazingly welcoming and observant Muslim family and I kept Ramadan with them. Maybe it's because I'm dating a Muslim girl. Maybe because of all of that, I completely fail to see why anyone would be opposed to building a mosque there or anywhere. 60% of Americans have a viewpoint that I not only disagree with, but I cannot even begin to understand.


Islam isn't something to be scared of. It's just another religion, like any other one. Muslims aren't to blame for 9/11. Terrorists are. And having to read that our President made a mistake by speaking out on what is right and just is infuriating. I feel ashamed to share a better understanding of Americans.


But then again, maybe that's why there's a third goal to the Peace Corps. Goal 3: Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. Sometimes, it's certainly needed.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Day time disco

Some things in Kazakhstan don't make sense. Okay, a lot of things
don't make sense. BUT one thing they do more logically is pricing for
movie theaters. While most American theaters divide movies into
matinees and evenings, theaters here have a sliding scale. The very
first show may be 400 tenge and the evening shows are 1000. Mid-day
shows fall somewhere in between.

I can't speak for all Peace Corps volunteers, but when I decide to see
a movie (I've seen three in two years) I prefer that early morning
show. So that's how Ken, Berik, and I ended up at the Mega in Astana
at 9:30, before the mall even opened. The only store we could go to
was Ramstor. Everything else was cut off by some guards. Early morning
mall-walkers are prohibited in Kazakhstan. At 10am we rush up the
stairs to the fourth floor and check the time for Inception (in
Russian, Nachalo, which I translate to beginning. Is that what
Inception means? Honestly, I don't really know. When does anyone even
use that word?) 10:50! And the cost is 600 tenge. Blin! The price at
the new tent-mall (way disappointing) was 500. But we're here and we
buy three tickets next to each other. Another difference (possibly
improvement?) is selling specific seats in the movie theater, rather
than having general admission.

Berik is grateful because he has 50 minutes to run home and get the
glasses he forgot. Ken and I have 50 minutes to wander an empty mall.

We walk across the food court to this place called Babylon. Imagine a
stripped-down mall version of a Chuck-E-Cheeze without pizza or a mall
arcade on steroids. This place has bumper cars, laser tag, arcade
games, a 4-d theater, air hockey, DDR, etc. If you want to blow some
tenge, it's a good place to go. We weren't looking to spend any money
though and just wanted to check it out.

We walk in and see a strange site, even for Kazakhstan. There was a
circle of their employees (all Kazakh teenagers probably with summer
jobs) dancing in the middle of the arcade. I thought it was some
Target-like morning teambuilder. And it was strange to watch. Almost
embarrassing to watch. We started wandering the empty center and I
made my way to the ticket counter. I wanted to know how much
everything cost. The woman there said that bowling had been replaced
with roller skating, laser tag was 300 tenge for fifteen minutes, and
there was a morning discotheque every day if we wanted to join in.

Disco-teque! That wasn't a morning warm-up. That was a kid's disco!
What else were we supposed to do for fifty minutes? Ken and I
immediately decided to join in.

By this time, the circle of ten Kazakh teenagers had been joined by a
Russian father and his daughter, who was about four years old. A
skeptical mother sat out on the side, not having nearly as much fun as
enthusiastic father and daughter. The circle had two dance leaders who
were leading the scripted hand and dance motions for each song. Ken
and I joined in and quickly caught on with the choreography (it was
for children, after all). And honestly, there I was in my clothes that
hadn't been washed in a week, beard that hadn't been trimmed in two
weeks, and I don't think I've ever felt more self-conscious in my
life. I couldn't help but wonder what they thought of me and Ken, two
random strange-looking people speaking English with one another, who
just happened to be at the kid's disco at 10am on a Sunday morning.

Three songs in, my concerns were slightly abated when all of a sudden
the dancing circle broke down into a game of apparent tickle tag. Ken
and I had no idea what was going on when one of the Babylon employees
came running at us and got us each with a quick tickle attack. Next
the Russian father got us from behind. Nothing says acceptance like
voluntarily tickling of another person, and I felt a little more at
ease after that. The rest of the dances were fun if we had been small
children or if you were not a small child but had nothing else to do
or if you have a heart. We did conga lines, heart motions, brought the
circle in, brought the circle out, etc. And then the clock hit 10:30
and it all ended.

Kazakhstan has been full of strange experiences, but that was probably
one of the strangest.

(And yeah, we saw the movie at 10:50. It was good, and we understood
almost all of it in Russian. The next question is should I see The
Expendables at the movie theater because there's a lot of action and
explosions, or wait and see it on video because the voices won't be
dubbed over into Russian?)

Monday, August 2, 2010

My Week in a Yurt

Last year for baseball camp, we all stayed at Dave's run-down, dirty apartment. This year the plan was for us to stay there again, even though Dave didn't live there. Jessica was supposed to move there before baseball camp, but certain things (like we live in Kazakhstan) interfered with that. So baseball camp was approaching and we had no where to stay. Jessica and I were exchanging some texts about the fate of the twelve people coming to camp, when I remembered something.

Me: Isn't there a yurt in your front yard?

J: Yes, and it has a TV.

Me: A TV with a yurt. Do you think we can watch the World Cup final in the yurt?

J: I'll ask.

And the housing problem was solved. We'd sleep in a yurt, use the bathroom at Aigul's apartment/a field near the yurt/behind Jessica's organization, cook in Dave's old place/Jessica's future place, and eat in the yurt. Or most people would. I commuted to the city most days. For work, not so I wouldn't have to sleep in the yurt. That part was awesome.

So Day One. It's Sunday night and there are about eight of us and we have a dilemma. It's the world cup final. I've already forgotten whom. Oh yeah, the Netherlands and Spain. The yurt does have a TV. It gets five channels really well. And three channels super fuzzy. The world cup is usually on Habar or EDA. Habar is clear; EDA is super fuzzy. If we stay and watch the game in the yurt we risk the chance of not seeing the game, if its only on EDA. However, if it's on Habar, we get to say we watched the 2010 World Cup Final in a yurt in Kazakhstan. That's an icebreaker at future cocktail parties. "Oh yes, do you remember that year Spain beat the Netherlands. I was serving in Peace Corps at the time and watched it live from a yurt."

We decided to go to Jessica's friends house for the first half and then walk home at half time if we can confirm that it is on Habar. Dilemma solved. We watch the first half at her friend's house, but they have satellite. Their broadcast is showing on Russia2. That channel is not in the yurt. I call other PCVs until I find out that yes, it is on Habar. Half time comes and we walk home. And almost get eaten by dogs, but luckily didn't. And we get to the yurt in the fiftieth minute.

Most of us manage to stay up until the end of the game, but to be honest, I think only Chris and maybe Jon were awake for the end. I woke up briefly when Spain scored the gamewinner, dozed back off, then woke up at the end. I remember Kyle wanted to know the score (for the people who read Kyle's blog as well, this is the guy that posted about the World Cup at the start of it with predictions and all. Then fell asleep during the US/England game and then missed out on the final to go to some party), and I was so tired I had to will myself to press each key, "Spain wins in extra time." The next day I had to check my phone because I wasn't sure if I had dreamt it or not.

But yurt living was sweet. The only problems were when it rained one night and we were too lazy to figure out how to put the top cover on. And they had taken the Nintendo Wii out of the yurt when we got there. (Yes, that sentence is correct.) But it was cool at night and we had plenty of floor pads and even two beds!