Tuesday, August 27, 2013

я не понимаю

I had a professor my last semester of college who tried to explain to the class what learning was. (Our actual topic was the rhetoric of courtroom dramas, but we stuck to that theme somewhat loosely.) He asked us what we hoped to learn in the upcoming semester and then turned our answers back on us. "If I'm doing my job right," he told us, "You'll learn things you didn't know you didn't know."

I feel this way about living in Karaganda.

I feel it when I tune out the conversations of the people at the bus stop, because I can't understand what they're saying. I feel it when I try to Google something and I realize I exclusively frequent sites hosted in the west. I feel it when I strain to look at the signs and circulars, attempting to decipher what I can't read. I feel it when I stalk the aisles of the grocery store, examining unfamiliar spices and attempting to fathom how they're used. I feel it when I stare at stores or establishments from the outside, trying to figure out what they are on the inside.

I know that I don't know stuff. But I don't know exactly what it is yet. When you're in a new culture, your only frame of reference is the culture you left across the ocean. You just don't know what it is you don't know.

A few days ago we visited Рамстор, a supermarket that occasionally stocks peanut butter and in general carries more western-style food. Because it was lunchtime, and because I had turned down a meal at Mac & Dak (Kazakhstan's version of McDonald's), I resolved to find something from their prepared food section. And so I proceeded to order a slice of pizza . . . entirely in sign language.

In retrospect this wasn't necessary. Pizza is pronounced much the same in Russian as in English. I know the word for "one." The price was even written in a little card next to the pie. The obliging and amused smile of the girl behind the counter made the whole encounter more funny than humiliating, but I left feeling that this was not a sustainable way to conduct business out in public. As a child I learned how to read because I was frustrated I couldn't read the signs I saw out the car window. A similar motivation drives me to my Russian study every night. I want to make sense of the society around me, and I want to be able to make myself understood. 

Not sure what this sign over the bear cages at the zoo says, but I'm sure its meaning can be inferred.
The language barrier aside (and from within our flat it all but vanishes), so much about Karaganda feels similar to my home. I close my eyes and can imagine myself back in the USA, maybe even RI. The hum of traffic outside the window, my daily morning Nescafe, the buy-in-bulk supermarkets, the nightly Big Bang Theory & Settlers of Catan teammate bonding time. And the things that are different (the toilet closet comes to mind) I could easily get used to. (Like seriously, I don't know why I didn't realize this when we were in France last summer, but having the toilet in a separate room from the shower is the best idea!)

I bank on the promise that the longer I live here, the more I will learn. And though my instruction is not strictly academic anymore, the prospect of learning though exhausting still thrills me. It's a different kind of back to school season. 

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