Friday, October 25, 2013

Itty Bitty Bits and Bolts

When we first drove in to Karaganda in the middle of the night, I lay awake thinking about how what I had just seen of my new home was not so different from what I had left in the states. Magnum Supermarket, the variety of car brands, and the music on the radio were all reminiscent of the west. Karaganda is a modern and comfortable city, and learning the basics of life here has been only a small challenge. Now that we've been here a while, the differences are beginning to peep back out at me. Below are some comparative observations describing some small but maybe unexpected differences between how we do things in the US and how it's done here.

• Eggs come in bags. And they are not all uniformly shaped like in the US, but instead they are a variety of sizes and have farmyard junk still on them.

• The egg yolks are pale. When I make scrambled eggs the mixture is almost gray. A quick Google search tells me this is because of the chicken's diet and doesn't affect the nutritional value, so that's good, but the color takes getting used to.

• The milk is not refrigerated. Once you open it, yes, of course, you keep it in the fridge, but in the market the milk is kept next to the coolers, not in it. I guess this is okay because the milk is pasteurized?

• Spices are, for the most part, in cellophane packets, not shakers. Salt comes in a huge bag.

• Vegetable and corn oils are not very popular here. Mostly people use sunflower oil when frying things, and though I was able to find olive oil, it was kind of expensive. For the record, sunflower oil is awesome!

• They don't have lettuce here. I guess it makes sense, their soil isn't really well suited to growing it, and it's tough to import, I suppose, but "salad" here is of the mayonnaise-heavy variety.

Speaking of produce, let's talk about how freakishly large this carrot is.

• There is no real butter. Our administrator tells us there is one place in the whole city that sells 100% real butter and that it's very expensive. We only eat margarine. You can buy it either as slabs wrapped in cellophane, or branded and wrapped in foil. We get President brand, which boasts that it is 82% real butter.

• In the freezer section, they have huge bins full of frozen whatever, maybe a bin of breaded chicken patties and a bin of manti and a bin of shrimp, and you scoop however much you want into a plastic bag. You take it to a weigh station and they give you a sticker with the price. It's the same for produce and pasta.

• You have to pay for your meat at the meat counter, not at the cashier with the rest of your stuff. (This kind of grosses me out, because first the butcher weighs and bags your meat, and then he takes your money. I feel like there's cross-contamination potential.)

• In cafes, you don't order at the counter as you would in the US, but instead waitstaff comes to your table to take your order. (I don't know if this is true uniformly, because I haven't had the courage or the money to eat out often, but in each of my limited experiences so far, this has been the case. I observed this also in Europe, so maybe counter service is strictly a USA thing?)

• You aren't allowed to bring big bags into the market. They have lockers or bag checks by the door, and after you stash your bag there you can enter the market through a little gate. This appears to be very effective against preventing shoplifting. In the US I think you see this less often because our stores have more open space for easier surveillance. 

• You're not allowed to play cards in public. As it was explained to me, card games are for gambling and gambling is not allowed for children, so to prevent corrupting the youth, you can only play cards inside a designated gambling establishment. (I've seen many such places, e.g. FairPlay or Bet Club.)

• Kids are not allowed out and about after 11pm. They have a curfew.

• Kids go to school six days a week. Their only day off is Sunday. They have least have four vacations a year: three months in the summer, and then two weeks in the fall, winter, and spring. And they have to dress up for school, even public school, they wear suits (complete with ties!) and skirts and the like. 

• McDonald's isn't in Kazakhstan at all. Probably one of the few countries in the world boasting its absence. According to the internet, KZ is too big to support the supply chain logistics and freshness standards McDonald's requires. Which makes me question how there's a Burger King and a Hardee's in Astana, or how Kazakhstan's spin-off chain Mag & Duk exists. 

• At the end of a performance, people clap in unison. Instead of applause with everyone clapping with their own frequency, everyone kind of harmonizes to one beat, a little like a repeating forensic clap. We've seen two musicals at the theater here, and this has been the case both times. It's definitely a lot less tiring, but it also equips people to clap for longer, which leads to an awkward ambiguity of, "Okay, so, are we going to stop clapping now?" (But then, I harbor a healthy level of discomfort about ovations pretty much everywhere I go.)

• People infrequently type emoticons with colons, usually they just type three parenthesis marks. Like this, )))
That confused me for like two months. I thought Russian keyboards just didn't have punctuation marks.

• The government controls the heat. A vestige leftover from the Soviet era, when the weather gets cold the government flips a switch and turns on the heat district by district. There is no thermostat in any of the buildings, and often our flat is so hot that we leave our windows open. It was particularly brutal when we had a cold spell in September that made the heat come on, and then in the beginning of October it got back up into the 70's while the heat pumped on.

The courtyard behind Daryn

• People blow their noses on the ground. In a place where it's so cold all year round it stands to reason that runny noses are a common enough occurrence, and I guess it seems hygienic enough to drop that mucus on the ground, rather than carry it on a tissue in your pocket. 

• Drinking glasses here are small. I handed a "normal-sized" glass to a guest who remarked, "Whoa!" The glasses that where in our apartment when we arrived are like itty bitty doll glasses. They hold like two swallows of liquid. Even at restaurants, where they supposedly have big glasses, they're really more like medium-sized.

• It is so cheap to have a baby here, if it's not completely free. At the public hospitals it shouldn't cost you anything to have your baby, and we're told mothers are required to stay overnight after delivering. If you want to give birth at a private hospital, it can cost up to a thousand USD, which sounds like a great deal compared to the USA where it can cost between $7000 and $10000 easy.

• And speaking of things that are cheaper, higher education costs three thousand USD here, which is admittedly somewhat expensive considering Kazakh income, but many students with good grades are able to go to school on government scholarships, meaning few have to pay the ticket price. 

When I first arrived, I told a few of my students that I didn't feel as though life in Karaganda was dramatically different than back home. It's not as though we were eating tripe every day or dressing in full traditional attire. All the similarities made coping with the culture shift delightfully comparative, and I started expecting the familiar. I guess that's why now, as we settle in more, I am more attuned to these petty differences and diversions from what I am used to. It's strange to encounter the unfamiliar in a place that is beginning to feel more and more like home.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Trying to carry out the basics of modern life in a city where you don't speak the language is always a good time. Wednesday is adventure day for Bet and I. Neither of us have night classes on this day, just a class in the afternoon (she at the language center, me at Daryn), so we galavant without the couple on this day. Here are a few anecdotes from one such Wednesday.

Rainy autumn Kazakh adventure time!
One of the electrical sockets in our flat has not been kind to Bet's power adapter. After a day of wire melting it had a kind of questionable functionality and we determined it needed to be replaced. Bet asked our administrator at the language center what she should say upon entering the computer store, and our administrator did a double take. Surely we were not thinking of venturing on such an errand without a translator! The best thing to do, she advised Bet, was to take the charger (visibly frayed), point, and say, "эта проблема." I met Bet at City Mall and we entered together. Safety in numbers.

It wasn't busy inside, so we were immediately approached by a парень in an argyle sweater. Bet did as our administrator had instructed and handed him a piece of paper on which our administrator had written a question about the wire. I pointed to the right adapter in the display case, and realizing we spoke not a word of Russian, the associate whipped out a calculator and showed us the price both in tenge and USD. "I need more cash," Bet told me, and the guy looked at me expectantly. "Um . . ." I tried to remember the word for ATM. "One minute, банкомат!" We did a lap around the first floor of the mall, but couldn't spot one. I asked the lady at Ramstor's bag check, "извините, где банкомат?" And then she started giving me directions, not just a simple "there" or "to the left" or "on the second floor", but instead lots of words came out of her mouth, lots and lots of words. After we thanked her and walked away in the general direction she had pointed, Bet asked, "What did she say?" but I hadn't a clue. 

After some aimless wandering around all three floors of City Mall we located an ATM. And it was just our luck, the ATM had a big sign over it. "Do you think that applies to us?" There was only one way to find out. I guess it didn't because we withdrew cash without a problem, and were back in iPoint a few seconds later. As we waited to be rung out, the associate made small talk. "American or Canadian? Or Australian? Or German?" I don't know how he knew we weren't from the UK. "Students?" When we told him we were teachers he wanted to know where. I gestured vaguely, "Yermekov 49." There was another patron standing at the counter who clarified for me, "сорок девять." When she spoke, the associate started smirking. "She my wife!" he told us, and looped the display cabinet's key ring around his finger. "See?!" She rolled her eyes and said something to hurry the cashier (who was shaking his head) along. The cashier handed Bet a piece of paper and hesitated. He said something to the woman who turned to Bet and translated, "Signature." After Bet signed he handed the receipt to the associate who slipped it into the bag carrying the power adapter. "Good-bye!" he smiled teasingly and hid the power adapter behind his back. When the joking finally ceased, we left and Bet turned to me, "What just happened?"

I resolved in that moment to be goofy with foreigners; the best way to spare others of embarrassment is to embarrass yourself.

Picture frames for sale in ЦУМ. Someone tell Hilary Duff how beloved she still is in KZ!
We walked down the street to ЦУМ just to take a look around. I'm in need of a winter coat, so we stopped in a shop to take a look, and an ambitiously helpful clerk questioned Bet, who immediately broke the bad news of our Russian ignorance. Still, the clerk pointed at me and rattled something else off in Russian. All I heard was "понимать" and "тоже." I shook my head while affirming her statement, "да, I don't understand Russian either." This struck me as ironic, considering that for all intensive purposes I had indeed just understood what she had said. At that very moment, however, another patron of the store who appeared out of nowhere began translating. Through her were had a brief conversation about the coat I'd been looking at, she confirmed the coats were for winter, not fall. (Parenthetically, this has been super confusing for us. The coats meant for fall look like regular winter coats to me, but when I asked one of my students if the coat he was wearing was meant for winter, he laughed like I had cracked some outrageous joke. "Of course not, it is not [and he gestured to indicate a lot of missing padding, as though a winter coat ought to make him resemble the Michelin Man.]" Apparently there are coats meant specifically for winter, and you don't want to be stuck with the less warm autumn coat.)

I was astonished, as was the clerk, while this random coat store shopper made us intelligible to each other. One of Bet's students had aided her in the purchase of her coat, asking the right questions and translating when necessary, and we would have had zero shopping success without her. And here kismet provided another unrequested aid: a right place, right time, right skill set doer of good deeds. "Hey," I told her, still a little pleasantly surprised, "Thanks for translating." She nodded and walked away. I gave the shop clerk a little wave, "спасибо." She also looked a little intrigued by the convenience of what had just unfolded. I wished I could tell her, these nifty little "coincidences" happen to me every day.

Where we purchased our pumpkin.
We started heading home just as the light was beginning to fade, and when we stepped off the bus we were met with just one more adventure. The бабушек who sold produce and pickles by the bus stop had pumpkins! We spotted one that seemed right and asked, "сколько это?" Lucky for us it looked like it was etched into the pumpkin rind, 500T per 2kg. The бабушка took it away to weigh it and when she came back told us a number. All I caught was 2. "It couldn't be two thousand, that's too expensive." I passed Bet a wad of bills, neither of us had any idea how much it cost. I pulled a notebook and a pen out of my backpack, "Would you write for us?" She pointed to a bag of carrots near the pumpkin. "No, just the pumpkin." She wrote 460 on my paper and handed us our change, smiling at the relief and sense of accomplishment that spread over our faces. "пожалуйста," she nodded at us and we walked away triumphantly.

If I could issue a thank you note to each kind citizen who graciously endured our comprehension-less state, I would need to buy out a Hallmark store. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Fall, rethought

I'm addicted to autumn in New England. 

One fall morning in college, walking back from clinical psych class, my friend taught me the word "petrichor," which refers to the smell of soil after rain. It's one of my favorite things about late September, how the leaves start to fall and rot into the ground, mixing with the rain and the dying grass to make petrichor, the smell that signals the changing of seasons.

It's hard to catch that smell here, being that grass is a little scarce, and there's a heck of a lot of dust, particularly in Yogovostock which is newer and less protected from the wind tearing in from the steppe by a barrier of trees. And there isn't the wide range of deep reds and brilliant oranges on the trees, but there's a delightful smear of yellow painting the trees, and when I walk under the canopy they provide on my way to school I feel so very Anne Shirley, tripping through an autumn wonderland. And it's not like New England, but it is so very fall, a fall all its own. 

The shaded sidewalk that leads to our language center.
Short-cut apple cider simmers on the stove, a handful of бабушек sell small pumpkins and winter squash outside the magazines, yellow leaves crunch underneath my boots on the way to the bus stop, and I pour some gingerbread syrup into my coffee. And of course, dang, it's cold. Scarves and sweaters and boots are not superfluous fashion accessories but actually 100% mandatory if you want to survive your walk down the wind tunnel created by the tall apartment buildings. 

And so, stripped of the things that usually endear me to this season back home, why am I still so charmed by the shortening days, the unrelenting warmth of the radiator, the mandatory dressage of beanies and gloves, the subtle shift in produce offerings, the steady ice cream consumption, and the increased presence of those medical masks on the faces of benevolent souls who are doing their part to limit the spread of the common cold? I love that fall is still fall even outside of my beloved New England, and that the city I am growing to love knows autumn in its melancholy beauty. 

My freshman year of college, I went to Boston in late October for a law school conference. (It was actually a NBLSA conference, but that's another awkward story for another time.) It was picture-perfect, Boston in the fall, catching a glimpse of the crew races on the Charles and Harvard yard in autumn adornment, squirrels packing away acorns like mad. I never dreamed that three years later I'd be across the world experiencing beautiful autumn in a country known for its frigid winters. Oh, Karaganda, thank you for this lovely season, this last parting gift before winter blows in.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A little bit about Daryn

As much as I enjoy teaching business English for upper intermediate students at our language center, what really adds spice to my week is the time I spend at the nearby Kazakh boarding school Daryn. At 13:30, while my teammates are finished up their lesson planning for their evening classes, I depart from our flat alone and grab bus number 7 (or sometimes bus number 07, which I have been assured is different) which gets me to school in just under ten minutes. Daryn is maybe 5km from our flat and situated just off the road that leads directly to Karaganda's airport.

Because it's a boarding school, it always smells like a cafeteria when I walk through the door. This smell makes my boss from the language center wrinkle her nose, but I love that many of its students live at Daryn (coincidentally, the Kazakh word for talented or gifted) because it means that I get to talk to kids from all over the country. One of my business English students tells me, "Ah, Daryn, I know this school. This is for kids who like studying." My eight graders inform me hat they hate reading and don't really care for school, either. True to smartypants stigma, though, it seems like all of my students want to be engineers or doctors when they grow up. 

On my way to the classroom I often pass a few of my students in the hall. "Teacher!" They gesture outside and look at me with begging expressions. I tell them they can play outside until class starts, but I better see them in their seats at 2:15. Faces exultant they rush outdoors. I wait outside of classroom 19, the biology room, as the cognate on the sign next to the door indicates. At 2:10 the bell rings and students rush out. This is the end of the school day, except for the poor victims of my class. I fiddle with the fancy smart board, and try to take attendance. As I try to say their names correctly, they giggle every time. 

See? You can sound it out. BEE-OL-O-GEE-YA. Cabinet is the word for classroom, I guess.
After class I sometimes walk to the bus stop with my students and they slowly teach me Kazakh. So far I have a tenuous grasp on the words for hello, good-bye, thank you, how are you, and Monday. The kids all speak Russian of course, but they think it's hilarious to listen to me stumble through the syllables, and as nationalism grows in this country so does my desire to make an effort at their language. And here I am on equal footing with my Russian students who know about as much Kazakh as I do. 

My students themselves are a total trip. The sixth grade boys love video games, particularly Minecraft and Assassin's Creed. The girls are feisty, alternatively yelling and rolling their eyes at the boys. Two of my eighth graders speak only in jokes, insisting that they are Italian and Guatemalan, and they they run a mafia within the school. Many of my students are my neighbors. If they don't live in Yogovostok in general then they live specifically within our apartment complex Tatimbeta or on the other side of our supermarket Norma. And the connections don't end there; one of the sixth grade girls is the niece of a former SBTC student who welcomed us to the country when we first arrived. We swap stories about her uncle and his girlfriend, who is a former teacher with my organization.

Through all the pizazz I enjoy from being someplace different each day, there are nevertheless some things that throw me for a loop while teaching at Daryn.

One is the level of my students. I got almost no practice teaching beginners during practicum because it was assumed I wouldn't have beginner students. So imagine my surprise when I conducted placement interviews for the sixth graders and most couldn't tell me what day it was. I count the lesson a success if the students seem to comprehend the meaning of one vocabulary word. To amplify the curse, there are a handful of students in both sixth grade classes who are much further along in their English mastery and they sit in the corner of the classroom looking bored out of their minds. I can't blame them. 

For another thing, there's the noise. Maybe it's because I failed to be strict the first week, but the classes are almost always at a dull roar. Students chatter constantly with each other in Russian or Kazakh, and insist on speaking to me while their classmates are speaking. I have tried separating students, trading games for worksheets, calling out the noisemakers, and even the Kazakh teachers' strategy: yelling. No dice. And if the students WITHIN my class were not noisy enough, fifteen minutes before class ends we are disrupted by students from other classes. My boss from the language center visited my class one day and was appalled to see students from other classes raucously fetching their things from the back of my classroom. Shushing is pretty much ineffective.

The administration also makes me nervous. Though the director of Daryn and the head English teacher know who I am, all other staff at Daryn seem stupefied by my presence. About once a week someone yells at me in Kazakh, as if to say, "Who is the girl and why does she think she can walk freely through the halls of this school?!" Various adults poke their head into my classroom with questions, and my students shout in unison, "Oна не понимает русский!" She doesn't understand Russian! I can't help but wish I appeared as a little less of an interloper there. On some level it must be the human aspiration for belonging.

The bus stop behind Daryn where I wait for the bus to the language center. Zhan's a lucky guy!

Some days, after struggling through a lesson, I look forward to taking the bus (either 01, 45, 43, or maybe 12 . . . from a foreigner's perspective the bus system has no transcendent organization) to the language center, and teaching a class of calm adult students who are nearly fluent in English and laugh at my jokes. There is a comfort and a calmness that accompanies rejoining my teammates at our language center. But if SBTC keeps me sane then Daryn keeps me engaged, and I would never trade my classes there because I always enjoy that there's never a dull moment.