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.

1 comment:

Michelle Henry said...

Very interesting to read about the things you've noticed. Several of the things are the same here in Russia, but some are different. Lettuce is available, but just barely. We have some eggs in cartons and some in bags (always amazed to make it home without any in the bag breaking), but they come in a ten-count vs. a dozen.
I'm feeling blessed that Vologda is a dairy city - we supposedly have the best butter, milk, sour cream, etc. in Russia. I learned that I really do need to pay attention to the expiration date though - I had a bottle of drinkable yogurt that decorated every surface of our office one evening when I decided not to drink it from the misshapen bottle.
Milk can come in non-refrigerated varieties in the states. It's usually in the baking aisle. I discovered you can get eggnog year-round that way (although it's usually in a tall can).
The blowing your nose on the ground would be the one that bugged me the most. Here, it's just spit, but that is nasty enough.