Friday, May 30, 2014

Suitcase Mood

I was talking with a friend at our language center graduation after-outing (context, man) and he asked the question our students seem so curious about, “So what do you do now that classes are over?” Great question. Dolefully I explained to him the slow death the week is shaping up to be, how I had already done a casual preliminary cleaning and had begun taking decorations down around the flat, and how unpleasant it was to be caught between going and not being home yet.

“Ah,” he says, “Yes, we have a word for this in Russian, suitcase mood.”

“Huh?” I was intrigued.

“Yes, чемоданое настроение. Your feelings when you are preparing to leave.”

“Yup,” I affirmed, “It’s exactly that.”

All these months I have clung to the assumption that these last two weeks would fly by. Full of tying up loose ends, cleaning the flat for the new team, visiting our favorite places for the last time, packing, shopping, saying good-bye to our friends. We are indeed doing all of those things, and yet, time seems to be dragging by slower than it ever has before. And this in-between-y-ness sucks so much.

We’ve been doing some mental preparation for going back. Bet and I listen to Top 40 music when we do the dishes, we’ve been reading American news. We are practicing talking about our experience here, we are guarding against attitudes of comparison and criticism. We’re doing our re-entry homework even though our organization doesn’t exist anymore and nobody’s making us! And while all of this prep is probably wise and a good use of time, it doesn’t help me now

I was overcome with a wave of jealousy when Skyping with some of our friends from here who have arrived in the USA for the summer. They showed a quick view of the ocean (the ocean!) and told about drinking black coffee at McDonald’s. (They didn’t know cream and sugar were on the condiments table, and I feel their pain so much!) I’m so happy that my friends whose culture I experienced all year are now experiencing my culture; it’s cool and it’s awesome and it’s really interesting! But I am so jealous that they are in my country and I’m still here.

But I have these moments. When I step into the shower, when I sit in our reading nook, when I wait at the Tourist bus stop, when I climb the steps in our apartment building. This life has become normal, and in a few days it’s going to stop. It’s going to be a memory. A weird memory of that time life in a different place became normal. I try to remember the former normal, my routines back home. How it felt to step into the shower there, how it felt to walk up the stairs in my house, what Providence Place Mall is like, what walking in the woods behind our house is like. It too is a memory, because even home will not be just the same as when I left it. 

So I have the same problem I always have. Different context, same heart issue. The ache of change. 

I like having a word for it now, though. All week, the answer to the question “How are you?” or “What’s new?” has been the same: “Suitcase mood.” And maybe the all the details and complexities of that mood are difficult to understand, but one thing is understood: leaving is a process, and that process is hard. 

And that’s okay.

Friday, May 23, 2014

"Giving isn't easy, but neither is the rain"

It's been a dreary past few days here in Karaganda. And between wishing I was on vacation with my family in Colorado, and ending my work at the public school I taught at four times week, my mood has borne an uncanny resemblance to the cloudy sky and the drizzly atmosphere. I have been cold and damp almost all week, both emotionally and, you know, literally. 

After a day of struggling through a lesson and struggling through a bank transaction and struggling through a wet walk to the language center, in mix of my pity party I made an "at least" list. You know: at least I had remembered to wear socks, at least I was able to get past the language barrier at the bank, at least got to sit on the bus instead of stand, at least I had a fun lesson planned for my adult students, at least the lilacs had bloomed and were smelling great, at least, at least, at least. 

As I walked I looked up at the sky. It's become a habit, because the sky is usually so beautiful here. Due to obscene amounts of pollution, the sunsets are a ridiculous technicolor display. And during the daytime usually all you can see is a deep, soft, cloud-less blue. But because of all this rain, when I looked up instead I saw blue-gray wall of clouds shielding any sunlight from view. The sky was a curious violet color and the texture of the clouds reminded me of a computer art program I had as a kid, how you could paint the sky in thick, puffy strokes. 

I thought to myself, "Hm, the sky is actually quite beautiful like that." Unbidden, the thought popped into my head from Elsewhere, "I think so, too." 

It reminds me of my favorite Switchfoot song, "Rain, another rainy day / Comes up from the ocean / Give herself away / She comes down easy / On rich and debt the same / And she gives herself away."

I want to pity myself. I want to wrap myself in my hoodie and sweatpants and watch Friends under the covers until I'm warm and toasty and feel medicated enough that I can finish this painful process of saying good-bye (for now?) to this city I love so much. I want license to withdraw, glum and moody, into the comforts of my two favorite vices: chocolate and television. 

But that's dumb. That's so dumb. Why? 

Because good things don't just happen

And yet, somehow, good things happen to me every day. 

It's no crime to be sad. It's normal. Maybe even good. Of course I should miss my family, and grieve leaving Karaganda, and repent of the stupid selfish decisions I indulge each day. And I ought to hurt for a world that is full of broken systems, and broken relationships, and broken people. But in the darkness a light shines. In the steady drip of unrelenting rain, there is still beauty. Grace still waters this broken place. Grace, those undeserved good things that happen every day. Grace, the hope that overpowers cynicism. Grace, the source of the joy that wipes out my self-pity and my lethargy. We don't deserve it, but it comes down everywhere and always. 

Grace like rain. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Posture of a Seeker

Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.

I've believed that for a long time, but I'm coming into a fresher understanding of it.

In his book Speaking of Jesus, Carl Medeiras shares the testimony of a friend who worked in a tree-planting camp, and how this friend started a group that read the Gospels and talked about Jesus. In essence, a Bible study, but it wasn't called that for semantic reasons. The thesis of his whole book is something like, evangelism is a lot more about loving Jesus, following Jesus, and speaking of Jesus than it is about sharing proofs, doctrine, and a defense of church history. He warns against the danger of leaving Jesus out of the gospel.

I really love Jesus, but I also love ideas, and so I am more often than not more entranced by trying to think about things the right way than I am focused on following a Person who is the Truth, period.

I've been thinking about the disciples.

Peter and Andrew are on the beach, and He says to them, "Follow me."

I take it for granted that Jesus is Jesus, and there was some strange look in His eye or manner about Him that somehow persuaded Peter and Andrew to be crazy and follow Him, but I think it's noteworthy that they didn't get some length theological explanation. Jesus didn't sit with them and lay out His whole plan. There was no, "So, hi, I'm the Son of God, I'm going to die for your sins because I love you, and I'm going to rise again, and if you trust in Me I'll spend eternity with you." Boom, gospel in a sentence, but no, there was none of that. Just, "Follow me."

And they were like, "Sure. Okay. If you say so." Presumably because they saw the power in Him.

Along the way the disciples are always asking questions. And I love this. They are always asking the same questions I'm asking. And sometimes Jesus is like, "C'mon guys, you don't get it?!" I love that the disciples don't understand. I love that Jesus explains stuff to them. And I love that there's still so much He keeps from them. They don't even realize that He's the Son of God until the middle of Matthew. Apologetics emphasizes that that's a pretty important theological point. Jesus has to be God. It's the only way all this atonement stuff adds up. But Jesus doesn't lead with this information. Why?

I'm discovering how much I want my relationship with Jesus to have the posture of a seeker. As in, that Christianese word we use to describe someone who is interested in Jesus and wants to know more. Seekers don't take doctrine for granted. Seekers don't do things because it's the "Christian" thing to do. Seekers are concerned with getting to know Jesus. Maybe because they think He's freaking weird but maybe also because there's just some strange look in His eye or a manner about Him. They don't care about the religion crap or Christianity's baggage, because they are compelled by a Person and they want to know if He's legit.

There's that Misty Edwards song, "I don't wanna talk about You like You're not in the room," and I'm beginning to understand now what she means. I don't believe in Jesus because it makes sense to believe in Him. I believe in Jesus because He has made Himself real to me. And I don't want be a person who calls herself a "Christian" just like she calls herself "libertarian" or "introverted" or "melancholy." Jesus is not another idea that defines me. Ideas are important. But He is more than an idea. He is more than a definition. He is a Person I am seeking, following, and unlike an idea that is a daily equilibrium, I want more and more and more of Him each day.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

How to make lipioshka

I finally did it! After weeks of internet searching, polling the locals, and one failed attempt, I finally successfully made lipioshka! I must've asked every single one of my students the same question, "How do you make lipioshka?" and they all gave the same abstract answer, "My mom knows!" My Russian language teacher, Katya (who is married to Kazakh and a bomb-diggety cook), finally put me out of my misery when she shared with me her method for lipioshka which took some of the guesswork out of the ingredient proportions. (Ask Bethany about that failed first attempt; salty!)

Lipioshka is a round, unleavened Central Asian bread. The kind described below is, I think, a little bit different than Uzbek lipioshka: it's not prepared in a tandr, the center is not thicker than the edges, there's no design in the middle, and it's fluffy, not dense. Maybe this is a Russified version of lipioshka? Nevertheless, it is the kind sold at the magazine next to our language center, the kind my students brought me on Kurban-ait and Easter, and is second only to baursaki in my heart. I'm so excited that I'll be able to recreate this favorite even when I'm back state-side.

You will need . . . !

500g kefir*
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
As much flour as it takes (a little more than 4 cups)
Some amount of cooking oil (I used sunflower)

Then you should . . . !

Empty your kefir into a mixing bowl. Add the salt and the baking soda. Begin mixing in the flour, and continue adding flour until a dough forms. Then let it sit for a half hour or so.

When you come back to it, split the dough into five parts. (Or more, if you'd like, but probably not less.) Roll each segment out on a floured surface into a circle, a little smaller than the diameter of your pan. It shouldn't be so thick.

In your pan, heat the oil on medium-low. When the oil is hot, add one of your discs of dough. Cook around five minutes each side. You'll notice as it cooks it'll puff up; if it doesn't do this then it's possible the dough was too thick. If you don't want to deep fry the lipioshka, you need only a little bit of oil.

*A note about the kefir: Katya, who is well-versed in assisting foreigners with finding specific food products, told me to buy the small green carton. I chose one at random and it worked like a charm, but I'm not sure about a conduit for this kind state-side, as it appeared much thicker than I kind I usually see back home in New England. On the carton it specifies 2.5%, which I think is referring to the fat content. So if possible, opt for kefir that's just a touch runnier than yogurt. 

I doubt I'll be able to master piroshki or pelmeni or manti before I leave (to be frank, stuffed breads and pasta sound like too much work), but I can content myself with the simplicity and the memories this bread conjures up. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Karaganda Restaurants

In general, expats who decide to live in a little-known Central Asian country aren't the kind of people who compulsively google everything. They don't look for answers on western internet. Instead they head to the streets. They take bold forays into the local language and culture, and pull from the vast store of information sourced from their local friends. They are not afraid to duck inside random cafes and make the best of it. They are content with not knowing and with figuring things out as they go.

But you know, I'm not one of those people. I am a I-gotta-know-what-I'm-getting-myself-into kind of person. Whenever I'm sick you know I'm all over WebMD. If someone suggests a movie I look it up on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes before adding it to my list. I use the internet to solve a lot of my day-to-day problems; recent Google searches include "How long should chicken thighs bake", "is mahi mahi really dolphin", and "how to manually flush a toilet." (Friends, my life, you have no idea how exciting it is.)

So when I was trying to find a new place to eat this past week, I quickly exhausted the English resources available on the interwebs and instead decided to step out in faith. And trial-and-error has been a fabulous way to find the good food in this city, but for those who, like me, prefer something a little more premeditated, I've prepared a small guide of good restaurants in Karaganda based on my own experiences. As damdi bolsyn!

So for all you Googlers out there . . .

Uighyr food and some central Asian offerings, as well. Flakey, melt-in-your-mouth samsa! The menu has pictures, which is always appreciated, but you can't go wrong with any of the lagman. Off Bukhar Zhirou, bus stop Shestnasti. (Near to the other Uighyr restaurant, which is also tasty, but Arzu has free wifi and nicer decor.)

Kafe Kirogi
Korean food. It's not on the menu, but they have dog if you ask for it. (I don't know how to do this, but if you speak the language or go with a local, you can make this happen.) I have only had the dog (which was great!), so I can't speak for the rest of the food, but the place is immaculately clean. It's not on the bus route (maybe it's on Street Ermekova?) so you'll have to go by taxi.

Americanized Chinese food. English menu available. Don't get the crispy chicken, it's mostly bones. Everything else is great, though. Tempora cauliflower is outta sight. On Gogol Street (Yogo-Vostock side), across from the German Orthodox church and next Infiniti night club.

Kafe Suliko
A small cafe nestled in Stepnoi 3, this was a favorite. Georgian food! You simply cannot go wrong with Georgian food. Cheesy bread. Enough said. They didn't have an English menu, so we just pointed at random things and were never disappointed. Cheaper and more delicious than the Georgian place on Nurken Abdirova. Within walking distance of the Korzina bus stop.

Italian fare, altered slightly for a Russian palate. (Case in point, there is dill on the Margharita pizza.) English menu available. The horse meat pizza is great. The price is in the middle, not so cheap but not extra expensive. The place has a classy vibe. I always went to the one on the second floor of Korzina in Yugo-Vostock, but there is another location on Alikhanova in Centre.

German food and beer. The menu is in both English and Russian. The decor of this place is incredible. It's like eating inside the basement of a castle. Prices are on the high side (we were conservative but it cost ~3000/person) but the food is excellent. The sausage dishes are only sausage, so, get a side. On the corner of Bulvar Mira and Bukhar Zhirou.

For sushi this place is affordable, clean, and pretty chic. It reminded me a lot of my second favorite sushi place back home. We got a sampler tray and it was plenty for six of us. (They also have this berry tea that is RAD.) The cafe atmosphere makes it a good place for hanging out for an extended period of time, and there's a semi-open kitchen. On Bulvar Mira, close to Stanislovski Theater.

Coffe In
I've never had food here, but their desserts are lovely and their drinks are great! This is my favorite place to go warm up in the dead of winter, especially with their pirate punch. And the decor is adorable, it has such a cozy feel inside. Bright orange on the outside. Menu in both English and Russian. Halfway down Nurken Abdirova, bus stop 1000 Melochey.

Perfecto Coffee
If you're needing a little slice of America, this place feels like a typical western coffee shop. Lots of foreigners hang out here, and the staff usually do what they can to overcome the language barrier. And coffee is a bit cheaper and more delicious than Intercoffee, I think. On Bulvar Mira near the Galleria mall, Dietctolovaya bus stop.

These recommendations are based on my own limited experiences living in Karaganda, Kazakhstan for the 2013-2014 academic year. Corrections or other recommendations welcome!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Cows, though?

It's hard for me to remember a time when my sister Sarah was not one of my favorite people. I have fuzzy memories of coloring a picture of us two with Psalm 133:1 written underneath as a punishment. (Our parents instructed us to reword it to read, "It is good and pleasant when sisters live together in peace.") I can recall sitting next to her at the kitchen island crying because she had gotten a better score on our spelling test than me. And I think there was a time when Hannah and I would play without Sarah because she was, yes, "too little." When I was a kid I thought the 14-month difference between us was oh so important, but now that I'm "grown" I see what a gift I was given.

Sarah is simultaneously the most and least judgmental person I know. She never says anything unkind about a person, never gossips, and is quick to look at a situation from everyone's point of view. She's excellent at perspective-sharing and highly empathetic. She always manages to remind me that no one is exempt from grace, and what a gift it is to extend the same patience to others to has been extended to me. What all this means, however, is that when you start complaining or saying something you shouldn't, she gets on this pitying and tight-lipped silence that makes conviction just shoot right through you. She doesn't even need to say anything to rebuke you, you know it in a moment, you sense that you're being ungracious, because her kindness shines as a bright example.

Photo by Lillian Hathaway, Newport 2012
She reminds me of J3sus, how she managed to be so compassion and so exhorting at the same time. And in this she makes me want to be more like J3sus. I so admire the joy she has: how she can lock her keys in her car on a blustery day and find the humor in the situation. How she digs her heels in on hope, and watches and waits for victory to come through hard situations. How she manages to cope with the insanely busy schedule she keeps, rising to the challenges of being fully present and self-sacrificing in each new setting. It baffles me how she never hesitates at doing the right thing; she follows her convictions and her values unflinchingly. I love her for the kind, kind way she rebukes me.

She's also so freaking competent. She joined staff at our chrch about a year ago and having worked alongside her at youth events and other chrch functions, I have come to marvel at the genuine enjoyment she has for service. The leadership roles she's taken on astound me, probably because I know I could never do what she's doing, and it just makes me so impressed. And I guess it impresses me even more because I know she's grown into the role. She's worked hard to stretch herself and flatten her shortcomings so that she can complete the tasks she's given. She's like the good employee archetype: conscientious, communicative, and dynamic. Whenever I want to hang out with someone I usually ask her to make it happen, because her activities have almost a 100% success rate. (My activities, more like 37%.)

Моя сестра перед президентским дворцом
But she is forever my goofy sister. Nothing makes me laugh like her tweets do. She wears her dorky cow hat in public and doesn't care. She eats on a schedule and food is her love language. She posts adorable pictures of my favorite animals on my Facebook wall. She shares my esteem for puns. She helped me rank the five grossest movie kisses of all time (we're still scarred by the moment of passion from Willow). She is my partner in crime, a fellow J3sus follower, and my best friend.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

"Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me"

I like the risk in theory. I like the idea of stepping out into what is unknown. It’s been a part of my ethos since I was quite young, a middle schooler sitting on the steps of the State House talking to strangers, to do what is difficult. I’m one of those dumb people who reads about stuff on the internet and thinks to themselves, “Hey, I could do that.” How do you think I wound up in Kazakhstan? The trouble is, though my brain is all too eager to sign up for the risk, the challenge, when push comes to shove my heart is a shivering, squishy mess. 

The first time I ever went to a water park (technically it was the second, the first being Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole, but, let’s say first real water park) was at Walt Disney World’s Blizzard Beach. My mom talked us into doing the second-scariest slide in the park, and we waited in line with her, and I was all, “Mhm, mhm, this is a great idea, woo!” The line was long, and as we waited I congratulated myself with how brave I was. That is, until I had to take off my water shoes and position myself in the mouth of the slide. In a moment my courage evaporated in the hot Florida sun, but by then there was no backing out. 

I remember going down the slide very clearly, even though it was over a decade ago. I remember a bunch of water got in my face and I couldn’t breath. I opened my mouth to yell and choked instead. The grooves in the slide where each piece connected with the next burned my shoulder blades, and the force of sliding straight down so fast gave me the most unholy wedgie. I distinctly remember feeling disoriented when I arrived at the bottom, my brain was saying so many things at once. Things like, “YOU ALMOST JUST DROWNED.” -- “Get out of the track, another person’s coming!” -- “Wait, fix your swim suit first!” -- “Cough. COUGH. There’s still water in your lungs!” -- “Where did your water shoes go? HOT PAVEMENT.” -- “Where IS your mother, your vision is so blurry from all that water!” And other panicked, exclamation-marked sentiments. 

I survived, it’s true. But it’s example of how my reach exceeds my grasp. 

Coming to Kazakhstan was a great idea. The plan was almost foolproof. A place most people have never heard of? Check. A job that automatically connects me with locals who speak my language? Check. A year learning about cross-cultural servanthood before attempting to start it stateside? Great idea all around! And it’s been a beautiful time; I cannot overstate how much of a privilege it’s been. Privilege in that, the kindness I’ve been shown has been so great, and my deservingness of this opportunity has been so little. 

The idea of working in a different country is a fantastic one, but there’s something about the pragmatics that makes my stomach flip-flop a little. Sometimes I get to the top of the metaphorical cultural water slide and I want to bail. Every time we invite someone over I have butterflies in my stomach. Every time we go to someone’s house I feel faint. I steel my nerves at so many social interactions, waiting, waiting, to break through the barrier of my own selfishness into active love for these people for whom I harbor such affection. I came to Kazakhstan to challenge myself, to find obedience and discipleship and growth through risk, but many times, with shame I admit, I have baulked in fear.

And now I wonder if I am repeating the same with law school. Stepping still into the unknown because  I like the idea of it, because I perceive a challenge and a risk, but will only come out on the other side shell-shocked, proclaiming, “I ALMOST JUST DROWNED.”

I don’t deserve anyone’s esteem. I’m a coward. I am a fearful young adult who signs her name too confidently on checks she can’t cash. My knees were gelatin at the top of that water slide. My stomach was in knots before my first meeting with a student. I’ve written pages and pages of doubt and fear in my journal about coming to Kazakhstan and going to law school. I have never done anything good without being scared out of my mind before doing it. I like the risk in theory. But in practice it freaks me out. I have nothing to be proud of, because in every risk I have face-planted in fear.  

And how many times does J3sus say to His disciples, or to the people He heals, “Take courage” and “Do not be afraid”? Oh, feeble and fearful heart. Of course you can't. But of course He can.