30 September 2009

Busy day

And I don’t mean just for me. Today it seemed like the entirety of the Peace Corps staff in Almaty were descending on Saimasai; that can’t have been easy. I was teaching eighth grade today – the same grade I will be teaching for my unit plan – and I was being observed by Natalya (one of the Peace Corps regional managers and one of our technical trainers in Saimasai) who came here along with Ufilmalik to observe classes. Thankfully, this lesson was one of the smoothest I’ve had yet, with some of the best-behaved students; I got through my entire lesson plan, as James Taylor might say, ‘like a Swiss watch’. Natalya had some very positive feedback for me: the only real criticisms she had were my use of Russian in the lesson and my lack of clarity in giving instructions for one of the practice activities. But the students were enjoying themselves and doing the work gladly (I saw no reason not to give every one of them a daily ‘5’ – the highest grade possible – though one Qazaq girl was doing so well with the exercises that she should have gotten a ‘6’).

Secondly, Dr Viktor arrived from Essik and decided to pay me a visit, just to check up on my mental health status. His visit was also generally useful – I think he was able to understand me a bit more, and it seemed like he could identify with some of my hangups, he himself being a perfectionist with regard to his own actions. Thirdly, Paul and Ekaterina arrived to do site placement interviews. Paul took my interview, and we had a pretty long chat about pretty much everything, from Qazaqstani history to education to life in С— to paranoid rumours about Peace Corps’ modus operandi. (And we got around to site placement somewhere in there, too.) Basically, I had two major requests for site placement: that I be at a site where both Qazaq and Russian are spoken, and that I have access to a young, inexperienced counterpart who wasn’t set in his or her ways (and would thus be more open to new ideas). I had thought I wouldn’t be able to cope with not having full access to running water before coming here, but a couple months in С— disabused me of that misconception about myself. I mentioned this to Paul, and he basically told me that people can adapt to pretty much any kind of situation – and we’re going to be in places where people live and enjoy relatively happy existences. I think it goes to illustrate Bill McKibben’s point that up to a certain point, affluence and development correspond positively with happiness, but beyond that point there is zero correlation. We also discussed the rumours that occur with Peace Corps – I told him about one in which Peace Corps assigns sitemates whose personalities don’t match in order to facilitate better site integration, and Paul laughed and said that that consideration was incredibly far down the list of factors, and that even if there were such a consideration, the end goal would be the same: to ensure a successful service for the Volunteer. He said there would be no point in the Peace Corps staff screwing Volunteers over to make their service more difficult, because all that would do in turn would be to make the jobs of Peace Corps staff more difficult.

I’m still curious to find out where I’ll be placed, but that won’t be decided for at least another week yet. I’ve got some suspicions on where I might be placed, but I won’t talk about those here – at least, not for another week or so. Suffice it to say that I’m not setting any unrealistic expectations.

28 September 2009

No, you live, you teach and you screw up. Then you learn.

I just delivered my first lesson for the week. I can’t honestly say it was a good lesson insofar as it went according to the lesson plan – actually, it felt like that first scene in The Incredibles where Mr Incredible is trying to save everyone all at once and not succeeding very well: first the thwarted suicide attempt, then the vault robbery by Bomb Voyage being interrupted by Buddy and then the bomb exploding on the train track with an oncoming train. First, I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been – I didn’t have tape or markers handy. Secondly, I rushed through my presentation, so the students didn’t get it as well as they could have. Thirdly, my practice activities (one of which was taken straight from the class’s Ayapova textbook) all seemed to be well above the class’s proficiency level, to the point where one poor girl seemed on the verge of tears when I asked her to participate, because she didn’t know what she was supposed to be doing. But, I knew the material I was teaching and I was feeling more at ease at the head of the class than I was during my first week, and that gave me some leeway to step back and try it again, bringing the lesson back to the presentation and seeing what mixture of explanation, mime and Russian translation the kids needed to see and hear in order to grasp the grammar structures and vocabulary and use them effectively. (Actually, my thanks to Aggie Goldsmith at BAE are due here in spades; taking her course made my life here a lot easier than it would have been otherwise.) ‘Flexibility’ and ‘humour’ were the operative words here: Peace Corps weren’t screwing around when they said those traits would be keys to success. I knew this hadn’t been my best lesson to date, but Emiko told me that it demonstrated my growth as a teacher, that I was becoming more flexible and more aware of my surroundings. Interestingly enough, Emiko also told me that since I am a man at the head of a Qazaqstani classroom, I should have far more leeway to be authoritarian than I would have in an American classroom, and I should take it since the students are much more used to an authoritarian teaching style. (Given the opinions expressed in my post a couple weeks back, I’m feeling both incredibly eager to take this advice and a bit fearful that I might take it too far.)

Indeed, the more I think about it and the more I actually do it, the more I am convinced that those who make education their profession are routinely under-appreciated and under-valued in American society. The platitude ‘if you can’t do, teach’ is in every way a lie: teaching is all doing, even if it is something as (apparently) simple as teaching English. A teacher must be a writer, a director and an actor. A teacher must be an observer, a participant and a leader, often all at once. A teacher must be a judge, an entertainer and a therapist. A teacher must be a disciplinarian and a hell-raiser. A teacher must be a nitpicker without ever losing sight of the larger picture. And the fruits of a teacher’s hard labour are never really his own: ultimately, what he does can only be demonstrated in what his students can command.

(And here, a teacher is heavily encouraged to always dress like he works for an insurance company. At least until he can reach a phone booth.)

That was ‘humour’, by the way: requirement number one.

Site announcement comes at the end of next week. It will be interesting to see where I will be placed: I had a lot of comments, but my only real stated preferences were for a site where both Qazaq and Russian are spoken (to get an opportunity to learn both languages) and for service in higher-level English classes (since that is where most of my experience is). But, wherever God (through Paul and Ekat at Peace Corps HQ) sees fit to send me, there I will go gladly.

27 September 2009

Ups and downs

Anyone who has gone abroad at the behest of an educational or service organisation will be very familiar with the culture-shock ‘W’, a graph that shows that culture shock tends to take a sine-wave form: the honeymoon phase descends into initial shock, and an initial adjustment is made, after which come further shocks and further adjustments. I’d say this week I hit my first real trough on the ‘W’ - though oddly enough it wasn’t the local culture to which I’ve had trouble adjusting so much (that comes in different ways and produces different reactions) but the Peace Corps culture and my fellow Trainees. It is vastly different from what I experienced of AmeriCorps (though I’m sure if I had been in AmeriCorps from the beginning, since North Carolina, I might have thought differently). Even though I wasn’t particularly close with my fellow college guides during my AmeriCorps service, there was a palpable sense of camaraderie in that group – we faced similar challenges, we had a common outlook on our service and we trusted each other with our problems (even though we routinely only saw each other once or twice a week). I still consider my fellow (former and current) NCAC college guides to be my friends; I expected that I would get along as well with my fellow Trainees in С—, but I haven’t found that to be the case at all.

Part of the problem, of course, is the time limitation. We spend a lot of time studying, preparing lessons or just preparing ourselves for the next task ahead of us, so there isn’t a lot of social time full-stop. Another part of the problem is that our reasons for serving in Peace Corps seem to be wildly different, and our attitudes toward Peace Corps service and toward the people we’re working with seem to be wildly different, to the point where it is sometimes completely incomprehensible to me exactly why they are here. It was a culture shock of a much different nature than I was expecting, and perhaps that’s why it hit me so badly: I’m not in Providence anymore, I’m not in AmeriCorps anymore, and my fellows in my language group aren’t at all the intellectual, idealistic, open-minded Yankees I’m used to dealing with – like Leah, Afshan, Miranda and David – around whom I could more or less be my normal self and needn’t beware being sized up, judged and belittled. So I withdrew and didn’t talk about my problems with anyone in the group – until I went outside, lost my temper along with my Mennonite upbringing and punched a schoolyard tree over a relatively minor problem. In hindsight, I am quite ashamed I did it, and it will never happen again, because a.) I gave my word on it to Nagima, b.) my right hand really freaking hurt afterward and c.) I know there are far more positive and effective ways to relieve stress.

I’m not trying to say that they’re bad people, on the whole. They’re not. I think it’s simply that I wasn’t expecting fellow Americans to be more deeply alien to me than my local hosts, trainers and neighbours. (Of course, there are other factors to consider, such as the fact that the lack of a language barrier lends itself to a kind of ‘uncanny trench’ in which relatively minor cultural differences within American culture can be grossly exaggerated.)

So yeah, it’s been a rough week. But talking with Nagima about the problems I’d been having really helped, and I feel much better now – more secure, confident and positive. My lessons are getting progressively better and my relationship with my counterpart is good - our teaching styles are drastically different, but I think given some more time and experience we could complement each other well. Also, I've got an awesome host family and an awesome language teacher watching my back; I've got a lot to be thankful for. As the Qazaqs say, ‘жақсы сөз, жарым ырыс’. (Literally translated: ‘a good word is half your fate’.) And the local flora can breathe easy now; they’re safe from me. Instead, I’m following up on my theological interests: I checked out Dame Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love from the Peace Corps HQ's library in Almaty and am currently reading it. So far, so good – but I’ll write some more about it later. Көріскенше, folks.

24 September 2009

Photo post

From 1 September (First Bell Ceremony):


Our school; rear view...


... and front. This is, of course, during the ceremony itself; it took up the whole parking lot. As you can see, people are dressing to the nines for this.



It's just not a party without the dombyra players.


From Almaty Entry:


Biggest mosque in Central Asia. Impressive as it is here, it's actually even more impressive inside; I'll try to get the photos from the inside uploaded later.




Panfilov Park and the WWII memorial - known as the Great Patriotic War here. WWII history is a really big deal here, since (as bad as Western Europe had it) the Soviets bore the greatest brunt of it in terms of casualties and long-term economic loss.


The Russian Orthodox church at Panfilov Park. Not a bad view of it here - this was the best photo I got of the outside.

22 September 2009

Айт қабыл болсын!

Wow. Twenty-three years old as of yesterday – I’m getting old.

My local host family threw a big birthday party for me, but since my birthday falls on the second day of Ait, which marks the end of Ramadan on the Muslim calendar, the joke among the Trainees was that it was just the food they’d prepared for Ait that they were using for my birthday dinner. For Ait, the Ramadan fast is broken and all households make or buy tonnes of fried food (like bauyrsaq бауырсақ, which are round or diamond-shaped puffs of fried dough, shilpek шілпек, which bears a striking resemblance to Navajo fry-bread, fried eggplant and chicken and beshbarmaq) and buy tonnes of candy (marmalade and chocolate seem to be favourites), put out tea and keep their doors open for any guests who might come by and drink and eat with them. After eating, usually an older man will recite the Fatihah, which is the opening prayer (or Exordium) of the Koran: ‘Praise be to God, Lord of the Universe, the Compassionate, the Merciful, Sovereign of the Day of Judgment: You alone we worship, and to You alone we turn for help. Guide us to the straight path, the path of those whom you have favoured, not of those who have incurred Your wrath nor of those who have gone astray.’ Then they will take their leave and move on to the next house. The women all wear headscarves and dress up, and the men wear skullcaps and formal attire (at least on the first day of Ait).

But the joke regarding my birthday dinner and Ait is only half-true, since Bota and Quanysh really pulled out all the stops – they got me a really nice cake, and put out lots of juice, and invited all my fellow Trainees in Saimasai, as well as Nagima, Asem and Emiko, and some of the extended family of my generation (Dariya, Laura and Quat). My stomach is thankful that they cooked pumpkin manty instead of beshbarmaq for my birthday dinner.

I got some really nice gifts from everyone who came, including a very high-quality dress shirt (neon green) from Quat, a book of Qazaq folktales and a towel decorated with the Qazaq emblem from Dariya and Laura, some caramel-filled chocolates and a pair of sunglasses from the trainees and some good markers and a binder from the training staff (very useful). My host family got me a toothbrush holder and an umbrella (also very useful, the latter particularly around here and at this season).

Second week of teaching has begun, and it’s getting really stressful since I have to bum textbooks off other people (both other trainees and local teachers) in order to prepare my lessons. On the other hand, though, the computer teacher at school has promised us some level of free access to the Internet (if we can find him), so I won’t have to go all the way to Essik or Almaty in order to post to my blog, check my e-mail and all that other jazz. Also, my lessons are steadily improving, which boosts my confidence and causes my lessons to be even better (like an anti-death-spiral or something).

I feel somewhat isolated here, but my family is telling me that’s probably a good thing, since the news from home (particularly the ugly temper-tantrum the Republicans in general and Joe Wilson in particular were throwing recently over health care) would just make me angry, and they’re probably right about that. In Qazaqstan, all the stuff that used to make me upset I simply can’t afford to pay attention to anymore – but then again, I don’t really have to, on my government-sponsored, government-run health-care plan which every American ought to have. The downside to my isolation, though, is the lack of The Daily Show, which I think would help improve my mood from time to time – generally, I make time to entertain myself watching movies or writing in my journal (some of which is posted here). But I'm keeping busy, and I enjoy my work, so that helps immensely.

18 September 2009

More cultural notes, and first week of teaching

Well, my classes for the first week are finished. Muhabbat gave me one sixth-grade class to teach solo (this past Monday), and one tenth-grade class to team-teach (on Wednesday). Actually, when I was in Есік last (when I made my last blog post, that is), I hadn't gone for the Internet; I had been accumulating teaching materials for my Monday class: more paper, some scissors, a grade-book and a cheap (50╤) plastic ball for communicative games.

At first, I felt that my Monday class was a perfect demonstration of Murphy's Law – we ended up having to switch classrooms, I ended up having about twice as many students as I thought I would and all but four of them came in late. My visual aids were far too small and I ran out of tape and Asem had to lend me hers. In addition, whatever I'd learned in my TEFL training at BAE seemed to have leaked out my ears and I got a bad case of stage fright such that my voice ended up being about twenty decibels too quiet and far too fast – and I ran out of time during the second class activity (of five planned!). However, by the end (miracle of miracles), the students were fairly comfortably using the new vocabulary – which went to show that the students had a good attitude about the class and were capable of learning from even the greenest, most disorganised teacher they could possibly have for it. I'm also grateful that I have such supportive fellow-Trainees and staff at my back: Nagima, Asem and the Trainees who observed my lesson had some good criticisms for me (that I need to work on my voice and be more aware of time), and also were keen enough and sensible enough to remind me that the lesson hadn't been a complete disaster, and that the students had been learning – since my personality is unhealthily perfectionistic almost to the point of masochism, I often tend to beat myself over the head with my own failings while ignoring what I do well. This is a trait I suspect I come by honestly, but it's also one I'll have to deal with if I want to be an effective Volunteer (let alone a happy person!).

Wednesday's lesson went a lot better, though. I was sharing with Muhabbat, and I was doing grammar (future continuous tense). It was a small class: five very well-behaved tenth-graders (four girls and one boy). I had my eye on the clock, so we didn't run over as badly – though I still ended up having to assign the 'use' portion of the class as homework, we got through the guided activities to the point where it was clear the students would have little trouble asking and answering questions in the future continuous tense. I tried to explain the use of future continuous tense visually (remembering the timeline charts from BAE), and I was glad to see that the students were picking up on the use of it by the end (though Asem had to do some explanation in Qazaq). Also, I still need to work on my Scotch tape-tearing alacrity skills. Muhabbat seemed impressed by the lesson's execution, which was a significant boost to my self-esteem as a teacher, I have to say. I just hope my next lesson goes as well, if not better.

A few more cultural notes about classroom etiquette: when a teacher enters a room or even appears in the doorway, all the students are expected to stand and greet the teacher. This appears to be a seniority rule: as junior teachers, we are expected to do the same for our local counterparts and for the local Peace Corps staff. Also, even when local teachers say something that is wrong, we are not to correct them in front of the class – only after class when all the students have left. Teachers enjoy a social and institutional position of high respect in Qazaqstani culture (both Qazaq and Russian), and they are expected to dress their best: neatly-pressed button-down shirts, nice slacks, a belt and dress shoes at the very least, and preferably a jacket and tie.

Please allow me to indulge my social-conservative streak for a moment: to be honest, in some ways this is actually quite a refreshing and admirable change of pace from the United States, where teachers are not respected in the culture, by either their students or by the students' parents and where there exists an atmosphere of confrontation and resentment between the teaching staff and the taxpayers who are supposed to be supporting the school system. (Indeed, it often seems that the entirety of American society has become poisoned by this culture of incivility – witness the recent insult by an elected official, unprecedented in our history, to the President of the United States during his address to Congress.) As a result, teachers feel the need to defensively position themselves within the same marginalised social space as wage labourers, and form teachers' unions (which are often at odds with parent organisations). It needs to be stressed that student-centred communicative methodologies cannot work to effect in such a toxic social atmosphere in which communication has already been compromised, in which civility, authority and social discipline no longer play decisive roles and in which parents and teachers feel the need to get one-up on each other (and in which the real losers are the students). Though a system in which everyone knows his or her place obviously has its problems (hence, why we're here), on a number of levels it avoids many of the problems that plague our over-individualistic system in the United States (and, in some respects, actually makes our jobs as Volunteers – being at once effective teachers and integrated members of the community – significantly easier).

On the other hand, however, the system itself seems to be more resistant to the very methodologies for which it provides the appropriate space: teacher-centric methodologies still seem to be the norm here, rather than the student-centric methodology we are being taught. It will be our job to attempt to introduce these new methodologies (where they are effective and rational) while at the same time adapting to and respecting Qazaqstan's cultural norms – it is a challenge to which I'm looking forward.

In fact, I wanted to discuss this with my Peace Corps staff, but at present I lack the resources. I've already mentioned Qazaqstan's very visible culture of hospitality and some of the values motivating that culture, and I was wondering whether I might be able to make use of Henri Nouwen's work here to (somewhat subversively) integrate some of those values into the way teaching is done. One way a communicative approach to teaching might be made more palatable to Qazaqstani sensibilities might be to draw an overt parallel between the teacher and the head of a Qazaqstani household, and between the student and the guest of a Qazaqstani house. Just the way the attention and effort of the host family seems to be very deeply and very intensely bent on satisfying the needs of the guest within the household (making sure they are comfortable and making sure they have eaten enough and drunk enough tea), perhaps it might be useful to suggest that the teacher's efforts and attention should be to an analogous degree bent on satisfying the intellectual and spiritual needs of his students within his 'household' (that is to say, within his subject). Of course, I am aware that my understanding of Qazaqstani culture is still extremely limited (I've been here less than a month, after all) – so I want to run this idea by Nagima and Asem to see what they think of it.

13 September 2009

Qazaq cultural comeback + give you the finger (or, how not to behave in a Russian classroom)

I apologise to my gentle readers that I have been most unfortunately remiss in my blogging. I'm going to have to play some catch-up first before I can begin to make any sense, so please bear with me, if you can, for a few paragraphs.

I am doing quite well, and have for the most part settled into a steady routine here. I am currently taking full advantage of my day of rest, sleeping and playing TES3: Morrowind before I head up to Есік to buy some supplies. However, our workload has ramped up considerably over the past week, and from what I understand we are going to be expected to do yet more. Up until now it has been mostly language, cultural training and lesson observations, but tomorrow will be my first delivered class – thankfully, Asem quickly approved my lesson plan, and after I prepare everything later this evening I should be all set.

The interesting thing about interacting with my host family and with the members of the community here, of which I have been aware for quite awhile intellectually but am only beginning now to deal with on a personal level, is the extent to which Qazaq is still very much a secondary language here, despite its status as the national language. My host brother Quanysh speaks much more readily in Russian than he does in Qazaq, and many of the non-Qazaqs speak little to no Qazaq at all. Indeed, some Russians are proud of the fact that they have not learned Qazaq. Nagima informs me that this is a remnant of the Soviet Era, which bears a sad and unfortunate resemblance to the history of the American West: the Soviets tried their hardest to stamp out Qazaq culture, teaching only Russian language in the schools and privileging the Russian ethnicity over the Qazaq. The nomadic Qazaqs were forced into sedentary living; since they were not accustomed to a sedentary style of agriculture and herding, many of them starved to death. The Soviets apparently also had an informal racist hierarchy in place – Nagima told us that during Soviet times, Qazaqs were commonly disparaged as 'black asses'.

I think the Big Bread has to be given a great deal of credit here. President Nazarbaev is very much interested in rebuilding the Qazaq national identity, culture and language: he has even commissioned a Qazaq Language Academy which is bolstering and modernising the Qazaq lexicon by adapting from other existing Turkic languages. On the other hand, he has managed to put an effective damper on interethnic resentment and chauvinism through his Trinity policy, so as to avoid the ethno-linguistic tensions faced in post-communist Yugoslavia and (to a lesser extent) in the Baltic states.

It is complex, though, and I am merely drawing parallels with what I know from America's history, which may or may not be useful. To be fair, neither the Soviet Union nor the American government of the mid- to late-1800's was entirely bad (as our good Doctor Victor would doubtless point out), though we are still seeing some of the lingering effects of their more problematic policies (in both the United States and in Qazaqstan).

Classroom culture has been another point I've been struggling with. It has been interesting to see how the schedule has been sorted out in the first two weeks of school, from the students not having enough textbooks to the classes not even having teachers the first couple of days. I think it has been mostly sorted out by now, though; the school seems to have settled into a consistent routine. I am working with Muhabbat, a young local teacher not much older than I am (still in her twenties), and we are going to be teaching English classes together in the sixth and seventh grades (11- and 12-year-old children). Though С— has a mixed-language school, the students in our classes seem to be mostly Russian, and Muhabbat speaks mostly Russian in the classroom, even during English lessons (even though her English is excellent and she doesn't even have that strong an accent).

On Friday I introduced myself to one of the classes, and on Monday I'll have my first real class (sixth grade). One of the things I have a great problem with is pointing with my finger. It is considered RCSU ('rude, crude and socially unacceptable') by most Russians to point at something, particularly at a person, with one finger – but it's something that Americans don't usually pay that much attention to. (Though it is rude to overtly point one's finger at someone in public, it doesn't carry the same social stigma it does here.) In classes, teachers are expected to use pointers – but during our introductions, Emiko (our PCVTA) noted to our entire cohort that we all pointed with our fingers. This is a habit that I'm going to have to overcome, even if I have to tape my fingers together during lessons.

I also have to get used to referring to myself and hearing myself referred to as 'Mr Matt' or 'Mr Cooper'. Students are not on a (solely) first-name basis with their teachers here (though to be honest, I wasn't really on a first-name basis with any of my teachers in the United States during grade school, even if they were good friends of the family like Mrs Loichinger or Mrs Pils). Another interesting point of Russian culture is that it isn't common to refer to someone by their surname – if you want to be formal and polite, you use both the given name and the patronymic: 'Elena Yurevna' or 'Vladimir Vladimirovich'.

Anyhow, please wish me luck, and I'll be sure to be better about keeping everyone posted. Сау болыңыздар for now!

09 September 2009

Seven of spades

Seven of spades face-down in the dust,
Sidewalk spinning out in sinking gravel slopes:
Land of trust, land of higher hopes.
You soar like an eagle,
Tiny shadow in the sunlight, or
You blow away like smoke.
Can you be at rest this high up?
It's easy; has to be: mountain, steppe,
Village and town – whatever else you do,
Just don't look
Down.

Do I feel dizzy, or do I feel hungry
Spiralling out of the sun?
Will I land face-down in the dust,
Fallout crashing heavy metal –
Seven spade-shaped thunderheads
Or maybe seven thousand
Await me, roaring, on the ground.

I pick them up and turn them over,
Tuck them in my billfold,
And wait for a wind to pick me up
Back into the chilly September sky.

- Matt Cooper

06 September 2009

In Essik

I'm about 50 minutes into my hour of Internet right now, so I'll keep things brief. I'm currently in Essik, writing from a small Internet Cafe across from a school named after Абылай Хан, and I just bought the entire collection of Star Trek movies (including the most recent one) in Russian, for 400╤ (or about $3). (I probably got ripped off, but I don't really care.) Unfortunately, I fell pretty ill after my trip to Almaty; probably something in the noodles I ate for lunch, but now I feel much better. Now that we have more freedom to travel around a bit more, life seems a lot brighter also - though we weren't long in Almaty before I started missing my host family. Bota is a great teacher - she's not afraid to interrupt me and correct my Qazaq if I say something wrong. I'm still having trouble mixing up the locative and dative suffixes (like saying 'to' instead of 'at' or vice versa), but I'm getting better, I think.

04 September 2009

Some more random observations from C— in Qazaqstan

The dreaded 1 September First Bell holiday has come and gone without any visible fashion crisis on my part (though I did feel somewhat under-dressed, even with my suit jacket and tie). The first day of school is serious business here, with a very big, very formal (in terms of dress code) celebration in the school parking lot, at which we were introduced to the school and expected to speak a few sentences about ourselves in Qazaq (name, age, hometown, occupation and an observation about Qazaqstan or С— village – mine was that Qazaqstan was quite hospitable 'Қазақстан өте қонақжай'). Even with all the formality, though, it was still boisterous despite all the careful choreography with the procession of the flag, the singing of the National Anthem 'Менің Қазақстаным' (which is a very catchy march, by the way) and various presentations from each of the classes.

It is very true, by the way, that Qazaqstan has so far proved an incredibly hospitable place. Beyond the normal insistence on the feeding past satiety of shai and food to whatever guests or friends a family might happen to entertain here, people take care of each other here in С—, and they always seem to know when something is going on. Neighbours will help each other out on a regular basis, as we saw last Friday when the neighbours came to help Jon's family friends prepare shashlik for us last Sunday. It reminded me strongly of Alexis de Tocqueville's observations about early American culture in Democracy in America (though there are obvious intellectual and cultural dangers in drawing such direct parallels between the two). So you can imagine my surprise when Emiko and Robert (our Peace Corps Volunteer TAs) mentioned to me that there was very little by way of civil society either in С— or in the rest of Qazaqstan, beyond an informal organisation or two of local matrons. There is this serious aspect of hospitality to the culture, which has not yet translated itself into higher-order political and social structures; possibly this is because the functions of civil society had been co-opted from the top down, first by Tsarist Russia and afterward by the Soviet Union. Now, with independence, perhaps that will be something that will begin growing organically (with some help perhaps from the Peace Corps OCAP volunteers – since that is what they are here to do). It will be interesting to come back in thirty or forty years to see what has become of Qazaqstan's civil society.

I noted to my parents that riding in a car here was an experience, since the driving style here is not quite what I'm used to. Hopping into a van with Sergei (Peace Corps HQ's driver) last week, I was a bit surprised. The driving customs here are what my parents might consider 'aggressive', but it isn't really aggressive because there is a definite rhyme and reason to it. On a four-lane road, the left lane is for going (within reason) as fast as you would like, and if the driver in front of you is moving too slowly, you are not expected to slow down to match his speed; he is expected to move into the right lane and allow you to pass. Because of my accident a month and a half ago, perhaps I am more sensitive than others about this. Also, it is worth note that the attitude toward seatbelts here is a little more cavalier. I got some strange looks when I first put on my seatbelt in Quanysh's van; Quat (my host cousin, about the same age as me, who is currently working in Almaty) told me that it was unusual for people not in the driver's seat to wear seatbelts. I said it was just habit, and that I didn't mean to convey distrust of the driver; he just laughed.

Unfortunately I haven't been able to get many good shots of them given the cloudy days recently (and because I'm too lazy to remember to bring my camera), but the Tianshan Mountains (or Алатау Alatau as they call them here) are always snow-covered and often peaked by clouds; on sunny days they can be breathtaking. They're (almost) always visible outside my host family's kitchen window. The air out here is amazingly clean and fresh; quite a different story from Almaty itself.

On the prices of things – we were instructed today not to get cheated at the dükens or the bazar, and always ask – in Qazaq or in Russian – the prices of anything we buy before we hand them over to the clerk. We were sent out by Nagima (our wonderful Qazaq teacher) to buy half a kilo of potatoes (картоп), half a kilo of onions (пияз) and a single spicy pepper (ащті бұрыш) to gauge the prices. The potatoes were 70╤ (45¢) / kg; the onions also 70╤ / kg, and the peppers were 50╤ (30¢) / kg – prices we would consider really cheap in the United States. Similar prices were for tomatoes (қызанақ, 60╤ / kg), honeydew (қауын, 60╤ / kg) and other peppers of various sorts (100╤ / kg for red peppers and 60╤ / kg for green peppers). Garlic (чеснок) was about 250╤ / kg, and watermelon (қарбыз) was an outrageous 30╤ / kg – though that's almost certainly a seasonal price. By comparison, my shirts in Есік cost about 1750╤ apiece (about $12 each). (When we get to the Green Bazaar in Almaty on Saturday, we'll compare prices. Somehow I doubt we'll get prices as good there.) Actually, we didn't do it right the first time – we didn't ask the prices before handing them over. Thankfully the clerk was honest – we asked later what the standard prices were, and we were not overcharged.

Dogs and cats are common here, both on the roads and in families' yards, but not as pets. Most cats seem to be well-fed strays; same with the dogs, though many families keep dogs as their home security systems. Also, most families in С— keep at least one cow for fresh milk (mostly used in сүтпен шай sütpen shai and in hot cereal, from what I've seen) and several chickens. My host family was surprised that my family back in the United States didn't keep any cows at home, despite my grandfather running a dairy farm in Vermont.

Sadly, I feel like I'm a bit behind in my Qazaq lessons. I've been taking the best notes I can, but I haven't been making flashcards or anything the way my fellow Qazaq students have. My Qazaq is still amazingly slow – it takes me awhile to process anything I hear and then formulate the appropriate response in the appropriate language (my brain keeps jumping from English to Chinese before finally retrieving the appropriate Qazaq). This leads to some frustration, to say the least. I'm still enthusiastic about the language, but it's a struggle to remind myself that I've been exposed to it (let alone learning it) for no more than two weeks, and I have to be patient.

UPDATE for 4 September:

The school culture will take getting used to. I observed four lessons С— мектепте this week: mathematics (in Qazaq), Russian language, Russian literature and Qazaq language. They were varied among themselves, but there were some interesting disparities between the Qazaqstani system and the American one. Since this is a village school, resources are limited; not all the students had their own books, and many of the chalkboards had been painted over multiple times. In this school, the students stay in one place, leaving the classroom only for breaks between classes – the teachers are the ones who move between classrooms. The method of teaching was, expectedly, still heavily grammar-translation: the teacher asks questions and individual students answer. Drills are taken from the book and occasionally done on the board. Only the Russian language teacher used any kind of visual aids (simple pictures) for her class, which was a third-grade class (really little kids). Still, the kids are mostly very well-behaved; all of them stand when a teacher enters the room until they are told to sit. Some talk during class, but most of them raise their hands and stand when answering questions. (I noticed that the younger children tended to be better-behaved that way more than the older students.) The teachers themselves are very effective at what they do – some of them present a sterner demeanour than others, but they all speak in very clear, very well-projected voices, and they all gave positive reinforcement to their students, who readily volunteered answers and demonstrated what they had learned.

Nagima told us some about of the cultural differences between Qazaqs and their neighbours today, also. She told us that because of their history and their lifestyle differences, Qazaqs and Uzbeks don't often see eye-to-eye. Qazaqs tend to be far more open and honest about whether or not they like you, as she put it, since they had lived longer in the nomadic lifestyle when if you had a dispute with your neighbour you could just pick up and move. Uzbeks, having been far more sedentary for a lot longer, developed an expectation of diplomacy even between people who didn't like each other, so relationships like that tend to be glossed over a lot more. Also, among Qazaqs, there are of course the tribal divisions into 'hundreds' жүз, but also there are further divisions into clans. Nagima explained that at one point a person's clan had been important, and there had been stringent rules among Qazaqs against incest within these clans – in that, the Qazaqs historically seem to have followed a very similar system to the Navajos of the American Southwest. However, Nagima felt that nowadays this was only a method for dividing people from each other (there she probably has a point). She explained that there is still a lingering prejudice against 'returning' Qazaqs who fled the Soviet Union and who have come back to Qazaqstan after independence, but that there are no such prejudices in Qazaqstan against other ethnic groups.

Tonight was also a different cultural first for me – I had beshbarmak (the national dish of Qazaqstan: horse-meat served with potatoes, onions and peppers on broad, flat boiled noodles) when I went over to Gülbarzhan's house to visit with my host brother's grandmother and two of his great-aunts (though the three elderly ladies were called simply Апалар – 'grandmothers'). It was a very well-stocked дастархан (long-table): bread of all kinds, various salads, қаймақ (qaimaq, Qazaq-style sour cream), jellies, cookies and apples – and that was before the main dish made an appearance! When the beshbarmak was brought out, one of the old ladies (Satai Agha's mother, I think) said a brief prayer. (Usually the prayer is said after the meal – this was the first time I'd seen one happen during the middle of a meal, but perhaps having beshbarmak was a special occasion.) At any rate, that meal stuffed me to the gills – it tasted delicious, though horse-meat is quite distinct in flavour from any other kind of meat I've had.

I'm currently posting these back blog entries from the PCHQ in Almaty, and I've only got one hour max of Internet time right now, so I've got to wrap up. Further updates as time permits. For now, сау болыңыздар!