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The To-Do List

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While starting to sort through the jumbled pieces of the life I left behind as I fled the country a year ago, I discovered a few things that really put it all into perspective – though what perspective that is, exactly, I’m not quite sure.

I know a few people have been waiting for The Big Post about the Peace Corps leaving Kazakhstan – after all, a few of us got names plastered all over the news for our contributions. But for once in my life, I just haven’t been ready to write.

And I’m still not quite ready to write that post. This is not the post about leaving Kazakhstan, although that will come. This is the post about coming home.

One year ago today, I was frantically packing and re-packing, overwhelmed by all I was leaving undone, knocking to-do lists off of every surface. Little did I know that they would be here, waiting for me in a pile of mail and other paperwork.

That’s the perspective I found. You see, those pre-departure to-do lists – the really important stuff – were less than half crossed-off. And yet – I made it to Kazakhstan, and, when the program was abruptly closed, I made it home. My life has not been orderly for a single minute I can think of in the last year.

But what is the message here? On the one hand, I’m here, I’m pushing through, moving forward, despite all the unaccomplished goals. Life didn’t end because I didn’t check every box.

On the other hand, there have been inconveniences – late fees, chiding emails, stress… And now, here I am, with new pressing items to add. With this neatly-written, messily-marked-up and half-crossed-out list in front of me, however, I am acknowledging as I never have before that not everything will be accomplished.

A book I’ve been reading recently, called Burst, offered the factoid that a small percentage of tasks on a list will be pushed to the bottom in perpetuity, never made enough of a priority to be completed. But recognizing priorities isn’t always my problem; honoring them is. As one professor remarked to me last year: “You do too much. I don’t know why that is, but you always try to cram too many things in all at once. It seems to simply be part of who you are. But you aren’t going to finish it all.”

Finishing it, I think, has never been quite as important as staying busy, as always having something to move on to. Because with commitment comes a far greater potential for loss – and far less likelihood of having something to move right on to.

The lists I found represent the one time in my life I can think of that I committed to something completely, attempting to suspend everything as I traveled as far around the world as I could get without starting to come back again.

Then, nine months later, that two-year commitment ended as abruptly as the breakup you never saw coming, as suddenly the day your name came up on a pink slip. Our investment, it seems, had nothing to do with the great forces that keep the world turning. It’s not that what we were doing wasn’t enough – it’s that nothing would have been.

Maybe that’s part of why so many of us seem to live our lives so schizophrenically. We’re scared of what happens if we don’t have five balls and a few bowling pins in the air at all times.

That was reinforced for me last week at an amazing career conference in D.C., hosted by Returned Volunteer Services. I met amazing people with amazing stories, and my sense of isolation all but left me as I heard about their experiences – evacuated from Honduras, El Salvador, Georgia; moved into consolidation with other volunteers for more than a month in the face of unrest; or able to finish their service, but still blinking at America, not always catching each other’s pop culture references after spending two years in a tiny mountain town or on a half-mile square island.

The tools RVS gave us for our job hunt made this process exciting. But the pressure, the need for dozens of contacts and hundreds of leads, was intimidating. As I attempt to relaunch my career, this seems to be the message. You need it all – Facebook, Twitter, a blog. You need connections, irons in the fire, options. Choices.

But strangely, the more my world seems to resemble what my professor described as something apparently innate to me, the more I have begun searching for stability, for something I can count on. I’ve begun thinking about jobs in terms of five years, not one or two, if that. I’ve been thinking about leases and budgets and actually keeping up with that savings plan.

In the coming weeks, I will once again focus on my research in journalism, business, and ethics, spiced up by my job search and a few more memories from Kazakhstan. But I needed to take some time to reflect, however generally, on the confusion I feel, finding myself back here – a long, vital to-do list in front of me – but with a very different perspective.

What do you think? How do commitment and keeping your options open balance in your life?

And now, excuse me – while I go cross “write blog post” off my list.


Written by Katrina

March 15, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Remembering 9/11 in a (mostly) Muslim Country

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“The only thing I know for sure,” I wrote in my journal on September 11, 2011, “is that my world is forever changed.”

At sixteen in Pennsylvania, fresh off the moving truck from Tennessee, I didn’t understand the background, or the possible impact, or frankly even what to make of the situation. My stomach hurt all day thinking of the people trapped and dying at that very moment, and I excused myself from Latin class as we continued, from a previous lesson, watching a movie with a famous gladiator scene – in the filming of which, I happened to know, a man had actually been trampled to death. I walked down the empty hallway to a thrumming water fountain, and, hands braced, leaned my head against the cool tile above it.

But didn’t tragedies happen all the time? Thanks to a thorough article in Reader’s Digest, I could have related the events of the Oklahoma City bombing complete with timestamps. I hurt for the theft of life, but at sixteen, I didn’t understand the anger. I didn’t know its scale, its history – and I couldn’t have begun to lay the scope of its future.

Nor did I have any conception of my own. Twenty-six was then, in its own way, impossibly old, and I was pretty sure I’d have conquered the world by the time I reached such an age, or at least New York City, if not a few European countries. Of course, I could never have imagined being in Kazakhstan – given that I didn’t know the country existed.

But here I am, ten years to the day from the event that I believe defined the grand sweeping arcs in which my little life nestles, six months to the day from my arrival in a country younger than most of its citizens.

Two days ago, as my Russian tutor and I were talking about the next day’s English club, where I would speak about 9/11, my remarks drifted into my reasons for joining the Peace Corps in the first place. I felt too often like I was in a bubble, I said, and I needed to see the world outside of that bubble. I didn’t necessarily expect the world outside it to be drastically different – I just needed to see for myself what it was like.

“And now? Have your opinions changed?” he asked. “No…” I said, searching for the right words. And it came to me. “My reality changed.”

Most of the things I thought would be difficult aren’t too bad. Some people knew they would miss Taco Bell, or Dr. Pepper; my attachment to daily showers ran so deep I thought the lack, as a daily privation, would be one of my biggest stressors. I’ve had it fairly easy here, I’ll admit, but I shower about once a week and easily lose track of exactly how many days it’s been.

Doing laundry by hand makes me wonder what I was thinking by wasting all that coffee money at the Laundromat in college, and discovering that a 30-minute walk in the hot sun carrying two heavy bags seems too short to warrant wasting the (33-cent) bus fare gives me a bit more self-respect (and better glutes) than I had when I got here.

But I can’t get used to the food – starch, meat, and soup with starch and meat – even though it’s usually nicely seasoned and served with good bread. I’m constantly surprised by how tiring language learning is, given the inherent motivation and necessity of my surroundings. And perhaps most frustrating of all, teaching is a daily trial and error, the rapport I usually found so easy to establish in a class in the States buried behind the faces of students trained, by the manner of their English lessons over the years, to fake their way through class. Or behind the terror that prevents them from comprehending something they actually already know.

An excellent TEFL text I recently obtained, created for Americans traveling abroad to teach English with little formal training in either English or teaching, describes the state of someone getting used to a new culture as not “shock” but “fatigue.” The author writes (and I paraphrase): “It’s extremely common to subconsciously feel over time that with all the work you are doing to adjust to the host culture, it should be adjusting to you in the same amount.”

It’s only fair, right? Except when you remember that no one explained those rules to the whole country you live in now. Or when you imagine the more shamefully careless reactions of the stereotypical Ugly American confronted with foreigners at home. “You’re in America. Figure it out or go home.”

Maybe that’s why, even though teaching, language learning, and general cultural adaptation are all significantly slower to improve and more exhausting than I expected, I never cease to feel gratitude at the way so many people treat me like an honored guest. The shining earnestness of people’s faces as they ask in Russian, Kazakh, or English (in that order of likelihood) if I’m from America. Or being invited to speak about the tenth anniversary of 9/11 at an English club organized entirely by locals.

Most of the students at that English club, held yesterday, were about sixteen – now the age I was at the time of the attack, then only about six years old. Their city fell victim to this country’s first ever suicide bombing in May, and will be the host to about 600 imams coming for theological training to help them respond to problems posed by extremists whose religion carries the same name. Because, you see, most of my students are also Muslim.

The prepared presentation about 9/11 didn’t mention who was behind the attack, or mention religion in any way. And I hadn’t really intended to, given the restrictions on Peace Corps volunteers discussing religion or politics. (Imagine meeting your significant other’s parents for the first time. With at least one of them cleaning a gun. …For two years straight.) But I know some of these students have heard that America doesn’t like Muslims. And in the moment, I couldn’t, in good conscience, not say anything.

I asked my students if they had heard of Osama bin Laden, or of the Taliban. Most of them said yes. Unconvinced that everyone actually had, I asked one student who had said yes how she would describe them. Her short answer included the word “extremists” – a dirty word here these days as the country attempts, for the first time, to cope publicly with religiously motivated terrorism.

So I used that as I tried to find simple words to describe something it sometimes seems no one in the world can narrate. “There are not very many Muslims in America,” I began haltingly, as always forced to choose between the most accurate form of a statement and the form language learners – even advanced ones – will best understand. “Many people don’t know anyone who is Muslim. So they didn’t know the difference between…someone who is an extremist and someone who is not.” Americans were scared, I explained, and few students said, “Of course!” But now, I told them, there is better education about Islam, and our presidents have emphasized that we are not at war with Islam itself.

The explanation left out so much. I imagined the questions that would result if they knew about the reaction to the proposed cultural center – and mosque? That part got a bit confusing – near Ground Zero, and the controversy it caused, and I felt guilty for my lack of ability to have that discussion. Or the cranks who want to burn the Koran. I thought of the hate crimes that did, in fact, occur against innocent Muslims in the days after the attacks, the prejudice that still runs rampant, the suspicion and mistrust against a group that wants to build a mosque in the county where I was a journalist. What right did I have to speak to these students on this subject without mentioning that if they go to America, as they so deeply dream, so many of its citizens will first think they are Chinese or Japanese and then, discovering them to be Muslim, often harangue them or worse?

What right? Well, the right that I don’t do that. The right that those whom I love at home don’t do that. The expectation, which some may dismiss as bureaucratic “Politically Correct” nonsense, that people will at the bare minimum bury their ugliness and allow even those for whom they have unreasonable hate to pass through their shops and restaurants unmolested. Or maybe just the right that in the pure lost-in-translation struggle of giving some description, what I gave was enough.

Maybe it is this internal struggle, which may have inadvertently helped me by slowing my speech even more than normal, that makes me sure I will always remember the last student who came up to me at the end of the club (after a cheering game of Pictionary).

“Thank you,” she said. “I didn’t know who Osama bin Laden was, and I asked, but people told me, ‘Oh, it’s not important,’ or ‘You don’t need to know.’ So now I know a little. I learned a lot today.”

If you had asked me if I thought there were children the world over who didn’t really know much, if anything, about September 11, I would have said yes. If you asked me if the world was full of people who are Muslim, who – unlike so many Americans – don’t consider themselves to have anything whatsoever to do with it, I would have said yes. And if you had asked me whether just because the rest of the world didn’t stop to air tributes on TV, it meant the people of the world – with their own tragedies and deprivations – feel no compassion for this day which I still feel altered the course of my country and its relation to the world – I would have said no.

But now I have experienced these things. I live with a woman who was born when Stalin controlled her country, and I know about the tragedies that came even with independence. I wake to the call to prayer at the grand mosque less than a mile from my house. And I accepted the sympathy of adults and young people alike on this date, when I not only remember “where I was when it happened” – but where I have been almost every year since.

So no, my opinions haven’t changed, not exactly.

My reality did.

Written by Katrina

September 11, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Posted in Kazakhstan, Peace Corps

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Just a quick trip to the grocery store…

…in Kazakhstan.

It’s been a slow week, and I have projects at home that have kept me busy. So it was nice to get out of the house this evening to head to the grocery store, especially since the aftermath of a wrathful thunderstorm a few days ago has finally dried out (mostly) and left the air crisp and delicious. My fifteen minute walk gave me a chance to enjoy the break from the equally wrathful heat that has been shimmering and simmering its way into the sidewalks and the bones of we poor pedestrians – and also to nudge myself, with every step, out of the somewhat melancholy malaise that can sneak in to any holding pattern.

By the time I reached Olzha, the “gipermarket”, I was considerably cheerier. I followed two couples dressed like they were on a date into the super supermarket, got in line to have my purse wrapped in plastic which was then sealed with a heat machine, grabbed a basket and was on my way.

Supermarkets are a bit of a rarity in Kazakhstan, although the popular Anvar chain had a good hold on the Aktobe market for a decade or more, from what little I have been told and observed. Olzha is a very Western store, although it would look very strange in the context of the U.S. There’s a small “fresh market” area to the right of the door on the bottom floor, canned and boxed goods in a row of tall shelves down the center, and meats, dairy and baked goods on the far left. In the middle of the dry goods there is also a small liquor store’s worth of alcohol, and a few special counters with fancy chocolates and imported liquor – as well as a counter where you can have two-liter clear plastic bottles filled with beer on tap.

This is Olzha.

It feels a lot like Walmart – especially upstairs – but the Western feel comes with Western prices, and almost everything is more expensive than at a bazaar. Bazaars versus supermarkets are a big trade-off, for me. I prefer the energy of the bazaar, the freshness of the produce, the cultural immersion – and the cheaper prices. But bazaars close, and Olzha doesn’t; Olzha’s much closer to my house; and besides, cultural immersion is exhausting. It’s nice to be able to buy a few ounces of almonds without causing a ruckus.

But as usual, Kazakhstan outsmarted me.

After grabbing my wire basket with my plastic-wrapped bag securely and unthreateningly looped over my shoulder, I headed straight to the wall of dried fruit and nuts in bulk, grimacing at the fruit flies hovering inside the plastic bins as I scooped some dried apricots (a food I never knew I loved until living here) and contemplated what I think were dried figs, but passed over due to lack of certainty. I tore a second bag from the same roll I’d used for the apricots, scooped a small pile of extremely expensive almonds…and cringed as they plunged straight through the bag and onto the floor of the crowded market.

Who- or whatever had heat-sealed that roll of bags had not been as conscientious as the lady who protected the store from my threateningly thieving purse; the bag didn’t deign to have the slightest seam of a bottom.

As my boyfriend is slowly learning, my capacity for embarrassment and shame, while a little unpredictable, should not be underestimated. This would have slightly mortified me in an American supermarket. As a foreigner, listening to a few snickers made me blush at least to my knees. And as a foreigner, I was even more hesitant to walk away and leave it for store employees or try to kick the little annoyances out of the way.

So I turned to the nearby weighing station – all bulk goods, from tomatoes to raisins, must be weighed and tagged by an employee – and pointed to the mess I’d made. Well, no one moved until I pointed it out, suggesting I could have just walked away, but once the deed was done it caused quite a flurry. One woman went over and half-heartedly nudged some of the almonds toward the tall shelf, while another went off – to find a broom or a designated broom person, perhaps, I thought. I scooped a fresh bag of almonds and went to the weighing counter as the second returned with a manager in tow (his pressed shirt and slacks needed no translation).

Two more women, wearing gloves, bent to the ground, and I began to have a feeling I knew where this was going. I started to walk away – and my suspicions were confirmed as the young manager nabbed me on my dash toward the conveyor belt to safety. His manner was entirely friendly, not in the least scolding or irritated, confusing me a bit as he held up the bag of fallen almonds, weighed and tagged, and beckoned for me to follow him.

I wasn’t absolutely sure of his nationality at first glance, so I spoke Russian. Within a few moments I was sure he was Kazakh, but it’s surprisingly difficult to switch from one unfamiliar language to another when you’re flustered. I told him I didn’t understand him and I didn’t speak Russian, and to his credit he didn’t get annoyed – but he did keep speaking, a lot, and quickly.

This is Kazakh grammar.

It’s fascinating how a language sounds when you know a very little of it, but have heard it so much you can hear a lot of the breaks between individual words and feel accustomed to the rhythm and accent. You’re speaking to another adult human being, who is absolutely certain they are making sense – and you’re absolutely certain they would make sense if they were speaking to anyone in the vicinity but you. But to you, it feels like listening to a very evolved, intricate version of the teacher in Peanuts, or exasperated Sims as they wave at you, their clueless computer spirit in the sky. As I kept repeating “ni panamiyu” and the young, clearly competent professional tapped his watch (still haven’t figured out that part of the exchange) and continued to explain himself, all I could think was, “You seem very nice. But nothing you say is going to change the fact that I don’t speak Russian.”

By way of patiently refusing to go away, he dragged my reluctant foreign self to a cashier and laid the bag on her conveyor belt. They commiserated briefly about my ignorance, while I switched to telling them, not that I didn’t understand, but that I didn’t want the almonds. I’m pretty sure I was saying, literally, “not to want. Not to want”. I threw in a few times that it wasn’t my fault that the almonds spilled on the floor, but since that part was in English, I doubt it did much to help my cause.

Finally, although I’d showed the bag before (thank goodness I held onto it!), I pulled it out again and mimed the entire debacle. Scooppourswoosh, out the bottom of the bag. Comprehension dawned on my competent new friend’s face, and he said, “Ahhh, ohh, harashow.” “Bilmedim,” I said, “I didn’t know” – the Kazakh coming back finally – thanked him, and walked away.

So much for my relaxing little jaunt to the grocery store! All things considered, the encounter could have gone much worse. Even so, it took me five minutes of wandering, flustered, through the shampoo and toothbrush aisles before I fully regained my composure.

The whole time, I was thinking about my split-second decision to speak Russian. I’ve been studying Russian rather than Kazakh, but my Kazakh is better than my Russian (although both are still absolutely minimal). And this is the first time I’ve chosen to speak Russian to say any more than “Mojna?” (may I) or “spasiba” (thank you). I may recognize some Russian words and phrases when I hear or see them, but even the phrase “I don’t speak Russian” comes to my tongue much more easily in Kazakh. I also understand Kazakh much better than Russian, making it a wiser choice to speak that language and ask others to speak it to me. But Russian isn’t going to get easier to speak if I don’t actually, well, speak it, so for the past couple of weeks I’ve been trying to break down the mental barrier.

But if the personal is political in America, language is both, here. Even many of the Kazakhs I meet don’t speak Kazakh except at home, and plenty of them don’t really speak Kazakh at all. And while Kazakh people are almost always very excited to hear me speaking Kazakh, it actually makes me stand out even more. I can relate, in a way; once, I asked someone in the little computer club at my college how much I owed for using the internet very briefly. He had spoken no English to me, although my counterpart had translated that he understood a fair amount. When he told me what I owed him, my response was a totally blank Huh? as I spent the next ten seconds trying to figure out whether he was speaking Russian or Kazakh. The number he’d told me? Ten. In English.

I can occasionally pass for Russian when I’m not speaking, but no one is ever going to think I’m Kazakh – so they absolutely don’t expect me to be speaking Kazakh. I’ve watched it take almost a minute just for the language to register properly. All of this has made me want the ability to speak Russian if I choose. And for very basic things, it really has been a relief to be able to order something quickly while in line with several people behind me – especially because sometimes the cashier is Russian. But today’s experience goes down toward the top of the list as another example of why I want to continue practicing Kazakh.

When I speak Kazakh, most people – Kazakhs, and even some ethnic Russians – are friendly. Most of the time, most of them want to do anything they can to help me, just because I’m speaking, or trying to speak, Kazakh. There is the occasional hostility or indifference – I live in a large city about 100 km from Russia. If I’m foreign, I should be able to just communicate in Russian. But on a scale far from the mere appreciation many countries have for tourists who try to speak their language, simply saying “salametsiz beh” (man, does that look weird when it’s not in the Cyrillic alphabet) opens faces like the wind has just pushed a door wide.

I ended up in Central Asia because when my recruiter asked me if I had a second choice after Africa, I said, “Um, I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to learn Russian.” And saying I wanted to study Russian after training is probably one reason I was sent to Aktobe. I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve learned so far, and I hope one day – many years from now, I’m sure – to be able to read Dostoyevsky and Pushkin in the original. But Kazakh is meaningful like no other language I’ve encountered. So every time I’m frustrated at how slow my progress is, trying to study both languages and barely getting anywhere in either, I think about the way Kazakh people look at me when I speak their language.

When I left Olzha tonight, the cashier in the lane I chose spoke to me in Russian, as always. But for the first time since I started studying Russian in Aktobe, I didn’t feel the slightest conflict about what language to use.

Written by Katrina

July 13, 2011 at 1:47 pm


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The centerpiece of Ecik's Nauryz celebration

22 March 2011

I came home on March 22 to find my host mother sitting at the kitchen table with her sisters, drinking beer from teacups. Judging from the number of times she introduced me and her sister’s declaration “I love you” to me in English, they had been enjoying this pursuit for quite some time. Also submitted as evidence of how the day was spent were the large empty vegetable-oil bottles apparently used to transport the пива (sounds like “peeva”, Russian for “beer.” I don’t remember the Kazakh word for beer, because everyone I know only ever calls it пива, but the Kazakh word for “onion” is pronounced “piaz,” and I await the day I order an onion at the bar).

This scene was not as odd to me as you might imagine. In fact, sisters and many others around the country were probably engaged in similar joviality, because March 22 is none other than the biggest and most traditional holiday in Kazakhstan: New Year’s.

Науріз Қотті Болсын! (Nawruz kottuh bolson!) This is a wish for good health to you on Nauryz. Nauryz (which, fair warning, I may have spelled wrong in Kazakh) is also the name for the entire month of March, which I find both confusing and awesome. It’s like just calling December “Christmas.”

The celebration of the new year is observed at the vernal equinox, according to my Kazakh teacher, because it was when the nomadic Қаэақ people could travel safely again in the midst of the melting snow. Kaz 23, the first Peace Corps generation to show up in the spring, got here just in time for the festivities. This also means we got here just in time for most of the country to shut down by presidential order for about five days. We, unfortunately, were not yet deemed sufficiently Kazakh to shut down with them, and had to attend class all week. However, we did get to partake in this gem of a cross-cultural opportunity.

For my group in Есік, the day started with a trip to the city’s Nauryz celebration, complete with yurts and traditional Kazakh dress, music and far too much food. Most events here call for a concert, preferably with dombra, the two-stringed traditional Kazakh instrument traditionally played by two dueling performers (are you getting that there’s a lot of tradition?). Nauryz was of course no exception, although this year’s concert was prefaced by many speeches about the upcoming presidential election, which luckily were totally lost on me and my fellow volunteers.

Speeches prior to Nauryz concert

Nauryz also marked the television debut of PC Kaz 23, as my classmate Josh and myself were interviewed by a local channel. I spoke Kazakh (аздап, as my host brother conceded to my proud claim when he mentioned he had seen me on TV – “a little”) to introduce myself, but mostly our teacher played interpreter as the reporter asked how we liked Kazakhstan and Nauryz and what had surprised us about the country. I don’t think I gave very good quotes, but who knows? My teacher, who has worked as a toastmaster at Kazakh weddings – a very big job, given the number of, you guessed it, traditions involved – has quite the silver tongue.
After the interview, we wandered for a bit; I managed to track down the candy apples I’d seen small children enjoying, and to purchase one from a woman who spoke only Kazakh. This was my only goal for the day. Little did I know what the next hour would have in store…

We were invited into the yurt of the director of the college where six of us are studying and teaching. The director is a Big Deal, both because he’s the director and because he formerly was the Minister of Education for Almaty Oblast (oh, I didn’t explain oblasts? Well, imagine if the U.S. governmental system was divided not into states, but into about nine geographic regions – northeast, northwest, southeast, southwest, west coast, east coast, central, and so on – and the governors and other important officials were appointed by the president. That’s pretty much the gist).


In this yurt, we were served a traditional Kazakh meal. This included sheep’s head, horsemeat, beshbarmak (which literally translates as “five fingers,” so named because these are the utensils used to eat it) and horse milk stew. This was the first time this vegetarian found herself in a situation where culturally she could not refuse…and I have now eaten (very small bites of) all of the above.

Interestingly, the portion of a sheep’s head you eat carries significance, a portent of the kind of fortune or wish for the gifts you will develop in the coming year. In an even more traditional setting, a guest might be presented with a specific part, indicating the gift the host or hostess (usually the most important or oldest person there…these often coincide) thinks you need. My small bite, coincidentally, was from the cheek, which I’m told is a blessing on my ability with language. One can only hope.

It’s difficult to make effective or useful observations or generalizations, as aware of my ignorance as I am. But it seems to me that there is probably no better example of the scale of the tradition which still underlies this relatively modern country. Even where individuals depart from the rites, everyone knows – and generally grants respect to – the established steps of the common dance. I discovered recently that the Kazakh language has a word for people who don’t know their family history, who don’t know who they are: мангурт. The word is pronounced, roughly, “mang-oort” – reminiscent,  appropriately, of our English word “mongrel.” Kazakhs must know the names of their fathers for seven generations back; this tradition is, from what I’m told, an observation of Muslim custom, to keep the blood pure – that is, prevent inbreeding.

“That’s us,” my classmate Richard said upon learning the word, “That’s what Americans are.” Seems a fairly accurate assessment, to me, but the question of how one ought to feel about that is much murkier. I think of a conversation I had with my parents shortly before I left, when I mentioned I haven’t decided whether or not I’ll change my name if and when I get married (the way Kazakhs feel about the “if” in that statement is a whole different blog post). My father asked, “What if the last name in question is Rockefeller?” and I conceded that in that case I probably would. (In response to anticipated potential outrage, I don’t have particularly strong feelings about matrimonial name changing, other than the definite individual right NOT to change one’s name and a general dissatisfaction that our system is so definitively patriarchal.)

American society is proud and resentful of pedigree by turns, with the “self-made” citizen tending to command the most respect but with plenty of doors opened and hats figuratively (and sometimes literally) doffed to the oldest names. There are certainly times I’ve wished for a stronger run of tradition or more knowledge of my own background, and I think we as a culture suffer from the lack of a way to navigate the multitude of choices open to us – a lack which tradition often conveniently eradicates.

Ultimately, I chalk this one up, simply, to cultural difference. While at times I feel wistful, wishing the threads in my family and cultural tapestry were a little more tightly woven, I also feel proud to be a “mongrel,” or a mutt, as we tend to say. After all, as the Peace Corps keeps impossibly trying to summarize, integration is not the same as assimilation.  I’m an American, a Peace Corps volunteer, living in Kazakhstan – nothing more, and nothing less.

Written by Katrina

April 6, 2011 at 3:50 am

Slideshow tease – the first days

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My first few entries are all out of order and bring me up only to the end of my first week of training. I’ve just started the third week, and things are going well. I should be completely up to date soon, but until then, here is a slideshow of photos from my first few weeks in the biggest ‘stan.

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Written by Katrina

March 28, 2011 at 8:01 am

It’s still Friday

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11 March 2011

It’s still Friday. It’s still my first day in Kazakhstan. I feel like I’ve been here for a week.

Certainly I’ve been through enough emotions to fill up about a week. Exhaustion, stress, jetlag, excitement, elation, pure overwhelmed-ness – it’s like the reverse of ping-pong diplomacy.

I started the entry around 9 p.m. Friday, and then fell asleep; I continued it at 4:15 a.m. Saturday, when I couldn’t stay asleep. I slept for about 3 ½ hours, and after an hour in bed I snuck into the bathroom and sat on the cold tile floor, practicing my Kazakh conversation and thinking about what people are doing back home, where it is was about 5 p.m. Thursday.

I think 9 p.m. will be one of the strangest times for me – when I’ve completed a day that friends and family back home have not yet started. I’m excited to begin blogging, sharing this experience…

…and what an experience. The first day, Friday, my roommates Susannah, Crystal and I woke to blaring, slightly schizophrenic  dance music coming from the TV – at 6:30 a.m. It took us until the evening to learn for sure that it was an alarm set on the television; at the time, we thought we were being invaded by militant former U.S.S.R. Jazzercize instructors.

We slept for another half hour, then got up for a shower – an exciting feature of our strange, small Almaty hotel. More exciting than we knew; Crystal showered before me, and I’m grateful for her warning. The showerhead, the detachable kind, was wild and free after some previous violence had liberated it from the hook intended to support it. The broken bracket teased me as I attempted to avoid Crystal’s fate – a thrashing snake of water jetting over the cracked tiles, the ceiling, and, occasionally, her. I can’t remember if I’ve ever had a shower for which I was both so grateful and that was yet so stressful.

After successfully failing to start a fire with my hair dryer – or blow it up – my roomies and I trekked out into a misty morning, full of the sounds of unfamiliar animals. Gamely we wandered forward in search of a theoretical breakfast, in some as-yet-undisclosed location.

Luckily we didn’t have far at all to go. Just two buildings down from our little bungalow was a grand pagoda of a structure, with a wide stair that managed to be both noble and distinctly post-Soviet at the same time. We followed a reassuringly typical breakfast din into a beautiful room that we surmised must be used for Kazakh weddings, and sat at a table covered in a soft and shimmering gold cloth.

Breakfast was porridge – helped by two teaspoons of a thick sugar I’ve come to recognize as typical here, like raw sugar but in texture but white in color – bread and butter, and chai. I have had chai and bread at every single meal since that first breakfast. If you don’t drink chai and eat bread, you might as well not have bothered to eat. There was also a dish that fairly faithfully resembled Hamburger Helper, which I politely declined by completely ignoring it. My tablemates were opposed in their enjoyment, or lack thereof, of the dish, but agreed that it was quite greasy. That’s also typical of tastes here…one volunteer will very much enjoy something that others can’t stomach.

After breakfast, we straggled into an auditorium that could have been in the U.S., were the stage not full of Kazakhstani teenagers in snappy suits and beautiful, fluffy tiered white dresses, holding traditional Kazakhstani musical instruments. We jetlagged Volunteer Trainees perked up at the charming tableau, touched by the ceremonial greeting.

The group on stage shared a rousing rendition of their national anthem, aided by an electronic vocal track at even higher volume. The totally unprepared volunteers, on the other hand, stammered as our own anthem suddenly was announced and we realized we were expected to sing.

I teared up when the anthem came on, a response I probably haven’t had in ten years – since 2001. Exhaustion strengthened every response I had that morning, from adrenaline rushed-joy at being pulled onstage to imitate traditional Kazakhstani dancing, to a crash and the unexpected thought “I want to go home” moments later in response to a chance comment about the structure of the next two years.  The rest of the day was spent filing in and out of that auditorium; deciding I wanted to study Russian only to be offered the chance to teach college – which necessitated studying Kazakh; having my first language lesson; and completing a scavenger hunt of evening tasks, including a medical interview, a cell phone purchase, and various other administrative duties.

My clothes from the plane smelled terrible, and I washed everything I thought likely to dry overnight in the sink. I draped the clothes over a convenient heating element in the bathroom, and started this journal entry, when I was suddenly overwhelmed by the exhaustion that had dogged my feet all day. I really believed that I would sleep straight through the night – I was so tired, how could I not? But although I was still dead tired, when I woke up, that was it for the night’s sleep.

By the time I wrote my journal entry, the morning of Day One did feel like it had been a week before, rather than less than 24 hours. My biggest fear, as I got up and showered – this time under a showerhead tamed with masking tape – was how I was going to get through the coming evening with my host family. What would they be like? As exhausted as I was, not having slept well since my last night in my old apartment, how would I handle a new overwhelming experience, the full onslaught of Kazakh hospitality?

Written by Katrina

March 28, 2011 at 7:19 am

PST: Week One

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13 March 2011 – 8 a.m.

First things first – I GOT A FULL NIGHT’S SLEEP! I went to bed at 10:30 and woke up at 8. !!!

Yesterday was rough, given the lack of sleep. I was worried that I would be cranky to the point interacting would be difficult. But my host family is great – Mama, Anara, and apparently a host brother as well, although I haven’t seen him yet – and I can’t imagine where he sleeps.

Anara speaks very good English, but doesn’t understand all that I say. Mama – Ana in Kazakh I believe – speaks no English that I can tell, except “Thank you” and “Hello.” My host family is pretty quiet, and really very modern – I am happy to have Anara as my host sister. She’s fun to talk to, and her English has made it much easier. Mostly, though, I think my anxiousness to please has kept me from any problems.

16 March 2011 – 7 p.m.

I think I should judge days by their beginnings rather than their ends, because after school I am always so tired and discouraged.

That walk home is probably the worst part of my day. I’m tired, people are staring, I’m hoping I don’t get hit by a car or fall on the ice, I’m picking my way through slush and am somehow sure that something – everything – will go wrong. And I know that once I get home, I’m working so hard just to speak and be polite – because I don’t know what to say!

I am super emotional, too. Almost everything brings me close to tears. When I have some time to reflect, I almost like this, I think – there have been times in my life where I felt so removed from myself. Although I can’t honestly say I am happy right now, I do feel…fulfilled, maybe. Engaged, involved.

Too involved at times, though. It’s hard for me to get out of my own head. I feel like I’m having a hard time meshing with my training group, and I feel like my shock at how hard this is makes me so negative. I’ve started telling myself, “Shut up, Miss America!”

I find myself a little jealous of my classmates who are not homesick. I wonder what this would be like for me if I’d had more time, if I’d done a better job of wrapping up things at home, if I didn’t feel so very tied to home right now. Here I am in this different culture, with so much to see, to learn – to write!

Our Peace Corps Medical Officer, Dr. Victor, came today. He is absolutely hilarious. He’s extremely direct, and everything becomes a story, a scenario. I find myself wishing I could write down everything he says.

Already there is a bit of a routine, although not really in a settled way. I was telling my teacher, Roman, at lunch today that for me the biggest difference is how being from a different culture is emphasized. It doesn’t really bother me to live in an unfamiliar culture – food, bathroom habits, different manners, different weather, different assumptions about almost everything, it’s all just sort of intriguing to me. The only different assumption that draws me up short, as Gadamer would say, is that having someone of a different culture around is strange for the people here. They seem to assume – and still I’m very much generalizing – that my life was completely different in America, that everything here must be unusual to me, and that I am completely different from them. They seem used to a certain way, like steps in a dance, and it seems more odd to them than it is to me that I do not know the dance. Being watched is not easy. I feel very exposed, constantly vulnerable. Already I am looking forward to the anonymity of the States.

I feel like I can’t overemphasize just how tough it is to simply be here, to be a somewhat reluctant guest who can’t go home.

17 March 2011 8 p.m.

What to report? Still frustrated, still depressed. Things are getting better – I successfully took lunch to school today! I had to figure out how to ask. But I asked my host mom, and she made it. Yay!

Mostly, though…I’m just really, truly exhausted. All the time. At any given moment, given the opportunity, I would simply go to sleep. I don’t know if this is still jetlag, or the food and the carbohydrate overload, or what.

Learning the language is slow. Much slower than I expected. But every day, I feel a little bit more comfortable.

19 March 2011

One week in at the host house. I’ve begun to regain my sense of humor…and gain a sense of peace. I woke at 4:30 a.m. from a terrible dream. But the day has improved significantly from there. I saw the whole group for Hub Day, then had my first beer in Kstan. I came home, and then went back out with my host brother for another beer – and billiards! Overall, a reasonable sense of normalcy is so totally welcome. It finally feels like I can be myself here.

20 March 2011

A day at the bazaar, wandering with people who may yet become friends. Further successful navigation of this foreign land; apricots (dried) and almonds in my tummy, as evidence of said success; and the pleasure of sitting at a kitchen table stretching homemade spaghetti. I looked at the sun setting over the mountains and I thought, I love it here.

I said to my classmate Tommy earlier that I am looking forward to the life I can have here, that in some ways it might be better than the life I had in America. (It’s still strange to me to call it “America”…but that’s how people refer to it here.) Tommy asked what was so bad at home that I had to join the Peace Corps to get away, and I said, “I’ve known I wanted to do this since I was 19. I’m not running away from anything. But I felt like I never had time to slow down.” We were walking through the bazaar, and I was admiring the produce, thinking of when I can do my shopping for the week, carry it home to a little apartment, cook for myself…I don’t know why I feel like I had to travel halfway around the world to find peace. Maybe it’s because perspective comes first, then peace? At any rate, I do really feel like I can become the person I want to be, here.

I’m also a bit surprised by how quickly this transformation has followed the misery of my first ten days. This is more how I had imagined I would feel all along…but when I didn’t feel this way, I really thought the misery would last longer. At any rate, it’s a relief. I know it’s not going to be all hugs and bubblegum from here on out – the responsibility of representing the Peace Corps has settled more heavily than I expected on my shoulders, and the pure and simple knowledge of how long it will be before I can go home at all dogs my every step. It doesn’t feel like it stopped being tough. It just feels like the weight has been shuffled around to a much more even balance, and I’m ready for a long hike with a heavy pack.

And I’ve never completely lost a sense of privilege, either. I feel honored to be here, and grateful for opportunity and the kindness of strangers. It’s not that it isn’t difficult. It’s just that it’s worth it.


Written by Katrina

March 28, 2011 at 7:13 am