Archive for March, 2008

Good Friday and I’m Sad!

Pretense exists in academia BIG time, that makes me sad.  I’m surrounded by it in spades here in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  The pre-existing Soviet style of education was filled with “Pakazooka” which my husband uses as a Russian term which means something for show but the opposite truth is hidden behind it.  Both Pretense and Pakazooka start with a “P.”

 Ordinarily I’m a fairly positive, upbeat type of person but not today.  Our very complex situation at our institution has caught up with me.  I’m sad because I was framed for a minor, minor incident, blamed for something that I didn’t do.  Another person lied about something so they wouldn’t have to take the rap, yet if they had ‘fessed up they would have been surrounded by grace.  More pretense!  Pretending that you are better than you really are, which is essentially PRIDE!!!  More “P.”

 What is it about education that puffs people up?  Someone writes and publishes an article several years ago in some journal.  Big deal, does that make them more knowledgeable in all other areas of life?  Hardly, yet they do know one tiny piece of their own little puzzle. We all inhabit a very large but complex world.  These same “know-it-alls” have some letters behind their name that start with a “P” which puts them in a higher pay bracket.  Do these Ph.D. types REALLY know the very people they are trying to educate?  I doubt it nor do they care.  They seem to care only for their own ego and reputation based on whatever theory they are promoting in their own sphere or discipline.  The Soviet Union’s scholars pushed a LOT of theory and had very little real application.  If they had used authentic research with hard evidence, it would have gone against their ideology that communism was supreme.

 I have a strong empathy for the people of Kazakhstan who want to know and learn in order to be a part of the twenty-first century. They were thought of as awkward and behind the times in comparison to the rest of the world. Yes, many Kazakhs may have their own quirky way of going about their education since they’ve only come out a system that promoted pretense and pride just 15 years ago.  That system under its own heavy weight of lies caved in and it left many shattered lives as a result.  Some grabbed for the goodies and property, others scrambled for other perks with Kazakhstan’s natural resources.  A new, rich class of Kazakhs exist who care nothing for intellectual property and believe they can use their new toys or equipment to steal from others. We call that same practice, which is common in the classroom with the advent of the computer, plagiarism.  Another “P.”

 What to do about a group of people who do not want to write their own thoughts but would rather “cut and paste” others’ writings?  This gets back to the first “P” I mentioned about pretense.  The old way of thinking prevails, “We pretend to teach and the students pretend to learn.”  I know Someone who came into this world 2,000 years ago who took the rap for us, he took the blame.  He tried to teach an ornery lot of people who were filled with themselves.  He went to the cross to rid the world of a lot of “P.”  I’m sad today but feel I can say along with Paul from Galations 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ…”

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“See-me” Side of City Life

gutter garbagemore garbagegarbage dumpIn the last week or so brigades of university students have been out raking and cleaning up the ground-bare lawns from the sum total of a year’s worth of trash.  Glass and plastic bottles along with wrappers and plastic bags could be seen everywhere and then it gets stuck in the gutters with the rains we have had every other day.  In Soviet times there was a name for this spring clean-up day.  If only people would just dispose of their waste in the trash recepticles so it would not be unsightly the rest of the year, it would make for a less “seemy” looking city. 

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Three views of Almaty, plus one

valley to northglass buildingmountainsMan hole cover

Spring has arrived and there is a clearer view to the north into the valley of Almaty.  The glass building continues to be built to the west and the mountains are to the south.  Ken’s fourth view is down into one of the drainage tunnels to accommodate all the run off from the mountains.  Notice the man, hole and cover, many covers are purposely upturned to collect the fast spillage from melting snow or the rain that turned to sleet-snow yesterday.  The air is clear, fresh and hopeful of a promising spring which will eventually turn into a hot summer.  For now, we enjoy it!!!

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Clockwise Prejudice About Kazakhstan’s Education

This Independence celebration of Dec. 16 that the Kazakhs celebrate may have a strange origin with violence of students clashing against the Soviet authorities.  But then again, our own American independence was a bunch of distinguished upstarts railing against the prevailing British authorities of their time.  Freedom was birthed by people standing up for what they believed was right even though it ultimately meant bloodshed.

Yesterday at work, I talked to a teaching colleague friend of mine who has blue eyes, like me, another Helen. She has a similar background to the Helen, as a Russian-Kazakhstani, whom I blogged about yesterday, though she is about 10 years younger. Helen was from northern Kazakhstan where she claims the educational system is far superior than that of the south. (Almaty is in the south) Helen admitted she had not wanted to come to Almaty but here she is with a high profile job.  I have a great deal of respect for Helen as a very hard worker who has high standards.Helen told me that the southern part of Kazakhstan is considered more nationalistic and doesn’t have as good an educational system but better than the western part of the country where there are simple villagers and nobody wants to go there to teach.  Eastern Kazakhstan is similar to the north in being better education-wise.  So, the way I understood it from Helen’s perspective, the North is best, then east, then south and then western Kazakhstan is the worst.  Clockwise prejudice about education.

I also found out more about the December 16, 1986 event from this second Helen.  On that day, she said that the airport was closed while she was trying to fly into Almaty from her home in the north.  She remembers when she went to the Green Market, not many sellers were there to sell their products.  Also, she said people stood in their customary lines in complete silence.  They did not chatter with each other during their long waits but went about their business of purchasing with little or no talking.  Many more Russians back in those days than now and there were mixed reviews about the student demonstration incident even among the Kazakhs. Apparently, according to Helen, the students were very unruly and destroying things but also there were Kazakh administrators in the college dormitories using sticks to goad on students to get out in the square to be a part of the demonstration.  Cars were stationed on the square ladling out vodka or other alcoholic brew along with drugs to incite the students.  Therefore, the students were caught in the crossfire between the police who were trying to uphold “law and order” and their university administrators who wanted to maintain their positions of power.  With a change in leadership from Moscow, their positions of authority were in jeopardy.  Thus, the rebellion about having an imposed non-Kazakh leader to come and take over.  I believe that is when Nazarbayev came in as Kazakhstan’s president, soon after this revolt.So, now I want to find someone who was actually on the square that particular day of Dec. 16, 1986 and find out from their perspective about what REALLY happened.  This reminds me of the Tianamen Square incident which happened in Beijing, China in 1989.  Later I taught mainland Chinese students who had been on the square and they spoke with fear about the violence and terror they felt during that tumultuous time.  I believe, the desire for freedom and independence is bred in all our hearts, no matter what nation.  We, as Americans, take for granted what our forefathers fought for these many hundreds of years ago.  Counter-clockwise thinking about our freedom AND our education.

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Yesterday’s Conversation with a Russian-Kazakhstani

As Ken and I were walking home from church, Helen, a Russian-Kazakhstani hurried to catch up with me to ask, “Why did you want to know about Dec. 16, 1986 event?”  I replied that I was curious about what REALLY happened during this tragic time in Kazakhstan’s recent history.  Her response would probably be typical of any remaining Russian in Kazakhstan, “It wasn’t important.”  This callous response to the Kazakh people wanting independence 22 years ago incited indignation in me.  I knew who I was talking to when I answered firmly with a leading question, “You don’t think that it was important for the Kazakh people to have a leader who knew something about their nation instead of someone who was assigned from Moscow?”  She seemed to relent a bit since she knew which side I was taking, clearly not the Russian side of forced domination of 70 years of communism.

Helen is about my age so she was probably a good communist worker more years than having lived the free air of independence these past 15 years in Kazakhstan.  Freedom is all in who owns what now.  She tried a different tack with me.  “They took all my property,” Helen stated flatly.  My response to Helen was, “Under communism, how much did you have taken from you when you weren’t supposed to own anything.”  She didn’t answer me directly but I’m guessing that her flat was taken from her.  She claimed that she signed some papers with Mrs. Nazarbayev’s name on it so she thought she was protected.  She wasn’t and now she harbors ill feelings towards President Nazarbayev.  She accused him of being a “robber” though that is not what it sounded like when she pronounced it, I had to guess at that word.

Yes, Nazarbayev has been accused of many things but I responded that he has been a good leader for Kazakhstan in righting the wrongs committed against the Kazakh people.  He has danced a very delicate dance with the rulers from the north (Russia) and the rulers to his east (China).  We will all rue the day when Nazarbayev’s successor comes along, it will take strong leadership of his kind to follow in his footsteps.  Helen mentioned about his former son-in-law who is stuck in Austria as a former ambassador.  If he were to return to Kazakhstan, he will most certainly be killed.  Running this government must be a huge migraine every day and Nazarbayev has done it for the last 20 years.  Some “democracy” but it is better than the alternative.

Back to Helen, she might be a very valuable source of information for me because she knows the two sides of education under the past communist system.  She knows what is happening under the current Kazakh educational ministry while she currently works with an American system of teaching at an international school.  Her statement about the kids in schools these days is that it is a “prison” for them, the Kazakh “teachers pretend to teach and the students pretend to learn.”  Yes, how many times I have heard that expression especially when I was teaching in communist China (1986-1988) a variant is: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”  She also saw that some of the new rich Kazakh kids attend the same school where there are poor missionary children and they scoff at the westerner children saying that they have money because their daddies are smart and theirs are not.  I’d have to agree with Helen on that score, the Kazakh daddies who can afford an expensive international school with American standards have probably cheated and robbed to get the money they have.  However, that’s another story.

Finally, many Kazakhstani citizens, like Helen, have left by the millions when Kazakhstan became an independent nation.  That means Germans, Ukrainians, Russians, anyone who didn’t look Kazakh.  (when I was here in Almaty 15 years ago, it was a common occurrence to be asked on the street what the time was.  The reason was to find out the accent you had when you answered.  Innocent question with a response that would let the inquirer know if you were German or Russian or a native English speaker.  They don’t ask much anymore)  The Kazakhstani may have been born here but their ethnicity shows up in their names and faces, with the push to fit in with the prior Kazakh culture, they are being pushed out of important positions of leadership.  Helen may have had her title and position taken from her 15 years ago as well as any meager property she may have owned but she is one of the resilient ones.  She admits that she is working hard now as a Russian teacher but it is much more interesting in the American system than under the present Kazakh system where Russian is not needed anymore.

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Yesterday’s Conversations in Multi-Ethnic Almaty

 Not everyday do you get to talk to a New Zealander, Russian-Kazakhstani, Korean-Kazakhstani, Iranian, New Zealand-Iranian, Hawaiian American people but it is normal in Kazakhstan.  At least , becoming more so for me in this very multi-ethnic city of Almaty.  My favorite talk was with a little 5 year old whose first language is English, but he is learning three other languages.  He is Iranian extraction since his father came from Iran but now is from New Zealand and his mother is Chinese (I think?)  Anyway, little Rawlan’s non-verbals were great to watch and he had a beautiful smile with perfect white teeth.  Apparently he has a little two year old sister who is “more cute” than he is, according to my Iranian friend A.Z. 
 I went to A.Z.’s place where she is staying temporarily with Rawlan’s family to see what things she wanted to sell to me, what she had left after selling all her other worldly goods.  Now she just needs to sell her little optical shop close to the Green Market, she told me there are 400 of them in Almaty alone.  She told me that she has already gotten through “Bribe month” which is every March when the taxman and others descend upon all shopkeepers to get their yearly dues.  So, her place has all the paperwork in order and even though she is a foreigner, she has done well with her little business that her husband and she set up about seven years ago.  A.Z. has lived in Almaty for about ten years, her husband and she had suffered repression because of their religion when they lived in Iran.
 A.Z. is ready to leave for Vancouver and be a nanny there, her two grown children are in Washington D.C. area.  After I purchased an entryway carpet, a set of 20 dishes, a Cuisineart blender and some Chinese bowls, I set to work with cleaning our three room flat. She came in a cab with me to carry up my purchases to our fifth floor flat.  We are having company tonight, our cook by the name of K., a teaching colleague of Ken’s who is from Vancouver, British Columbia but Syrian background will be head chef in my kitchen stirring up a Thai meal for three other Americans besides Ken and me and an Australian woman.
 My friend Dayna was eager to find where all the Second Hand stores are close to the Green Market, so after breakfast at the American Bar and Grill we hoofed it downhill to check out the seven I know of.  Probably there are more that I just don’t know about yet.  BUSY!!! All of Almaty seemed to be out on this fine spring day and shopping, shopping in all the little tight fitting S.H. stores.  I met up with Ken and we did our own grocery shopping at the Green Market before I met up with A.Z.
 Finally, my day started out with meeting five other women from church at the American Bar and Grill.  That is where I asked the two resident Kazakhstani women what they remembered of the Dec. 16, 1986 event.  The one Korean said it was a very scary time for all of them.  The other Russian said she remembered that only three people were killed and I found out that students were given drugs to get them fired up to be riotous.  They were breaking windows and pulling out radiators.  They both recalled that it had been a warm winter so the temperatures had not been so cold as this winter.  Seems I am getting different versions of this Independence day event.  All agree that it was the Kazakh people wondering why the Moscow elite was giving them a new leader who didn’t have any idea about what Kazakhstan was about.  Surefire way to incite a revolt.  I’ll have to find out more about what really happened from someone who was actually on the square that day 22 years ago.

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My Old Teacher’s Story about Dec. 16, 1986

I want to tell a story of my Old teacher.  Now she is a teacher in my previous school.  She told us about the December 16 events [1986].  She was younger and had 2 sons, but one of them was a student and went to that demonstration.  When she realized that she went to the square that is Astana Square and tried to find her son, there were crowds of people, students, police and everything was in the mess.  She asked other students about her son, but nobody knew where he was. 

At that same time police was trying to calm down, to get these people away.  But it wasn’t easy, that’s why they used water shower (I don’t know how it would sound in English) and sticks and one of such kinds of things bitted out teacher on the head, and since that time she had many problems with her health.  Somebody helped her and after that it turned out that her son wasn’t there he was taken by police with other students to the countryside but nothing bad or…. Happened and they were allowed to go home.  That was really hard time while some people went especially to the demonstration, others was also arrested by police (just simple passerbyers)

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Kazakhstan & Ukraine’s 1986 events

About a month ago, I subbed for a Kazakh teacher who was sent off to Turkmenistan to recruit Turkmen students to come to our university.  I asked the Kazakh students to write anything they recall from their history, recent or otherwise, whatever their parents or grandparents had told them.  The following is about an event a few students wrote on which happened in Dec. 16, 1986. Because I lived in Ukraine for over seven years I learned much about Chernobyl which was Ukraine’s more recent tragedy end of April of 1986, just eight months before this event that happened in Kazakhstan. (Hmm…what’s the common thread between the two nations?) Here’s what one female student described:
 “History is an essential part of a state.  Every country has it’s own history of establishment, even the young ones.  Comparatively, Kazakhstan as a republic isn’t very old but it’s roots take place thousands and thousands years ago.

          Even though nowadays Kazakhstan is an independent country where distinct nations live in peace together, it’s history has a lot of tragic moments.  People who lived in our country had to overcome such complexities as World War 2, collectivization, repressions, October revolution.

          Probably one of the brightest and tragic dates in our country is December 16, 1986.  This was cold winter’s morning.  People from different regions of Kazakhstan came to the central squares of their towns and started to protest.  A lot of people in Almaty came to the central square, the majority of them were students, this dates is connected with political situation in that period.  The head of our country – Kunaev was supposed to be replaced by another leader.  However, people didn’t like such change.  The protest has an national character because people didn’t want to have Russian leader instead of Kazakh one.  The movement in the square in Almaty started to be unruly.  Government couldn’t calm down young people.  They asked students to go home but they didn’t.  Then they revealed more severe measures.  They opened the cold water and then opened the fire.  Their army didn’t look whether it was man or woman.  A lot of people were killed but those who survived were taken to prison.

          Today we celebrate the date of 16 th December because it’s the date of our independence.  We should say thanks and always remember people who gave their life for the future of their country.”

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Kazakhstan and “The Thornbirds”

A fellow English teacher, who is Kazakh, recommended my reading “The Thornbirds.”  The very next day she had the 692 page paperback novel sitting on my desk.  I just started it so I’ll eventually find out why she loves this book so much.  She is eager to discuss it with me after I am through reading it.  Within the first pages it starts out with a little girl who is given a doll for her fourth birthday yet two of her brothers proceed to destroy it.  My husband already read the book over the weekend and found it quite emotional from beginning to end.  Do I really want to put myself through the same wringer?  Yes, looking at the forward it portends to be grim reading but perhaps insightful into the Kazakh psyche.  Yes, Kazakhstan’s history under Soviet rule made for woefully saddened lives on a daily basis.  Perhaps the legend that has origins from the outbacks of Australia taken from a book titled “The Thornbirds” at the turn of the 20th century has a similar legend in Kazakhstan.  I shall find out.

There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth.  From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one.  Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine.  And, dying, it rises above its own agony to outcarol the lark and the nightingale.  One superlative song, existence the price.  But the whole world stills to listen, and God in His heaven smiles.  For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain…Or so says the legend.

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Closed Country and Soviet “Equality”

          The Soviet Union had a different concept about what “equality” was and Kamila wrote from her mother’s perspective: USSR was a closed country, so there were almost no imports or exports.  People got goods by special tickets, so my parents and many others stood up at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning not to be without products.  I don’t like this time, I think it wasn’t fair, because some people work hard, and some didn’t do anything, but the result was equal.”  Dinara didn’t mince words where she stated what her parents said: “In Soviet Union there was a statement that all people must be equal in everything.  It is called communism.”  Most surprising to read but I knew it to be true from earlier readings about the Soviet Union and its people is what Dina’s parents said, “…in spite of food and clothes deficit, they loved the country and was very patriotic.  They believed that in other countries people have worse life.”
           Aigerim chimed in that her parents thought theUSSR’s time was wonderful time, where all people were equal.  There wasn’t rich or poor people.  All have equality of rights, equality of strength, not like now.”  Aigerim was quite candid when she further noted:  “My mother bought 4 white loaf of bread for 1 rouble.  I was in shock when I knew about it.  I think USSR’s time is very interesting time, which is full of mysteries.” Ruslan also understood from his parents that in the Soviet Union “Everybody in that time have equal rights.  There are no poor or rich, how it is now.  Also, every Soviet people can travel in every Soviet country and for this they did not want to do a visa.”  So, when people went abroad from Kazakhstan, it meant going to Moscow as Aidina revealed: “Then our parents had to go abroad for example to Russia, Moscow to buy furniture and etc.  They hadn’t everything that we have now.”
           Laura wrote about the limit of imported goods from other countries outside the Soviet Union.  “The amount of imported goods was too little, that people didn’t even see good from other countries.  It was the politics of “Iron Curtain.”  That is why in order to buy something in shop, there were long turns for products.”  Alexandr stated that his grandmother told him an interesting fact “that people were standing in lines about 5-6 kilometers long and foreigners who were in USSR in that time was surprised and took fotos of these lines.”
           Laura believed she understood the answer on how this problem of long lines should have been solved:  “When government intervenes in the economics, it is always inefficient.  To make situation better, the market should develop on its own.  Then the demand and supply, also prices will be natural.  There will be high supply of goods, no deficit would be there.”  Because of the limits imposed on imported good Damir wrote: “we bought only domestic product because international product didn’t bringing in Soviet Union.”
           An example of government policies going awry is what Alexey noted:  “As I heared, in times of Krushev, when he went to America, he spoke with leader and the leader said that they were growing corn because it is very expensive and profitable to grow it. When Krushev came back from America, he immediately arrived in Almaty and everywhere in free spaces, in mountains, instead of other crops, he began to grown corn, a lot of corn.  And it was really, very, very big surplus of corn for people and there were too little other crops.”  Gorbachev was also trying to correct the wrongs of earlier government policies.  Lyudmila wrote:  “They said that it began from ban of alcohol (second part of 1980s).  It caused great deficit of sugar, and then it was like chain reaction.  People began to buy everything.  Demand was much more than supply.  And because of supply was provided by government it couldn’t be increased.  So almost all population of USSR was in long lines in shops.  This situation continued to 1990s years.  Even after collapse of USSR awful situation with deficit of all goods was.”
           Lyudmila’s father is convinced this chain reaction was done intentionally because he “said that there was a plenty of production, plants and factories, the reason of deficit is because government wanted to do so.  My dad thinks that Mr. Gorbachev made this in order to destroy communism.”  Zhanna’s mother would like to go back to the good times of the USSR, she said: “Market was not so important and there wasn’t competitive market (there were no competition of different kind of firms, brands and companies).  Finances also were not so important.  People’s wage was regulated.  There were a lot of engineers and people who worked in factories.  Almost all products were domestic, but a lot was limited.  People bought products using coupons…My mother said that sometimes she wants to come back in that times, because everyone were equal, everything was right.  Everyone has a regulated and fixed wages, everyone weared similar clothes, they also had premium tickets to the rest place (sinycu).”
           These last six sections I have featured each day show from Ken’s economic students’ point of view what their parents told them about communism in a closed country. Everyone had long grown weary of waiting in lines with not many products to buy and looking all alike, thinking all alike.  One student was more emphatic about clothes especially when she wrote “So, the truth was, if you wanted to be original and good looking, the way is to start to sew the clothes by yourself.”  Another student said her father had taken a great risk to buy jeans from America “He somehow bought jeans for $1,500 [sic] and was afraid to wear them.”  The people of the former Soviet Union did NOT want to be closed off from the rest of the world.  I am grateful for what I have learned from these students’ writings.  Please read in reverse order:
I.                   Humor and Irony in the former Soviet Union
II.                Bad Manners, Black Market and Corruption
III.             Barter, Exchange and Recyle
IV.            Privileged Connections in the Former Soviet Union
V.               Hopeless Desperation and Other Strong Feelings
VI.            Closed Country and Soviet “Equality

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