Archive for May 6, 2008

“Procrustes Bed” and Other Almaty Encounters

Yesterday was a good day of talking to people at my institution of higher learning in Almaty but encountering others outside of it.  I was talking to a Kazakh colleague earlier in the day when I encouraged her to “think outside the box.”  At which point she asked if I meant “Procrustes Bed?”  I did not know what she meant or know anything about this mythical giant from Greek mythology.  However, the more I looked into it, the more I saw the negative connotations of people who use the “procrustean” method.  It means “one that relentlessly tries to shape a person, an argument or an idea to a predetermined pattern.”  We as westerners pride ourselves in creatively thinking OUTSIDE the box and not conforming to a set pattern of “one size fits all.”

It would seem that there are characters on our campus who play the host, as Procrustes (means “the stretcher”) did, to entice foreigners to his iron bed that he adjusts so they are either too large for the bed or too short.  The offered hospitality of a pleasant meal and night’s rest seems kind at first but Procrustes has already sized up his unsuspecting visitor and adjusted the bed to NOT fit.  Once the stranger lays down Procrustes goes to work at chopping off limbs that are too long or stretching the person if too short.  What we need on our campus is someone like the hero Theseus who put Procrustes in his own cruel bed and cut off his head and feet.  Supposedly that would be the end of the horrible story where the “procrustean bed” still holds sway over trusting visitors from the West who just come to do their job of teaching Kazakh students and to do their research.

My other encounters “outside the box” yesterday were delightful.  I ran into a new friend from England with her son at a bookstore when I was searching and asking about more copies of “The Silent Steppe.”  I went to the biggest bookstore in my area and my British friend just so happened to be there at the same time.  I don’t know that many people in Almaty (I think two million people) but it was fun to meet her son from England who is leaving today to return to England.

Then my other pleasant encounter was with two Kazakh students who have been practicing their English speaking skills before leaving for the U.S. in a couple of weeks.  They hosted me to a dinner at an Italian restaurant and I continued to answer their questions about where they will be working for the summer, one in Santa Barbara, the other in Arlington, Virginia.  What was so funny was that Yegor told me after discussing the possibility of his getting a driver’s license in California, was that he had just successfully spoken to an American on his cellphone.  I asked who that might have been?  He said that *I* was the first American when we were arranging a meeting place. 

That meant the world to me that this young man will have MANY firsts when he goes to the U.S. for three months.  He will come back speaking fluent English since he has all the grammar packed in his head.  He just needs to let himself be immersed in it and he will do just fine.  Just the same, I feel like a mother hen with her fledgling chicks that go beeping off in all directions.  I trust these Kazakh students will not fall into a “Procrustes Bed” in America where they are harmed in some way.  I will be eager for their return from America this fall when we all return to our little boxes in Almaty.

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