Archive for June, 2008

Friendship – “Do you see the same truth?”

petuniasred roseskaput roses

Some friends of ours are FINALLY getting married on July 12th after an eight year courtship.  Ken and I were instrumental in getting them together in Ukraine, one is from Texas the other from Michigan.  So I guess that qualifies us as bona fide matchmakers for people who are about our age.  However, it may be too soon to tell for sure that this knot will actually be tied because they haven’t gotten married YET.  Other false starts make me leary to even write about this unique friendship that started in Ukraine and has continued over e-mail and phone calls these eight long years.  I found out about this upcoming wedding on a Skype conversation the other day, my friend still isn’t quite sure herself this is going to pull off so she sent me a simple attachment as a wedding invitation.  So low budget will this wedding be, yet we intend to fly from Kazakhstan home to Minnesota first and then the next day after fly down for the wedding in Texas.  The TRUTH of their union together as man and wife will sink in once they both say “I do.”  Until then, it is still up in the air.

From C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves he wrote the following in chapter four:

In our own time Friendship arises in the same way.  For us of course the shared activity and therefore the companionship on which Friendship supervenes will not often be a bodily one like hunting or fighting.  It may be a common religion, common studies, a common profession, even a common recreation.  All who share it will be our companions: but one or two or three who share something more will be our friends.  In this kind of love as Emerson said, “Do you love me? means Do you see the same truth? – Or at least, “Do you care about the same truth?’ The man who agrees with us that some question, little regarded by others, is of great importance can be our Friend.  He need not agree with us about the answer.”

I hope the “answer” on July 12th will be a resounding “I do.”


Leave a comment »

First Day of Summer: Pink, Blue and Green

pink cloudsblue flowersgreen trees

First day of summer seems strange to read on our western calendars when we have been enjoying summer for almost two months already in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  The roses are about kaput, but the petunias and marigolds flourish everywhere.  The landscapers are changing all the wild, blue flowers into rubble and then eventually sod to plant grass seed.  They are making way for the “new park” look with grass growing to a ferny, luminous green with sprinkler systems encouraging the growth.  The early sunup with puffy, pinkish clouds was something to capture from our balcony the other morning.  We rarely see clouds here like we do on the flat plains of northwestern Minnesota.  I wonder how our garden is growing back home?  This is what my Mom wrote in this morning’s e-mail to me:

“I transplanted the spirea bush this morning to the front of the house.  Dad helped me take out the shrub that was there, using the van to pull it out.  The potatoes at the farm are growing fast and will bloom soon.The beans I planted have been chewed off by some critter that likes them.  I did some spin trimming around the sidewalk and we weeded the sweet peas at the yard light and got the fence up. The corn is not germinating evenly.  I have not put the rose bush outside yet. The killdeer nest is all gone.”
Sigh, seems life goes on in BOTH places.  Soon we will be home but missing Kazakhstan.

Leave a comment »

“Tall Holly Hock Syndrome”

sunrisesquirrellandscapegreen yardTurkish saunapoolexercise bikeholly hock and schoolwhite holly hock

Ken and I get up VERY early (note 5:00 a.m. sunrise) to go to our health club down the hill 15 minutes away.  On Monday Ken had commented on a small tree that was growing on the roof of a deserted elementary school, it was about 2 meters high.  When I came back two hours later it had been cut down.  Thus, I will call this phenomenon “The tall holly hock syndrome” because these nice flowers are blooming right in front of where the tree was cut down.  It had tried to flourish in the WRONG place.  May that not happen to us!!!

The following is what I wrote to my sister yesterday with accompanying photos:  “we really do feel blessed and small wonders what a health club membership can do to keep us here in Almaty.  It really is cushy, we get thick robes, all the towels we want, free health drink at the bar (apple or orange juice), the Turkish sauna is my favorite place, the swimming pool is Ken’s favorite.  There is only one exercise bike so that is in high demand and four walking-in-place machines.  I’m getting used to the leg press and other machinery there but the hardest part of my workout is walking uphill home to our apartment which is five stories up.”

The landscapers have done a magnificent job of cleaning out the rubble and planting new grass seed just west of the President’s Palace, it is a nice pathway.  I actually saw my first wildlife which usually belongs in parks, a red squirrel.  Ordinarily I hate these pests that feed off our bird feeders at home, but it was nice to see him flit about in this new environment.  May his tribe increase.


Comments (2) »

“Schadenfreude” and the “Tall Poppy Syndrome”

Most have heard the joke best told and understood in Russian about the genie who appears to grant three different nationalities three wishes.  I’m not very good at telling jokes, my husband has told this joke innumerable times, so you’d think I would get it right.  Here goes, it is about a French man who gets his desired yacht on the Riveria, the Englishman gets his dream mansion south of Leiceister while the Russian asks that his neighbor’s one and only goat be killed.  Now THAT is Schadenfreude!  This term has German origins which means to “gloat at somebody else’s bad luck: malicious or smug pleasure taken in by somebody else’s misfortune.”  Sometimes as an American living in this foreign land of Kazakhstan, I feel like this attitude prevails against me simply because I’m an American.


I would like to believe the Kazakhs do NOT take joy in the suffering of others perhaps that is a characteristic trait left to the Slavic people.  But I had to wonder a month ago when I was very sad about my job situation. Providentially, my attitude has changed since one of my Kazakh supervisors gave me a lead on a job that landed me a membership at a health club.  I simply have to give two hours of English lessons to the employees of a hotel each week.  The highest management insisted on a native speaker of English (American or British) was the person to give these lessons, no one else would do.  Now THAT is payment that feels like a genie just granted me my most heartfelt wish. 


Health Clubs around our area are VERY expensive because one can’t do their usual running or walking in this environment due to dangerous traffic and uneven inclines and declines of the sidewalks. (Not to mention the smog one inhales especially during the winter months)  I feel very fortunate to have gotten this health club membership.  I’m not gloating about my fortune but I’m still proud to be an American even though others would like to knock me over because of my nationality.

I learned about the “Tall Poppy Syndrome” from an Australian friend of mine when we lived in Ukraine.  She told me that people have a desire to cut others down if they get too much taller than the rest (like a gangly poppy.)  Others by their criticism or snide comments like to be leveling agents to bring others down while they covet what they don’t have.  As it is, we as Americans living in Kazakhstan, don’t have the salaries to pay for health club membership since we have to pay for expensive airfare tickets and high rents for the privilege of teaching the Kazakh students.  In some international schools in this city where the NEW RICH Kazakhs have the tuition money to pay for a western education, the Kazakh students laugh at the poorer American children who don’t have the fanciest clothes to wear or the Mercedes or Hummers to ride in.  Seems that Schadenfreude is learned at an early age and sometimes children can be very cruel.


Perhaps whatever negative vibes I have felt at my place of employment is not so much that I’m American but that I’m a Christian.  What helps me to hang in there is the promise of eventually being able to go home to see my own family and to celebrate my own holidays with them but also knowing that this earth will soon pass away.  My cares and concerns in whatever land I live will soon no longer matter.  I will be able to repeat with the author of Hebrews: “Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; and make straight paths for your feet, lest that which is lame to turned out of the way; but let it rather be healed.” (12:12-13)

My heart continues to be healed at the health club, hopefully the rest of my body will follow suit with rigorous, daily discipline.  It is GOOD to be alive!


Leave a comment »

Kazakhstan’s “Odds and Ends”

animals on hideMy husband bought this art piece with the artist’s name emblazoned on the back also titled “Composition in Leather.”  It would not be MY first choice of art for our decor but each to his own.  It has a rustic feel to it that belongs in our 100 year old granary back in NW Minnesota.  About two feet in diameter with leather threads holding the double iron wires together.  With rough raw hide on the back but smooth like bark on the front where the artist etched in animal figures showing one hunter with a bow and arrow, another hunter with a hachet.  Must have been the glory days when there was plenty of game to hunt.

I was told yesterday the adventure we took up to Big Almaty Lake on Sunday is risky especially in June because of washouts of roads.  Better to go in July or August when it is dry and no threat of rain.  I can actually imagine in several places where the road was washed away, so narrow was the road at times over huge culverts and makeshift bridges where only ONE car could possibly pass.  I can’t even picture tour busses going up to the manmade lake which was created by exploding a hole in the mountain and then building up a mudslide dike so that the city of Almaty below would not have an avalanche of falling rocks when real gushing rains would bring the sides of the mountain down.  The barricades were probably built fifty years ago and a huge pipe the diameter of about a meter carries the lake water down to the city of Almaty.  I was amazed that people were walking down this pipe but it was perhaps easier to do than being in a car taking all the twisting, dysfunctional roads.

Yesterday I told one of my Kazakh administrators about our adventure in the mountains.  She invited me for tea in her office, she and her colleague were just waiting for a guest to treat.  Such is the hospitality of the Kazakhs.  Then the truth came out, she admitted that she was jealous of my passion and love for Ukraine, so much do I talk about my former country of employment.  She smiled when I told her that it is about even now, that I am finding that I LOVE Kazakhstan.  I didn’t love it fifteen years ago (because I had a Peace Corps training job, the hardest job I ever had) even though this is the place where my romance started with my husband.  I told her that my friend Yelena has done a great thing in taking both of us out of the city into the country.  Almaty is NOT Kazakhstan and I want to see other places and parts of it.  I had travelled all over Ukraine and got a feel for the terrain but to stay cloistered in a city like Almaty and feeling trapped in a working environment, well, one cannot make a fair assessment of any country under those conditions.

More Odds and Ends:  My Kazakh friend told me also about the history of her parents just in passing.  She said that her father had been a victim during the Stalinist period but despite that, her mother adored Stalin.  She was such a devotee of his and only blamed the underlings in Kazakhstan for the demise of her husband.  I need to find out more about her parents’ story.  There are MANY stories here in Kazakhstan that need to be unearthed.  In fact, I met a woman at church on Sunday who works with babushkas by feeding about 100 of them.  She assured me that she indeed has stories from these older people who invested so much into the communist system and now are paid pennies in their pensions while the food prices continue to skyrocket in the former capital of Almaty.

Yes, there are many odds and ends to put together about this very dynamic country which is full of history, sad history, but with GREAT potential looking into the future. 

Leave a comment »

Forget-Me-Nots But No Wildlife!!!

forget me notsopened poppiesBig Almaty Lake

Yesterday after church, Yelena took us to a Georgian restaurant (ate shashlik and traditional cheese bread) on our way to Big Almaty Lake. Spontaneous decisions for adventures can sometimes be a good thing.  We went high up into the wilderness where I’m convinced the authorities purposely keep the dusty and rocky road rutty and full of pot holes to keep as many cars away as possible. Doesn’t seem to help, half the way up both sides of the road were crowded with people camped out in yurts, playing by the river, barbequing and generally enjoying the great outdoors.  Thus, this route is nicknamed “Barbeque Road.”  

We continued to bump and jolt along for over 45 minutes on many tricky switchbacks to get to a lake that we thought Ken had taken me to 15 years ago when he owned a two door, red Niva.  It wasn’t the same lake, yesterday’s trip seemed to take much longer than when we went to Zailliski Alatau Lake. 


Once at the top to Big Almaty Lake, we walked around the dammed end of the lake and picked wildflowers. (many forget-me-nots, a kind of small yellow poppy, clover, edelweiss and others I can’t identify)


It took about a half hour to get down amongst civilization again and much better paved roads. I learned that the rule of the road in mountain swtichbacks is that vehicles going UP have right of way.  Those going down have to pull over to let oncoming cars pass on narrow straits.  Yelena kept saying “Mama mia” when she had to make tough decisions on which crevice to tackle as our heads kept bobbing around all the while complimenting her expert and impressive maneuverings.  What could we do, we were helpless in our seat-buckled state?!  It was an overcast day and rained just enough to wet down the dusty trail.  The river, lake, mountains and pine trees at every level were spectacular!


Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my camera to capture all the wonderful mountain scenes so the best I could do was take photos of the flowers I picked once we got home.  Also, I took a photo of what is on our Almaty calendar of the two different lakes.  We hope to get to Zailliski Alatau lake where we were at 15 years ago but I’m sure there are many houses built going up along it now.  It was untouched and very peaceful back then. 


What I found so amazing once we finally got to our destination yesterday was sighting NO animals and thus no road kill.  The only wildlife I saw was one lone eagle gliding overhead. Otherwise, it seems that any kind of varmit that might live in the craggy boulders and rocks are long extinct or very well hidden during the day.  If this were the U.S. in its untouched state, you would have deer bounding about, hedgehogs, skunks, rabbits, something besides just people.  Thankfully there were no barking dogs!


This will be a day LONG remembered with our friend Yelena who bravely took to the mountain road with her trusty four wheel drive vehicle.  Not sure where our next adventure will be with her but I’ll be sure to bring my camera next time.



Leave a comment »

Noone is Indispensible But We are Disposable

Today is Father’s Day in the U.S. and I’ve already sent my e-greeting to my dear Dad back in Minnesota.  Fortunately, he is looking after mowing our lawn, making sure everything is in order by the time we get back to our “dacha” farmhouse in less than a month.  Can it be, we are finally going to our own home soon?  However, it will be a quick visit before we return to our jobs where we are “disposable” targets. 

What do I mean by that?  Since my husband and I are “guests” as Americans in an institution that is a “guest” kind of western styled university in Central Asia, we are viewed with much skepticism if not outright derision.  Our institution of higher learning is really an anomoly among all the others in Kazakhstan.  From the Commander in Chief Nazarbayev, our place of employment has had his blessing from 15 years ago when it started up to now.

That could all change once his leadership baton passes to the next.  Leadership at our institution should and must change if we are to sustain a distinction of being a western university in a land proud of their own traditions.  As foreigners, we have NO job security and to pretend that there is a tenure system in place for us as it would imitate what exists in America or other western countries is laughable.  We are at the mercy of whomever doles out the work permits.  Someone in some ministry somewhere in the capital of Astana decides if there are too many westerners and that the job can be better filled by a native Kazakh employee.  Work permits are seemingly becoming tighter with each passing year.  As foreigners we are dispensible and should be easily disposable.

If last Sunday’s graduation ceremony was any indication of how many foreigners actually teach or are administrators in our western organization in Almaty, we will all soon be quickly disposed of.  Our expertise in whatever given subject we have taught in or have experience in as administrators will all eventually be taken over by Kazakhs.  So, essentially we are working ourselves out of our own jobs.

Education is a tricky thing, especially when it leaves God out of the equation which is what much of western academia has essentially already accomplished.  That is a given, western educators have done so with the zealousness of a communist atheist.  So much puffed up ego is involved with supposedly knowing more than the next person and having a title to PROVE that you know more is part of the game played.

What I’ve witnessed about Women Studies programs in many universities and what angry women have done to promote themselves as “womyn” saddens me.  Their tactic is to the detriment of what is really true and good in educating our young people.  They hold up women as far superior to men with this “feminine goddess” idea and that men are to be reviled as mere sperm donors.  These “educated” women (there are feminist men too) would want all people to continue with this “logic” that men are dispensible and disposable.

In the former Soviet Union, especially in countries like Ukraine and Kazakhstan, men as fathers and husbands were systematically taken out because of the communist ideology.  Many men were branded as “Enemies of the People” if they happened to be good breadwinners and worked hard to earn a living for their family.  (Seems that lazy men who later became thugs were safe.)  These unfortunate family men were targeted as either farmers or stockbreeders.  They were simply doing what men were equipped to do, be the head of the home raising and protecting their wife and children. Once these men were “kulakized” and either killed or sent off to the gulag, there were women and children who were forced into the collective in order to survive and expected to tout the party line.

What is the connection between what happened in the past under communist times and what is happening to us as western educators in Central Asia?  First, I am reminded of my experience of teaching in China in 1986-88 where we as foreigners told ourselves that we were being used.  The phrase “being chewed up and spit out” often came to mind during my two years of teaching English.  In a country of one billion people, what is one little American’s quality of life matter?  Second, I think we have some things to offer the Kazakhs but they are either not ready or willing to accept it yet.  Third, their own pride of not wanting to appear needy factors in.  Fourth, there have been some abrasive westerners who came in with their seedy ideology, such as the women’s studies example.  Tough to sort out the good from the bad, so the Kazakhs need much wisdom of what to embrace and what to dispose of from our western form of education.

Finally, I’m reminded of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians 4:10-13 about being a fool for Christ.  In my case, while teaching in Kazakhstan, I have to take solace in what Paul experienced as being disposable, “And we labor, working with our own hands.  Being reviled, we bless, being persecuted, we endure it; being defamed, we entreat.  We have been made filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now.”

Leave a comment »