Archive for March 19, 2010

What we create vs. what we imitate

One might think it strange to link Steven Spielberg’s movie A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) together with education in Kazakhstan but by the end of this writing I hope my dear readers will see what I’m driving at. Writing about the quandary I’m in helps to isolate what I’m feeling intuitively about being an administrator in a westernized institution in the heartland of Kazakhstan.

A.I. is a movie one must watch at least twice to really understand what Spielberg tries to convey in his overall message. Is it like Tom Hank’s insipid “Polar Express” where there is definitely a political agenda to promulgate where it leaves you at the end thinking, “huh?” Either a movie can make you scratch your head with perplexity or it can get you thinking about deeper, philosophical questions. I can’t tell which it is for me yet, maybe the latter. I might have to watch A.I. again to make sure. However, the following are my observations and how I put it together with what I’m trying to uncover about the Kazakh culture while working in Kazakhstan as a western educator.

I picked up and read an article in the latest flight magazine of Air Astana about a Kazakh director of the film “Kelin,” his name is Yermek Tursunov. He has people from his own country scratching their head as well because he brings to light some troubling issues they all are forced to deal with in the Twenty-first century. Spielberg writes a fantasy story which really is about “be careful what you create.” Tursunov apparently has produced a movie the Oscars Academy nominated for a prize with his general theme as “be careful what you imitate.”

I haven’t seen “Kelin” yet and if I did, apparently I don’t need to know or understand Kazakh or Russian because it is without speech. However, it is dealing with some deep, cultural issues that have apparently put the Kazakh people at odds with themselves. Old generation with young, northerners with southerners. According to the article, “Domestic ultranationalists threatened the movie accusing Tursunov of amorality and belittling Kazakhs.” In defending himself against these accusations he is quoted as saying in the article, “Whatever it is, the most important thing is to avoid imitating others experiences, ideas, emotions, misfortunes or achievements. Everyone must search for his or her own way. Failure to find it at least deserves extra credit for trying. I want my films to wake people up; make them think and cause discomfort in their life. I want to produce a piece of work that contrasts with what producers are mass producing in the world…”

Speilberg showed a man named Professor Hobby at the beginning of the film as creator of robots that he planned to mass produce. The philosophical question was, “can humans make robots into something that can respond to pain, feel and touch as a human can?” But even more profound, “Can these robots be loved by humans and love humans in return?” The problem was that humans are mortal but according to Speilberg’s script, robots could live forever.

What happens when a human parent adopts a robot boy but he outlives the parent and yet is programmed to be dependent and love that which is lost? Another issue Speilberg painfully brought out in this futuristic film was that humans had become the minority and that robots were the downtrodden, downcast and victims. If robots had no feelings, what was I supposed to think? However, it showed the seamy side of humans who are vicious and violent yet also capable of deep, abiding mother love. Spoiler #1: Note the human mother’s love for David, she did NOT want to have him destroyed even when it meant it would risk losing her own biological son or husband.

The A.I. movie is amazingly performed by the talented Haley Joel Osment as the young boy named David who is an unblinking robot boy adopted into a needy but wealthy family who had lost their one and only son. Sorry Spoiler #2, in the end the young David does show human emotion, but there are a lot of permutations the plot goes through to get you to that finish. Then again, one is not entirely sure if this is the correct ending or not, so fanciful is it. Maybe my problem is that I prefer historical drama and comedy.

(to be continued in tomorrow’s blog)

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Kostanay Events thus far

Yesterday we awoke to continued wicked winds, cold blasts from the west. The flags everywhere were in full salute mode. These fierce winds had not let up from the night before where you could barely stand still at the stoplight, the strong wind pushed you in places you didn’t want to go. Especially tricky if there was ice and a slight slope to the tundra below one’s boots. In this case, I didn’t know if the Air Astana aircraft would be able to push hard enough against the wind to reach our western destination of Kostanay.

When Irina and I arrived to the airport with our luggage full of our university’s posters and brochures, we found out that we were re-routed to go to Aktobe first. This city is about the farthest west you can go in Kazakhstan and they are an hour behind in time. Once in the Aktobe airport, we waited as transit passengers for 50 minutes, we got back on the same aircraft with our American sounding pilot who had a Korean last name of Kim.

In the captain of our ship’s words as we were about to land in Kostanay, he said that the visibility was so low that we might have to circle a bit until conditions improved. Irina turned to me and matter of factly said that it might be possible that we would head back to Aktobe. Gulp. However, that wasn’t as bad as our traveling companions who had gone to the Astana airport with us. Iznaur and Gulmira had their flight cancelled and tried to get on the train to their second destination but that had been cancelled three times as well. Their travel plans were scrapped until a later date and with about 70 kilos worth of suitcase full of brochures they returned to work.

At least Irina and I finally landed in Kostanay and had only a half hour before we were in front of about 200 Kazakh and Kazakhstani students. We pulled out the university information from our luggage to distribute to the eager, but very young students. They ALL wanted a colorful brochure but we tried to give to every other student so they could share. We realized that not all students are interested in our university especially this younger crowd, some were only 9th or 10th graders gathered for an Olympiad. These were students from all over the Kostanay region and not from the top schools like we were used to seeing in Taras.

Irina and I quickly went through our powerpoint presentation of 23 slides explaining the program and procedure of registering for the English entrance test off our university website. I then asked for questions in English, of course. The students were a bit hesitant to ask, finally I heard a weak “How are you?” I smiled and said, “I am fine and you?” I could see their English abilities were on the shy side. Another used a different ploy, “Tell us about yourself.” I disregarded that textbook sentence because I had already given them a quick summary of who I was and why I loved Kazakhstan, a country of romance for me.

I didn’t go into detail about why I thought Kazakhstan was a place of romance and how I had met my husband in 1993 in Almaty. I told them instead that I had lived and taught in China, Philippines, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and finally Kazakhstan. I asked them a rhetorical question about which county I liked the best. I answered my own question with, “Kazakhstan, of course.” Those who were following my American English, smiled, they were pleased that I loved their country.

Actually, it was my husband who had wanted to come to Kostanay because of his interest in the grain production that this area of Kazakhstan is known for. However, just before landing, I could see that there was open pit mining, two huge craters of different levels continued to drop deep into the earth. I could see shelter belts but the rest of the land was under the snow, no way of knowing how successful their farming was. Everything looked pure but cold.

I asked for a show of hands of how many were interested in the different programs and about 10% were interested in engineering, I would guess about 20. About 5-6 each indicated an interest in economics, international relations, chemistry, physics, math. I had forgotten biology as someone shouted that out, oh yes, biology? Another five or so raised their hands. When it was obvious that we had answered their questions in the overly warm auditorium we let them go. Some stayed huddled in their groups while another 20 or so swarmed around Irina to ask her questions in Russian.

Other questions asked of Irina were “Do we need the ENT test?” “How many years for medical school?” “Will there be sports or gym facilities or teams to belong to in sports?” One parent asked, “If my child got 113 on the ENT, does she have special privileges?”

The best part of my day was to meet three young Kazakh girls named Adila, Medina and Aida from Kostanay. The first two were twin sisters and all three had wanted to go to the U.S. on the FLEX program but didn’t make the cut. However, they had friends who were in the US now on that program. These girls also had parents who wanted them to be in a particular discipline different from what they wanted. Aida wants to be a doctor but her economist mother is strongly opposed to that, she wants Aida to be an economist. The other two sisters have a mother who is a pharmacist but they are being strongly advised to pursue economics as well.

Something to consider is that these young people sometimes don’t know what they want to do yet, it is too early to tell at the tender age of 17 years. Also, these young people may have gifts and talents in one direction but due to societal or parental pressure will be forced into a discipline that is not their interest. I asked for a show of hands of how many considered themselves sportsman, about 25 raised their hands. I asked how many thought of themselves as musicians, good with the dombra, piano, violin, singing, another 25 raised their hands. So, those who have gifts in these areas might pursue that route and not be ready to be fitted into a rigid discipline yet. We shall see who signs up, who passes the test and who finally shows up next fall. I told them that I hope to see many of them at our university in September.

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