Archive for June, 2010

“Why We Teach Overseas” series

What’s all this flap about a Russian spy ring caught in the U.S.?  I know some Kazakh teachers/administrators thought I was a “spy” when I was teaching in Almaty, perhaps some of my American friends think I am too.  I can attest that Cold War sentiments may die hard or take a long time to go away. I’ve witnessed or heard of some things up close and personal that makes one wonder how long this Cold War will go on. Okay, I admit it, I’m a “neo-con” as opposed to a “revisionist” for those of you historians out there who read this blog. But you knew that already if you have consistently read my daily writing rants for the past few years.

The next several days I will try to explain why my husband and I live overseas in a country, such as “Kazakhstan,” that seems difficult to pronounce.  Kazakhstan IS a land of mystery and undeniably creates more questions than answers. But I have a few answers for my dear blog readers as to WHY we are in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. A much earlier film series directed by Frank Capra titled “Why We Fight” was about WWII and might help explain MY blog title above.  Sometimes living in a foreign venue while trying to teach in English feels like we are “fighting” for a just cause.

When I first arrived in the Almaty airport on May 1, 1993, I quickly learned what a challenge it would be to train 32 American Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) to eventually be English teachers scattered throughout the huge country of Kazakhstan. At that time, I could only tell these young, impressionable PCVs to expect teaching to be “different” based solely on my two years teaching in China (1986-88). What did I know about Kazakhstan back in 1993 beyond reading Martha Brill Olcott’s classic titled “The Kazakhs” and various other exotic, travel articles?  Kazakhstan was a vast, unknown land back in those early days after the fall of the Soviet Union, (regrettably it still is unknown by many westerners.)

In 1993, we were the first Peace Corps group to enter Central Asia, an area that had been closed off for over 70 years to anything western except for the Russian and German influence that was still noticeably prevalent in those early days beyond perestroika. Ironically, our Peace Corps training site was the former Communist Party School for all of Kazakhstan.  Also, strangely enough this very same campus became a well-known western university in Almaty with a current student population of over 4,000 graduate and undergraduate students. Little did I know then that I would return to this same campus 15 years later in 2007, with my husband, to teach academic English courses in the Language Center.

After two years of teaching, I am now living and working in Astana, the ten year old capital of Kazakhstan, which had formerly been in Almaty.  Bottom-line, my years spent in Central Asia, I have learned to be flexible. The Kazakhs have necessarily made major changes economically from a planned economy, according to the dictates of Moscow, to that of a market economy ready to compete against the top players in the rest of the world. Kazakhstan has a real chance to succeed with their rich oil and mineral resources and do just that with the inauguration of the New University in Astana.

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“Global ignorance” about ALZHIR in Astana, Kazakhstan

Many grand openings are happening all over Astana, Kazakhstan but I should have mentioned this memorial celebration about ALZHIR almost a month ago now.  A topic that is close to my heart, just not enough literature out there for western people to read and know about the atrocities visited upon the Kazakhs and other nationalities throughout the former Soviet Union. We are not getting as much news as I would like about what is happening in southern Kyrgyzstan either. A dearth of information makes for a global ignorance.  It saddens me that people in the U.S. and U.K. don’t seem to care about Central Asia. Is it because people can’t pronounce the names of these Central Asian countries? The following is from the Kazakhstan/USA embassy website.

On Eve of Memorial Day, Kazakhstan  Pays Tribute to Victims of Great Purge

Kazakh Foreign Ministry, june 1, 2010

May 31 is commemorated in Kazakhstan as a Memorial Day for the Victims of Political Repressions, which had a ravaging effect on the Kazakhs and other peoples of the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule, inflicting deep scars on those who suffered and the society as a whole.

On the eve of the date, on May 26, President Nursultan Nazarbayev met the descendants of those subjected to Stalinist repressions in the Akorda presidential residence. Guests came from Switzerland, Israel, Russia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, as well as from different parts of Kazakhstan.

Addressing the participants, Nazarbayev said: “We have gathered today to remember those years, to pay tribute to our ancestors who were repressed during the time of Great Purge. We have the same history and the only thing we want is to get to the bottom of it objectively. Our children and grandchildren should keep in memory those events and never repeat the mistakes of the past.”

Among guests were the descendants of the victims of political repressions and persecution in the Soviet Union orchestrated by Joseph Stalin and those deported to Kazakhstan from the 1930s through 1950s.

Those who came to meet President Nazarbayev included Rozetta Aitmatova, whose father Torekul Aitmatov was killed in 1937 and whose brother Chingiz later became the most prominent Kyrgyz and arguably Central Asia’s writer of the 20th century, Azariy Plisetsky, whose mother Rahil Plisetskaya was a prisoner ALZHIR (“Akmola camp for wives of traitors of the Motherland”) and whose sister Maja became a world-famous ballerina, Salman Geroyev, chairman of the Chechen-Ingush ethnic cultural centre, and the Paata Kalandadze, Georgia’s Ambassador to Kazakhstan, whose grandmother was also imprisoned in ALZHIR.

In Nazarbayev’s words, 1.5 million people of different ethnicities were deported to Kazakhstan. Remembering the tragic legacy of this land’s history, from the first days of its independence Kazakhstan has adhered to the ideas of tolerance, equality and friendship of all nations.

“Due to this our country enjoys respect and trust in the world; due to tolerance we host the Congress of the World and Traditional Religions Leaders in Astana. We have initiated integration processes not only on the territory of the Soviet Union but also in the world,” Nazarbayev noted.

According to official statistics, from 1924 to 1954 almost 100,000 citizens of Kazakhstan were subjected to repressions, the quarter of them were killed. Among them were outstanding public figures, representatives of creative and scientific intelligentsia, namely, Turar Ryskulov, Alikhan Bokeikhanov, Beimbet Mailin, Magzhan Zhumabayev, Akhmet Baitursynov, Myrzhakyp Dulatov, and many others.

Eleven GULAG camps across the USSR, including three in Kazakhstan, housed hundreds of thousands of prisoners. Almost 3.8 million Soviet people underwent Stalinist repressions, 642,000 of them were sentenced to capital punishment. Millions of families suffered from cruel and violent repressions, leaving no space to mercy or understanding. Around one million, or 42% of the Kazakh people of that time, died as a result of political repressions, and hunger caused by forced collectivization and sedentarisation of nomads. The same number of people had to leave their homeland.

ALZHIR was once one of those places of punishment for at least 20,000 women from 1937 to 1946 and beyond. According to the wall that surrounds the museum at the site now, located 25 km from Astana, at least 7,620 women are known to have perished at this camp.

The Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp was another among largest of the notorious labour camps of the Soviet era, founded in 1931 in central Kazakhstan. About 800,000 inmates were interned in Karlag over its history, most of them political prisoners.

Since 1997, May 31 is the Memorial Day of the Victims of Political Repression in Kazakhstan. The nation never forgets those times, handing down from generation to generation the testimony of predecessors’ history.

These days, Kazakhstan works to restore the historical justice in order to show respect to all victims’ families and relatives. Several decrees by President Nazarbayev ruled that everyone who was imprisoned during the time of Stalin’s reforms was rehabilitated, and the country witnessed the unveiling of museums and memorials at the sites of former prisons and forced labour camps.

At the meeting in Akorda, Nazarbayev said the government will undertake every effort to prevent the repetition of such mistakes from the past. The president asked all residents of the country to appreciate what the independent and free development of a multi-ethnic country provides for in terms of proper protection of inalienable rights and liberties of the citizens.

A number of other events are taking place in Kazakhstan these days commemorating the Memorial Day. On May 27-30, the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan in cooperation with the CIS Interstate Fund for Humanitarian Cooperation is holding a series of events within the international project “Memory for the Sake of the Future”, dedicated to the memory of victims of political repression. In addition, on May 28 the first international forum “From old times to the modern age”, involving historians from the CIS region, took place at the Gumilev Eurasian National University in Astana.

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Opening of New University in Astana, Kazakhstan

Today was a most auspicious occasion for many people at the newly built university campus with the official opening of the huge building complex in Astana.  Very high security was around because the president of the country was in attendance doing the honors, after all this university is named after him.  The photos can tell all (my words get in the way) about what the Kazakh students will experience once the main doors are actually opened to them in September.  I am very excited for those Kazakh students who have been accepted thus far. They have passed through some very rigid but necessary testing (IELTS and TOEFL exams) to make sure their level of English is prepared enough for taking in all the lectures and classes in English.  Many qualified English teachers in different subject areas from U.K. and U.S. will be overseeing the students’ instruction.  The future of Kazakhstan depends on these enthusiastic, young people to learn very quickly in order to compete with the rest of the world in business, technology and industry.  Many American “partners” from western universities were in attendance and others who could not attend gave speeches through closed circuit t.v. in big, airy rooms.  These are exciting times for all of us in Astana and throughout Kazakhstan where many of our highly qualified students are coming from!!!

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Summer Weddings and Astana Brides at Baiterek Mall

When living in the former Soviet Union one gets used to seeing Kazakh and Kazakhstani brides all decked out in western style wedding dresses.  They are driven in elaborately decorated limos going around the city accompanied by a motorcade of other participants of the bridal party identified by ribbons and streamers on their respective cars.  The wedding parties will go to different monuments in the city, show off their dresses while having photos taken of them with family and friends. You can have as many as ten brides in the same location, each vying for people’s attention. Right now in Astana, Kazakshtan, there are brides and grooms everywhere with the promise of future Kazakh children to fill the schools and universities being built up as I write this.

These photos of flowers which are landscaped and decked all around Astana were taken by my husband.  Enjoy the nice summer breezes as you look at these thumbnail photos. Better yet, fly to Kazakhstan (@ $2,500 round trip by Lufthansa from the U.S.) now while the temperatures are bearable. In four or five months it will start to be very cold again.  

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Rip van Winkle in Kazakhstan

I have lived in Kazakhstan since fall of 2007 and the farther away I am from my own American culture, the more I feel like a Rip van Winkle.  Songs on the radio are all new to me when I go home to Minnesota for a quick visit, cars change their style and I’m not up on the latest models, many people have seen the latest, catchy advertisements on TV and will refer to them years later and I won’t have a clue what they are talking about.  I’m trying to figure out what this trend in Wii is about, I think it might be a good thing.  A friend of mine from college said that these “digital native” kids who are practicing “Dance, Dance Revolution” (old now as of 3 years ago) or on “Guitar Hero” and other Wii games will be operating on us one day.  Yikes, that’s a scary thought!!! I think future surgeons should be practicing needlework or something more constructive!

Where are the baseball diamonds filled with boys and girls playing t-ball or softball or baseball?  Are the arenas for hockey being used to the max for figure skating competitions and hockey games?  In my home town they just built another big arena with the possibility of three rinks running simultaneously.  What was wrong with the one built by WPA in the 1930s and the other updated one beside it?  Ice is ice!!!

All these changes while I’m away in Kazakhstan and yet I think how the Kazakhs have had to watch the blur of changes whirl around them at an even more quickening pace.  They might feel like I do about the useful inventions such as GPS and people going as families to geocache.  I’ve spent some fun times with my nephews in the last year or more going on these treasure hunts using the GPS coordinates. I don’t think that has caught on in Kazakhstan yet.  In that case, there ARE real treasures buried in their soil.  Many fled Kazakhstan during the purges of 1930s and they really did hide their silver and gold in earthen vessels.

What’s most vexing to me is the name of music groups that my 12 year old nephew knows and I’ve never heard of before like “Tenth Avenue North” or “Remedy Drive”  Aren’t those street addresses?  How about “Superchicks” or “Kutless” or “Third Day” What are these names supposed to mean?  Other artists I’ve heard of like Steven Curtis Chapman or Chris Tomlin but not Jeremy Camp. I feel like Rip, that’s for sure.

I’m showing pictures from Independence Hall of photos from days gone by in Kazakhstan.  Kazakhstan has a LOT Of catching up to do and must be as bewildered as I am about knowing the latest in pop culture.

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Freedom, Religion, Independence in Kazakhstan

What do I know as a westerner living in Kazakhstan about freedom, religion and independence that most all Americans hold so dear? Especially in Kazakhstan where these key concepts are on everyone’s minds as we look south to Kyrgyzstan. The crucial referendum vote the Kyrgyz people will make this Sunday throughout that fragile Central Asian nation will have some outcome, good or bad.  My heart quakes for what other shoe will drop as the political events continue to churn since April 7th in Bishkek and Talas and more recently last week in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan.

I just got my invitation by the American embassy from the warden to show up on July 4th for our own little celebration on Sunday.  Not sure how many Americans are left in Astana, Kazakhstan during this hot season.  There has been a mass exodus of most of the teachers I know to places cooler or with family elsewhere.

As Americans, independence and freedom are seemingly set in our DNA, but I think it is true of the Kazakhs and Kazakhstanis as well.  A century ago they freely roamed the steppes as nomads and saw the wide open spaces as a good thing.  Their livestock needed the room to move for grazing, from what I have read there were strict and set boundaries that the Central Asian nomads knew and understood.  How religious were they, in other words, how Muslim were they?  I don’t think as devout as others from Saudi Arabia or the Middle East.  The Muslim veneer is there but for the Kazakh they have something deeper and internal in them, I don’t know what yet.  I hope to find out more…

As a Christian it is good for my eyes to see the freedom of religion in Astana where registered churches exist side by side.  There is a Jewish synagogue down the street from a big Catholic church.  Russian Orthodox and Baptist churches are in the mix as well.  Of course not as many as you would see in a typical American city but worshippers are encouraged to attend.  The photo of a church above was taken by me inside Independence hall.  I believe the current president of this great nation wants to promote freedom of religion in Kazakhstan.

Since I have been watching the events south of us in Kyrgyzstan, (and blogs seem to be the best source of information) one blog popped up that I think is on YouTube titled “This is Astana.”  Of course it is a promo piece for Astana and placed strategically at a time when things were really bad in Osh, but they proudly showed the different religions that freely worship in the capital city.  Note the statues for independence at Independence Hall in Astana.  As first time visitors, all should go visit this place to find out more about Kazakhstan.  Of course, you WILL come in the summer time because the winter time is too cold.  No freedom or independence when the cold blasts of adversity (wind howling down the steppes) come to assault you.  In order to survive the steppes, the Kazakhs of old had to have some kind of religion to prevail.  I want to learn more about how they survived, this Kazakh culture is a fascinating one.

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“Karate Kid” movie and Kazakh art

Yesterday I watched “Karate Kid” and came away with different impressions on many levels.  First, I have never watched a Jackie Chan movie before but this one was good because it shows a man who is a master at his craft teaching a young, impressionable, black kid from Detroit how to defend himself.  Whoever the 12 year old actor was who played the part of the newly transplanted American in Beijing with his mother, did a GREAT job. [found out it was Jaden Smith, son of Will Smith] Jackie Chan didn’t do too badly either especially when this legendary he-man type is crying for his family that was killed in a car accident.  It evoked strong emotions in me, I started to cry too. Jackie appears quirky and is mis-read by many people because he is a simple maintenance man in the center of Beijing, but of course he comes out the winner in the end.  The 12 year old named Dre Parker in the movie is the little squirt that is bullied by about six Chinese boys who know kung fu but they have been trained to hurt and maim without mercy.

I liked what Jackie told the Karate kid, “there is no such thing as a bad student, only a bad teacher.” No different in Kazakhstan, the Chinese teachers are trained to be teacher-centered. Whereas the westerner teachers use a different kind of methodology that is learner centered.  Dre first went to Beijing and was disrespectful towards his mother because he HATED China.  He missed his friends and school back in the U.S. that had revolved around him. But he started to learn discipline and hard work under Jackie. You did not see Gameboy or Wii or whatever that stuff is about that distract the younger generation these days.  I’m sorry I’m not a “digital native” so I don’t know what 12 year old boys are into but it seems they are starting to notice girls.  At least this Dre had a cute little Chinese girl he was interested in, she played classical Bach on her violin and was also very disciplined.  She practiced hard every day under very stern Chinese parents.

The moral of the story that I carried away after watching Karate Kid was, “NEVER give up” and of course the old “the Good guy always wins.” Others might be, “Respect your elders” and “Practice Pays off.” But at the beginning when the Karate Kid was about to be beaten to a pulp by six Chinese boys, that’s when I made an exit to buy popcorn and pop.  Too bad because I missed the part where Jackie Chan comes to the rescue and just ducks out of the way and the bad boys do each other in.  I’ll have to watch the movie again just to see that highly choreographed violence.  I prefer the usual chick flicks and the bad boys in this movie are REALLY evil. (kind of like the Toy Story evil boy)  The one Chinese bully had menacing, opaque eyes like one of a killer.  I didn’t think 12 year olds in real life could look so hateful but this kid pulled it off making you root for the little guy, Karate Kid all the more.

I don’t have any photos of the Karate Kid, you’ll have to see the movie yourself.  But I’ll show photos I took at a friend’s place here in Astana where she has five boys, they all grew up in Kazakhstan.  They no doubt will go see Karate Kid because this movie is about disciplined self-defense and not about aggression and violence.  This isn’t about “boys will be boys” but more about not being scared of the big guys and knowing who you are as a person.  Dre did not want to be scared anymore so he stood up to evil and ultimately won the hearts of the audience in the theater.  I won’t tell you the end, but I think it’s going to be an Oscar winner for sure.

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Bitterly Cold Astana, Kazakhstan…but it’s hospitable weather now…

Astana, Kazakhstan is beautiful now in the summer months so it is easy to forget just how very bitterly cold it can become in the dead of winter. (that’s not an overstatement!!!)  The same can be said of northwestern Minnesota, it is currently full of green but just wait until November or December when “the winds howl down from the northern plain, the frost is white on the window pane…” [favorite high school song “Sand in my Shoes”, hat tip to you Janis]

So it has been VERY hot and without rain in Astana for the last several weeks, some would say it is a drought.  What is this talk about temps being so cold out in February or March that you can barely walk the two blocks to work?  If the cold doesn’t get you, the blasted winds do. Not too long ago, a short three months ago, I was standing at the stoplight and I have enough substance that not much can move me.  However, I do recall being blown in the wrong direction over the tundra into what could have been an oncoming car or truck.  Not good.  I hung on to the stoplight for dear life, until the light turned green for me and then I minced as quickly as I could across the street to the other side against the onslaught of the driving wind.

I don’t think a demonstration could ever happen in the coldest part of the year in Astana (that would be about six months perhaps). Those who would choose to make their voice be heard in numbers would do so in the other six months of the year.  I don’t think that is going to happen.  Anyway, Astana is not an inviting place to live or work but since that is where all the money is being poured and where the jobs are, the buildings continue to go up.  “Build it and they will come” as the famous line in the baseball movie “Field of Dreams.”

If you think you are hot right now, look at these cool photos taken in Astana of artwork from years gone by.  They didn’t have air conditioners or electric fans in the summer nor did they have heaters in the winter.  Living in Kazakhstan in the 21st century is a good thing.

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Paintings and Artwork of Central Asian Reality from Past

I’m still watching very closely what is happening in southern Kyrgyzstan though it is very far from my husband’s and my flat in Astana, Kazakhstan.  I took some photos of artwork in Independence Hall several weeks ago.  The reality of Central Asian nomadic lifestyle is vividly shown in the two movies I watched recently, “Mongol” about Genghis Khan and also “Nomad, the Warrior.”  The latter has GREAT cinematography showing the Tien Shan mountains in the background. Both movies had good things to show about the Central Asian culture, but some of it was over the top, too fictionalized.

The other day I watched a 30 minute movie titled “Arabia” which seemed a promo piece for Saudi Arabia. The movie was put together by a Saudi student who had lived in the U.S. for seven years, I kept thinking “student project” over and over in my mind as I watched the story unfold about the two golden ages, first frankincense and now oil. You could have inserted things about Kazakhstan in it because it showed camels, desert, glitzy buildings, a proud past, oil money presently and much more.  The Bedoun tents were not as elaborate.However, the scene shot of Mecca with the tent city could have included some devout Central Asian Muslims doing their pilgrimage, but the Kazakhs are not that Muslim.  The Kazakhs are more interested in preserving their more romanticized distant past from even before the Muslims came to their land.  Enjoy the photos of what artwork I liked from 1,000s of years past up to about 100 years ago before the Soviets took over with industrialization and collectivization.

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My Niece in the Miss Minnesota Pageant

I’ll take a break from our regularly scheduled feed about Kazakhstan and focus on my beautiful niece who brought the whole family together to the Twin Cities this past weekend for the Miss Minnesota pageant.  I’ll mostly show photos of the newly minted queen for Miss Minnesota 2010, Kathryn was a good friend of Aja’s.  I am very proud of my niece for making it into the top ten finalists.  She performed a very difficult piece on her violin, naturally looked wonderful in her evening gowns and swimsuit competitions and was quick on her feet to answer questions.  

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