Archive for October, 2010

Life is Catching up with me (Part III)

Today was action packed while it was a beautiful fall day. I mostly spent it inside but it is always nice to have the OPTION of going outdoors for a walk…if you have the time.  I didn’t. We went to campus in the afternoon to show the movie we had shown a week earlier at American Corner “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”  Those who attended today for the movie got some GREAT doorprizes.  One guy got a Bruce Willis “Die Hard” series of three DVDs.  Someone else got some ground coffee and I forget who got the third prize, maybe a snazzy water bottle.

The discussion was good yet I know many of these students are under a LOT of pressure to do well in their classes.  Some maybe are struggling.  The library is soooo busy with students using the computers.  The movie we showed was 90 minutes of levity. The students had a very fun Halloween party the night before so our numbers were down for the movie.  We like showing movies because it is fun to hear the students laugh at the funny parts.

Well, because this was such a busy weekend, consequently, I don’t have the children’s tests graded from yesterday. Also, I need to be ready for my lessons this upcoming week.  I WANT to find out how to effectively use Moodle, hopefully tomorrow.  I have some journal articles up for my students to read but I still need to input them. So this is your proverbial cart before the horse.

Tomorrow night, we have been invited to the Pakistani embassy to meet the ambassador along with all the others who have been invited.  Don’t know how formal this affair will be, but Ken and I will try to dress up for the occasion.  There are many other diplomat types I continue to meet who are part of the embassy crowd, representing their different countries.

Speaking of which, the O.S.C.E. will be held in Astana and they will have to host delegations from 55 countries.  The hotels will all be packed and even some complexes that have been unoccupied will be used for this very big deal.  The new part of the city will be closed down a week in advance in anticipation of problems with security.  I think we will have to cancel our classes and the university as we know it to operate.  Businesses and other universities are calling it a holiday on Dec. 1 and 2.  I will write more later about what I learned from the O.S.C.E. ambassador.

So, knowing this ahead of time almost helps but once we are in the middle of it, what will we do for fun? We can’t leave the city.  We have to stay put.  But if people who work at the new part of town, like waitresses and waiters and cabbies and bus drivers, they can’t pass into the new from the old, crossing the river.  We shall how they handle this, there are several major bridges that connect the old part with the new part.  It should be very interesting indeed.

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Life is Catching up with me (Part II)

Today didn’t turn out like I thought it would.  Good in many ways but different.  I worked at the university all day to test young children on their English proficiency.  I’m used to older university students and I was glad to have four of my current, older Kazakh students help with the young squirts.  Oh, some are just adorable, the 6 and 7 year olds who want to learn English.  One little guy, at first, was crying. I think he was nervous being around the older 12 through 15 year olds. We had about 20 children all together with their parents who showed up.  The kids were tested (the parents stayed outside the classroom) and we will have to sort all that out eventually about levels and who will teach what to whom!!!  Lots of different lesson preps for so many ages from 6 to 15!!!

Ken had carved a miniature pumpkin and had brought that along and explained in Russian and English what it was.  Blank looks.  Okay, it is Halloween tomorrow and this is a very big deal for American children their ages.  These western children are ready to scoop up lots of candy on their adventures in their costumes in their respective neighborhoods on October 31st.

Later, we got in the car (with Yerik our taxi driver) to leave campus with my Canadian friend, Michel and we went to American Corner for the last part of a Halloween party.  Yerik informed Ken that “American Corner” when translated into Russian isn’t such a good word.  Oops!  Think anyone at the U.S. embassy will pay attention to that?  Probably not.

Well, it was fun to see some of the Kazakh students in their very convincing Halloween costumes. A Queen of Hearts, a very witchy witch, a pumpkin,  several pirates and others I couldn’t tell what they were.  A few students also had carved three pumpkins.  Where did they know how to do that? None of these college and secondary school kids have been to the U.S. Apparently they had looked it up on the Internet.  There were snacks and candy and drinks, a nice party hosted by an American named Emily.  Then at 5:00 p.m. we showed the American classic movie “Wizard of Oz.”

Amazing that this movie has had such enduring power for over 70 years, it was released in 1939. However, it didn’t endure long because we had some technical difficulties at first.  After we wished the tech goblins to leave posthaste and after the DVD was cleaned, the movie played just fine.  Afterwards, I led the discussion with about 10 students and it was interesting to hear their thoughts about what they thought the movie was about.  I never expected to hear one girl say it was about “FREEDOM.”  Of course, I asked her to expand on that.  Another guy said it was about respect of older people.  Okay, please elaborate.

Also, friendship, work, belief and hope were other things that this classic movie was about.  Somehow, because of the tech problems we missed Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”  Still, they got the gist of the movie.  When the technical problems arose, I would get up  in front of the 40 students and chatter away to fill the blank time.  I talked about the background of the movie by saying, “watch for the ‘horse of a different color” or “check out the munchkins, they really didn’t like Judy Garland, the child actress,” etc.

I also explained Frank Baum, who was the real author of this children’s story (not Volkov and his version of “Wizard of Emerald City”) had an analogy to the gold standard (yellow brick road), the Wizard of Oz, was really about the ounce.  The ruby red slippers was really silver in the book, tied in again to the monetary system in the U.S.  The Scarecrow who wanted a brain, analogy the farmer who didn’t know how to farm well, he needed an education.  The Tinman, really the industrialist who didn’t care about people, had no heart. I am not sure about the cowardly lion, maybe about the lack of brave leadership during the Great Depression.  I don’t know, people from Kansas, like my husband, know the intricate history of what Frank Baum meant with all the characters in the Wizard of Oz.

Dorothy (not sure who she represents) said over and over again that “there is no place like home.”  Well, as an American teaching in Kazakhstan, I can say I DO miss my family and friends back home, but right now I feel distracted by the American politics going on with our mid-term elections.  Perhaps that is why my husband and I like showing movies, we don’t have to think about the threats to our own security back home but we think of all that is happening. Can it get any worse? (Don’t answer that!)

Finally, one of my bright, Kazakh students, who is currently reading Frank Baum’s classic book (in three parts) told our discussion group there were a lot of things left out of the movie.  She admitted the movie was good, just the same.   Isn’t that always the case, the book is better than the movie. (sigh)  Not sure if “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is based on a book but it probably represents a true story about the Greek culture. We are showing that movie to our university students and then getting together with other Americans afterwards.  So the socializing and networking continues.  I need a hibernation break soon!

For today’s blog,  I could have written from my notes about the author who came to visit our class yesterday.  I have many notes about what I learned about the O.S.C.E. summit meeting being held a month from now.  I just thought I’d ramble about the everyday things I am doing.  The weather has been really nice and warm and I miss being outside. But such is life.

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Life is catching up with me

Tonight I watched a funny movie with my hubby roommate.  It will not be one we would show to the Kazakh students.  We just needed something to laugh at. Sometimes Steve Martin is too wildly funny for his own good.  This week was another roller coaster week but I’m to write that it ended well.  I could say “T.G.I.F.” with great enthusiasm.  So much happened this past week that I could easily put up a photo or two and write a few lines and call it a night.  Instead I’ll give the highlights.

I went  to the international women’s meeting to hear the ambassador of O.S.C.E. give a talk and I took copious notes.  I also got my students to start their own blogs on and I could not be prouder of some.  A few need some coaxing and prodding but for the most part they were soooooo excited about “getting published” for the rest of the world to see their words!  The names they picked are interesting such as: Wizard of KZ, Weak Student, Kipchak Princess, Listen and Speak, Imaginative woman and other original sounding ones.  Check some of their blogs out. I guess I should have a widget with links to their names.  I did that when I had my Ukrainian students write blogs back in 2006.  Some are still writing on their blogs.  I hope my Kazakh students keep this discipline up after our classes are over with.

Finally, today we had the author of “Two Kyrgyz Women” come and talk to the class for the 50 minutes allotted, I knew it would go over to an hour.  but some of my students had to get back to their teacher duties.  Well, I’ll write more about Marinka’s talk.  We took a photo with her and I hope to get that from one of my students.  For now, over and out.  I’m tired after a long but fruitful week!


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Astana’s Lighter Building

Astana continues to amaze with its architecture.  I found out today about a building that looks like a lighter or lipstick.  The irony of this building was soon after it was completed, it started on fire.  TWICE!!!  Someone thought it really looked like a lighter ready to light a cigarette.  What do you think?

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Proposed architectural plan in Astana for National Library

See what you think of these plans for a new national library in Astana, Kazakhstan.  I’m not sure where this will be located.  Maybe closer to the new university, it has to be in the new part of town.  I ask future readers in this library, will you be able to concentrate on reading in an environment like this?  I think it is more of an architectural wonder, another one in Astana.

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Correct Answer: Khan Shatyr

Please look back at yesterday’s blog question of “Where was this photo taken?”  You almost have to live in Astana, Kazakhstan to fully appreciate where this new structure that opened up this past summer is located.  Being in the new part of town, it is the latest of architectural wonders.  But just wait until you see the latest national Kazakh library that will be going up soon.  I’ve seen photos of the blueprint, it is really something to behold!!! It will certainly rival the shape of the tipped tent of Khan Shatyr.  Maybe tomorrow I will show that which I’ll find off of google images.

Just for fun I thought I’d add this photo of the ride Ken and I took over a month ago.  It looked like fun but once we were on it, I questioned our sanity.  We were sitting in this car that was going on a very thin piece of metal 100s of feet above all the rest of the shopping centers below.  We made it okay though. The other entertainment choice is the roller coaster ride that goes through water, that’s what I showed yesterday.  I think I’ll try for the white sand beach next time we go to Khan Shatyr.

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Where was this photo taken?

What to write tonight before I trundle off to bed?  I suppose a guessing game is as good as anything.  Winning bids get to come to Astana, Kazakhstan to find out where this roller coaster is really located.  At work, I’ve been on a similar ride for the last several months, things are getting better.  They HAD to get better!!! I’m sure this is true for everyone involved in this great new project of starting a brand new university.  Feels like a free fall sometimes, sometimes a fast downward push and other times it is just plain drudgery going uphill with no sign of relief.  Happy roller coaster!

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Kazakh Taxi Drivers Must Have Business Plans

Almost midnight here in Astana, Kazakhstan and there is a FULL moon out.  I am duty bound to do my daily blog and the only title I can come up with on a Sunday evening is the above.  I’ve been thinking about business plans for some time now ever since I’ve been on my new job at the new university since February of this year.  I don’t have a business background but nonetheless, I had to make up a business plan with an executive summary and all the finetuning points.

Of course, there is always the bottomline, how much does everything cost?  So, I had to conceptualize how much each room would need of furniture from wastebaskets to copiers to desks.  I don’t have any prior experience in budgets or business plans but it helped to look at others’ examples.  I have read through about four other business plans from other departments just to proof read the English.  BTW, my plan and budget had to be translated back into Russian from English.  Arduous stuff, these business plans.

I’m convinced our friendly Yerik who brings me to work every day has his own business plan.  He is there every morning to greet me and is more than happy to take me to the new campus for 500 tenge.  Others who are Kazakh can easily get the price for maybe 300 or 400 but since I’m a foreigner, means easy target for price gouging, I have to pay Yerik 500.  Why? because he claims that there are no return fares for him to end up back in the front of our apartment.  He was incredulous that I had walked home one day and it took me a little over an hour.  That means it is only a 3 mile ride on nice three lane highway!  Yerik is definitely overcharging me!

Nevertheless, my husband and I like Yerik, he smiles and makes small talk with me in Russian.  If he is not available then Yaheya (not sure of spelling) is always happy to take me to the new campus.  He is more conversant in English, German and of course Russian.  So between the two guys who hang out by our apartment complex, I’m covered for the ride out to the campus.  I usually take the bus for 60 tenge home, there are plenty busses that go back into town, usually #10 and #12.  The #10 goes all the way out to the airport.

Note to self, never tell the potential taxi drivers when negotiating prices, that the new campus is on the way to the airport.  They hear the word “airport” and the fare automatically goes up.  Because an airport trip usually means 3,000 tenge and the campus is about half way there.  That’s why I think the gypsy cabs that Ken and I take, these guys must have business plans in their heads all the time.  I simply say the name of the university and some guys out of curiosity just want to go out in that direction to see the new campus.  I might get them for 400 tenge but then you better have the right change because all of a sudden they will NOT have change for your 500 tenge note.

Yes, it feels like you are hitchhiking by sticking your hand out for a stranger to pick you up but it is the acceptable way for the drivers to earn extra fares. That way they can pay the police who routinely stop cars for any small infraction or none at all.  Just a friendly little chat, little bribe and the driver is on his way again.  The police are ready to use their baton for the next hapless driver.  It seems all normal.  I understand from my expat friends who drive that it is not fun or normal to pay these guys off.  I knew one British woman in Almaty that would always play dumb and she never paid the officers. They would finally let her go because she would waste their time.  Maybe the police have internal business plans too and “time is money” when it comes to all the other cars with their drivers who WILL pay the bribe.

Back to some of my taxi rides here in Astana, I’ve appreciated being picked up  when leaving the campus especially when I saw a big, threatening cloud of rain about a month ago.  It was hovering over the city and I flagged someone right before it unleashed a torrent.  The driver and I “tsk-tsked” all the other pedestrians who were caught in the rain.  I felt brave and very dry and made it home with my husband waiting with an umbrella for me in the archway of our complex.

The usual conversations the taxi drivers have with me are the following:

Where are you from? (they know I’m an alien foreigner) I tell them the U.S.

What state?  Minnesota (I add close to Canada)

Any children?  (that’s so they can find out if I’m married or not) Then I ask them if they have children.

Where do you work?  I tell them that I’m an English teacher

How long have you been in Kazakhstan? I tell them that I met my husband in KZ in 1993 and that I LOVE Kazakhstan.  They LOVE to hear that, those who are the romantics.  Keep in mind that these typical conversations are usually always in Russian unless there are the guys who want to practice their English.

The last question that *I* ask is what’s their name and they ask me mine.  This is when I’m paying them.  I’ve picked up this habit from my economist husband who doesn’t want to have a money transaction seem impersonal but one that is friendly.  We have had some repeat taxi drivers maybe because Ken is always friendly with the taxi drivers. He sits in the front seat while I sit in the back and work out the money for payment that was agreed upon to pass up to Ken in the front.  He can have much more involved conversations about politics or weather or grain prices because he knows the Russian language from when he studied it in high school.

Anyway, I’m glad that there are the taxi cab drivers who are your regular Joes who want to pick up some extra money.  Rarely have I been picked up by a woman driver and if two guys stop to pick me up, I shake my head and they move on.  Risky to get in the car with two guys, not even the locals will do that.  So, I think that Yerik, our resident driver, has a business plan and I think he has built up his clientele like us, who can trust him.  He is a willing servant and has a happy face for us.  I hope he does well, maybe he will move up to a newer model and then he will be forced to charge me 600 tenge to get me to the university.  (sigh)

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Kazakh Teachers Reflect on “Career Suicide” (Part II)

Today is a continuation of what I wrote about in yesterday’s blog.  I had many good reflections from my students after they viewed the fourth film clip titled “Career Suicide” that ran 12:39 minutes long.  Here’s what one person wrote:

“I like this movie because it shows everything even death depends on you.  You rule your own life. Being under someone’s control is killing you.  Once you have to decide what YOU want.  This feeling is familiar to me.  I feel myself so exhausted and terrible, just want to cry.  But if you overcome that, you’ll be stronger.  I mustn’t be afraid of being who I AM!!!”

Another astute observation:

“I was surprised to see that not much difference happened to Sandy, dead or alive.  She was still rushing and was stuck in the archives.  On both sides, she’s not herself, burdened with the things she has to finish.  She just lost herself.  This is not just her, this is us:  We all are afraid to take our time and think whether we indeed this rush or not – we just stay busy. The message of the video, I think, is that you don’t love if you do things that you want to, even more you’ll be rewarded for staying yourself and taking resolute decisions because Sandy looked relieved in the end.”

Wow, another mature response to the film about committing suicide in one’s career:

“People, sometimes, dreaming of gaining money and building their career lose themselves.  So overheaded by job they commit suicide deep inside.  And they don’t decide for themselves, they dream of a career and do the things they don’t want to do.  Moral, I think, is despite how ambitious you are, don’t kill a man inside of you with her own “I”, ideas, opinions, decisions, choices, abilities.  Just be who you are really.”

Here’s food for thought from another student of mine. I hope she follows my directions as a teacher (;-):

“This film is about a real life.  When a job doesn’t give you pleasure, your life becomes aimless and uninteresting. And people who follow other people’s orders don’t reach anything worth in life.  That happens with Sandy….”

Another person knows the pressures of working at a job. Read on:

“I’m proud of the woman.  She is strong enough to make her own decision.  It is so difficult to be oneself when everybody around you is copying one another.  Everybody is afraid of being fired and do what they are told to do.  I myself sometimes do the things I don’t want to but I have to in the fear of being fired.”

How about this from another Kazakh teacher:

“There are so many people in the world who just do what they are told to do and they are afraid to take their own decisions and be assertive in their positions.  But this woman Sandy even if she has been leading such a life, then at the end when she decided to take the essential decision, it gave her freedom and joy and satisfaction.  So, it means that people must know who they are and be bold.”

Finally, I think these teachers who are my students are trying to figure out where they are in life, in their studies, at their job.  This sums it up nicely:

“It is difficult to understand that if you do something good, is not always good for you, yourself.  People all over the world do things they do not like everyday, every week but it seems no end of problems. This short clip makes you think about how to work and live with pleasure.  I believe that everyone has his own vocation, i.e. his own place in the world.  And everyone should find it out.”

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Kazakh Teachers Reflect on Funny, Short Film Clips

After we had our guest speaker leave for another meeting, I gave my students (who are real, bona fide teachers) a chance to write down their thoughts about what Anne had just spoken about, while I set up the projector to watch short movies.  I wanted them to watch four funny videos (at least funny to me) clips to end our week on a good note.  First, I had them watch Longbranch (13 min) about a guy trying to commit suicide. (how can that be funny, you may ask? it ended well) However, here’s a poignant piece that one teacher wrote after viewing Longbranch:

“The number of committing suicide is increasing in Kazakhstan, especially among the teenagers.  Recently, “Khabar Agency” was broadcasting the accident similar to this clip.  It happened in Talgar at school #31 where two 16 year old students committed suicide and died.  Moreover, after that a 16 year old girl was saved while trying to commit suicide.  If something sad happens before committing suicide, they say this is an exact reason. In fact, it is not in Kazakh “Koran” is written that just the devil makes people commit it.  And it repeats several times until people commit it.  And if people commit suicide, it is sin and they are against the “Koran.” It is against the Islamic religion.”

Someone else wrote the following about “Longbranch” “To my mind, the moral of this film is that people must help and teach desparate or helpless people nearby.” Here’s another teacher’s perspective:

“It is a very educational clip.  We can show it to our pupils.  I think it has the following meaning:  “When a pupil lets the other pupil copy the answers, it is not a real help.  But if he helps him to find the answer on his own, it is much more complicated but more helpful and meaningful.”

Next, we watched “Not Evelyn Cho” that ran almost 10 minutes, which elicited a funny story from one of the teachers.  The single teachers paid attention to what she had to say about her successful strategy in meeting her husband:

“When I was 19 years old, young and beautiful teacher at the old village school, where English was opened first by me.  I was active and with full of energy teaching my students.  I taught my husband’s younger brother named Azamat.  But at that time I wasn’t married, I just dreamed to find my future love. Once on the way back home I met a handsome boy who was staring at me and smiling.  And I saw him every day at the same time at the same place.  I bought beautiful clothes to wear to attract his attention more.  Some time later when I found out that he was my student’s older brother (Azamat), I organized an interesting lesson for the students who studied with Azamat.  It was like a lesson connected with questionnaire.  Via some questions made by me, I had an opportunity to know my husband well before getting married.  I advise all young girls always to play it by ear whenever it happens to their future life.  Grab your love immediately, until someone does it.”

One other pragmatic teacher, who is married wrote this after watching “Not Evelyn Cho”

“Such a pity that she didn’t get him and they didn’t live ‘happily ever after.’  But it is almost always in the world. I have many male friends, they are handsome, gentle, kind, brave, well-educated, honest (ideal) but they have girlfriends and they love them very much and they are devoted to them!  Nowadays, it is difficult to find a good man/manly man, so to say, and if you find one, he is already taken by someone else! (;-(

Then we watched my favorite “Mutual Love Life” that is over 10 minutes.  This was a real eye opener for me because it is a hyperbole on our necessity to have insurance in the U.S. for almost everything.  Half of my students didn’t really understand the humor of it all.

One student who DID understand the plot of “Mutual Love Life” wrote the following:

“In our country [Kazakhstan] most people don’t know about the usefulness of insurance yet, so maybe that’s why the students in my group don’t understand at once the film.  I like this film, especially the moment when Dan loses the girl and money while Sarah gets insurance for her next relationship, that’s the funniest part.”

The real eye-opener for me is that Kazakhs really don’t know the expenses we as westerners continue to pay when we leave our comforts of home in the U.S.  My husband and I still have to pay for health, life, home, car insurance even when we are NOT living in the U.S.  That ALL adds up, not to mention the property taxes and other taxes we pay to be a U.S. citizen. Plus, in order to teach in Kazakhstan, we have to pay for expensive airfares, visa fees and now that we are here we pay for our rent as well. Soooo….this was very interesting that what I thought was funny was not understood by my Kazakh students at all.  There is no such thing as insurance for a broken heart.  This is what summed up the third film:

“Nowadays, people are so materialistic, they think about everything which can damage and so sign insurance.  But love is not a property, we cannot control our feelings and emotions.  It is not predictable.  I don’t like a man who wanted to be ruler of woman’s life.  He was looking for benefits and lost everything.” (;-(

(Fourth film reflections to be continued tomorrow)

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