Teaching in the Trenches (Part II)

As a follow-up to my last question I posed yesterday about why the money can’t be evenly distributed to the rural areas of Kazakhstan, why the concentration of elite schools in the bigger cities such as Almaty and Astana?  One Kazakhstani answered that for me, because the money can’t be trusted if it were to go to school administrators in the far reaches of this great country.  Corruption abounds, especially in education.  So, how does one educate the young people of Kazakhstan to be honest if even the school administrators and teachers resort to bribes?  Okay, back to what Annemarie talked about with my students the other day…

Annemarie asked my English teachers, “Which English do you teach your youngsters?”  They answered, “British English.”  The next question, “Who do you do business with the most as a country?”  Answers: Turkey, U.S., Saudi Arabia…  Her next strong statement was, “you don’t just teach English, you also teach culture.” When you teach British English, you do it within the context of how Brits interact (and there are MANY kinds of British accents besides R.P. – received pronunciation, the Queens English or BBC).  If you teach American English, you may do so in the context of how Americans interact in business, at play, at home, in families, etc.

What was interesting was that Annemarie took a side path about how Russian, Slavic and Asian people are “person-related” while Americans, Germans and other westerners are “object-related.”  One example was the way Kazakhs shake hands, they have an open palm extended but then they put their other hand over the shaking hand to show that you are not bearing arms.  If one would have their hand behind their back or in their pocket, it would keep the other person wary. Kazakhs and especially Chinese will stand close to each other (depending on the depth of the relationship). For Americans they simply extend the arm at elbow length and expect the distance to not invade their bubble of space.

Another cultural thing that Annemarie had observed when she lived in Odessa, Ukraine, she learned that to be considered truly intellectual one was expected to be witty or tell a good story in Russian.  You may be German or Jewish but if you went into a bread shop in Odessa and you were to buy some bread, it was expected to establish a relationship with the seller of the bread.  You were to make idle conversation because it was person-related, rather than object related.  Then she went on to say how interaction with sales clerks here in Kazakhstan were aggravating because they were not personable but rather perfunctory or rude.  I thought it was multi-tasking or distraction but in any case, the impersonal nature of sales transactions here in some Kazakhstan stores leads one to believe that it is NOT “person related.” I blame it on old communist morals that did not encourage a service mentality or the “customer is always right.”  That is an American value.

Annemarie next asked, “What are the typical Kazakh values?” One important one is “The individual is less important than the group.”  The big family in older Kazakh times travelled together as nomads.  One member of that group could not rebel and say to his family, “I’m not doing this anymore, I’m moving to Almaty!”  No, now you have a shift in the ideas of travelling within the country of Kazakhstan.  People are taking on European values of getting on a plane and travelling one day to Almaty and back to Astana again.  That would be unheard of back in the Kazakh nomad days.  You would not have the speed and time of travel that we “enjoy” today.

Every country has their basic social values and rules to live by.  Annemarie feels accountable and responsible for the money she has been allocated by her German government to make decisions on how it will be properly administered to help the most people in this country of Kazakhstan.  She comes from a background of the Enlightenment period from 500-600 years ago where the individual is the focus.  Her civic society expects her to make individual choices that will not only reflect well on her, but on her country.  However, there are people in Kazakhstan who would pad their budgets or do things under the table with bribes because they see it as normal.

Annemarie ended her talk with citing an example of the Minister of Defense in Germany who resigned because he had cheated on his dissertation thesis.  He had noble background and had been in charge of at least two army universities that graduated young people who should know how to write papers that were not plagiarized.  Yet, he had done that very thing himself, he was supposed to be accountable for his individual action because he was in charge of a group of individuals.  Yes, accountability is a value that we share in the western world and sometimes we as English teachers are not just teaching English but we are teaching culture and cultural values.

What cultural values are being taught when an important dignitary is brought to a university to speak but where MOST of the Kazakh students are not in the auditorium of their own volition? This happened a few months ago when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came and talked to a university in the old part of Astana during the OSCE conference.  Most of the students in the auditorium didn’t have a good grasp of English but were required to fill ALL the seats.  This also happened in Kyiv, Ukraine as well when the American ambassador showed up.  All the pedagogical students who didn’t know English were to fill up the 350 seats of the auditorium so as to impress the ambassador.  Our western university in Kyiv at that time only had about 120 students. The questions that were asked of the ambassador were all planted and well prepared questions too.  Those are old style Soviet tricks to play it safe when a visiting dignitary comes for a visit, it is meant to impress the said foreigners.

What happened recently at our university, which is supposed to be a new one founded on democratic principles was to close the cafeteria at the very time of the speaker’s engagement so that the “dutiful” Kazakh students were all forced to show up to listen to a dignitary say politically safe things and give vanilla answers in order to be politically correct in his host country’s environment.  You can be sure a long queue was formed by hungry students who perhaps resented having their supper delayed by one hour.

Okay, I’m shooting from the hip but then I’ve been in the trenches teaching in Kazakhstan for three years and Ukraine for seven years.  I think I know a little bit about what is going on with Kazakhstan trying to get out from the Soviet values, embrace their own culture from the past while taking on the modernization of the West’s. It is VERY complicated.

Annemarie and I chatted in the cafeteria after she was through with talking to my students as they took off to the computer lab to do their many assignments.  We were being “person-related” from our own “object-related” backgrounds in a “person-related” environment of Kazakhstan.  This culture is fascinating for both of us, who would dare even write about this for a western audience to read and understand and appreciate?

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