Archive for December, 2011

Answers to Questions about Kazakhstan (Part V)

Merry Christmas! Here’s my final installment to this five part series of answering 11 questions about Kazakhstan. I’ve had fun recalling scenarios that happened to me or things I thought about during my 3 1/2 years of teaching in Almaty and Astana.  These questions asked by another foreigner were good, I thought.  I invite those who feel more knowledgeable than me, to add your comments so we can all benefit.  Not much is known about this BIG country of Kazakhstan. I would wish MORE people from the West would know and visit it.  Here’s the last part:

6. What is the role of Multi National Companies in Kazakhstan?  The multinational companies such as Deloitte, Citibank, Shell, Chevron and other oil companies all provided jobs for those Kazakhs who were well educated.  It was said that a lawyer from Kazakhstan who knew Kazakh and English and how to write well could easily start out with a salary of six digits in US dollars.  The incentive among young Kazakh people is to get hired in a multi national company for better pay and a chance to travel outside the country.   Sorry, since I only worked in education I can’t answer that question very well. I DO know that in Almaty, where I taught English at the university, the emphasis was on business. Many of these students got jobs right away with the multinational companies once they graduated with their “western” degrees.

 

7. What are the key factors driving the economy and will this be sustainable in the long run? The country is flush with natural resources in minerals and oil. They are also the highest exporter of uranium, surpassing Canada, so supposedly they have money. However, I think that there are certain people who are getting the money and others who are languishing.  They do not seem to know about philanthropy, they have been taught under the Soviet system that capitalists are greedy. So when capitalism was opened up to them, they are on the take and will take full advantage of “opportunities” that come their way legally or illegally.

With this kind of mentality to be out for number one, it is not sustainable.  There is corruption and those who are at the bottom will rise up against this.  I think we are already seeing this happen in western Kazakhstan with the strikes at the mines.  Something is very much amiss in Kazakhstan with the “slave mentality.” I saw this worked out in the university where the higher-ups lorded it over those who were to be subservient. Nothing egalitarian about conducting staff or business meetings.  The human trafficking is another issue that is not good.  The traffickers are moving into Central Asia and Kazakhstan is a target as well as a harbor for those victims who are trafficked from other countries.

 

8. How do you view the standard of living in Kazakhstan (e.g. medical facilities / poverty gap / infrastructure / education)? Medical facilities in the big cities are adequate. I visited quite a few while in Almaty. But anything outside of the big cities are probably abysmal just judging by what I know of the educational system.  Imagine having a doctor who cheated on his exams, he will not make a good doctor where there are real people with real life and death problems involved.

 

9. Comment on tourism in Kazakhstan.  Tourism could be a great thing for Kazakhstan if they could get their beautiful and scenic areas cleaned up.  Unfortunately, the Kazakhs do not know how to keep their environment pristine.  My husband and I visited several of the nearby lakes to Almaty and the people just throw out their garbage so that it looks like a big trash dump.  There is no civic pride in keeping their park areas beautiful.  People will not go to far out of the way places where it is still untouched because the roads are so bad and they would have to really rough it to have that kind of adventure.  Someone with an entrepreneurial spirit would have to take advantage of what is there but I suspect they would have to pay lots of bribes in order to get anything done.  Such is the corruption that exists at every level of government, local, province and up to the top management on a national level.

 

10. Please comment on the cultural heritage of Kazakhs.  I do not know that much about the Kazakhs’ cultural heritage since I don’t know their language and really didn’t study their history much.  I did ask my students to tell me about their great grandparents. They did so with great pride.  You are considered a good Kazakh if you know the names of your ancestors going back seven generations.

11.     What is the impact of tightening government control on country legislation (registration of religious groups) This last question is very tricky. The tightening of control of a lot of things such as not letting blogs flourish is an example of no freedom of expression by young Kazakhs. This is the freakish thing about a young country that is run by older people who were schooled under the Soviet system. Their default button is to become more centralized and tighter controlled instead of less so.  Picking on certain religious groups will only backfire but it is true they are afraid of extremist, terrorist groups.  Once that goes awry like an Arab spring, then that will scare off the multinationals who bring in good business for their country.  Trust is needed for peace and calm to reign throughout the land. So the leader of the country is doing a very delicate and dangerous dance.  Keeping the terrorist influences at bay while being courted by the Chinese who are communist and trying to relinquish the fingerprints of the stranglehold that the Soviet past gave to them.  There has not been a democracy in Kazakhstan and when the leader expires, the vacuum created by no future leader being groomed for succession will be the most awful thing to witness…”

 

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Answers to Questions about Kazakhstan (Part IV)

If you enjoyed the last three days of my answering just one question I was asked, then just know that I only have two more parts left to answer the remaining 11 questions.  Here is how I answered the following questions:

2. What areas do you see a gap for improvement in the long run for success? The huge gap is TRUST. People don’t trust each other and there is much corruption and much nepotism.  Your Kazakh family comes first before expertise.  Westerners will have to trust the Kazakhs if they will invest in businesses in Kazakhstan. Broken contracts or greed makes those foreigners who come to help teach a bit careful.  By the time the expat teacher arrives, it is too late, there are many surprises.  I think the Kazakh wants to think of themselves as “clever” and want to take advantage of the unsuspecting, trusting foreigner. Afterall, they have been indoctrinated from Soviet times that western capitalists are greedy and selfish so they are just gouging them first.

The one thing that IS improving is service mentality, the Kazakhs seem to know they have to have a good reputation as a restaurant or hotel in order to have repeat business.  But for the long run, they need to gain the trust of expats instead of trying to grab for the money and not listen to the voice of authority or reason on how to use the money wisely. OR to not lose the trust when the contract is not abided by as understood in three languages.  I could go on and on with this question but TRUST is very, very important to build and maintain long term partnerships.

3. In your view, what key opportunities or threats exist for the nation? The threats for Kazakhstan will always be the same as they were 200-300 years ago.  China has always been a huge threat, as is Russia.  However, the Arab spring has Kazakhstan feeling very nervous, thus the “snap election” for their current president who has been president for the last 20 years.

Opportunities would be to utilize the expertise that young Kazakhs come back to their country with after being on the Bolashak grant (Kazakh term meaning “future).  Other students have been on similar grants with IREX and have studied abroad and have learned how western nations tick the short time they have absorbed it.  The opportunities for older people to learn from the younger would help speed up the pace of modernization. However, the older people feel threatened by those who are younger who know more.  So this is a difficult balancing act they have to do between generations.

4. What are the key benefits and challenges of working and living in Kazakhstan?  The amazing ex-pat community is the key benefit of living and working in Kazakhstan. People who are willing to take on the challenge of living in a country that is broken and feels like a hurting proud nation with past glory.  I use the example of Ukraine when we taught there that it was like dealing with a colicky baby, it needed to be fed and burped.  The diapers needed to be changed, they were, as a nation, taking baby steps in the late 1990s.  Perhaps during that same era Kazakhstan was doing the same.

NOW in 2007-2011 the post-Soviet baby of Kazakhstan acts like a teenager.  They act as if they want the keys to the car yet they don’t know about paying for the insurance or buying gas.  They just want to go and carelessly drive around with the family car.  They are rebellious and want the benefits of being considered a “developed nation” while they are still in their formative years of development.

So that was the challenge of living in the country of Kazakhstan. They are NOT a developed country yet, if you look at the WHOLE country. However, with more time and maturity they will get to that stage but you can’t just look at Astana and Almaty and judge that as “developed.”  In like fashion, the Kazakh peoples have a sense of impatience and want to take the foreigners’ money but do not want to be accountable for what they do with it.  It is very maddening for those of us expats who are in positions of authority, experts from other countries to see this nonchalance about capabilities and expertise and to be trashed for what WE know as experts in our field.  Essentially, we are all on short contracts, we are trying to work ourselves out of a job so that the Kazakh can stand up on their own without our aid. Much like a mother nurturing her baby to become a teenager and eventually adulthood.

If you take the training wheels away, they will start riding the bike on their own.  However, there seems to be a sense of national pride at stake that they even NEED us in the first place.  How often we thought as expats “They NEED us but they don’t WANT us.”  A very strange paradox because the Kazakhs are supposedly known as a very hospitable people.  There are many good stories from the past where Kazakhs helped those foreigners like the Koreans or Ukrainians who were dumped off of trains during the Stalin years of purging “Enemies of the People.”  The Kazakhs would care for these people who were left to die on the steppes. Things are different these days after twenty years of “independence.”

Unfortunately, the Kazakhs know they NEED help but they are sometimes too proud to acknowledge that.  Also, because Kazakhs come from an oral tradition, they know so much about their own culture but they do not realize that most of the world does not even know they exist because nothing much has been written about them.  Those Kazakh students who have gotten fellowships or grants to study abroad find that out the hard way.

The most vexing thing about living in Kazakhstan is the “They need us but they don’t want us.” And that runs through all matter of experts from whatever field be it in oil, accounting, banking, mining, etc.  I heard this from other expats and so that gets back to my original point.  It doesn’t matter if they are from Norway, German, U.K. Canada, Australia, wherever you are from as a westerner, you have more in common with each other than living amongst people in an unknown country such as Kazakhstan.  The Kazakhs are trying to find their own identity from their rich past. But also they want to fit in with westerners in the present 21st century while holding on to the baggage of their Soviet indoctrination. This makes for a very complex kind of maturing into being proud of who they are as Kazakhs, it will take time.

5. Can you comment on customs and ways of life of Kazakhstani? I did not know many Kazakhs and their customs or ways of life.  I only knew the educated ones and the Kazakhstanis I would consider those who were born in Kazakhstan but are not necessarily of Kazakh ethnicity.  The Kazakhs are very proud of the fact that they have so many ethnicities living peacefully beside each other.  They have their holidays and their rituals and practices but I think a westerner, like a former Peace Corps volunteer, who lived in the rural areas would do a better job of writing about bride kidnapping, trained eagles that hunt game, sheepherding and nomadic lifestyle with yurts, etc.  I lived in the urban setting where all such Kazakh customs are little known to me.

(to be continued)

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Answers to Questions about Kazakhstan (Part III)

If you look at yesterday and the day before, you will see that I have gotten off the track on blogging about human trafficking.  Currently I am in the middle of answering 12 questions about Kazakhstan, from MY perspective.  I enjoyed doing this little assignment and got carried away on the very first question.  In subsequent questions, I am not as knowledgeable about Kazakhstan.  Therefore, I do make more than a “comment” on the educational system and this is the last part of my answer to the first question:

“Again, I have to reiterate I am only going on what I have heard and a couple of things that I observed outside of the two main cities of Astana and Almaty.  What I DID encounter first hand at the university level and it would be no different in the elementary and secondary level is that there is the Asian trait of acquiescing to your superiors no matter how unintelligent they are.  I witnessed first hand how those who had no knowledge in writing of English expected others who were younger and more talented to do the grunt work. They would make their edicts known but had not a clue about how ineffectual they were.  They commanded respect and only surrounded themselves with those who obeyed orders.  Some of the teachers and administrators I worked alongside could not even speak English that well and they were of course embarrassed when students challenged them on that.  There is a Kazakh term for that kind of student, “naglyi” and they are considered brazen and impudent. These smart students are not passively obedient and not subservient to the teacher-centered teacher.

Yes, the Kazakh culture seems to work against itself and favoritism goes on to give jobs to those who have Kazakh background and knowledge of the language so it seems that reverse discrimination is going on against those who are Russian ethnicity.  It seems it is “pay back” time for the people who brought the Soviet way of thinking and educating to the Kazakh nomads 50-70 years ago.

One other thing that is observed with education, those Kazakh or Kazakhstani teachers who had a good command of English in speaking or writing were snapped up right away as translators by the multinational companies.  They made more money translating than teaching.  So, what was broken to begin with back in 1991 became even more broken because the money was NOT in teaching anymore.  Not that it ever was.  Those who couldn’t do anything else remained in the teaching profession. However, some Kazakh and Kazakhstani teachers were very dedicated to what they believed would improve their country by teaching their pupils to become future leaders.

However, the “slave mentality” that I saw exist in the one “western” university I taught at in Almaty was enough for me to know that even the best of the Kazakh national universities throughout the city of Almaty had a lot of corruption and nepotism going on which has not improved on educating and preparing young Kazakh students for the 21st century and to be a part of the western world.

I could go on and on with this topic.  I tried to get this down to a capsule after my 3 ½ years of teaching and working alongside dedicated Kazakh and Kazakhstani teachers.  One last thing that is important to know.  The Kazakhs inherited the phrase Soviet motto “Initiative is punitive.” This means that if you are at all creative or think outside the box, you will be cut down.  So, you have to go lockstep with the rest of the faculty and not color outside the lines if you want to get ahead.  Therefore, the curriculum is set, do NOT transgress by doing something new or innovative.

Let’s just say that that mentality is very difficult for any westerner to observe when we as children are encouraged to be creative and to think outside of the box.  East meets West and teacher-centered meets student-centered.  It was a very interesting sociological experiment that I saw every day while I lived in Kazakhstan as an American educator.

Oh, one last thing is that plagiarism is rife and that is not a good thing for those students who are preparing to go overseas to learn at western universities.  I had one student who was taking a TOEFL preparation class and apparently her parents had money so she thought she would be able to buy off the exam.  Many of the students from rich families can buy off their Kazakh teachers and receive A grades in their own institutions but they are faced with reality when coming up against western standards of excellence and honesty.”

(to be continued)

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Answers to Questions about Kazakhstan (Part II)

Yesterday I wrote about Kazakhstan’s education, as *I* know it. Today I will continue to answer the BIG question about education which I feel I know something about but from a westerner’s perspective.  In upcoming days I will answer more questions of the 12 that were sent to me by someone who is curious about Kazakhstan.  More than a comment on education, I wrote three pages in answering his first question. 8)

“Currently the reports I heard was that Kazakh teachers were hardly paid anything (about $100 a month in the elementary rural schools) At the western university in Almaty where I taught, some were paid $1,000 a month which was very competitive and very much the exception to the rule in the other national universities in the city.  No wonder bribery and corruption exists among teachers and administrators alike. Sadly, these teachers had very little in terms of resources to teach with as well.

As of only two-three years ago, according to Kazakh laws, it is mandatory for all children in Kazakhstan to know THREE languages (Russian, Kazakh and English) and unfortunately the teachers hired are hardly qualified to know all three languages proficiently.  Especially this is true of the Kazakhstanis (ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Germans) and even of those Kazakhs who were forced to not learn their own language if they wanted to get ahead as a Soviet.

Picture this, if you have unhappy, underpaid teachers who are forced to teach a curriculum they don’t want to teach, then you have very unhappy children who are locked into a kind of prison to master so much material. The schools are filled to capacity and the way to work around that is to have morning sessions and then afternoon sessions. One family with two children might have to escort their one child to the first session in the morning while the second child might be scheduled for the second half of the day in the same school.  Who can have a full time, demanding job with having to pick up your youngsters at varying times of day?  That’s how they work around the scarcity of school buildings.

The school children I would see with their uniforms and who attended the Orken [Kazakh word for “intellectual”] schools looked so tired and worn out. They would have big backpacks on their back and all they did was study and study or play chess in their free time.  I thought they looked like they were pressured in the intellectual schools because they had high stakes from their parents to perform and do well. Needless to say, the suicide rate in Kazakhstan among young people has surpassed that of Russia according to an international survey that was taken.

In the rural schools, which I did not have the pleasure to visit except for one visit an hour outside of Astana, the school looked clean and immaculate.  There were huge plants in every window which was common to see in any old style Soviet school. However, there was no indoor plumbing, the children had to go outside to an outhouse to go to the bathroom. In the dead of winter, that would prove a challenge when temps drop to 20 below zero F.  The library had old, yellowed books that were from vintage Moscow publishing houses.  The money that should have been funneled to the rural areas was being pumped into the fancy new schools in the big cities.  Regrettably the money went to the Orken schools and to Nazarbayev University in Astana.

My question of why more money from the centralized educational system in Astana was not going to where it was needed most was answered with one word: corruption.  The money allocated to administrators in the “sticks” would not get to the teachers or to improve the schools.  Lack of trust went against those in the far reaches of the country by those administrators in the Department of Education housed in Astana.  That’s not to say that administrators in schools in the big cities can be trusted, some were probably lining their pockets and taking bribes as well.

Also, I had heard reported that if computer centers were set up in the rural areas, there were not enough skilled people with know-how on how to run them or to fix whatever problems there might be.  Maybe in some places there was no electricity, maybe in other places no Internet connection.  The teachers suffered for lack of knowledge and as a result the students suffered.  A typical vicious circle downward in any developing nation when trying to keep pace with twenty-first century technology.  Kazakhstan is no exception.”

(To be continued)

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Answers to Questions about Kazakhstan

Today I will take a departure from my usual writing about human trafficking issues. Recently I was asked to answer some questions about Kazakhstan and I felt ill equipped to do so.  I made sure that those who were asking the questions knew that I was an outsider to this complex country and that they would only get answers from my American perspective.  That didn’t seem to dissuade them to ask 11 questions of me despite my disclaimer.  I will parse out my thoughts for my reading audience over the next week so you have something to read over Christmas break if you are fortunate to have a few days off.

The following are my answers off the top of my head, obviously I had MORE than a “comment” about the educational system in Kazakhstan. I have blog material which covers every day I taught in Almaty and Astana from fall of 2007 to March of 2011:

1.      Can you comment on the education system in Kazakhstan?

This question is my favorite and what I mostly blogged about the 3 ½ years I lived in Almaty and Astana. Essentially, if you could put everything I wrote into a bite-sized capsule it would be this:  Kazakhstan, after the fall of the former Soviet Union, inherited a very broken system of education.

However, I am quick to add that the standards the Soviet Union initially had in place were competitive because they did have intellectual integrity yet by the time it trickled down from the centralized system of governance from Moscow to the far reaches of Central Asia, there were different permutations of what “education” looked like. I would also add that what was very broken as of 20 years ago has become even worse under the current system of education in Kazakhstan.  I will elaborate on that later but first I will explain how I define “broken” in terms of what the Soviet Union handed to the Kazakhs.

It did not matter what former republic you looked at whether it was, for example, Estonia, Georgia or Ukraine, all the schools had the same textbooks, curriculum and style of teaching from the top down, from Moscow’s department of education. One size fits all.  How quickly each former republic of the USSR embraced the Soviet style of education depended on how closely they were aligned to a teacher-centered type of classroom and Soviet principles.

But take, for example, what the Kazakh nomads historically had to know about cattle and sheep raising and transform that kind of knowledge to a collective farm where they were supposed to change to become farmers? Well, they were doomed to failure from the beginning because herdsmen and shepherds are not the same as farmers.  In Ukraine, when collectivization happened in the 1930s, it was easier for a peasant Ukrainian farmer to think in terms of farming on a collective.  But for a Kazakh who only knew the freedom of the steppes as grazing lands for sheep, horses and cattle to change over to farming, that was a significantly different story. A very sad story indeed.  Millions of Kazakhs died of starvation when collectivization was enforced.

Therefore, you had Kazakhs who were historically nomadic and who knew where their property lines were for the different seasons to move their livestock but then the Soviet Union came along and prohibited their language and their cultural traditions. As late as the 1970s, the weaving of the dowry carpet of a young Kazakh bride which told her own story was prohibited.  It was considered too cultural and everyone was to think Soviet and not one’s own ethnic heritage.

The Kazakhs learned very quickly after being forced into a starvation period (1930s) that the only way to survive as a people, they needed to learn Russian and NOT speak Kazakh anymore. Those Kazakhs who went through the educational system in the bigger cities forsook their own culture and language but now are called “pretend” Kazakhs.  They are called shala Kazakhs, since they are only Kazakh skin deep and no further. But I get ahead of myself in answering this question since it is a large and comprehensive one to try to answer.

(to be continued)

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How fluid are Kazakhstan’s borders with China?

While I lived in Harbin, Heilongjiang in the late 1980s, I had always heard about Urumqi in the western part of China.  Northeast China is a LOOOOnnnggg ways away. Just compare the distance of East Coast of the U.S. with the West Coast.  I lived closer to Urumqi while I lived in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana.  Missed my chance to see what used to be considered Uyghurstan or whatever spelling you choose for an ethnic group that was Muslim and did not look Oriental.  I remember when I was visiting in Shanghai or Guangzhou, we would be bombarded outside of our hotel with “change money, change money…” by the Uyghurs.  I wonder if they still do that or if they have become more sophisticated in making money off of the clueless foreigners.

Anyway, I know friends of mine who did cross the Kazakhstan border into China and it was an arduous task.  Long waits and no service mentality to come to the aid of hapless travelers who didn’t know what they were in for except an adventure to China.  I’m including a map of Kazakhstan and China’s border from a Chinese perspective.  I would like to know more about this region of the world.  I’ve suggested many times to my husband that we could always go to Mongolia to teach, another place I’d like to visit.  We shall see.  For now, maybe I should just rent out the movie “Close to Eden.”  Besides wonderful cinematography, it shows a clash of Chinese and Mongolian and Russian cultures all in one mix.

I’m also wondering about human trafficking between the borders of China and Kazakhstan (or Kyrgyzstan for that matter), how easy is it to cross illegally over the Tien Shan mountains?  I need to find someone who knows the geography of this little known area in Central Asia.  Of course, the traffickers know where the leaky places are and perhaps they have also greased the palms of those who are in charge of law enforcement at the borders. So much corruption on both sides, too many victims will sadly fall prey to the traffickers deceitful lies.

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China’s Children and Kazakhstan’s Problem

Most news these days is focusing on China and their success in breaking up a trafficking ring where 178 children were rescued and over 600 arrests were made.  However, whenever numbers are quoted in China, you know this is just a drop in the bucket in a land of 1 billion people.  What about Kazakhstan which is a vast and sprawling country to the west of China?  It has 16 or 18 million people, it can hardly afford to have Chinese traffickers come across their borders to steal children. But I understand that it is happening where Kazakh children or women are being snatched up.  If you look at this news report, you will see that wherever there is poverty, you have desperate people who want to be free economically.  Kazakhstan is not there yet in the rural, out of the way places far from the major cities of Almaty and Astana.  What is being done to ensure that rural Kazakh children are not being trafficked to China or to the big cities in Kazakhstan?  Wondering minds want to know.

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