Archive for September, 2012

My Summer of 1993 Reflections on Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan

I came across some 1993 correspondence (and photos) that I had written to family and friends back home in the U.S. I shared about my stay in Kazakhstan as a Peace Corps trainer to 30 trainees in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Seems some of the complexities of living in Central Asia never change.  However, this had more to do with my working within an American Peace Corps framework in a culture that had other intricate nuances with resulting snafus that we were completely unaware of.  I wrote the following on August 2, 1993:

“Last week I took a rest.  Okay, for a Type-A personality, I’m willing to admit I needed a rest.  I don’t like being driven but being involved with ‘training” compelled me into the center of the ring.  I do not like to give up on challenges very easily and this one was my match.

I have a second assistant working for me and it is so fun to get to know her.  I met Damira, a Kyrgyz woman, on the 4th of July and knew I wanted her to join me since she has computer skills.  She has been such a blessing in getting the Cyrillic script typed out and also she knows Kazakh.  Along with my Kazakhstani friend Tatyana [Kazanina], I have a wonderful team to work with. It counters some of the other bad elements I have to deal with in the Peace Corps office.

The most difficult part of any new post is that we are up in front of very tired and worn out Peace Corps trainees who demand to know all the answers.  But if we have never been in this country before, we don’t know and we don’t even know people who might know the answers.  That’s why I was thankful to meet an American woman named Sandy.  She had been teaching and lecturing in Russia for the past five months.  I had her give a lecture on her experiences to the volunteer group.

This past week while the trainees were out on their site visits, I took a little one of my own.  I went to my future home of Kyrgyzstan and I really DO love the country and the people.  I had a chance to visit my friend Elizabeth who is doing the same job I am doing with 20 trainees.  Elizabeth has been a wonderful resource to me from the first time I met her in Washington, D.C.  We traveled together to Almaty and she will be leaving one week earlier than me.  That is, if I can get my plane ticket changed from Sept. 4 to August 28.  I really don’t want to stay here (Almaty) any longer that I have to.  I am burned out from this city, the PCV trainees, the dorm and Almaty.

That is why I took my “rest” at a lake called Issy-kul and read “The New Russians.”  I did nothing that was work-related for about 5-6 days.  The lake is beautiful with mountains rising up all around it.  It is 60 miles long and a mile or two wide.  There are white caps and the water is cold due to mountain runoff.  I was thankful that the PC authorities permitted me to go there. I really felt homesick though as I was returning to Almaty and I saw the rolling hills just harvested which reminded me so much of North Dakota.  I never thought I would get teary-eyed over my memories of that state.  Right now, I really want to be where I am in control of my meals, my sleeping hours, my working hours, etc.  I felt I have had much of my independence stripped from me.  I can relate well with what the trainees are feeling and they are committing to two years here!!!

Anyway, it is an honor to have the Fulbright grant to look forward to when I will be living in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for a year.  Kyrgyzstan is a beautiful country…”

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Remorse and regrets about my friend Tatyana

The following is a letter I received from Liza, a mutual friend of Tatyana’s, my Kazakhstani friend from Almaty.  I first met Tanya in the summer of 1993. She was one of my bridesmaids (wearing green) in both my weddings in Minneapolis and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I used the same bridesmaids’ dresses for my students to wear in the second wedding.  I returned to Central Asia ten years later after Tatyana had died about May of 1997.  Before her death, my husband and I had made a long distance call to Kazakhstan to contact her by phone in about March of 1997 but she could not talk by that time due to her thyroid problems.

My regret is that when I returned to Almaty in 2007, that I did not have the heart to look up her parents to see if they were still alive.  We often live with such remorse and regret.  My sadness was renewed when I recently re-read this letter from Tatyana’s friend Liza, informing us of her passing. If ever I return to Kazakhstan, I would like to meet this person named Liza, she wrote very eloquently about our elegant friend Tatyana Kazanina.

Nov. 5th, 1997

I am writing on behalf of Tanya Kazanina’s parents Ludmila Arvidovna and Michail Ivanovich. With the deepest sorrow we inform you of Tanya’s death on May 6, 1997. November 6th is a traditional memory day, half a year since Tanya died.  We all and Tanya herself believed that she would recover, unfortunately that was a terminal disease.  Tanya was extremely strong in spirit till the very last minute and fought the disease as much as she only could.

She was a wonderful person and beautiful in her perception of the world till the very end.  Even though her sufferings and physical pain were unbearable, she never complained and remained clear in her mind and memory, open-hearted and open-minded as she had always been.  She died peacefully in the presence of her parents at home.  Since her death, there came a whole flow of sorrowful events, Tanya’s parents didn’t feel well, her father had an infarction and was treated in hospital.  Now he is feeling better.

Tanya’s mother and I sorted out Tanya’s correspondence and found your address in Virginia.  We do not know if you still live there, but we hope this letter will get to you somehow.  Tanya held you in high esteem, she just loved you.  She kept the warmest memories of you and other friends in the U.S.  Even now, half a year since her death, it is difficult to believe that she has gone.

She loved life so much and had an enormous potential to go further ahead.  We spent as much time together as it was only possible during her last months of life. She was wonderful; with all the pain she was living with, all endless sleepless nights and loneliness – in a sense that in her mind she was already somewhere on the other side, whereto we could not get. She enjoyed the life, preserved her sense of humor, her striving to know more, to develop herself, her sense of dignity.  Even then she was a wonderful companion, we had great talks together when she could physically talk. Later on, we could talk only with our eyes.

Her parents were the most caring and supportive parents in the world, they did everything they could to help and encourage her.  Tanya hoped to come back to the U.S., where she had had, perhaps, the most wonderful time in her life.  She loved you all and appreciated you all very much and we would like you to know this.

Warmest regards to you and all Tanya’s friends in the U.S. whom we cannot reach.

Liza, her friend

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Kazakhstan’s Education (Part II)

Yesterday I wrote what my Kazakhstani friend, Tatyana, had written about her views on the educational system she was a part of during the former Soviet Union and two years into the reforms with Kazakhstan as a new nation. Tatyana was not altogether positive in her perspective.   We were the first PC group and so there was much to learn about a country we all knew so little about.  Tatyana at least had lived in the U.S. for one year and could speak with authority about education when she compared both systems, western with her own.  Here is the rest of what she told the 30 Peace Corps volunteers on what to expect when they went to their respective villages once training was over:

“…Now when Kazakhstan has become an independent state [as of two years before in 1991], schools got an opportunity to experiment with the curriculum, introduce elective courses thus being more flexible.  During the reform, four new subjects were introduced to add to the 22 subjects on the curriculum of the 11-year school:

1)   Acquaintance with the Surrounding World (1st and 2nd grades)

2)   Computer Science and Computer Technology ( 10th– 11th grades)

3)   The Ethics and Psychology of Family Life (9th and 10th grades) but this subject totally failed.  There were no books, no specialists in this area to conduct decent lessons. The subject in our school I remember was taught by whomever agreed to do it.  One teacher simply used to tell the students stories about her family, setting it up as an example of good family relations. She seemed to like it. But by the end of the term, the students knew everything about her family life and stopped going to her class.

4)   Fundamentals of production choice of profession (8th-9th grades)

So in general, most of the point of the new reform could not be implemented and were a complete failure.  Others, such as the introduction of computer science and technology proved to be quite successful with the exception that a lot of schools are still not properly facilitated.

Now when Kazakhstan became an independent state, schools seem to have a broad field for experimenting.  Our government seems to understand now that the essence of a reform is not in dictating from above what, where and how should be done, but in providing favorable conditions for the school development, as Shaisultan Shayahmetov put it.

Having completed one’s secondary education, one can either start working or go on to college. (Institution of Higher Learning). There are universities and so-called “Institutes” in Kazakhstan. Universities are more academically oriented, while institutes are both academic and practice oriented.  There are no degrees here equivalent to those of bachelors (BA) or masters (MA). As a rule, students spent five years in college, institute or university.  To be admitted to an institute or university, you have to pass a series of oral and written tests.

Education in Kazakhstan has, until recently, been free on all levels and subsidized by the government.  Now, when the country is changing to a market place economy, the system of education is also undergoing profound changes.”

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Kazakhstan’s Education According to my Friend Tatyana

I have my Kazakhstani friend, Tatyana Kazanina, to thank for the following talk she gave the summer of 1993 to the first Peace Corps volunteer group who arrived in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Tatyana, Polish by ethnicity, was my soulmate who was one of my bridesmaids when I got married in December of 1994.  She had strongly encouraged me to marry Ken when I was wavering by saying in her characteristic, Russian accent, “You’d be a fool to NOT marry Ken.” (emphasis on the word “fool”) Somehow Russian speakers have a way of showing their passion in how they talk.  Tatyana didn’t mince her words either.

Tatyana was also a very good English teacher to her young pupils maybe because she had experienced living one year in Arizona through the FLEX program.  That’s how good her English was, she was passionate about mastering it.  Sadly, she died of thyroid cancer, several years later.  I was shocked that my friend, whom I had met in Almaty, had lived only 40 some years.  I still miss her even now as I write out the words that she had so carefully crafted for the Peace Corps volunteers in 1993 to understand Kazakhstan’s educational system.  Here is what she told them:

Until recently the educational system in Kazakhstan was very much the same as the educational system in the whole of the Soviet Union.  Actually, it was a part of that huge machine called the Soviet educational system and thus had the same features, suffered the same problems.  It had its merits and shortcomings and drawbacks but it was the state system we lived in.

First of all, education was inseparably connected with ideology and thus was strictly controlled by the government.  Usually all the instructions came from the Sate Committee on Public Education residing in Moscow to Republican Ministries of educational and then to the local departments of public education. Some deviations were possible with respect to national or regional peculiarities of different republics, but the core, the essence was usually the same.

At school students were taught either in Russian or their native tongue, but the curriculum remained the same for al school-goers.  All schools were expected to follow general guidelines. Textbooks on all subjects were the same for the whole Soviet Union. So, schools were kept within certain bounds and it was forbidden to wander off from them.  Under these circumstances, experimenting was hard.

Second, as everywhere else, education in this country depended on the state of economy.  No wonder schools were and are poorly facilitated.  Teachers have always been overloaded and miserably paid.  When I first started teaching at school, my monthly payment was 80 rubles (about $100 a month).  A bus or trolleybus driver those days could be paid 300 rubles a month.  The gap was incredible.  It was clear that something was wrong with the educational system.  Besides, in schools same as in the whole Soviet society, there was a contradiction between what was being said and what was actually being done.  Everybody saw this, but nobody spoke about this publically.

Under these circumstances, a reform of general education became necessary.  In 1984, the program document envisaging the all-round development of education was approved by the first session of the USSR Supreme Soviet.  It was doomed to fail, though, because the main reasons why our education was in such a poor state or condition hadn’t even been revealed and the main emphasis was again made on the teachers’ enthusiasm.  Some innovations had been introduced but they never worked:

Before the reform, children in Kazakhstan started school at the age of 7 and finished it at 17.  Usually a regular secondary school comprised all three types of education.  Elementary from 1st to 3rd grade, the incomplete secondary (from 4th till the 8th grade) and then complete secondary (from the 9th to 10th grades). Secondary education was mandatory for all.  Thus, all the subjects were obligatory. You could not choose. So, no matter what your future profession would be, a librarian or a language teacher, you were obliged to study math, for example, in the same amount that would allow you to pass the entrance exam to be in a math department of a university.  The same thing happened with chemistry, physics and biology.

So, the requirements on these subjects were initially raised unreasonably high and it was a reason of constant complaints on the part of parents and students.  So, rather than make the school system more flexible, look over the programs on certain subjects to meet the requirements of students the reform proclaimed the switchover to an 11-year education, to spend four years on a three-year curriculum.”

(to be continued)

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Rodent Surprise…in Kyiv, Ukraine

The following is a story about a furry guest to our flat when we taught in Kyiv, Ukraine. I had e-mailed this to family and friends back in March 12, 1999. Maybe it is one of those “you had to be there” but I thought it was VERY funny at the time and even now these 13 years later.

“I just have to tell you about our “book” study tonight.  We usually have about 12-14 people over every Friday night and they are mostly bachelor men.  There were more women tonight but the mix is very international.  We have one Scotsman, one British gentleman and one German. The rest are Ukrainian and all very interesting in one way or another.

Anyway, Nicolai is a very quiet, computer nerd type who comes, but he is always late.  Tonight was no exception, he rang the doorbell after all 12 people were settled in our living room.  He also came in with a rodent which was crawling all over the sleeve of his jacket.  At first I was shocked that he had this white mouse in his hands but he quickly arrested my surprise by producing a cut-in-half, plastic 7-Up bottle that he put his little pet in.

Meanwhile, my husband was overseeing that everyone had recited their memory verses in the adjacent room.  This seems to be the Ukrainians’ favorite part and they do it well.  So as not to disrupt the meeting, I asked Nicolai to bring his little pet into the kitchen and put it on the counter for safe keeping.  I was still in shock that he had even brought it along with him. (I didn’t recall that Ken had asked for “show and tell.”)

So everything went along smoothly until the phone rang when we were in the middle of prayer at the end of our study.  Ken jumped up to answer the phone in the other room and no doubt checked the kitchen to see about treats that we would feed to our guests afterwards (another favorite part of the guests’ evening). What to his wondering eyes did appear but a nice, healthy mouse inside a bottle!!! I could hear movement in the kitchen as our prayers continued in the living room. Judging by the noises, I just KNEW my warrior husband was doing combat with the mouse [I had no idea that the first thing he grabbed was a potato peeler to stab the little creature]  The next thing I heard was his opening the entryway door and throwing the bottle (with mouse inside) down the garbage chute in the outside hallway, it tumbled nine stories below [think “As Good as it Gets” with Jack Nicholson throwing a dog down the chute].

Mission accomplished, my fearless husband had protected me from the rodent surprise in our kitchen.  Immediately after prayers were done, Nicolai headed for the kitchen not knowing the demise of his pet.  I followed close behind him knowing I would have to help smooth out the inevitable outcome for poor Nicolai. This was going to be an unpleasant reality for him.  Keep in mind that the mouse had plunged nine stories to its final resting place, “rat heaven.” As soon as I told Nicolai that my husband had undoubtedly disposed of his pet down the chute, he bolted down the stairs (disregarded the elevator) to check the garbage bin in the basement.

Eventually Nicolai came back to our apartment looking dejected and I didn’t even have it in me to say I was sorry.  I did explain to him that Americans don’t like mice in their kitchens and Ken had only done what husbands feel naturally inclined to do, KILL the rodent!  Nicolai left early knowing that he should never bring his furry pets to our place again.

When all our guests had left, my husband gingerly informed me, “Did you know there was a mouse in our kitchen?” I had to tell him yes and that it WAS Nicolai’s pet.  End of story…or so I thought.

The sequel about Nicolai’s “mouse” was that he did admit to Ken that it was his fault for bringing the pet the other night to our home in the first place.  Then at church the following Sunday he showed me his NEW pet that he had just gotten for “big bucks.”  He told me that I should show it respect and then he informed me that it was a baby rat.  I had to admit that it DID look cute with little beady, black eyes for a white rat. However, my husband is quite adamant about Nicolai NOT bringing him to our home next Friday night.  Hopefully this is the end of story…”

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Effects of Chinese Collectivism and American Individualism

A young Chinese girl who is currently studying at a Minnesota university this fall wrote the following essay. She has many talents and she was especially good at doing origami (Japanese paper folding).  I was amazed at the giftings of many of my former Chinese students from this past summer.  This particular student wrote this insightful piece about what she had already observed about collectivism and individualism after just several weeks of living in the U.S.

“We all know that there are many countries in the world. China is a country of large population. And it also has a long history. But the history of Chinese individualism is not very long. Ordinary, most Chinese are tend toward collectivism. To some extent, this is decided by the traditional culture of China.

As a Chinese, when I was born, I started to live in a collective life. This is very common in China. If someone goes to China, he or she will see that there are many boarding schools in China. And parents seem to be willing to send their children to boarding schools. They think that boarding schools will help their children to learn to look after themselves well. Also, Chinese parents like to send their children to top schools although there are many students in schools. “I will send my son to the foreign language high school,” a father may boast to his friends and family. To some extent, this action is a kind of collectivism.

In Chinese schools, the questions that students do for the homework always have standard answers. Open-ended questions seldom appear on the homework. Even when students have different answers to the open-ended questions, the teacher will tell these students to write in the standard way instead of his or her own answers. We (students) cannot say that what teachers do for us is wrong, because this educational system in China has been lasting for a long time. If we write our own answers to the questions, maybe the reviewers will think we have not achieved or reached to the requirements. So teachers often hope students have the same thought, or the answers to the questions. I know it is hard to express the thing like this, but it is happening in Chinese schools actually.

I know that in America, teachers are glad if students have different thoughts. “They are trained from very early in their lives to consider themselves as separate individuals who are responsible for their own situations in life and their own destinies”(American Ways p5). So this may be the difference between Chinese culture and American culture.

Furthermore, in China, people like to eat together by getting food in one plate by chopsticks and eating it. “In a Chinese meal, most dishes are shared in the center of the table.……If there is a large group a rotating glass disk (or a Lazy Susan) is placed in the center of the table. It is turned constantly so that all the dishes are easily accessible to people sitting around the table.” (CultureShock! China P131) But in America, people prefer to eat in one’s own plates, even while eating with family members. I do not know how Americans think of this. But in China, people believe that eating together is a good way to promote harmonious feelings. So sometimes people may take food by chopsticks for each other.

Every culture has its own effects to people. So I think the effect of traditional Chinese culture is collectivism. It can be also said that collectivism has a great influence on the Chinese for many years. Otherwise, Americans maybe pay more attention to individualism. Every coin has two sides, so I cannot say which culture is better than the other.

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Power Distance in China between Males and Females

My husband and I just watched “Hope Springs” at the movie theater last night, it was rated as PG-13. I thought it should have been rated a bit more critically. I certainly wouldn’t want my former Chinese students to see it. They probably wouldn’t have understood the subtle humor in it.  However, it had great actors with Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep but the content was rather graphic.  The “power distance” created in this 31 year marriage was something to witness.

This next essay written by a young Chinese man shows his passion for all things Japanese.  He amazed me with his acumen, his attention to detail and he is only 15 years old!!!  I think he is fascinated with Japan because that is a topic left out of the Chinese history books.  So close to the war crimes of WWII and even earlier, China does not want to know much about Japan.  Yet, this student points out over and over again how much Japan has borrowed and used things from China.  Strange “power distance” going on between these two countries.

“In some TV programs, movies and dramas, Chinese females are always regarded as weak and obedient people who hardly have power to even disobey males or decide own fate. Chinese women have little power when they are communicating with males. This opinion is easy to be accepted since it’s believed that ‘Males have more power than females’ according to “Experiencing Intercultural Communication: A Introduction,” Fourth Edition by Martin, Nakayama in 2011(P.53). However, this is actually wrong thinking not only regarding recent China but also to ancient China. In fact, it’s very common for Chinese females to get many kinds of power as males. Females’ rights are always protected by laws or moral habit. For these reasons, when females communicate with males, there is little power distance between them in China. Because culture in East Asia is similar to each other such as China and Korea and Japan, I will also put forward some examples in Korea or Japan to prove my thesis.

It’s common for females to get as much power as males. In recent China, according to “Culture Shock! : A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette China” by Angie Eagan & Rebecca Weiner in 2011(P.69), ‘There is a lovely Chinese expression that says that women hold up half the sky’. This metaphor is quite good for it describes the truth correctly. Among people who I know, females usually are not only important money contributers to families but also money managers in families because many husbands must hand over their money to their wives. It’s not a social habit just appearing in recent years. In ancient China, wives had a nickname as ‘General Manager’(In Chinese it’s written as ‘掌柜’) which means wives are the economic manager of the whole family and the deep reason is that in ancient China silk or cotton textile made by females was always an important part of family income.

For these reasons, in traditional Chinese stories, we can often see a wife saying, ‘Think of how you will live without me!’ to her husband and even now we can also see such a communication situation. In such cases, most husbands will choose to be silent. The little economic power distance between males and females also leads to little power distance between males and females in communication situations.

Females’ rights are always protected by laws or habits. In recent years, it’s undoubted that there will be well-done law in East Asia countries which protects females’ rights. However, it’s hard to imagine that females’ rights are also protected well in ancient East Asia. As a matter of fact, in Ming Dynasty(1368-1644), according to the law, if a husband married two wives, he would be “exiled to places where is over 500 kilometers to his hometown” (In Chinese it’written as “流一千里”).

Females’ rights is also be of importance in Japan. According to Wuxuezuyuan (In Japanese it’s written as “無学祖元”)’s Buddhism education to females and views about females’ rebirths by Saku Wanatabe in 2011, “On the contrary of denying females’ rebirth in old times, Wuxuezuyuan admitted posibilities of females’ rebirth.” It means in Japanese monks’ points of view, females are equal to males. And according to one Japanese laws in Kamakura, (In Japanese it’s written as “鎌倉”) period (1189-1333) which named Joei Shikimoku (In Japanese it’s written as “貞永式目”), “When a wife divorces with her husband, if she make crimes, she shall not get her husband’s property. However, if she has no mistakes, her husband shall not regret to give her some of his property.” This law admits that husband’s property is not equal with wife’s property.  In addition, another law in this code was that “The right of inheritance of females is equal with males. Moreover, if one daughter doesn’t make serious crimes, parent cannot disinherit her. This law admits that rights of inheritance of daughters is equal with sons. These are both laws protecting females’ rights in property.

Females’ rights are also protected by moral habits. For example, widows and young girls are always regarded as people who need protection most especially widows, and people violating their rights usually will be punished promptly. It’s the same in Japan. For example, in an ancient Japanese historical book named Heika>(In Japanese it’s written as “平家物語”),there is a female samurai named Tomoe(In Japanese it’s written as “巴”). According to The Tales of Heika, “Tomoe was especially beautiful, with white skin, long hair, and charming features. She was also a remarkably strong archer, and as a swordswoman she was a warrior worth a thousand men.”(In Japanese it’s written as “巴は色白く髪長く、容顔まことに優れたり。強弓精兵、一人当千の兵者なり”). It’s not something imaginary. As a matter of fact, in ancient Japan, females usually received martial arts training because they were supposed to protect family with their husbands or brothers.

When females communicate with males, there is little power distance between them in China. For example, my father has told me some stories about his grandmother. When she talked with her husband, brothers, children or grandchildren, she was very serious and no on dared disobey her. It’s because she was the actual manager of a large family and she had her own property so she could influence the economics in the large family . In recent China, however, there are few large families now. However, females are still important managers in Chinese families. When my mother communicates with my father, she is at an equal situation to my father. And when my mother talks with other less powerful male family numbers such as her brother, he can only do nodding and saying yes. It’s the same situation among my classmates in China, a girl usually can control her boyfriend in communication well rather than always obey her boyfriend.

In conclusion, it’s very common for Chinese females to get many kinds of power as males and females’ rights are always protected by laws or moral habits. More importantly, it’s sure that there is little power distance between males and females in China. China is a lawful country not only in past but also in recent times. However, it doesn’t mean that China is a highly-hierachical society. Females communicate with males without any power distance is very common in China and East Asia.”

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