Archive for October, 2013

Twenty-seven questions and first impressions of Kyrgyzstan (Part II)

This blog continues from the other day where I was asked 27 questions in May of 1994 and I only got up to eight questions with their subsequent answers. My Mom was going through old letters and she had printed out my e-mail that I had sent so it is fun to see what my first impressions were after having lived in Central Asia for almost a year. I had done a Peace Corps training stint in Almaty, Kazakhstan the summer before and was on a Fulbright grant the following academic year in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I was teaching at KAF (Kyrgyzstan Academic Faculty) which turned into another name that exists today.

Here are the following questions in bold asked by my friend Tanya with answers that may still be relevant today:

9) What kind of folk arts can you find? There are LOTS of wall hangings with the peculiar traditional designs of nature woven into them. They are sometimes done on felt or other brightly colored cloth. The carpets are almost always red while the wall hangings will be green and red or gold. The designs of nature are a kind of abstract leaf or bulls horns, mountains, etc.

10) Is there any carpet making or weaving? Yes, I have a carpet that has ALL the colors you can imagine in it and it has the leaf and horns motif throughout. This may be done with weaving felt together. I have also seen other handmade wool carpets but I have not seen much weaving that would be done on looms. These are a nomadic people who worked on carpets or wallhangings for their yurts (collapsable tents).

11) Do you see much needlework in Bishkek? Not the kind of needlework you are probably thinking about that the Hmong do. It is a different kind of needlework which is obviously hand done but it is more like threads of gold brocade on top of different patterns or designs of felt material underneath.

12) Can you tell me more about the courses you’re teaching? Last semester I taught Phonetics which I enjoyed thoroughly and Business English which the students seemed to enjoy thoroughly. They liked what I had to say in phonetics since it was all new to them, old to me since I used a lot of stuff from teaching ITAs [International Teaching Assistants back at the U of M, Minneapolis campus]. The students seem to be geared on business since they know that is their ticket to getting to the States and ultimately helping their country get ahead. Right now I am teaching Reading Lab which is a LOT of work for me and the students seem to be working hard at it too. Reading my home assignments and then answering comprehension questions when they come to class. I also give them periodic vocabulary quizzes based on the vocabulary words I have pulled from their readings. They also are doing extra credit reading by reading Longman classics and then writing reports on that.

13) How much English background do your students have? Near zero to university level. That is what makes my reading lab so difficult is that I have four different levels that I’m preparing for with about two or three different levels in each of the four classes. Arghh! Their background is from the privileged class of Kyrgyzstan so many have been abroad before with exposure to different languages and have been taught at the specialized English schools. We have a wide range with the 38 students we are teaching.

14) How many hours a week do you teach? Ten hours but that means an hour and 20 minutes of contact time but it is counted as two “academic” hours. I have five lesson preps because I teach the secretaries and teachers pronunciation for two of the other that I teach besides the four Reading Lab classes.

15) How much time do you need to prepare your classes? If I told you the number of hours that it took to read the different books, photocopy the ones that are appropriate for the different levels, cut out the extra to consolidate on less paper, photocopy for each class, come up with comprehension qustions, read through again for vocabulary words that might trip up the students, think of vocabulary quizzes, grade the comprehension questions, read the extra credit reading reports…it would prove that I didn’t love my job.  I have NO idea how many hours I spend in front of my computer thinking up exercises but since I enjoy stimulating the students to work, I count it as a joy.

16) Is the level of the university there comparable to an American university?  It is supposed to be, because at the end of their four years they are supposed to get a diploma from the University of Nebraska. However, about half of our students are not cutting it and it is more like teaching at the Minnesota English Center.  It is pre-university and maybe only about 15 of our students would be able to handle the course load of a real university in the States.

17) Do any of the faculty there have a background in EFL or Linguistics? Yes, one of the American teachers has an MA from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. The other American teacher is from Brattleboro with an MA from there. The other American teachers have undergraduate degrees with some experience in ESL. No, noone here has a strong background in linguistics which is sorely needed and wanted.  We can always rely on our Kyrgyz teaching counterparts to teach grammar which all of us Americans have a general dispassion for where they have a certain euphoria in drilling the students in grammar. Must be because Russian is so grammar-bound that they have such a zeal.

18) Or do they come from a literature background?  Not sure how to answer that. The Russian influence has brought a certain highbrow attitutde toward scholarly works especially by great Russians. Our school’s approach to learning has been of the humanities where our students are learning Latin their first year. Strange for a business school but we have a real mixed bag of things going on at our school which is a result of changing administrations, etc.

19) Is there any sort of speciality they might be looking for in future Fulbright candidates?  YES, EMPHASIS IN EFL/ESL WITH LINGUISTICS!!!

(to be continued)

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Twenty-seven questions and first impressions of Kyrgyzstan

I had written an update from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on May 8, 1994 to my colleagues and friends who were teachers back at the University of Minnesota English Center in Minneapolis. I will type out the questions asked by my American friend Tanya in bold and my answer follows:
1) Does virtually everyone speak Russian? Yes, everyone in the capital
2) Or do some people only speak Kyrgyz? People in the outlying areas perhaps ONLY speak Kyrgyz. We met a gentleman who spoke Russian poorly because of a strong Kyrgyz accent, this was only about a half hour outside of Bishkek [the capital of Kyrgyzstan]. My experience revolves around the capital so I may not be able to answer exactly.
3) What language do the people use in the markets, banks, schools, etc? They use Russian as the language of trade but the banks are trying to upgrade to English and the schools are teahcing both English and Kyrgyz. The markets is where you hear Russian and it is funny that some of the older vendors will sell things for “one rouble” they have not been able to change to mouthing the words for the new currency of “som.” There have been many changes and the issue of languages keeps the people in a constant staet of flux.
4) Does the younger generation speak any Kyrgyz? Yes, it is in vogue now to know Kyrgyz and very helpful if there is a grandmotehr at home who speaks it around the house. It is to these students’ advantage to be Kyrgyz in the first place and to have a working knowledge of it. The Russian students have a disadvantage now and have to work extra hard to learn it in order to be politically correct.

5) Or have they let go of past traditions?  If you mean other than language, then I think the “traditions” you mean is their faith, their dances, their songs, etc.  Many of the people in Bishkek who are ethnically Kyrgyz will say they are Muslim but do not practice any of the traditions known to be Muslim. They may have funerals or weddings in that tradition but a watered down version.

6) Do people listen to a lot of European and American music?  Yes, I have recognized quite a few American songs here.  Whitney Houston is a big name as are others but since I am not up on who is who in the music world, they seem to be better informed of the latest stars and hits.  As far as European music I know even less but my guess is that they like American music.

7) Or is the local ethnic folk music still appreciated?  I have a Canadian friend who has made it his life ambition to study the three strong instrument named Kosmus (?). He has been studying under ofe of Kyrgyzstan’s better known musicians, and his repertoire is up to three songs now.  He travels in the folk music circles and can tell you a lot more about how well it is appreciated.  I think it is by the older generation. As mentioned before the students I have, seem to liek English songs but then I work with some of the most privileged students in Krygyzstan who have money to buy the latest.

8 ) Can you still find folk dancing?  Yes, I have been to several concerts at their concert hall that shows very vibrant, colorful costumes and beautiful dancing.  A lot of what they show is the glamorized version of country life, riding horses, harvesting, courting practices, etc. One concert that I attended the dancers must have changed into 20 different costumes.  It was wonderful with the Kyrgyz instruments playing the background.  It is not an unpleasant sound like what you find in China with Peking Opera where the clanging and gonging is still ringing in your ears hours later.

(to be continued)

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Chapters in the new book “Drinking Camel’s Milk in the Yurt”

Drinking Camel's Milk coverI finished reading the new book “Drinking Camel’s Milk in the Yurt.” I found it fascinating that this little book has so many good themes to keep it together, but that is what Kazakhstan is all about. A huge, expansive country with intricately woven topics of human drama throughout, from Almaty to Astana to Atyrau.

One of my favorites to read was the very first chapter titled “First Snow” by Jacyntha England, it was the only one that made me cry. The generosity of the Kazakhs and their kindnesses that are so unexpected at times is what makes this huge country so enigmatic. There were a few other Kazakhs that were too shrewd for their own good, in other words, they were NOT kind.

Yes, I also liked the chapter titled “Dromophobia” about the gypsy cabs. I took this form of transportation all the time when I lived in not only Kazakhstan but also in Kyiv, Ukraine. It was like sneaking in hitchhiking which we would NEVER do these days in the U.S. Taking cab rides from total strangers was the natural way to go, very efficient rather than using the city bus system. Admittedly, I had seen noticeable improvements in bus transport over the years in Kazakhstan since when I first arrived in 1993 compared to 2010. Still, either walking or hailing cabs was the way to navigate in the big cities of Almaty and Astana.

The one final chapter titled “The Long Horse Ride” by two people was also a favorite for me and I read a part of it to two of my classes today. The reason was I have many equine science students and they could easily relate to how these two horse riders traversed the Kazakhstan deserts to reach a goal, a personal goal. During their long ride, they went to Aralsk and saw the dried up Aral sea. Also, they came close to Baikonur, the space station where Uri Gagarin had shot up as a cosmonaut 50 years before their arrival. They experienced the kindnesses of the Kazakh nomad and the loneliness of the open spaces, being protected from howling wolves and offered camel’s milk for nourishment.

I don’t have the book in front of me because I lent it to my mom to read. In any case, I liked the chapter about the American woman who went to Kazakhstan to adopt children or at least helped with those children who were in orphanages. That was touching also.

I sent an extra copy of the new book about Kazakhstan to my Minnesota friend Kim living out in California. She enjoyed reading the chapter about our conversation on the top of Kok Tobe. She claimed I wrote down accurately what we had discussed those several hours spent up on the “Blue Ceiling” of Almaty back in June of 2008. Of course, it helped that I went directly home and blogged about our talk soon afterwards. Actually, I wished I had taken more notes while up on Kok Tobe during our picnic lunch because we talked a LOT more about different things concerning Kazakhstan and their illustrious people than what I actually documented.

Lesson I learned from that experience is to carry a notepad with you at ALL times. You never know when a well-informed interview might take place that will eventually find its way into a print edition of a future book. I had no idea that THAT particular noon day picnic what we talked on would become a chapter with other informative chapters in the book “Drinking Camel’s Milk in the Yurt.” Check it out on Amazon.com yourself, especially if you are interested in other cultures, especially this little known, tucked away one in the middle of Central Asia. May there be many more books such as these for future inquisitive souls.

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