Posts tagged Silk Road

Ryan’s First Impressions of Kazakhstan (Part II)

Ryan’s story and his impressions of Kazakhstan lets me relax on posting on my blog. A vast, unchartered land that must be understood and taken seriously as a viable nation. Great history, amazing people, beautiful landscape, I guess Ryan likes the food too.  Read yesterday’s blog to find out what he is doing for “fun” this summer…

July 2, 2010

Have a seat and join me in one of the major stops of the Silk Road. This place and its people are beautiful and wonderful. This is a place of contradictions…a land that time forgot and yet today I was across the street from a place called Megacenter (it’s a very Western style mail). There are Mercedes Benzes next to Soviet era cars and buses. It’s fascinating as a lover of cultures.

Every person is a new story. The people here are extraordinarily nice to everyone but especially so to guests. One of many things I love about this place is that they’re not in a hurry…ever. It forces you (sometimes frustratingly) to stop and smell the tea. You must slow down here and if you’re lucky it will go from frustrating to very welcome. If you rush they still won’t so just slow down, come inside, take off your shoes (it’s required although when I came home last night I forgot and my little sis Nastya reminded me), and tell us about your day.

The Kazakh and Kazakhstanis just don’t rush anything but especially the developing and maintaining of relationships. That is above everything. There are no “hi how are you? I’m good” and that’s all conversations here. They want your story good, bad, or indifferent. They want the story of your day and if it was bad they want to know why not just that it was bad. This intentionality is amazingly refreshing because it’s expected. They want to know about me and in return they want to tell their stories. I love it. We could use a lot of that in the States. We really need to work on the slowing down and listening part. I have it down to a science because I have to force myself to talk at home because my Russian is so horrible. I listen two or three times more than I talk. I do talk though…a lot…they make me. It’s not like they’re forcing me but they must enjoy hearing their mother tongue butchered.

I love the fact that I’ve met so many foreigners here that aren’t Americans. I’ve met people from Australia, England, Holland, South Korea, Germany, and other places I probably don’t even remember now. It brings out the anthropologist and twenty questions nerd in me. Most of the Americans I’ve met and there are a fair number are great and I won’t lie it’s nice to let my ear rest because with everyone else and I mean EVERYONE else my ear and brain are working over time especially when I have to speak Russian.

Speaking of things that take time…meals…meals are an event here… snacks are event here…with all the trimmings. They bring everything out from meat to bread…salad…and whatever the main dish is. Tonight, it’s Monti (steamed big pelmeni, which are smaller meat dumplings). Oh, and the cheese and fruit or chocolate. My host parents wonder why I don’t eat much and I don’t compared to the locals. I’m trying to embrace the eat small and often approach that the other foreigners espouse but it’s so hard when they expect you to eat hearty all the time and they eat 4 or 5 times a day total. I only have so much room.

I’ve had horse…interesting…not bad a bit gamey but not bad. Also, the pelmeni, one of my favs…so good. Oh, and of course, the tea. Hot tea is the way to the heart of every person in Kazakhstan. They drink it like…and more than water. They are in love with their tea and they must have it. Most time spent with each other talking is over tea. I usually have three cups before lunch. I’m coming to share their addiction. Although some of them like coffee too. Maybe you’ll drink it with me, yeah?

So yesterday Cindy, my British physical therapist friend that I work with, gave me a challenge. I had to buy bread and come to a local park without Seryozha’s (my host dad)’s help. Sergei and Lena own a car (which is something you see plenty of but considering the number of people not so much. Also, cars are used as private taxis more on that in a sec) it’s a Honda which I love and because I had no idea what I was doing Seryozha has been chauffeuring me but not wanting to tread on his kindness and needing to learn I took my map and set out to tackle the bus system here in Shymkent.

I got instructions about the bus to the park (only one bus so it was relatively easy but I had to make sure to get off at the right place). I did it though. I bought the bread and made it to the park. I spent the day talking with Cindy and Elizabeth and after a sandwich lunch about my life and we made a ppt presentation out of the pics I brought for a talk I’m giving tomorrow to the kids moms.

(to be continued)

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“Why We Teach Overseas” (Part IV)

This story about a ring of Russian spies being caught by FBI is a strange kerfuffle in my estimation. It may be a news media set-up to distract us from where the REAL news stories are happening.  I watched the Wall Street Journal videotaping of the Anna Chapman (not her real Russian name, of course).  She had no substance, didn’t talk like an entrepreneur and I think the WSJ interviewer knew it.  Simply political posturing by those in high places and Anna is being used, her interview was a joke! It must be heady business to get the news media to take a byte out of that whopper.

The following are my last reasons why my husband and I live and work in Astana, Kazakhstan. Look back several days ago and you will see other reasons “why we teach overseas.”

6. I have many years teaching both at home in the U.S. and abroad. I can detect a problem in the classroom that can be remedied quickly.  For instance, when I taught in Kyiv, Ukraine I had 40 students bunched together in a big classroom.  I found that the black leather jacket guys who were enamored by their cell phones and did not care about what I was teaching, were disruptive and rude.  This disrespectful attitude became a terrible distraction for me and the rest of the class who wanted to learn what I had to teach them.

After putting up with this behavior for several weeks, I finally determined to purge 10 of them from my class of good, hard working students and create a new class for them, meeting at a different time.  The dynamics of the class changed drastically once these “characters” were separated out.  It also served notice to the other Ukrainian students who might have considered being absent to show up for my class or else they would be put in the remedial class.

7. I know the Kazakh educational system has many huge obstacles. This reminds me of the Kazakh saying, “Getting an education is like digging a well with a needle.” One problem that impacts the whole country is to require all Kazakh students to be taught tri-lingually (Russian, Kazakh and English) in the elementary and secondary schools.  The pressure is keenly felt by the Kazakhs to realize their own identity after having it suppressed for so long.  Many middle- aged Kazakhs feel they are “shala” Kazakhs because they do not know their own language or even their old customs; they are Kazakh in ethnicity only.

Second, undoubtedly China does pose a threat to Kazakhstan.  This Asian country just east of them is burgeoning with people, and Kazakhstan would appear to the Chinese like an empty, unoccupied land of only 16 million people.  Of course, learning a fourth language, such as Chinese, would be out of the question.  The Kazakhs have gained their independence and they will do what they can to maintain that.  However, the Kazakhs have a proverb they like to quote attributed to their highly revered, wise man, Abay.  Abay highly recommended learning seven languages. “Try to master seven languages and know seven sciences.”

Perhaps because Kazakhstan is close to the Silk Road, knowing many languages was considered good for bargaining power and knowing seven sciences fits with the goals of the new university in Astana. However, Kazakhstan is on a mission and that is one to succeed.  I want to be here in Astana, working with the future of this country. That future sits in the desks of every classroom throughout Kazakhstan and is in the minds of the bright young Kazakh students. They want to work hard to build up their country to be recognized by the rest of the world.  My husband and I are here in Astana to help in whatever way we can to facilitate the new university to reach these achievable goals to educate Kazakhstan’s future.

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Kazakh Proverbs about Friendship (Dostyk)

The following Kazakh proverbs were found and have been documented by my Minnesota friend Erik, whom I mentioned in yesterday’s blog. He is doing his Ph.D. dissertation on this topic and more specifically on Kazakh proverbs having to do with shame and honor. The word for friendship in both Kazakh and Kyrgyz is “Dostyk.” That may explain why main streets or hotels in both Almaty and Bishkek go by that name. Both nationalities are friendly and welcoming people.

I like the following proverbs because they are easy to figure out. The others that Erik discovered, after learning the Kazakh language and living in Kazakh for over a decade, need a bit more explanation.

Gentleness is not smallness, but humanness.

The sign of humanity is to bow when greeting; the sign of true friendship is punctuality. (As a teacher, I LOVE this one about punctuality!!!)

The Road separates road-mates. (Perhaps this could be in reference to the Silk Road when friends must part)

When you go through hard times, the friend comes along side you.

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Silk Road Curiosity and Jetlagged Thoughts

I recently read this story which applies to curiosity in education.  Especially applicable to Kazakhstan where the Silk Road once was a highway to many sojourners passing from East to West or back again.  I believe we need more curious students and teachers alike at our institution of higher learning at the start of this spring semester. 


A professor had two assistant students who both did the same job.  However, the professor paid one of them 2 dollars but the other only 1 dollar.  One day the student who got less went to the professor to register his complaint. “Why do I get less money even though we both do the same task?”  The professor said, “Okay, if you want to know, I will prove why you get less pay.  There are foreigners camping out in the countryside, find out who they are?”  The student found them and returned to the professor telling him they were traders.  Then the professor asked the student what kind of goods they traded.  Obviously the student had not asked, so he returned to ask the foreigners what they were trading.  After his return, the professor called the other student who was paid more and gave him the same assignment as the first student.  When the second student returned he immediately told his professor that the foreigners were traders from Spain, selling such kind of goods for such and such a price.  Then the professor addressed the first student with, “Is it clear now why I pay the other student more than you?”


As a foreign writing teacher in Kazakhstan, I am not here to trade anything but to impart what I have learned and know from my own western educational experience. I teach, in fact, at a supposedly “westernized” university where all classes are conducted in English. I realize that I am in a Central Asian country that is of a highly oral tradition but also shame-based.  So, to ask of my Kazakh students to be curious about the things of the West, I need to lead by example and that means I am very inquisitive about their Kazakh culture and its history.  I want to know more about why Kazakhstan is the way it is, especially after 70 years of Soviet rule.


Or better put, why is Kazakhstan, the great and mysterious land that it is, such a well kept secret?  I believe there are a number of reasonable answers but it gets back to the Kazakhs knowing who they are as speakers but not as writers.  The Kazakh people are not to be shamed to think less of themselves but we as westerners need to find out through the written word (in English and other languages) who these Kazakhs are because they are foreign to the rest of the world.  Hopefully I am like the student who is paid more (not in reality) because I ask more questions and try to elicit answers from my students who are my “informants” about their country.


I was surprised to read in Greg Mortenson’s book “Three Cups of Tea” something that might shed light on oral traditions versus written literature:  “…Muslims consider humans’ holiest feature, the mouth, from which prayers ascend directly to Allah’s ears.”  Well, for Christians, we believe that the tongue can do much destruction.


Those are my jetlagged thoughts as I’m going into my third week of being outside my timezones, with returning to Kazakhstan after less than two weeks home in the U.S.  I am wondering if Oswald Chambers knew something about jetlag.  He sure seems to relate well to what I’ve been feeling lately as I prepare for my first of many classes today.


“O Lord, You are the God of the early mornings, the God of the late nights, the God of the mountain peaks, and the God of the sea.  But, my God, my soul has horizons further away than those of early mornings, deeper darkness than the nights of earth, higher peaks than any mountain peaks, greater depths than any sea in nature.  You who are the God of all these, be my God.  I cannot reach to the heights or to the depths; there are motives I cannot discover, dreams I cannot realize.  My God, search me.”  Oswald Chamber’s paraphrase of Ps. 139

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“Turn-of-phrases” – Part II

Here is a continuation of Colin Thubron’s book “The Lost Heart of Asia.”  He certainly knows how to turn a phrase.


“Slowly, as we laboured east, the land heaved itself out of its sleep, tossing shallow ridges at the horizon.  Sun and wind had stripped all life from it.  We went through old Silk Road towns, leveled by Mongol invasion.  They had revived into a polluted industrial life: the bungaloid cotton centre of Chimkent, the grimy chemical plants of Dzhamboul.  Then evening came down with its gentleness over enormous wheat-fields, more like feats of nature than of men, and the westernmost ranges of the Tienshan reared from the skyline in cloudy snows and downland green with woods.” (p. 320)


“Yet from my balcony in Almaty there was no sign that I was in a city at all. I looked across parklands where the spires of a cathedral hoisted gold crosses against the mountains.  Its people numbered over a million – more than half of them Russian – but its grid of streets, mounting southward to the Tienshan foothills, ran half-empty through hosts of oaks and poplars.  Sometimes, so dense were these trees, I imagined I was walking along tarmac tracks through a forest.  Behind them the chunky Russian offices and flat-blocks spread anonymous for mile after mile.  The air blew up sharp and pure from the mountains.  It was like a suburb to a heart that was missing.


It was the Russians, of course, who had raised and nourished it.  All its institutes and monuments were theirs, from the fountained boulevard of Gorky Street (now renamed Silk Road Street) to the soulless hotels and war memorials.  But now the city belonged to nobody.  Communism, Marx and Lenin streets might be renamed after spectral khans who had ruled the steppes a century or two ago, and ministry facades be veneered with pseudo-Turkic motifs; but the Kazakh culture had no true urban expression.  Less than three generations ago virtually the whole nation was split into a haze of migratory villages.  Its early rulers were lost, most of them, even to saga; and its modern heroes had been selected by Soviet propaganda – secular poets and thinkers, whose statues adorned the boulevards unloved.  For decades the Kazakhs had been a minority in their own country.  And now this alien city had floated into their hands.  They were curiously unencumbered, even by Islam: a tabula rasa for the future to write upon. (p. 232)


“The Kazakhs seemed doomed to mimic their conquerors.  For days you might hunt here in vain for native artifacts.  Even the city’s origins were Russian, founded in 1853 as the wood-built garrison-town of Verny.  Squashed among stucco and concrete, a few timber survivors, carved with gables and filigreed eaves, evoked a homely, unceremonious place, like a frontier village. Even the gingerbread cathedral, tossing up spires and domes scaled like fantastical fish, inhabited its parkland with a florid innocence, as if a child were celebrating God…” (p. 327)


“Bards were the keepers of Kazakh culture.  They sang heroic sagas yet gave voice to common feelings.  Their music pervaded all events – the leaving and return to war or pasture – and conveyed an ancient morality.  But their mantle had fallen on nobody.  Music and literature paled under Soviet censorship, and I wondered – now that independence had dawned – what had become of the Kazakh drama, once the purveyor of Socialist Realism?” (p. 328)

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