Posts tagged Soviet Union

What about Winston Churchill?

young ChurchillI have long admired the vision of Churchill for what he saw and knew about the former Soviet Union and Stalin.  He saw through the veneer that was presented during World War II and I am sad that more people didn’t pay attention to what he knew.  The media force from the area of Russia was doing a full court press to make sure that the unsuspecting didn’t believe the anecdotes that were coming out of Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union.  The Australians have long known the truths of what REALLY happened once WWII was over, other generals and those in combat with the Allied forces knew what was happening when the Soviet Union wanted to take credit for ending the war against the Nazis.  Pity those people who were in the Russian quarters of Berlin because they were either sent back to their country, killed or exiled to Siberia.  Churchill some how knew but perhaps his hands were tied along with others.  The truth came out in reports by Malcolm Muggeridge and other reporters who started paying attention to those people who tried to get the message out about what was going on when things settled down.

That is why I think we need to look closely at what Winston Churchill said 116 years ago about something else he knew something about.  That is perhaps why our U.S.president who gave his usual State of the Union address the other night gave back the bust of Winston Churchill to U.K. when he first moved into the Oval Office.  He obviously didn’t like what Churchill stood for because of his own thorough-going beliefs.  What do you think?  This was penned by a young, but already wise beyond his years, Churchill.

The attached short speech from Winston Churchill, was delivered by him in 1899 when he was a young soldier and journalist. It probably sets out the current views of many, but expresses in the wonderful Churchillian turn of phrase and use of the English language, of which he was a past master.
Sir Winston Churchill was, without doubt, one of the greatest men of the late 19th and 20th centuries. He was a brave young soldier, a brilliant journalist, an extraordinary politician and statesman, a great war leader and British Prime Minister, to whom the Western world must be forever in his debt. He was a prophet in his own time. He died on 24th January 1965 , at the grand old age of 90 and, after a lifetime of service to his country, was accorded a State funeral. HERE IS THE SPEECH:
“How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries, improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement, the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual Muslims may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralyzes the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa , raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome .”
Sir Winston Churchill; (Source: The River War, first edition, Vol II, pages 248-250 London ).

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More info about Astana’s university, THEE university

The following article dated June 20, 2014 and titled “Can a homegrown university in authoritarian Kazakhstan incubate reform?” was given to me by an American friend who used to teach with me in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Of course, as westerners have all been looking at how NU in Astana has affected the enrollment of students at the “prestigious” and world class university in Almaty. Maybe things are NOT as wonderful as they seem, especially if you read this article written by Joshua Kucera. (Please consider the source and what their motives are) http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/6/20/kazakhstan-s-audaciousnazarbayevuniversity.html
The first part reads the following:

With its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan inherited a university system in which corruption was ubiquitous and the curriculum focused on memorization rather than critical thinking. Its first solution was to use the country’s growing oil and gas revenues to pay for promising students to study abroad, particularly in the United States, after which they were required to return to work in Kazakhstan. The program, called Bolashak (“future” in Kazakh), has given scholarships to 10,000 students, who now form the core of the country’s young elite.

But Nazarbayev wanted a homegrown university where students would be educated in a Kazakh environment. Rather than attracting an American university to open a local branch (as New York University has done in the United Arab Emirates and Yale in Singapore), Kazakhstan decided to enlist foreign partners in setting up the school but to make it a Kazakhstan-owned enterprise.

The university “will become a national brand of Kazakhstan that will combine the advantages of the national education system and the best of international research and education practice,” Nazarbayev said at the school’s 2010 opening ceremony at the campus on the outskirts of the capital, Astana.

The president is fully aware that this is a much more expensive proposition than continuing the Bolashak program,” de Tray says. “But he also understood that he didn’t want students that were clones of Western institutions. He wanted Kazakhs who could compete in a global world.”

Built around a vast atrium featuring marble floors, palm trees, fountains and a massive flag of Kazakhstan, the school admitted its first students in the fall of 2010. One of its first challenges was operating a competitive admissions process in a country rife with nepotism and corruption. “There was a lot of pressure, especially on my Kazakh colleagues, but I also had to explain why their sons or daughters couldn’t get in,” says Shigeo Katsu, the university’s president, in an interview in his office, where two portraits of Nazarbayev hang.

The school will graduate its first class of roughly 420 undergraduates in the spring of 2015. There are three schools for undergraduates — engineering, science and technology, and humanities and social sciences — and graduate programs in business, education and public policy, with plans for schools of mining and medicine. Asked what the school’s budget is, Katsu declined to comment, saying, “It’s a sensitive topic.”

(to be continued)

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Play up strengths, tone down the criticism…check!

The following is what I wrote to my coordinators after I had refreshed myself on how to send a more encouraging feedback letter to young high school students. I admitted the error of my ways. But hopefully they will heed that our own scoring rubrics encourage us as raters to tell the students what we see in order for them to improve in their essay writing. I have not heard a response from my coordinators since I wrote to them. Hopefully this missive hit the mark.

I guess I have taken so much tough critiques from my husband and a newspaper editor friend of mine about my second book coming out in June, that I had forgotten my role as a reader and rater of fragile 11th grade students. I do not know what these teenagers are going through with cliques, bullying and feeling rejection perhaps in their own family. The teacher sees them day in and day out, we don’t.

I see after reading the website how I need to FIRST give the strengths of the essay, I have been remiss in this. Then provide some of the challenges (which I amply dole out) and then give helpful feedback about “strategies for improvement.”

I guess I’m so eager to get help from my own readers about my writing and change things as quick as they give them to me, that I forget that some young writers (and young teachers) are not willing to receive what may be perceived as insensitive and cruel feedback. I will say that words matter and from my own life experience overseas, “Ideas REALLY matter.” Ideologies have killed more people in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere where I have lived. Enough said.

Indeed, “Stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” may be true in MY case. Words alone do not hurt unless the malicious intent is to harm people’s reputations. My pursuit in history and in global issues stems from my quest in learning more, being curious about my environment. According to the scoring rubric “Ideas” for a college ready writer should be “original and clear and generate and convey fresh ideas and avoid dull and obvious observations.” Slavery was bad 200 years ago and in the deep South, we all acknowledge that. Even so, prejudice continues today. We fought a terrible “civil” war over that issue, I have Norwegian ancestors who fought for the African Americans’ freedoms because they themselves believed in freedom so much! They came of their own volition to the “New Land” for greater opportunity.

According to the “Organization” of an essay that is college ready, the “structure and framework which the ideas are arranged should be smoothly and logically arranged…so that readers don’t get lost or confused.” Logic is very important, hopefully we have not lost that with our current educational system. I would hope that teachers would explain better about Argument essays having a claim and then counterclaim, pro and con. Argument essays should not be a slam dunk of just one side and I am seeing that in some of the essays that are submitted. From now on I will write you to have them changed to “Explain and Inform” if I see that happen again where the essay does not fit the criteria for “Argument.”

Definitely you will see an adjustment in my feedback letters as I will be using the scoring rubric more and inserting comments there when necessary.

Yes, a teachable moment for us all.

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North Dakota Joke about Wireless and Ongoing Surveillance

Surveillance is important but not the kind that we have been served up lately, it has gone on for decades but not on Regular Joe Citizen of the U.S. Now we can ALL be treated as suspects if we said the wrong thing from 20-30 years ago. Thanks to Edward Snowden for having a conscience about all the power he had as a techie. Now he is back in hiding after his 12 minute video-taped interview from Hong Kong. I watched it and thought he was quite articulate.  The liberal press would paint him as some kind of high school dropout who became a grunt in the Army.  Pretty miraculous to be a low-info kind of guy and to have that much knowledge about computers and access into that many people’s lives. People will long question whether what he did was right or wrong to be a whistleblower.

Granted, Snowden is toast, now that he has been identified.  However, his biggest fear is that nobody will do anything about the intrusive surveillance to keep our government accountable for all the access and privilege they have for what we do from phone calls to texting to what we put up on the Internet. I DO care about what information is held on me because I know what they did to people in the former Soviet Union.  I know what the leader of “the” Russia would like to do to some people who don’t agree with him. I know what they did to millions of people who lived in Ukraine 70-80 years ago who didn’t tow the communist party line.

We watched the movie “The Internship” this past weekend and it was funny in a few places.  It showed how people my age or younger are feeling like dinosaurs if they didn’t get in on the computer technology wave.  Also, it shows that students at age 21 are cynical about their future and do not live the American Dream.  They have high tuition debts to pay back but no jobs to speak of. They may be tech savvy but not much on people skills and not many experiences outside of their virtual world.  It was a sad commentary on both generations. The funniest line in the movie was when Vince Vaughn was trying to explain the concept of Instagram to these geeky teammates of his at Google. He kept saying, “On the line” when he really mean “online.”  The kids patiently listened to him telling him that it had already been thought of before.  He enthusiastically blathered on with “on the line.”  The part with the strip tease bar scene was bad which made PG-13 rating embarrassing.  I think they can’t be believed anymore.

Well, I promised a joke so I’ll end my blog on this funny note.  More a joke on North Dakota but just the same, one that needs to be preserved.

“After having dug to a depth of 10 meters last year, Scottish scientists found traces of copper wire dating back 100 years and came to the conclusion that their ancestors already had a telephone network more than 100 years ago.  Not to be outdone by the Scots, in the weeks that followed, British scientists dug to a depth of 20 meters, and shortly after, headline in the UK newspapers read: “British concluded that their ancestor already had an advanced high-tech communications network a hundred years earlier than the Scots.”  One week later, “The Nordic Klub,” a Minot, North Dakota newsletter reported the following: “After digging as deep as 30 meters in corn fields near Velva, ND, Ole Johnson, a self taught archeologist, reported that he found absolutely nothing.  Ole has therefore concluded that 300 years ago North Dakota had already gone wireless.”

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Two links about Siberia and the former Soviet Union

Sometimes I discover the most amazing stories from my FB friends who are currently living in a country of the former Soviet Union or are back home after surviving living in the former USSR.  Check out this YouTube clip that shows real footage of Lenin and has interesting graphics. It definitely has a point.

Definitely on a roll with the supposed resurgence of the Soviet Union.  Also, check out what a family of Old Believers went through living in hiding in the bowels of Siberia, 40 years away from contact from the Soviet Union. Amazing  and sad story of their endurance against all odds. This is from the Smithsonian website:

I have another funny one done by Ben Kling called Dictator Valentines which also include Trotsky and Marx. They are funny but this will have to do for now. Look them up yourself.

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Gun Control Gone Hay Wire Around the World

Make sure you REALLY look at the photo below.  Based on the interviews I have done about the Soviet Union with older Ukrainians and the stories I have received from my students in Kazakhstan, the following rings true.  If there is “gun control” put in place in the U.S., the crazies and evil people will still find guns to use against innocent people. With no guns, they will not be able to defend themselves.  Interesting facts to consider:

In 1929, the Soviet Union established gun control. >From 1929 to 1953, about 20 million dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated

In 1911, Turkey established gun control. From 1915 to 1917, 1.5 million Armenians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

Germany established gun control in 1938 and from 1939 to 1945, a total of 13 million Jews and others who were unable to defend themselves were rounded up and exterminated.
China established gun control in 1935. From 1948 to 1952, 20 million political dissidents, unable to defend themselves were rounded up and exterminated.
Guatemala established gun control in 1964. From 1964 to 1981, 100,000 Mayan Indians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
Uganda established gun control in 1970. From 1971 to 1979, 300,000 Christians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
Cambodia established gun control in 1956. From 1975 to 1977, one million educated people, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.
Defenseless people rounded up and exterminated in the 20th Century because of gun control: 56 million.
You won’t see this data on the US evening news, or hear politicians disseminating this information.
Guns in the hands of honest citizens save lives and property and, yes, gun-control laws adversely affect only the law-abiding citizens.
Take note my fellow Americans, before it’s too late!
The next time someone talks in favor of gun control, please remind them of this history lesson.
With guns, we are ‘citizens’. Without them, we are ‘subjects’.
During WWII the Japanese decided not to invade America because they knew most Americans were ARMED!
If you value your freedom, please spread this antigun-control message to all of your friends.
SWITZERLAND ISSUES EVERY HOUSEHOLD A GUN!
SWITZERLAND’S GOVERNMENT TRAINS EVERY ADULT THEY ISSUE A RIFLE.
SWITZERLAND HAS THE LOWEST GUN RELATED CRIME RATE OF ANY CIVILIZED COUNTRY IN THE WORLD!!!
IT’S A NO BRAINER!
DON’T LET OUR GOVERNMENT WASTE MILLIONS OF OUR TAX DOLLARS IN AN EFFORT TO MAKE ALL LAW ABIDING CITIZENS AN EASY TARGET.
Spread the word everywhere you can that you are a firm believer in the 2nd Amendment!It’s time to speak loud before they try to silence and disarm us.
You’re not imagining it, history shows that governments always manipulate tragedies to attempt to disarm the people~
Photo: A LITTLE GUN HISTORY<br /><br /> In 1929, the Soviet Union established gun control. >From 1929 to 1953, about 20 million dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated<br /><br /> In 1911, Turkey established gun control. From 1915 to 1917, 1.5 million Armenians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.<br /><br /> Germany established gun control in 1938 and from 1939 to 1945, a total of 13 million Jews and others who were unable to defend themselves were rounded up and exterminated.<br /><br /> China established gun control in 1935. From 1948 to 1952, 20 million political dissidents, unable to defend themselves were rounded up and exterminated<br /><br /> Guatemala established gun control in 1964. From 1964 to 1981, 100,000 Mayan Indians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.<br /><br /> Uganda established gun control in 1970. From 1971 to 1979, 300,000 Christians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.<br /><br /> Cambodia established gun control in 1956. From 1975 to 1977, one million educated people, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.<br /><br /> Defenseless people rounded up and exterminated in the 20th Century because of gun control: 56 million.<br /><br /> You won't see this data on the US evening news, or hear politicians disseminating this information.<br /><br /> Guns in the hands of honest citizens save lives and property and, yes, gun-control laws adversely affect only the law-abiding citizens.<br /><br /> Take note my fellow Americans, before it's too late!<br /><br /> The next time someone talks in favor of gun control, please remind them of this history lesson.<br /><br /> With guns, we are 'citizens'. Without them, we are 'subjects'.<br /><br /> During WWII the Japanese decided not to invade America because they knew most Americans were ARMED!<br /><br /> If you value your freedom, please spread this antigun-control message to all of your friends.<br /><br /> SWITZERLAND ISSUES EVERY HOUSEHOLD A GUN!<br /><br /> SWITZERLAND'S GOVERNMENT TRAINS EVERY ADULT THEY ISSUE A RIFLE.<br /><br /> SWITZERLAND HAS THE LOWEST GUN RELATED CRIME RATE OF ANY CIVILIZED COUNTRY IN THE WORLD!!!<br /><br /> IT'S A NO BRAINER!<br /><br /> DON'T LET OUR GOVERNMENT WASTE MILLIONS OF OUR TAX DOLLARS IN AN EFFORT TO MAKE ALL LAW ABIDING CITIZENS AN EASY TARGET.<br /><br /> Spread the word everywhere you can that you are a firm believer in the 2nd Amendment!</p><br /> <p>It's time to speak loud before they try to silence and disarm us.<br /><br /> You're not imagining it, history shows that governments always manipulate tragedies to attempt to disarm the people~

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My Fall of 1993 Reflections of Kyrgyzstan

Nineteen years ago, on September 21, 1993, I wrote a letter to family and friends about my upcoming return to Central Asia.  I’m combining this with another letter I sent out on November 2nd of that same year.  Things seemed to have been moving quickly for me and it was good to stand in place for an instant to jot my experiences down for later perusal.

“On Sunday, Sept. 26th at 2:35 p.m. I will be boarding a Delta plane to go back to Central Asia. I have more than enjoyed the past month of staying in Minnesota with family and friends.  For the past four months working in Kazakhstan for Peace Corps, life was just plain hard work.

My university in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan wanted me to be teaching at the start of school on September 15th. Due to a mix up of communication, I am arriving on October 1 instead.  Thus, I am already starting on the wrong foot with the dean of the school.  Something needs to turn this situation around since this woman, Camilla, is known to steamroll over people.  To cross her is not a good idea. I have learned only too late, I am looking at ten months of working with her.

I know what I am getting myself into as I prepare to leave and there is both a feeling of dread and excitement.  I look forward to getting to know the Kyrgyz people more as I will be teaching phonetics and listening comprehension at the Kyrgyz State University. Fortunately, I will not be alone but teaching with another American Fulbright Scholar from Rutgers, New Jersey. She is only in Bishkek for three months.  She arrived two weeks ahead of her schedule to accommodate the university’s needs of having foreigners there in place.  I am not sure if we will be sharing living quarters or not.

From the little bit of exposure I had with the Kazakh people in Almaty, I am eager to get to know the Kyrgyz people better. Once I know what my e-mail address, I will be sure to let the e-mail users know. I have a new Compaq laptop which also has fax capabilities. I need to learn about that so it can be up and running while trying to get prepared for my classes….”

The following letter was written on November 2, 1993 after I knew more about my living situation:

“There is SO much to be thankful for in the one month I have been in Bishkek.  I have a really spacious apartment which looks out to the mountains from both my east and west windows. I am able to see beautiful sunsets.  How nice to have this place since I plan to do a lot of entertaining.  However, time spent in the kitchen is more than comical since I have been forced to make do without a lot of the necessary utensils we all take for granted.

Things like measuring cups and spoons, potholders, pie tins, Tupperware, a fridge that works as well as a stove with four gas burners and an oven.  The challenge for all of us foreigners is to cook or bake as close to American food as possible with whatever materials you can find at the Osh Bazaar.  Just buying meat with carcasses and heads of sheep, pig and horse hanging off hooks while birds are flying overhead is a sight to behold.

Well, to change the subject…There are six other American teachers at my university.  I am looking forward to having my three different Phonetic classes come to my apartment in December for American style Christmas parties.  Each class has about ten students in each room and we meet once a week. It has been a joy to teach them American pronunciation.  My goal for these next nine months is to be the best teacher I can be to my 30 plus students and also to learn Russian.  We (four other English teachers) have two hour language classes most every day.  It is a struggle for me to be disciplined enough to study in the afternoons what I learn in the mornings with my own tutor.  The grammar is so difficult but I have to say that it is easier than learning Chinese.

I’m glad to say that my relationship with Camilla has improved.  She seems to be treating me well.  However, she is very disorganized as a dean and has managed to get the ire up of all the other American teachers at her school.  We are all trying to work out smooth communication despite the clash of teaching styles and methodologies that necessarily happen when Americans meet up with rigid Soviet-style methods.

My e-mail has been up and running and I invite any of you to send me a note by that mode of communication.  My address is: ####@projec.bishkek.su.  [note that back at that time of 1993, they were still using the Soviet Union as a location] It is not always reliable because of bad phone lines but it is better than the mail service which is routed through Moscow and ends up at the top of a heap of other undelivered mail. Who said this is an exciting time for the former republics?  There is a lot of desperation and near panic due to the unstable economy…”

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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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China Changes, Kazakhstan too?

Will Kazakhstan change for the better or worse, like China? Kazakhstan has high goals to be in the top 50 developed nations in the world by the year 2030.  Will the Kazakh people succeed?  I’ve been going through old notes from my files about my time spent in China. Perhaps there are some similarities with the Kazakhs and the Chinese, see what you think.

Not sure how many Chinese currently live in Harbin, Heilongjiang, China. Back when I lived in this fine city, in the late 1980s, there were three million Chinese and very few foreigners. However, it was often referred to as the “Paris of the East” or the “Moscow of the East,” it just depended on who you talked to.  This massive city was once a slumbering fishing town on the Song Hua River just sixty years before I arrived in 1986.  The Russians had helped to build it up which could be noted by the architecture.  The river traffic on the river ranged from ferry boats, motor boats and rowboats.  An old Russian yacht club had been turned into a R & R place for Chinese government officials called “cadres.”

Harbin is known for at least two things: Sun Island and the annual Ice Lantern Festival.  Sun Island was made popular by a song every Chinese seemed to know and you had to cross the SongHua River on a ten minute ferry boat ride to get to the island.  You would see remnants of the old, Russian dachas with their distinct architecture and trimmings.  However, the festival is most notable because of the ice carvers who would descend on the area to mold ice chiseled from the river into fantastic figures of animals, people and building structures.  Walking through the brightly lit lantern festival was like going in a HUGE open air icebox.  COLD!

The train in China is heavily used and the most reliable for the everyday people. One of the routes for the Trans Siberian started in Harbin. Back then, there were still steam locomotives and I rode on one to a restricted area once.  An all-night endurance test of stopping every 15 miles for more fuel or water. You knew it was a stop because the engineer would slam on the brakes and you felt like you would fly off your berth to the floor.  Sleep was impossible.

They also had electric buses but I would rarely use them because they were always packed.  Especially in the winter when the windows were frosted over, you couldn’t see outside to find out whether you had reached your destination or not.  You had to count each stop to know when to get off.  But getting to the door was like playing the game of Twister with little hope of getting to the exit in time before the doors slammed shut.  I preferred walking or if need be, taking the taxi as a last resort.

Bicyclists had their own lane along side all the buses and cars.  It seemed that everyone in China owned a bike and parking lots for bikes were huge.  How to find one’s own bike was always a mystery to me.  They all looked alike.  Some people would rig up carts in front or behind their bikes to haul things.  I remember seeing one guy having about ten dead chickens hanging upside down on his handle bars.  I guess he was going to market with them.

Sometimes I would see blue “Liberation” trucks that had come in from the farms with their produce (cabbage, watermelon, etc).  They all were of the same model and style since Liberation in 1949.  Even into the 1980s, they hadn’t changed much in thirty years.  I wonder if they are still making them?

I also wonder if the older Chinese people are still wearing the ubiquitous Mao suits. That was considered THEE fashion of its day, everyone looked alike in their dark blue, buttoned up the front uniformed outfits.

A Muslim presence was evidenced in Harbin even though originally built up by the Russians. How did one know this while strolling down the busy streets of Harbin?  You just had to know that restaurants, which didn’t serve pork, festooned the blue paper lantern and blue trimmings in the windows and doors.

Billboards wouldn’t compete well with the Stateside ones.  Some billboards encouraged the populace to stick with the one-child policy. Others exhorted people to use good traffic safety.  Funnier ones would advertise auditorium chairs, copier machines or other essentials.  A whole different concept of advertising happened in this non-capitalistic society.  I wonder what the billboards look like now in China.

As was true in the former Soviet Union where I lived for a total of ten years in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, it was rare to see apartment complexes that exceeded 5 or 6 stories. That way people walked up those flights of stairs and they didn’t need to put in elevators.  Win-win except for those who felt winded by the time they carried their groceries to the very top floor.  Built in work out times.

To me, there was nothing aesthetically pleasing with about 99% of the homes in Harbin. There were no yards with grass, no flowers.  You would see t.v. antennas attached to little dwellings with sheds in front of the homes. It seemed lifeless except for occasional trees.  However, it was important for every apartment complex to have a balcony porch to put up the laundry to dry. So you knew people lived in these places as the clothes waved in the wind.

The PRC (People Republic of China) flag still waves the same even if everything else has changed since I lived in Harbin over 25 years ago.  The flag has four smaller gold stars in a crescent shape outside of a larger gold star.  I didn’t master singing their national anthem but I did get on national t.v. singing our American national anthem with two other American teachers.  But that’s another story.  We heard from teachers we knew in other parts of China who saw us on t.v. at different times.  Yes, we were rare as foreigners back in the 1980s.

The building I taught in was the main part of the Harbin Institute of Technology campus. The foreboding appearance of this place seemed to call back memories of when the Russians dominated the Heilongjiang area.  H.I.T. was founded in 1920.  Back when I was there in the 1980s it had a teaching staff of over 1,500 to 10,000 Chinese students.  It was and still is considered a key university, like the M.I.T. of China.

The emphasis of the university was engineering.  Twelve departments were in Management, Precision Instruments, Computer Science, Radio Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Automatic Control, Applied Physics. I lived in a Foreigners Guest house with people from Japan, the Soviets and a woman from Ireland.

Hindsight shows what I didn’t know then but do now. There was a fierce nationalistic pride among the Soviets who ate at the same table every noon meal with us Americans.  The “Soviets” were conversant in English in different degrees. Larissa was from Estonia and was the Russian teacher, her English probably was the worst.  However, she was the first I knew who had a VHS player for videos, her English improved markedly over the two years I knew her.

People like Isa (means Jesus) was a Muslim from Azerbaijan and Nick from Latvia (don’t EVER call them Russians) spoke the best English even though they also spoke Russian (and their native language).  Tomas was from Georgia and there was another physics guy. From where, I don’t remember but he didn’t believe in dreams.  I learned that each Soviet was proud of his own country and ethnic background. Very proud and now I realize that the time we spent together at meals was when the Soviet Union was starting to have huge fractures in their structure as a monolithic country.  Who knew?

Things have changed dramatically for the Soviet Union and they have also for China. One student asked me this very perplexing question: “Today the U.S. is a very modernized, advanced country, science knowledge has already been taught to most of the people. In the eyes of science, there is no God, but WHY some of you believe?” Another variation of that question was “The U.S. is such a young country (250 years) and China is a very old country (thousands of years), why is the U.S. so much more advanced?”

To many of my H.I.T. student their “god” is science, Marxism or communism.  China was referred to as a sleeping giant. Their goal that was uppermost in my students’ minds was to advance in technology by the year 2000 so they would be equal to other western countries.  Maybe they have succeeded…maybe not.

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“Bad Writer is a Bad English Teacher”…oh really?!

The attached photo is a wonderfully warm, Kazakh teacher who got hurt by her own educational system while teaching at a westernized university in Almaty. I knew her to be a good, motherly type mentor to her university students.  She is neither a bad writer or bad teacher but her superiors dismissed her without any explanation.  I’ll withhold her name but let it be known that I witnessed several painful injustices (my own included) within this so-called institute of higher learning while teaching three and a half years in Kazakhstan.

I want to highlight the writings from two Kazakh women in this blog. One I know only from reading a website titled “Vox Populi” and the other is a former student of mine.  I think the two go together because they are suffering the same angst of living in a country of Kazakhstan that is going through phenomenal growth spurts.  There’s baggage from what used to exist from the Soviet Union, yet hopeful anticipation in what could be their future in Kazakshtan.  The first one is named Madina and a summary of what she said in Russian in an interview to Vox Populi after I used Google translation.

“A typical dream for us 30 year olds in Kazakhstan is to go where we feel our rights are not violated, where there is law and order and where the government works for its citizens.  I am part of an astonishing generation, we were born in the Soviet era where we grew up during the breakup of a single state (USSR) but have taken off running during the construction of a new nation (Kazakhstan). Therefore, many of our own parents will never understand that we have a sense of choice.

When I was 27 years old, I began to choke on what surrounded me, the country, the people, our laws.  My friends and I found the easiest way out, we just ran away and left for a half a year to the United States.  America seemed at that moment a bulwark of democracy.  I left Kazakhstan with the underlying idea of staying in the U.S.  This is so typical of us to dream to go somewhere else…but experience showed us all the same problems in the U.S.  Eden, NO!  I went back to Kazakhstan but I came back more relaxed.  I learned to accept the imperfections of the world.

Even with blatant injustice in Kazakhstan, my contribution is to keep working on this project to uncover everything that happens in our country to show a different life, to expose social problems and talk about difficult situations.  Unfortunately, I am not a revolutionary in spirit, to ride with a sword.  Also, I do not like publicity, but I admire people who are active citizens righting wrongs.  If we had a “Swamp,” I would have walked out.  No, instead I have gotten up on a stage, not to be encouraged but to be listened to and supported.  Civic engagement in Kazakhstan doesn’t happen because the majority believes that stability is better than change.”

Here’s the second one from Aigerim, a former student of mine who nails it about where the problem of slavery works into the mindset of the Kazakh citizen. She was a teacher who got in trouble with her superiors for pointing out some errors in her contract.  They are to teach critical thinking to their classes but at the same time they are to obey and not object to injustices.  She is NOT a bad person, teacher or writer…read on:

“Bad writer is a bad English teacher. I want to be a good teacher, or at least not another person reciting same old song or grammar rule. I stand firm on the point that any skills or knowledge taught should be relevant.

When I conducted IELTS classes at my former work place, which is an elite focused and fully funded from President`s fund, I committed to turn this extra-curricular free of charge classes into a writing experiment. We watched and reflected on films, then wrote on blogs. Some of students created and posted their own poetry. Indeed, learners came up to a stage where they reflected on their lives. They wrote great essays about teenage suicides and problems of education in our country.

While my students were making their best in critical thinking, my own free speaking brought me into trouble with a department manager as I enquired too many questions on controversial points in a contract. Well, I don`t regret appealing against bosses, I am quite happy with my new job. When my writers learned about my resignation due to my being a wrong format, one student replied with a phrase that still warms my heart, “If you’re A4 format and they’re A5 (smaller), that doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher, you’re just different.”

Young people can think critically until they are framed into stupid rules. Nowadays it is common to think that you have to say what your teacher wants to hear and you get a point, do what your boss wants and keep your place of employment. The problem of slavery exists not only on construction sites and massage parlors, but in thoughts and enslaved wills of ordinary people.

My colleagues were obedient and got another year of their teaching contract. However, I wonder whether these teachers are able to teach young people to think critically and act globally.”

I love my former student’s writing about being different and indeed she is NOT a bad teacher or a bad writer.  On days like this, I feel the same where it is difficult to write and English is my native language.  Some days I feel defeated in trying to explain from my “A4 framework” that I don’t fit in with the A5 environment whether it is in the U.S. OR in Kazakhstan.

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