tag it, bag it and sell it to the butcher
I'm still taking tutoring lessons for Kazakh, a language that'll be obsolete right about the time I cross the border on the way out. But I''m hoping to run into a few stateside Kazakhs before all my language skills turn back to goo. I don't regret choosing Kazakh over Russian at all, even though it's jacked my brain worse than a metal pipe beating. But it's probably loosened up some rusty cogs that decayed on my float through academia. In any case, I'm kind of inspired to get mildly fluent in Spanish. Learning any language is hard, hideous work. You forcefeed the brain a bunch of meanings to attach to the abstract sounds and after a few days it's puking up everything like a sick cat. You can't remember what to say, or how to form it, all that comes out is a gurgling stream of air, like something's deflating. But for every study session, a few things sink a little deeper than others and they stick. So after awhile, you've got a sizable conglomerate of grammar forms, flash phrases and simple words that become your basic communication, which gets you past the first stage of smiles and avoided eye contact. Then you take a fistful of horse and shove it into your face. Another day ticks by but it doesn't feel like it until an event, planned or unplanned, comes along to break you out of the routine. Which on a smaller scale means a surprise visit from friends to go forage for wild tulips, but on a grander scale, it means heading 10000 miles back home. I guess on the grandest scale, it means death. I didn't learn Kazakh for a resume. I didn't learn it for a cheap parlor trick. I'm not Indiana Jones out here looking for a golden goblet. I learned it to serve Kazakhstan, and to this end it's worked for me beautifully.
Let's have a few reflections on some of the people and events that have transpired over the years.
The Cowboy - Minutes before the train departed I boarded and took my seat in the 4-person compartment. Seconds later the man sitting next to me chimed in a sly, crisp, English "Well, what do you know?" Good question. What did I know? I pegged him as a standard Russian type but his English was clean with a polished soft and southern accent. I was shocked. I'd just spent a week foraying and cavorting with a large group of Americans and was now back beside myself settling in comfortably behind the language barrier, until it was flattened by this familiarity. So I asked him where he was from in the States. "Never been," he says with a tobacco chuckle,"from the Ukraine." Pieces began to fall into place. Americans (besides PCVs) are a rare find on the KZ railroad circuit. This is a system that gets you from one end of the country to the other in about 55 hours. By plane; 3 hours. But it's a pleasant ride with all sorts of surprises from drunken supervisors to the nonstop rhythm of mobile vendors weaving through the wagons, to a Ukranian cowboy speaking fluent English. But that's what working with Texans (in the oilfields) and 17 years of studying a language gets you. That and a Southern, Boston, and Scottish accent. Somehow he had all three, though they'd come out one at a time. His name was Constantine but he goes by Stan. He was mellow, dressed in denim, he loved country music, he smoked Marlboros, he had genuine ostrich skin boots, boasts a shotgun and six shooter pistol at his home villa, eats hardboiled eggs, enjoys a brew or two with his day..all the telltale signs, I know one when I see one. This was a cowboy. And to be honest, I wish the story got better than that so I wouldn't have to kill it like I'm about to do right now..
The Garden - I can't really gauge how different my time would have been if I would've chosen to learn Russian instead of Kazakh. But there is one thing that would've been different. Now's the time when everybody is digging up their gardens and preparing to plant some crops. Our garden is no small plot. Last year, a local friend dug it. This year he's nowhere to be found. Rumor has it there's a guy with a rototiller floating around somewhere that'll take care of your of all your needs in about 2 hours for $15. But where this hero was was not to be known, so it was time to step up to the plate. I took the shovel, went out there and started slaving away like I just got kicked out of Eden. I finished it earlier this week after about 25-30 hours of hard gulag labor. Last week, when I was about half way done, my host mother came home. She had hunted down the rototiller man only to find that he was backed up for the next few weeks. The interesting part was that he had already stopped by our house and someone turned him away..Hmm, I thought, I wonder what..ahh yes; I recalled a few weeks previous when I heard a pounding on the window. I sauntered outside and came to face to face with a big Russian dude who thought I was Chechen. We couldn't understand each other and I tried telling him my host mother would be back from work shortly. He kept gesturing towards the trailer behind his car on which some kind of device was resting. But I said I don't understand, thanks anyway. At first glance it might seem like Kazakh was working against me. However two important things happened here. 1 - I was finally able to help out my host family by doing something more than sitting around like a lummox. and 2 - Probably as a result of the first one, it's improved relations with them (host family) quite a bit. So it worked out afterall. Can ya dig??
Kazakh Names - They're fresh, literal, and a great way to label someone for a lifetime. Here's a few samples. Boys - Steel, Justice, Citizen, Arrived Safely, Purchased, Pure, Lion, One Soul, Happy Soul, Light Soul, Rich Party, Joy, Power, Purpose, Valiant, Peace, Dream, Moonking Girls - Silk, Venus, From a Flower, Light Flower, Flower Soul, Expensive, Soul, Pristine, Moonlight, Moon Wise, Beautiful, Beaver, Diamond, White Baby Camel, White Deer, Apple, Pleasure, Love, Wave
Final Results - So how much English was learned? That's not the point. The point is, how much was taught? And I taught a good two years. It was no Stand By Me, it was no Mr. Holland's Opus, it was more of cross between Mr. Rogers and Homey the Clown. Valueable stones are created through high pressure over time and so is character, and that's what teaching for two years can do for you, as long as you don't crack and break. And if there's one thing kids want to learn, it's how to get you to that point where your bloodshot eye is an inch outside of your head, the drool is hanging off your chin like you're cooking a steak after a fast, and the sounds coming out of your mouth happen to be every filthy curse word in your native tongue. But I never got to that point, that's just not my style. Some methods I did try in the past 2 years included, yelling, shouting, screaming, talking with an extremely loud voice, and an occassional holler. But it was all mostly for dramatic effect, seldom, if at all, was I angry. What it comes down to, friends, is patience. If you have some you're going to get more. If you refuse to have any you're going nowhere. All said and done it was great working with the kids, although I can't say the classroom setting is my element. So after two years, I'm satisfied to retire from this profession and pursue more passionate occupations.
Silk and Venus - These were the two ladies I lived with for the past two years. Silk (my host mother) and Venus (host sister) have been good to me, except for not letting me do any chores. But we've adapted pretty well to each other, although I think they're still adapting. Silk works as a custodian at the local student house which consists of cleaning floors and drinking tea for 50 hours a week to the tune of $2.50 a day. Her favorite pasttimes are tending the garden and catching the latest episode of Zerda, a Turkish soap opera that pilfers countless hours of precious life from the female population throughout Central Asia. Venus is graduating from high school this year and aspires to be a choreographer. Dancing since the age of 5, she boasts a repetoire of Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkish, and some Spanish dance styles. I tried to teach her some Rave techniques but I don't think she was ready for that level yet. Now we're all parting ways. Myself to the motherland, Venus to the city, and Silk remaining at the humble home.
A few of my favorite things - Brown boxes tied up with tape and filled with treats and splendid delights. And also, letters and cards from loved ones. Thank you everyone so much for spending the time, energy, and loot to send things out here. It refreshed my heart many times over.
Of course there's much more but it's time to close it out. My main motive throughout this whole journey was simple; to walk with and serve God. This doesn't mean I was out to convert the heathen. Peace Corps forbids evangelizing, and on top of that, Kazakhstan forbids any foreign citizen to evangelize. Fortunately for them I'm not an evangelist. I'm just a man who will passionately expound the good news of peace and truth to anyone interested, which happens every so often. For the remainder of the time I have myself to deal with, and personally, it's been a great stretch of growth. Certainly not flawless, but I never forgot why I came. I applied to PC about 6 months before coming to Kazakhstan. At that time I prayed -Lord, is this wise? The answer I felt was -It's wise to follow me whereever you go. Looking back, I can see He's been more true to myself than I have. Example; I was hoping for a lot of free time out here, which I got, but didn't always make the best of. That aside, it's been rich, intense, difficult and fully worth it. One thing I didn't expect was to find much spiritual community which was beautifully provided through other volunteers and an apartment church in the city I often go to. The church was critical in keeping me focused and encouraged. One sister in particular, Valentina, has been close and dear to me. She speaks great English and usually translates for me at the services as well as keeping me updated when I don't come into the city. Her friendship and fellowship were a huge blessing.
PC runs a good program but would I want to do it again? No. But if I was who I was two years ago? Definitely. This season is coming to a close, so comes time for the farewell. There'll be a lot of people I'll miss; the city church, students, other volunteers and local friends. I thank and praise God for the blessings they've been in my life..blessings not unlike you all, which is why I'm more happy than sad to be coming home. So here's a toast to the good things high and low, and to reunions in a very short while. Peace and love in Christ.