Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"Do you need the bathroom?"

Yes, you guessed it....Part II of great Kazakh host mom stories.

There is this great scene from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" when the Greek Mother of the Bride asks Ian, the American groom, if he is hungry. He declines, "no thanks, I already ate." The mother responds automatically, "okay, I'll make you something." This story exemplifies my host mother. 

Yesterday,  I came home from school around 3:30. I wasn't very hungry as I had a snack earlier. I went into the kitchen to get a cup of chai (tea), and of course, my mother follows me to the kitchen.

She says, "did you eat yet?"

"Yes, I already ate. I just want a cup of chai."

"Ok, I'll sit down, I'll make you something." So she makes me potatoes and meat in five minutes (super impressive). As I pick at it, she insists "eat, eat." Kazakhs in general are obsessed with feeding people. I've learned to never go anywhere with a full stomach as they will always offer you food and you MUST eat it. When I tell my mom I won't be home for dinner, she gets this look on her face, almost like I'm insulting her. She always asks where I eat lunch, like she doesn't believe me. 

Similarly, Roberto's host mother told him the reason he is not married at age 28 is because he doesn't eat enough. Oh Kazakh host moms...

I met up with a friend yesterday evening. When I came home my mom asked, "do you need the bathroom?"

"No, not now," I responded skeptically…why would she ask me that?!

"Ok, I'm going to read the paper." So she goes into the bathroom with the newspaper for a good 10 minutes. Talk about multitasking…

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Negotiating a Teapot with an Uzbek

I noticed a gathering of tents, hanging textiles, loads of people, and sprawling carpets and pottery on the lawn during my walk home after visiting the Kazakhstan Central State Museum on Saturday. The market was a monthly bazaar that features regional artwork and crafts. THIS was what I envisioned before coming to Kazakhstan. I am also a sucker for quality indigenous crafts and well-preserved antique and artisan items.

First, I purchased a beaded necklace for my mom – it has her name written all over it. The artist had some beautiful crystal pieces. The adjacent vendor sold communist era paraphernalia – CDs, postcards, medallions – you name it, they had it (in red). I bought a few postcards for a friend who collects them.

As I passed one pottery vendor's station, I had an "it" moment. Amidst all the bowls, pots, laddels and other pottery items, towered a tea set that included a teapot and four cups. The teapot is a figurine of an Uzbek woman and includes a painted head (teapot lid), braided hair, and physical features. The "body", cups, and serving tray are painted in a traditional Uzbek, blue, green and white arabesque motif. It reminds me of a teapot I purchased with my sister in Beijing two years ago, but had that special Central Asian flare. For whatever reason, when I saw the teapot, I smiled. I had to have it! So, I bought it for 5,000 Tenge ($34).

One issue major issue: at the time, I only had 3,500 Tenge. I negotiated with the vendor and his sister in Russo-English to pay 3,500 Tenge and return the next day to pay the remaining 1,500. Some particularly interesting points of our negotiations to share…

1.     The sister was willing to accept Dollars, Tenge or Euros. She mentioned several times, "we'll take whatever you have. You're American…you have dollars on you…we'll accept that, no problem." She bluntly declared, "we'll take anything."
2.     At one point, the sister proposed I leave 3,500 T with them and return the next day to retrieve the item and pay the remaining amount. I said I would rather pay in full and I do not feel comfortable leaving the teapot there with 3,500 T. The brother immediately responded that I can take the teapot now, leave 3,500 T and return in the morning to pay the remaining 1,500. He feared that if I didn't at least have the doll, I would not return in the morning and he would not make the sale. To him, he wanted, and probably needed any sale that he was willing to take the risk of me not returning to pay the remaining amount in the morning (after all, there was no collateral so I could have easily not returned Sunday morning).

I realized these vendors were not only desperate, but their willingness to accept all forms of currency suggests that they are able to easily convert and/or use the currency. I could understand the use of the Russian Ruble, but not the Dollar and Euro. Then I started thinking.. Given that the Tenge is the official currency of Kazakhstan, and neither the Dollar or the Euro hold official status in the neighboring countries, both currencies are probably used in illicit, transcontinental drug and criminal networks. Certainly, most people living in a community village in Central Asia are not interested in acquiring Euros or dollars, and it is highly unlikely that pottery artists desire compensation in a foreign currency. Logically then illicit, underground criminal networks, where capital and people are highly mobile, is an acceptable environment for foreign currencies. It is not uncommon for illicit trade networks to include many industries. For example when I was in Panama City, I remember speaking with a journalist who mentioned that Colombian owners of new apartment complexes are believed to be part of Colombian drug and criminal networks. Just as the Colombian drug dealers also own real estate, Uzbek, Tajik and Afghan drug smugglers may also use the pottery industry. After all, it is a lot easier for opium to traverse national boundaries if packaged with pottery.

Granted, this is all unconfirmed speculation on my part. I can't help but feel that I indirectly patronized the illicit Eurasian opium network. Maybe. Either way, I love my Ferghana Valley tea set.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Kazakhstan's Arts and Entertainment Industry

Privyet all!

During the week, I am swamped with schoolwork. I have three hours of one-on-one class every day for five days a week. Class consists of drills of everything from grammar rules, to vocabulary (words, numbers, days of the week, etc.) to dialogues. No slacking with Raushan (my professor). By the time the weekend comes around (i.e. Thursday night...even though there is class on Friday), I am ready for a break! Thursday and Friday were quite exciting, as I gained unique insights into Kazakhstan's artistic community.

Thursday, I went to a local bar/restaurant, MarroneRosso, for some chai lattes and great conversation with my Kazakh friends Karima and her brother Murat. Karima and Murat are both in the Kazakh circus, Muturganchiki, and are so much fun and incredibly kind people. They are the embodiment of Kazakh hospitality. I met several of their friends in the Kazakh entertainment industry, including a Kazakh actor, Anwar, and a journalist. Anwar was particularly interesting to talk to, as he spoke fluent english (I always try to practice my Russian when I meet people, but for some words it helps if the other person knows English). Anwar proclaimed that he is "extremely patriotic" and loves to welcome foreigners to Kazakhstan and teach them about Kazakh culture. He is starting a band with his friends and expressed his desire in competing in a European band competition. Until recently, Kazakhstan's geographical location precluded its participation in European tournaments. Anwar noted that Kazakhstan did compete in a recent European football tournament so he hopes to raise the funds to participate in a music competition. He recognized that he could represent an Eastern European country, as the rules do not require team members to be national citizens of the country they represent, but he wanted to represent Kazakhstan. "It means something to me to represent my country, Kazakhstan."

Friday, I went to the Katseev Museum and had coffee with Amir Jadaibayev of the Kasteev Museum. Thank you to Adam Grode for introducing me to Amir, as we had a fascinating conversation about Kazakhstan's art and museum industry. Amir noted the need to use the Internet to promulgate knowledge about Kazakhstan's art and culture. He would love to see more small and local museums throughout the country. As with many public art institutions around the world, funding is always an issue. Currently, the museum is physically capable of displaying some 10% of the total collection (I confess that I was not able to explore the museum because it is under construction and is not currently open to visitors). I understand Amir's intention to increase Kazakh cultural literacy around the world. In fact, one of the reasons I launched The Sholk Road Adventures was to make Central Asian culture and politics more accessible to my friends and family.  I wish all the best for Amir, the Katseev museum and Kazakhstan's art industry!

I will be going to the Central State Museum on Saturday and Koktobe, a park in the Tien Shen mountains. I've been told that the best view of Almaty is from the top of Koktobe -- can't wait!

Thanks everyone for reading! Stay posted for more of The Sholk Road Adventures!


Monday, June 20, 2011


I wanted to visit Baraholka because (1) Lonely Planet gave it great reviews, (2) I wanted to venture outside of Almaty, and (3) I wanted to see a Central Asian market. I initially had a naïve and romantic conception of a traditional Central Asian market, where artisan vendors from different nationalities sell high-valued crafts. I could not have been more wrong. Baraholka was a labyrinth of cheap, Chinese crap. Lots and lots of it. Every consumer good, from electronics, to hardware, clothing, wedding dresses, shoes, specialty Muslim shops for Burqas – you name it and you can find it at Baraholka.

Despite the commercial sea of stuff, the energy of an Inner Eurasian market was definitely palpable. People ran through the market, pushing and shoving. Old woman lugged coolers and food carts down the aisle yelling "manti"…."polenti"… "shashlykh." It was a do or die environment – the wild, wild east. I even got run over by a cart at one point….just my ankle….the guy turned around and gave me the biggest Juno-style stink eye I have ever seen in my life. The market was so hot and noisy. At one point, Zarina and I stepped outside for a minute for a breathe of fresh air. I have visited the Pearl Market in Beijing and have attended a descent amount of street fairs, but nothing like Barakholka. It was another world... and one I am glad to have experienced.

While I could not differentiate between one market from the next, when we entered a new market, Zarina mentioned to me "this is the cheapest market….this is the most expensive market, the vendors here pay the highest rent….this is the Kyrgyz market, you can tell the difference in their goods." She explained to me that the Kyrgyz came across the border for the day and sold their goods in Baraholka, returning to their country in the evening. Later as we were walking home, Zarina pointed to a bus and said "that is a bus from Urumqi bringing Uighurs into Baraholka for the day…they come and shop…there are also a lot of sailors from Urumqi for some reason." I found her comments incredibly intriguing. Economically, Almaty is so connected to Kyrgyzstan and China. It is not uncommon for workers to cross national borders on a daily basis….look at the EU…many residents of Haute-Savoie, France work in Geneva….Mexicans work in America. Baraholka is a great example of the inter-connectivity between the Central Asian peoples today. Retaining liberal worker migration policies between Central Asian states (and China) is essential for economic growth, but at the same time, bears significant security complications (see Tajikistan).

It was also interesting to observe Zarina's consciousness about ethnic identities. I asked her if all of the different ethnic groups get along. "Of course, she said, "in Kazakhstan they do….we have over 130 different nationalities."

"Why in Kazakhstan and not in other countries?"

After taking a minute to think, Zarina said, "well, because of the President. We also all speak Russian, so you do not hear the different languages. Occasionally, on the bus you will hear someone from an aul [a rural Kazakh village] speaking a different dialect and pointing out people's ethnicities as Koreans, Russians, Dungeons, etc….but since we all speak Russian, we all communicate well. We are a multiethnic country."
In Washington, I previously heard Kazakh Ambassador Idrissov laud the country's multi-ethnicity. It was great to hear it from a Zarina that Kazakhstan really is a peaceful and multi-ethnic state.

The shops were filled with "Channels" and "Gabbanna's." Design houses work hard to produce high-quality goods, and I am always devastated when I see such a massive quantity of Chinese-produced crap that bears the label "Channel." Intellectual property violations are not okay – at all. Fake goods hurt too many people and diminish the creative manpower and quality work required to produce designer goods. The persistence of markets that carry knock-off goods, such as Baraholka, is a testament to the failure of Chinese and Central Asian regimes to crack down on intellectual property protections (especially notable since China is a member of the WTO and Kazakhstan is in negotiations to become a WTO member). From a development perspective, on the one hand, I can understand the desire for Kazakhs and Chinese to want more clothes at affordable prices. Any government crackdown on intellectual property would surely cause prices to increase to such a prohibitive rate that the economy would plunder. It is already difficult for people to make a living. Given that Almaty is such a centrally located hub for regional trade, increasing intellectual property protects would have a negative impact. At the same time, in order to increase investor confidence and improve the business climate for non-petroleum based goods, such IP protections are necessary.

Zarina wanted a new, super-colorful summer dress to wear to work. We have completely opposite styles as I (naturally) discouraged all things that were not black, white or grey. After Zarina selected a floor-length dress that probably includes every color of the rainbow, we went to select a new pair of ballet flats. In the shop, the 20-year old Kazakh salesmen hit on me. It was so incredibly awkward. He said, "you are so beautiful," and attempted to talk to me, and then asked for my number. I said I didn't have a Kazakh phone number. When we were negotiating the price of the shoes, I said that I would give him my Facebook name if he reduces the prince by 1,000 T. He exclaimed, "Shto Facebook?"  Most Kazakhs I've met know Facebook, so this was extremely surprising. A good laugh was shared by all.

After a day of navigating the winding and bewildering markets of Baraholka, we walked to Zarina's home where we enjoyed a Dungan feast with her family (see previous post)!

Thanks everyone for reading! Please continue to follow The Sholk Road Adventures J.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

My Dungan Babushka

I have a Dungan babushka. She is AWESOME. I spent Sunday with Zarina, my Russian peer tutor. We first visited Baraholka, a mega-bazaaropolis on the outskirts of Almaty, before a traditional Dungan dinner at her home with her gracious family. Prepare yourselves for a two-part blog post! I will first write about Zarina's family and then will devote a different post to Baraholka.

First, let me describe my peer tutor, Zarina. Zarina is an ethnic Dungan who grew up on a village in rural China, attended school and learned Russian and Chinese in addition to Dungan, which uses the Arabic alphabet. The Dungans are mixed Arabic-Chinese Muslim ethnic group native to the Hui province of China.  During a war some 250 years ago between a Dungan tribal leader and the Chinese, as Zarina's mother explained to me, the Dungans migrated to parts of modern-day Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Today, most Dungans live in the outskirts of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, but there is also a small community in the Almaty suburbs.

When Zarina invited me to her into her home for dinner, I couldn't be more excited or personally flattered. I had soooo many questions….how important is tribal identity today? How is life in the Almaty suburbs and village different from the city? What are the defined gender roles in the city? How does family life in a Kazakh village compare to that in America or downtown Almaty? Today was sure to turn into an anthropological experiment for me….I even looked up key words in Russian before I left for the day.

When I entered the courtyard, the babushka was preparing traditional Dungeon noodles. She had already prepared the dough (made of salt and water) and put the pasta into long strips. She then lengthens the noodle, folds it and whips it against the table several times. I helped prepare the noodles and chatted with her. Meanwhile, Zarina was at the stove cutting peppers and herbs and making the sauce. Instead of tea, the Dungan people drink the hot water from the noodle pot.  The food was not only fun to make, but was absolutely delicious!

She also told me about her wealthy family that came from China to Kazakhstan during World War II.  During the Soviet period, her family lost their wealth and her dad was sent off to work. She told me about how there used to be so many apple trees throughout Almaty (Almaty means "mother apple" in Kazakh). She was a living history book. I wish I were able to better communicate with her because she's a wealth of information. She said her sister wrote three books about the period and that next time I come back her sister will give me a book as a gift. I was flattered and super excited – I will take her up on that offer.

She was also extremely benevolent and gracious. When I said that I am Jewish, she proudly declared that Kazakhstan is a multiethnic country with over 130 different ethnic-national groups. She said that there is even a map for the ethnic geography of Almaty that shows the Jewish quarters, Dungan quarters, etc. She even said that there is a temple I should go to here in town. To be honest, I did not know what reaction to expect when I said that I am Jewish. I previously told Zarina so I felt comfortable sharing with her babushka. Because "Judaism" was a nationality during the USSR, and many ethnic groups migrated to Kazakhstan during WWII, from my experience, many people in Almaty know of Jews and simply consider them another nationality, like Korean or Dungan.

The babushka is awesome. I know Russian for all of three weeks and we were somehow able to communicate using sign language, humor, Zarina's translation, and key words. The Babushka asked me the usual questions: who are you, where are you from, how old are you, etc. At the same time, her questions showcased her entirely different world view. Do I have a big family? What do my parents do? What do I do? How old am I? When I said I'm 20, she asked if I am getting married. I said no…I want to focus on my studies and then get a job. She asked me how old do people in the states get married. I said around 28. To her that is old – 20 is when people get married. She pointed to her teenage niece, indicating her mother had her when she was 18. I said I haven't even begun to think about marriage. I want to finish school and then work before I get married. She asked if I want a big family or a small family? These are questions that personally I laughed, but enjoyed being asked, as they exhibit the centrality of the family in Kazakh and Dungan society. I am more accustomed to being asked: where do I want to work? What graduate school do you want to attend? What do you plan to do with your life? Where are you going to travel?

I also showed her pictures of my family mom, sister and babushka on my camera…she smiled and commented that we all look alike. She asked if my 22-year old sister is getting married. When I said that she is working as a math teacher, she appeared stoic. As bizarre as it sounds, I really feel like I connected with her.

During dessert, babushka's fierceness came out. First, as we were eating the "batonchik" candy, she pointed to the logo, which featured a picture of Pinocchio – the Soviet Pinocchio that pre-dated the Disney Pinocchio.  I had no idea there was a Soviet Pinocchio?! She laughed and said that it is a Kazakh candy with a Soviet symbol. This was quite entertaining….I took a few for the road. Then, we had walnuts. Zarina showed me how to crack open the walnuts by taking two walnuts clasped in between your hands, and crushing them. The babushka, on the other hand, went for a large and in charge rock at first, before reverting to a hammer.  She proceeded to hammer open some 10 or so nuts. I would not mess with her. You go girl!

The evening was lovely as I came in knowing little language and a total foreigner and we had a lovely evening – we all laughed. As a foreigner, I felt so welcomed into the home, hearts and minds of Zarina and her family. I feel like I gained such insights into Kazakh culture and am deeply grateful for your generosity and hospitality. Thank you so much, Zarina!!

Thanks for reading everyone…stay posted for an update on my shopping adventures at Baraholka!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Want a spoon for that?"

My host mother is quite the character.  Towering at 5'4, she is a Kazakh language professor at the local university during the academic year and is a great conversationalist. She gives great feedback and always offers me food, help and guidance. She walks around the house in colorful, lightweight, sweeping dresses that are reminiscent of the 1970s. Sometimes when I come home from school, she's in her bath robe. As I described in my last post, the Kazakh conception of privacy, public goods and proper etiquette is extremely different than the American definition. Experiencing such cultural dichotomies the beauty of a foreign home stay experience.  Accordingly, I'd like to share three hysterical anecdotes from my host mother:

1.     At meals, family members eat directly from the condiments (butter, jam, cheese, etc.) – there is no serving utensil for condiments like on American dinner tables. As we were cleaning up dinner the other night, I picked up a bowl of jam and was about to put it in the fridge when she asked me, "do you want a spoon for that?" After taking a second to pause, I politely declined the offer...and then laughed.
2.     That same dinner, we ate a chicken, potato, cabbage and vegetable dish. The chicken meat was left on the bone, cut into inch-size pieces scattered throughout the dish. I attempted to use my fork and knife to cut the meat of the bone, when my mom declares, "forget utensils…just use your hands," and then proceeds to take a caveman-style bite off her chicken.
3.     As we were gathering for dinner, I indicated I needed to reach the trash can to dispose of my gum. She offers her bare hand. I initially resist and look for a napkin to first place my gum. She again offers her hand…so I hand her my gum (straight from my mouth and hand) and she throws it out. On a similar note, when she was cutting a cucumber the other day, she tasted a slice and after chewing it for a good 30 seconds, she realized the cucumber was sour, spit out the chopped-up, green, saliva mash, and handed it to her niece (a university student who stays in the house), who without hesitation, takes the wad of cucumber and throws it out.

Initially, this all seemed extremely bizarre, and it still is in many respects. But that's Kazakh family culture! J

Yesterday, Roberto and I exchanged host mom stories. I'm taking the liberty to share one of his…when his mom gave him a tour of the house when he moved in, she told him that the door to the toilet room is broken and does not shut properly, but not to worry because when you sit down on the toilet your legs block the door.

Ahhh the crazy things host moms say!

I'm going to visit Panfilov Park and Cathedral on Saturday. On Sunday, I will visit Barakholka market located on the outskirts of Almaty with my peer tutor, who is an ethnic Dungeon of the Hui tribe. She is sooo sweet and I'm so excited to get to know her, practice Russian, and gain insights into her culture and worldview!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The First Days in Almaty

Prevyet from Almaty!!! I apologize for the delay, as my host family does not have Internet and am busy acclimating to life in Almaty. I'm now in an internet café at the local university responding to emails and TCB (taking care of business) before class at 11:30.

First and foremost, I am living with a Kazakh family, which in itself is an incredibly eye-opening, humbling and rewarding experience. My host father is a lawyer and always travelling so I have yet to meet him.  Moldir is my age and is a rising junior at the local university studying linguistics.  Thankfully, she speaks English and expressed to me her interest in becoming a translator. Kamila is in middle school and is full of life. I have yet to meet my younger two host siblings, as they are away on vacation with cousins. My host mother does not speak a single word of English, but is so sweet. We manage to communicate but I look forward to being able to have a conversation with full sentences with her. She's great at forcing me to practice my conversational Russian, always inviting me to chai (tea), watch Russian TV and asking me about my homework and life. When I returned home from school Monday and Tuesday, I found she re-made my bed and re-organized my hanging garments. It is quite comical that she considers me one of her own and cleans my room. She also does not knock on the door, but simply enters (which is also fine as I'm usually doing homework if the door is shut).  Even after a few days, I learned that Kazakhs have a different conception of privacy and public space. At dinner, it is not uncommon to eat directly from the center platter of food with your personal utensil instead of serving an individual portion.

I live in an apartment located behind a restaurant on Seiffulin Avenue, one of Almaty's main streets. The building was no doubt built during the Soviet Union: there is no lighting in the cement stairwell, air condition units on the walls and no Ethernet cables. In the foyer, there is a Persian rug and a small dresser lining the right wall. To the left, there is a toilet room (without a sink) and a washroom with a bathtub and washing machine that functions as a shower, sink and laundry facility. There is one toilet and shower for the entire family of two parents and four kids. To the right in the foyer, there is my room that contains a Persian rug, a couch, oriental-style plush chair, wall mirror, clock, desk and chair and clothing rack. Finally, there is a TV room, kitchen, and children's room. Though small, the apartment is clean and neat. "My room" is usually Moldir's room. Moldir is sharing the room with her younger sister for two months so I could live here. Even though the family receives a stipend, I feel so bad that I am, in part, causing the family to be separated. Moldir is not living in her own room for two months to accommodate me – talk about Kazakh hospitality. I am so grateful for her generosity.

Monday was the first day of class. My mom walked me to the American Councils office, where I met the American Councils' Almaty staff and had orientation. I also met the other participant in my program, Anton, a Kazakh native who attended university in America and is now a graduate student at Harvard. Roberto, Anton and I are the only participants in the Eurasian Regional Language Program in Almaty this summer, yet we each have different reasons for being here. Roberto is pursuing his PhD in history, focusing on the inter-war and post-World War II period. Already proficient in Russian, he is learning Kazakh so he can explore native Kazakh documents and integrate the indigenous Kazakh perspective into history, which is dominated my Russian-authored Soviet literature. Meanwhile, Anton is using the Kazakh agricultural industry as a case study for understanding the transformations in Kazakh institutions following 1991. And then there is me. I am sure I will learn a lot from Roberto, Anton and the entire American Councils staff.

We drove to the Kazakh Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research (KIMEP), where we met the school administrators and toured the campus. KIMEP's campus resembles that of any traditional American college, with plenty of green, hang-out spots and classrooms. On purely superficial terms, KIMEP students could easily rival, if not trump, vineyard vines-wearing Hoyas. KIMEP students are clearly part of Kazakhstan's elites, as every girl wore a designer handbag (many real…some fake), fierce sunglasses and strutted through campus in sky-high stilettos.  I was previously warned that all girls wore high heels in Kazakhstan, and indeed they do.  All of the girls are model-thin and perfectly dressed in skirts, dresses and leggings.

My Russian teacher Raushan, an Almaty-native, has the "we'll do it until it is perfect" work ethic of a Russian ballet master, the demeanor of a babushka, and a heart of gold. We went through the Cyrillic alphabet, using flashcards and the blackboard to practice writing and properly annunciating the letters. My homework was to write and re-write the Russian letters in cursive on beginner paper, just as one does in first grade.  After class, I leisurely walked home to explore the city…which I'll write more about later.

Tuesday, Raushan again drilled me on my alphabet and pronunciation.  I then had lunch with Anton and Roberto before heading back home to do some homework. Later, I had dinner - salted cabbage, rice soup and some form of beef - with Moldir and my host mother. Even though I am not able to understand everything, I am gradually expanding my vocabulary and enjoy listening to their conversation and watching their interactions. 

Thanks for reading this long post. Feel free to comment and ask questions! The past few days have already been eye-opening and I am eager to experience the adventures to come!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Landed in Almaty!

After a long journey, I am finally in Almaty! I am on my host sister, Moldir's computer so I do not have time to write a lot. After arriving in Almaty last night and meeting Moldir, I showered and passed out on my bed around four in the afternoon. I woke up around 5 this morning, studied some Russian and had breakfast with my host mother. She is a professor of Kazakh language at the local university and speaks not a word of English. She's a sweet woman and I look forward to communicating with her when I know more Russian.

Today, I'll purchase a sim card and convert some USD into tenge. Classes tomorrow!

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Long, Long Journey to...Abu Dhabi?!

Greetings from the Abu Dhabi International Airport! Long story short: my plane from DC left three hours behind schedule, causing me to miss my transfer in Frankfurt to Almaty. United/Lufthansa redirected me and Roberto (who is a fabulous travel companion) on another overnight flight to Abu Dhabi....turning the infamous double red-eye journey into a triple red-eye marathon. It is around 7 AM in Abu Dhabi and my flight to Almaty leaves at 9:55, so I have some time to kill. My internal time clock is totally off, however, after two overnight flights and living in airports for the past 48 hours. I practically fell asleep on the gentleman sitting next to me on the Frankfurt-Abu Dhabi flight. I then explained to him in French my travel adventures.

This is too short of an entry for the adventures Roberto and I have experienced traveling to Kazakhstan. For now, this will do...just a reminder to always be prepared for the unexpected. I knew the flight was long....but this has been quite a whirlwind. I think its a test of my dedication, stamina and passion for Central Asia. Well, bring it on international airlines!!!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Pre-Departure Orientation: Safety, Security and Secondary Language Learning

Greetings from Washington D.C.! 

I arrived in the sweltering Washington D.C. yesterday afternoon for pre-departure orientation. There are only four of us at this orientation session! While American Councils' Eurasian Regional Language Program (ERL) organizes various trips, there are a select handful of students interested in venturing out to the Caucuses and Central Asia. The most popular ERL programs are to Russia and Tajikistan (Tajik is very similar to Farsi). There is Sarah, a candidate for an MA in international affairs venturing off to Yerevan, Armenia to study Armenian and research the country's agriculture and development for her MA thesis -- best of luck to you Sarah! Then Vadem is a bubbly Ukrainian-native who grew up outside of Philadelphia. She is off to Tbilisi, Georgia for the summer to study Georgian. Given her Ukrainian background, Vadem has a unique perspective on the region that I find fascinating -- I can't wait to hear about her experiences. Finally, there is Roberto, a candidate for a PhD in history, who is also off to Almaty to study Kazakh for his dissertation research. There is also another student, Anton, on the Almaty program, but he lives in Kazakhstan so we will meet him there! It is such a privilege to meet such a group of high-caliber, interesting individuals with a passion for Central Asia and the Caucuses!

The four of us met with the Washington, D.C.-based program director last night and this morning and discussed everything from how to live with a host family, to cultural taboos, gender roles and overcoming the inevitable stomach ache. We also discussed the Eurasian academic environment and secondary language learning.

I found the most interesting component of orientation was the discussion of maximizing language learning abroad through self-management with the President of American Councils, the gracious Dr. Dan Davidson. Without a doubt, living as a guest in the country, fully immersed in the national culture, way of life and language, forces language acquisition. But it is important to not get overwhelmed with the language, but to take advantage of the people around you -- look at their reactions, appreciate the feedback of native speakers. In an American classroom, if you say a sentence correctly, you get an "A"...but does that mean you are capable of using the language in a real-world environment? A complete immersion experience turns everyday life into a language laboratory ripe for learning not just how to apply grammar rules, but how to speak, think and use the language correctly in a realistic context. How does one deal with this in a two-month period? First, take advantage of the pauses in speech and the linguistic pattern. So often, we are eager to say the next thing on our mind, instead of stopping to reflect on what we just said, receive feedback, and then restate our initial thought. Stop, reflect, reiterate and take notes. Salvage the valuable opportunity to learn even just one word. This process of dialogue and reflection is what Dr. Davidson calls "self-management," which is undoubtedly the greatest challenge for me. But it is a challenge I am ready to take on!

I come out of orientation excited for Almaty, nervous for the unknown, and prepared for a summer of intensive linguistic self-management! Best of luck and safe travels to Sarah, Vadem and Roberto!

Until next Almaty!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pre-Orientation Tomorrow!

I do not have time for a long post this evening as I am packing and preparing to go to D.C. tomorrow for pre-orientation. I fly out to Kazakhstan Thursday evening and will be traveling for a good 24 hours before landing in Almaty! From this post on, I will be writing about my adventures...the Sholk Road Kazakhstan! Bon voyage!

Monday, June 6, 2011

The debate over IMF leadership continues...

The article "Wanted: chief firefighter" on page 88 of this week's (June 4-10) print edition of The Economist   discusses how the four front-runners, Christine Lagarde of France, Stanley Fischer of Israel, Augstín Carstens of Mexico and Grigory Marchenko of Kazakhstan, perceive the various issues facing the IMF - from defaulting on debt to reforming the international monetary system. I was glad to see Marchenko described as a serious contender....but is he? Probably not.

Never in the IMF's history has it been lead by a banker from a developing country, let a lone a country outside of Europe. Already, Kazakh leaders have confessed that it is unlikely that Marchenko will succeed DSK unless the current IMF voting system is reformed and developing countries are given more representation. At the same time, developed countries recognize how the forces of globalization have transformed the international system. Reforming the representation of states international organizations is necessary in order to ensure that global institutions remain relevant, legitimate and authoritative actors in the conduct of international relations. This week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will discuss leadership of the IMF and World Bank with President Obama.

So why not Marchenko? In The Economist, Mr. Marchenko is depicted as a financial hawk who "is as tough as they come," according to Anders Aslund of the Peterson Institute of International Economics. Marchenko is a seasoned veteran of handling bank crises and reportedly "prides himself on having closed 80 banks." As Governor of Kazakhstan's Central Bank since January 2009 following the financial disasters of fall 2008 (Lehman Brothers, Russian stock market crash), he has extensive experience working in risky and volatile financial markets. If there is one quality needed in an IMF chair, it is expertise in how to handle the possibility of defaults given the current loans to Greece and Portugal. Just today, the IMF agreed to a US$3 billion loan to Egypt! From a technical perspective, Marchenko is qualified.

Politically, Marchenko has the support of the CIS block and his appointment would bear symbolic significance as a leader of the developing world and as a beacon of Kazakh leadership. Marchenko is also a Georgetown graduate (1994) so as a Hoya, I am of course a fan. On a less serious note, there is a Facebook page devoted to him: Grigory Marchenko to head the IMF. As of this morning, there were 32 members in the group. To compare, there were over 129,000 members of the group that got Betty White onto SNL. (Of course, to the IMF, a Facebook group is irrelevant and bears no importance in selecting a candidate.)

While no one currently knows who will become the next IMF chief, my point is to not dismiss Marchenko as a serious contender. We shall see...

Three-day countdown to Kazakhstan!!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Kazakhstan's Involvement in International Organizations

I am eagerly counting down the days until I jet off to the land of the Golden Horde! While planning my trip, I recognized a trend of obvious and consistent participation in international organizations. Kazakhstan, more so than any other Eurasian state, is truly devoted to participating in the international institutional system.

On this blog, I mentioned the possibility of Chief of the National Bank of Kazakhstan Grigory Marchenko to head the IMF. After all, Marchenko does have the support of Russia and the CIS community.  Marchenko's appointment as IMF Chief would signal the end of European leadership of the powerful international institution as well as the emerging influence of Eurasian and developing states.
The debate over IMF succession represents one facet of Kazakhstan's increased participation in international institutions.

One obvious sign of Kazakhstan's participation in international organizations is its hosting of major summits. These meetings are not only valuable photo opportunities, but signal increased cooperation and the willingness of states to engage in rules-based collective action to solve shared problems.  As 2010 Chairman of OSCE, Astana hosted the organization's summit last December. During this month alone, Astana will host two major inter-governmental conferences: on June 15, the summit of the SCO Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs and June 28-30, the meeting of the the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). Kazakhstan will then assume the chairmanship of the OIC at the end of the June meeting. Furthermore, World Bank Managing Director Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Isweala just completed a trip to the country, voicing support for the major infrastructure and development initiatives undertaken by the government.

Another recent example of Kazakhstan's genuine commitment to multilateral engagement is the 20th annual meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in Astana on May 20-21.  Participants at the EBRD meeting discussed a variety of issues, from food security to industrial and sustainable development to promoting financial stability. The Government of Kazakhstan signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the EBRD to improve drinking water and waste water management in three major cities. Another MoU was signed between the EBRD and the Kazakh National Railway company to promote an energy efficient investment program for the development of the country's national railroad system. Other bilateral agreements promoted infrastructural development, technical assistance in the area of financial transactions and currency stabilization, and economic modernization. Additionally, participants at the EBRD meeting agreed to loans and public-private partnerships that amount to some $45 billion according to Special Issue No.24 News Release by the Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan in Washington D.C. The aforementioned EBRD-Kazakhstan MoUs are comprehensive, detailed and specific projects that represent the government of Kazakhstan's efforts to promote multi-sectored development for all Kazakhs. Working with a multilateral and independent institution like the EBRD promotes accountability and transparency. This is a major policy decision by the Government of Kazakhstan t that should not be underestimated. Bravo, Kazakhstan!

While these meetings are significant, I am excited to see how the MoUs and various agreements materialize in reality. Granted, many of these agreements are long-term projects, but I am still curious to see how Kazakhstan's multilateral involvement actualize on the ground. Do these agreements promote employment opportunities for ordinary Kazakh citizens? Is Kazakh leadership of international institutions a source of national pride? For now, I can only wonder...but hope to gain a deeper understanding of Kazakhstan's global leadership soon.