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!

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