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!

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