Monday, October 21, 2013

Management Training


It has been one hell of a first week -- and a fabulous one at that.

Monday and Tuesdays were Kurban Eid (more commonly known as Eid in the US) a traditional Muslim holiday. Official businesses were closed, which gave me an opportunity to sit down and catch up on some work, meet with old friends and new acquaintances and get a lay of the land. After all, one of the chief tasks, and challenges, of a field research is to understand the on-the-ground networks and dynamics. It helps that I've been here before, but things change.

The highlight of this week, by far, was a project management workshop I attended at the International Academy of Business (also known by its Russian-language acronym, MAB), which is one of my host affiliations. The workshop was for small business entrepreneurs and NGO leaders in Kazakhstan. While the material was not necessarily new, engaging in the group activities with the entrepreneurs gave me such valuable insights into their norms, values and the way they approach management and building a small business. There were also some funny cultural moments.

One woman owns a fertility clinic and pregnancy care center -- they coach moms from conception through delivery and beyond. She told me I should come to her business. I told her I am here only ten months and there is no plan for me to have a baby. "Could you imagine if I came home from Kazakhstan after ten months with a baby, what would my mother say?" I told her. She remarked, in all seriousness, "she would be delighted!" I had to contain myself from laughing.

During a group activity on organizing a project timeline for planning a conference, I commented that buying gifts for attendees was not a central activity. My table of Kazakhs remarked, "no, of course it is." Then we laughed, because only an American like myself would think gifts are a superfluous addition to a conference. My comrades then explained to me that you have to invite at least 500 people to a Kazakh wedding, and up to 50-80% of a budget could be spent on gifts (in a more traditional home).

As you know, I am a huge supporter of State Department exchange programs -- after all, I've had the good fortune to participate in three of them. The State Department also organizes programs for foreign citizens to visit the US. I was pleased to have met this week two Muskie Fellows, a librarian who participated on a month-long State Department exchange for librarians where they travelled throughout the US and learned about our library catalogue and electronic database systems, and finally a woman whose husband was a Fulbright scholar at Washington University in St. Louis. It is really, really hard to measure the impacts of these people-to-people programs -- it is not like measuring GDP or employment. But this was a pretty special group of people gathered this week and the fact that at least (or as far as I know) three of them engaged in U.S.-supported exchange programs and are now leaders in their respective communities and organizations, says quite a lot for the value of these programs.

The training ran through Saturday and on Sunday, I returned to Baraholka!! It was exciting --- but I will not overwhelm you with details now. But I will attach a picture of a plastic bag from Baraholka that features panda bears and the word "Rakhmet," which is Kazakh for thank you. On the bottom, the word "recycle" is also spelled incorrectly. In my opinion, this little plastic bag is a fabulous crystallization of Chinese economic influence in Central Asia.

I'm off to Khorgos this evening to attend a trade promotion fare at the Khorgos Free Trade Zone (FTZ). The Khorgos FTZ runs across the Kazakh-Chinese border and provides special benefits to individuals and companies transporting cargo across the border. I've toured the Panama Pacifico FTZ and Special Economic Zone and the Colon Free Trade Zone, both in Panama, and am really excited to see Khorgos. I've read quite a bit about it and the special visa regime that governs the area -- you do not need a Kazakh or Chinese visa to enter/exit the zone for a limited amount of time (I believe a day or three days -- I forgot exactly). I'm also excited to see how it compares to the Panamanian FTZs in terms of logistics coordination and freight forwarding capacities. Khorgos is much smaller, in terms of meterage, and it appears it does not offer the same diversified services as the other two zones such as banking/financial options, different options for owning and leasing warehouse space, etc., but these are extremely well developed ports in one of the most important trade intersections in the world. Either way, I'll learn more about Khorgos and will let you know!


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Exploring Almaty's Underground Art Scene


I am so thrilled to be back in Almaty -- the smells, sounds, and the pulse of daily life. There is a certain rhythm of life here -- a sort of pulse -- that is unique to the city and its inhabitants. I guess it is a combination of the Soviet infrastructure, the burgeoning middle class and younger generation (which is quite evident in the city) and the smell of samsas, tea and cigarettes in underground walking passages.

I flew in early Wednesday morning and was picked up at the airport and brought to my apartment. I am renting a one-bedroom, Soviet-era apartment at the intersection of Gogolya and Baitursinova. It is comparable to other apartments I've lived in. I found the apartment through a friend who lives in Almaty and had the same landlords. I could live anywhere in the city, I just wanted a nice and responsible landlord. And I must say, the landlords -- an older Russian couple named Oleg and Tatiana -- are absolutely charming. 

(note Oleg and Tatiana are not their real names, but pseudonyms for the purpose of the blog)

When Oleg and Tatiana came over on Thursday night to bring me a microwave, Oleg inspected the apartment to make sure everything was working. He noticed a nail sticking up in the floor, took a tea spoon from the kitchen, and used the end as a screw driver to push the nail back down. He then smiled,  held up the spoon and proudly commented "A screw driver in Soviet style." When they were leaving, Oleg asked me why I brought rain boots. I told him I am like a pioneer (a Soviet youth organization) -- "Budt' gotov, vsegda gotov" (Be prepared, always prepared). They laughed, as I knew they would. I find that any Soviet era joke is a sure way to make friends. 

I have spent my time meeting with my affiliations and doing some prep work before I head into the bazaar.  I have an office at one of my affiliations, KIMEP, which is absolutely awesome. Granted KIMEP is about an hour's walk from my house, but it is nice to have a place to organize interviews, print documents and focus. I've never had an office before, so this is truly fantastic.

Saturday night was really fascinating! I met up with Anton, my friend from Summer 2011, and we went to an underground theatre, Art Shock. Art shock is one of Kazakhstan’s first independent, non-government affiliated theaters. It is this hipster type of theatre where you pay a flat 2,000 T for unlimited tea/coffee. There are no assigned seats, but rather there is an open area and a small stage where the featured performance occurs. There were probably no more than 10 to 15 of us in the audience.

We chatted with one of the bar tender’s who interestingly enough was born in Almaty, returned to his family’s native town of Yaroslavl in the 1990s, and is now living in Almaty. We asked originally where he was from and he said “Yaroslavl” and then when we asked why he was here he said “well it’s home.” It’s interesting to see how people self-identify based on ethnicity and place of birth.  This is not uncommon as a taxi driver who I befriended was Turkish. He explained his family is Turkish but he himself (in his 40s) was born and raised in Almaty. 

But back to the performance! The rapper, Takejan, at first glance, is a typical, Kazakh male, around age 40s. He wore jeans and a t-shirt. But don't let appearances fool you, as his work was fascinating and he was a truly powerful performer. Takejan rapped about time he spent time in a prison in Termez. He sang about revolution, AIDS and the need to not impose social stereotypes on others. He said everyone should be as they want, dance as they like and really be true to themselves. While this is a "kumbaya" message, the rap medium and underground atmosphere modified the message to appear more genuine rather than corny. Plus, Kazakhstan, particularly Almaty, has a growing "nouveau riche" class. Takejan's message is really important as Kazakhstan continues to develop. As a political scientist and historian, it is fascinating to witness first hand the development of the underground culture. Takejan is not singing about anything evil, bad or anti-establishment. He is simply using artform as a mechanism for expressing his political opinions and promoting social and political plurality.

I read about how bands like DDT and Akvarium started in basements and local performance halls with small audiences in the 1980s in the Soviet Union, which parallel's Takejan's performance in Art Shock. Kazakhstan is a young state and to witness the development of different classes and the evolution of culture, art and the intelligentsia, is quite remarkable.

Art Shock Theatre

Takejan on stage accompanied by a trumpet player

Takejan and his son on stage

Well, that is the highlight for now. This weekend is a holiday, Eid, so everything is closed Sunday through Tuesday, which gives me some time to catch up on work and overcome jetlag. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Back to Kazakhstan!!


Alas, I am returning to Kazakhstan to conduct my Fulbright research, formally titled "Challenges to Entrepreneurship in the Informal Bazaar Economy." Basically, I channelled my love for bazaars and outdoor markets into a formal research project. I'll spend quite a bit of time in the bazaar using a methodology of participant observation (basically shadowing a trader) and will also conduct interviews.

I'll certainly update the blog on my experiences overseas. I will have to safeguard many research details, though, in order to protect the integrity of the research process and the identity of research subjects. With that said, something tells me there will be more than enough information available for me to blog about.

As a Fulbright grantee, I must reassert that all opinions and information expressed on this blog are mine and do not represent the U.S. Government or U.S. Department of State.

I'll be based in Almaty, but plan to travel throughout Kazakhstan and the region. If you're in the area -- send me an email!