Thursday, December 18, 2014

Reflections on the Semester and Happy Holidays

Comrades,

It has been a while. I'm sure many of you thought this blog was defunct. I just don't have anything blog-worthy to write about as an MA student and young professional in DC. I'm always writing, of course, mostly for academia.

But there have been many a time when I felt the need to post about the post-Fulbright, reintegration process. Now that the semester is over, I now have time to do so.

No one talks about the challenge of reintegration after an extended overseas research trip. Not to whine, but it sucks. I am not complaining and everyone goes through this, so I am absolutely not unique in this respect. And I would not have changed my work experience overseas for the world. Best year of my (albeit very young) life. But I figured it is worth updating the blog and fleshing through the challenges of reintegration, especially when you are returning from a region you spend 99% of your time thinking about.

There are trivial aspects to reintegration. It took me a good month to learn what Uber is. I'm still wrapping my mind around the concept to be honest. It is basically a formalized system of gypsy cabs. Overseas, I would get in any random gypsy cab just by standing near the side of the road. I would negotiate my rate in Russian and/or Kazakh and sometimes the cab driver would pick up multiple people along the way. Here, you order a cab ahead of time, pay with a credit card, and have exclusive service. Of course, this is more expensive, but you can be sure that you will get to your destination safely. The costs of formalization and modernization...

But Uber and pop-culture facts aside, it is the challenges of realigning different value systems, social practices, expectations and material cultures that is hard. Also, keeping in touch with my coworkers from the bazaar -- especially those who do not have a computer and rely on their cell phones. Fortunately, whatsapp has helped with that, so I am able to keep in touch with my Tajik and Kazakh brothers from the bazaar. I also call my boss from Baraholka at least once a month. So it's been fun to hear about how the market has changed -- one of my bratishkas took my place as the salesperson for my boss. My buddy moved locations and started renting a container in a different bazaar. Some went home to Tajikistan. Two of my bratishkas were able to acquire passports for their wives to join them in Almaty.  For a while, some would call my US cell phone at 3 in the morning (DC time), not realizing that there is a 10 (now 11) hour time difference between us. It is nice to keep in touch with "the family." And keeps me in touch with that hilarious, and fantastic Central Asian culture, that I miss oh so much.

Just the other day, I received a "Whats App" message from G. G is an older lady who sold men's shoes in one of the three containers my boss owned. She sent me a mass text message that you are supposed to forward to others as a sign of good luck. As seen in the image below, G (white text box) sends me the message with a bunch of $$. I respond (green text box): G! Hi! How are you? I'm thrilled, that you wrote to me. G responds (white box): Hello! Everything is good with us. How are you? When are you getting married?

G, you're great. Never change.



And yet, I cannot help but feel guilty. My bratishkis ask when I'm coming back, and I have no idea. Now that I only have one semester left of my MA and am ending the "student phase" of life (finally), my travel opportunities are few and far between. I of course hope to stay involved in the region, but I am realistic enough to realize that I may not be able to do so in the immediate future. When I think back to what I was doing this time last year, I recall the pre-holiday sales rush of people shopping for gifts. I read over my field notes from December 2013 and one anecdote stood out. We had a mother and daughter (ages 60 and 40 maybe) come into the container to buy new shoes for the holiday. They went to the final sales bin and picked out a pair of matching, dermantin, short-heel booties. They usually cost 3,000 tenge final sale, but it was a slow day, so we negotiated two pairs for 4,000 tenge total. They paid 4,000 tenge in one plastic bag with 50 tenge coins (at the time, that was $19.48, but according to today's exchange rate, that is $21). I sat and counted out all of the coins. This was literally all they could afford. And so, when I read the stories about the dollar-ruble exchange rate, and in the Kazakhstani press about a potential devaluation, I have a different take on this issue than most people in the Central Asian business, political, diplomatic and academic community. I find that I mostly agree with economists on these sorts of issues. I guess you could say the issues are more personal. I remember when I went to the bazaar the day of the February 2014 tenge devaluation. The effects of that were felt for a while. But I digress. My point is that I know the value of a tenge to a large chunk of the population, and what a difference any sort of devaluation can make. This is especially important for the traders, pension recipients and people in the informal economy who do not have formally written contracts with the bazaar administrations and are therefore subject to random price charges (gosarenda is once again increasing this year).

With that said, I am disgusted when I read comments on Twitter expressing schadenfreude about the collapse of the Russian economy. That's just mean. Real people suffer. I don't consider myself a humanitarian, but inflating the already-tense political situation with malicious rhetoric and passive aggressive comments just fuels the fire and makes Russians that much more unwilling to engage in a constructive, transparent dialogue with the U.S.

My interactions in the bazaar and exposure to people who really have so little made me appreciate what I have a lot more. That sounds corny. But when I hear people complain about waiting 5 minutes for a bus in DC, or an Uber driver that is 3 minutes late, I really have no patience. I waited 20 minutes for a bus in Almaty. And it was no big deal.

What tears at me the most is when I read the news of events in Kazakhstan and Russia, and how I am so far away -- unable to talk to my friends and networks and get a real sense of the events on the ground. This is particularly true with respect to local politics and the fate of the country's bazaars. There was another bazaar fire in September and I recalled the fires I experienced when I was there. November 17 was the one-year anniversary of the fire in Gloria and Kulager, so thinking back on that, and comparing my experiences and the news coverage is an enlightening exercise.

I guess it is most challenging to try to explain my experiences in the professional and academic realm. I was a TA for a course, "Government and Politics of the Former Soviet Union"  at Georgetown this semester and my professor gave me wonderful free reign to re-do the Central Asia unit. It was a nice challenge to teach Central Asia as a political scientist, drawing from published works and my own analysis, and in the context of Russia and Ukraine's respective political evolutions since 1991. This was a healthy and fun experience. Though, I must say, walking onto Georgetown's campus the first day of class and witnessing a mass of smiling, laughing, Vineyard vines-clad students was overwhelming. I called one of the other Fulbrighters for a good "holy sh-t, we are in America," vent session.

Returning to Georgetown was great in that I know the campus, professors and my program. But my graduate cohort and undergraduate classmates graduated so it was weird being on the same campus but without the people who I usually associate with Georgetown. Of course, getting back into student mode was not my favorite thing, but that was a fairly easy transition. I know the expectations. What was hard, though, was getting back into "DC mode" as a young professional. I've been off the grid doing my thing overseas for the past year, so returning to the DC network and also coping with DC egos, was an experience.

I am also able to stay in the loop with the DC-area Central Asia business, political and diplomatic community. Perhaps this is the inner historian/anthropologist in me, but it is fascinating to compare the behavioral and thematic discourses on identical topics between elites in the host nation and overseas (I use the word "elite" not in a pejorative way, but rather as a political science term -- diplomats are elites). And it is always fascinating to compare my experiences with those of others who have served in Kazakhstan and/or Russia as a researcher, businessman or government employee. There are some things I find to be way off (perception versus reality) and some things are spot on.

I will refrain from going into too much detail, but the main conclusions I can draw from all of this, is that it is important to question the news. Inquire as to the source of the media, who is writing it, and what are their motivations. Also, use facts. Data-driven analysis and policies are the most effective. Do not fall into the habit of using generalized tropes or political jargon.

Granted, I have no authority to "preach," and everything I'm saying is applicable to the US. But especially when it comes to judging other cultures and in light of current U.S.-Russia relations, I would like people to please keep in mind that not all Russians are bad. One of my objectives in starting this blog is to show that people are people. Russians and Americans need to calm down the rhetoric. I know the arguments used by both sides and there are clear communication issues and some disagreements. But relations did not have to deteriorate as quickly and as destructively as they did.

For researchers -- all I can say is that there is a reintegration process. It differs for each person, but it is there. Before your trip, the grant-giving organization tells you to bring back aspects of the overseas culture with you to America. While this is true on a personal note, communicating your experiences and, more importantly, key lessons and themes from your time overseas, is not so easy.

All of that aside, when I'm not TAing, working, studying, or skyping with my bratishkas, I spend my "free time" working on my academic publications based on my Fulbright research. This had to take a back seat during the second half of the semester, but I'm looking forward to wrapping things up over break (hopefully). I will spare you the details of the trials of academic publishing. All I can say is that I am glad I grew up an athlete and have a thick skin.

I celebrated the past two New Years Holidays in Kazakhstan (2013 and 2014). So this is the first time in two years I am stateside for the holiday. As an ode to the FSU, I will be watching the film Ирония судьбы on TV, but will miss the Presidential New Years address. I wish everyone a happy and healthy new year and a happy hanukkah!




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