Uzbekistan: Averting Disaster

In Uncategorized on April 10, 2011 at 1:05 pm

I got bed bugs in Bukhara. I think that’s what they were, anyway, but after a quick online image search brought up pictures of people whose faces had been gnawed off, I was too squeamish to find out exactly what had left patches of itchy bites all over my body. Nobody in Kazakhstan had warned me about the possibility of being eaten alive by tiny blood-sucking insects, but they were sure that many other terrible things would befall me in Uzbekistan, the treacherous land south of the border…

1. Get bribed by corrupt officials and wrung for all I’m worth.

At the border crossing, two officials waved me into a small booth with mirrored windows (heartening) and asked me if I was carrying psychotropic drugs. To their disappointment, I only had Tums and fifty bucks. “Throw it all out on the table!” said small-hatted goon #2, making a sweeping gesture to indicate I should turn my pockets inside out. Big hat goon #1 intervened, however, and I happily kept all my money.

2. Be arrested on trumped-up charges by paranoid policemen.

Uzbekistan is a police state, which sounds intimidating, but actually has a hilarious manifestation: apparently, half of all employable men are policemen (a rather ingenious way of eliminating street crime). Policemen were ubiquitous, and so numerous at important historical sites that it seemed like clusters of them might break into choreographed song and dance numbers. Besides that, they were shockingly friendly and polite. The one time we were asked to show our documents, in the Metro, the officer smiled and bowed. It’s common practice even for locals to ask directions from cops.

Clearly they’ve been well schooled on the importance of not messing with tourists, because Johnny and I got out of one almost certain disaster totally unscathed. It’s a strange fact that in Uzbekistan the official value of som is about twice that of the black market, to the point where even tour agencies recommend exchanging money in a back alley. One evening, Johnny and I chanced on a drunk guy perched on a curb croaking “dollar!” and followed him to his tiny store. We had about 200 dollars to exchange, and because of the low value of som against dollars and the low denominations of som, we began to fill our backpack up with huge wads of cash. At one point, the drunk guy got his figures mixed up, and a cop walked in to the store behind us just as Johnny was patting his backpack and explaining, “I HAVE FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND IN HERE RIGHT NOW!”. How we managed to not get bribed beyond belief, I have no idea. I doubt it had anything to do with drunk-o shrugging innocently and whining to the cop “come on, mister, it’s a holiday!”.

3. Stumble on pockmarked streets and fall into large steaming manhole of filth a la Katharine Duckett.

Oftentimes, one image in my mind epitomizes an entire concept for me. For example, when I think of the trash piles I see daily in my village in Kazakhstan, I think about a family of turkeys I once saw picking at dirty diapers someone had deposited behind the bazaar.

Uzbek people in Kazakhstan had told me that Tashkent was free of litter, but I skeptically chalked it up to romantic notions of homeland. How happy I was to be proven wrong! Immediately over the border the change was apparent. Streets – even their gutters – were clean. Trashpickers, weeders, and whitewashers were everywhere. It wasn’t just the capital, either; all along the rural roads there were beautiful plantings and well-tended orchards, all free of litter. Once, in front of the Amir Temur mausoleum in Samarkand, I saw a man chatting to his friend while polishing his shoes with a bit of paper. After he’d finished, he walked several meters to the right and deposited the paper in a trash can. KZPCVs, keep your pants on.

Believe it or not, there were numerous documented sightings of lawnmowers. And at Ulughbek’s observatory, I saw a man lovingly cutting the grass with scissors.

4. Be shocked by rude, uncultured, greedy people and their barren country of despair.

There are many things that Kazakhstan should improve upon, but the system of gypsy cabs has always seemed perfect to me. For a small fee, random people will shuttle you most anywhere. The convenience and logic of it is hard to beat. But Uzbekistan managed to one-up its northern neighbor yet again in this respect. First, the cars themselves are better. At some point, the Korean car manufacturer Daewoo opened a factory in Uzbekistan and flooded the market with cute, cheap, European-style cars. Don’t doubt my love for CCCP clunkers: I still squeal when I see Volgas, and I’ve got it bad for an eggplant Lada. But it was very nice, for once, to hitch a ride in something that had been inspected in the last decade. Even better, drivers almost always stopped in multiple. There would invariably be a patient queue of white Daewoos waiting to take us to our destination.

People were very polite and friendly. And as for the natural and architectural beauty, the photos speak for themselves. I took about 600. I wish I could have beamed Sari Goodfriend over for a week – I felt hopeless to capture the imposing doorways and arches without distorting them.

There’s one thing you’ve got to read about, but only if you won’t judge me: I got a full-body massage by an Uzbek man while lying buck naked on a marble slab inside a hammom. At first when the guy told me to take off my robe I told him I’d rather wait for the friendly female masseuse that was sure to arrive. When he disabused me of that expectation, I figured I had two choices: abandon ship, sacrificing pride and money, or just take a deep breath and drop trou (or in this case, sheet).

You know how in real estate location is everything? In nudity, context is everything. Yes, I was alone in a dark steamy chamber with a strange (and let’s face it, he wasn’t bad looking) man. Yes, he was rubbing my naked, soapy body with his capable manly hands. But it was unmistakable that he viewed my body as a series of knots to be unwound, respectfully and diligently, and he paused only occasionally to ask if I was okay. The massage itself defies description. The man did things to my joints that I didn’t know could be done. At one point, he pushed his fist up the length of my spine and cracked several vertebrae like gunfire. I left feeling like a rag doll.

She’s Got a Powerful Tongue

In Uncategorized on March 12, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Depending on your age, you might think 25 is young, but by Kazakhstani standards, I’m a crusty old raisin. I went to a surprisingly un-CCCP “training seminar” the other day in which, after being taught disco dance moves by the jelly-shaking hostess, we were told to write 20 things we have done and 20 things we have yet to do. I’m an American, man – I jumped on it! I was scribbling #25 on my to-do list, “Document obscure language in tropical location”, when my friend nudged me forlornly. She had two things written: Get married; Have kids. “We’re so old!” she said. Sorry, girlfriend, no empathy for you. Old is not in my genes. My grandmother is currently sailing around the Caribbean with her boyfriend.

[Random tangent: after having us make those lists, the trainer showed us a priceless inspirational video called Law of Attraction. Basic premise: everything that happens to you was attracted to you, by you. After invoking Galileo and Newton, the hosts (whose stellar titles, such as ‘Michael Lambasto, Visionary’, and ‘Wilson LaMonte, Entrepreneur’, mean the thing was made by a bunch of unemployed guys in a basement) went on to explain that if, for example, you are afraid that your bike might be stolen (dramatization of man in fuzzy sepia city locking his bike to a pole and looking around nervously), the mind vibes that you let off (man’s head emits radiating light akin to nuclear bomb impact) will attract bike-stealing thieves (man returns to pole, despairingly grasps at limp bike chain). Wilson LaMonte or whoever then clarifies that, although you might be thinking “Man, I didn’t attract all that debt/recent robbery/car accident”, sorry buddy, you actually did. The take-home message of the video – only send out positive nuclear bomb mind vibes – was brilliantly illustrated yesterday when some lady parked her twin babies in a stroller on the sidewalk and then went to get ice cream down the street. Clearly, she was emitting zero baby-stealing mind vibes. A-plus for parenting!]

But, as of this week, I’m now in the oldest group of volunteers here. The 23rd group of Kaz volunteers has arrived! Soon I’ll be going to help train them, which probably will make me feel old. The first thing that volunteers do upon arrival in Almaty is choose between studying either Russian or Kazakh. Rumor has it that staff is increasing the ratio of Kazakh to Russian learners. At our training, staff had to force people into the Kazakh learning group, which was about a quarter the size of the Russian group. Our Kazakh group was mostly women and two total dorkosaurus guys (Jon, you know I love ya, please don’t punch a tree). People cited all sorts of reasons for wanting to learn Russian over Kazakh, such as its broader usefulness and world-language status, but I don’t buy it. How many RPCVs read Pushkin in bed at night? Probably the same number that reads Abai. I think our group was more attracted to Russian because it’s perceived as more powerful and sexier (same thing, really).

I’m not referring to the economic power of Russia, I mean the power that a language is endowed with the more it’s spoken or written. I think that consciously or subconsciously, people are aware of other peoples’ use of a particular language, and that this affects their own feeling toward it. For example, when I say “thank you very much” in Kazakh, I see a mental litany of Kazakh village people saying it after receiving a gift or seeing off a guest. When I say the same phrase in Russian, I see sexy cosmopolitan models saying it after being told they’re gorgeous. I see Stalin saying it after learning of Hitler’s retreat (haha, okay so maybe not that exact phrase, but you get the idea).

Maybe you’re thinking: doesn’t she just mean economic power makes a language powerful? But English serves as a great example of how that’s not true. English is, and will likely always be, the international language. This is not because England is powerful, but because English itself has become powerful. Everyone in Kazakhstan knows the phrase “I love you”, or at the very least, “HELLO!” My students who only get to bathe once a week still join Facebook. People still ask me if I know Schwarzenegger, “the Governator! Hahaha!” (how do people KNOW about that??). English is truly globalized; it has gone beyond its roots in any particular place.

And then within English, within everyone’s native tongue, there are phrases that are more powerful than others. When someone says “Will you marry me?” it’s powerful for the meaning, of course, but also because those are the exact words that your cousin Sammy said to his wife and Paul McCartney said to Linda, and your consciousness of that links the whole situation to a broader importance that has been established by countless people on bended knee. The same with “fuck you” – it doesn’t even really mean anything negative, in a way, but its actual meaning has nothing to do with the powerful negativity it has attained through extensive use.

Power in language has another interesting side to it: male vs female usage. Did you know that studies have shown women to use more proper and accurate language, as opposed to the more vernacular language of men? Apparently, this is because accurate language is a form of symbolic capital – a way to be perceived by others as valuable – and women count more on symbolic capital to define their social position than men, who are judged more by skills or activities.

But that’s not the only reason that women tend to be more accurate in language use. It’s been shown women in a position of economic or material disadvantage use more linguistic politenesses, and conversely that “coarse and nonstandard” language use in women is linked to increased economic empowerment. To which I say, hells to the yes, fo shizzle my feminizzle. Paycheck please!

Recently, to make up for lack of libraries, I’ve been reading JSTOR articles online (so dorkosaurus). I found some really interesting information about the status of women and language in post-Soviet countries. In Ukraine, a broad-reaching study found that subjects listening to the same woman speaking Ukrainian and, later, Russian, judged her to be more honest, intelligent, trustworthy, and a slew of other qualities (all except hard-working, hah!) when she was speaking Russian.

Those results certainly resonate with the linguistic climate here. The Russian language embodies all things chic and important. Again, you could say it’s because Russia is an economic power, but I think the relationship between languages in Kazakhstan has taken on its own direction, irrespective of the former USSR. I see my Uzbek/Tatar intern belittle Uzbek students by berating and condescending to them in Russian. How else can she make them respect her? She’s just a year older than they are. And here in the south, it’s a war of tongues between Kazakh and Uzbek (teehee, tongue war). Uzbeks are elated to hear me speaking their language, rather than that ugly guttural abomination that is Kazakh, and Kazakhs are disgusted to hear my Kazakh dirtied by an Uzbek word or accent.

In any case, I’m beyond excited to go to Uzbekistan in ONE WEEK!!! Since 2009 I’ve been living in one country and speaking primarily the language of another (you know, the one where people are nosy and have bone in their brain). I finally get to go to Uzbekistan, the fascinating land of Silk Road legend, beautiful textiles, and polow… and shock people with my Kazakh accent! Although apparently in Samarkand, Tajik is the language of the streets. Better dust off my two semesters of Persian. Oops, shouldn’t have spent them flirting with the teacher.


In Uncategorized on January 19, 2011 at 8:04 pm

If you live in a village in Kazakhstan, spending a week in Seoul is the perfect vacation. East Asia meets West Asia, and the similarities between them make the differences stand out all the more. Remember the scene in Cinderella where a filament of fairy godmother sparkles turns mice into horses, a pumpkin into a carriage, and rags into a glitterific gown? Korea is Kazakhstan plus Bibbidy Bobbidy Boo. The faces on the street seem familiar, but instead of ankle-length fur-collared tsarina coats and hooker heels, Koreans wear cute colorful sneakers and fashionable oversized scarves. Squat toilets make your skin crawl? Fairy godmother presents: heated thrones with ample TP and a number of dubious bidet options. Both Koreans and Kazakhs are meat-lovers, but the big vat of boiled mutton and sloppy noodles is magically upgraded to pork, veggies, and kimchi sizzling on your table’s own charcoal grill. And if sketchy Gypsy cabs got you down, try an immaculate Korean taxi, complete with a meter (!) whose own special algorithm ensures that you get a fair wage, even if you encounter traffic.

I took almost perverse pleasure in the fairness that I encountered. In a cheap salon one day, it took a total of six people to cut and dry my crazy-ass curly mane, and I don’t think it even occurred to them to charge me extra (I tipped the main stylist five bucks and he gawked in disbelief). Even weirder, people wait in line. The whole week I had the bizarre sensation that nobody was trying to rip me off. It was great, but I couldn’t help thinking… you’re all suckers! (Uhh… is that bad?)

The museums were unbelievable, and so humbling. It seems that Koreans were making delicate pottery while we were still grunting unintelligibly and drawing horses on the wall. Their National Museum is massive, allegedly built to withstand everything except a direct nuclear hit, and given North Korea’s recent adolescent taunting, that seems rational. Another spectacular stop was the War Museum, chock full of indictments of North Korean belligerence, thorough historical displays, hilarious/terrifying dioramas (see in FB photo album: North Koreans Beating South Koreans in an Unprovoked Attack in the DMZ… I swear that was the actual caption), virtual reality firing ranges and futuristic weapons displays.

Johnny and I had a great time eating our way through Seoul and seeing my old friend Marc, and then at midnight, the spell broke and our carriage turned into a pumpkin. But it wasn’t so bad coming back home. Seoul felt unreal; Kazakhstan was just a return to reality.

Everything’s great in the village now; it’s not so cold for January and work is getting more interesting by the day. I’m moving into a new apartment where the rent is lower and there will be a washing machine – talk about perfection! Sometimes, Kazakhstan definitely pulls through. And though I’m feeling supremely settled in and productive and generally happy, I’m ready to move on. This school year will come to a close, and with it will finish all of the projects I’ve been planning. After a couple months of summer, all loose ends will be tied up and I’ll be ready to leave.

And as it turns out, I will be leaving in August. Though a typical Peace Corps tour is 27 months (two years of work plus three months of training) our administration has rearranged the schedule of entering and exiting volunteers so that newbies will now come in March. When that happens, there will be far more volunteers than is sustainable for the country staff to manage. Because of that, they’re sending our group home three months early. Perfect!

I have lots of ideas of what I want to do next, but graduate school is not one of them. Though the security is tempting, I’m not ready to jump back into academia yet, even though this program seems so perfect for me. Living in America is certainly an option, though I’d love to spend some time working for an international aid organization in Uzbekistan or with an Uzbek diaspora group somewhere, given how much effort I’ve put into learning this language and culture.

One thing I’m almost certain to be doing is travelling. If you have a chance, read Vikram Seth’s From Heaven Lake. In it he describes a trip west from China’s major cities to Urumqi, populated by Uighurs and Kazakhs, and then his descent through Tibet and Nepal into India. I loved the way he described the constant but minute changes that signified one culture bleeding into another, and I want to witness it myself. Fortunately, Peace Corps sees fit to pad our pockets with a pretty respectable “readjustment allowance”, as well as offering us the option to cash in our plane ticket home (no small sum… finally, an upside to being so ridiculously far from home!). I can imagine myself “readjusting” pretty well, maybe on the Tibetan plateau with a cup of yak-butter tea.

I have to write about something that makes me so happy every time I think about it. One of my best students at college went to America with a so-called educational farming program. He left in September and was placed on a factory farm in the middle of nowhere, without any recourse for the inhumane conditions he was working in. After visiting my parents in Boston for Thanksgiving, he and they recognized that the situation had to change. All three of them worked together to overcome the many obstacles put up for them by the host program, and finally, amazingly, found him a new job on a small organic farm.

When the truth about his original situation came to light, I felt so ashamed of my countrymen for their mistreatment of a young foreigner (especially after all the kindness and generosity that’s been proffered to me here) and angry that I’d encouraged my student to put his studies on hold and become an indentured servant to some asshole. But I was also powerless to do much. My parents took it upon themselves to ameliorate his situation, despite having met this boy only once and receiving only discouragement from everyone that should have been concerned about him. In a few days he’ll meet his new hosts and, fingers crossed, start to have the experience he signed up for. I’m so proud of and grateful to my mom and dad!

Poetically (can I say that?), his family has been so kind to me, inviting me over and offering all sorts of exorbitant help to me. They are the funniest and nicest family I’ve met here, generous without being pushy, affectionate without being saccharine, so gracious. His six-year-old sister’s got perfect dimples.

To see Korea photos click here.