Wednesday, March 12, 2014

I've Got Friends in Cold Places

This may be the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about Kazakhstan:


But, alas, pop culture fails us once again.

This photo is both kinder to the eyeballs and better representative of the country's beauty:

on the plane ride into Almaty

But where is Kazakhstan?  And why go to Kazakhstan?  You are probably asking yourself one or both of these questions.  Allow me to enlighten.

Where is Kazakhstan?

I flew through Almaty (the old capital) and into Astana (the current capital) and stayed in Karaganda.  Kazakhstan was part of the former Soviet Union, until it declared independence on December 16, 1991.  I was in the country for the 22nd anniversary of this date! 

Why go to Kazakhstan?

 Because I have a wonderful friend there!  I met Aigerim at Ohio University, where we shared a major (Integrated Language Arts) and were members of the same CARE cohort.  I remember that she once referred to us as “teaching soulmates,” which I think sums up our relationship quite nicely.

It was interesting to visit a foreign country with the primary purpose of visiting a friend.  I didn't have the mindset of a tourist, but it was still impossible not to observe and want to learn more about differences that are staring me in the face.  I was embarrassed about how little I knew about my friend’s cultural background —‘Murica.

So, rather than give a play-by-play of my week in Kazakhstan, here is a list of random information and casual reflections about the country that you might find interesting.

1) People are very quiet in public. 
When I go grocery shopping in the U.S., I know that the woman next to me at the checkout line is buying special canned food for her constipated cat and Velveeta cheese to use in a casserole for her daughter’s basketball potluck banquet.  I know this because she is reviewing each item in the grocery cart with her husband.  On the phone.  Loudly.  In Kazakhstan, you shop in silence—whispers, at most.  And you just don’t have constipated cats; it's better that way.

2) Most women wear black, heeled boots
and generally care more about their appearance than I do; it's better that way.  I got a haircut there, and the Russian-speaking stylist was visibly appalled by the shapeless mop that was growing upon my head.  She was also visibly distressed when her "just a trim" instructions (translated before Aigerim went to get her nails done) were eventually challenged by the fingers-as-scissors gestures I rapidly made at the back of my head.  The trim just looked too much like a mullet for my liking.

pothead with a mullet

I know there are many ridiculous-to-the-point-of-impressive mullets out there, but I chose to feature Johnny Appleseed, that saintly frontiersman cum conservationist, because…

3) The gene pool of wild apples in the foothills of Almaty is the deepest in the world.
In other words, apples originated here!  I learned this in The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan.  It was quite a coincidence to read about Kazakhstan and my near-hometown of Defiance, Ohio in the same chapter of a book that I just happened to be reading while in Kazakhstan.  But I have to admit, this apple business really cut to the ‘core’ (hehe) of my identity.  What’s more American than apple pie?  One thing is decidedly less American…

4) Horse meat.
I remember the first education class I took with Aigerim.  We had to make nametags and decorate them to represent our unique, special selves.

*insert warm, fuzzy feelings here*

Aigerim's included a picture of a horse… because it was her favorite food, not her favorite animal as everyone had expected. 

*insert groans of disgusted college students here* 

However, the process of consuming horse in Kazakhstan is far more humane and transparent than chomping on some chicken nuggets in the United States.  Because horse is not sold in the grocery stores, you have to go directly to the farm and choose your animal before it is butchered for you.  I wish it were easier to look your food in the eye in America.

5) It’s polite to be offered something many times before accepting.
Do you want some horse meat? 
Do you want some horse meat? 
Do you want some horse meat? 
…But really, no.

6) People with various disabilities and addictions are isolated and removed from the public eye, often placed in under-funded facilities.
While wheelchair ramps and other basic modifications are being championed in bigger cities, it’s a slow process.  Aigerim remembers being impressed by the education class dedicated solely to providing accommodations for all students, including those with physical disabilities.  There is obviously room for improvement in the U.S. as it pertains to equal access, but I’m proud that we’re on the right track.

7) Public education only lasts half the day
in order to make full use of school buildings and teaching staff.  Just like in India, many students go to extra tutorial classes for the other half of the day.  Teaching these classes is what Aigerim does for a living.

8) You must give up your seat for older passengers on the bus,
even if you are carrying an unwieldy backpack, or you will be forcibly prodded and feel like an even bigger jerk than when you don't bring food to a potluck.  

at a crafting class

delicious candies from KZ and surrounding countries

view from Aigerim's apartment--cold but beautiful!

Bayterek, an emblematic building that is featured on Kazakh currency

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