New Year’s in the Village

New Year's is a big holiday here.  The locals somehow make it last an entire week.  Everyone has a decorated Christmas tree (yulta) for New Year's.  They look exactly like our Christmas trees.  And for some reason, Santa Claus (Ded Morose, which translates as Grandfather Frost) is a part of the New Year's celebration.  Helping old Grandfather Frost is his grandaughter, little snow girl (Snickarichka).  My host brother asked me if Americans also have a little snow girl.  I felt like a complete idiot explaining that we didn't have a little snow girl, but we have little men.  Sometimes when you try explaining cultural matters in a foreign language, it just ends up sounding really stupid.

My host family killed a sheep on New Year's eve.  The grandparents pulled up in a taxi, and out popped the sheep (still alive) from the trunk.  They took the sheep out back, laid it on the ground, the grandfather said a Muslim prayer, and then they slit its throat.  They asked me if I wanted to take a picture of the sheep bleeding out its life, but I declined.  Once they took the stomach out of the sheep, it's overall size shrank dramatically.  Definitely, when picking out your sheep at the market, you have to keep in mind that the owner might have just fed it a lot of hay, thus making it seem fatter than it truly is. I'll have to add that to my list of Things I Learned in Kyrgyzstan. Also, if you kill the sheep yourself, you have to clean the intestines out yourself — which involves pushing crap pellets out of a long tube.

The first serving of sheep parts consisted entirely of the innards — liver, stomach, intestines, and other wiggly bits.  I really tried to eat it, but it did not taste good.  They didn't cook it with any spices.  Everything was boiled in a big pot, with maybe an onion and some salt for flavor.  I wouldn't recommend this recipe.  Thankfully, since I'm not male, I wasn't offered the sheep's eyeballs.

After midnight, everyone went outside (in the freezing cold!) and the kids shot off fireworks.  It was one of those moments where I realized what safety freaks Americans are.  I would never place a rocket in a 4 year old kid's hand and trust the kid not to aim it at people or power lines.

Christmas at the Hyatt

I spent Christmas eve at the Hyatt.  What can I say?  I'm an American with a credit card, and I'm not afraid to use it.

The security at the Hyatt is, of course, crazy since it's a Muslim country.  They stop cars at the gate and look for bombs.  I walked up since I'd taken the bus in from my village.  Despite the fact that I was wearing a very western backpack, I got stopped by the guy at the door since everyone thinks I'm Kyrgyz.  He said something to me in Russian, but with visions of a hot shower dancing in my head, all I could say was, "What?" in English.  Then, he said something to me in Kyrgyz, and I said, "What?" This guy was standing between me and a hot shower, and trust me, these days you do not want to be the person keeping me from a hot shower with good water pressure.  He's still trying to speak to me in a local language, and finally I just said, "I have a reservation!"  Ah, English, the language that makes the doors to the Hyatt swing open.

I only stayed one night, but I took 3 showers.  I spent a few hours Christmas eve washing my clothes in the hotel room sink.  I still haven't figured out how to do laundry at my village, and by Christmas
eve, I had run out of clean underwear.  I think the issue is that most people at my village don't change their clothes, thus there isn't much laundry to do every week.  I am now doing the local thing and changing my clothes once a week (yup, underwear and socks, too).  But, I still don't know how to get my laundry done.  How can you line dry stuff outside when the temperature is below freezing all the time?  My host family's stuff has been hanging outside, completely frozen with icicles dripping down.  Do they just wait till spring?

The only bad thing that happened during my stay at the Hyatt was that they took my fruit bowl when I was at breakfast.  Three huge oranges and two large apples.  I had been saving them for when I got back to my village.  Oranges here are expensive, and apples are out of season, now. This has got to be one of the few countries where the housekeeping staff steals your fruit bowl.

All in all, my Christmas was great.  I couldn't go home to the US, but I got to pretend like I was in the US for a few hours.  And, I got my laundry done!

Arriving at Site

My first thought when I arrived at my site was, "Oh, my god, there’s snow."  At my training village, temperatures would hit freezing overnight and there would be frost on the ground in the morning, but it hadn’t snowed, yet.  The village I’ve been assigned to is at a higher elevation, so it’s been cold.

For a lot of the trainees who were learning Russian during training, their worst fear was that they’d end up assigned to a Kyrgyz-speaking community (it’s happened in the past).  I have been assigned to a school where all lessons are conducted in Kyrgyz.  But, wait, I’m learning Russian!  Well, there apparently was some miscommunication, but they don’t want to move me, so here I am.  Speaking Russian in a Kyrgyz-speaking community.  My host family understands Russian, all the teachers at the school understand Russian, and all the older students understand Russian, so it’ll work out.  But, I do feel like there’s more of a chill in the air since I don’t speak Kyrgyz.

Two host families in the village agreed to and then backed out of hosting me before I got there.  I’m not sure what happened, but it does make me feel a bit unloved.  I wonder if it’s because they were worried that I’d live up to the stereotype here of American women: smokes, drinks, and is sexually loose.  Well, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I’d be very shocked if anyone who knew me would describe me as sexually loose.

My current host family has four kids.  The oldest is in my English class.  A bit strange to be living with one of your students, but thankfully he’s a good kid, so I don’t have yell at him in class.  Electricity and water so far have been more reliable in my current village than in my training village.  Also, cell phone reception has been much better.  It seems like such a contradiction:  I have a cell phone, but I go to the bathroom in an outhouse.

Where I’m Going

We found out our site placements on Wednesday.  Most people were happy; a few cried because they were unhappy with their sites.

I will be in Chui oblast, 20 kilometers south of the capital (Bishkek).  The village I will be in is small; population 2,500.  It’s a mostly agricultural area.  But, there is regular marshuka (bus) service into the capital! I will be teaching English at a public secondary school that has about 400 students.  I will be their first Peace Corps volunteer.  I don’t have any information yet on my next homestay. We are required to do another 3 months of homestay.  But, I think in such a small village, there might not be any apartments for me to move into after the required homestay period, so I might be in a homestay for the entire 2 years.

I’m very happy (or relieved) with my site placement.  But, I have to admit I’m worried about my next homestay.  My current host family is wonderful and it was a great fit for me, so it’s difficult to leave them.

Teaching Practicum, Week 2

Attendance statistics for this week: Monday, 16 students out of 27 show up. Tuesday, 18 students show up. Wednesday, 22 students show up.

This Saturdays class was cancelled because the students are cleaning the school on Saturday. I have heard from current volunteers that class schedules can be very erratic. Other teachers will tell your class that they don’t have to go to your class (without checking with you first). That’s what happened to me last Saturday. The teacher who had my class the period before mine wouldn’t let most of my class leave (and didn’t bother to tell me). So, I only had a handful of “good” students show up last Saturday.

I assigned homework on Tuesday. The students were to write me a list of 10 words they would like to learn (I know, I was demanding a lot). Number of students who had completed their homework assignment on Wednesday: 1.

The Soviet style of teaching foreign languages in Kyrgyzstan involves a lot of translating of texts and little speaking. So, we’re trying to get students to practice speaking and improve their listening comprehension. I had my students do exercises where everyone in the class had to stand up and speak a few sentences. When it was their turn, I had a few students tell me (someone else translated the Russian into English) that they didn’t want to do it. “Uh, what?! Hey kid, this isn’t optional. I’m the teacher and you’re going to perform the tasks I give you.” I didn’t actually say that. I just said, “Really?” and stood in front of them asking questions until I got a few answers out of them. I don’t know if the students refuse to do their work with their other teachers, or if they only behave like this with the Americans. In any case, I was completely floored that a student would refuse to do an assignment. I thought that respecting your elders was very important in this culture. What happened to that? I’m older!

All in all, the teaching practicum was a useful experience. I got great feedback and suggestions from my LCF (who observed two of my classes). I know that I will have to teach some basic concepts when I get to my site … being on time, being late, how to do group work, and how to make a plan and organize your work. Learning names was very important. I had better control over the boys in my class when I could call on them by name.