Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"Fall is fighting" (Kyrgyz saying)

It's the last week of November and things are well.

It has yet to become frightningly cold ... and, I'm thankful for that. Although, two packages finally made it to me last week from the U.S. with warm clothes and most importantly - shoes, so now I'm ready to brave the icy chills that are brewing at the top of Kyrgyzstan's mountains.

My English Club has lost its novelty, and now there are about three students who come each time - three days a week for one hour. Two of them would like to be translators one day and are very persistent in their goal to learn English - which I am more than happy to help with.
But, I'm finding that I really should spend more time studying teaching methods and coming up with more creative actitives. My goal for this month is to improve my Kyrgyz and make up some fun games for my classes.

(Above and below are pictures of myself and the girls from the 9th form ... by far my most dedicated students! To the right, my English club classroom.)

I will be celebrating Thanksgiving with a group of volunteers in Jalalabad city this weekend, look for pictures from that gathering soon.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in America!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

November 7, 2008

It is ‘autumn break’ here and there are no classes so I’ve had ample time to read and write this week, and plan for the beginning of the second academic quarter.

My host mother‘s birthday was today, she turned 26. It still amazes me that a 26 year-old has two children and was married at 19. This is not just the case in Kyrgyzstan, I know that many cultures still marry young and have children at young ages. It is hard to shake my upbringing however, I still consider myself a ‘young’ adult and find it hard to imagine myself having two children at this point in my life.

I am still finding Three Cups of Tea to be extremely interesting and relevant for me. In fact, I’ve had an epiphany of sorts.

The book’s authors quote Helena Norberg-Hodge a writer and researcher who lived a village in Pakistan’s northern areas for 17 years. In her book Ancient Futures, she writes:

“I used to assume that the direction of ‘progress’ was somehow inevitable, not to be questioned. I passively accepted a new road through the middle of the park, a steel-and-glass bank where a 200-year-old church had stood… and the fact that life seemed to get harder and faster with each day. I do not anymore. In Ladakh I have learned that there is more than one path into the future and I have had the privilege to witness another, saner, way of life – a pattern of existence based on the co-evolution between human beings and the earth.”

“I have seen,” she says, “that community and a close relationship with the land can enrich human life beyond all comparisons with material wealth or technological sophistication. I have learned that another way is possible.”

I am also guilty of having Hodge’s initial presumption, that the course to development is fairly pre-determined and one-way. But, there obvious flaws in the system – for example, certain societal problems and damage done to the earth’s natural systems resulting from the current model of economic and civil growth.

I may be incorrect on this and I don’t have numbers, but I would say, some of the age-old social problems such as adultery, abuse of substances, rape and theft exist on a much smaller scale here than in the United States. This is but one example of a society that is considered ‘under-developed’ getting it right where we are not.

And, as far as abuse of the earth’s systems goes, the ecological ‘footprint’ of Kyrgyzstan is that of a 3-month old compared to America’s Ronald McDonald size 12. That’s not to say if the Kyrgyz could take two showers a day and go to the mega-store to buy bananas from Ecuador and beef from Brazil that they would not. Looking at China and India’s example, they probably would. But, if we look at what they’re doing now – buying locally grown produce and small portions of meat, using resources like water and electricity sparingly and walking or car-pooling (albeit out of necessity), we could find some genius in that.

So here’s to learning about what the Kyrgyz can teach us! And, to the expansion of my job description :)

Cheers from Kyrgyzstan…

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Give and take: What the Kyrgyz could stand to learn from FedEx, and a solution to American ‘loneliness’

November 1, 2008

It’s the first week of November, and I think winter is starting. Or, *nervous laugh* maybe this is just the ‘overture’ – a free-spirited, superficial intro to the real thing. And, if this is the case: I WILL die this winter …. And my eulogy will read: I wanted to get my package from the post office first.

And so, here it is… My two cents on the ex-Soviet bureaucratic institution called the ‘pochta’ (a.k.a. post office): They need a make-over! It’s time for a sassy Fed-Ex employee to come and show these people how it’s done!

I’ve waited in an empty post office while a female employee finished her tea and gossiped about her plans for the summer before being helped. And, perhaps ‘helped’ is the wrong word here because I’ve never actually been ‘helped’ at the pochta … Only left wondering how such an institution is left standing. Enough said.

On a lighter and more positive note, I’ve been meaning to write about my thoughts on hospitality – Kyrgyz hospitality and how that of Americans generally pales in comparison.
I’m currently reading the book “Three Cups of Tea,” a real-life story about an American man’s mission to build schools for poor villages in Pakistan’s Northern areas and I’ve found striking similarities between Kyrgyz culture and that of the Balti – the people described by the book’s author. The strongest similarity is the high value placed on hospitality, especially hospitality to strangers, or foreigners.

Not a day goes by here that I’m not invited to someone’s home for tea. Hospitality is an obligation and a matter of pride for the Kyrgyz. Certainly, one would be ashamed if they didn’t open their home to a new friend or co-worker. Which should be surprising, given the obvious excuse not to have guests: the Kyrgyz are a poor people. Americans, alternatively, are not and in my opinion could afford to learn from the Kyrgyz example.

So, next time you see your neighbor in the driveway, ask him or her for tea or coffee … it is that easy. And with all the depression and isolation issues people are having in our country this could be a cheap solution.

Things you learned in Kindergarten, and then forgot…

October 23, 2008

This week has been a week of extreme up-and-downs .

I realized last week that the Flex (Future Leaders Exchange) Program, sponsored by American Councils, was testing this week for the next academic year. After a testing and interview process, the program will send a small number of Kyrgyz high school students to the United States where they will live with an American host family and attend high school for one year. This program is advertised to be free to the student. Needless to say, a lot of Kyrgyz students are interested.
(Above left: the line in front of Osh University for Flex testing, notice the young woman with a megacom)

I have one student that attends my English Club that I thought had a chance of passing the tests and whom, in my opinion would make an excellent exchange student. I talked to my English Club kids about it the day before the testing, which was to take place in Osh City (about an hour away from the village) at 7 o’clock in the morning.

The student that I wanted to take is not a student at my school, but at a kind of boarding school or ‘orphanage’ as it’s called here which is funded in part by UNICEF. He did not have money for transportation. I assured him that I would take care of it if need be, but to our surprise the other students in my English club had pooled money and gathered enough money for his transportation.

It was really a wonderful moment watching these kids who were themselves disappointed that their English was not good enough to take the test, give all the money they had to the young man who did have a chance to pass, and maybe, go to America.

The next morning, after getting ready in the dark (there is no electricity at 6 a.m.) and braving the early morning cold, I found myself in a cab on the way to Osh with my student, and two other girls who had come along to take the test too. Once in Osh, at the University, I discovered that my student did not have a passport or ID with him, or two passport-like photographs. This was of course, completely my fault. I, as usual, skimmed over the fine print … and, we had a problem.

By some miracle, the kid had a relative in the city where he happened to have an ID card, and we were able to find a photo place nearby the testing site. After sprinting threw Osh City for about an hour, we found ourselves panting in a long line of students waiting to take a test that was supposed to start an hour before. We had made it. I went inside the testing room. There were some Peace Corps volunteers who work in Osh City there, helping to proctor the exam. I ended up leaving with some volunteers to get food, and assumed my student would make it into the test room in the next one or two batches of students.

A few hours later, after several attempts to call the student, I received a text message that he would be staying in Osh and ‘not to bother with him’. I didn’t inquire further, but as it turns out, he was one year short of being eligible for the program.

And so, today I’m reminded of something my grade school teachers used to tell me: READ THE INSTRUCTIONS.

I have a bad habit of reading part of and not all of the instructions, and in this situation my shortcoming deflated the dream of a 14-year-old. I won’t sleep well tonight. I could comfort myself with fact that I had the best intentions, and thought I was doing everything in my power to help…. But, I guess it’s too little too late.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Thoughts on Chinese goods, winter and English Club!

It’s the third week of October and as another volunteer in my village put it, “fall is officially here.” Leaves are falling and the days are getting shorter and inevitably colder. I am so scared of the pending winter that I think I’ve subconsciously removed the fact that it will come from my mind. It’s a kind of instinctual psychological survival tactic, right? The only problem is – some preparation is needed on my part. As it stands I have just one jacket and one sweater. The sweater is a cheap, Chinese-made bazaar purchase that is already falling apart. Alas, I will have to seriously consider the soon-to-come sub-freezing temperatures and make some purchases fast. I really should have hit-up REI before leaving the U.S., these Chinese goods are easy on the wallet but just don’t make the cut in terms of usability. Case-in-point: the sweater I bought a mere two weeks ago is literally falling apart piece by piece. Come’ on China … Get it together! (Pun intended)

Placing the subject of winter back where it belongs, deep in the back of my psyche …. My work at the school here in Myrzake is going well. I’ve change my schedule so that I am now not teaching the 10th and 11th forms. I feel a little guilty about leaving the handful of good students in these grade levels, but overall the disrespect and as the Peace Corps labels it, “unwanted attention” I received made it impossible for me to continue teaching them.

The younger kids – the 8th and 9th forms, on the other hand, are a true pleasure to teach. They are really interested in learning English, eager to please and very appreciative of the time I spend with them. I’ve established an ‘English Club’ which meets three times a week where the most active and interested students come. So far we’ve covered the Present Simple Tense, Greetings and Times of Day, a little bit of U.S. geography, and vocabulary used to talk about every day, habitual actions. I’m sure my teaching style seems unorthodox to them, they are used to being dominated with an iron rod and made to repeat some antiquated greeting in English a thousand times. I try to stress genuine understanding of concepts rather than memorization and I try to encourage everyone to participate rather than just the ‘best’ students.

On the home front, things are good as usual. Despite the fact that I speak mostly English in the house with my ‘host mother’ (who’s 25 and speaks nearly perfect English), I feel like there is a real cultural exchange taking place. In fact, I feel that being able to communicate more has aided more in-depth conversations about our respective cultures.

That’s it for now. For those who have been waiting patiently for pictures and are not ‘friends’ with me on Facebook, I’m planning to start a Picasa album … so, look for a link to that soon.
Best wishes to you all! And, if you’re on the West Coast this winter a jealous sneer to you!

Catching Up

It's been a long long time since I've posted here. Finding my way to the internet cafe and then, having it be operational has been a challenge! Here are some blog posts I've written over the last month...

Where in the world is Deanna Evans?
(Written on the last week of September, I think...)

I arrived in my village, Myrzake (murrz-aakay) exactly one week ago. For all of the talk among Kyrgyz of an extreme divide in culture between the North and South of this country, I have failed to recognize much difference – other than an adoption of some Uzbek words in everyday speech and, maybe a slightly more conservative dress although mostly among Uzbeks. I live just outside of Uzgen, which is the capital of this rayon (Uzgen rayon) … I suppose one could liken a ‘rayon’ to a county in the U.S. and an ‘oblast’ to a state. So, I am in the state of Osh and in Uzgen county, in the village of Myrzake.

My village is pretty large, I was told it has a population of 17,000 but I think that may be an inflated figure. Anyhow, it’s big. Sometimes, I can’t believe I’ve been living in Kyrgyzstan for almost four months … and, at other times my “old" life seems so distant. Arizona and the U.S. is becoming a fuzzy mirage – until I hear a song, or smell something that reconnects me to the place I used to call home. One day, about two months ago, I was walking in my old village and someone was blasting Toni Braxton’s song ‘Un-break My Heart’ into the street and suddenly, a rush of patriotism hit me. I found myself feeling such a strong identification with the song that I could have cried from homesickness. It could’ve been the national anthem … although, frighteningly Braxton conjured more sentiment … I guess that’s a testament to how very important pop is to the American soul (or, 90’s music to mine).

I have started to teach English at the local middle school, one of three schools in my village. There are a handful of English teachers, one of which is my ‘counterpart’ with whom I will co-teach. This first week at school has been very interesting indeed (note the hint of sarcasm). On my third day of ‘observation’ or *cough* running the class, I was informed that officials from the Ministry of Education would come on Friday (today) and observe me and my counterpart conduct a lesson. They would also visit the other two schools in the village, wherein staff (my host mother included) have been preparing since last year for their visit. Despite the24-hour notice, I managed to put together a decent lesson plan and, this morning, confidently led a class of about 20 students in an examination of what we call the ‘Present Progressive’ or ‘Present Continuous’ tense i.e. ‘I am going’ or ‘I am eating’. It was only when (half an hour before our lesson began) my counterpart suggested we alter the lesson in order to make use of some fancy visual aids that I almost cracked under pressure. But, alas … my patience prevailed and the ‘presentation’ went smoothly. I teach the 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th forms – so, my students range in age from about 10 to 18. For the most part, they are great. They are genuinely interested and excited to learn English – which nullifies my imagined worst-case scenario – me shoving English down students’ throats. There is a sincere desire, I would even say a passion to learn English, and I am happy to help. The role of ‘teacher’ is coming naturally to me and I’m extremely happy about it, I think it will make my time here much more enjoyable.

The Kyrgyz classroom bears no resemblance to its American equivalent. For starters, there are very little resources. Sometimes, a class will have 2 books to be shared among 20 students and the books are often so outdated that their informational value is debatable especially the English books. The facilities at my school are very run-down, and from what I’ve been told, there is no heat in the winter … so the students will be forced to sit in a freezing classroom. Students in my school wear uniforms - the girls wear something that looks like the ‘French maid’ costume women buy for Halloween in the U.S. And the boys wear trousers and a white shirt. Students are very respectful towards teachers. Compared to the treatment of teachers by American kids – I would say it appears Kyrgyz students fear their teachers. This is not wholly a bad thing … I would like to see teachers respected more in the United States. But, the methods used here to induce fear in students (like screaming) are, I think, unnecessary and maybe even counterproductive. I will start holding an “English Club” after school two days a week, where students can get extra help and I can break outside of the curriculum a bit. Depending upon the language skill level (and, maturity level) I am considering bringing up some controversial social topics relevant to Kyrgyzstan such as bride kidnapping and corruption - not to impose any of my own thoughts on these subjects, but to get the kids thinking and talking about it. I’ve noticed that the American classroom is much more ‘diplomatic’ in the sense that individual students’ opinions are more highly valued, and because of that – students engage in discussion more often and are maybe more motivated to learn about a subject … I hope I can expose the kids to this approach through my ‘club’ … Wish me luck! Until next time …

The elements

It’s the second week of October and I’ve reached the official three-month mark in-country. Funny, three months seems measly … nothing more than a summer holiday. To me, however, it feels like I’ve been here for at least a year. I guess, sans wireless and the constant going somewhere in your car … life takes on a slower pace. The days unfold rhythmically and predictably - note that by ‘predictable’ I do not mean orderly, no … order doesn’t exist here. But, what I mean to say is that my daily activities are limited to a handful of variables and no more…. Which is at once peaceful and maddening.

I’ve come to enjoy certain parts of the day and week. Sunday - banya day- is, of course, my favorite day. It’s the one day that I can take a warm bath. The whole family bathes on this day, so it’s a ritual of sorts -and my chance to feel clean again. Let me explain here briefly how a “banya” (or in Kyrgyz ‘mon-chow) works. The ‘bayna’ is a small room, usually separate from the main house that is heated by coal, wood and sometimes sheep poop (romantic, eh?) …. It’s one of many gifts from the Russians to the Kyrgyz people and one I’m extremely grateful for. Sometimes there are two, even three separate rooms… one to hang clothes and towels, one middle room to wash and one extremely hot room to sweat. There is a large basin of boiling hot water (heated by the coal/wood stove) from which you take and mix hot water with cold water (inside of another basin) …. With a kind of big ladle, you spoon warm water over yourself. It’s nothing like a shower, but given my circumstances – its heaven.

I’ve really learned to be grateful for what I DO have here. Some people are really great at looking at the glass ‘half-full’ and, I always thought I was one of those people… until there was suddenly so much that I didn’t have. The lack of things like water, electricity, and plumbing ... can turn your world upside-down - suddenly you realize how precious these things are. I’ve had days when I seriously considered giving up my job here, and coming back to the U.S. so that I could shower, eat food I like … in short, have the conveniences … but then, I look around and see others living happily in these conditions.

A good friend of mine told me that ‘stepping down’ is never easy - if for example, you’ve been used to driving a car to work and for whatever reason, you no longer have a car and have to take a bus or walk…. Public transport would seem much worse to you, than say someone who has always taken the bus, or always walked. For most people here, the conditions are normal and when and if the electricity is on – it’s a bonus. I wish I were that simple. Damn it, America – look at what you’ve done to me.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A note on my address ...

If you plan on sending me something, you'll need the English variant of my address as well :

Deanna Evans
Kyrgyzstan (or Kyrgyz Republic)
Osh Oblast
Uzgen Rayon