Hollywood Kazakhstan


Last week, I disgustedly threw down Sinclair Lewis’  Elmer Gantry, after the writing and ideas which held so much potential had morphed into a bitter, soul rotting pessimism. To get rid of the slime that Lewis left on me, I needed something good, happy, and well written; I needed Alexander Dumas.  I searched Amazon and quickly found a free copy of The Black Tulip, which I’d never read, and downloaded it onto my kindle.


After class the next afternoon, I made myself a big mug of coffee and consumed the book. I read three hours straight and finished it just as the sun was about to disappear under the horizon.  I can’t convey how happy that book made me feel, especially in contrast to Elmer Gantry. The overriding message of love and devotion, written with Dumas’ dramatics, enchanted me, even though it was just a simple story about a tulip. On finishing it, I scrambled out the door to catch the last rays of sunlight, and was treated to a forty minute run where everything seemed to be dipped in gold. I can’t do justice to the moment, so I’ll just say that I was filled with happiness. This was before the eyeball-freezing cold rolled in, so I was able to enjoy every single moment. It was wonderful.


The next morning I went with my counterpart to a teacher’s conference in a neighboring Kazakh village. The sun was shining as we squeezed into a minibus with fifteen or so other language teachers and took off. It took a while to get there because the two-lane highway we followed was covered in ice, and we stopped in the middle of nowhere to pick up two more teachers. After arriving and shedding our outerwear, we were invited to have tea and sweets downstairs. As I’m learning is custom in Kazakhstan, this was a complicated affair, and we were fed more than anyone could possibly want for tea-time. I’ll re-phrase that.  I ate more than anyone should eat at tea-time, but most of the other teachers appropriately and ceremonially engaged the feast. Tea was followed by an opening ceremony, consisting of speeches in three languages, dancing, and candy throwing.


After being hit in the face with candy, we were split into groups to observe classes, the focus of the conference. The purpose of class observation was to learn from the local teacher, and to help him or her by giving constructive criticism regarding their class. Unfortunately, I didn’t observe any classes on Wednesday, but I did sit through two hours of decent memorized performances. Given that it was all in English, I was impressed. There were a few awkward moments where one of the students or the teacher forgot their lines, but the classes were able to fly through weeks of material, memorize words seconds after being introduced to them, and put together grammatically perfect sentences like they were native speakers.


I get it, the teachers were terrified of doing something wrong, so they didn’t leave any room for error. You can’t really blame anyone, because everyone’s scared of the person above them, and once you get to the highest levels, they don’t even know what’s going on and probably couldn’t give a shit. However, something about it angered me, because although I know that this is a huge systemic problem,  I can’t believe that someone hasn’t ever stood up and said, “This is wasting all of our time, lets take some pressure off each other so we can see actual teaching.” But hey, that’s life, and I’m not here to change everything to suit my whims. Except maybe for instituting a country-wide program of substitute teaching, quickly getting rid of the most cruel and deranged scheduling system known to the modern world. My pessimistic state of mind was probably also due to the wasting of the beautiful day outside, which I knew was to be one of our last.


I was able to interject a little universalism into the conference when asked to be a part of a panel judging a “family fued” style language competition. We weren’t given scoring criteria, and looking at the three terrified families in front of me, my stomach turned. I think that my counterpart saw the resolute disgust behind my smile as I leaned over to her and told her that there would be a three-way tie if it was the last thing I ever did. Then something crazy happened, when my counterpart and the conference organizer added up their complicated scoring charts, there was a remarkable, unheard of, tie.


Karma must have been watching me however, because after this momentary victory, I was asked to take a picture with a group of eleventh graders. Little did I know how this would snowball into a one hour event. The eleventh graders were quickly replaced by tenth-graders, after which members of both grades began insisting on individual pictures. My fellow teachers soon caught the drift, and before I knew it, I was mired in a photo-taking orgy which lasted over an hour. It’s actually hard to say when it ended, because I caught teachers snapping shots on their camera phones for the rest of the day. It’s also hard to say what kind of complex this will give me, but I know that I’ll have something.


After the photo-shoot I was placed at the front of a large classroom, said a few words about Peace Corps, and was grilled like a murder suspect.


Yes, I’m 23.


No, I’m not married.


Girlfriend? It’s complicated, but you could say I’m in love.


Yes, I like the food here.


Nope, not a vegetarian.


Yeah, I enjoy learning about the culture here.


No, I think would assume that the first language would have come out of Africa, not Kazakhstan.


Most surprising? How strong and hard-working you women are. (shameless)


Uh huh, I do have warm winter clothes.


It was an intense session, but I’m used to the questions by know, so it went down smooth. Even so, I was ready to get out of there as fast as I could. I walked into the principal’s office to grab my jacket after my session, only to be caught by two of the teachers and shepherded downstairs where a feast awaited us. It was the traditional Kazakh meal of beshbarmak (boiled noodles, meat, and onions), and although I tried to sit at a table with the other young teachers, I was guilted into sitting at the older teacher’s table by my counterpart. The sun blazed through the windows, which had the double effect of making me feel uncomfortably hot, and reminding me about the gorgeous day outside. With beshbarmark, usually the older or high-status men cut the huge slabs of meat into grabable pieces, and usually it is someone who has done it before. That day they handed me the enormous knife because I was one of only two men in the room. By the time I was done cutting all of the meat and eating the ear that was given to me as a special delicacy, I was unbearably hot and sweaty.


However, “kushet kushet” (eat eat) is a hard thing to turn down when staring at platters of delicious foods and desserts, even when you know that once you start eating, the heat that you already feel will intensify.  I put my head down and did work on the food, and by the time I lifted my head for a breath of steamy air, I saw many sets of eyes bearing down on me and a shot glass thrust under my nose.


As you might imagine, overheating, overheating, toasts, and strange amounts of attention are becoming more common in my life, and one would imagine that I’ve developed ways of dealing with them. The reality is that I have not, but that I’m working on it.


My nose conveyed to me that luckily I wouldn’t have to choke down any vodka, as the hosts had been so kind to pour me cognac. However, I was still stuck in the predicament of being forced to give a toast to a room full of lady teachers, in a nearly entirely Kazakh speaking village, without knowing  Kazakh, and sweating like a stuck pig. So I lifted my glass and said the only toast that I’d memorized in Kazakh, “To love!”



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8 Responses to Hollywood Kazakhstan

  1. Rick Cousins says:

    You should be surprised and pleased to know that your blog is now on top of my must-read-first list. If a new post from you, and new issues of Harper’s and The Sun come at the same time, your blog comes first, followed by Reader’s Write in The Sun, and then Findings and Harper’s Index. Congratulations!

  2. Carol Markham-Cousins says:

    I am glad to hear that you want to change the antiquated educational system. We can have a world wide revolution. I hope the cold is easing up a little! If not, just keep on writing, it is the highlight of my day to sit and read your blog.

  3. jan Martland says:

    Hey Collin,
    I just went on the web and looked at Sergeyevka from a satellite perspective. It’s pretty amazing, as I can see the buildings on a block by block basis….I’m trying to figure out exactly where you are living…on the outskirt of town somewhere, but where?…do you live on the river side of the town (the East) or the western side toward road A342 (?). Here is the web site I am looking at: http://www.maplandia.com/kazakhstan/north-kazakhstan/sergeyevka-53-52-48-n-67-24-57-e/ Anyway, we all wish you a very Merry Christmas! It sounds like they are feeding you well! Keep up the writing!

    • ccousins says:

      Thanks for your comments, and merry Christmas! I’m on the farthest north end of town, by an abandoned industrial building, separated from the river by about 1 km of steppe.

  4. Mary McCrossan says:

    Hi Collin,
    I can’t tell you often enough how much I enjoy reading your posts! They are so full of depth and description that I have to read them a couple of times to really grasp all of it. I hope you are enjoying what I’m sure is your most unique Christmas ever! We had a very mellow Christmas Eve here, but tomorrow we will go to my brother, Jim’s house and I have a feeling it will be almost as chaotic and food filled as some of your recent gatherings. I’m looking forward to hearing all about your first Khakistan(sorry about the spelling) Christmas, so please keep up the updates!
    Merry Christmas!

  5. Randy Cousins says:

    Belated Merry Christmas Collin!
    Enjoying reading your postings. Great way to stay connected with what you’re experiencing.
    Have a happy and healthy new year.

  6. Mike and Kathy says:

    Hi Collin,

    We have enjoyed reading your blogs. We are getting a glimpse of what your life is like but probably need to spend some time there to really get it.
    We are having Drayton, your Mom and Dad over for dinner tonight. We are excited to hear more about Drayton’s experience in New York. Hey one question….how much daylight are you getting now?

    We think of you often when the temperature here drops below zero. Happy New Year!

    We love you,

    Mike and Kathy

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