I woke up on Christmas morning well before the sun even thought about coming up, and trudged to school absent the Christmas spirit. I was coming to school early on Saturday because I had agreed to teach the first two periods for another teacher, and then to throw a big Christmas party for my sixth and seventh graders after class. Forcing Christmas spirit is not easy, but was eased by happy fifth graders and the paintings and Christmas cards that they gave me. However, it was at my Christmas party that I truly snapped out of my funk.
The party did not start well, and it was entirely my fault. I had never seen ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’ and thus learned that it’s depressing, drab, and sarcastic; not exactly what I was going for. Ten minutes into the movie we unanimously decided to switch to learning Christmas songs. Jingle bells was a little rough, but I think my substance-ridden voice worked nicely with Winter Wonderland. There were about thirty students, and every one of them tried their best to belt out the songs, while maybe producing three or four intelligible words per page, it was inspiring. After singing, we (they) sprinted into our English class where my counterpart and I had cookies and cement (condensed milk) to make gingerbread houses. When the students finished unpacking their own supplies you could barely see the tables; everyone brought bags of candy, chocolates, and frosting, not to mention snacks and juice. They were so sweet and excited that I couldn’t help but be happy.
The students politely listened to my cookie-cutter approach to making gingerbread houses, and then split into groups to create five works of art. If I was still in college I might have speculated on the cultural effects that individual and collectivist societies have on gingerbread house construction, but as it were, I was too busy stuffing my face and making structural suggestions. We gave out five awards for: Best Design, Most Beautiful, Most Christmasy, Most Creative, and Best Use of Candy, and to complete the catharsis, we used our own organic bodies to destroy our creations. The day then ended how all such days should, by having a massive snowball fight and heading home to sleep.
Brief note on the snowball fight: A group of sixth grade boys are now officially my bros. Whenever a snowball is thrown they circle me like secret service agents and hustle me toward a safe zone while viciously returning fire.
Christmas was my holiday, but New Years is theirs. Imagine Christmas, New Years, and the Fourth of July all wrapped into one, and that’s New Years in Kazakhstan. There are fireworks, gifts, toasts, Chinese Zodiac symbols, and lots and lots of food. I could talk for pages about it, but instead I’ll relate three different events that summed up my New Years experience.
The first was a faculty New Years party on December 30th, the first day of our vacation. It was another blistery cold day, so I got to school at 11:30 am, just in time for our party. My counterpart led me down to the school cafeteria, which was transformed into what I imagine Viking feasts looked like: cakes, meats, salads, caviar, and lots of alcohol were piled as far as the eye could see. Even though I have yet to make it to the grown-ups table at Thanksgiving back home, here I was given a high-profile seat at the director’s table.
We feasted, we drank, we danced, and a primary school teacher walked around dressed as a gypsy and read naughty fortunes. I didn’t stop eating until I reached a point where I was holding myself up on the back of my counterpart’s chair trying to delicately place fruit in my mouth. Every ten minutes or so there was a toast, so after a while I took to sipping out of my shot glass. I gave many toasts in Russian, and received many toasts as well. It quickly became evident that the entire party had the not-so-subtle intention of pairing me with a pretty younger member of the faculty. I won’t go into details, but it was hilarious and strange, on par with everything else. Another strange moment being when I stood up and growled like a tiger with four other male teachers, after which four female teachers hopped around like bunnies. This confused me until the next day when I realized that we represented the year of the tiger and they the year of the rabbit. I was also growled at by previously sweet old ladies telling me that if I didn’t go ask the younger women to dance, they would make me drink more. I danced.
I made my way home late that night, enjoying the cold air and fresh blood circulation. Enjoyed it so much in fact that I decided to go on a run to the dismay of my host-sister. Although it’s possible that it was a bad idea, it was exhilarating to throw myself into the frigid steppe under the shimmering sky and run out of pure joy. When I stepped into the warmth of our house, my entire body was lightly covered in snow due to spontaneous somersaults and face-down snow angels. After a warm shower and good meal, I tried to fall asleep, but was peer-pressured into watching Vampire Diaries with said host-sister, thus ending my epic day.
I stayed with my host-family on New Years Eve because I wanted to be with them during what I’ve heard is our biggest national holiday. They cooked all day long, and given my experience back home, I expected that we were going to have some sort of an old-person’s version of a rager. At nine o’clock I was still in my room reading Steinbeck, when my host-dad called me into the living room. There were four places at the table and food enough to feed forty people, which I took as a personal challenge and slowly ate my weight in food. Due to extensive practice in overeating, I was able to put away at least enough for three people, but was dismayed to nevertheless be accused that I had eaten nothing. It was a cozy and relaxing evening, and we toasted one other with homemade cranberry juice. We continued chatting and picking at our food until five minutes to midnight. The crazed Russian concerts then gave way to a speech from the President of Kazakhstan, another interesting facet of personality politicization, and after a comically wooden speech, we raised our glasses and toasted the new year with champagne.
The next morning I went on a solitary morning run in the fresh air and squeezed into a taxi with five other people plus a baby, and slid on the icy road into the “big” city to celebrate the New Year with volunteers. To keep this post somewhat reasonable, I will relate only three hours of this adventure.
In the interest of completely embarrassing ourselves and our country, we went to a Karaoke bar. Surprisingly, it was my first experience, and I initiated myself by jumping up to help a fellow volunteer who was floundering with “Oops I did it again.” The English song selection was dismal, but I believe that the crowd enjoyed my rendition of “Californication,” and tossing modesty aside, it was the first song to get a bar-wide applause. Our quiet (but hilarious and amazing) university volunteer then got up and sang “Twist and Shout,” and in the interest of discretion I will leave out the effect that it had on the two young women who kept looking over their boyfriend’s heads toward our table.
Being the only male in our group I took it upon myself to wrest away the oldest (but still young) member of our party after a few minutes of dancing with a physical and well-built middle aged male who was besotted with her. After dancing for a few minutes we glided back to our booth. I then looked up and caught the former dance partners eye and he broke into spontaneous shadowboxing. I’ve never boxed, but I can tell when someone knows how to move, so I wasn’t thrilled when he then prowled over to us and sat down in front of me. Although his tone was friendly, I began to feel uncomfortable as he asked my friend if I stole her away because I was jealous. He obviously had just enough to drink that he didn’t realize the age difference between myself and the volunteer, and she assured him that we were just friends. Evidently we still had some business to take care of, so he challenged me to arm-wrestle.
He far outweighed me and obviously was no stranger to the gym, but youth was in my favor. It wasn’t easy but it was inevitable, and when I finally slammed his meaty fist onto the table he looked looked up at me red-faced and happy. The girls stopped us from going left handed, so he ran up to the microphone and gave a speech. It went something like: “ As the former five-time Kazakhstan boxing champion, I wish to toast my new best friend. This sportsman from America and I are the best of best friends, and will always be so. To my best friend!” And then he tried to sing, which didn’t work, so he bought us shots which we linked arms and threw back to our new friendship. As much as I liked my new best friend, we all thought this was probably a good time to leave, because it allowed us to walk away from the bar with good memories, funny stories, and unbattered faces.
Since this post is titled Christmas and my Underpants Part II, I’ll insert a brief anecdote about my underpants and some thinking that comes with it. I’m approaching the end of my second month here in Sergeyevka, and in doing so have become much more comfortable at home. Last Sunday, I spent the entire day in my long underwear. I’ve never had a sister before, but my new sister taught me what it’s about when she spent the day making fun of my slovenly appearance. Inur is 17 years old, university bound, and loves sarcasm; we spend hours drinking chai and talking stupid, before pretending that we don’t know each other at school. I often say hi, but she giggles and runs off to maintain her facade of being a normal teenager. I always imagined what it would be like to have a sister or a daughter, and wondered if I’d be normal, uncomfortable, or bore. The reality is that I tease her mercilessly, give shitty advice, listen to her talk about friends and boys, and try not to be over-protective. I knew we were getting on the other day when she laughed and told her friend in Russian that I say “I’m going to poop now” more than I say hello or goodbye.
While being an older brother hasn’t been too difficult, other aspects of being a man here have been. Issues regarding romance and chauvinism are hardly limited to Kazakhstan, but these issues seem to manifest themselves differently in different cultures. I won’t go into dating except to say that leaving the love of your life for two years is not easy or fun, and comes with an entire set of questions and issues that I’d hope most people never have to go through. As for Kazakhstan, it seems key to quickly and firmly establish that I’m only interested in people in my age bracket (aka not 16 or 17), and that I’m not interested in getting married. When I’ve been vague about my personal life, I’ve endured more than I wanted, American standards of personal space don’t apply here. Same goes for money. I bluntly tell people that I’m a poor volunteer, I earn less then they do, and my coat cost me an entire month’s savings. This is all true due to a Peace Corps screw-up in finances, and helps dispel any ideas they have. If I need more ammo, I whip out my cell-phone and game over, no one would be caught dead with it.
The other conscious anti-cultural fight I throw myself at every day is against this particular form of chauvinism. Feminists and chauvinists alike might look at this is misguided, stupid, and culturally insensitive, and to that I say fuck it. I’ve been yelled at, given dirty looks, and ignored by women at my former college for holding doors for them or offering to carry something. Those kinds of feminists would love Kazakhstan. Here, women are expected to do everything: clean the house, prepare, serve, and clean up after meals, take care of the kids, go to work, feed the animals, sit in the back seat, open their own doors, I could go on forever. People hide behind tradition and culture like it’s a magic shield, but I believe that culture has good and bad in it all over the world. I think the further removed we are from survivalist societies, the more that we need to constantly be aware of our culture and how it affects what we do and how we treat people. Most human groups are many centuries removed from these societies, giving them plenty of time to create culture and traditions that diminish the humanity of certain individuals within those groups, and it seems that the most commonly shat upon are women.
I understand the anger of the feminists who resist having doors held for them, but I think that anger is often a misinterpretation of the intent. Although I agree that when men do things for women with the patronizing intent of demonstrating that they are more capable than women, it pathetic disrespect, but I also think that these acts can also be seen as the highest form of respect, if done with the right intention.
To cut my ramblings short, I am not claiming that my country is any more or less chauvinistic than Kazakhstan, I have no idea. However, from stopping a wife-beating in my training village to seeing men and boys treat women like they are servants there to wait on them, this kind of chauvinism is difficult to witness. Please and thank you’s are almost nonexistent, and what really gets me is when “men” hold out their plates or tea cups without even looking at the woman, who is often quite old, and watching her stop what she’s doing to meet their needs. When she comes back with the refill, I’ve seen women hold out the cup or plate for thirty seconds before the man finishes what he’s doing and takes it from her. Since yelling and berating would do me and everyone around me no good, I’ve taken to guerrilla methods. I now ask women if I can get tea for them before they have a chance to ask me, smiling knowingly the first couple times, until they get the hang of it. Cleaning up is easy, I clean up everything I can and know what to do with. When I see a plate or cup hanging in the air from a straining limb, I take it and hold it until said “man” takes it from me.
Doing this always runs the risk of just feminizing ones self, completely defeating the purpose of the activity, so I’ve just tried to be stupid and joke a lot, mainly because I don’t want to assimilate into that part of the culture. Furthermore, I live with a loving family, so I don’t deal with much of this at home. All in all its hard to know what’s reality in my own culture let alone another, so I just try to make it funny. My host-sister’s friend got a kick out of me pouring chai the other day, and then spent the rest of the evening ordering me around. Again, bad results often seem to follow good intentions, from being caught by hundreds of people in my underpants because of a kind mother, to being ordered around by a seventeen year-old girl because of an attempt to circumvent chauvinism.