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Gas station coffee never tasted better. I saw a black brick of something peeking out behind Nescafe Gold in the store the other day and asked the store lady if it was real coffee. “Nescafe is real coffee,” she said offended, handing me the brick, “What are you talking about?” I was too busy reading the loopy English Combines to make sweet and full coffee harmony to pay her much attention, but when I saw the words “Ground Coffee” I almost kissed her. Not sure how well that would have gone over, but maybe for a moment she would have forgotten that she worked in a tiny section of an abandoned apartment building. It tastes like burnt dirt and reminds me of Super America.
I bought the coffee on my way home from my weekly tutoring session. I was in a great mood, I found coffee, this tenth grade guy from the “B” class had showed up for the second week in a row, and little things seemed to be trickling down into my students’ consciousness’. Take my lesson on fitness; we were brainstorming different ways to be fit and one of the kids says “eat vegetarian.” It felt like the world had just creaked to a stop. “Meat is what makes you smart, lets you live through the winter, makes you strong, keeps you fertile/virile, protects you,” are only a few examples of the meatisms I’ve been informed of. It is as central to this country as the flag, the President, the capital city, and their grammamas. And I get it, I have respect, Kazakhs were historically a nomadic herding people and meat was their life. However, modernity hits hard when you keep your diet of high-fat meat and you stop living physically in nature.
Long story short, a week ago I transformed Thoreau’s argument with a farmer in favor of vegetarianism into classroom introduction. I asked a student to draw a big strong-looking bull on the chalkboard and then asked them if they were bigger, stronger, and tougher than a cow. They looked at me like I was an idiot and said of course not, cows are huge, they sleep outside in the winter, their bones are enormous, and have muscles that make us looked like pencil-necked economists. Okay, I said, stupid question. Then I wrote the word vegetarian on the board and grinned at them. It took a moment, but then they started laughing when they got my point. I left it at that for the day, but the lesson I learned was that presentation is everything, I can sit on my soapbox all day and expound on statistics, which I love to do, but one real example is sometimes worth a billion peer-reviewed journal articles.
I’m an amateur teacher, and each day I realize how true that is, I rarely go home without thinking about things I really want to change or things I really want to keep doing. Interacting with male students has been the trickiest, because I have to do more than just show up and be charismatic. But I learned something the other day, if a kid isn’t working, sometimes all he needs is you to just sit down with him and non-condescendingly work with him individually. Shit, everybody loves to feel seen and sometimes I forget that because I get lost in the theater of it all. It’s sad that it takes so little, but most of the time I’m just too clueless.
Intention too, they pick up on it. Example, today I was halfway through a great class on fitness, and then everything fell apart. The person I was teaching with started to harangue the class and I just stood awkwardly staring at this one kid’s face, trying to figure out what happened. Then I got it, I assigned an activity that was too difficult and subsequently the class went to shit. By this time, all of the ninth graders had hard looks of defiance and the other teacher looked like she was going to have a stroke. So I dropped my fist onto the desk and asked to everyone to give me a moment. Then I broke the unspoken rule for teachers here, I apologized and told the class that I made a mistake in assigning that text. Teachers do not, ever, say that they messed up, and their eyes all went wide. In the extra moment that earned me, I hushed the other teacher and said that I would try not to make that mistake again, but that if I did, it was their responsibility to let me know. It shouldn’t be their responsibility, although it would be nice, but I’m only slowly learning this teaching thing, so I figure that I can ask and hope that my student’s share some of the burden of my limitations. If anything, I think at least it allowed them to see under the veil for a moment, that I know that I’m not perfect, but that I also want to be the best I can be.
But being a teacher in Kazakhstan isn’t all lessons and students, and for international teachers day it was about getting down. Wednesday night was cold and rainy, like all of October, but I thought it would be interesting to at least check out the Teacher’s Day celebration at a close by bar. I was one of four dudes there, so I was on wine and vodka duty all night. The party met Kazakh standards of toasts, food, dancing, and lots of drinking. I enjoyed myself and ate enough to keep up with the drinking, which I did enough of to keep up with the dancing. Most of the time everything feels normal, but every once and a while I look around me with true wonder at life’s strangeness. This time my eyes wandered from person to person as I danced in a kind of dreamlike state to Russian techno music. What a life we live.
Around ten o’clock I had enough, grabbed my jacket, and walked into the black night. The cafe is in a forested area of town, and everything seemed to melt together in the trees. It was a cold and wet, but the vodka in my belly kept me warm and relaxed, or as relaxed as I ever am here in Kazakhstan, which means ready to fight or run at most anything. As I hit the “main drive” that runs into our square, one of the huge abandoned apartment buildings stood out against the sky, it’s hollowed-out windows staring at me like a thousand empty eye-sockets. For a moment it felt like I was looking at the personification of the Soviet Union, harsh ambition and massive failure. It was beautiful.
The whole night felt magical, like everything was dipped in something sweet. The condensation from my breath floated in the air in front of me and blew away in the cold breeze. Our gate was locked, signaling that my host-mother was still m.i.a., so I did a little mental juggling to find my keys, and made sure to bar the door behind me. It was a good night.