Tag Archives: speaking kazakh

Wrap-up: Kazakh life

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In previous posts I have discussed my personal commitment to service, the advantages and pitfalls of the Peace Corps, and issues specific to the Peace Corps TEFL program in Mongolia. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

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Most PCVs are trained in Mongolian language and culture, then spend two years in a Mongolian-speaking, culturally Mongolian Buddhist or shamanistic community. I and three other volunteers were trained in Mongolian language and culture, then placed in a Kazakh-speaking, culturally Kazakh Muslim community. My experience has differed somewhat from the average volunteer’s.

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It’s hard for me to encapsulate the differences between Kazakh and Mongolian culture, partly because I have become so intimately familiar with them, and partly because they are so subtle to Western eyes.

A tourist will first notice the architectural differences: the хашаа or yard contains not a couple of felt gers and maybe a one-room house, but a mudbrick or whitewashed multi-room home accompanied by a single tall кигіз үй (ger) only in the summer. On the inside, a Mongolian ger is furnished with orange-and-blue wood and two elaborately carved or painted center poles[1]; a Kazakh ui is larger, often with more furniture, and every surface is bright with traditional embroidery or felt. The tapestry-covered walls of a Kazakh ui draw the eye while the central pole is utilitarian; Mongolian walls are covered with a bright but generic fabric, whereas the poles form the focus of the room. Mongolians add a layer of felt to their gers in the winter; Kazakhs strike their ui and leave their summer houses for a more sturdily built winter home or apartment.

The languages are entirely different. Kazakh is closely related to Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Turkish, whereas Mongolian is an esoteric member of the larger Altaic family. Their grammar patterns are more similar to each other than to English, but distinct, and the vocabulary has very few cognates. Mongolian Kazakh is moreover a tricky dialect, with borrowings from Mongolian and variations in grammar from its standard Kazakhstani sister.

Most Mongolians are Buddist, shamanistic, or atheist; the majority of Kazakhs are Muslim. They are steppe Muslims — i.e. their expressions of piety are looser than in most parts of the world, expressed more in cultural tradition than careful adherence to the Qu’ran — but they profess a strong belief in Allah. There are several mosques in my town, one of which calls the faithful to prayer several times a day through crackling speakers; while only a handful of my friends observed Ramadan, virtually everyone celebrates Kurban Ait. Bare shoulders or knees are a rare sight here, as is public drunkenness. The Turkish evil eye and Arabic prayers are common on walls and rearview mirrors. Kazakhs are also more strictly patriarchal than Muslims, with the youngest son of the family (and his wife) responsible for his parents-in-law in their old age and inheriting the hashaa and herds after their death.

Kazakhs and Mongolians eat the same everyday meals — hushuur, tsuivan and buuz — although Kazakh food tends to oiliness whereas Mongolian meat can be a little dry. At holidays, however, Kazakhs have their own plates: besbarmak, koje, and kaz. Additionally, Kazakhs practice дастархан (dastarkhan) at parties and festivals; the table is sometimes so full of snacks and salads you can’t find room for your plate.

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Many of the differences I’ve experienced are similar to that of other PCVs. The sense that things will happen in their own time and there’s no point in rushing to the finish; the belief that a laid-back month in the summer countryside, relaxing, is the ideal reward for a year’s hard work; family and community as the central pillar of one’s life; ingrained deference for elders and authorities — these things are common to many nomadic cultures, and shared by Mongolians and Kazakhs alike. But it’s funny how different that feels when the trappings change. Not just the language, but self-presentation — Kazakhs are, in general, more reserved than Mongolians, with stricter principles for obedience to one’s elders and boundaries between men and women. Beyond that, the challenges they face as an isolated minority group frame their culture very differently from mainstream Mongolians. I’ve often struggled to express these subtle differences to other PCVs, vacillating between their apparent insignificance and their importance to me and the people I work with.

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I found out I would be living in a Kazakh community about two weeks before I moved there. I had maybe twenty-five words in my Kazakh vocabulary, courtesy of a single five-hour crash course at the end of my training period. My cultural and integrative training was not a three-month homestay with additional weekly lessons, but three hours of passing around traditional paraphernalia and silently reading handouts.

Considering this, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of making a home in my community. My Kazakh is passably conversational, though not fluent; I’m familiar with Kazakh custom (you don’t have to shake hands when you step on someone’s foot, but you do when you haven’t seen someone in a while or owe them a congratulations); most importantly, I’ve made a number of friends I’m going to miss dearly. My biggest regret is that I’ve never spent a weekend in the summer countryside — the heart of the Mongolian-Kazakh experience that many in my community speak of with fondness, and a true test of one’s language and cultural comprehension.

I don’t credit Peace Corps with helping me achieve this, except in the way that their Mongolian training offered a template for me to recreate as I forged ahead on my own. I’ve consistently experienced a lack of understanding and support from staff.

Kazakhs comprise about 4% of the Mongolian ethnic milieu: a tiny percentage, but Mongolia’s largest and most divergent ethnic minority. And — as with most ethnic groups other than the majority Халха (Khalkh) — it is concentrated and isolated in a small part of the country. As a result, many Mongolians go about their lives without ever encountering a Kazakh person, forming their impressions of the ethnicity based on stereotype and hearsay. Some of these stereotypes — especially in the few regions where Kazakhs and other ethnicities mix — are virulently negative.

My managers, who work with local agencies to place and assist volunteers, have been mostly supportive and comfortable working with Kazakhs; likewise the American staff is at least sympathetic and claims to want to support us. However, I’ve experienced firsthand the unease of Mongolia staff visitors to my town. Some are visibly discomfited to be surrounded by a language not their own — sometimes seeming to reflect, “Why don’t they speak Mongolian? Why do these people make me feel like a foreigner in my own country?” rather than observe the challenges of a group perpetually made foreign by their efforts to hold onto their culture and mother tongue while finding a place in the home they have chosen. I had one person doubt my assurances that I felt safe at my site, even though Kazakh cultural mores have meant I have not experienced safety problems common to PCVs (i.e. publicly belligerent drunks or pressure to drink).

There are no Kazakhs on staff at our Peace Corps office, despite about 30 Mongolian employees. This has resulted not only in a lack of cultural understanding among Mongolians and Kazakhs alike, but also in oversights and inadvertent exclusions during our conferences. (For instance, at our close-of-service conference, we had a session about closure and goodbyes with a heavy cultural component. What cultural tics will you miss? How will you say goodbye at a party? I was the only person at the conference who would be making goodbyes at a Kazakh site in the coming months; the discussion was entirely about Mongolian culture and Mongolian language.) When I’ve made criticisms about this to staff, I’ve been told they went so far as to request Kazakhs in their job postings but received no Kazakh applicants; likewise, I was told it would be too expensive to hire a Kazakh language trainer for a group of two to four. It seems that four percent is too small to warrant support, yet large enough to merit a volunteer.

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Don’t get me wrong: I want people at Kazakh sites. I love this culture, and I love its uniqueness — the way that it is its own self, not wholly Kazakh, not wholly Mongolian. I have met many hardworking, creative, intelligent people who deserve the Peace Corps’ best efforts. Living here has changed the way I look at time and at community. Yet how can I recommend that at the expense of the volunteer? Three of the seven people placed at Kazakh sites in the last two years have moved homes or sites because of a fundamental lack of understanding about the differences between Kazakh and Mongolian housing. Several have found themselves frustrated and stymied, untrained in the language, unable to find a suitable tutor, and as a result unable to fully participate in and understand their communities.

I hope that more support will be provided to Kazakh sites in the future. I’ve heard rumors and promises that this year’s group will have more language training, better housing, better support; but I’ve been hearing about Peace Corps’ commitment to supporting us for two years, and yet here I am, the last Kazakh holdout from my cohort. I love this place and I’m happy to have lived here, but my experience in the Peace Corps program has not done the organization credit.

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[1] Decoration styles vary depending on the region, tribe, and financial means of the family, but the orange-and-blue painted wardrobe and the decorated door and poles are the most ubiquitous.

Vignettes: Country and city

Photo cred for the eagle hunter visit goes to Michelle Kim; for the Sirgali Lake photos, Tess and Reece Stohr.

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“Hi, Baha? I’m Jake’s friend, Michelle. I’m in Bayan-Ulgii with my friend. We want to visit your soum this afternoon.”

Pause.

“Yes – Jake gave me your number.”

Pause.

“Great. Do you know a driver who can take us there?”

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“I was very surprised by your call,” says Baha as we pile out of the Land Rover into her хашаа; the fenced-in yard contains two houses. She leads us into the street-side house and sits us down at her table, four of us on a long bench: myself; Michelle, a visiting PCV; Michelle’s friend; and my aimag-mate Tess.

Surprised or no, Baha has laid the table with all the delicacies of a formal visit to a Kazakh house: candy, cookies, bread, with a cold noodle salad holding pride of place in the middle. Baha passes us cups of milk tea — Kazakhstan tea steeped in milk, stronger and less salty than its Mongolian equivalent — and plates to serve ourselves from the salad platter.

Baha, my sitemate’s friend and sometime counterpart, teaches English at a soum school near the aimag center. Like many English teachers in our aimag, she does stints as a tour guide, mostly local to her soum. An afternoon chatting in English with some friends of a friend, three of them Peace Corps volunteers and one familiar with Kazakh culture, is an opportunity and not an imposition. We joke in Kazakh with the driver, and Baha offers us fresh cheese and cups of homemade sour yogurt.

Unmprompted, after an hour or so, she asks, “Do you want to meet an eagle hunter?”

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The eagle hunter lives about five minutes outside the soum center; his family has not yet moved out into the countryside for the summer herding season. We are greeted by a half-dozen children mostly under the age of thirteen, and a barking guard-puppy-in-training. Baha asks one of the boys where the adults are, and the eldest girl leads us into the ger.

There is a black and white cat sleeping on the bright fabric of one bed — a cat, on the furniture, clean and well-fed and opening one eye to study my offered hand with the insousiance of one who knows her own worth. We sit and take the offered yogurt and bread, and the cat jumps down to accept my affection.

“Most of my students hate cats.”

“People keep them in the countryside to keep away mice.” Michelle’s been in Mongolia a year longer than I have.

01_tess with a baby goat

The younger children have lined up on the other side of the ger and are staring at us. I grin back. “Атыңдер кім?” They push each other, whispering; then give their names, one by one.

“Мысықның аты бар ма?”

“Ие,” says the only girl, and tells me the cat’s name, which I don’t remember half a second after repeating it. A few minutes later the girl vanishes out the door, to sneak back in with a week-old goat that she hides under the bed. Caught out, she presents the goat to us amid much cooing and petting.

02_the wrong way to hold an eagle

The wrong way to hold an eagle.

The eldest boy – the eagle hunter’s grandson, who is himself learning to handle eagles – takes us to where the eagle is tied beside a rock. He lifts the eagle up by the jesses, and amidst a great deal of flapping and flopping gets it onto the glove. Tess attempts the same method, gets a talon in the arm for her pains, and then succeeds much better by coaxing the bird to climb onto her arm from its rock.

03_the right way to hold an eagle

The right way to hold an eagle.

As I take my turn with the bird, the hunter himself arrives – a solemn elderly man in a clean dark suit and galoshes. He puts the bird on my arm by pinning its wings.

04_me holding an eagle

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“Do you want to spend the night?” Baha asks, back at her house as we are wrapping up the visit. I will never cease to be impressed by the generosity of the people who open their homes to me here.

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Ulaanbaatar is a shock after five months at site: noisy, big, crowded with cars and people. Everywhere crosswalks and restaurants and tourists and so much Mongolian. Within an hour I am dying to catch just a few words of Kazakh from some nameless passerby.

I propose a new drinking game to my sitemates: every time one of us slips up and speaks Kazakh at the next Ulaanbaatar conference, somebody takes a shot. This game is destined to remain an amusing fantasy due to risk of alcohol poisoning.

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Walking down the Peace Avenue thoroughfare just after sunset. A boy stands away from his friend on a doorstep, locks eyes with me, walks as if he’s going to slam into me if I don’t back up or step aside. The swagger and the low-pulled baseball cap say be intimidated, but he’s a half-head shorter than me and so stick-skinny he invokes the incongruous urge to laugh.

“Oi,” I say sharply, arm across the open top of my purse.

“Oi,” he echoes.

“Oi!”

“Oi!”

“Юу хийж байна,” I demand, finally grasping some bit of grammatically confused Mongolian.

“Юу хийж байна,” he mocks with a laugh, then swerves aside at the last second to give me a friendly clap on the shoulder. As if, recognizing him for a pickpocket’s accomplice and not giving way, I’ve earned temporary membership into his private club.

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A driver — another friend of a friend — gives me a lift to the airport around midnight. I’m half an hour late for the international flight from Seoul. Still, there aren’t many tourists hanging around the crowded arrivals terminal, so I wait at the gate until a tap on the shoulder makes me jump and grab for my purse.

My brother grins at me, and my father behind his shoulder.

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05_purgon cram

I admit that six hours over unpaved roads is a bit of a stretch for a three-day trip, given one purgon, three PCVs, and six visiting family members. But there’s not a whole lot to do in town during the summer, and the next nearest tourist site is a mountain – neither my family nor Tess’s was up for mountain climbing.

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Six hours and two pickups from my town, maybe an hour after a rainstorm that necessitated the migration of our camping gear from roof rack to our crowded laps, the purgon parks at a permanent complex just outside Sirgali. Our guide — a teacher from my school who runs his own tour business — collects our passports amid much shifting of luggage to verify our national park passes with the guard.

06_purgon cram plus luggage

“Should we get out?” someone asks, craning to see what Sabit is doing. My seat faces backwards and I’m still half-asleep from the drive.

“I don’t know, it might only be a few minutes…”

“Look,” someone else says after a few minutes, an indignant chuckle bubbling under his voice. “They’re laying down. We should get out.”

We tumble out from under our bags into a cool lakeside afternoon. Sabit and our driver are indeed lounging on the grass. My family and Tess’s stand around, uneasy with puzzlement and inaction; Tess, Alex and I flop back to do some lounging of our own. Waiting in summer sunlight for a bit of bureaucratic processing is positively relaxing, compared to sitting in the teacher’s lounge for a meeting of unspecified purpose that gets canceled forty minutes after it was supposed to start. After twenty minutes or so, the official returns with our passes.

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The Sirgali Lakes, called the “earring lakes” in Kazakh for their double teardrop shape, sit nestled in a valley deep in the Altai Mountains, near the Mongolia-China border. The leeward, eastern side of the valley rises in rolling hills, yellow-green-grass-bare-rock-stark like everywhere in the Altais I’ve been so far; but the windward side, the far side, displaces me to Europe. Deep green grass and groves of pine trees skirt chocolate-colored, snow-capped peaks.

07_sirgali_windward

We camp for one night on that far side. Next morning I go on a walk with the other PCVs and my brother. Alex takes us to the top of a rise, where we can see the forested foothills fall before us, then climb to where the tree line starves them of earth.

“It smells like pine,” I say gleefully, breathing in.

“I didn’t notice,” my brother remarks.

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We spend that first night with a friend of Sabit’s. Three gers are set up in a level dip near the lower edge of the forest; a pen, open and empty for the late afternoon, and a shed half-hidden in the trees suggest that this is the family’s usual summer home.

We are greeted by Sabit’s friend, his extended family (brother, wife, sister-in-law, mother, the usual gaggle of children), and a dog kept close to the campsite by a weight around its neck. Another dog, less friendly, is tied to a stick at the edge of the clearing. At the grandmother’s direction, we troop into one of the gers for milk tea.

Kazakh gers are higher-roofed than Mongolian gers, and huge; too large to be heated in the wintertime. Every inch of the walls is hung with traditional Kazakh embroidery, and the beds that circle the edge of the ger are made up with rich fabrics and curtained into small private cells. We cluster around a table on the far side of the ger, across from the door and behind the central stove.

The countryside guest-table is different from the town’s, a cluster of food made by the host’s own hands instead of a myriad of bought products. We drink tea with cream and butter, eat baursak and three kinds of cheese.

I am sitting at the far end of the group, beside Tess and her mother and far from my own family. Tess’s mother says nervously that she doesn’t want to drink the tea, would that be rude? Tess coaches her to touch the tea to her lips, then put it down, hand over the bowl, to say she’s done. I watch my family for some reaction to this become-familiar custom, but their faces are blank with the polite American’s wish not to offend the unknown.

My father tries dried curd and nearly cracks a tooth, and then we leave to make camp.

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Thump. Thump. Thump sliiiiide thump.

I start awake and stare blearily at the wall of the tent, now smeared with mud. “Who did that?”

“I think it was a goat,” Tess says, amid the blaas and sneezes of a herd released from its pen. She adds, “I hit back.”

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I’m returning from my morning necessary trip when I spot the friendly dog, the one with the weight around its neck. I stop and click my tongue at it, and the апа — the grandmother and matriarch of this family — spots me standing at the top of the hill. She motions for me to follow her.

I look at the dog. She follows my gaze. “Жақсы ма?” I ask uncertainly, very much wanting a dose of animal affection.

“Жүр,” she says serenely. Come.

I click my tongue at the dog. It half-rises, and the апа drops it with a sharp word.

I follow the апа into her ger.

Alex is already inside, drinking a bowl of milk tea; one of the younger women serves me a bowl as well. I settle in beside him and sip slowly, enjoying the early-morning peace. One of the little babies is still asleep behind parted curtains.

The апа tells us to eat some cheese and baursak. We obey. The апа tells Alex to translate for me, and we assure her that I understand, though I suspect Alex has a better grasp of gum-muffled апа Kazakh than I do. Satisfied, the апа says a few more things, which I recognize as imperative statements and nod knowingly in response to.

I wonder, sometimes, when this ritual became comforting instead of foreign.

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08_sirgali_leeward

The other side of the lake is less lush, but warmer. We lounge with our feet in the water, eating hardboiled eggs; in the evening I hike up a nearby mountain with Alex and my brother. Tumbles of igneous boulders dot the sparse grass, and pine scrub nestles in windward dips. I feel as if I am walking on an alien planet that has just begun to recover from a rain of meteors.

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“What’s the plan for today?” my father asks as we disembark from the plane in the capital.

I blink at him, take a breath for patience. I had forgotten how reasonable, how common this question is in a country that takes reliable scheduling for granted. “Haven’t got that far yet. First we check into the hostel.”

“I just don’t want to end up sitting around in the hostel.”

“What’s wrong with sitting around in the hostel?”

My brother, sensing danger, intervenes. “Who cares as long as we’re sitting around with Renee, right?”

I realize that my statement has failed to convey what I want it to, anyway: Doing nothing is relaxing, sometimes. Maybe we’ll be tired later and want to relax. Why should we force ourselves to go-go-go just because we made a schedule that says we should?

Striving for a middle ground, I say, “First we’ll check into the hostel, and I have to deliver this package to Tuul’s son. Then we’ll pick somewhere to eat lunch. After that we can decide what we’ll do for the afternoon. Okay?”

We run out of sightseeing halfway through the last day, and when my father asks, “What now?” at four o’clock I seriously reconsider the advisability of a schedule. Then at least I’d have numbers to point to and show how none of the sights took half as long as I’d intended.

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My father leaves at ten-thirty. I go out for one last meal at Burger King, only to find it closed. So are almost all the restaurants on Peace Ave. Ulaanbaatar is a small city in the international scheme of things.

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The flight back to my aimag is full, but there are only two or three Mongolians on it: the tourist season has begun in earnest. Everyone is speaking English. I put in headphones and curl up irritably against the window.

There are two others on the flight from my aimag’s small foreigner community, people I haven’t seen since summer dispersed us several weeks ago. Catching up with them, I feel myself slipping back into my skin.

Language learning

During PST, I received something like 40 hours of Mongolian language training.

At the end of PST, I received rather less than 12 hours of Kazakh language training, the bulk of it in one single eight-hour session.

I remain somewhat puzzled by this, since for 90% of the people at my site, Kazakh is the everyday language. Mongolian is only used in formal professional situations or with somebody who doesn’t speak any Kazakh. I’m sincerely hoping that this year, the training staff will do better by the PCVs going to majority-Kazakh regions.

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Arriving in Bayan-Ulgii, securing language training was one of my major concerns. Because scheduling is somewhat — laid-back — in Mongolia, acquiring a tutor can be really difficult. You arrange to meet with a tutor; you set a time; you have one, maybe two lessons; then the tutor gets busy and has to cancel, and somehow the lessons never pick back up.

I got lucky. Early in the year I was talking to my supervisor about finding a teacher when one of my CPs cut in. Did I really want to learn from a Kazakh language teacher, or could anybody teach me? I answered no — I’d actually prefer to learn from somebody who spoke a little English. My CP immediately volunteered herself in exchange for equal hours of English tutoring. Even better, because she’s a junior teacher, her schedule is all over the place — she’ll have one lesson at 8am and then nothing else until 2pm, and in the meantime she’ll hang out in the teacher’s room. It means that she’s really easy to track down for a lesson.

I also experimented with a few paid lessons downtown; there’s a company near where I live that offers both English and Kazakh lessons. But the lessons turned out to be rather by-the-book in a way that failed to catch my interest, and my HCA is way on the other side of town, so scheduling was too much hassle.

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Materials have been a bit of a pain, as well. Bayan-Ulgii Kazakh takes a lot of influence from Mongolian. It borrows names for official people and places from Mongolian, and some colloquialisms have shifted to mirror Mongolian ones (e.g. Не бар?, “What’s up?” is cognate to Mongolian Юу байна? and is more common in Ulgii than the native Қал қалай?). Additionally, some verb conjugations are much more common in Ulgii than Kazakhstan and markers of the dialect; and in case of two synonymous vocabulary words, the very common Kazakhstan-dialect word will produce a long, blank stare from my tutor, followed by a discussion with the entire teacher’s lounge about what the word means and what word Ulgii Kazakhs use instead.

My resources tend to fall into two categories: locally and non-professionally compiled (e.g. an early edition of somebody’s minidictionary and a phrasebook created in Darkhan), containing local colloquialisms but also contradictory information, mistakes, and confusing layouts; or from Kazakhstan, well-designed and technically correct but full of language people in Ulgii don’t use. There are some dictionaries and basic readers in a shop near my home which might be more useful, but I haven’t yet delved into my language-learning budget to check them out.

Right now I’m working through the 2008 Peace Corps/Kazakhstan textbook with my tutor, which is useful insofar as it has basic grammar and provides a jumping-off point for local vocabulary. I’m about halfway through it, though, and realizing it’s quite basic and rather repetitive. Once we’ve finished that, if my tutor doesn’t have any suggestions, I’m going to check out the bookstore down the street.

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Outside of lessons, there are a few things I do to try and build my language.

First, I use a flash card program called Anki, which is tremendously helpful for building vocabulary. I recommend it to everyone trying to learn a new language. I use my phrasebooks to create flash cards that are Kazakh on one side and Mongolian on the other, and every day the program provides 10 new cards. After a card is ‘learned’ for the first time, Anki tracks how often and how easily you remember it, and gradually grows the interval at whih the card appears.

I also keep a little notebook and a pen on me whenever I go around town. When I come across a new word or need one and can’t remember it, I write it down to ask my tutor later. This is my ‘practical’ dictionary and my best source for vocabulary.

But the most important thing — and the most difficult, for me — is practice. I’m a shy person. It’s not easy for me to initiate conversations, and often when other people approach me they start in English, because they assume that as a white person I’m either Russian or American. Moreover, they usually approach me because they assume I’m American, and they want to practice their English. In my capacity as an English teacher (and a fundamentally efficient person who prefers to speak in the easiest language possible) I usually stick with English and only switch to Kazakh when we slam headfirst into a language barrier.

The easiest way around this is to make friends with little kids, who haven’t started to study English and have no real interest in practicing it. They are often really excited to play teacher to the teacher and to help me learn new words. I have one CP in particular I love to visit because there are about a half-dozen tremendously rambunctious kids in the extended family, all of whom are eager to teach me. It’s difficult, though, because I live in the city center, about an hour’s walk from her.

More recently, I’ve joined a local taekwondo studio. After only two lessons I can see it’s going to help my language tremendously. The head instructor speaks a little bit of English — words like “jump”, “kick”, “come”, and “stop” that are very useful when he’s showing me the fundamentals — but of course the class itself is in Kazakh. I have to listen for the handful of words I know and keep an eye on what the other students are doing. I’m a fellow student there, not a teacher, not a privileged foreigner; the instructions, banter and rapport existed before I came along, and it’s my responsibility to fit myself into them. The class laugh and echo the instructor’s shouted, “Long! Think!” when I miss a kick, but when they ask who I am and what I’m doing there, when they try to explain what it means to kick long, it all happens in Kazakh.

International Women’s Day

Yesterday, March 8, was International Women’s Day. I was aware that Mongolia celebrates the holiday, but not having heard much about it, I assumed it was a quiet affair much like Mother’s Day in the US. Work an ordinary day, then take Mom out to dinner and give her a present, that sort of thing.

I showed up to the teachers’ lounge on Monday to do tutoring for the national English Olympics. About halfway through the hour one of my teachers came over to inform me that the men at the school were throwing a party that night for the women, and that our afternoon meeting was canceled. I thanked her for the information with my usual spike of Oh god what do I wear how do I find the place how late should I show up? alarm, got directions to the third or fourth banquet hall I’ve partied at in this aimag, and resumed the lesson.

Toward the end of the lesson, a few students came in to chat with a tutee. One of them stole her Mongolian script reference sheet with a promise to return it the next day, at which point my student reminded her, “Ертең демалыс күн.” The other student shrugged and said she’d return it on Wednesday. With mingled alarm and reignation, I asked the girl in English, “No school tomorrow?” Half of my morning work was scheduled for Tuesday this week.

What I would give for advance knowledge about these events.

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I’m happy for all women to be celebrated, but women in Mongolia — oh, do they ever deserve a day all their own.

10 of my 11 CPs are women. Out of the 110 teachers at my school, I would guess that less than 20 are men. Women in Mongolia, barred from traditional careers in herding and from dangerous and lucrative jobs in the mines, tend to be highly educated and are encouraged to pursue their education from a young age. They have a huge advantage over women in many parts of the world[1]. In any given collection of ‘bright’ or ‘talented’ students selected by their teachers, at least in the English department, a solid 90% will be girls. I think I have 4 boys in a concourse class that started with over 60 students.

In the modern world, this means that Mongolian women are highly employable. In a lot of families the woman earns higher or more stable wages. This does not, however, extricate them from the demands of social and family life.

Women in Mongolia are expected to do most of the housework. When I lived with a host family, I became the oldest ‘girl’ in the family, and as such (and ostensibly as part of my training) I was assigned a lot of chores. I did most of the dishes every night. Older girls are expected to clean the house, help attend visitors, and babysit younger siblings and cousins. Women will marry; married women will have children; women with children will be their children’s primary caregivers, along with the grandparents. This is taken as a given.

And then there’s the familial structure of a Kazakh household, which is again a little different. Kazakh families follow Muslim inheritance rules, which state that the youngest man of the family will inherit the parents’ property in exchange for taking care of them in their old age. This means that the son will continue to live under his parents’ roof (or a new roof he builds for them) for the entirety of his life.

His wife is келін, kelin, which in Kazakh means both younger sister-in-law and daughter-in-law. Just as the youngest son of the family is responsible for seeing to his parents’ welfare, the келін is responsible for seeing their household run smoothly. They take on the lion’s shore of the chores and childcare, and might even be responsible for helping with their siblings-in-laws’ chores and children if their in-laws live on the same property.

A lot of PCVs in Mongolia get asked why they don’t have a Mongolian boyfriend or girlfriend. My CPs tell me I should not marry a Kazakh man. I suspect I would not make a very good Kazakh wife.

And yet, despite all this work, my CPs are boundless in their enthusiasm for their work with me, their love for their families, their engagement with the life that they lead. I’ll be dragging and irritable in the afternoon as one of my CPs — who, aside from her teaching job, runs a cashmere business in the afternoons, does all the household chores, and manages a miniature kindergarten composed of her own children and her in-laws’ — cheerfully invites me home for lunch and an afternoon of lesson planning/Q&A. Or the department head, inundated with the projects assigned to her, will repeatedly ask for input about the latest competition assigned to her. The CPs who invite me to their homes, who make opportunities to work with me, who juggle their children and their careers and their holidays and the sudden appearance of in-laws from Kazakhstan, with not more than the occasional bit of snark at the dictates of their mothers-in-law…it amazes me. I don’t think I could do it.

#

I showed up an hour late to the Women’s Day party, expecting to be one of the first ones there, only to squeeze into a mostly-full table at which most of the food had been devoured. Shortly after my arrival, the men announced the official beginning of the night by serving milk tea. Only one cup per person: with a dozen or two men shelling out for eighty or a hundred women, funds didn’t stretch very far.

There were all the staples of a Kazakh party in Mongolia: singing, dancing, chatting with my table-mates. I marveled at how far I’ve come since the beginning of the year: I’m starting to catch bits and pieces of conversation, enough that I can piece together the gist of a discussion, and was proud to ward off a particularly insistent vodka server with, “Керек жоқ. Ішмеймін,”[2] which amused him enough that he left me alone. Dancing is fun instead of mildly terrifying, and I even attempted the Mongolian waltz with one of my CPs — who, not being especially good at it herself, agreed to give up halfway through. I also learned a new game, “Атым не?” (What’s my name?). You dance around until the music cuts off, at which point the announcer shouts out a number. Then you have to get into groups of that number. I just about had my belt yanked off by a teacher who was determined to keep me in our group, and was promptly disqualified with a dozen others when nobody else would let go either.

I would be lying if I said it hasn’t been a rough couple of months. But that night, giggling at my coworkers as they about knocked each other over trying to stay in the game, being yanked into the center of a dance circle by the craziest dancer in the school, recognizing the dance songs enough to sing some of the words, having my teachers affectionately call me “little” and tell me I wasn’t eating enough, chat with me, pull me into the dancing, make sure to assign me a ride home before any of them left — I felt, at last, as if I belonged.

I thought: I am here. There are so many places in the world I could have ended up, but I am here. There are so many people who have left, or have been left behind; but I have not, and I am here. And this is exactly where I choose to be.


[1] I remain puzzled, along with many other people, as to why Mongolia is a Let Girls Learn country. If anything, Mongolia has the opposite problem than the one Let Girls Learn proposes to solve.
[2] “No need. I won’t drink/I don’t drink,” though I got the conjugation wrong — it’s actually either ішпеймін or ішкем жоқ.

On Russian jeeps and the Kazakh question particle

Last weekend, at the end of our term break, another PCV and I went to visit a friend in a soum about two hours from the aimag center.

Public transportation is interesting in Mongolia. Although the vast majority of the roads are not paved, there are a bunch of ways to get around.

For long distance:
Planes fly from Ulaanbaatar to some aimag centers. It only takes three hours to fly from Ulaanbaatar to Ulgii center, but it costs about 200,000 tugriks one way — a round trip is more than my monthly stipend. PCVs generally only take plane trips when someone else is paying.
Bus routes run through major population centers and theoretically operate on a regular schedule (though breakdowns are regrettably frequent). Visitors to Bayan-Ulgii take the bus from Ulaanbaatar along the paved road west, which hits most of the southern aimag centers. This is the cheapest way to travel long distances, although for us it would be a two- to three-day trip.

For travel within the aimag, or to nearby aimags, you go to the square where drivers congregate, pick a vehicle you like the look of, and chat with the driver to book a seat. Drivers often have a routine destination and departure time, for which they charge a fixed price, but if you have a big group and are friends with a driver, you can sometimes hire them for special trips.
Mikrs are the most common transport, in most parts of the country, for daylong or weekend trips. The word mikr comes from the Mongolian cognate for microbus. These are vans (usually silver) which seat around 8 people.
– In the west, the roads through the mountains are a little rough, especially in winter. So we have purgons, which are like mikrs except Russian, uncomfortable, and virtually indestructible. Private drivers often own Land Cruisers, and some public drivers use the indestructible equivalent, the Russian jeep.
Taxis are usually used to get around within an aimag center or a city. You can drop by a taxi stand or hail one on the street and pay a couple hundred to a thousand tugriks. People don’t usually take taxis long distances, although it’s theoretically possible.

In my aimag, drivers come to the aimag center around midmorning and leave in the late afternoon. Jake and I agreed to meet at the drivers’ plaza in the market at noon to claim our seats.

When I arrived at the market, Jake was already waiting next to a powder-blue Russian jeep. “I like these,” he said, and since I had no preference I agreed. Jake got the driver’s attention and asked, in Kazakh, when he was leaving. The driver held up — I thought — four fingers.

“Үш,” Jake said. Three.

The driver put down his hand and nodded enthusiastically. Jake checked that the driver charged the usual price, shook hands, and prepared to go.

“Үш ме?” I asked, just to be sure.

The driver nodded again and held up three fingers.

We returned to the plaza at three and, predictably, sat around in the jeep for forty-five minutes. Finally a third passenger embarked and we drove off…only to pull over a one-minute drive down the road, so the driver and the other passenger could spend twenty minutes trying to call people. Finally the other passenger got out, and we left again…only to stop at the supermarket, where he loaded some packages into the trunk of his jeep.

Then he crossed the road, hopped in a taxi, and left us.

Meanwhile, the third passenger returned. He asked Jake[1] where the driver had gone.

“Білмеймін,” Jake said. I don’t know. At the other passenger’s puzzled look he added, “Такси.”

Eventually the driver returned. He pulled a jacket out of the engine of his jeep, which he used to blanket a big chunk of scrap metal that he tied to the back of the vehicle. Then a woman got into the jeep and we were off…to drop the woman off at her home.

Jake asked the other passenger when we were leaving, and the other passenger laughed and said we were sleeping in the aimag center tonight.

We drove to the edge of the city and stopped in front of a хашаа. The driver got out, and Jake asked the other passenger, again, when we were leaving. The passenger looked at his watch and said, “Бір сағат” — in an hour. Then he said, “Сегіз, тоғыз” — eight, nine — and gestured to the seats.

Jake asked, “Төрт, төрт?” and indicated that there would be four people in the front, four in the back.

The man laughed and gestured that there would be people sitting on our laps. “Кем жоқ па?” No big deal?

“Кем жоқ,” Jake affirmed.

We collected a few people from the хашаа, and then the driver stopped at a gas station. He got out, talked to the station operator, then returned to the door and stared at me.

I stared back.

Jake passed over money for both of us.

I had a brief moment of hope that, finally — around 6:00 — we were leaving. But then the driver pulled into another хашаа and loaded up two more people. I was wedged between Jake and the corner of the jeep. And then, at the next хашаа, three more people lined up outside the door.

The driver opened the door and stared at me.

I asked, “Німіне?” even though I knew what was coming.

Jake edged me out of my seat, and, resigned, I sat in his lap.

Finally, at 6:30, well after sunset, we began our trip down an unlit dirt road.

Within fifteen minutes, one of my legs had gone numb. Despite the height of the jeep’s ceiling, I had to bend my head to keep from bumping it, and eventually just rested my chin on the driver’s seat.

“Кем жоқ па?” the third passenger asked Jake after about half an hour of this.

“Кем жоқ,” Jake repeated.

The passenger — who also had somebody on his lap — laughed a little and said, “Маған кем жоқ емес.” It’s not nothing to me.

“Менде,” I muttered. Me neither.

“Сенде кем жоқ емес па?”

“Ие.”

The whole jeep started laughing, and everyone brought out their favorite adjective. “Жаксы емес па? Жаман ба? Өте жаксы ма? Тамаша ма?”

“Жоқ! Тамаша емес!” No, it’s not excellent!

Shortly after this, the driver stopped in the middle of the steppe so that we could all stretch our limbs. When we got back in, I arranged myself so that I was fighting to stop my knees from bruising against the door latch instead of fruitlessly attempting to maintain feeling in my legs.

Now, there is a soum approximately halfway between the aimag center and our destination. We knew from our friend that it was not uncommon for people to be dropped off here. I figured that was why there were so many people in the jeep — surely the driver didn’t intend to torture us for two hours straight? — and was excited when we got into cell range and one of the passengers placed a phone call describing his location.

We approached the line of lights that marked the soum’s existence. We drove into the lights. We drove through the lights. We drove over a bridge, and though I strained my eyes, I could see no further lights in the distance.

As the soum receded behind us, I gave up hope of even a moment’s comfort on our journey.

We finally reached our destination around 8:30. Our friend met us at our dropoff point. She’d been worried, since we’d taken five and a half hours to make a two-hour trip and had been out of cell range for the majority of it.

“Oh,” she said when she saw our vehicle. “You took a Russian jeep. You never take the Russian jeep!”

Suffice to say that I had learned my lesson.


[1] Out of those of us working in the Kazakh region, Jake has the best grasp of the language. This is partly because he goes out of his way to make small talk in Kazakh. People mostly addressed him on the trip, rather than me, because he chatted with them and made it clear he understood what was going on.