October 9, 2004: Headlines: COS - Kazakhstan: TEFL: Personal Web Site: Amanda Butler says: I didn’t join the Peace Corps out of a deep-rooted conviction that students needed to learn the English language, though that is the official reason why I am here, now, in Kazakhstan

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Kazakstan : Peace Corps Kazakhstan : The Peace Corps in Kazakstan: October 9, 2004: Headlines: COS - Kazakhstan: TEFL: Personal Web Site: Amanda Butler says: I didn’t join the Peace Corps out of a deep-rooted conviction that students needed to learn the English language, though that is the official reason why I am here, now, in Kazakhstan

By Admin1 (admin) (pool-151-196-245-37.balt.east.verizon.net - on Sunday, June 26, 2005 - 3:20 pm: Edit Post

Amanda Butler says: I didn’t join the Peace Corps out of a deep-rooted conviction that students needed to learn the English language, though that is the official reason why I am here, now, in Kazakhstan

Amanda Butler says: I didn’t join the Peace Corps out of a deep-rooted conviction that students needed to learn the English language, though that is the official reason why I am here, now, in Kazakhstan

Amanda Butler says: I didn’t join the Peace Corps out of a deep-rooted conviction that students needed to learn the English language, though that is the official reason why I am here, now, in Kazakhstan

Responding to frustrations. . .
Amanda Butler at 11:15 AM

Well, I didn’t join the Peace Corps out of a deep-rooted conviction that students needed to learn the English language, though that is the official reason why I am here, now, in Kazakhstan. President Nazarbayev has declared Kazakh to be the language of the government, English the language of business, and Russian the language of inter-ethnic communication. At the moment, Kazakhstan can’t afford to drop Russian, for it is the only widely-understood language into which many things are translated, from scientific papers to Brazilian soap operas. Russian isn’t just the primary language of those people from the land of Lenin and Stalin, but it’s also the common second language for most of Kazakhstan’s minority ethnic groups, the Turks and Uighurs and Dunghans and Chechens and Koreans and Germans and Ukranians. The Kazakhs are slightly above 50% of the population, and their percentage increased when the fall of the Soviet Union allowed many people to go back to their homelands from which Stalin banished them. Nazarbayev’s political party (Otan = Homeland) propounds, as much as it can, a vision of Kazakhstan as the land of the Kazakhs. And if they can manage to get rid of Russian by studying English (and by nagging the other groups to study Kazakh), this will be a great triumph for the Kazakhs. Now, Kazakh people I have met have been quite willing to talk about Kazakh tradition and the Kazakh people; I ask about Kazakhstani traditions and people, and often receive silence, for this does not seem to be how many identify themselves. And yet, if what is Kazakhstani comes to closely resemble what is Kazakh, the great number of minority ethnic groups will find themselves even more marginalized. Russian, like it or not, is now the common ground on which people can meet. But even if there weren’t these political motives behind the push for English as a second language, I still wouldn’t be convinced that English were so necessary.

And so the question of what are we doing here is one that comes up often enough among volunteers, though perhaps more often among frustrated ones. I hope that a better reason develops as I find my place here. Perhaps because so many of my complaints tie into this problem, right now, I really want to teach Kazakhstanis that people like me are women, not girls. Or perhaps that people like me are adults, not girls, since the rank of woman is not always respected enough for my tastes.

I showed up at school on Friday with a scarf over my head: not the large head scarf that some of the married Muslim women wear, but one more the size of a bandana. I claimed I wore it because my ears were cold, but honestly, I wanted to find out what reaction I’d get. The teachers said I couldn’t wear a scarf because I was a girl, not a woman. Now, I may work for an incredibly paternalistic governmental organization, and I may live with a host family rather than in my own apartment, but I am an adult, responsible for my own self (PC Kaz requires six months with a host family before moving to an apartment). I have moved out of my family’s home; I have finished college; and I have chosen my own profession and accepted a job. This is the mark of a woman and an adult; a husband does not make one a woman. Although the Kazakh language may stand in my way, for a wife is a woman and a daughter is a girl, with one word serving for each of the two (though an eyebrow is an enemy and a liver a little brother).

My wearing such a scarf, the other teachers finally told me, is strange but not offensive, so I plan to continue it. Because the scarf is the mark of a Kazakh woman, it will suggest that I have a husband. If the scarf gathers me more respect from Kazakh men or if it just encourages them to leave me alone, then I’ll reap the extra benefits (It doesn’t help that I don’t quite look like a woman by local standards, since most women do show the effects of a lifestyle in which adults don’t exercise and butter is served, almost frozen, in centimeter-thick slices that are placed on top of cookies and endless pieces of bread. This apparently takes five years off of my perceived age. The ups and downs of Kazakh cuisine is a later post).

What is that line from Jane Austen (ah, blessed Gutenberg Project!)? I have misremembered it as, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a husband.” In Austen’s version, the man possessed the fortune. In my life here, though, I possess the fortune, or at least the prospects of one, since I possess fluent English and an American passport. And it apparently seems to be a truth universally acknowledged, at least by strangers I meet, that I am in search of a Kazakh husband. I used to humor this assumption more when I heard it, giving a smile and a “We’ll see.” Not any more. I’ve tired of that. I’ve moved on to a succession of “I don’t want a boyfriend right now;” “I don’t need a boyfriend right now;” “I like my independence. I don’t want a husband right now;’ and finally, “So, why do I need a husband?” This is a new experiment (sometimes I feel that playing mind games is all that preserves my sanity), but I have yet to get a response to that final question. Instead, I suspect my questioners find that the response “So, why do I need a husband” answers other questions they have in their heads about me.

Those very common questions start with the one of whether or not I have parents (I feel I should just write up a sandwich board with the answers to all the most common questions, and wear it whenever I go to the bazaar or guesting at a new place). I’m not sure how to translate this question. Literally, it would be “Do you have parents?” To me, that sounds like the other half of the question, “Did arise by spontaneous generation?” And I answer, yes, I have parents, with a look on my face of, are you daft? Maybe the question is really a request for me to talk about my family, for if I don’t start in on that, it becomes the follow-up question. But I sometimes think that when a well-meaning Kazakh asks me, “Do you have parents?”, what the person really means is, “Surely, you must be an orphan. No sane parents would allow their young, unmarried daughter to head off alone to Kazakhstan for two years.” But my response to the husband question explains that my parents, fed up with my intractable stubbornness, shipped me off to Kazakhstan, knowing that the Kazakh women would apply their considerable pressure on me, and hopefully change my mind. [People are also surprised that I didn’t have a cell phone in America after I explain that they were cheap enough that I could easily have gotten one. I’ve tried, but failed, to explain that I did not want a cell phone mainly because everyone wanted me to have one and expected me to get one. If I could explain that concept, though, and then substitute “husband” into the equation for “cell phone”. . . no, I doubt it would work. My answer to the cell phone question used to baffle even Americans.]

And so I hope that I can live, as an example here, of a person who is an adult woman without need of a husband to give her that status. But I don’t want to just be the crazy American who is treated differently because she is not native to the culture. I want to somehow teach Kazakhs that a person is an adult because that person is responsible for himself or herself, both under the laws and as a matter of everyday life. I have no idea how to go about teaching this. There’s a lot standing in my way, other than having even less of a clue of how to teach this than I do for how to teach participle clauses.

While living with a previous host family, I needed to call long-distance to PC headquarters in Almaty. That family’s telephone had a lock on long-distance calls: you needed to first dial an access code in order to call outside the city. I asked the host mother to please unlock it for me. She said I’d have to wait for her husband to come home, for only he knew it. I replied, “But you’re his wife!” She and the other women around thought that this was quite funny, that I was shocked that she didn’t know it. No, I mean this quite seriously. When I talked with local teachers (all married women) about what makes a good marriage, they said it was best when the husband was five or so years older than the wife, for then he is more like a father or an older brother; if he is like a friend and the same age as she, they will fight. I would not have used the word ‘fight,’ but something else to indicate that the wife would not simply blindly obey. Even when a girl becomes a women, by Kazakh standards, by getting married, she is not an adult of the same responsibilities as her husband. Sigh. . . of all the pieces of Communist propaganda, couldn’t equality of the sexes have least taken root?

* * *

And for the curious, the second sentence of Pride and Prejudice is

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Change “man” to “woman” and “daughters” to “sons” and you have my situation. Leave the quote as it is, and I’m sure you have the situation of many a male PC volunteer.

* * *

On an entirely unrelated note. . .

Kazakh families celebrate New Year’s Day by decorating a large tree inside their homes, exchanging many gifts, and receiving gifts from a white-bearded man dressed in red. When I show my photos, I keep insisting that Christmas is a religious holiday and it’s only by coincidence that it falls near the January 1st, but I often think that this explanation is doubted. Now, I have photos from a wedding shower in late February; naturally, the shower had a Mardi Gras theme (I still haven’t figured out how to explain Lent, which I think would help to explain Mardi Gras). So the problem I’m left with is this: how on earth do I explain why there is a tree with Mardi Gras ornaments and presents underneath? [Hello to my friends whose excellent hosting of a wedding shower has left me with this dilemma on my hands.]

It’s a good thing that I don’t have any New Year’s photos with a Christmas tree in the background. I can imagine the explanation I’d try --- they were lazy about taking it down; they were leaving it up until the Twelfth Day of Christmas; it’s still a few days until Christmas trees, left on the curbside, will be picked up to reinforce the barrier islands --- and the response I’d get --- nope; that tree is there because it’s New Year’s.

When this story was posted in January 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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