Saturday, January 31, 2004

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A Uniquely Kyrgyz Experience, or so I hope As I was walking through halls of my school the other day, my counterpart past me and handed me a piece of paper. The paper, I was told, contained my new schedule. I glanced at it half amused and thought, “Brian this is your official welcome to the Kyrgyz educational system that you have been promised.” Not much changed anyway. My day with five lessons was dropped to a day of four lessons, and I lost of my days of three lessons as it added a fourth class. I still have the same number of periods off and the same numbers of 1 period, 2 period, and 3 period breaks, so complaints there. That evening over dinner, I learned that the new schedule went into affect the next day. The next day, I arrived at school and awaited the group that I was now supposed to teach first period instead of fourth. Of course, no class came. I look for somebody who might know something, but thinking that such a person existed was perhaps a bit presumptuous. After finally pinning somebody down between classes, I learned that while I had been informed of the change, it seems that none of the other teachers had been so informed. As it turns out, neither had the students, because they arrived at my door fourth period expecting English, but learning that they had something else altogether. I went to my second class of the day and began teaching them the given topic for the day. As we approached the end of what I thought to be the class time, the bell had not rung. I suspected it to be a problem with the bell as that tends to be a problem in the schools here. The bell sort of rings near the beginning and end of class, but sometimes it decides that it needs to ring multiple times two minutes apart to inform people that class has started. Well, after waiting for the bell to ring for sometime, I realized that there was something amiss, so I asked my students about it. “Oh didn’t they tell you? Class are now 45 minutes instead of 40 minutes.” So midway through the third week of the quarter, somebody decided that it would be a good idea to extend each class by 5 minutes. Oh yeah, and not to tell the American that they were doing it. My last class of the day didn’t happen either as it seems nobody bothered to inform that class or the respective teacher that they now have me sixth period. As a result of a clear lack of communication, I ended-up teaching just two of four classes. So, here I am midway through my third week of teaching and just as I was getting used to teaching in a school where homework is not important, students can graduate after the ninth grade or wait until after eleventh, and the most in-depth communication that I can have is saying hello, goodbye, and I’m good , and now I find that my schedule has been redone and that all classes now last 5 minutes longer. You know, there is a certain amount of joy to be found in complete absurdity, or at least that’s what I have to believe if I hope to make it through the next two years. In other news, the snow continues to fall. It's beautiful, but cold. I appreciate all of the responses that I have already received to my question about books. I look forward to continuing to hear different people's thoughts on the question of what I really need to read. I mentioned on my first post that some of this may make its way into a book that I am working on. I would also welcome any thoughts on such a project. Anyway, life here is good. We have a holliday this Monday, which should provide a nice free day, and this week will have me giving my first test. We'll see how much they have actually learned. Brian

Sunday, January 25, 2004

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Y’all gonna fail! That’s alls I’s gots to say about dat. I suppose it’s a relatively simple phrase that translates relatively easily from redneck to Kyrgyz, and it is a concept that I feel will hit my students square in the mouth on a few short months. My class is appalling easy by American standards. I give my students 6 free absences in a quarter in which they may have 21-24 class meetings. That means I only require that they come to class 2/3’s to ¾’s of the time to keep from dropping a final grade number at the end of the quarter (Kyrgyzstan uses 1-5 instead of F-A). Attempt your homework, and you get a passing grade that counts for 50% of your grade. Write in your journal everyday of class, and you pass on another 20% of your grade. I have limit to how far I will lower my standards. If a student wants to do well in my class, they will clear bar set for them. It’s that simple. I do not ask for all that much, but what I do ask for I will get. It is the legacy of so many of the teachers that I have had before. Teachers like Mr. Roop who believed in my ability to succeed at academics long before I did, but who also refused to lower the bar to meet my expectations. I still remember a conversation that I had with him and another student ,Amanda Myers, my senior year of high school in which he made the observation that while there are natural limitations to our abilities, few people ever even approach their own limitations. People stop trying long before they reach their natural limitations. It is a professor like Carol Isaac who first saw my potential when I arrived at Elizabethtown College, who continues to encourage and support my adventures. It was a moment in that introductory religion class my freshman year when Gene Clemens pointed-out that the only limitation of the hero lay not in where the path was going, but in the hero’s own vision of where the path could go. It was Ellen Marshall’s gentle guidance as I stumbled through my senior thesis. She saw where it was going, helped me reach that vision by never letting me stop short of that goal. It was Chris Bucher who, on the same project, said, “the bar is here; clear it.” A month after I wanted to quit, Chris finally said that I had cleared the bar, and that she knew the whole time that I would. I have learned from those teachers and others like Mrs. Brahams, Ms. Piper, Jin Park, Julie Mertus and so many others that if you want to see a student succeed, part of what you have to do is never allow that student to settle for something less. The bar is here, now clear it. You are capable of doing better work, you just need to believe that yourself. If you dare to dream beyond what is in front of you, then you will see the world and feel the success you so desperately crave. To that end, I have to believe that most of my students are capable of doing more than just sitting in the back of not doing anything. My homework is not that hard, and I know that they are capable of doing more than nothing at all. They have been taught that by not working in the class they can pass the class without any effort. Funny, I’ve tried that before. I thought that maybe I could just slide by, but I ran into some teachers who taught me to take pride in what I do and to work for something. Maybe the message that I have won’t actually translate all that well, but they will learn no work means no pass in any language. Only In Kyrgyzstan, or least so I wish So I am sitting down with my host family at dinner the other night when my host mother turns to me and tells me that our neighbor’s daughter has been kidnapped (to be a man’s bride). In America there would be sense of alarm to somebody’s voice if they said that, but not hear. As much as anything, it was a nonchalant observation. Maybe it carried slightly more weight than the typical conversation, but not really. When I asked if the lady who was kidnapped new the man who kidnapped her, my counterpart responded that she didn’t know for certain, and again she didn’t seem all that bothered by it. “We’ll find out tomorrow when the neighborhood ladies are invited over.” As much as many in this country wish to deny it, bride kidnapping is a major problem. Bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan is a larger problem than most people here care to admit. If you talk to people about it, the response is often that it is little problem located in another region of the country. I suppose they are partially correct. Whatever part of the country they choose to point at certainly has a problem with bride kidnapping. It’s like the group of kids who when questioned about who stole cookies from the cookies jar each points to a different member of the group, while they all have cookie crumbs on their mouths. They are guilty of having bride kidnapping in their backyard. My village was actually just the subject of intense survey a group in which every one in the community was actually interviewed about whether or not they were kidnapped and their thoughts on the practice. It is an issue at the front of everybody’s mind in this community, but still somebody grabbed my neighbor. The interesting thing is that Kyrgyzstan is a country where all international human rights treaties are national law, so kidnapping a bride is blatantly illegal. Thus the paradox in this part of the world: it is one thing to make something illegal and a whole other issue to make the locals enforce it. Old traditions die hard, and as I have seen firsthand, some of the less friendly traditions are sticking around. In another teaching note: my counter part told me that I was teaching things that she had already taught the students I was teaching. She said that I should teach them at a higher level. Funny thing, she may well have already taught it, but they sure as hell don’t know it. I’ve got pages of writings from her best students documenting that. In another note altogether: I am reading like a mad man here. I am going through books like I have never seen. To that end, I am on a quest to read as many of the books you “should have read in your life” as possible. The problem is that I have a very short list. If you have any ideas, please e-mail them to me. Please also pass this question around to others as I know this site doesn’t attract many visitors. Thanks for your help. Brian

Saturday, January 17, 2004

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1-13-04 A couple of events: First, we did not start classes yesterday. I have heard reports that we will start today, but then again, I’ve also heard reports that we will not start until the 20th. Time shall tell I suppose. Second, we got hit by a nice little snow storm yesterday. I would have described as blizzard conditions from my previous experiences, but I think people here we sort of thinking that it was about time that get another decent snow storm. Kill the message not the messenger? A story in the lack of freedom of speech. So I was eating some meal yesterday. I honestly cannot recall which as other than the time of day, something hard to judge by the outside during a snow storm, there is very little to distinguish meals here. Occasionally, we do not really get a hot course at breakfast, but that is sometimes the only difference. Often we just eat the exact same thing for several meals in a row. Anyway, we were eating when my ajay (respectful term for an older woman that is more to my liking than host mother or counterpart as they all describe the same person) informs me that we are eating a rooster butchered by her son. I wasn’t exactly certainly the point in being told that. After all, most of the meat that I eat has been butchered by somebody in the family. As I sat there pondering whether or not I should go and get him an engrave plague for having slaughtered a rooster (hey maybe it was his first) she continued to inform me that the rooster had crowed the previous evening, so he had slaughtered it. Now, I am the first to criticize the roosters in this country for the relative ineptness at telling time. They do crow at all hours, and I have often wondered if they were really trying to wake somebody who was incredibly lazy or they were just incredibly stupid. As much as I have an issue with shear stupidity, I have never thought that butchering the stupid was a legitimate answer either. As I soon learned, the reason for the butchering was that to Kyrgyz, a rooster that crows at night is bringing bad news, so they kill it. Damn! I thought isn’t that a little bit harsh. I mean, it’s not his fault that he was told to relay the bad news. He was just doing his job. He’s not creating the bad news, or even taking part in the event. I guess here they kill the messenger instead of worrying about the message. 1-14-04 We did start classes on Tuesday, which was both a welcome relief and an unwelcome frustration. I thought reading some people’s cursive in English was difficult. Try reading cursive of a different script all together. It makes calling role an interesting process. The other unfortunate thing about the day was that all of my desks were nailed to the floor along the wall, which basically meant that none of my students could actually face me and write at their desk. I brought-up the issue to my counterpart. She then went to the assistant principal. As I was teaching my second class of the day, a crew of construction workers (ie students pulled from another class) sporting crowbars and hammers. They proceeded to rip the desks out of the floor and move them around the room as I taught. I thought about objecting to the timing of all of this as I had a two hour break between my classes in just a few minutes, but then I remembered that this is Kyrgyzstan where I should be pleased that the task got done while I was still in the Peace Corps. That was not meant as a complaint really, but instead more of an observation about different conceptions of time. Here things happen when they happen, so you just sort of have to wait for that come to fruition. 1-17 So the snow continues to fall, and it appears that perhaps the long promised nasty winter weather has finally hit us. I must say, that I am excited to have some real snow storms. It sort of makes you feel as though you are really here.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

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Okay, so I had this nice neat posting all typed and prepared for this week, and then the computer here at the internet refused to read that one file. Go figure. I will post that one at some point, but let me go ahead and give you the update. I set a couple of personal records this week. First, I finally spoke to my parents, which was wonderful. The second thing was I successfully froze my laundry at midday in less then one hour. Some have inquired about my living conditions, so please allow me to give you some information about that. I live in a realtively nice multi-story house. We have heat, but very little in my room. We electricity most days except for Thursdays. Indoor plumbing exists only in the form of faucets in the house. Our bathing facilities are a sauna type devise which only gets the coal to run it once a week or so. Thus, we are a stinky bunch. Oh yeah, and we have an outhouse, which sort of looses its novelty after the first week or so. I really can't complain all things considered. I have a water distiller and electric heater, so when we have electricity, I have clean water and heat. We don't, I survive. I started my English club this week, and I can say without a doubt that if you have never been cool in your life, being a volunteer in a small village makes you so. These kids love just hanging-out with the weird new American. Time will tell how much longer that lasts, but for the time being it is a fascinating and fun activity. Interesting note of the week: The official address of the British consolate in Kyrgyzstan is a restaurant called Fat Boys. Go figure. Anyway, I promise I'll start posting some more interesting stuff at some point, but as for now, that's it. Take care all, and please feel free to pass this along to anybody who might be interested. Take Care Brian

Saturday, January 03, 2004

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01-03-04 Okay, so let me start by saying that I hate web journals. I’m serious damn it! Ask some of my friends. I am known to despise these things. You may be thinking, “Emnege senen barsing?” which means in Kyrgyz, “Why do you have one?” Good question. I have created one, because I despise impersonal mass e-mails to people who don’t give a shit about what I am doing anyway more than I despise journals. Beyond that, I find myself woefully unable to keep all of my friends, family, family’s friends, ect… informed about my activities. This should at least serve as a forum to supply basic information about what is going on. Who the hells knows, it may turn into more than that. For right now, this is how I see things working: hopefully once a week I will make the trek into somewhere with internet and upload whatever bit of information I have composed over the course of the previous week or so. I still plan on sending-out e-mails to folks, and I welcome you to write me back. Feel free to pass along this site to those who may be interested, but whom I have failed to keep informed of my whereabouts and such. This first post will hopefully serve as a way of catching folks up the events of the past four months. On September 17th of 2003, I departed Chicago with 61 other trainees head for Kyrgyzstan (replace the y’s with u’s and you’ve almost got correct pronunciation). We arrived in Bishkek on 19th where we spent a couple of days before moving to our training villages. I spent the first few weeks sick on and off, but I managed to pull through. In late October, I discovered that a significant amount of money was missing from my locked room. Needless to say, this cause quite the stir. In the end, I celebrated the great American festival of Stache-tober fest (basically the majority of the guys in our group grew mustaches for the month of October and threw a big party for all on Halloween) before moving to a new village with a new host family on the 1st of November. On the 12th (I think) of November, our permanent sites were announced, which was followed by trips to those sites. Upon our return, we continued training and had language tests. On December 10th, I swore in as a Peace Corps Volunteer with 59 other people (we had one quit the day of swearing-in and another in late October). After some additional training for a select few (it’s a good thing I swear) on the 11th, I moved to my new home of Orgochor. Orgochor is located in Issyk-kul Oblast (state). If you look a map, find the big-ass lake, look at the south shore, find Kyzyl-Suu, look for the next village towards Karkakol, and you’ve found me. It’s a great village. It’s small but near a couple of larger towns. I am within an hour of 10-12 other volunteers. My house is big (multiple stories), it has heat (at least sometimes), electricity (most of the time), and an outhouse. That’s right folks, indoor toilets/showers are non-existent in most Kyrgyz villages. I spent the holidays traveling between my house, Karakol, and Kyzyl-Suu with Christmas in Karakol itself, and New Years spent with the locals in my village. I went to several local parties leading-up to New Years including two at the school (one for 9-12 grades and one for teachers). The students loved me it seemed. The teachers seemed confused as to why I was so energetic the night before at the student’s party, but I was not as interested in going nuts with them. I got news for those teachers: I came here to teach and have fun with the kids not get drunk and dance to bad music with the teachers. I like other faculty members, but I prefer to be silly with the kids. They’re the ones that I’m here for. I hope that has serve as brief overview for most of you, and has not bored those with whom I have been in regular contact. By the way, nothing on this page may be reproduced or printed without my permission (as if you’d want to), because I could loose my position over it, and I may want to put some the stuff in this journal in a book someday. If you have any comments, thoughts, questions, or ideas about what you have seen here (or anything else for that matter) please feel free to e-mail: cowanbp@yahoo.com