Monday, October 22, 2012

Don't speak Russian? Bring carrots.

Susie and I live in a large and expanding collection of apartments known as Highvill. According to the plans, Highvill will eventually take up somewhere around two blocks of city space, and include restaurants, grocery stores, offices, gyms, and whatever else you can imagine. Right now, though, it's less than half finished, so I would imagine it's pretty tough to get stores to commit. There are a couple of extremely expensive restaurants (although I'm starting to think what I view as "expensive" and what the Kazakhs view as "expensive" in a restaurant is completely different), and currently there is only one small grocery store. There isn't a whole lot else. I think I've seen some offices, but it's pretty empty. A lot of this part of town is.

We live fairly close to Novella, the grocery store, so it's convenient for us. Especially so, since we can actually not have to leave the building to get to it. The apartments are build above and around interior parking decks, because leaving your car out in the intense cold during the winter is asking for problems. And luckily for us, this means that when the weather is inauspicious, we can take the elevator down and walk through the heated, covered, and insulated deck and go into the back entrance of the store. It's open from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, so almost any time we realize we need something basic, like milk, eggs, bread, cheese, or drinks, we can run down and get it. They don't have the selection of a full grocery store, and they suffer from the same supply issues that most stores around here do, but they tend to keep most things in stock.

The staff recognizes us at this point and speaks very little Russian with a lot of gestures in case we need something. There are three or four clerks in the store at any given time, running around doing whatever it is people do at a very slow grocery store. There are also people I've come to designate as managers or owners. They do not have the smock-like uniform of the clerks. In fact, they are almost always dressed quite nicely, much nicer than American store managers. It's unsettling, to be honest. They were black or pinstripe suits and stand like guardians over the whole place (when they aren't sequestered in the hole in the wall office that is wedged near the back entrance. They never smile and sometimes have rapid, fierce conversations with the clerks about what they should be doing. Which, it seems, is sometimes nothing at all.

A week ago, we needed some smaller items, and after I managed to lock myself out of the apartment and walk to the embassy to borrow Susie's key, I made my way (back) to the store. We were planning on having salad, I think, but I wanted to pick up other stuff since you never know what they might have. I had my headphones in, listening to some podcast, since the walk to and from the embassy is boring without something to distract from the featureless, muddy stretch of roadside between Highvill and there. I grabbed a cart with one hand, and headed for the stand of sketchy fresh fruits and vegetables they had. Most of them were dirty; they don't really wash produce here, which is problematic because their local produce is inevitably covered in filthy water and pesticides. We have to take care to wash them with warm water and soap. It's especially bad with carrots, which they pull out of the ground and drop straight on the shelves.

Because of the dire state of the fresh produce whenever we've seen it, we have up to that point in our time here avoided it, sticking to canned and frozen. But a salad calls for fresh! So I was there to get carrots. I was there to try, anyway. I didn't imagine it to be much different from the U.S. Having done it now, it's not much different. But in foreign countries, small differences are amplified. Especially when you do something stupid.

I rounded the corner to the produce aisle, and at the other end of the shelves stood one of the Novella mafia. We made eye contact and we nodded to each other, neither of us caring to try to speak in the other's language. I took one of the plastic bags from the roll that had been unceremoniously dumped on the onions and started eyeballing the carrots to figure out which of them I wanted. My mistake was that my hands were too full, bag in one, and the other hand that should have been available was weighed down by the basket that I had hung at the crook of my elbow. I grabbed for a carrot and got the first one in the bag. It was trickier than I had expected, because of my hand situation, but I managed.

I was highly aware of the guy standing there, watching the foreigner try to juggle carrots. That made what happened next all the more embarrassing. The second carrot I grabbed dislodged one of the ones above it, and it began to fall. Bag, carrot and basket were unwieldy enough that I couldn't grab it, so I did the only logical thing and tried to catch it with my foot. Looking back, of course that wasn't logical. I realized it wasn't as soon as I did it. I can't catch much of anything with my foot, let alone a rogue carrot. So, instead of catching it, I kicked it hard into the shelf and it bounced to the floor.

I looked over at the manager, and he just kept staring, not giving any hint of what he thought I should do. So I picked up the carrot, and seeing that it was dirty anyway, just like the rest of the precarious stack, I put it back. I thought, "It might even be cleaner now."

With the two carrots I intended to buy in my little vegetable bag, I tried to move on to the next section of the store. But I was stopped by the dark-suited man. I felt the panic rising in my soul. I kicked his carrot to the floor and then put it back. I defiled his produce and his store... I'll be banned for life if I'm lucky. He pointing at the carrots I held and in the direction of the rest of the carrots. My headphones were in, but I didn't any of the podcast I had been listening to. I yanked the buds out of my ears, trying as hard as I could to look like I had no idea what was happening. It's unsurprisingly easy to do when you actually have no idea what is happening.

I had no idea what he said, but he took the carrots and walked over to where he had been pointing. And then past it. To the scale that you use to weigh fruits and vegetables and get a price sticker for the clerks to ring up your purchase. He punched a few buttons and it didn't work, so he called over another worker and they put in the appropriate information. Then he handed the carrot bag, complete with price stuck to the outside, and smiled, gesturing that I could be on my way.

Weird experiences are the norm when you aren't in your home country. Well, that's not exactly right. It's more like this: weird experiences are the norm everywhere, but in your hometown, you know what to expect. You've had the experiences and they don't surprise you. Even going to another city can upset your mental sense of balance, and suddenly something that you would be easily able to manage becomes complicated, and your natural impulses just make it worse. At least in this case, I learned something very useful about Astana: if you throw around their root vegetables, they will kindly treat you like an idiot and do things for you. What I need is a sack of carrots to carry around, so that whenever I get lost or need assistance, I can kick one to get someone's attention. That's the lesson, right?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Three banquets a day -- our favorite diet!

I have mentioned before that people over-prepared us with regards to how difficult it is to find familiar foods in Astana. It seemed to make sense; good and affordable produce, recognizable cuts of meat, American brands... we're fairly isolated from other countries and the harsh climate significantly limits what is produced in the borders of Kazakhstan. Despite this, we haven't had nearly as much trouble as we first thought.

There are lots of different kinds of fruits and vegetables, fresh and frozen. Some of it isn't as cleaned and processed as the stuff we get in the U.S., but we've found carrots, peppers, lettuce, cabbage, potatoes, beans, corn, tomatoes, bananas, apples, pears, peaches... the list is far more extensive than what we were able to get easily in Japan. Right now there are fresh produce open markets in the city that have locally grown foods at fairly cheap (and negotiable) prices, plenty of imports from closer to the Mediterranean, and there is a weird variety of frozen vegetables that tend to heat up pretty well. They are a bit unpredictable; one week there will be big bags of frozen mushrooms, a bag with a variety of sliced peppers, and green beans, and the next week (when all of that has been purchased) we will have cauliflower, mixed carrots and broccoli, and brussel sprouts.

I imagine that once the Winter season sets in, these things will become more difficult to find and the price will rise, but I've talked to some people here who have said that they never entirely go away. This is a country of meat and potato meals, but in the stores and at the Embassy, where I eat on a nearly daily basis, there has been a pretty good spread of vegetable and fruit options.

Meat is a bit stranger. Maybe it's my untrained eye, but I don't really know how to tell the difference between good and bad meat, and even with the help of some talented Russian speakers who have been here for a while, it can be a little hit or miss. The best meat here is tougher than U.S. meat, be it beef or chicken (even pork or turkey), and the worst meat is... really quite bad. We tried cooking up some ground beef about a week into our time here and were so disgusted with the bits of bone, connective tissue, and gristle we found in it that we tossed it out half-cooked and tried other things that evening. We have had some good success with chicken breasts and steaks, and we've ordered a meat grinder to make our on ground meats. We also make do with some frozen meat. We found turkey "meatball" patties in the frozen section of the grocery downstairs, and there are a very popular meat dumpling that are easy to find and cook.

Although it's difficult to find sandwich bread, there wouldn't be much of a point because there aren't really any sandwich meats. There are some sausages and salamis, but I'm not really sure how well they would supplant roast beef and cold cuts. Regardless, we were warned that fresh bread is hard to get a hold of here, and that turns out to have been a misrepresentation as well. Every grocery has a fresh baked section with many kinds of bread, including pre-sliced varieties, and we are discovering some of the local styles such as a large flat bread (almost like naan) and tiny pieces of sweet bread (a little like biscuit dough), among others.

Thankfully, our meals are not all things that we have to cook ourselves. Many are, many more than we were used to in the U.S., mainly because we don't have an easy way to get around in the city yet. As I mentioned, though, I eat at the embassy about once a day because the food in the little cafeteria there is good and cheap. They have a mixture of Kazakh traditional foods (dumplings, pilaf, borscht), interpretations of American food (chicken sandwich, french fries), and international dishes (teriyaki beef, "Mexican"chicken, curry). They also make bread, cake, and other deserts. It's nice being so close I can walk over for lunch, and very rarely am I disappointed.

The first night we were here, we went out with a bunch of people to a restaurant called Line Brew. I think they brew a beer on site, thus the name. The food was pretty good, if a little expensive, but that tends to be the standard here. Susie and I had fantastic steaks, and even had a chance to try the Kazakh "horse meat cooked on a hot stone." They bring a stone that has been in the fire to the table with raw horse and you cook it yourself. It was nice. I haven't had any since, but I would eat it again. Outside of that, there is a mall with a sizable food court and there you can find the city's only Hardee's! It's basically like American Hardee's with a menu that is more limited in scope. You can get cheeseburgers, jalapeƱo burgers, curly fries, etc. Across the court from there is a KFC which mostly serves fried chicken sandwiches and wraps, but it tastes like KFC.

Yesterday Susie and I tried a new place that people recommended, in no small part because of the English menus (I forget the name). There were several kinds of sandwich and salads, and we both really enjoyed the meal. The sandwiches were huge, packed with stuff, and for around $20 we both had a more than enough food. It is nice to be able to do that, to find places that we are comfortable ordering and eating. Living abroad is stressful, wandering around cities without speaking much of the language is frustrating, and having a significant variety of food and restaurants is a major comfort that we did not have in Japan. I know there will be places we end up that are tougher than this, but hopefully we get more experience and better skill with adjusting.

On a final note, there are a couple of different chain burger restaurants to eat at in Astana. I mentioned Hardee's, but there are also some Kazakh-based chains. What you won't find is a McDonald's. Apparently, glorious leader Nazarbayev doesn't like them and doesn't allow them. So, that's something.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Irons in the Fire

What am I good at? Since it's a rhetorical question, I'll specify: What am I good enough at to do professionally? I grew up around teachers; my parents and their friends tended to fall into that category. Since I graduated from the University of Georgia, the only job I've had is to teach. I taught English formally and informally in Japan. I tutored college-level math at Indiana University before snagging an Associate Instructorship that let me teach Japanese. While I finished up my thesis, I was teaching Japanese part-time at a local high school, which I suppose helped propel me to a full-time job teaching it at a middle school in Atlanta. I'm good at teaching, being a teacher. I've spent more of my life in classrooms than almost anywhere else, and now, temporarily unemployed, I'm looking for opportunities around Astana, Kazakhstan to use the skills I've honed over the past seven years.

Of course, there are aspects of teaching that I'm not happy with, things I don't like or don't want to do. I don't like having to be a disciplinarian. To give an obvious example, middle school is absolutely not on the menu. I did not get along with middle school students while I was teaching full-time, and I did not get along with them while I was substitute teaching. Even the best kids on the best day were still soaked through with hormones, optimistically cruel toddlers in oversized bodies. Actually, "cruel" is probably too much... they wish to be cruel, but they aren't smart enough to do so effectively. Regardless, we do not get along, middle schoolers and I... not when I am their teacher, at least. Some people find teaching middle school great. One of my friends and mentors while at the middle school was amazing. She related to the kids and had fun with them, inspired them, made them interested. She ended up teacher of the year the year after I left, and she deserves it. I did not, and would not.

On the other hand, when I am in a classroom with high schoolers or college students, it's an entirely different situation. I know how to engage them, they know how to behave without being strapped to their chairs and made into little wind-up citrines, and we both can communicate with each other without one side compelling the other to shriek. I loved every day of teaching at high school. The kids were better, the speed was better, the responsibilities I could give them were better. Even subbing was fairly good, with the occasional speed bump of some kid deciding to succumb to his ex-girlfriend provocation and get in a fist fight with her, or make Thursday into "Don't Do What The Sub Says and Instead Disrupt All Of The Other Students" Day. I almost never felt like the students genuinely disliked me though, they just sometimes felt indignant that a sub wanted them to do anything at all. As a side note, that always turned out humorously for me, because as a sub, I don't honestly care if you decide not to do the work you were left, mess around in class, or call me names. Just don't make it personal. I have recourse with the administration and the teacher I am subbing for (imagine their pants-wetting terror they faced when I called the teacher on the number they left and put it on speaker phone), and 99% of the time I know the kid's name even if they think I don't. It inevitably turned out worse for them, and there was never a larger grin on my face than when some kid I hardly recognized passed by the door to whatever room I was in that day, stopped and said "Hey, you got me in trouble!" Not me, man. You got you in trouble.

I like the part of school where I get to explain and discuss and open up entirely new avenues of thinking and looking at the world. I know that for some people, especially those who aren't teachers, that sounds corny. I'm happy being corny as long as I get to do that stuff. Which leads me back to the general idea of this post... I want to be a teacher. I'm good at it and I like it, which isn't something that everyone can say about their job. Even when I'm not teaching, I'm thinking about what kinds of cool stuff I could do if I were. I read articles about great teachers, I look at blog posts where people talk about cool projects and teachers. If it weren't a job, it would be a hobby.

Only a few things stand in the way here. The first is that I'm not a certified teacher anywhere, so I always imagine that people look a little askance when I talk to them about working at their school or in their program. I know in a lot of ways that doesn't make a difference, but if it prevents my hiring, it prevents my hiring. It has been the only thing standing between me and a career for a couple of years now, and with our living outside of the United States, it's much trickier to figure out how to get that certification. The second thing is that the opportunities here are much smaller in number than in the United States. There are a small number of international schools with a small number of openings in each year, and at any given post, there might simply be no opportunities. I've gotten in touch with four schools so far, and it's looking mostly grim.

All hope is not lost, though. There are a couple of partial positives on the teaching job front that might lead to more (but not quickly... nothing here seems to move quickly). I've run into a couple of people who have volunteer opportunities that might be used as stepping stones to further work. I'm also in touch with a couple of universities with online programs that could potentially help me to get certification, which would probably be worth the effort and further student debt. I'm doing what I can.