Saturday, March 16, 2013

Expect the Unexpected.

At the university, inside the main building, there is a small cafe that serves pastries of the Kazakh sort and coffee in a variety of forms. For whatever reason, it is called “French Cafe.” Normally, I eat lunch in the cafeteria, but sometimes the assortment of ground meat patties and raw vegetable sides don’t quite enchant me, or I’ve come to late and the tiny room they set aside for the faculty is already packed, so I walk across the atrium to French Cafe and order a sandwich.

Sandwiches in Astana are technically sandwiches, in that there are at least two pieces of bread with something between them, but they tend to score relatively poorly on the scale of deliciousness. To pieces of dry, toasted bread, with a mouthful of chicken sprinkled between them, and what sometimes seems like almost an entire tomato of slices mashed into the thing, in no way can compare to the variety of breads, meats, veggies, cheeses and sauces that you can find anywhere there is a proper deli.

That said, the sandwiches at French cafe aren’t terrible. And they are much better than a third helping of beef-chicken-steak in a week. They have two kinds, a “small” sandwich, which is two pieces of toast with cheese, tomato, and either chicken or tuna flecks, and a “club,” which is three pieces of toast with cheese, tomato, meat, and more tomato. I tend to stick with the former, as it has plenty of tomato for my tastes. One day they had slices of cucumber instead of tomato, which, I have to say, was a refreshing alternative to the norm.

Last Thursday, I decided to eat in French Cafe. I ordered a sandwich, as normal, and the cashier, as normal, asked “Small or large?” Here’s where the wheels began to come off. I replied “Small,” worrying that they had run out of bread entirely somehow, which did happen in one of my first experiences with the cafe, and running out of fundamental ingredients is fairly standard for this country. Reticent, she told me “No small.” Damn. “Only large.”

Only large.

You know, sometimes people tell you something, and it is so utterly bizarre, so mind-numbing, that you can’t process exactly what it means. I’ve described the two kinds of sandwiches to you. They have the same ingredients, but the “large” is just... one more piece of bread and one more slice of tomato. Imagine ordering a regular cheeseburger at a restaurant, and the waitress saying “We’re out of regular cheeseburgers. We only have double cheeseburgers.” What response is there? A person who makes such a statement is not in a mental state in which they could process an explanation about how they could simply not put the second patty on the bun.

I had the large sandwich.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Time is money. Or, at least, time is time.

After two months of work, I finally got my first paycheck. I thought I would celebrate by explaining how something like that could take so long.

I think a good place to start is how I was hired. I did a couple of in person interviews, with almost entirely different groups of people, and a few months later I was told that I would be hired. Nowhere in this process was the exact nature of the job explained to me, only that it would have something to do with helping the students write. All of the students here have to study, and be able to perform, in English (i.e. write papers, discuss topics in class, listen to lectures, and read extensively).  When I was finally able to sit down with one of the other "writing tutors," I found that the job was basically reading, editing, and discussing papers with students one-on-one to make sure the single year of immersive English they get doesn't evaporate.

I like the job quite a lot. I'm fairly good at fixing up grammar, but I tend to focus on helping the students organize their arguments, explain themselves better (by asking about a million questions), and annoying the hell out of students who don't actually want to get help, but they have to because their professor assigned it.

The University pays its employees by setting up a bank account, which normally wouldn't be too complicated, but my situation is unusual. Most non-Kazakh employees are hired while in their home countries, and are thus given a number of perks such as paid flights, special vacation options, living accommodations in Astana, and the like. I, on the other hand, was already in Kazakhstan when I was hired, and thus, I was hired as a "local." Basically, that means I get paid next to nothing and I don't have any real benefits. Also, it really screws up their system, because everything says I'm local, which should mean they don't have to hold my hand through everything, but since I'm not actually a local, they have to go through a ton of extra steps to get anything done.

What it boils down to is this: Every time I brought the administrative people something they told me they needed, it was either not quite what they needed, or there was something else they just discovered they would need because of some new, but obscure, law. I had to bring in three separate letters, signed, notarized, and on embassy letterhead, that proved I live where I live. The process was irritating at the best of times, but we're doing well on Susie's salary, so I didn't think much of it. I have a hard time imagining what it would be like if I was reliant upon the university for my living.

When everything was finally gathered and submitted, I was told that it would take up to ten days for the bank to open the account. Something I have discovered, in this land of frosty tundra and horse meat, is if they say it will take up to X days for something to happen, what they mean is that it will take a minimum of X days, probably longer, and you will probably have to remind them several times during the process or the job simply won't get done.

Of course, when I finally did get my debit card and fancy-shmancy PIN-generator key fob, it happened that we were no where near a pay day. So, there was an open account with a balance of 0 KZT. I was told that I could request that the university deposit my back pay immediately, but I was pessimistic at best about whether or not they would, and it turned out my pessimism was well placed. The account sat that way for almost two weeks. I had to email multiple people multiple times (going up the ladder because of a lack of responses) just to find out how much should be in the account. And after suffering through the complicated process of setting up my card and online banking, I finally got a terse email back explaining who I should be talking to... the first person I emailed (of course!), who had, in fact, never gotten back to me.

But the email included an electronic version of my pay stub, so I was finally able to cross check everything and relax.

I don't want to give the idea that everything went wrong and it was horrible all the time. In fact, for the most part, the process worked. It's just that it worked slowly, because there were far too many steps to justify, far too many speed bumps, and far too few people who were actually willing to do the steps that were a part of their job. We've all dealt with bureaucracies from time to time that screw things up and make us frustrated. Now, imagine that the bureaucracy you interacted with was post-Soviet, with all that that entails. Two months to get my first paycheck seems almost... rapid, when you really think about it.

At least I know it's a secure account. HSBC is about as stable as it gets; they can't even be held accountable for massive drug-money laundering. The sky's the limit with these guys.