Conquest 4: Kazakhstan

Well, I've done it.  It wasn't easy, and it certainly wasn't quick.  The Mongols tried and failed.  Russia could never do it.  But I have done it.  I have conquered Kazakhstan.  And I have returned victorious.  Which is to say I returned at all.  So many conquering heroes find themselves with the epithet because they did something great (or at least big), and died trying.  Not me.  Not even a flaming jet engine could get me down (literally).

All this conquering leads me to ponder, though, how do you know you have done, when you have done it?  So I've put together this little checklist, as it were, for prospective conquerors.  

  1. Tears.  Tears are extremely important to a conquest, because you know you've really got their attention when people start crying.  Luckily for me, there was no weeping and wailing upon my arrival (these types of tears are generally indicative of the wrong kind of conquest [most likely the kind that ends in counter-conquest {not really what we're looking for here}] and can be considered a false-positive in many cases).  Leaving tears, though, are a sure sign that you have conquered hearts and minds.  While the people there were too stoic to really show it, there was definitely some misting, if not outright tearing up.  Do your own count, you may ask?  Yes, especially if they elicit a similar response in others.
  2. Begging.  (Vehement begging being the most appropriate).  If your employer begs you to stay, you know they are afraid of being short-handed after you leave.  If your friends don't beg you to stay, you know they're just to proud to ask.  Done and done.  The key to being key at a job is picking something no one else wants to do.  Work in an academic library?  Plenty of people will do that.  Work for low pay?  If it's the right job, a few people will do that.  Live in Kazakhstan for a year?  I did meet other people who did that, but most of them made exorbitant amounts of money compared to their compatriots in the United States.  Combine all three in the same job, you've got yourself a winner.  Pretty much guaranteed they'll beg you to stay when  you leave.  As for the friends, it takes a little  more creative interpretation.  
    1. "I hate you": "You're my best friend in the world, don't ever leave me."
    2. "You suck": "I really wish you well in all your endeavors but mostly I just wish you'd stay here and be awesome."
    3. "I'm never speaking to you again": "I'm going to act petulant and pretend to forget about you for a while because I just don't know how to handle all these feelings of how much I miss you."
  3. Well-wishing.  The platitude a departing conqueror hears most often is "good luck," which is coincidentally the most common platitude heard by death-row inmates, root canal patients, and 16-year-olds on their way to the first of what will most likely be a long string of failed driving tests.  This response is indicative of a general feeling of malaise among those left behind, for whom your departure evokes such feelings of depression and unease that they can't even bestir themselves enough to come up with anything more enthusiastic than "good luck."
Now, the most important lesson I learned about conquering any place is that getting out is always much harder then getting there in the first place.  Napoleon learned that when he tried to conquer Russia.  Add in air travel and you definitely have a recipe for disaster.  Especially when you decide to travel through Russia.  On a plane.  If you take nothing else from this little story, let it be this: when your engine is on fire, always turn back.  Words to live by.  Second, and only slightly less important rule, if you're going to get stuck in a foreign airport for four hours while you wait for them to fly in a new plane, make sure your credit card works, because you can be sure that the voucher the airline gives you for a free meal won't be accepted by a single shop in the terminal you're stuck in.  I say this for Americans traveling through, as a bit of advice.  Luckily for me, I was coming off a recent conquest in a CIS country, so my card had no problems talking to the machines in Russia. Spoils of victory, I suppose.  

My ticker tape parade?  The JetBlue customer service rep who booked my flight from JFK, after I arrived 9 hours too late to catch the original flight I'd booked to get me to Rochester, the polite TSA officers who warned me before putting their hands on me, and the orderly boarding that happens when people only get in line when their rows are called. Oh yeah, and getting off my last flight in a familiar place, with my husband waiting, and fresh humid air to greet me outside.  If that's not a triumphant return, I don't know what is.

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Conquest 3: Sustenance

I haven'd had a major conquest in a while.  I'm not sure what that says about me.  Or if it says it about me at all.  Maybe it's talking about this place.  In any case, my trip to the grocery store today (or, at least the grocery store I go to most often) yielded a particularly lovely haul, so I decided to make this (bonus!) post, dedicated to food and other grocery-related conquests.  Enjoy!

1.  Listerine:  I haven't seen this since my Christmas holiday trip to the UK, and there were much more exciting things happening then to be blogging about Listerine.  But this was my first sighting (and purchase) in country.

Hot and Sour Soup

2. Hot and Sour Soup: (or an approximation).  A chance encounter with some canned bamboo shoots gave me the idea to make this.  That and the tofu I was told about down at the bazaar.


3. (The afore-mentioned) Tofu: which, on this day, became tofurky in preparation for the upcoming Salsa-giving celebrations.  Don't ask?

Soy Milk

4. Soy Milk: first discovered at one of the smaller grocery stores that tended to import a lot of items, but since found at the bazaar where we get our tofu.  

Well, I suppose that's all for today.  Hopefully we'll have plenty more to report.  It's the little things, I suppose.

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Conquest 2: Happy Birthday

As mentioned in my recent post, A First Impression, Once Made…, I arrived in Astana a bit bedraggled and rather disoriented.  I was helpless as a newborn to navigate even the customs line.  English, my own native language, was quite inaccessible to me, and both Russian and Kazakh were quite out of the question.  I remember rather little about the morning of my arrival (incidentally, it is only by going back through emails sent home that I remember much at all of the entire first week I spend in Astana) other than a moving through a series of dark places and emerging into other, brighter places, with very little idea as to where, precisely, I was and how I’d got there.

Luckily, one of my new co-workers met me at the airport, with a driver to take me to my temporary housing.  I spoke very little on the trip—really, in the state I was in, what came out was probably more a series of agreeable grunts and nods of the head than actual words.  The fact that I’d seen no identifiable city from the airplane while landing had me earnestly looking out the van windows, and trying to ascertain that there was in fact a city out there somewhere.  The drive was both unbelievably short, and impossibly long.  I say both short and long, because while it was happening, I wasn’t sure it would ever end.  Yet now, looking back from my comfortable apartment and the experience of actual and regular rest, it seems to have occurred in the blink of an eye, and I can recall it all quite fondly. 

I can only clearly picture the moment I opened the door to my room, and saw a bed—the first I’d seen in almost 3 days—before me, but there is one moment which stands out in my memory, and probably will forever.  As I said, my new co-worker met me at the airport with a driver.  I was to stay in temporary housing provided by my employer, to which I was taken that morning.  Upon arrival, it seemed we would be forced to park quite far from the entrance.  I, of course, had two checked bags, plus my carry-on (I had, after all, just moved half-way around the world), and though I was certainly willing to drag all three bags as far as necessary just to find rest, my co-worked quickly enlisted the help of a college student who was helping (I say helping because it sounds better than standing around watching and being of no help at all) his friend fix his car to instead help carry my bags up. 

Being a teenage male, he of course had to carry both bags, even though I would have carried one myself.  Once at the building, we crowded into an elevator that was much too small to ever carry humans without causing claustrophobia, and went to the sixth floor.  While in the elevator, the two struck up a conversation, during which it came out that today (evening or morning, I’m not really sure which), was his birthday.  Upon her relaying this information to me, I uttered my first words (of Russian), in my new home, which was greeted with no less surprise and delight, I think, than the first words of any infant is greeted by its parents: С днём рождения.

Happy birthday.

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Conquest 1: The Consulate General of the Republic of Kazakhstan

(or, the day I conquered Kazakhstan [or, why can’t a government that lives ten hours in the future get anything done on time?])

It turns out that getting the job was only half the battle.   There were the Skype interviews, and consulting with friends about whether to take the job, conversations with myself about whether I should take the job.  But there’s getting the job, and getting the job.  And getting the job is a whole different job in itself.

Kazakhs, you see, do not have that rarified sense of urgency that one finds in your average, hard-working, up-and-at-‘em American. Though they don’t actually have ballparks (just another American innovation, misappropriated the world over), all their time is ball-parked.  Americans, though, as we all can attest, are always getting things done.  Things you didn’t even know needed doing: done yesterday.  We’ve got calendars everywhere, to tell us what we’re doing, what needs to be done, what we’ve already done, what we will do, and what we will have done.  In America, ballparks are for drinking beer and fighting, while in the background frolic athletes whose careers are often shorter than the lifespan of the average PC.  Now, those guys have a lot of accomplishing to do.  And let us not forget the spectators.  After six hours spent watching, well, next to nothing, they’ve got a lot of time to make up.  No wonder we’re so good at getting things done. 

Consequently, Wednesday in Kazakhstan (I am, of course, picking Wednesday out of a hat, off the top of my head, as it were.  Any day of the week would serve just as well [especially in Kazakhstan {really, I mean no offense to the good bureaucrats and functionaries of that expansive nation, but their lack of timeliness does tend to offend one so accustomed to the well-managed American day}], Wednesday just flashed so brilliantly in my brain just now), could mean just about anything, from 2 hours hence to 2 weeks from Wednesday.  And just like watching a baseball game, most of that time is spent sitting, waiting for something to happen.  But take your eye off the batter for just one second and next thing you’re being cracked squarely in the face by a foul ball.  When Kazakhs decide to move, you’d better get out of the way.  Well, that’s nomads for you.  The United States was founded solidly on a tradition of moving in and staying.  Sure, there was a fair amount of westward expansion at some point, but everyone knows that was mostly immigrants.  They’d already come all the way across the ocean; what’s a few more thousand miles if it means the well-settled of us who’d already gone to the trouble of removing the natives reaped the benefits of their hard work? 

It’s such a good and solid tradition we have, by the by.  I want something, I go to where it is, plant myself in front of someone, and quite sooner than later, something happens.  It appears.  Civilization continues to move forward.  And they’re happy to do it, whoever it is that makes whatever it is happen.  Americans have gotten so great at, and from, as it were, planting themselves places, that I suppose we’ve been a bit trained to do something about it right quick, before someone takes root.  Not so, Kazakhstan.  In the United States, we are happy to say, “where there’s a will, there’s a way (just don’t wait too long, or there won’t even be a will).”  In Kazakhstan, “go ahead and try, but don’t bet on it.” 

All these lessons have been learned in hard study, months of living with a people much different, in so many ways, than the people around whom I grew to adulthood.  So when they said, “Renew your passport, and oh, by the way, do it in the next five days or we won’t be able to get your visa in time, I paid the renewal fee, and the expedite fee, and drove 300 miles in order to make it happen.  It was a sunny Wednesday, I believe, when I left Buffalo, quite beaming myself, thinking now I’ve got it!  I’ve got my new passport, and nothing can stop me getting a visa, and on my way I’ll go.  Then, when they said you’ll need to go to New York City to pick up your visa, because it won’t arrive in the mail before your plane leaves, I bought the train ticket, drove the 225 miles to Albany at 4:30am to get on the train, and somehow conquered the streets of Manhattan (no mean feat for someone raised in rural Western New York) to make my way to the 19th floor of that one building with no address on it but which for some reason houses the Consulate General of the Republic of Kazakhstan.  At which point the nice gentleman who worked there smiled and informed me that he was unable to process my visa application.  This was a Thursday, as I recall.  They’d told me the visa would be ready by Wednesday. 

Now, I’ve learned in my time so far in Kazakhstan that smiles are reserved, even in customer service, for those rare times when the person in questions is genuinely happy.  Smile: happy; frown: sad; scowl: angry; etc.  At the risk of overplaying the “former Soviet State” card, it’s difficult not to wonder if it’s some kind of holdover from the Soviet era when people were simply perpetually unhappy, when one walks down the street and encounters only frowns.  On the bus, only frowns.  In stores and shops, only frowns.  I visited the venerable prison of Kar-Lag some time ago, and one exhibit which made a very great impression upon the entire group undergoing the tour was a visual representation of Stalin, painted upon a wall, looking out through the viewing port of a prison watchtower, which had been constructed, in three dimensions, even, out of wood in front of the old bear.  The tour guide was sure to wear her most put-upon frown when describing this exhibit. 

Is Stalin still watching, I wonder?  I guarantee you old George never gave the revolutionaries such fits, even when the British captured Charleston and our good man Washington feared mutiny among the ranks.  It’s a rare feeling, to walk among these people and realize they don’t feel the freedom you and I grew up inhaling with every breath of good clean American air. 

But back to me.  There I was, bereft and alone on the mean streets of Manhattan, without a visa, without a charged battery in my MacBook, without a friend in the world to succor me or buy me a no-foam soy latte at Starbucks so that I could plug in my laptop and also score free wifi.  Life had me down, I’m not too proud to admit it.  I retreated, reluctantly, when I’d finally been told, direct from Kazakhstan itself, that the papers, which were to have been sent two days prior by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had indeed not been sent.  Come back next week, the nice man said, it’ll be done Tuesday, maybe Wednesday.

At the time, I was quite upset.  Now I consider it my first great accomplishment, a crash course in Kazakh government; looking back at myself I seemed so young, so innocent.  I’d done exactly what they’d told me, time and again, and still nothing.  Everything they told me to do; I was a doer; I made things happen.  I did everything they wanted.  But as I said, I was upset.  I hadn’t time to take in these lessons.  I was still doing, not thinking.  So instead of wandering the streets alone, or taking my scheduled train back home in abject defeat, I beat a well-considered retreat to Williamsburg, where I found sustenance in the form of take-out falafel and a place for the night on a blow-up mattress in the apartment of a friend.  I rested and planned for my next foray into, as I saw it then, global relations.  I was determined, in the spirit of so many Americans before me, to finish the job.  Whatever they demanded, I would make it happen.

What did I really learn, from that experience?  Well, for one, that we’re (Kazakhstan and America) not so different, after all.  I’d gone to New York determined to be business-like, strong, optimistic.  And what got me the visa I’d come for was nothing so pedestrian.  Tears, it turns out, are a universal communicator.  In my three visits to the Consulate General of the Republic of Kazakhstan, I’d progressed, slowly, from friendly-yet-business-like smile, to a frown of worry, to that indescribable yet all-too-well-known look of the person who goes into a situation hoping for the best yet expecting the worst.  But finally, finally, I hit upon the correct facial expression for the situation: the tired, bedraggled expression of a woman with nowhere else to turn, just barely holding back tears.  A woman giving up.  I woman whose last reaction was to do nothing.  That man behind the counter did more work when I lay that expression on him than he had in the entire 24 hours since I’d arrived and he’d told me, with such kindliness and friendliness, that he could do nothing for me. 

I got my visa that day—one day later than intended, and by that time, too late to get back to Rochester and make my flight—but the greater gain was the feeling of conquering.  In that moment, I’d conquered Kazakhstan.  I was an American, then; more American than I’d ever been.  I came, I saw, I took what I needed.  Another person might have taken it as an omen, given up on the venture altogether (though, I hope, not an American, a real American), or gone home in defeat to try to regroup and accommodate this other nation that seemed to think they had some kind of say in the greater scheme of things.  Certainly, that’s not the American way.  Americans make it happen.  Americans conquer.

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