Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Raj Kapoor: The Most Famous Indian in Kazakhstan

A few weeks on a crowded Astana bus during rush-hour, a woman in her mid-to-late 40s began engaging me in conversation. It was one of those days when I wasn't feeling particularly loquacious, but her friendly demeanor and chattiness – and the fact that the bus was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic – eventually broke through my normally misanthropic exterior.  The conversation took a generally predictable turn when she asked where I was from, and I had to respond with “I’m an American, but I was born in India…”

That sentence rarely remains finished.  “Oh, I knew you must be Indian! I love Indian movies…”  In the ten minutes that followed, during which we barely made it past two stops, she had gone through the list of her favorite movies –  usual suspects “Gospodin 420” (Shree 420), “Seeta i Geeta” (Seeta aur Geeta), and the untranslateable “Disco Dancer” featured prominently.  She then proceeded to extoll the virtues of Raj Kapoor, a renowned Bollywood actor often compared to Charlie Chaplain whose popularity in the former USSR apparently has not waned. When Kapoor visited Moscow with his co-star (and lover) Nargis after the success of their movie “Awaara,” they were overwhelmed by fans shouting the lyrics of songs from the movie, despite not understanding the words. 

Raj Kapoor and Nargis in "Awaara" (translation: The Vagabond/Tramp).
It certainly wasn't the first time that I had experienced this.  The masseuse at the Astana city banya recounted in detail – perhaps too much detail for an hour-long “relaxing” massage – her recent vacation to India, a trip she had dreamed about since watching Indian movies as a child in the Soviet Union.  Over the years, I’ve met Russians, Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis and Uzbeks who have gushed over their continued love for the campy, melodrama, song-and-dance routine of Bollywood movies.  There’s even an entire cable channel in Russia and Kazakhstan dedicated to Indian movies and TV programs, aptly called “India.” Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Hema Malini and Nargis -- actors and actresses who hold nostalgic significance for my parents' generation in India -- carry similar nostalgic weight among their generation in the former Soviet republics. 

The Soviet love affair with Bollywood began after World War II in the post-Indian Independence period, but grew exponentially in the post-Stalinist era after the first Indian film festival was held in the USSR in 1954.  Hollywood was banned, of course, but Bollywood was produced in India, a "non-aligned" country in the Cold War emerging from the shackles of colonialism and led by a Prime Minister with Socialist sympathies. True, importing Hindi movies satisfied the concerns of Soviet officials because these movies rarely ventured into dangerous political territory -- in fact, many early Bollywood films embraced socialist realism -- but that alone cannot explain the popularity of such films among the viewing public. The brief and academically non-rigorous search I did on this topic revealed a number of largely unsatisfying reasons for the popularity of these movies: the "escapism" provided by the melodrama, the fairytale-like plots, and the sympathetic portrayals of the working class were a few recurring themes. I found one recent academic work that tackles the topic head-on -- Indian Films in Soviet Cinemas: The Culture of Movie-going after Stalin by Sudha Rajagopalan -- and I am eager to read this book to see if it will provide a more comprehensive perspective.  

However, Rajagopalan's book ends at 1991, which means it does not look at the last 20 years and the role that these movies -- and more contemporary Bollywood movies -- continue to play for both the generation of people who grew up in the Soviet Union and a new generation of moviegoers who have grown up exclusively in the post-Soviet era. Are these movies merely another relic of Soviet nostalgia, or will Kazakhstanis and Russians fifty years from now talk about Shah Rukh Khan they way their parents and grandparents talk about Raj Kapoor?

I, myself, am not a huge fan of Indian movies the way that many foreigners I meet probably wish I would be.  In fact, I prefer the classic films of the 1950s and 60s to their flashier contemporary cousins in the same way I love the films produced in the Golden Age of Hollywood.  So, when the woman on the bus, whose name I never sought to find out, started singing one of my favorite Raj Kapoor tunes (Dost Dost Na Raha from "Sangam"), I couldn't help but join along. Although she didn't understand the lyrics of the song, the one word she understood was "dost" -- a word that happens to be shared both in Hindi and Kazakh ("dos" or "дос"), meaning "friend." How fitting, I thought.  

Bonus: The following song from "Shree 420" (or "Gospodin 420") was a huge hit in the Soviet Union, perhaps because the chorus of the song refers to Raj Kapoor's character wearing "a red Russian hat" (along with English pants and Japanese shoes... but, of course, his heart is Indian).  

Friday, August 9, 2013

An Ode to Letter Writing

I have been a letter-writer since I was in elementary school, a perk of growing up before the age of the Internet and text messages.  

My first pen pal was my grandfather, my mother’s father who died 16 years ago last week.  I remember the excitement that came with receiving one of his letters from India, old-fashioned blue aerogrammes penned with royal blue fountain ink. Initially, our correspondence began within the body of the letters he and my mother wrote each other, but the volume of our writing grew until eventually they merited their own, separate envelopes. Nothing in those letters was particularly revolutionary: I would bore him with mundane details of my schooling adventures, and he would remind me to be a good girl, which largely involved listening to my parents.  Occasionally I would include snippets of a story I was writing – I had grand dreams of becoming a novelist at age 9 – and his next letter would include a critique of those excerpts. 

It is quite possible this childhood hobby would have died with my grandfather had it not been for my discovery of Jane Austen around the same time. Awkward 13-year-old me, about to enter high school, found refuge in the witty but benign predictability of Austen, not to mention crushes on all her heroes, who were far superior to any boy my age. Austen was my gateway to the Romantics and Victorians: the Brontës, Eliot, and Dickens. Heroines in those books were overwhelmed by letters: from confidantes, family members, potential suitors, and the one aunt in London, who would issue that coveted invite to spend “the season” in the capital. I longed for my confidantes to send me pages of their deepest thoughts, penned in secret late at night, and for suitors to court me via handwritten love letters.  

While my success rate in getting potential lovers to woo me with letters is fairly low (I’ve managed it once or twice – not bad in this day and age – though they were never quite as epic as I had hoped), I have sustained lengthy letter-writing relationships with several good friends since high school, many of whom have written me while I was abroad in Russia, South Africa, and, now, Kazakhstan. These written conversations have chronicled my life – and our relationships – in ways no Facebook timeline, or email thread ever could match, and these friends are special in that they know with me an intimacy that might remain unparalleled even in marriage. While the frequency of the letters may be appalling to a 19th century denizen, the quality and depth of the feelings conveyed in those pages would be worthy of even Emma Woodhouse, the most judgmental of the Austen heroines. 

Earlier this summer one of these friends announced her pregnancy to me via a letter. Though I already knew about this milestone via more “conventional” sources of communication, the letter represented a capstone on eight plus years of correspondence that captured our journey through post-college existential crises about adulthood. Within the pages of letters and cards, we commiserated over moving far away from family and friends to pursue our careers, being picky over the men we met (or not meeting men), meeting the men we would eventually marry, and forging new paths for ourselves. Around the same time, another friend, with whom I have had a steady – if not always frequent – letter-writing relationship since high school, showed me my entry in her address book: a veritable map of my life for the past dozen years. 

Though I strongly advocate advances in technology that make it easier for people all over the world to communicate -- I can hardly imagine how my ultra long-distance relationship would have survived without Skype -- these advances could never replace the perfect joy of receiving a handwritten letter from a friend or loved one. 

Because, simply put, a handwritten letter is intimacy wrapped in time-honored ritual stuffed inside an envelope. 

It is both personal in that it’s addressed to you and public in that it can survive into posterity. It is a time capsule, preserving a moment in a relationship between two people, as well as a relic, fading in importance in an age of instant communication. Without the benefit of a backspace button, a letter can be both reckless and thoughtful at the same time, allowing the writer to compose with haste, or with great care. Of all the forms of communication available to us, handwritten letters are the most human, filled with flaws and bursting with feeling. 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Astana: City of Babies

If you are not what they call a "child person," Kazakhstan is not the place for you.  

In Astana, especially now that it's humanly possible to be outdoors for large periods of time without dying of hypothermia, it suddenly feels as if the city is crawling with children -- all under the age of ten.  On any given day, public spaces, cafes, and parks are overrun by gaggles of school-age children, wobbly toddlers, and sleeping infants -- sometimes belonging to same family.  

Now, don't get me wrong. I like children. I want to -- and plan to -- have a couple of my own in the near future.  In fact, what I like about this public display of fertility is that it gives this city a bit more of a "homey" feel, which is often difficult to find in this largely sterile landscape of steppe and glass.  But it makes for a strange urban environment to be constantly surrounded by what feels like armies of young children. 

Statistics back up this stray observation.  Since independence, Kazakhstan has experienced a tremendous growth in its birth rate, an effort to populate this sparsely populated country and stave off a potential demographic crisis that was compounded by ex-migration in the 1990s.  Despite being the 9th largest country in the world, Kazakhstan has a population of about 16 million, which is somewhere between the individual populations of Florida and Illinois.  

The government encourages its citizens to have babies -- lots of them -- and clearly the incentives appear to be working. A generous maternity leave policy (at least by American standards), coupled with social pressures to have kids young, make it both common and possible for a woman in her mid 20s to have at least two children -- with plans for more, of course.  I often ride a bus to the university that stops by the maternity hospital in town, and I am always amazed at the number of expectant mothers who get off and on the bus at that stop (to be fair, this is a skewed sample).

The ubiquitous presence of children makes Astana feel even more like Disneyland, than a "real" city at times, but I find myself reluctantly appreciating this aspect of public life.  In a way, this, more than anything, makes Astana live up to its promise of embodying the "city of the future."  

Monday, June 17, 2013

Part III: Running on the Steppe

First, a confession: I am not a runner.  

In fact, I can't say I enjoy running all that much -- I'm slow, impatient, and easy to give up.  Over the years, I've picked up and put down running the way one does a long classic novel that you know you should read but can never quite finish (do you hear that, War and Peace? It's not just you).  But I also can't deny that running is an effective form of exercise -- and cheap -- which is why I find myself returning to it in times of need. 

In March, I realized that a long winter of little exercise and too many potatoes had made me cranky and out-of-shape in a way I disliked.  With a gym membership more than cost prohibitive in style-conscious, overpriced Astana, it was time to pick up my old friend running again.  Like many of my experiences here, running in Kazakhstan became more than just about lacing up a pair of shoes and hitting the pavement: it was yet another way both to see this city through a new lens and test the boundaries of cultural norms.  

Because it's hard to wax prosaic about running without sounding like one of those weirdos who enjoys minimalist shoes (shoes with toes are weird!), I've decided to write the rest of this blog post in the form of a "cheers and jeers" list. 

1. Cheers to the incomparable view.  Whether you're in the city -- surrounded by futuristic looking buildings -- or out on the outskirts swallowed up by the expansive steppe/marshlands, the surroundings are never boring. 

One of the many cityscapes you can see running along the river embankment. 
Running into the outskirts, the glossy skyscrapers fade into the open steppe/marshland. 

2. Jeers to stares, wolf whistles and the occasional attempt to run me over with a car. Running in the city requires a steely resolve to avoid engaging passersby who find it both hilarious -- and perhaps implausible -- to see anyone, let alone a woman, running through the streets in shorts.  As someone who sticks out as a foreigner, the stares I'm used to, but the wolf whistles from construction workers and unwanted commentary from groups of aimless young men is beyond annoying.  On the plus side, the anger I feel generally motivates me to run faster and further.  

3. Cheers to running with others. I finally figured out that running with other people is better than running solo.  I get bored easily -- not to mention impatient -- but scheduling runs with colleagues and friends has motivated me on days I would much rather just sit at home and watch Netflix. (Now I run, then go home and watch Netflix). 

4. Jeers to running after greasy Chinese food.  On one particular run, poorly scheduled after a deliciously heavy meal of Chinese food, I spent half the time regurgitating spicy tofu onto the side of the steppe.  Still, I rallied through it, and now can proudly -- or perhaps not-so-proudly -- claim that I've made my "mark" on Kazakhstan. However, I don't recommend the experience. 

5. Jeers to uneven pavement and trails to nowhere. Sidewalks in Astana are either composed of bricks or stone, both of which warp in the heat and crack in the extreme cold.  This makes for a hard, uneven surface that is a killer on the joints, not to mention a hazard while running.  Trails along the river are nice, but occasionally end abruptly or lead to nowhere.  Dry paths on the steppe, which are my favorite surface, often get washed out in the rain or overgrown by grass.  In short, this is not a running-friendly city!

6. Cheers to not being a total schlub.  I can't say I've become a faster runner, but I feel slightly better about my overall exercise to food ratio.  

No doubt I will be happy to return to a place where runners are a norm, rather than an oddity, and where urban environments are designed with runners in mind, but what I've liked about running in Astana -- despite all the frustrations and unwanted attention -- has been the opportunity to see this city from a new perspective. 

Next up: I'm on vacation starting Saturday, when I head to Europe for two weeks, but rest assured there will be more blog posts in the near future. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Part II: International Women's Day

Old Soviet-era poster for Women's Day, proclaiming an end to "kitchen slavery."

In the pantheon of made-up, Hallmark-bankrolled holidays, International Women's Day is not the worst offender -- at least on paper. 

For one, it's not wholly manufactured.  Its origins harken back to the spirit of early 20th century revolution, and its contemporary counterpart is the grandchild of a century of political and social change.  One can even overlook the commercialized modern-day incarnation in Kazakhstan to see it as an interesting by-product of Soviet legacy and, simultaneously, an internalized reflection of changes in Soviet society over time. Through a purely objective lens, this holiday's social history is far more fascinating than my favorite revisionist historical holiday, American Thanksgiving.  (To be fair, this is largely due to Thanksgiving's emphasis on pie). 

After enduring my first-ever Women's Day celebration, at least in a part of the world where it is a national holiday, I can confidently say that I have discovered my least favorite holiday on the planet.

In Kazakhstan, as in Russia and other parts of the former Socialist sphere, Women's Day has metamorphosed into an appalling hybrid of Valentine's Day and Mother's Day with little substantive content.  Women are showered with flowers, chocolates, perfumes and gifts from all the men in their lives.  They are reminded about their special "virtues" -- mostly by men -- and praised for their roles as mothers and caretakers of the country's future -- again by men.  Political leaders, of course, will pay some lip service to the contributions of working women to the economy, but even that is couched in patronizing rhetoric about women's innate abilities to be amazing employees and great mothers/wives.  Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, for example, highlighted women's "sacred" mission to raise a new generation even as he discussed the lack of women in leadership positions in the state administration. (He also honored a 32-year-old woman with seven (!) children with a special gold medal at the ceremony).

Women's Day tulips at work.
While none of this sounds particularly offensive, there are broader ramifications to reducing a holiday presumably celebrating half the world's population to a second-rate Valentine's Day. (Besides, Valentine's Day hasn't yet been declared a national holiday anywhere).  National holidays, after all, are public rituals that play important roles in shaping culture, identity and nation-building.  When compared to 'Defenders of the Fatherland Day' -- the de facto Men's Day that was celebrated with a sense of dignity -- the public celebration of Women's Day bordered on cartoonish frivolity. Billboards lined the streets of Astana for May 7 with poignant quotes from veterans about their experiences from World War II.  Not a single billboard I saw on March 8 quoted Kazakhstani women, famous or otherwise, on their accomplishments or challenges.  Instead, the city was adorned with flowers, which were incidentally recycled a few weeks later for the Nauryz celebration.  The imbalance of this symbolism is telling, even if it is unintentional.  

City decorations aside, what bothered me most about the holiday festivities was something much more fundamental.  Under the guise of giving women deserved recognition for their work in and out of the home (incidentally, in both the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, women end up working just as hard -- if not harder -- on Women's Day since the day off from work is an excuse for family and friend gatherings for which they do most of the heavy lifting at home), it relegates women to passivity. Men recognize women for their "special roles."  Men buy women gifts.  Men give lofty speeches extolling the virtues of women.  Men plan the special events at workplaces.  Women, ironically, don't seem to have much of an active role in celebrating "their day." 

Now, I can probably guess what you're thinking: stop being such a judgmental Westerner.  

Indeed, I gave a lot of thought to why I was feeling this visceral hatred that I normally only reserve for holier-than-thou vegans and sorority girls who wear black leggings in lieu of pants.  Was this just my Western liberal bias?  Or, worse, was I becoming one of those expatriates who criticizes everything about the country they're living in because it doesn't conform to their values?  While I admit I am especially intolerant of social norms that bestow special status -- and consequently, special rules -- on women, I do not believe it is culturally insensitive to question practices and values that promote racism, sexism, or homophobia.  One can still respect the differences in cultural, or social traditions and challenge the basis on which they are formed.  

Pausing each year for a moment to recognize the contributions -- and, yes, even the "roles" -- of women in society is a worthy cause, but it's a cause that deserves more than just chocolate, flowers, and empty compliments from the menfolk.  Perhaps it's time for a new Women's Day tradition in Kazakhstan -- for women to take charge of the celebrations!

Bonus: Here are some selections from several poems that appeared in my inbox on March 8 for Women's Day. 

"Each woman is gentle, caring and kind.
We must respect, both her body and mind."

"Let will this Day of the Springtime
For You particularly miraculous"

Next time on Wanderlost...

Part III: Adventures in Running

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Return of the Blog: Part I

A friend and I were discussing recently how difficult it was seeming of late to blog about something "interesting."  As you've no doubt noticed, beloved reader, I haven't posted anything for almost five months, which I partly attribute to wanting only to share what I find new and fascinating about living here in Astana.  After eight months here, things are beginning to feel more or less normalized, and my life has acquired the kind of mundanity that doesn't inspire great blog posts.  And, yet, blogging -- like any form of public writing -- is at its core an act of constructed intimacy, of sharing selected parts of one's everyday life in an effort to find some relevance in them.  So, here goes… 

Part I: The Hospital

If what Uncle Lev said about happy families is correct, then I’d like to say the same about hospitals: they are indeed all alike.  Before you scoff at this idea of comparing the Mayo Clinic to a rural hospital in Botswana, consider the commonalities that do exist in every hospital regardless of geography.  

The smell of disinfectant.  The sounds of illness.  The harried faces of doctors and nurses.  And, of course, the endless waiting.

When I broke my elbow in January – on a foolish attempt to beat back impending old age through ice-skating – I made a few visits to the local hospital to get it examined and fixed up.  The hospital, like most things in Astana, is a brand new building – and, like most new buildings in Astana, was undergoing ремонт ("repair") at the time of my visit.  Expatriates in Astana generally receive treatment at an international clinic, but with my local health insurance, I didn't have much of a choice as to where I went.  Perhaps my naiveté, combined with a childhood of visits to third-world hospitals/doctors, made me less apprehensive than some of my colleagues about getting treatment at the quote "local hospital." The hospital facilities were clean and well-equipped, and my doctor had the right combination of tiredness and gruff competence I instantly recognized as a universal trait in ER doctors around the world.  Besides, a broken elbow is a common-enough ailment that I imagine even the most poorly-trained doctor could fix without too much trouble. 

Getting my cast off for a final X-Ray at the hospital. 
This experience was, on the whole, much more pleasant – and far cheaper, costing me a grand total of 0 – than my previous visit to the hospital in the United States a year earlier.  An unplanned visit to the ER with a gastrointestinal infection last year nearly cost me several thousand dollars after my insurance refused to pay the hospital bill on the grounds that I should have followed their procedure by contacting their 24-hour doctor on the phone (in between vomiting, of course) to get permission to go to the ER.  While the insurance company eventually caved in to my demands, the entire experience left me – as many other Americans can attest to – with the distinct feeling that getting sick or in an accident would ruin my life with or without insurance. 

Free (and first-ever) ambulance ride to the hospital.
Since my unexpected foray into the medical world of Kazakhstan, I have been trying to better understand the health care system in this country.  The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that Kazakhstan, like many other post-Soviet states, had to figure out how to retain the free, universal health care system that was no longer centrally funded.  Today's system, as far as I can make out, is a combination of guaranteed public benefits paid for by the state, including emergency, outpatient and inpatient care, and user fees for services outside those benefits such as medications that are either paid by private insurance or patients.  The majority of hospitals and polyclinics are publicly-owned, though there are a growing number of private hospitals and public-private ventures. 

By American standards, Kazakhstanis seem to have it pretty great, considering that an uninsured working adult in the United States could hardly walk into an ER and expect free treatment. 

However, when you look a bit closer at the numbers**, the Kazakhstani system is not without its flaws.  For one, government expenditure on health care is low – less than 5 percent of the GDP in 2009 – and is one of the lowest in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.  Salaries for health care workers, especially nurses, are low.  The resource imbalance between rural and urban areas is marked, but even living in the capital city doesn't ensure better treatment.  A neighbor told me once that it took several trips to get her 3-year-old daughter treated for a fever because the clinic was overwhelmed with patients on that day.  Because one's official place of residence determines which clinic in the city one can visit, her options were limited.  In short, Kazakhstan faces the same health care challenges as many other middle-income countries around the world.

Overall, would I rather have been treated in the United States?  Absolutely.  Despite the costs associated with medical treatment, I do believe the average American patient rarely questions the quality of the care and has recourse when things go awry. (I read a report that suggested that a state commission here began tracking medical errors and negligence only recently).  While the problems faced here in Kazakhstan differ from those in the United States, they are governed by two underlying questions: how much do we invest in the health of our community, and whose responsibility is that investment?  Let us hope that these two societies – and their governments – decide to tackle these questions in the near future.   

Or, at the very least, before my next broken bone. 

**This comprehensive European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies report on Kazakhstan was helpful. 

Next time on Wanderlost… 

Part II: International Women’s Day 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A (Borderline) Sentimental Holiday Note

In a few hours I'm jetting off to exotic -- and more importantly warm -- locales, where I plan to spend the next two weeks far away from the Interwebs, so this likely is my last blog post of the year.  After the wicked cold of Astana in the past few weeks and a busy end to the semester, a week or two of sunshine, good books, and adventures couldn't be a more fitting end to a year that has been memorably joyous, despite the challenges that came with it. 

The funny thing is, as much as I love unexpected adventures and brave, new experiences, I love the predictability and steadiness of that which we know and the people who know us best.  Over the last few days I've been feeling that aching melancholia that comes with being far away from family and friends at the holidays, exasperated by the slow departure of friends and colleagues around me, and I wonder if I made the right decision by not going home.  Though one look at ticket prices reassures me that I did, I still can't help but feel a pang of regret thinking of all the mundane but lovely activities I am missing out on over the holidays: eating a burrito the size of my head on a sunny December Texas day, enjoying a beer (or two) on a snowy Wisconsin evening amidst green-and-gold mania, watching a Law and Order marathon on a Sunday afternoon, eating samosas for breakfast and dosas for dinner, settling down on the couch to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas with a cup of hot chocolate, and, most importantly, being with the people in my life who make the mundane somewhat extraordinary. 

In the past few months, I've found out that a close college friend and the parent of another have been diagnosed with cancer.  I know I cannot speak as if I were in their position -- or the position of their loved ones -- but the news was a bitter reminder that the beauty and, yet, sadness of human life is its fleeting nature. Still, I remain optimistic, not because I don't believe that tragedy and sadness will not strike my life when I least expect it, but because I see people like my friend facing such an unfair lot in life with hope.  I'm rarely overly sentimental, but if there's one holiday wish I have for you all, it is this: be happy.  Find the joy in your life, be it in a book, in a trip somewhere exotic, or at home watching Law and Order.  And, because Kurt Vonnegut will always be better at saying things than I will, "I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"

Happy Holidays -- and see you in 2013!