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!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The 'Long Winter' Ahead

The view from the dormitory kitchen. 
A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that one of my favorite books as a child was Laura Ingalls Wilder's "The Long Winter," one of the lesser known volumes of her Little House series.  Though it's famous for its portrayal of the 1881 blizzards that wreaked havoc across the Great Plains, it's probably not the book most children would pick as their "favorite" in the series since it’s a grim chronicle of near-starvation and near-death.

Unless you're me, of course.

Perhaps it was the obvious contrast to my own childhood in the sweltering tropical zone that drew me to this particular book and its description of something I could hardly being to imagine.  (If not that, I would be worried, right?).  What did it feel like, I wondered, to have the snow jabbing needles at your face, or the wind howling overhead for days like wailing banshee?

In the years since, I've been able to answer my curiosity with surprising precision.  Since college, I've been moving to places where winter weather defines more than half the year: Chicagoland, Russia, Michigan, and northern Wisconsin.  I used to joke that my life has been a series of upward moves, from the equator to the Arctic Circle, that one day, I may end up in the Yukon territory.  Astana -- and Kazakhstan -- certainly counts toward that goal.

Although it's located somewhere between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle, Astana has the special designation of being the second-coldest capital in the world after Ulaan-Bataar in Mongolia.  The decision to move the new nation’s capital in the late 1990s to the wind-swept steppes from Almaty in the warmer, often hotter, southern part of the country, contains surprising logic in the geopolitical and economic sense.  It makes zero sense when you consider the cold, snow, and wind that assaults this city for seven to eight months a year.  Capital cities across the world embrace their peculiar, oftentimes negative, distinctions -- Nairobi, Bangkok, Brasilia, Canberra among them -- but trying to sell your “city of the future” with a straight face as the air temperature hovers around -40C is downright ballsy.  

Winter arrives in Astana early.  The ground has been covered in snow for at least a month, if not more, and it already feels like northern Wisconsin in late January/early February.  Last weekend, we had one of the coldest days yet, when the mercury barely touched -20 degrees F during the daytime, and continued to dip lower into the night.  On average, temperatures remain below zero, oscillating between a reasonable 20-25 degrees F and the slightly less-reasonable sub-zero temperatures where numbers and reality lose all scale.  Of course, even the “warmest” day is a misnomer in Astana. Here, bone-chilling winds of between 20 and 40 mph on average course through the canyons between buildings and toss you across ice-covered pavement with unrelenting tenacity.   I find the wind the most egalitarian feature of his city, assaulting both businessman and pauper with no regard for age, dignity, or position in life, and I take a modicum of comfort in that thought as I find myself pushing against the wind in all directions just to get home from the bus stop.  

After more than a decade in the Midwestern United States, I’m no stranger to the cold or winter weather, though friends of mine may recall my occasional inability to cope (the joys of being introduced to the ice-scraper sticks out as one such amusing anecdote of my general Texan cluelessness about winter weather).  Having lived in Astana -- and ostensibly surviving the next few winter months -- I hope I find that I have both the ability to survive even the coldest weather, and perhaps acquire an appreciation for it.  The former is seeming easier than the latter.  Already, I find myself considering 25-degrees (F) warm enough to wear a skirt or dress, something I never did even when I lived in the upper Midwest. While I suspect I will always prefer warmer weather -- even the hot, tropical, sweat-inducing weather of southern Texas in August -- I am occasionally startled by the beauty of cold weather.  On the coldest of nights, when temperatures plummet with no regard for human frailty, the air begins to sparkle as the moisture in it instantly turns to ice.  If you can stop for a minute and endure the pain of exposed skin to that cold, you find yourself in a brief moment of pure calm before your body goes completely numb.

If nothing else, I hope this changing attitude toward the cold means I’m ready for the long winter ahead.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

I've got the post-election blues

"The thing about democracy, beloveds, is that it is not neat, orderly, or quiet. It requires a certain relish for confusion." ~ Molly Ivins

For most people, the end of a presidential election is cause for jubilation: your candidate either won or lost, your phone is no longer inundated with robocalls, and, if you happen to live in a swing state, your television set is no longer an assault vehicle for attack ads.  You can, in effect, return to your regularly scheduled life.  

I am not most people.  

Those of you who know me well know my passion for elections -- a passion that transects all aspects of this most mundane of activities, which barely engages half the population every four years and annoys the remaining half into oblivious apathy.  This year, my post-election depression is especially acute.  Being away from the United States during a presidential election is about as terrible as my life gets, which arguably places it somewhere around 0 on the grand scale of life horrors, just above "not getting the Porsche I wanted for my birthday" and slightly below "realizing you accidentally put toilet cleaner in your hair."  As a self-described political nerd, the post-election season is like an extended version of the holiday limbo between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  As a reporter, I never had to worry: another election was never too far on the horizon, even if was just a local primary with one contested race. In post-journalism civilian life, I replaced cold newsroom pizza and frantic calls to town clerks on their dinner breaks in between counting ballots with working at the polls as an election inspector.  (That's right -- I got up at 5 a.m. as a graduate student to work an 18-hour shift with a bunch of retirees.  Judge away).  This year, I have neither to fall back. 

In some ways, the journalism/political science nerd in me was ecstatic at the opportunity to observe firsthand how the American presidential election would play in a part of the world where elections are, how can I put this diplomatically, far less significant in shaping the course of the country.  Post-Soviet Kazakhstan holds regular elections, but the country has yet to witness a transfer of power at the highest level in its two decades of independence.  So, how would Kazakhstanis relate to -- or react to -- both the obsessive hype over the presidential election and the partisan bickering that accompanies it, I wondered?  

On Election Day, which was early Wednesday morning here, we held an elections results viewing party at the university for students and faculty, complete with coffee, breakfast and, of course, a dapper Wolf Blitzer wearing hipster glasses on the projector.  Throughout the morning, students filtered in and out of the room, asking questions as they tried to grasp the elusive logic (and arguably the archaic oddity) of the electoral college as CNN projected winners of various states.  In the week after the election, I've had some people, including some neighbors, ask me how I felt about Obama's victory in passing conversations.  Given that most Americans can't even place Kazakhstan on a map, let alone name its leader, I appreciate the curiosity and interest I saw both from students and other non-Americans I've talked to.  While there is always a worldwide interest in the American election, thanks to our better-or-for-worse global reach, I can't help but wonder if people see the pomp and circumstance of the presidential election as yet another example of quaint Americanism, much like our bizarre rejection of the Metric system.  Naturally, our presidential system, not to mention the outrageously extended campaign season, lends itself to such ostentation, but is that such a bad thing?  

What I have been trying to tell those people who ask me how I felt about the election is a fair statement on why I care: it's not just that the person I supported won, but this election -- and every election -- is an indication that the system, no matter how flawed or deluged by money, works on some fundamental level.  Though I am careful not to sound like one of those flag-waving democracy-spreading types who flooded this part of the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I am not ashamed to admit the odd feeling of pride in this fact.  My future father-in-law ran for State Assembly as a Democrat in a largely conservative district in northeastern Wisconsin this Fall -- and while his incumbent opponent outspent him, he still got 40 percent of the vote on Election Day.  A cynic would say it was a pointless exercise to run as a political outsider against a well-established incumbent with deep pockets and party-backing, that the system is "rigged" against the unknown and unfinanced candidate.  But, as an idealistic small-d democrat, whose interest in the most trivial aspects of elections stems from a deeply held belief that we have to work to improve the system because it is worth improving, I see the fact that he could have won as a small victory in itself.  While I am fully aware of the cracks in the system -- the entrenchment of partisanship in the two-party system, the shocking insurgence of stupidity among candidates and voters, and the appallingly blatant influence of money -- and believe these cracks weaken the power of ordinary people, I am nevertheless reassured by a process that is governed by uncertainty and that ensures a peaceful transfer of power each and every time.  

I think watching the presidential election unfold from the outside has reminded me that my passion for elections is connected to a deeper strain of personal idealism that often gets buried by my outwardly cynical worldview.  Though my post-election blues may take a bit longer to get over this year, I think I can survive until the next election at least knowing that.  

Monday, November 12, 2012

MacGyver It: No-Bake Leek and Potato Pseudo-Gratin

I think it's safe to say that winter has arrived in Astana.

While the locals continue to warn me that it will "get colder" and that "it's not quite winter," we've had two continuous days of snowfall and falling temperatures.  In my book, that is winter.  Yesterday's snow was the kind I love: the slow, steady snowfall that embraces the world in its quiet fluffiness and is best enjoyed with a long afternoon walk, ruminating on lines from Robert Frost.  Today is less Robert Frost, and more Machiavelli.  The wind, which whips and howls its way across the open steppe, forces you inside with its harshness, where one can do little but endure its ruthless cacophony.  It's the kind of weather I imagined as a child reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's "The Long Winter," marveling at how terrible the wind must have been to make mild-mannered Pa shake his fists in frustration at it.  It's the same mixture of wonder and dread I experienced reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, knowing that even the worst Midwestern winter could barely compare to that bone-numbing brutality.  

Lucky for me, I'm neither a pioneer, grinding flour in a coffee grinder, nor a Soviet prisoner trying to survive day-to-day life in a gulag.  Still, after a particularly nasty walk from the bus across the ice-covered parking lot, pushing and shoving against the relentless wind, I decided that I needed some comfort food; leeks and potatoes instantly came to mind. Of course, what I wanted to make was this amazing Potato Leek Gratin that I've been addicted to ever since I discovered the recipe on the NY Times food page.  But with no gruyere, no baking dish, and no reliable oven (the oven temperature fluctuates based on the number of burners running), I knew this was a prime opportunity showcase my MacGyver skills.

First of all, I actually had leeks in my possession, which itself was a minor victory of crude linguistics.  (My excitement in learning the Russian word for leeks quickly abated when I realized no one at the bazaar this weekend understood the word, so I had to resort to asking for "big green onions" instead).  This was going to happen, I told myself, even if it was going to take hours to cook.  Basically, I ended up preparing a one-pot stove-top version of the gratin, minus the gruyere and the thyme.  While this version lacked the gooey warmth of the gratin, the leeks and potatoes cooked beautifully on the stove over low heat, and fulfilled my craving for comfort food on this blustery, snowy night.  

Obviously, if you have access to an oven -- and gruyere -- you shouldn't miss out on making the original recipe, but know that it is possible to make a less-complex version with just a handful of the same ingredients.  

Here's what I used: 2 leeks (halved and sliced thinly), 3 potatoes (peeled and sliced into rounds), salt, pepper, cream (1/3 cup), 2-3 cloves of garlic (minced), olive oil and butter (1 tbs of each)

1. Saute the leeks in some butter and olive oil for 5-7 minutes over medium-high heat. I used a medium-sized pot for this.  

2. Add garlic and cream to the leek mixture.  Stir and cook for about a minute, then remove from heat and place in a separate bowl.

3. Wash the pot, and return to the stove over low heat.  Add the rest of the oil and butter, then arrange half the potatoes in rounds at the bottom of the pan.  Salt and pepper the potatoes.  


4. Spread half the leek-cream mixture on the potatoes, then arrange the remaining potatoes on top of that.  Sprinkle salt and pepper over the potatoes, and then add the rest of the leeks.  Cook for 35-40 minutes over low heat with the cover on.  

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Food for Thought

While my sparkling wit and sharp commentary are no doubt captivating, I thought it was time to add another feature to my blog: a feature on food!  More specifically, it's about cooking.  Despite having a fabulous cook for a mom, I never actually learned to "cook" until I left home for college, and, even then, it wasn't until I lived off-campus that I found an incentive to make my own food (cheaper and more delicious).  Once I discovered that I wasn't half-bad at this cooking stuff, I realized that what I loved about it, other than the part where I get to eat what I make, is that cooking goes hand-in-hand with the things I value most in life: family, friends, and good times.  

If you know me -- or have been at the receiving end of my recipes -- you know that I hold two truths of cooking self-evident: that food is meant to be shared and that there isn't a recipe that can't be improved.  My penchant for experimentation has been useful in Kazakhstan, where the ingredients I largely depend on in the United States are scarce or non-existent (I would kill for some black beans and tortillas right now).  Rather than let this stop me from cooking, I've accepted the challenge.  Of course, it is further complicated by the fact that I have to use a communal kitchen with an incredibly limited set of appliances (literally, we have two stoves and that's it) and a lack of proper cooking accouterments.  
A pan-fried chickpea salad (with leeks and spinach) that I made this week. 
Still, my experience cooking in this challenging environment tells me it is possible to cook what you like wherever you are, and I hope that by chronicling some of my efforts on a semi-regular basis, I can encourage you to find ways to adapt the recipes and foods you love to whatever limitations you face.  

Also, any thoughts on a clever, perhaps punny title for this feature?  Sound off in the comments below -- or, you know, email me.  Anything referencing MacGyver will get bonus points.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

Lost in Translation: "Can You Spare a Square?"

There's nothing quite as humiliating -- or hilarious -- as when you're using a public restroom only to realize halfway that you have no toilet paper in your stall.  Equally as terrifying is the decision to ask the person in the next stall, quoting Seinfeld here, "to spare a square."

Until, of course, it dawns on you that you don't even know how to say that properly in any language, but English.  

It's times like those when I feel genuinely frustrated with the uselessness of my language skills.  (Seriously, language teachers, consider adding this to your repertoire of in-class skits! Ordering food can easily be done by pointing at menus, but asking for toilet paper requires a far more specific vocabulary and a subtle understanding of cultural norms).

Now that I've been here two months -- crazy, I know -- it's time to evaluate one of my many goals in coming here: improving my Russian and Kazakh.  Technically I've studied Russian directly or indirectly for 6 years, including a semester abroad in St. Petersburg, and Kazakh for about 2 years.  However, as most foreign language students know, no classroom compares to real-life, in-country experience using the language in a variety of everyday situations.  Bilingual Kazakhstan, where most people know both languages fairly well, if not fluently, is the only place where I could have hoped to work on both Russian and Kazakh in some respect.  Especially here in Astana, located in the more Russian-speaking northern part of Kazakhstan, I felt sure I would find the opportunity to use both, even though I knew I'd be using English at work.  

Besides, as a student of both language and politics in this region, the politics of language use offers an interesting case-study in this bilingual country.  Kazakhstan has two "official" languages -- Russian and Kazakh -- though Kazakh has the added distinction of being the "state language," while Russian retains a peculiar status as the "language of international communication."  Government jobs require some proficiency in Kazakh, though it is possible to be a Kazakhstani who knows very little Kazakh.  Unlike some other former-Soviet countries -- here, Estonia comes to mind -- minorities, especially Russian-speaking minorities, hardly face the same types of language barriers to citizenship or employment.  

Many Kazakhs, especially those living in the northern part of the country or large urban areas, tend to use Russian with each other, even when they are also fluent in Kazakh.  For example, when Omar and I went to our old Kazakh professor's birthday party last week, she asked us to be sure to speak Kazakh with her mother and aunt since the other members of her family would most likely be chattering away in Russian to each other, despite all of them growing up in a Kazakh-speaking home.  Nor do all Kazakhs know Russian, either.  Two of the young children who live on my floor, who sometimes giggle quite rudely at my pathetic Kazakh, know about as much Russian as they do English.  I've interacted with another couple on my floor, who are Kazakhs from Mongolia, part of a returning diaspora called the "oralman" who were repatriated to Kazakhstan after the fall of the Soviet Union.  This group, which includes Kazakhs from China, tend not to know Russian, and sometimes have trouble reading Kazakh in its current Cyrillic script.  For example, while the wife, Darigul, speaks an interesting mix of Kazakh and Russian I find easy to follow, her husband only addresses us in Kazakh.  

Omar and I went to our old Kazakh professor's birthday party (Marzhan in the center).  We conversed mostly in Russian and some Kazakh, but both managed to participate in the very Kazakh tradition of toasting.  I can say that I made a heartfelt -- if not totally grammatically correct -- toast in Kazakh and Russian, which has been one of my language successes here, so far!
As for me, personally, the results are mixed.  

My grasp of Kazakh was tenuous at best when I arrived.  Though my comprehension skills are fair, I had to come to terms with the fact that I speak the language like a child.  In fact, the three five-year-old girls who live on my hallway explode into giggles every time I attempt a conversation in Kazakh with them.  (True, they generally giggle at everything, but, to be fair to them, my Kazakh is also just that bad).  In other situations, people appear generally confused when they hear a foreigner speaking Kazakh (or my Kazakh accent is so horrendous that they can't understand it) because my few attempts to use Kazakh on public transportation or at restaurants have been met with a blank stare or a rapid response in Russian.  Unfortunately, this negative experience has largely made me wary of trying to speak Kazakh in public, which is antithetical to my goal of practicing it.  I had set-up a semi-language exchange with one of the Kazakh language teachers, but both our schedules are so full, our meetings are too sporadic for it to be truly beneficial.  I'm beginning to think I need to take a 10-day trip to an aul -- a village -- where no one speaks anything but Kazakh, if I hope to gain some passable skills in this language I've lost a lot of sleep and hair studying (not to mention learning all the different words for parts of the horse!).  

Part of the problem, unfortunately, is the ubiquitous nature of Russian in Astana, and my reliance on the fact that I can, at least, interact with strangers in Russian, if not Kazakh.  On the whole, it's not a bad problem to have.  While even my Russian has its limitations -- the aforementioned toilet paper debacle being one of them -- my latent knowledge of the language is enough to get me through most situations where I need it: taking a taxi, haggling at the bazaar, asking for directions when I'm lost, complaining to the facilities manager about the seemingly random electrical outages in my room, chatting with my neighbors in the dorm. 

A Russian-language student performance of "Chicago" I went to see at Eurasian National University.  I understood about 80 percent of what they said (to be fair, I do have the soundtrack memorized from sophomore year in college). 
Oddly enough, I feel most comfortable when I can mix both Russian and Kazakh, knowing full well that this will do little to improve my skills in either language.  At work, my one regular non-English interaction occurs with one of the cleaning ladies on the first floor with whom I generally converse in this peculiar mix of Russian and Kazakh (in return, I occasionally teach her American colloquialisms like "that's cool" and "no problem" -- we're working our way up to "what's up dawg?").  Besides being one of my big cheerleaders -- she never fails to remind me how awesome I am for knowing Russian and Kazakh -- it's a reminder that though my skills are limited, rusty, and, occasionally, pointless, they allow me to feel less isolated from the world around me.  

I have often wondered if I would have the temerity to survive in a country without knowing the language; now, I am more sure than ever that I would not.  While I am by nature a bit of a misanthrope, I derive a certain masochistic pleasure in engaging strangers in conversation (a good skill for a former reporter, I suppose), and the ability to interact with people I don't know has made me feel more at home here in Kazakhstan.  So while I can't always think of the right words in the situation, my Russian, at least, has allowed me a certain semblance of normalcy I am glad to have, even if it means occasionally flubbing case endings (ugh, genitive plural is still my worst enemy), talking around a vocabulary word I simply can't remember, or learning the hard way to check for toilet paper before I get down to business. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

"But you're not an American" and other fun conversations

I confuse a lot of people in Kazakhstan.  

Thanks to a steady diet of Bollywood movies, and a warm relationship between the USSR and India during the Cold War, the average Kazakhstani is far better at differentiating Indians from other "brown" peoples than the average American will ever be.  There's no chance of anyone here ever thinking that I'm Mexican, for example, or an Arab.  However, they're still confused when I tell them I'm an American -- and that's when every ordinary conversation turns into a mini discussion about ethnicity, nation and citizenship.  (Grad school Poli Sci friends, I feel like it's Fall 2011 again!).  

A couple of weeks ago, I dropped by the little store in the dormitory to pick up some butter.  As I was counting out change to pay the cashier, he quipped, "what's your nationality?" (Not a bizarre question in these parts, by any means).  Without thinking about the intent of the question, I answered "Oh, I'm an American. I'm teaching here."  "But you're Indian."  "Well, yes, my family is from India and I was born there."  "So, you are Indian."  "Well, I think of myself as an American."  Perhaps he sensed my irritation/confusion at that point, so he smiled and said: "OK, so you're American of previous Indian origin."  "OK, I can agree with that."  

In the United States, we -- and I include myself in this -- talk around a person's ethnic or national origins by asking vague questions such as "where are you originally from" or "what is your heritage."  I'm not sure whether this stems from a fear of being politically incorrect, or from social norms governing interactions with strangers, but either way, we typically avoid asking directly about someone's ethnicity, especially if that person is a stranger.  

In Kazakhstan, as in Russia and others parts of the former Soviet Union, asking about someone's nationality -- even a stranger -- is not only acceptable, but also part of the getting-to-know-you process.  It is often one of the first few questions lobbed at foreigners, especially, and generally comes from a place of curiosity and goodwill, rather than xenophobia (though, I wager, amid the growing xenophobia in Russia, saying that you are from the Caucasus or Central Asia might not win you any friends).  

The difference is this: if you tell a fellow American that you, too, are an American, despite your different ethnic or national origin, he or she largely buys into the premise, despite any lingering curiosity about your ethnic background. (Of course, the subset of crazy "birthers" out there who still insist that President Obama is a Kenyan might offer a different opinion).  

In some respects, Soviet concepts of nationality -- which, for better or for worse, inextricably linked an institutionalized categorization of ethnicity and national origin -- persist in Kazakhstan.  Starting in 1930s, the Soviet government officially etched "nationality" into internal passports (the infamous "line 5"), connecting ethnic or national origin to a person's official status as a Soviet citizen.  For example, if you were born in the Kazakh SSR to second-generation Ukrainian immigrants, line 5 on your passport would read "Ukrainian," never Kazakh.  Children of mixed-marriages often had to pick one nationality over the other at age 16.  To be clear, this was just one part of the nationality policy (national delimitation of territory was another component), and Soviet nationality policy oscillated between a celebration of diversity and repression of national identity under various leaders, particularly Stalin.  

With this in mind, it's easy to understand the confusion that ensues when Kazakhstanis meet me, though I am understandably less magnanimous when strangers insist I don't know or comprehend my own nationality (My new policy is just going to be to insist back to them "Well, you can't possibly be (insert nationality here)" and see how they like it).  What I find most interesting is that many of my colleagues, even those with decidedly more of the Anglo-Saxon heritage that might be the closest to a stereotype of a "real American," find themselves engaging in similar conversations.  In some ways, I find this comforting, knowing that, at least, that race appears to play a lesser role in determining who is "American" and who is not.  On the other hand, it makes me insatiably curious to find out who exactly "counts" as a real American in the eyes of the average Kazakhstani if, in fact, race (or ethnicity) is not a primary delineating marker.  If a real American is just a nondescript white person with an Anglo-Saxon name, how do Kazakhstanis reconcile that with the fact that the President of the United States is a guy named Barack Obama?  

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Culinary Adventures in Kazakhstan

While this is not the Part 2 of the blog I promised -- that is still in the works -- I thought a blog post about food would satiate your appetite for my witty writing.  Because let's be honest: who doesn't love reading about food?

My biggest worry about moving to Kazakhstan -- more than the rough winters in Astana or even where I would live -- was what I would eat.  As a vegetarian, the prospect of moving to a country where the national dishes require several forms of meat, where there is an etiquette in sharing and eating meat at the table, where the language includes 20 different words for parts of the horse, was a daunting one.  True, I had survived in Russia, not exactly the bastion of vegetarianism, for six months, but there I had the good fortune of being placed in a host family where the mom was vegetarian.  While I knew I'd have access to a kitchen here, I worried whether I would find the ingredients I depend on to make good, healthy vegetarian food.  Besides, most of my days would be spent at the university -- and -- let's be honest here -- campus food has the distinct ability to be hit-or-miss even in the most vegetarian-friendly parts of the world. 

It took a few weeks for me to find my bearings, but my fears about food have largely been allayed. The university's cafeteria, which is for both students and the international faculty/staff, has an excellent variety of vegetarian dishes each day.  Seriously, the food puts anything I've ever had at UW's Memorial Union or Northwestern's Norris Student Center to shame (though my fellow Wildcats will agree that Norris isn't exactly the standard bearer of good food).  Though on one occasion I found an extraneous slab of meat in my "vegetarian" soup, in general, I'm not just eating potatoes and bread everyday.  My favorite cafeteria offering -- which can make or break a day at work -- is a stew-like mix of eggplant, squash, carrots and potatoes.  Plus, they offer a spicy chili sauce, a Kazakhstani version of Sriracha, that I pretty much just dump on everything, including pasta, to the amusement and befuddlement of the cafeteria staff.  

Cooking for myself -- or, really, for me and Omar since there's no use in making stuff on my own and not sharing -- became easier once I discovered the wealth of produce at the local bazaars.  At first, our meals were somewhat simple -- kasha with vegetables, vegetable soup and vareniki (Russian dumplings, similar to pierogi) -- but we've become more adventurous in our culinary experiments as we've found more specialized ingredients.  Last weekend, Omar spotted some "plov spice" (plov is the quintessential Central Asian dish -- a mix of rice, meat, veggies and spices that are slow cooked**) at the bazaar, which prompted us to experiment with creating a vegetarian-friendly version of the dish.  We sauteed onions, carrots and potatoes with the spice mix, then added rice and garlic cloves, allowing the mixture to slowly simmer until ready (the trick to plov is that ingredients cook in layers and are only mixed at the end before serving).  The results may not have been authentic by any means, but our "plov" was aromatic and delicious, and I may have eaten far more than my fair share of it.  I think next time I want to add chickpeas and maybe some chopped dried apricots for extra flavor. 

Vegetarian plov!
This week I also managed to do something that I generally struggle with even in the United States: duplicate one of my mother's recipes with some success. It's not that I'm a bad cook; it's just that the dishes never quite turn out the way they do when she makes them, so I typically congratulate myself whenever I make something that vaguely approaches her level.  Obviously, I am giving myself extra points for making any of her recipes while in Kazakhstan, whether or not they turn out the way she'd make them!  Last weekend, while shopping at the bazaar, I was ecstatic to find cilantro (oh glorious cilantro!!!) and a selection of spices, including turmeric.  Once I spotted a vendor selling pumpkin, I knew the food gods were begging me to introduce Kazakhstan to a family staple -- and one of my favorite dishes of all time -- pumpkin masala.  Now I know you're thinking, this sounds amazing but you can't quite recall if you've ever the pleasure of sampling it at your local Indian buffet.  Chances are you never have.  Pumpkin curry (baakar bhaji) is a popular dish in Maharashtra, a state in western India whose cuisine has a unique flavor profile quite unlike anything you find at generic Indian restaurants, and this particular recipe was something my grandmother learned from a Maharashtrian friend.  It's been passed down through the family to my mother and me -- and, now, I've decided that it should be passed onto you, dear reader, because good food is meant to be shared.  You'll find the recipe below the photo, which should whet your appetite!  

Pumpkin masala (baakar bhaji)


3 cups pumpkin or butternut squash (1-2 inch chunks)
1 medium-sized white onion (chopped finely)
1-inch piece of ginger, grated or finely chopped
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp red chili powder/cayenne (add more if you like spice)
1/4 tsp cumin seeds (or more, if you like cumin)
1/2 tsp salt (or more to taste)
1 tbs oil or ghee
1/2 cup water
fresh cilantro (chopped) -- as much as you like

1. Sauté the cumin on the oil/ghee over medium heat in a heavy pan for 1-2 minutes until fragrant.  Add the ginger and onion.  Continue to sauté until the onions are soft.
2. Add the squash and sauté for a few more minutes. 
3. Add the spices and salt.  Add the 1/2 cup of water.  Bring to a steady simmer.  
4. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook until the squash is soft -- generally about 15-20 minutes.  Occasionally stir.  The squash should be pretty soft -- almost mushy -- but still holding its general shape.  
5. Before serving, you can add chopped cilantro and salt to taste.  Best served with naan or any kind of flatbread. 
6. Stuff your face. 

Today I had the pleasure of eating some of the best home-cooked food I've had so far in Kazakhstan (to be fair, I haven't had that much home-cooked food beyond my own, but even if I had, this would still rank as the best).  Last week Omar and I contacted Marzhan, our Kazakh language teacher from Madison who had returned to Astana after our first year of graduate school.  Of course, she invited us home for lunch, and, not surprisingly, she prepared a stunning spread of food, including homemade manti (Kazakh dumplings), salads, cabbage latkes, fruit, tea and seven different kinds of cake.  Manti are steamed dumplings that typically have a meat-filling, but Marzhan created a vegetarian version for me with pumpkin and potatoes.  Our lunch lasted several hours, enough time for me to eat about a dozen or so manti at Marzhan's constant insistence that we "eat more," and, of course, have several cups of tea. 

Manti with pumpkin and potato filling!
My plate of food, which was refilled many times. 

Seriously full.  Do you see the 7 kinds of cake??

Me and Marzhan-apai. 
One of the things I love about this part of the world -- and this holds for many Mediterranean and Asian countries as well -- is the deep relationship between food and hosting guests.  The Russian word "gostepriimstvo" (likewise the Kazakh "qonaqzhailyilyiq") is always badly translated into English as "hospitality," but it represents so much more than just that. As a guest in Russia and in Kazakhstan, your host will ply you with food, drinks and entertainment that you begin to think you are somehow the most honored person to walk in through their doors.  I think most Americans would be slightly embarrassed and perhaps a bit suspicious of this attention, but it is customarily expected in Russian and Kazakh homes.  Not having twice the amount of food needed for a small party would certainly be considered rude, so it is hardly surprising that we came away from today's lunch both stuffed to the hilt and with several bags of leftovers.  

My new food goal, other than trying to make chana masala in the near future, is to learn to make manti while I am in Kazakhstan.  Again, my vegetarian version may not be quite as authentic, but I still like to think the best way to experience the culture of another country is through its food.

**Plov is also one of my favorite examples in history of how food transcends borders, and reflects centuries of trade, conquest and intermingling.  Not only is the Central Asian (Uzbek) plov a cousin of the Indian pulao and Turkish pilav, but it also resembles both paella and risotto in the way it is prepared.  Obvious differences exist, but the fact that a simple rice dish is present across cuisines is a reminder of how we are well, for better or for worse, part of a bigger narrative.  

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Water, Water everywhere... and not a drop to bathe in

For decades environmentalists have been warning us that the demise of the human race may not be brought on by our technological weapons, but by a much simpler -- and scarier -- problem: the lack of water.  Future wars, they predict, will not be fought for jingoistic reasons, but over water rights.  The concept that there isn't enough water to go around is difficult for those of us in the developed world to wrap our brains around because we rarely, if ever, face a time when water doesn't flow out of our faucets and hoses.  In the American Southwest -- as well as in Texas, which experienced the worst drought in decades last year -- we water our manicured lawns year-round, creating artificial oases to satisfy our aesthetic needs without considering for an instant the damage we are inflicting on this precious resource.  

In the rest of the world -- even in the most advanced "developing" nations -- lack of infrastructure compounded by diminishing resources has complicated billions of ordinary lives.  As a child in New Delhi, I remember the gallons of water we kept around our house that would be refilled in the 30 minutes when water would flow freely through the faucets during the height of the summer drought.  A particular image -- that of the Jamuna river dried up in its bed -- is strangely imprinted in my memory, and it is that memory I returned to this week after several days of experiencing water-related mishaps.  

On Tuesday morning, in the middle of my shower, just as I had put shampoo in my hair, I heard the shower faucet sputter and then quietly turn off.  After my initial panic abated -- luckily, I had some water left in my kettle to make a cup of tea to calm myself down -- I went downstairs to inquire if this was a building-wide problem.  (I did dry myself off and put on clothes before doing that...).  Naturally, I got an unsatisfactorily vague answer from the dezhurnaya on duty, who called the repair man and assured me it would be "fixed soon."  Several hours later, with shampoo dried into my hair and still no sign of water flowing from the faucets, I decided to take matters into my own hands.  Years of living and visiting India have taught me two extremely valuable lifeskills that I have occasionally had to revive: how to bathe with no running water, and how to properly use a squat-toilet.  With the remaining water in the kettle, I managed to wash the shampoo out of my hair and take something just a shade better than a sponge bath.  

At work, I found out the university was experiencing its share of water problems, though these were blamed on the massive amounts of ongoing construction on campus.  Nevertheless, it appeared the lack of water was a citywide issue, not just another cruel joke on me personally. Over the next few days -- really, until last night -- the water continued an unpredictable course of shutting off and on with little warning.  Some days there was hot water, some days only cold, and some days, nothing.  After my Tuesday experience, though, I was prepared, and took mostly what I like refer to as "Third World" showers (or, you know, Global South showers, if you want to use slightly less offensive language), using my kettle to boil the water and my laundry bucket to mix it with cold water.  

No hot water? No problem. All you need is a kettle and some sort of tub!

Of course, this got me thinking.  The average 8-minute shower uses about 62 liters of water, according to this BBC News story.  I managed relatively the same on 8 to 10 liters.  True, I probably would have liked to use a little bit more water, but even if I added 5 to 7 more liters, that still brings my total to about 1/4th of the water consumption in an average shower.  So, why is it, exactly, that we haven't adopted a less-wasteful shower regimen?  

Though I suspect the water problems this week were related to infrastructure development, the larger issue of water resources looms large in Central Asia.  All five post-Soviet republics rely on the rivers that flow through their shared borders for water, agriculture and electricity, and while Uzbek President Islam Karimov's recent ominous prediction of a water-related war was hyperbolic, it is not all that far-fetched.  The region's two major rivers -- the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) and Amu Darya (Oxus) -- meander across the borders of all five countries and Afghanistan.  Future plans to dam rivers upstream in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where the population relies on hydroelectric power, will undoubtedly affect Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan downstream.  Water resources often play a role in political leverage.  In 2010, when Kazakhstan closed its borders with Kyrgyzstan after a popular uprising, the Kyrgyz government shut off the water flow from the Talas river into eastern Kazakhstan.  The flow was restored days after the border reopened.  The role of water resources in Central Asia is not a modern -- or post-Soviet -- problem.  (In fact, my cousin wrote her dissertation on the contestation of water rights in Central Asia under Russian rule -- I'm hoping that's an accurate description of her work!).  Likewise, the desiccation of the Aral Sea, which continues to shrink each year, is largely related to diversion of water resources in the Soviet era.

Photo of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan (from user: kvitlauk on Flickr).  
Diminishing water resources -- or potential fights over those resources -- are not limited to Central Asia.  The southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the region where my family is from, are engaged in a decades-long standoff over the rights to control the Kaveri (Cauvery) river that straddles the border and is the lifeblood of major cities in both states.  The population growth on both sides of the Rio Grande river has complicated efforts by states to hold up their end of the compact that ensures water flows downstream into the Gulf of Mexico.  In short, we are seeing glimpses of the future in which fights over water -- and the lack of water -- will be commonplace all over the globe.  

So, even though there's water flowing quite freely out of my faucet today, I hope this experience, while frustrating and inconvenient, will remind me that I, too, am far too complacent about my own water use.  I'm not quite ready to give up showers -- those of you who know me well know my love of showers -- but I think I can start by taking shorter, more effective ones.  

Next time on this blog: When every conversation turns into a discussion about nationalism.  

Sunday, September 30, 2012

It doesn't get real until a little old lady yells at you

Editor's Note: The annoyance of not being able to edit my posts--or see them--after I post them on WordPress finally wore me down.  You can still find my first posts on the WordPress blog by clicking on the link "WordPress Version" on the side navigation bar.  Eventually, I'll move the first couple of posts to Blogger and they will be archived on this version as well.

I caught my first Kazakhstani virus.

I’m not sure what it is–cold or flu–but it’s given me a scratchy throat, a low-grade fever and that general feeling of “ick.”  In an attempt to get better by Monday, I am dosing myself with tea, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and copious amounts of sleep.  I can’t tell, yet, if this particular cocktail of remedies is working, but I am definitely feeling better than I did yesterday morning.  (I just got to the part of Bleak House where Esther contracts smallpox, so, if nothing else, I have gained some perspective on my pseudo-illness from Uncle Charles). 

A number of the professors have fallen ill, so I’m not surprised that I caught whatever is causing the illness, especially since the last week was filled with long working days interspersed with too little sleep and more than a few rushed lunches.  However, now that I’ve moved into my permanent office space—and learned the virtues of saying “no” to students showing up last-minute for help on assignments—I think I will be in a far better position in the weeks to come.  I put together my first workshop this week—on plagiarism—but a few unforeseen incidents, including a last-minute room change, led to, how shall I put this without sounding lame,a less-than-stellar turnout.  No one showed up to the first one; only three to the second – but, hey, that’s a 300 percent improvement, right?  Nothing is quite as pathetic as waiting in an empty room with a Prezi cued up on the projector and hundreds of handouts… and no people.  Just ever so slightly a blow to my poor ego.  On the other hand, I met with about 50 students over the course of the week for one-on-one consultations—more than I ever planned on. (They love me! They really really love me! Or, at least, need me!)

Since I was feeling better today, Omar and I decided to go on a bazaar expedition in search of cheap produce.  We ended up at an open-air market near one of the larger indoor shopping areas on the Right Bank called “Eurasia,” which is a popular destination on the weekends.  It was a smallish farmers market, primarily selling produce (sadly, no shopping carts filled with meat, though I saw some fresh fish still flopping), but I think I might make this my weekly destination because I managed to get exactly what I was looking for in a matter of minutes.  I took a cue from my fellow shoppers, and demanded to know where the produce was coming from and whether it was fresh, though I’m not sure how much I believe the answers.  Everyone swore that the fruit had come straight to Astana from Tashkent in Uzbekistan, if only because Tashkent is famed for its fruit, but given that Tashkent is at least 1,000 miles away, I’m not sure it counts as being “fresh.”  However, I have realized I find it easier to speak in Russian when I am either demanding something or sounding annoyed.  No idea why, but I suspect it will serve me well.  (Update: Just tried some of those “Tashkent” grapes I bought, and they are quite amazing). 

Some veggies from the bazaar.
What the veggies turned into -- pasta with peppers, mushrooms and spinach!
We took the wrong bus on our way back and ended up in a different part of town.
I’ve been thinking a lot this last week about where I am living, trying in earnest to find a way to describe it without sounding either like a privileged outsider or one of those optimistic people who could never find fault with anything.  On a whole, it’s not awful.  I have my own room, my own bathroom (key) and access to a decent-sized communal kitchen, though arguably the kitchen would be vastly improved if both stoves worked.  It’s also free.  While this was billed as the off-campus dorm—and, for the most part, it is—the hundreds of rooms in the three blocks of the dormitory are occupied by a motley mix of students, families, local workers, and the occasional pensioners.  On my hallway, for example, I’ve met a couple of second-year engineering students across from me, as well as a man who is living in a one-room apartment with his wife and two small daughters.  So, it’s not quite apartment-style living, but nor is it a Soviet-style “worker dormitory,”* though there are moments when I can't help but wonder if much has changed since the latter.  

For example, earlier this week a dezhurnaya** flagged us down as we entered the building to demand whether we had a “propusk,” that ubiquitous generic document that ostensibly gives someone permission to be someplace.  Of course, when we had moved in and been given keys to our respective rooms, this need for a propusk had been conveniently overlooked.  Luckily, the fact that Omar and I still have our American “listen to authority” attitude eased the potential tension, and she immediately offered to procure us these documents if we brought her passport photos.  (Another girl, who walked by the dezhurnaya and ignored her demand, was not so lucky.  The dezhurnaya chased her down the hallway and berated her until she produced said propusk). In Kazakhstan, as in Russia and surely in other parts of the former Soviet Union, things happen in a certain way, and some little old lady will yell at you about something at some point, so it does little to get wound up about it.  In some perverted way, I get amusement out of the fact that things are never quite as easy as they should be—even as I question the point of it all—and try to tell myself it adds to the “flavor” of living here. 

Here's what the dorm buildings look like from my ninth floor room.
I mentioned earlier that I’m reading Bleak House, which aside from being an engrossing read has spurred my decision to read a classic novel a month.  I realized that despite being well-read, I am surprisingly deficient on the number of classic novels, including, gasp, many of the Russian classics (I tried to avoid literature courses in my study of Russian… sad, I know).  While I don’t believe I plan to put War and Peace on the list, here’s the short list that I’ve compiled so far with the help of the BBC Book List challenge. I am trying to mix up genres and eras, if I can, because I’m not sure reading 10 Victorian-era books will get me that motivated. 

Opinions and suggestions are greatly welcome!

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (I read this once, but I can barely remember it)
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
The Day Lasts More Than 100 Years by Chingiz Aitmatov (I have to get a Central Asian-novel in there, right?)
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
Demons/The Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges
Middlemarch by George Eliot

*For those of you not up on your Soviet history—shame on you—dormitories sprung up in major cities across the Soviet Union in the post-war period as the government tried to cope with a mass exodus of workers to the major urban centers.  Even in the 70s and 80s, because of a housing shortage, people continued to live in these dorms. 

**The manager/receptionist of the apartment blocks – generally women who are on watch 24-hours-a-day to ensure that strangers aren’t wandering in at odd hours.