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.