Friday, 5 February 2010

A Few Things I Never Knew

Can pats the chair next to him as Shokan enters the room. "Sit with us, brother!" Furkan quickly pulls his legs back so Shokan can get past him. Shokan sits down next to Can, but I see his eyes flicker over to where Dania is sitting.

This isn't a rare thing: in my classes, boys almost always sit with other boys and girls with other girls. During the break, however, Shokan gets up and joins Dania after a quick, brotherly smoke with Can and Furkan outside. And the two remain together for the second half of the class. That is rare.

Dania and Shokan are very different in appearance. Dania is petite, stylishly slim, blonde and blue-eyed; Shokan is tall and sturdy, with black hair and brown eyes. If you were casting Dania for a Hollywood movie, she'd be a Russian ballerina; with his great physique and Asian looks, Shokan could be an extra in a Jackie Chan film. Dania and Shokan aren't an item: she's got a boyfriend and I know Shokan is looking for a girlfriend. But Dania and Shokan share a common language (Russian) and a culture: they are Kazakhs. In my class, they are almost always together.

No one else will talk to Dania. This is partly because Dania has distanced herself from everyone (the boys were a little too eager to get to know her, the girls a little too shy), but there is also a language barrier. While Dania's English is probably the best in the class, she doesn't speak Kazakh, which means she doesn't understand Turkish either. Shokan does.

Before I got here, my knowledge of the Near East was sadly lacking, but I've made up for lost time. Since my arrival, I have met and talked to people from every single -stan country there is, with the exception of Afghanistan. (And I've learned that we've got at least half a dozen Afghan students at the university, so it's only a matter of time.) I can't get over how much I've learned about Turks, people who speak Turkic-based languages, and the countries they come from. This is not to say that I am very knowledgeable now, but I'm pleased with the progress I've made. I always tell my students that as long as they're trying to learn, that's all that matters to me. I'm not proud that I knew so little to begin with, but I know I'm trying. And I'd far rather confess to ignorance than stay ignorant.

When I first got here, I was thrilled to have Kazakhs, Azeris and Uzbeks in my classes. I sat them next to my Turkish students and foolishly imagined that this would force them to use English. I had no idea that people from Azerbaijan practically are Turkish, that they certainly understand Turkish and can communicate almost perfectly with Turks.

Kazakhs can do this to some degree as well. My first week here, I stopped an Asian man to ask him where the administration building was. "Sorry, I don't know," he said in excellent English, "I'm new here too." I asked him where he was from and he told me he was Kazakh. "But wait; I'll ask someone where the administration is." I thought to myself that he would find this impossible; I'd asked half a dozen people and none of them knew English. But to my amazement, he stopped a man and asked him in Turkish. And then, more amazingly, he understood the answer. "How do you happen to know Turkish?" I asked, astonished. He shrugged. "I don't know Turkish. Kazakh people and Turkish people --" He clasped his hands together "-- like that. They speak, I understand. I speak, they understand. Same with many countries -- Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, sometimes Kyrgyzstan." He clasped his hands together and smiled.

The Ottoman Empire, my new friend told me, spread the Turkish language far and wide. Over the next few months, I was to find this out firsthand.

Like the Ottoman Empire and the British Empire, the Soviet Empire too has been linguistically influential. Whenever you see Belarussian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Azeri students together, you can hear them speaking Russian, their lingua franca. It always fascinates me. They look Korean, Russian, Chinese, Swedish, Mongolian -- but they all speak Russian. Like Shokan and Dania.

Whether it's part of their Soviet legacy or not, Shokan and Dania are much more studious than their Turkish classmates. On the last day of class, they were the only ones who bothered to show up. We decided to scrap the lesson and chat.

"Nobody knows Kazakhstan," they both insist.

I have to agree with them. Embarrassing though it is, most of what I know about Kazakhstan is what I learned from Sacha Baron Cohen's fictitious Borat Sagdiyev. I'm too much of a wimp to tell Shokan and Dania this, so I simply mention his name. Have they ever heard of Borat Sagdiyev? What do they think of him?

Their eyes flash and their cheeks flush. You bet they've heard of him. "Teacher, he is LIE," Shokan hisses. "Kazakhstan is not that country he says!"

"Our country's people not stupid, not so --" Dania and Shokan confer briefly "--not so ignorant." Dania gives me an aggrieved look. "American people see Borat? They believe Borat is Kazakh?"

"We think he's funny," I have to tell them. "But I think he's more popular in the U.K." Like I say, I'm a wimp.

"We have good schools," Shokan tells me. "Theatres, hospitals, parks, department stores, restaurants..."

"We have churches," Dania insists. "We have--" She confers with Shokan and a Russian-English dictionary is pulled out "--mosques." Shokan nods. "And we have also--" He pulls out a pen and draws a Star of David on the back of his notebook.

"We have everything," they tell me angrily. "Why he make fun Kazakhstan?"

"It's because your country isn't well known," I tell them. "It's because it is so small--"

They both practically jump out of their seats. "NOT SMALL!" Dania cries. Shokan rolls his eyes so expressively it's pure poetry. "Teacher," he says with remarkable patience. "Kazakhstan one of ten largest country in world." (He's right too: I checked. Kazakhstan is number 9, larger even than Sudan. Did you know that? Because I had absolutely no idea.)

"I'm glad you guys speak English so well," I told them. "Or I'd never have learned that."

Good thing I don't mind confessing to my ignorance.


Bish Denham said...

It's a wonderful thing you want to learn about the people and where you are. It's OK not to know, it's OK to ask questions. I can so sympathize with your Kazakh students. Not so much anymore, but years ago when people learned I was from the Virgin Islands they'd ask if we lived in palm thatched huts, spoke English, had schools, knew how to read and write...the list is long.

Some people had no idea where they were when they visited. Once I was on the ferry going between St. Thomas and St. John, two ISLANDS, situated between the Atlantic OCEAN and the Caribbean SEA. A woman behind me asked her husband, "Are we on a river or a lake?" THAT'S ignorance.

Marian said...

This happened to Omar, the brother of a friend of mine. He left the United Arab Emirates to study in the States, back in the 80s. He was in his dorm room when he met his roommate for the first time.

The roommate was American, and seemed to have been forewarned that he was meeting someone from a very different country. "Hel-lo," he said, enunciating carefully. "My name... Mark."

Omar didn't say anything because he was so surprised at being addressed like that. Mark looked around for some other way to break the ice/teach the new person English.

"This... TV," he said, indicating the object. "This... VCR."

"I know," Omar told him. "We have two of them at home."

They ended up being good friends, but Omar never let him forget the TV/VCR moment.

Miss Footloose said...

I so love this post! It's wonderful to learn all these interesting things about people and places.

When we heard we were moving to Armenia (which by the way is called HyaSTAN in Armenian)I looked at the map and to my embarrassment realized I was wrong about where it was.

In Armenia too, having been a Soviet Republic like the other Stans, the people speak Russian as well as Armenian, which was at the time "only" a home language. Now Armenian is the official language and the younger generation is learning English in school.

Although Armenia is perched between Turkey and Azerbajan, the language is unique and has nothing to do with Turkish. Very strange.

Until I lived there, I had no idea how huge an area the Stans occupy.
It's an interesting world.

Blythe said...

I wish I were still a teacher so I could make your blog required reading.

Charles Gramlich said...

I just don't think of such subtleties very often. Slight differences in culture, but common language. It's a crazy quilt of a world.

Postman said...

Fascinating stuff! Man, I'm so jealous. I'd kill to be able to sit down with a couple of Kazakhs and shoot the breeze. I know nothing about the place either, and (after confessing my ignorance) would like to be set straight.

I had an Uzbek exchange student in one of my high school math classes once. Short, round, raven-haired; I never would've guessed where she was from before she told us. One day after lessons we pulled out a map of Asia (an old National Geographic map, no less) and she began correcting things on it.

"No, no, no," she said, "Bukhara is not the capital. Tashkent capital."

I never knew that...

Charlie said...

A fascinating post, reminding me how much I don't know about all of the countries you mentioned. I would share your enthusiasm for learning, however, if our positions were reversed.

IMO, Americans as a whole don't know much about geography, right along with history. I'm not sure if those subjects are even taught any longer.

Mary Witzl said...

Bish -- I really sympathize! It's amazing how bad people's geography can be, and there is just no excuse for it when we have globes and encyclopedias and Wikipedia at our fingertips. My brother-in-law gets that too and he is from Cuba. You'd think people would know a few things about Cuba, not the least of which, where it is.

One of my colleagues in Japan was married to a woman from Liberia. She was well educated and quite prim and proper, but she was regularly asked if she wore clothes in her own country.

I don't mind ignorance so much as I mind willful, unashamed ignorance. We should aim to know more, especially when we now have so much information at our fingertips.

Marian -- Poor Omar and poor, ignorant Mark! But I love the fact that they became friends after such an awkward start: it says a lot about both of them. Once in a while, I've listened in horror and amusement when native English speakers encounter fluent foreigners and launch into 'teacher talk' -- carefully enunciated "How--Are--You?" speech devoid of all contractions and idioms.
My college roommate was from Okinawa and although I didn't patronize her, I did say, straight away, that her English was excellent. She handled it well, and I tried to be as generous when I got the same treatment years later in Japan.

Miss Footloose -- Thank you! I could not pick Armenia out on a map before coming here myself. Glad I wasn't the only one.

In Turkey, Armenia is called Ermenistan -- (yet another thing I've learned here). I would love to talk to you about Armenia some day; you are probably well aware of the enmity between Turkey and Armenia, and for that matter, between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Last term, a foreign teacher here made some mention of Turkish-Armenian relations and got into big trouble over it.

The world really is fascinating, isn't it? I figure what I don't know will easily keep me occupied for the rest of my days.

Blythe -- Thank you for that lovely compliment. I'd enjoy being required reading: nothing like a captive audience!

Charles -- Before I came here, I assumed that Asia was like Africa: every region with its own culture and language. I'm still amazed by how different it all is.

Postman -- Believe me, I'm thrilled to have this opportunity myself, and I'm very appreciative. When I first got here, every time I met someone from one of the rarer -stans, I felt like Mr. Weasley meeting his first muggles. This last term, I had a girl from Turkmenistan in one of my vocabulary classes. Every time I took roll and called her name (which was very foreign-sounding and interesting), I felt like saying, "And you're from Turkenistan. Gee!" (Somehow I managed to forebear.)

There's a Tashkent not far from where we live too! That's how Turkish a name it is.

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- (Our posts crossed)

The reason we don't know about all the -stan countries is because they didn't exist when we were learning history and geography. Back then, they were all part of the USSR. Most of the time, I think kids nowadays have it easier, but when it comes to geography, they've got a far harder time. Czechoslovakia is now two countries, the USSR has splintered into all those nations, and look at what happened to Yugoslavia! But we can still learn, can't we? We're not too old!

Vijaya said...

I learn something new and fascinating every time I read your blog.

I've enjoyed living in other countries and soaking up everything. I find that people don't mind if you ask too many questions. They're pleased to educate you.

Kim Ayres said...

I was amazed to discover how large Kazakhstan was when my accountant of a few years ago told me she was moving out there. So of course I googled it and was gobsmacked.

Robin said...

You have the most awesome attitude, ever. I love "I'd much rather confess to ignorance than stay ignorant". I couldn't agree more!

Now I'll confess my ignorance - I don't think I've heard of half these countries, and would have had no clue Russian was involved anywhere. I feel like I need to go back to school. Or come visit you. Sheesh. (Why should you suffer because of my ignorance? I'm not sure. I'll get back to you on that one.)

Bernard Anthony Lewandowski said...

Tell them from me that we understand about Borat!
It's satire, and on Da Ali G Show- which used to air on HBO long before the movies were made, his skits always made the Americans look far worse than his fictional version of Kazakhs.

And he used an Austrian and a British character, too.

Anonymous said...

This post sums up one of the things I love about living overseas. We learn so much! There's still so much we don't know! (Like, I bet you didn't know there are 3 different dialects of Berber and none of them correspond AT ALL to Moroccan Arabic, which is VERY different from Mauritanian Arabic. Sigh)
BTW, I submitted a piece to Prole mag. I've been meaning to write and thank you for that tip! They look great. Crossing my fingers and hoping they like my stuff.

Mary Witzl said...

Vijaya -- Thank you!

My mother loved asking people questions about their culture, religion and language. Her questions weren't at all nosy, but I used to worry that people would think she was. Now my daughters squirm when I do the same thing. You're right, though: people don't mind questions when they know you just want to learn. Fortunately, my students know just how much I need to learn...

Kim -- I remember you telling me about your accountant.

After my conversation with Dania and Shokan, I immediately googled Kazakhstan. How embarrassing -- and enlightening. Now I do the Geography section on Free Rice and can nail all the -stans 99% of the time.

Robin -- The truth is, I hate admitting to being ignorant just as much as the next guy, but actually BEING ignorant is the worst of all. That was one thing that used to drive me wild about our former president: he seemed to be proud his ignorance: he BRAGGED about it. Unforgivable.

We'll be here five more months, so come on out and I'll introduce you to all the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz I know. And if you had to talk to my students, believe me -- you'd be doing plenty of the suffering!

Bernard -- I only saw his show a few times, but it was definitely funny. But funny in an embarrassing, cringe-worthy sort of way. I used to feel bad for all the people who were so easily duped: I could so easily picture my very gullible self in their place.

You're right: Americans always came out the worst. I told my Kazakh students that, but they weren't in a very receptive frame of mind.

PN -- No, I didn't know that about Berber; I'm just thrilled I know who Berbers are... The longer I live, the more I see I don't know. When I was much younger, I was a LOT more confident that I knew plenty. The good thing is that learning is so much fun.

I'm glad you submitted something to Prole! It would be great to have both our work featured there some day. Fingers crossed here too.

Robert the Skeptic said...

No better history and cultural lessons than to live among those people. But then you already knew that.

AnneB said...

Hi, Mary. Great post. It adds another piece to my realization of how little I know of the world. Just the other day an entirely new Stan showed up on the BBC website and I had to wikigoogle to see where it was (appears to be still a region and not yet an independent republic). The Ottoman empire--or its legacy--features large in the book I'm reading now, Balkan Ghosts: a Journey Through History (light reading that was on Older Son's international relations reading list), which I foolishly thought it would help me understand the politics of southeastern Europe. {So wrong!!!! Insight, yes. Understanding, ha!}

Jasmine said...

Wow. I've never really seen Borat, just bits and pieces. I am so glad to have learned this, too.

Helen said...

The problem with me Mary, is that I wear my ignorance (especially geographic)like a logo-emblazoned t-shirt. But like you, I love to trade it for a bit of knowledge. Thanks again for introducing Free Rice to us. We love it, but often get all the 'stan' countries muddled.

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- Yes, I could learn all of these things through books and none of them would stick. When I learn them from people, they really stay with me. And it's so much more interesting that way.

AnneB -- Was that Kurdistan? So far, Kurdistan hasn't yet been recognized as a state. Kurdistan is spread over Southeast Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Northern Syrian. I've had quite a few Kurdish students, and although I can almost never tell the difference between them and my Turkish students, everyone else can.

The politics of southeastern Europe are surprisingly complicated, but religion plays a huge part. And sadly, not a good one.

Jasmine -- Borat is funny, pure and simple. My Kazakh students would probably find him hilarious if he was lampooning Americans.

Helen -- I tend to wear my ignorance on my sleeve too, but I can't see the point in trying to hide it. As long as we're working to refine and increase our fund of knowledge, I think we're okay.

Glad you like Free Rice! I always remember Tajikstan because 'Tajik' sounds like a Pakistani name and it's the one closest to the subcontinent. Kazakhstan is huge, so that one's easy to remember too. Once you've cracked a few more, you're home free.

Marcia said...

I was thinking along the same lines as Blythe. Man, it's humbling and staggering what we don't know, but I enjoy soaking it up. I so enjoy your posts.

MG Higgins said...

I'm only reading blogs once or twice a week now, which means a lot of fast reading when I do get to them. But your posts always draw me in and slow me down because they're so fascinating. I want to soak up every bit!

Falak said...

Co-incidentally a few friends of mine just finished a presentation on the Stans for a Political Science project in college. They even had an issue of Nat Geo with them which had an article about the stans. Maybe sharing this bit of info with Dania and Shokan might make them feel better since they'll know that there are people who are aware about their country:)

Blythe said...

Just extra-enjoyed the Olympics entrance of the Kazakhs because of Dania and Furkan--and you.

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