. These conversations also teach them to respect one another, to have conversations with people, as opposed to talking over people and not listening. The greatest gifts I receive during these conversations are (1) when I begin the conversation and prod it at the beginning, but then it takes off without me between the group I have posed the question to, and the participants grow impassioned and (2) when I hear some of the participants say, "oh…I never thought of that. That makes sense. But what if you consider…," which indicates that their minds are opening up, they are considering other possibilities, and honestly evaluating them. In fact, often I ask questions with very little direct pertinence to them or their lives, such as what life will be like in 50 years or if humans will ever live on another planet, and if so, what that would mean for the human race. We have talked about the purpose of science and how effective it is. We have talked about change, development, and innovation, and whether such processes actually help the human race “move forward” and what “move forward” means, and if it is good to “move forward.” In general, I just try to stimulate thinking, which is unnatural for Kazakhstani, who come from an authoritarian education system (Soviet) and a culture that strongly discourages challenging the statements of elders (Asian).
I have worked toward this goal of promoting understanding, goodwill, and peace mostly through my volunteer efforts
. The theme of my volunteering here in Almaty has been teaching English, as teachers who are native English speakers are in incredibly high demand, and in this city you have to pay for everything you do, including to participate in English language discussion clubs. Thus, I have founded several and I have helped lead others in the city. The easiest way to discuss what I have been doing this year would be to go through my weekly schedule. Mondays, I lead English class for absolute beginners at the Children’s Library in my part of the city. Most of my students are young children, ranging from ages five to fifteen. Some of the library staff also participates in the English classes. And, when parents stop by to watch their kids, I strongly encourage them to participate in the classes. I founded this club in order to provide the kids with the conversation practice they lack in English class at school. I also want to make learning English fun and interactive so that they will want to continue their studies and work hard to speak English proficiently. Surprisingly, while all students begin studying English in school here no later than 5th grade, few people actually speak or understand much English. The problem is threefold: (1) the teachers often are not interested in teaching, so they just go through the motions of teaching the kids, rather than engaging them; (2) the teachers still use the Soviet authoritarian style of teaching, so the kids sit and listen, but never try to use English themselves; (3) the teachers are not native English speakers and often do not even have a very good command of the English language themselves, so it is difficult for them to teach the kids good English
. The Children’s English Club has two levels: my group, the beginners, and an intermediate group that is mostly compromised of high school students. Another American I have met in Almaty leads that group. Wonderfully, now that the weather has turned beautiful out, we take the older group outside to play Frisbee and football, encouraging the girls to play as well as the boys. Generally, girls neither play sports nor even participate in throwing around a ball. Thus, we are giving the girls a rare opportunity to let their inhibitions go and have fun, if they like. We also demonstrate to the boys how capable girls are and how much fun it is to play, even at the very old ages of high school. We play in the park near the library and draw stares. Sometimes passers-by even stop and play with us.
Wednesdays, I first head to the local state university, and one of the best in the country, Kazakh National University, to be the visiting native English speaker at an English club. We discuss lots of different topics, the most recent of which was the pros and cons of video games, especially for kids. I was able to present the different sides of the debate raging through the U.S. about the merits and dangers of video games. At first, the students touted the arguments they had heard and read over and over again. I tried to push them, however, to think outside the box, and by the middle of the discussion, they were suggesting quite innovative arguments for and against video games
. Some participants of the discussion were even able to make some arguments for the side they did not support, which demonstrated great flexibility of mind. After this English club on Wednesdays, I hurry over to the apartment complex where I teach English with two other volunteers, one another native English speaker, and the other the sister of the family that hosts the English classes. This girl studies at KIMEP, has studied abroad in India for a year, and speaks English very well. We began this English class last November or so. The hosts are friends and they noticed a number of teenage and college-aged boys from their apartment complex wandering around the neighborhood all the time, seemingly aimless and bored. They knew that I was in Kazakhstan to volunteer and they are rare Kazakhstani who believe deeply in volunteering and bettering the community, so they suggested that I come over to teach the boys English and engage with the boys, providing a young, slightly older, role model to them, to motivate them to make something of their lives. At first, the English group was very small. We had two groups, one intermediate and one beginner, each just with a couple of teenagers. The American volunteer I mentioned before and I each taught one of the classes. After a little over a month, all of a sudden, the group grew enormously. Now, we have close to 30 people come to this apartment twice a week for English lessons and we have three levels of English, intermediate, pre-intermediate, and beginner
. We have adults and teenagers. Originally, we began this group only teaching on Saturdays, but now we teach Wednesdays and Saturdays, because our students wanted more classes.
On Thursdays, I lead an American Culture Club that I co-founded at the Kazakh-American University in Almaty. While this university has “America” in its name, before I came to the campus, it had no American presence whatsoever. I found out about this deficiency from a fellow Rotaract member who attends the university. We jointly founded this club to gather together any students who want to practice speaking English with native English speakers and want to talk about America and Kazakhstan. I have invited the other American volunteers who I know in the city to come and participate in the club whenever they have time. We have had as many as five Americans leading the club at a time during some meetings. Most of the students who come to the club meeting are international relations students with a focus on the U.S. Some students, however, are economics students, language students training to be translators and interpreters, and students training to work in the tourist industry. We discuss anything from diversity to corruption to political systems in the U.S. and Kazakhstan. We also play games such as Wheel of Fortune. We have plans, now that the weather is good, to go out on picnics together and maybe go out on some hikes
Saturdays, I have a very long volunteer day. First, I head over to KIMEP, where I volunteer along with three other Americans, leading an English club for community members. Again, this is a very unusual, free, English language club run by native speakers. We play games, hold discussions, put on skits, make up challenges for the club members, hold debates, and the like. Each Saturday, anywhere between 30 and 60 people come, ranging in English language level from beginner to fully proficient and in age from teenagers to mid-70s. We have a great time. This presents a wonderful opportunity to learn about how Kazakhstanis think, and it is a great opportunity for the community members to grill us on our opinions, or at least to present some of the opposing views on different topics in the U.S. We learn about the craziest preconceptions that some Kazakhstanis hold about the U.S, like the U.S. invented aliens and that aliens come from a secret American research base located in Mexico. Some fascinating ideas! These interactions give us all a much better understanding of each other.
Saturdays, after KIMEP English Club, I hurry across the city to an orphanage where I tutor kids in English. I have joined a volunteer group of Kazakhstanis who go to this orphanage every weekend
. Actually, the most popular and most accepted form of volunteering in Almaty is going to orphanages and engaging the kids there. Last semester, you may remember, I volunteered at an orphanage, again leading an English class, through the Rotaract club. The Rotaract club is no longer going there, and because of bureaucracy issues and red tape, I have stopped going there. Instead, I go to this orphanage where the children are so energetic, intelligent, and loving. They love to give and receive hugs, the love to cuddle, and they are wonderfully gifted at manipulating us and pushing all the right buttons to get what they want from us. For the past several weeks, I have been working exclusively with a sixteen-year-old girl who attends the equivalent of a junior college or an occupational school to train to be an English interpreter and translator. Just like the others I have encountered here learning to speak English, she has no experience speaking. We are reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
together. She memorizes definitions. She wants me to read a sentence in English, then she repeats it, and then she proceeds to translate the sentence word for word. Based on my experience, this is not an effective way to learn a language. Thus, I have encouraged her to read the passage herself, then go through and try to understand what she just read and we discuss the story. She hates speaking in English because she thinks it is too difficult for her. She always wants to speak to me in Russian. However, just like in all my classes, even in my absolute beginner classes, I refuse to speak in Russian, challenging my students to understand me and realize that they can if they listen and watch me speak
. My students here have the strange idea that (1) learning English should be easy, so they give up once they feel challenged and (2) every answer should be handed to them on a silver platter. I was appalled to realize that my student at the orphanage did not know how to read anything except the words her teacher had taught her to read. She does not know how to sound out words. She does not know how to spell words except for those words for which she memorized the spelling. She does not know how to feel for meanings, as opposed to always searching for the exact definition, and giving up if she does not have the definition, turning to me to give it to her. I have worked with her now several Saturdays, and the improvement I see in her is immense. It is so heartening to see! She knows that I will not do her work for her. She knows that she need only discuss with me and I will guide her to the answer. She also realizes that she is much more capable than she thought. In fact, the last time that I met with her, she had some homework that she wanted to go over with me before reading Charlie
. She had to write an essay comparing and contrasting Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan) and Almaty. She did not even ask me to write the essay for her, or even to give her the ideas and sentences that she would then write down. Rather, she worked through the ideas, she learned the grammar that I taught her so that she could write the essay with correct grammar, and she wrote a great essay. This was so exciting
After the orphanage on Saturdays, I head over to the apartment complex where I teach the beginner group English classes on Wednesdays. After the general English classes on Saturdays, over tea, after the adults have all left, we sit down with the teenage boys and talk with them in Russian about morals, motivation, life goals, and the like. In fact, we have started introducing them to the concept of volunteering. We have even completed our first volunteering project. We cleaned a section of the Almaty River close to the apartment complex. The boys had a lot of fun and came back the next Saturday with more ideas for volunteer activities. They are starting to open up, to think about what possibilities they have in life, and how to help others. In fact, they are not very interested in the idea of leading a group of youth in doing service projects around the city. They still have a long way to go, as their only role models are this family that they only met in the fall of last year, but at least they are on the right track.
On Sundays, I return to the same family’s apartment, but this time to teach English to three to six-year-olds after they have playtime and classes with this family. We play games, talk about animals, are learning how to recognize letters and read, and run around having a grand time
Lastly, I have participated in several television shows and made a couple of speeches at the U.S. Consulate for a program called American Crossroads. One of the friends that I made at KIMEP, Nariman, works for a national television program headquartered in Almaty, just a couple of blocks from where I live. The first television program that he asked me to take part in I wrote about before. I wrote five questions about America and their answers and was filmed asking them for a television game show. The contestants in this game show are some of the top students from around the country who speak Kazakh, Russian, and know some English. The winner of this game show receives a full scholarship to study abroad at a western university for his or her undergraduate degree. I had to come up with a series of five trivia questions about the U.S. increasing in difficulty. When the game show itself was being filmed, Nariman invited me to come and watch the filming and be part of the television audience. I met the contestants, talked with them, encouraged them to continue to pursue their studies as much as they could, and exchanged contact information with them. Some still contact me today. The second filming request I received was from KIMEP itself. They asked me to represent KIMEP in their promotional video as an international student from America. They asked me to answer several questions, talking about my experiences at KIMEP, my impressions of KIMEP, Almaty, and Kazakhstan, and the value I find in KIMEP as an American
. Several months later, Nariman asked me again if I would be in a television show that his program was producing. This time, I was to talk about living in Almaty as an American and culture shock. Most people in Kazakhstan have done very little to no traveling, even within their own country. However, as the years pass, increasing numbers are seeking out and finding the opportunity to travel more and even to study abroad. Thus, the idea of culture shock is somewhat unheard of to them, but is becoming increasingly an interesting topic. Nariman wanted the direct impressions of a foreigner who had already lived abroad, in Kazakhstan, for about six months, to share her experiences. This was a great opportunity for me because it gave me the opportunity to look back and assess the growth I had experienced since coming to Kazakhstan and to watch my development and my increasing integration into the local culture. I found that I never really experienced “culture shock.” Rather, I go through periods of complete fascination and curiosity, periods of disillusionment and frustration, and periods of feeling completely home, and then starting the cycle all over again.
In terms of some of the talks I have given, while I have given many talks at the orphanages and before, after, or during the other English clubs I lead about America, about being an American in Kazakhstan, and about the relationship between the America in Kazakhstan, I have also given several stand-alone talks for the KIMEP and for the American Embassy
. For KIMEP, I gave a talk at the annual research symposium, and published a paper for the corresponding journal, about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, its future as a security cooperation organization and as a regional organization in general, and the implications that has for the United States’ interests in the Central Asia region. At KIMEP’s international student day, I also gave a talk and made a poster presentation about the U.S. and my experiences over the last school year in Kazakhstan. Also, at the American Embassy, the cultural division has a near-weekly English discussion club called American Crossroads that it hosts for the intellectuals of the city. The Embassy invites scholars and other representatives of the U.S. to give talks on interesting topics for the attendees and then to lead a discussion about the talk. I have made two talks for this discussion club. The first talk that I made was on Volunteerism in America. It was a fascinating talk to give because, as I have written before, volunteerism is a new and quickly growing concept in Kazakhstan. While people do not have experience volunteering, they are beginning to feel the instinctive drive to volunteer. Thus, those who feel this drive are fascinated by America’s rich volunteer culture and how we are able to make volunteering such an integral part of our lives. The second talk I gave was just last week. I gave a talk on water distribution and management issues in California and the Appalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin and lessons to be learned for Central Asia and, more specifically, Kazakhstan
. Water is also just a recently emerging topic of discussion in the Central Asia region. Common (educated) individuals are just becoming aware of the dire water shortage and failing distribution system in their country and in their region. It has recently become a hot topic of research and discussion, with the governments beginning to turn to NGOs and environmental international institutions for guidance on how to help their water situation.
Again, my volunteering theme is clearly teaching English. But while I teach English, I try to open the minds of those I interact with, encouraging them to think beyond what they have heard, read, or been told. In the meantime, I try to keep an open mind and honestly consider everything they suggest. I am trying to understand this place, how the people think, feel, evaluate their surroundings, and ultimately live.
Every couple of weeks, I experience an inspiring moment, which is what keeps me going. Probably one of the most inspiring moments I have had in Almaty was right after one of the talks I gave at the U.S. Embassy on volunteerism in America. Several members of the audience came up after the talk and discussion to speak with me individually. One woman hung back, waiting until I was completely alone
. She asked me if I ever get frustrated or beaten down or discouraged in my efforts to volunteer. I could tell that she was a little upset, so I talked to her about my experiences of volunteering throughout my life. I told her that I absolutely get frustrated and discouraged, that volunteering often times is slow-going and produces few tangible results if you evaluate it each time. However, I told her, I keep volunteering and I love to volunteer because of that one time during a project that something miraculous happens, that you produce a smile in a person, that you produce hope in a person, that you create a special bond with those you work with and those you work to provide for. During the conversation, she was tearful and dejected. By the end of the conversation, she left the room tearful still, but tearful with hope, with renewed energy to keep trying. This response to talking with me gave me renewed energy to help people who want to learn to volunteer here, to encourage them, to find them opportunities, and to teach them how. The greatest problem is that they neither have role models to teach them how, nor do they have the support of society, as society is suspicious of anything given for free. But volunteerism is spreading here like wild fire among the young adult group. Just last week at my Children’s Classes, one of the intermediate students came up to me during class and asked if I know of any programs whereby she can go to the U.S. to improve her English, but through which her purpose in the U.S. would be volunteering. This is such a change even from when I first came to Almaty in August. This city is developing and changing so quickly. I think that volunteerism can flourish here if it is prodded and encouraged appropriately.
This year abroad, I have tried to promote Rotary's vision to advance world understanding, goodwill, and peace by encouraging discussions in all the classes I teach, among my friends and colleagues, and in general whenever the chance presents itself. My goal has not been to persuade those I am conversing with to adopt my perspective. Rather, I have striven to play devil’s advocate, to ask questions to encourage those I am speaking with to think about a possibility or an aspect of life they have never considered before, such as what life would be like if women held the power in the world or what it would be like if individual governments did not exist, but rather we all lived as one people, or what it would be like if we were not aware of race. Given the heavy traditional aspect of their culture, Kazakhstanis have the tendency to spout what they have been told, not thinking about what they are saying. Having conversations, challenging their ideas, asking them to consider a possibility, teaches them to think for themselves, to realize that many possibilities exist, and that perhaps no single reason is absolutely correct and another absolutely incorrect, but rather that different people hold different opinions