30 August 2009

Our former Soviet doctor and a night on the town in А—

Two days ago marked one full week in Qazaqstan, but it feels as though it's been more than a year. So far we have yet to settle into a routine, but Peace Corps has given us a tentative calendar to work from. We will be working six days a week, Monday through Saturday, and most days will be partly technical training (basically another TEFL course replete with practice teaching) and partly language training in Qazaq. It's grueling, but now that I'm back in reasonable health, I think I can handle it. Most weeks, at least for one day a week, we have 'hub days' on which all trainees gather in the town of Есік for lectures on Peace Corps policy. This week we've had one 'hub day', which was thankfully hosted by Dr Viktor Breitkov (our PCMO in Qazaqstan) who kept both his lectures entertaining with jokes and anecdotes from his extensive travels and service as a medic in the Soviet Army during the war in Angola and as a PCMO in Madagascar (and who allowed us to get up and stretch every so often when some of us started nodding off). Dr Viktor is an incredibly interesting individual – he recognises that we might see irony in the fact that he was a member of the Soviet Army and now a member of Peace Corps staff, but he thinks of it as logical: he saw the Soviet Union as having provided a number of benefits to its people, was proud to serve it and was sorry to see it go, and he sees the Peace Corps and the American government in much the same light. He spoke of his admiration for Kennedy and Martin Luther King even from his former vantage point in the Soviet Union. I'd like to pick his brain more about it; it seems as though he has some poignant insights from his experiences. Also, if I want to understand the culture, I will need to understand the history and how Qazaqstanis tend to relate to it or define themselves within it.

We also spent some time learning about the Qazaqstani educational system. It is fairly different from that of the United States – because there are no substitute teachers, the schedule on any given day can change pretty rapidly, so flexibility is a must. Also, teachers here have much broader authority in the classroom in some respects than in American classrooms, but also much broader responsibilities. Discipline is not the role of the school administration (the director and the zavuches); the teacher is expected to handle all disciplinary measures in concert with parents. If a student is failing, it is considered to be the teacher's fault for not teaching that student properly. The most popular method of teaching here is still the teacher-centric grammar-translation method; the most popular method of discipline seems to be to shame a student in front of the class (which is probably quite effective). It will be a very different teaching environment from what I'm used to in the United States, and I'm sure it will have its frustrations and its pleasures.

We introduced ourselves to the teachers this week as a group, but classes don't start until next week. A lot of the teacher training, from what it sounds like, will be similar to what I already learned at Boston Academy of English, but I'm going to have to work on my team-teaching ability (that having been my own worst flaw as a teacher).

Again, this week has been pretty long – lots of language lessons, lots of visits with the residents of С— village. I've gotten to know a few people here pretty well, and can easily recognise some others when I see them, and for the most part they're very good people. (A lot of my contact within С— has been within one huge extended family – one of my host father's brothers, Satai Agha, is Courtney's host father; another is Lauren's host father – his terminally-cute daughter, Gaziza, showed off her culinary skills by making a couple of excellent pizzas for Courtney, Katharine, Lauren and myself when we came to visit; yet another has a son who works in Almaty, who speaks excellent English and who drops by to visit occasionally. I heard from Satai Agha that in his and my host dad's generation of the family there are ten brothers and sisters total!)

I'm getting used to some aspects of the cultural shift, slowly but surely. I'm no longer surprised to see a herd of sheep or a couple of horses or stray dogs sharing the road with the cars. I can find my way from school back home fairly well. Emotionally, though, being in Qazaqstan has been a very high-amplitude sine wave: at the troughs I feel like I'll never make it through pre-service training; at the peaks I feel like I can take everything on, that I can handle any problems Qazaqstan dishes out at me. That's fairly normal, from what I've been hearing. That in itself is kind of draining; I have yet to find a happy, stable medium from which I'll be able to work effectively, but that will come. Yesterday, I went to the new cafe / nightclub in the next village over, А—, with my host brother Quanysh, Laura, Dariya and Courtney – I'm still kind of tired out from dancing to Qazaqstani disco music. (Quanysh could really tear it up with the best, which was a surprise – usually he's pretty tired from work when he comes home. Bota's lucky to have married such a talented dancer!) Today I'm going into Есік (Issik) with my host sister to visit the bazaar to find a couple nice shirts to wear with a suit for next week (the plaid shirts I got from Savers' don't go too well with my jacket here). Hopefully I can also stop in for a brief while at an Internet cafe and upload the blog entries I've been working on.

24 August 2009

I'm all right. Really.

Okay, I haven't had Internet for awhile, so I'm making best use of it now. I'm currently in Almaty, at Peace Corps Headquarters, recuperating from a sucky bacterial infection at the request of my PCMO (medical officer) - just hanging out with Drew Boggs and watching Resident Evil. Unfortunately, I didn't bring the OpenOffice files I'd been working on for my blog. I'm not throwing in the towel this easily though, not when I'd been having so much fun with my host family and learning some rudimentary Qazaqsha (Qazaq language). My teacher, Nagima, is really amazing, and was really an angel when I started getting really sick and having to leave the room, and as long as she's doing the Qazaq classes, I'm sure I'll be seeing my training through.

My host family are all really awesome people (Quanysh my host brother, Bota my host sister, their children and his parents and extended family) and I'm already missing them here. The thing I'm having the most trouble adapting to, though, is the даретхана (daret-hana, basically a deep outdoor squat latrine). I'm sure I'll get used to it eventually, though.

I will get around to posting a more thorough update from the past three days, but just checking in to ensure my readers that reports of my early demise have been exaggerated.

23 August 2009

Matt, meet host family – adventures in Қазақша and монша culture

The third day in Kazakhstan is here (though I should be spelling it Qazaqstan now to be consistent in my romanisations), and I have just spent an enjoyable afternoon with my host family after a morning agonising over meeting them with my single-digit vocabulary in Qazaq language and a boatload of host-family related PST, concerning etiquette rules and the various do's and don'ts. I am located in С— village about 45 minutes outside Almaty, though I spent most of the bus ride over here sleeping from exhaustion. My host sister, Бота Bota, a young woman with a ready smile and a beauty mark beneath her right eye, was there to pick me up, along with her husband Қуаныш Quanysh and Courtney Ho (a fellow Qazaq-language student and education Trainee), who is living catercorner from me with the relatives of my host family, making us host cousins.

I was again struck with the duelling impressions of a culture influenced by northern Europe and a culture influenced by China. The low, colourful street-side architecture reminded me strongly of the villages I visited in Sichuan (I even saw a SinoOil station out here), while other aspects seemed like they came straight out of Oulu, Finland (like the copious fruit-trees painted white from the base to about four feet up) – but the house my host family lives in looks like it came straight out of Vermont (minus the Green Mountains in the background). It is clean and quiet, and the air outside is sweet and crisp (not at all like China, I promise you), and the buildings in the complex are spaced apart, separated by dirt roads and small bridges over artificial brooks, with apple-trees forming hedges between properties. They keep a few dogs (ит 'eet' in Qazaq), a couple of cows for milk (one of which looks like a small Jersey), and a few fowl which look like chickens, only far leaner and capable of short-distance flight.

My host mother, a tall, sweet and attentive middle-aged woman with a nice smile (and one gold tooth) named Гүлбаржан Gülbarzhan showed me around the place, including the монша (monsha, a bit like a Finnish sauna), the туалет (tualet, latrine) and the short path over to Courtney Ho's host family's place. After some чай (chai tea, Qazaq-style, with milk and sugar, served with нан bread with butter and jam), over which I gave them my host family gifts and started showing them my album, I started jotting down any and all Qazaq vocabulary they could teach me – which wasn't much, but it was a start. Thankfully, they were pretty laid-back about everything, and had a good sense of humour about the situation and my lack of Qazaq language ability. That alone made me feel much more at ease.

My host family has a number of generations living under the same roof. My host mother is of the first and eldest generation I've met here (she is one of ten brothers and sisters!), and she has a husband, Болат Bolat, one daughter living here (Адима Adima), three sons (Айдар Aidar, Куаныш Kuanysh and little Диас Dias) and a couple of grandchildren by Quanysh and Bota (Дауыр Dauyr and Дана Dana). My host brothers and sisters are each a handful of years older than I am (with the exception of Dias), and my host nephews and nieces are much younger (six and seven years old). Peace Corps has never been in С— village before, so I was probably one of the first Americans they've met, but aside from my host brother Dias staring and occasionally laughing at me, my host family was pretty relaxed with me, not just tolerant but welcoming and hospitable. Definitely good people.

I helped Bota some with dinner (cutting up meat, onions and potatoes for stew) and relaxed a bit before night began to fall – we visited Courtney's host family and had dinner, after which we went into the монша 'monsha', the bathhouse / sauna (баня in Russian) – my host brother Aidar showed me the ropes. You go in, fill your washing pan with two scoops of boiling water and two scoops of cold water, soap and shampoo up, rinse yourself off and go into the sauna, pouring the boiling water on the heat. It can get really hot and steamy in there, and you feel like you might stifle but you don't – you get really clean. Deep clean. When you've sweated and relaxed for a bit, you come out, scrub yourself down once more and then douse yourself with a couple bins full of cold water. It definitely isn't the kind of showering I'm used to, but it feels really good.

After I came out, towel draped over my shoulders, the Courtney's host family invited me into the building just next door for some fresh watermelon (for which it is apparently peak season; we saw a few truckloads of them on the bus ride in). Courtney seemed pleased with her host family, too – hopefully, I'll be able to understand more of the Qazaq going on around me given time.

In the meantime, my vocabulary list is (hopefully) going to get longer.

UPDATE for 24 August:

Today was basically our 'relax-and-get-to-meet-your-host-family' day before hardcore language and technical training start tomorrow. I hung out with Bota, Dauyr and Dana for the morning, watching Spider-Man (Урмекші-Адам Urmekshi-Adam in Qazaq), shared my photos with Bota and went over to Нургуль Тәте Aunt Nurgül's place to see Courtney. Nurgül, I learned, was the wife of Сатай Аға Uncle Satai, who is the younger brother of my host father Bolat. They have four children, three of whom I've met: Лаура Laura (the eldest daughter, whose ағылшынша English is excellent), Дария Dariya (the rather more soft-spoken – at least to us – second daughter, who also speaks some English) and Назар Nazar (the eleven-year-old son who enjoys listening to Eminem and playing CS and GTA: San Andreas on his laptop).

Our host families are really laid-back, easy-going types, not easily offended at all, which is good because it makes our lives as trainees much easier. But there are certain things they just don't do halfway. Every time you enter someone else's house, they will insist serving you чай tea, which is cool for those of us (like me) who enjoy tea – even if we get it six or seven times as I did today. They also don't screw around with нан nan: a couple of loaves are always on the table, always in a central spot, always cut and presented neatly (in the same fashion, once down the middle and then into slices), and it is always served with май (butter) and raspberry and blackberry варенье (varen'e, jam) – and with tea you are expected to eat at least one slice. So suffice it to say that I was overfed today, if only because I kept coming back to Aunt Nurgül's house – once in the morning to get Courtney's number, once to share pictures and once more to visit with Emiko Güthe (our PCVTA) and our technical facilitator (whose name is escaping me at the moment).

I took my pad of paper and pen with me wherever I went inside our family complex, jotting down whatever new vocab words of Qazaq I could (though Emiko told me later that a few of them were Russian words rather than Qazaq – the Qazaq they speak here is pretty heavily influenced by Russian from the Almaty area). Whenever our hosts speak around me I am constantly reminded of the Finnish I heard in Oulu and Jyväskylä – a lot of it sounds the same, with a lot of the same stops, rolled r's, umlauted vowels and schwas, and it makes the Ural-Altaic theory sound a lot more plausible (lumping together the Finnic languages – Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian and Karelian – with the Turkic languages, Mongolian, Korean and Japanese).

When I went to Aunt Nurgül's house, Laura showed me her family albums (hers, her parents' and Dariya's) – this made me feel slightly inadequate, since I only had my one with me that seemed like a slipshod affair, since it wasn't filled or decorated the way their family's were. It was enjoyable to spend time with them that way, though I felt somewhat guilty about neglecting my own host family today.

Today was an adventure in a couple of respects. Firstly, I went to a дүкен (düken market) with Laura and Courtney, but in the end I only bought a bottle of шие сок (shie sok – cherry juice) and hanging out with them outside a hotel waiting for Laura's boyfriend to pick us up. We had great seats – the view of the Tian Shan mountains was amazing in the evening, just before an equally amazing sunset. I finally got around to using my phone (and blowing away half my SIM-card minutes on a call to the United States to tell my parents my phone number). Secondly, it was my first time using the даретхана (bathroom) in earnest, in the dark, using my headlamp. It's basically just a squat toilet, and you have to empty your pockets of anything you don't want to fall in before you go.

For dinner, Bota made пылау (pylau), a fried rice pilaf with meat and carrots: very tasty, but a bit greasy. She gave me a heaping plateful which I finished, but just barely – пылау seriously fills you up fast, and gets you pretty sleepy.

On that note, I'm going to sign off for the night – big day tomorrow; I'm off to bed. Қайырлы түн, everybody.

21 August 2009

Сәлеметсіз бе, Қазақстан – random Christmas lights, unexpected peace and other first impressions

As I write this, I have spent about 22 hours on the ground in Kazakhstan. I had thought that I would be ready for it, that my time studying abroad earlier would have prepared me for it, but stepping out of the airport and onto a street with signs on buildings that I couldn't understand was something wholly new to me. When I went to China, I had spent two years learning the language, and I could navigate the communicative space there fairly well. Here, I spoke and understood the merest smattering of Russian, in which I very quickly and very keenly felt my own ineptitude. The extent of my Kazakh was the cheerful 'Қош келдіңіздер' (loosely, 'welcome, all') at the exit to the airport as we left on the bus, and no more. Despite the welcome, I was overpowered and humbled by a sudden sense of cosmic horror, the knowledge that notwithstanding my cohort of volunteers, I was completely and utterly alone, a stranger in a very strange land.

I searched for familiarity in my surroundings, whether real or imagined. The cars and the roads themselves looked and felt very European, and reminded me strongly of my three weeks working in Oulu in 2007 – the shape of the licence plates, the size of the cars, the wide margins with leafy, healthy trees which for some reason were painted white about three to four feet up. It was one o'clock in the morning, so there was no light, but other aspects of our first venture into Kazakhstan reminded me a good deal of China, mostly aesthetic aspects – the stone-carved guardian lions outside the sanitorium саниториум where we stayed today and last night, the other statues along the side of the driveway. The room I'm sharing with three other Trainees (Paul, Jon and Sid) reminded me vaguely of the hotels I stayed in over fall break in Sichuan. But there were these random Christmas lights all over the place as we unloaded our bags from the trucks and into our rooms.

Perhaps I should take some time to talk briefly about my cohort – at least, those with whom I have met and become familiar. They are an extraordinary group of people, and I mean that in the most complimentary sense. I was humbled as I have seldom been before by the range of their experiences, the expansiveness of their expertise and life experiences and the depth of their commitment to this service we're undertaking. Some (Erica, Andrew, Aaron and Dawn, Laura and Becca) were re-acquaintances from Facebook; others I simply met and just chatted with: I quickly struck up a rapport with the outspoken young idealist of our group, Hiromi, over Continental philosophy, Jürgen Habermas, Herbert Marcuse and applied critical theory – which I thought I had studied well in college until I heard the extent to which she has lived and breathed it. I like that she has little patience for career bureaucrats – far less so than I do. Also, Jon (my current suitemate and fellow Kazakh language student) is a fellow philosopher – though better-versed in the Anglo-American philosophy of mind than the German idealist tradition which had been my area of interest, a quiet fellow with a wry, understated sense of humour. Laura herself is just an interesting person all-around; more of a literary and poetical mind than the rest of us, I think – but she's displayed on a couple of occasions a quality and strength of will that I've only seen in a couple of other people, that is able to stand strong and pull through no matter how bad things get; she'll do fine here.

Anyway, more familiarity met me the morning after in the form of breakfast – rice gruel served warm, Chinese-style (or so it seemed to me) along with green tea, bread and yoghurt. The hall where we met for more training and orientation was more posh than I expected, but I wasn't complaining. PST/PD (pre-service training and professional development) varied between the enjoyable (the introduction to Kazakhstan the local Peace Corps workers and volunteers had prepared for us) and the mildly-irritating (the long queues for shots, medical interviews and various signups). Lots of new faces, new names, new Peace Corps acronyms to memorise (OMS, PCVTA, PCMO, etc.). But the defining moment of the day was the first Kazakh language class.

'Salemetsiz be Сәлеметсіз бе', our language teachers (Aygul, Nagima and Andrew) greeted us. 'Peace on you'.

Peace – salem сәлем. So there was peace to be found amidst everything unfamiliar here. Once we began learning and speaking and communicating, on however rudimentary a level, I thought I could start to see and hear some of that peace. Сәлеметсіз бе.

Today, we only learned some basic pronouns, greetings and questions and replies ('Қалыңыз қалай? How are you?' / 'Жақсы, рахмет. Well, thank you'), along with cardinal numbers one 'бір' through thirty 'отыз' in Kazakh. It was overwhelming – a lot to take in, lots of throaty consonants and umlauted vowels, lots of long phrases taking lots of mental regimenting to mimic; thank goodness Aygul and Nagima gave us a 'cheat sheet' to practice from, and for those of us who are visual learners to copy down and memorise. Given that we'll be meeting our host families tomorrow evening, the cheat sheet will be a true blessing.

That's something I'm still incredibly anxious about. Even though I have spoken with a couple of local workers here, living with and being part of a host family will be a horse of a far different colour. Still, in the midst of my anxiety, I can offer them what little peace I have now with my 'сәлеметсіз бе'.

18 August 2009

Last night at home

I'm all done packing, except for the computer I'm writing from. I've said goodbye to everyone in my extended family in Vermont and New York, and will be saying my goodbyes to my immediate family tomorrow. I spent my last day at home giving my insurance company through Peace Corps the occasional call to make sure everything is in order, walking around the East Side, browsing bookstores with my sister, watching Quantum Leap and playing the Save the Whales boardgame with my family - not really productive at all, but a day well-spent before the big plunge.

Next stop, Georgetown, D.C. and my Peace Corps cohort (whom I am very excited to meet). Final destination: the big K and two years of English teaching!

I'll keep in touch with everyone as best I can, through this blog, through e-mail and hopefully through a cellphone (when and if I get one).

13 August 2009

Five days to the big K - packing books

Wow. Five more days until I leave for Peace Corps service in Kazakhstan, and I'm not even done packing yet. It's coming up way too fast - I want to be able to spend some good time with my parents and sister before I have to leave, but my opportunities are getting more and more limited.

I'm currently packing books, and that's the hard part - so far I'm taking Abay Kunanbaev's Book of Words, the Bible, the Holy Koran, GWF Hegel's introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit, Karl Barth's the Humanity of God, Eric Hobsbawm's the Age of Empire: 1875-1914, Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, Repetition and the Sickness unto Death, Robert Neville's Preaching the Gospel, Hans Küng's Christianity and the World Religions, Jürgen Habermas' On the Pragmatics of Communication, Gary Dorrien's Soul in Society, and my Lonely Planet Guide to Central Asia - and those are just my reference and work books. I'm also taking some teaching materials: and old copy of Practical English 10 and a set of Side by Side coursebooks.

Now the question is, what other books do I want to take, or should I take? Do I have room for many more? Should I take any fiction? Would it be sybaritic of me to assume that I will have time and space to be doing fun-reading while I'm over there? These are the questions going through my head at the moment.

I've just gotten back from returning the toy soldiers to the Claflins, and spending some time with them and with my sister just sort of talking about life at present for us. What's involved in Peace Corps service and what I plan to do afterward, which I can't really say right now but will probably be graduate school of some kind (either in theology or in public service).

But - yeah. Five days. Wow.

12 August 2009

A cause for our time

Alright, America. Perhaps it is time we started discussing the idea of what it means to have rights in a democratic country.

Rights are important. Indeed, they are vital - the Constitution was amended specifically to accommodate a host of civil liberties necessary to the smooth function of a representative system of government accountable to its citizens. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of conscience are absolutely necessary to the workings of our society. But, contrary to the popular mythology, these political rights are not given to us from on high. Nor do they appear spontaneously from nature - they are born only out of social struggle, and perpetuated only through common intellectual and spiritual effort, communication and self-examination. As Norman Mailer put it as he was protesting the Bush Administration's foreign policy, 'democracy is a state of grace that is attained only by those countries who have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it'.

We are approaching an apocalyptic moment in our nation, one which will test the very fibre of our great Republic. We must decide for ourselves what sort of nation we wish to become - a nation in which people use their rights to come together civilly, in good faith to discuss ideas and policies on which they disagree, or a nation in which mobs and street thugs abuse their rights to shout each other down, hang their representatives in effigy, make death threats against minorities and joke about murdering elected officials. As a nation, we are currently on a familiar and unfortunate trajectory. We must decide whether we are a civil nation who band together in good will and solidarity in stressful times, or whether we continue to slide from incivility toward factionalism, street violence and fascism - ultimately losing the rights we had been taking for granted.

Civility is the cause for our time. We have come to a point at which our society is so polarised and fragmented that even such a basic and mundane issue as health-care reform is managing to generate these destructive, hate-filled protests and counter-protests, fuelled by corporate media which feed that anger with innuendo and misinformation wrapped up in a neat package of 'entertainment' and passed off as 'news'. In no sane, civil society would Sarah Palin's resentful and exploitative (not to mention near-incoherent) rhetoric be considered acceptable in a serious politician on the national stage. Our national dialogue more closely resembles the McLaughlin Group than Washington Week in Review - and this is not a good sign. We need to start holding each other accountable for what we say and do, and the way we say and do it.

(On this topic, I realise that I am as prone as anyone else to incivility. Not two weeks ago on this very blog I posted a snarky 'shorter' caricature of Nick Kristof's opinion column as something a neoconservative like William Kristol would write in bad faith. I stand by my criticism of his column - I believe it is laughable that he would write on the efficaciousness of diplomatic efforts - even with a rogue state like North Korea - by uncritically citing for evidence two Bush Administration appointees with clear ideological agendas and only half-critically citing the hearsay of defectors who have a vested interest in the claim that Myanmar is buying nuclear technology from North Korea. However, there can be no excuse for the needlessly dismissive form my criticism took, and for that I apologise to Mr Kristof.)

Post locked.

11 August 2009

樱庭葵、信の武士 (Sakuraba Aoi, knight of faith: an existentialist apologetic for Ai Yori Aoshi)

A quick caveat to the reader: this post contains major spoilers for the manga series Ai Yori Aoshi by Fumizuki Kou.

Perhaps it's a purely aesthetic guilty pleasure on my part that I enjoy the occasional romantic comedy; Ai Yori Aoshi 《蓝より青し》, on the surface of it, appears to be no exception. However, more than being your typical seinen manga 青年漫画 in which the primary focus is on the pulchritude of bodacious young women, Ai Yori Aoshi goes much deeper. The very title is an allusion to the philosophy of Xunzi 荀子: 青出于蓝而胜于蓝 ('blue dye comes out of indigo, yet is deeper than indigo'), though the conceits of the series are a deep critique of Japanese culture drawing more on existential modes of thinking than Confucian ones. The main character, Sakuraba Aoi 樱庭葵, is criticised pretty heavily in some quarters for being essentially a doormat, upholding traditional Japanese gender roles. It is a criticism that needs to be made, but ultimately I think the feminist-ethical position might be wiser to see within her character an ally in the ethical and religious critique of traditional Japanese culture's expectations of women in society.

Through the eyes of a college sophomore, Hanabishi Kaworu 花菱薫, we meet a young woman, Aoi, who has run away from home to look for a friend she hasn't seen in eighteen years. She was betrothed to him from the age of four, and has worked her whole life ever since to become his wife, only to be told at the age of twenty by her family that her engagement to him had been annulled and that she should forget all about him. And it turns out that her fiancee was Hanabishi Kaworu all along – who ran away from home himself after disowning his family.

Already we can see the tensions on poor Aoi. The ethicist must reproach her family in the severest terms for treating her as they did, bringing her up to be so docile, submissive and frail (as her own mother describes her!), dependent completely upon another for her self-worth. A deep crime indeed, throughout her childhood to cast her into such a rigid shape, and then suddenly and cruelly turn around and tell her that that existence has been an utter mistake! We can see that it would be all too easy for Aoi to become embittered and resentful at her family, to rattle the chains of her own docility against them and do everything within her power to remind them of their mistake, making them miserable. But instead, she takes her fate into her own hands and runs away to meet her intended, Kaworu, staking everything that has been left to her on the utterly absurd hope that Kaworu will accept her as wife, not having seen or heard from her for eighteen years.

All this for a marriage arrangement undertaken for the basest of aesthetic reasons: a couple of petty, vulgar shopkeepers selling their offspring to each other, to merge the Hanabishi Zaibatsu with the Sakuraba-Gofuku Corporation for profit! I cannot help but pity the children born to such families, whose self-worth is always secondary to their families' greed! In Kaworu's case we can taste the bitterness of rejection, we can be deafened by the thundering voice of the ethical in his disdain for his family, who cast out his mother, drove her to her death and tried to beat the memory of her out of her son. Thankfully it has led him to reject in himself everything the Hanabishis were to him: as cruel as they were to him, he reaches out in equal kindness to everyone around him. Until Aoi meets him, we may well imagine within Kaworu this daemonic urge, forging his outward kindness in a roaring fire of hatred at everything connected with his father's family, burning him from within. The scars on his back may have been inflicted by his grandfather, but the deeper scars are the ones he inflicts on himself, on his grandfather's account. It is left to the genuine affection Aoi shows him to heal him, and turn his kindness into something authentically his own.

In Aoi's case, though, her parents are of no such concern, for in their schemes and petty machinations they have unknowingly brewed a storm which stretches far beyond their narrow horizons – in a twist on Xunzi's observation, the dye with which they have sought to colour her runs far deeper and far truer than its source! Aoi is a much stronger character than Kaworu, because her understanding is so much greater – she invests the task set before her with a deep, religious passion, all based on a single memory of the kind, tortured boy she met once in her childhood. We find in her every movement, her every action, the deep self-knowledge of a knight of faith, that I am Aoi – and I know I am Aoi, because I love Kaworu. Does it matter to her whether he returns her love? Ultimately, no – she is too strong to be dependent on him in such a way. She hasn't seen him in eighteen years; how can it possibly matter to her what he has felt and done in her absence? But she runs away from her family to see him anyway, all on the strength of a single childhood memory and a single impossible hope.

Perhaps I am giving Fumizuki-sensei too much credit. There is a level at which more must not be made of Ai Yori Aoshi than it actually is. It is a romantic comedy – the sensibility to which it appeals most basically is the aesthetic desire for the happy ending, and it does so in ways that are comically blatant. And yes, there is a shallow, misogynist, present-age level at which it is a harem manga about cute young girls with sexy bodies. (After all, fanservice is fanservice is fanservice. This perception is not exactly helped by the fan community, who ended up voting for Aoi as Newtype Magazine's sexiest anime heroine in 2002.) But to stop here is to stop with the aesthetic and miss the deeper themes. We do have a voice of the aesthetic in Kaworu's heavy-drinking American friend-who-wants-to-be-more-than-a-friend Tina Foster, though it turns out that within that existence she harbours a deep and painful despair made plain later in the series. We have also a steady voice of traditional Japanese ethics in Aoi's tutor Kagurazaki Miyabi 神乐崎雅, whose job in the series seems primarily to appeal to Aoi's sense of family honour and to Kaworu's sense of kindness and decency – she does later show a religious side, however, when, upon comprehending the sheer sincerity of Aoi's affection for Kaworu, she swears to the impossible task of defending Kaworu and Aoi from the disapproving Sakuraba family regardless of the cost to her standing with the Sakuraba or her ethical qualms about the match.

AYA (the anime as well as the manga) has also been criticised for being dissociative, haphazardly borrowing tropes from rom-coms and from the 'harem' genre without doing either particularly well. On the contrary, I'm inclined to give Fumizuki-sensei the benefit of the doubt, that he knew exactly what he was doing. AYA is very much what you make of it, and your reaction to it says more about you than it does about the series: you can identify with Tina Foster and react to it in a purely aesthetic way, as Newtype Magazine readers did; you can identify with Hanabishi Kaworu and reject it ethically for its portrayal of traditional gender roles; or you can identify with Sakuraba Aoi and appreciate its religious critiques of the society it portrays.

The series does indeed make some deep and scathing criticisms of the traditional Japanese culture of conformity and group mentality at the ethical level. Ethically, we see that poor Aoi's freedom has been compromised from the beginning by the expectations her family has laid upon her: Miyabi informs her in stentorian tones of her duties to the Sakuraba family, which Aoi comes to see as an unbearable burden. But the criticism goes deeper: when it comes down to choosing between her normative obligations as a daughter of Sakuraba and her chosen individual identity as Kaworu's lover, we can feel her anxiety as she makes the decision to cut off her family, sacrificing everything for the chance to remain with Kaworu. This is a markedly existentialist critique. (Ultimately, I think Aoi is a feminist in the fullest way that is open to her – she ends up showing autonomy and taking full responsibility for her decisions, regardless of how shaped they may have been by her incredibly problematic upbringing.)

I was surprised by the presence of existentialist themes in AYA, to be honest, though existentialism does seem to feature prominently in many Japanese cartoons and graphic novels. Kanzaka Hajime's 神坂一 high-fantasy series Slayers NEXT features a teleological suspension of the ethical at its climax when Lina Inverse is faced with the decision to save Gourry Gabriev's life at the risk of destroying the world with a forbidden spell. Sen and Haku in Miyazaki Hayao's 宫崎骏 film Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi 《千と千寻の神隐し》 must each deal with identity crises (even losing and forgetting their own names!) in a world rife with nightmarish absurdity, and eventually recover their senses of purpose through self-sacrificial love for each other. And (of course) all of the characters in Anno Hideaki's 庵野秀明 Neon Genesis Evangelion are drenched in existential despair in the face of a meaningless universe. Other examples abound: Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop, Haibane Renmei 《灰羽连盟》. I marvel at how a culture which places such painstaking emphasis on traditional norms, conformity, family identity and nationalism can produce such a fascination in its popular artwork with the individualistic subjectivism of Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard – though perhaps it is simply a reaction on the part of the artists who find themselves on the periphery of the culture. Perhaps, as the alienated loners within this vast cultural system they come to identify strongly with this style of thinking, and use it to protest and resist the conservative patriarchal and conformist norms of the society around them.

06 August 2009

It's like deja vu all over again!

Shorter Nick Kristolof (I wish I was kidding):

Despite having just saved two journalists from North Korean imprisonment, we still have this yellowcake Ahmad Chalabi al-Qaeda connexion fragmentary intelligence about them spreading nuclear technology... and you know I'm a Sensible Liberal™ and everything, but another war is just what we need right now!

Post locked.

02 August 2009

Soy toldiers - or, Kazakh history in a nutshell

Our neighbours, Bill and Eunice Claflin, are incredibly good people - albeit a little stuffy, in a southern New England kind of way (and that's by no means a bad thing!). Mr Claflin, in fact, upon hearing that I was going to Kazakhstan was enthusiastic to share his collection of model Kazakhstani soldiers with me (above), along with the magazine article in which the owner of Northcoast Miniatures (which produced these model soldiers) describes the history.

The middle of Asia has been home to a great number of peoples - hardly surprising, given the flat and open terrain which encourages a nomadic lifestyle. The first inhabitants of modern-day Kazakhstan were actually an Indo-Iranian people, the Saka - the famous 'Golden Man' armour is an artefact of their culture. They were often at war with their sedentary cousins to the south, the Achæmenid Persians (whose empire stretched from Asia Minor and Ægypt to northwestern India at its height). Indeed, one of the great Shahs of the Achæmenid state, Kurush (Cyrus) II met his death fighting off the forces of the Saka queen Tomyris. However, the Saka were either driven out or conquered when various waves of nomads (first the Wusun 乌孙 and then the Xiongnu 匈奴) began their trek west after being pushed from their traditional territories by the sedentary Chinese. The descendants of these scattered nomads ended up speaking Turkic languages; by the late 500's, Turks (Турки, left-most model soldier) were in control of much of the territory of Kazakhstan.

Islam failed to take root very strongly in the region until the Turkic Qarakhanid Khanate (Қарахан мемлекеті) of roughly 900-1200 - the Qarakhanids were responsible for replacing Turkic runes with Arabic script, and the language that they spoke was adapted into the literary Chaghatai language of the settled people in the south (later the Uzbeks) and the Qypchaq language of the nomads to the northwest (who created an independent Khanate - Desht-i Qypchaq [Дешт-и Қыпшақ], represented by the soldier second from the left - and became the Kazakhs). The Qarakhanids were one of a series of short-lived states during the power struggles between Buddhism and Islam in Central Asia, succeeded by the Seljuq Turks, the Buddhist Qaraqytai Xiliao 西辽 Khanate and finally the Muslim Horezmshahs.

The major drama of the Horezmshahs was the complete and utter conquest of Central Asia by the infamous Temudjin, also known as Sh‎yńǵys Khan (Шыңғыс Хан, second from right). The Horezmshah ruler of Otyrar (near modern-day Karatau in southern Kazakhstan), Kaiyr Khan, robbed a Mongol trade caravan which he thought was carrying Mongol spies, and executed its leaders. Jingghis Khan, enraged, demanded Kaiyr Khan; the Horezmshahs, however, refused - a brave yet foolish and ultimately disastrous move. Jingghis Khan whipped up an army of about 200,000 and proceeded to lay waste to Otrar (killing Kaiyr Khan by having molten silver poured in his ears!!), the beautiful Horezmshah scholastic and cultural centre at Buhara (which he looted and razed to the ground), Samarqand, Merv, Balkh, Ghazni and pretty much the entire remainder of the continent. Jingghis' descendants continued the violent expansion of Mongol power - Hulegu Khan sacked Baghdad in 1258, destroying the Islamic caliphate, and Kublai Khan put an end to the Chinese Song Dynasty 宋朝 and ushered in the powerful-but-unpopular Yuan Dynasty 元朝.

The moral of the story? When it comes to the Mongols, you have no chance to survive make your time.

The northwestern portion of the Mongol Empire belonging to Batu and Orda, the sons of Joshy Khan (eldest son of Jingghis Khan) became known as Алтын Орда (Altyn Orda) - the Golden Horde. The followers of the Golden Horde were primarily various Turkic-speaking nomads - mostly Qypchaqs and Tatars. The linguistic influence of the Turks had the same effect on their Mongol lords as Chinese influence had on Kublai's descendants; by the 1300's, the Golden Horde was for all intents and purposes a Turkic nation. They managed to subjugate all of the Caucasus: Armenians, Georgians, Ossetians, the local Greeks, even the Russians were conquered and had to pay tribute to the Golden Horde.

The Horde was split into two 'wings' - the Blue Horde (Көк Орда Kök Orda) and the White Horde (Ақ Орда Aq Orda). Complicating matters is the fact that both were in almost perpetual states of civil war (in addition to the succession squabbles between them). The entire Horde basically crumbled in the 1400's, with a small fragment retaining the name 'Great Horde' while various rebel Khanates splintered off across Central Asia and the Caucasus. Among these was Abulqayyr Khan's Uzbek Khanate, which struggled to gain a foothold in what is now Uzbekistan - contending on the one hand with the local Timurids and on the other with his rebel kinsmen Kerey and Janybek - the first Khans of the Kazakhs.

Janybek and his descendants managed to establish the nomadic Qypchaq-speaking Kazakhs as a force to be reckoned with, though they continued to vie with the Chagatai-speaking Uzbeks for the land along the Syrdariya River (now running - sort of, thanks to destructive Soviet irrigation policies - through southern Kazakhstan). By the 1700's, though, the Kazakh Khanate found some fairly stiff additional competition from China and from the Züngars, a partially-Sinicised Mongol people - and found itself splintering along similar lines as the Golden Horde had before it, into three жүз jüz: Great Jüz, Middle Jüz and Little Jüz. In addition, the tribes were seeking military protection from Imperial Russia against the Züngars. During the wars with the Züngars, a noble батыр batyr (right-most figure) from the Middle Jüz named Abilmansür managed to reunite the jüz and push back the Züngars, allowing the Kazakh Khanate to reassert itself.

Abilmansür, later known as Abylai Khan, became a Kazakh culture-hero - he was the subject of the 2005 film The Nomad, which I reviewed earlier this year. Abylai's major victories weren't on the battlefield, though - the primary reason he was able to keep the Kazakh Khanate independent and strong was his diplomatic adroitness in dealing with Imperial Russia on the one hand and the Qing Dynasty on the other.

Kazakhstan's independence was short-lived, however. Tsarist Russia initiated a policy of colonial settlement within the areas under its 'protection', which meant that the Kazakhs were essentially pushed off their own land by ethnic Russians, sedentary Tatars and Cossacks. The rebellions the Kazakhs (and other Central Asians) mounted against the Russians were crushed with ruthless efficiency. Resistance continued up until World War I, when Kazakhs joined the Basmachi Revolt and established the short-lived democratic Alash State (Алаш Орда) after the fall of the Romanovs. The Alash State was later incorporated into the Soviet Union.

... Whew. I didn't expect this to turn into 'Kazakhstan's history in a nutshell'.

Anyway. I am enjoying borrowing the toy soldiers - I'll have to explore the history in greater depth once I'm over there!