Hitting the (Research) Ground Running

18 01 2011

Last week, after three months of language training, a whole bunch of prep work and dozens of unreturned phone calls and emails (and a handful of returned ones), I was finally ready to get started on my fieldwork — the reason that I came to Kyrgyzstan in the first place.


As many of you know, I was granted a Fulbright to research multilingual education here.  My original intent was to do a lot of advocacy work and teacher interviews, attempting to tout the benefits of developing proper multilingual education in Kyrgyz classrooms.  Once I arrived in Kyrgyzstan, I began to understand the dire conditions facing the Kyrgyz education system in general.  Government funding on education is half of what it was a decade ago.  Teachers are not being paid a living wage.  Students are being taught out of Soviet era textbooks and materials.  Many school buildings don’t have heat or indoor plumbing — even in sizable towns.


Confronting this reality led me to understand that what would really be useful is current statistics about language usage in the schools and at home.  I firmly believe that students should begin their education in the language that they speak at home with their families.  This allows children to get a firm educational foundation in a language they are comfortable with, and then once that foundation is built, other language can (and should!) be introduced.  What I’m finding is that this does is not the situation for many Kyrgyz students.  Russian classes are often considered “better”, and many parents believe that they offer more opportunities for their children.  This often leads to students being thrown in to exclusively Russian classes and subsequently struggling in what is not their native language.  The situation varies greatly depending on where in Kyrgyzstan you are, with the predominant home language being Russian in Bishkek and the surrounding area, Uzbek in many areas of the south, and Kyrgyz in most of the rest of the country.  Yet most students (at least in the north) are encouraged to enroll in Russian classes from the get-go.


I spent a lot of time in December developing a survey to measure students’ attitudes toward and actual use of these different languages.  After doing so, I set out last week to Naryn Province, the most ethnically Kyrgyz province in the country, to start my fieldwork.


My Russian has gotten to a point where I feel comfortable in many situations, but my Kyrgyz remains fairly non-existent.  I can count (thanks to the fact that the Kyrgyz numbers are virtually identical to Turkish) and engage in basic formalities, but that’s about as far as it extends.  So, I hired a translator to accompany me on my journey.  This proved to be an excellent decision, as Murat was both a resource with Kyrgyz speakers and a great travel companion.


I initially struggled to make contacts in the Kyrgyz school system, but fortuitously met up with some Peace Corps Volunteers in Bishkek the week before I set off to Naryn.  Many PCVs in Kyrgyzstan work as English teachers in elementary and secondary schools, and tapping into that network has proved to be invaluable.  My first stop in Naryn Province was Kochkor, where I met up with PCV Hannah, who welcomed me into her school and served as a conduit to meet the directors of the other schools in town.  In Naryn city, another PCV, Denis, kindly put us up in his apartment, in exchange for some Kurt-style home cooking.  Another contact provided me with the contact information for someone in the Ministry of Education for Naryn city, who was also supportive of my work and helped us meet with directors in Naryn.

I made soup!

Andreea enjoys Kurt's culinary offerings.

The work itself has proven to be a lot of fun.  The students are usually excited to have a break from their regular routine, and most of the schools welcomed us with open arms.  This resulted in us collecting over 500 surveys from nearly a dozen schools in the province.  I haven’t started crunching the data yet, but I’m really excited to see what comes from it — and to see how the data varies in different regions of the country.

Kids taking the survey

I was even able to instruct a number of classes on how to fill out the survey on my own — in Russian!  It was great to put my still-developing language skills to use and to be (mostly) understood along the way.


In addition to doing the research, it was great to get to see a bit more of Kyrgyzstan.  Naryn is a beautiful, mountainous part of the country, and, while super cold (temperatures rarely got above zero F in Naryn city), the landscape was breathtaking.  The cold kept us from exploring what little night life there is in Naryn, opting rather to hunker down inside over home-cooked soup and games of all sorts.

Murat faces off against me at Narde

I’m back in Bishkek this week, planning the next leg of my research, which will take place next week along the south shore of Lake Issyk-Kul.    I can’t begin to explain how excited I am to interact with more and more people all over the country over the next few months.  And hopefully the results will be useful to other researchers, academics, and educational organizations for a long time coming.

Everything is frozen! (including the Naryn River bank)

Murat takes in the scenery

A gorgeous mosque in Naryn city.

An impromptu ice hockey match

Many more photos can be found on my facebook.

Grad School Update

18 01 2011

As of this morning, I’ve heard back from four schools.  And I’m 4-for-4 with acceptances!  Here’s where things stand:


George Washington University ACCEPTED
Northwestern University ACCEPTED
Indiana University ACCEPTED
Vanderbilt University ACCEPTED
Harvard University
Michigan State University
University of Michigan
New York University
Columbia University
UNC Greensboro
Penn State
University of Pennsylvania
University of Tennessee
University of Maryland Program Cancelled


I haven’t made any decisions yet, because I’m still waiting to hear from my top few schools.  But things are looking super positive so far.

New Years in Kazakhstan

17 01 2011

Several of us decided that we wanted to take advantage of the holidays from school and work and give ourselves a little change of scenery.  Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city and former capital, is only a few hours away by bus, so we decided to give it a go there.


It took a solid week and a half — and four trips to the Kazakh embassy —  to get my visa sorted, but fortunately I left myself plenty of time to spare, and, when December 30 rolled aroun, we hopped in a taxi to cross the border.  We were able to secure a minivan for the three of us for 2000 som (about $18 a piece).  This was a little more expensive than what we were told should be the going rate, but it was totally worth it to have an entire vehicle to ourselves.  The ride to the border took about an hour, and, with about an hour of border formalities, the total trip to Almaty took about four and a half hours.


We had organized an apartment in Almaty for three nights to crash in and to use as a base to explore the city.  We got in to Almaty in the mid-afternoon and headed out to find a market to cook dinner.  We picked up some pelmeni, cooked ’em up and waited for the rest of our group — who had to work in Bishkek on Thursday —  to arrive.  They ended up not getting in until late, so Thursday ended up being a quiet night in…which was actually quite nice.

Cold and snowy, but fairly pretty

I got up Friday morning and took off to explore Almaty.  The city has a much more European feel than Bishkek.  And it’s clearly a lot wealthier as well.  However, what it had in amenities, it kind of lacked in personality.  I appreciated the variety of stores, restaurants, markets and shops, but the city basically felt like it could be just about any other big city in the world.


The highlight of my wandering was definitely Panfilova Park and the colorful Zenkov Cathedral, which dates to the 19th century, and was built entirely of wood — down to the wooden nails.    AFter my strol through the city, I met up for lunch with Candice, a fellow Fulbrighter who’s researching in Almaty.  She invited us to her place for New Years Eve, and we spend the rest of the day wandering the city a bit more and visiting one of the massive supermarkets that sell Western goods, something that Bishkek is lacking.  I picked up some tortillas, some Texas Pete, and a few other things that I can’t find in Bishkek.

Zenkov Cathedral

Now if that isn't picturesque...

That evening, we headed over to Candice’s 12th story apartment.  We cooked up some pasta, horse sausage (that’s right, I said horse), chicken and other sundry goodies and spent the evening in good company anticipating the beginning of 2011.  The best part of the night came at midnight, when the entire city shot fireworks off of balconies, rooftops, plazas and any other open space.  The sky lit up  with fireworks all around, which went on for a solid hour.  Being on the twelfth floor, in the middle of the city, put us smack in the middle of the display — which was absolutely breathtaking.

Horse Sausage! Nom nom nom

We eventually grabbed a taxi back to our apartment and crashed for the night.  Saturday and Sunday were quiet as well, as we nursed our respective party wounds and hunkered in against the cold.  Almaty was averaging around 0 degrees F, which was significantly colder than Bishkek had been recently.  Needless to say, none of us wanted to spend a ton of time outside in the cold.


We headed back Sunday afternoon after lunch and made it back to Bishkek in the early evening, thus capping off a lovely holiday weekend.

Decorations for the upcoming Asian Winter Games, which Almaty is hosting.

Update Promise

15 01 2011

Hey y’all!


I’ve been out of town doing field work for the last week with little access to the Interwebs.  I guar-an-tee that I’ll get caught up on this here blog over the next few days.


Thanks for your patience!

Central Asian Christmas

4 01 2011

Well, it’s a new year!  Isn’t that nifty?


I’ve spent the last couple of weeks immersed in holiday joy and planning my first field research trip to the Kyrgyz countryside.  The former was awesome.  The latter is still a work in progress.  So let’s focus on the holidays!


On Christmas Eve, the London School (my language school from when I first arrived) hosted an end-of-term holiday party.  The primary event was a play about Дед Мороз (“Djed Moroz” Grandfather Frost — the local version of Santa Claus) and his granddaughter Снегурочка (“Snegurochka” The Snow Maiden) and some evil spirits who stole her laugh.  I played the non-canonical role of “Инспектор Курт” (Inspector Kurt) who tracked down the villains and aided in the return of Снегурочка’s laugh.  Scattered throughout the play were individual performances of song and dance by many of the students and teachers.


After the official party, about 15 of us — roughly half locals and half expats — headed to a local watering hole and continued the holiday spirit with a battle of carols, in which the local crew would sing Russian holiday songs to us at full volume, and we’d respond in turn with boisterous, off-key renditions of Western carols.  This went on for nearly two hours — much to the amusement (and perhaps consternation) of the other bar patrons.  It was a grand sharing of culture and festiveness.


On Christmas morning, I woke up and started cooking.  I decided to host an orphan’s Christmas that afternoon, so that anyone who wanted to would have somewhere to spend their Christmas.  I made cheeseballs, deviled eggs, meatballs, eggnog, chicken satay, cauliflower crostini and cookies.  Tons and tons of cookies.  (BTW, sugar cookies are a pain in the ass to make!)


Just some of the Christmas spread

Earlier in the week, I decided that we needed a Christmas tree.  But I wasn’t in the mood to try to procure a real one.  So, with a little holiday creativity, I whipped up the following creation:

Our makeshift Christmas Tree

This little guy served us well and only cost a couple hundred som (~$4-5) to put together.  Huzzah!


People started arriving around three, and everyone noshed and imbibed and socialized and listened to holiday music and shared in the general festivities.  After a few hours, we gathered around the “tree” to participate in our White Elephant gift exchange.

Jyldyz tries to grinch the white elephant presents!

The gifts were as varied as a couple of cans of Jaguar (kind of a Kyrgyz Four Loko) to tiger slippers to Obama Viagra (don’t even ask) to an oven mitt to a cat in a bag.  Everyone had a good time, claimed their gifts and then turned the night into a dance party of epic proportions!

Shakin' our Christmas booties!

All told, throughout the afternoon and evening, we had roughly 40 people over from a dozen or so countries — from Turkmenistan to New Zealand and the USA to Poland.  Around midnight, most everyone headed off to a concert at a local nightclub, but I was wiped out from hosting, so I stayed in and crashed relatively early.  But what fun it was!