Sunday, September 5, 2010

Now for something somewhat different: Kazakhstan-ania!

So remember that made-up country that Borat claimed as his country of origin, his motherland, his watan (as we say in Turkmen)? I went there! And it isn’t made up! It is quite real. In fact, it is absolutely enormous. How a country the size of Kazakhstan has simply been overlooked by the educators in the US for so many years, I simply do not know. Actually, I do. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are still clumped together with the Balkans as ‘Former Soviet Countries’ or a bit more specifically as ‘Central Asia’ and are referred to as such. The world has not looked close enough nor do the curriculum writers think it of any value to note the differences between these countries.

I must admit that I also was prone to generalizations concerning Central Asian countries. I extrapolated from what I knew of Turkmenistan to make sweeping statements and assumptions about the rest of the countries in the area. I was prone to claim—with all the pretension I now acknowledge in hindsight—that my experience here has helped me understand communism. HA! I now would add lots and lots of modifications like in the education systems and in the mindset of some citizens of post-Soviet Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan.’ Not nearly as impressive but much more accurate.

So. Here are some ways in which Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are in fact very different despite their geographic proximity.

1. Size. Kazkahstan is to Turkmenistan as the United States is to Rome. So that’s not technically true but I think you get the idea. As a result, K-stan has more people, more industry, more security issues, more Peace Corps volunteers, more money, more Gloria Jean’s coffee, more diverse geography, more grocery stores, and more traffic.
2. Almaty! Almaty, the old capital of K-stan, is unlike any place in Turkmenistan.
3. Plane tickets are much more expensive in K-stan. We flew from the South of the country to the middle of the country for more than I pay in T-stan to fly to London.
4. Everything else is expensive too.
5. Steppe (K-stan) is not desert (T-stan).
6. Exposure to foreigners. Taxi drivers in Turkmenistan are unaccustomed to speaking to foreigns particularly foreigners that they can actually communicate with. In my estimation, this ups their eagerness to engage about 10 bazillion percent.
7. Shopping. I visited a number of shopping centers in K-stan (there is only 1 in T-stan) and one of them had a rollercoaster that snaked from floor to floor. It also had a donut stand. Donuts. Rollercoasters. Sigh.
8. Thickness of walls. The Siberian climate necessitates thick walls in K-stan. Not so in my own living place.
9. National Parks. K-stan has them. I was even able to visit one.
10. Produce. At least in Ashgabat, I am lucky enough to have access to fresh produce year round. In K-stan, this is not the case. Fresh produce trickles off during the winter months (October-Mayish). However, don’t feel too bad for them they do have frozen produce available in the freezer section of most grocery stores.
11. Ice. K-stan has it. Turkmenistan doesn’t.
12. Russian. K-stan has more ethnically Russian people and Russian is spoken more prevalently. Kazahk language is accompanied by Russian on all billboards, all signs, all everything everywhere. Also, Kazahk still uses the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet although they have added around six letters of their own.


1. Both end in –stan.
2. The weather can only be described as ‘changeable.’ Did we ever use this kindly adjective in the US? I don’t even know anymore . . . Most of the time I was in K-stan it was a delicious 30 degrees C. The locals and Peace Corps volunteers complained about the heat BUT they are all just silly steppe dwellers who know nothing of desert dwelling.
3. Ashgabat and Astana both overwhelm the observer at first glance with the simple fact that they are completely, absolutely planned cities. From those of you living in Houston which doesn’t even really have zoning, you cannot really conceive of this. Consider the cities you built on SimCity and imagine that you had almost unlimited funding, liked fountains, and had an affinity for cinderblocks.
4. Soviet style monuments. Soviet style architecture (big painted concrete boxes with satellite dishes sprouting like mushrooms all over).
5. Tea. Tea with milk. Fried Potatoes. Although black tea was more prevalent.
6. Palow or Palof although Kazakh palow has some unidentifiable spice.
7. Pictures of respective presidents hanging in and on buildings, billboards, etc. I even got to put my hand in a mold of Nazarbayev's hand.

All in all, I had a wonderful visit. After my visit, I headed directly to close of service conference in a beautiful resort on the Caspian Sea. At this conference, we prepared to leave the country and discussed the difficulties of reverse culture shock. We also played volleyball, swam, socialized, and ate as much melon as we could get our hands on. We did a good job celebrating our last couple of months in the wonderful, perplexing country that is Turkmenistan.

Did you catch that? These are my last months of service here! It hasn’t really sunk in. I’m doing the best I can to keep it from sinking in by keeping my nose to the metaphoric grindstone. School starts tomorrow, new volunteers come (God willing!) October 1st, and I need to wrap up my grant. Work work work! Any of you that now me can translate that as contentment.

Thanks for hanging in there with me so far. Just a little while longer to go!


Sunday, May 30, 2010

Living the Life

I’ve been here how long and still I’m adapting. Here’s how:

I’m becoming more and more comfortable with my host family. Why? Because I’m slowly, slowly overriding all those years of US conditioning and beginning to think as a member of a family unit.

Communal living and family-centered culture. These two ideas are not at all difficult to grasp. I could have explained them to you long before leaving the US. I probably would have said something along the lines of: Communal living means sharing work, chores, money, food etc. Family centered living means that your family is the central unit, the central focus of your life.

But living with a host family ‘communally’ within a family-centered culture has shown me just how hard-wired I am against this kind of thing! In fact, it has taken me almost a full two years even to recognize how hard I have been fighting against this kind of lifestyle.

In the US, we are so used to reciprocity and exchange. We are so used to keeping tallies of what someone has done for us and so careful to make sure we do only the same or perhaps a little more in return. If Timmy goes over to Sam’s house, next time Sam will come over to Timmy’s house. If Sarah does all her chores, she will receive her allowance. If you pay for me this time, I will pay for you next time. If you invite me somewhere, next time I will invite you somewhere. If you bring a bottle of wine when you come to my house, I’ll bring you a case of beer next time. For the most part, we are hesitant to loan or borrow money. We are hesitant to ask favors, even small ones. We are, in general, uncomfortable in a place of owing, in a place of deficit to someone else. Similarly, we feel used if we feel we have given too much. This is not so in Turkmenistan.

We are also used to concrete lines of ownership. I bought this cheese and if my roommates use it, I’m gonna be pissed. If the shampoo is in her bathroom tote, than it is off limits. If I loan you this book, you have to return it. This is my room. You have your own room. This is my life; I don’t want your advice! Even if I wrote a book, no one else can use it. If I did my homework and someone else copies it, they have done something wrong because it was my work. We like to have our responsibilities and even our chores divided into mine and yours clearly and without exception. Again, not so in Turkmenistan. I think these lines of ownership help facilitate the system of equal exchange.

My current host family has done what Peace Corps asked of them: they have truly taken me in as a member of the family. What does this mean? This means that I have entered a world free of tallies and of ownership. Whatever discomfort or dissatisfaction I have comes as a result of my inability to change over entirely to this system.

So, in my current life, I do not have assigned chores in this family. I do what needs to be done if I notice it first. I do not have assigned days to cook nor does my host sister. Whoever comes home first cooks. All three of us, my sister, my uncle, and I, do the shopping. There is no method to the shopping madness. My uncle decided he likes Head and Shoulders so we all use the same bottle of shampoo. I sweep the carpets (yes sweep! it works!) when they need to be swept but my host sister seems to have less of a tolerance for dust so she usually sweeps. Dishes are dishes. Everyone does everyone’s dishes. It is not a horrible faux pas to leave a dirty cup in the sink and leave the house. Someone else will wash it. Similarly, if someone leaves their dishes, you do them. Also, I no longer expect thank you for these things although I am still careful to say thank you. These are all merely contributions to the communal good.

Bedroom doors are rarely if ever closed. In fact, bedrooms double as dining rooms, guest rooms, and occasionally exercise rooms. My time belongs to my work or my family. Clothing is shared. Bedding is shared. Meat and produce are shared. Packed lunches are shared. Homework is shared. Ice-cream is shared liberally!

Is this system better? Well, I have gotten over my discomfort enough to recognize the benefits of this system and have concluded as unbiased-ly as possible that it is simply different.

Ok. Enough preaching. Here are updates on my life:

-My brother (real one) graduated from high school!
-One week of school left before the summer.
-I have six months left of my service.
-I found a how to book on “paper engineering” or creating pop ups. Fun!
-I can say with some level of confidence, that I can cook Turkmen food.
-It is getting hotter by the minute.
-I’m attempting to gain admittance to the city’s Olympic-sized pool. It is a process.
-Hilary is coming to visit next week.
-All-volunteer conference brought the entirety of the Peace Corps program to Ashgabat last week for lots of good times and a rockin’ eighties party.
-I’m meeting my family in June in Istanbul.
-I’m pondering how to make the work I’ve done sustainable.
-I’m thinking about future jobs. If anyone has one for me, let me know!
-I’m having a neon pink, patterned, full length, velvet dress made for my counterpart’s wedding.

And that’s about it. I miss you guys.


Saturday, May 1, 2010


I realize that I have been horribly remiss in my blog-writing duties. I have a nice little story to offer as compensation.

It was the last class of the day and my students were tired. We had a month left of school and everyone was waiting for the end. About 20 minutes into the class, I had done pretty well keeping my students attention. I turned my back to write something brief on the board. When I turned back around, the three boys in the class all had their heads on their arms and their arms on the desk. I gave the usual spiel: I know you are tired, I know it is the last class of the day, but stay with me. They lifted their heads. I turned again to write something on the board. When I turned back one of three again had his head on the desk. The other two looked soon to follow.

I decided to finish writing and then deal with the sleepers. When I turned back around to the board, the teacher called to me. “Tess,” she said, “you have some chalk on your skirt.”

I had noticed earlier that some specks of chalk had fallen down the front of my long black skirt. For Turkmen, appearance is everything and appearing tidy is commonly listed as one of the top five characteristics sought after in friends or life-partners. After living here for a year and a half, I had also become hyper sensitive to my appearance. The chalk specks bothered me but I had been unable to do anything about them because both of my hands were also coated in chalk. Oh for dry-erase boards!

“I know,” I replied to my teacher, “but there really isn’t much I can do about it at the moment.” I showed her my hands and prepared to continue class.

My teacher stopped me again. “No, Tess. I don’t think you understand. You have chalk on the other side.”

I looked at my backside and sure enough, my hind-end was covered in a layer of bright white chalk perfectly accentuated by the black of my skirt. Apparently some mischievous or simply thoughtless individual had placed their chalk on the teacher’s chair.

“Oh, that’s different. Perhaps I’ll go to the bathroom. I’ll be back in 5 minutes,” I said and prepared to make my escape. No such luck.

“That's unnecessary," my teacher informed me. "Mahre will help you.” I looked at Mahre, one of my students. She was advancing towards me with wet wipes aka baby wipes. I reached out my hand to accept them but she dodged my extended hand. Instead she began to wipe the chalk off me in front of my class. I didn’t know what to do so I submitted myself to her attention and laughed helplessly. The boys kept their faces turned away as they joined me in my laughter.

Hope you all are doing well! 'Til next time . . .


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Noruz and Newspaper

Last week was Noruz. This holiday, as some of you may know, originated in ancient Persia with the Zorastrians or fire worshipers to celebrate the coming of spring. Turkmenistan has embraced this holiday wholeheartedly. As a result, I had two full glorious days off of work. I found myself on a bus to Gokje, a small village outside of Ashgabat where my new extended host family resides.

I arrived in Gokje just in time for a nap. Almost my entire family, Dad, Uncle, Mom, and four sisters were curled up on the carpeted floors comfortably passing the holiday hours. This is my kind of family!! I joined right in.

After our nap, we planted corn! After a long week of projects and planning and preparing and teaching and worrying and thinking it was just what I needed.

The garden area was already divided into 10 by 10 foot sections by low walkways of packed earth. We took on this grid one square at a time. First, Dad broke up the large chunks. Then we sprinkled the loosened earth with corn kernels. We then used spades to turn over the top layer including the tiny yellow kernels. With all the kernels hidden, we then flooded the square with water using an ingenious apparatus constructed from hose, scrap metal, and paint cans. After finishing one square, the girls and I would toss around the frisbee and American football I had brought with me to the village at the request of one of my dress clad sisters while dad tackled the next square.

Notably lacking was the clash that is expected when two very different cultures collide. My sisters and my host mom dressed in floor length, home-made, floral patterned dresses squatted in traditionally Turkmen socks and sandals to turn the earth. Then, without any hesitation or reservations they stood on the packed walkways to throw around a football. They are not at all afraid of me, my culture, my differences, or my football. I wonder if this is because I have learned how to present myself and culture within acceptable limits since coming or if they are truly exceptional. I think probably a lot a bit of both.

As further proof that I have learned to function within acceptable norms, I had an interview of mine printed in the newspaper! One of my colleagues at the institute decided to interview me. This interview was printed in both English and Turkmen. Below I have included the English version for your reading pleasure. Please excuse my overuse of adjectives.

Please introduce yourself.
My name is Rebecca Ann Tess Elmore. I am from the United States of America. I graduated from William Marsh Rice University in Houston, Texas with a degree in English Literature and a teaching certificate. My passion in life is teaching. I am currently living and working here at Azady Institute of World Languages. I came with an organization called Peace Corps. Peace Corps currently has 36 English and health teachers working in Turkmenistan.

Did you know anything about Turkmenistan before coming here?
Before I came to Turkmenistan, I knew very little about this wonderful country. I had seen pictures online of beautiful Ashgabat and of traditional Turkmen koineks. I was excited and eager to come learn about an entirely new country in a part of the world I had never visited before.

A few words about your activities at Dovletmamet Azady Turkmen National Institute of World Languages, please.
The part of my service that I value most highly is working with my esteemed colleagues. I really enjoy sharing ideas with them and working to create innovative lessons. I am thankful to them for sharing their knowledge and experience with me. To be honest, they feel like my family. We drink tea together, go to weddings, and celebrate birthdays. They have made me feel so very welcome here.

What do you think of the Turkmen students?
As for the students, they keep my life interesting. They are open and willing to learn. They are eager to speak even though speaking is perhaps the most difficult part of learning English as a foreign language. They always greet me with a warm hello and smile. I enjoy working with them. It is wonderful for me to watch as their knowledge grows.

Any differences between American and Turkmen students?
One of the biggest differences between students here and students in the United States is their dress. Turkmen students always look neat and professional in their uniforms. They look focused and serious. This uniform is very good practice for the working world where young graduates will be expected to look competent and capable. Students in the United States could use such practice!

Please, your wishes to your colleagues and students here.
To all my fellow teachers, thank you so very much for sharing your institute with me, for letting me teach alongside you and learn with you. In the following ten months, I hope we will continue to get to know one another and to work successfully together. Remember that teaching requires constant learning. This is perhaps the best part of our job!

To all my students, I both hope and expect that you will work had and do your best for the remainder of your studies while I am here and when I am gone. It has been and will continue to be a joy to be your teacher. Be brave in your language learning. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes because mistakes are merely opportunities to learn.


Sunday, February 28, 2010

Istanbul in a Nutshell

I just spent a glorious week in the magnificent city of Istanbul, Turkey.

Istanbul, for me, was strangely familiar. On one hand, the culture, religion, and language are all reminiscent of Turkmenistan. On the other hand, Istanbul was a refreshing reminder of the existence of all the modern conveniences and excesses of what I associate with the “Western World:” consumerism to the max, navigable and various forms of public transportation (here I exclude Houston from the “Western World”), restaurants galore, toilets that can handle toilet paper, movie theaters, etc. Istanbul is truly a mix of East and West and rightly deserves its name, “A Country on Two Continents.”

Enough chattering and philosophizing. Hehehe. Here are some hard facts about my vacation.

Forms of Public Transportation used:
1. Turkmen Airlines. Cheap and safe! Extensive meal provided.
2. Tram. Light-rail style.
3. Funicular. Underground subway/elevator that takes up you a steep hill. 3 min ride max.
4. Trolley. Running to catch and jumping on are absolutely acceptable even in heels and skirts.
5. Train. A tad bit sketchy after dark but absolutely functional. Runs along old city walls.
6. Bus. Route takes the place of a carpool lane with multiple stops, interesting.
7. Ferry. Scenic, relaxing, concessions provided but not included. An hour ride for about a dollar.

The theory behind mass transit seems to be: try everything possible to get our 15 million people where they need to go. Miraculously, this hodgepodge, no, extensive network of transportation was wonderfully easy to navigate. Istanbul-ites may complain about the traffic but why drive??

Foods eaten:
1. Backlava . I tasted everything at least once. Trust me, hazelnut is the best.
2. Street corn. Savory and delicious and salty!
3. Dried Fruits. Particularly what I think was a persimmon or date? Don’t know. Ate it anyway.
4. Fish. Wonderful delicious. Enough said.
5. Doner Kebab. Fast, cheap, delicious. Kinda small though . . .
6. Juice. Fruit juice is all the rage with juice shops, called vitamin bufes, elbow to elbow.
7. Iskender Kebab. Delicious, slides right down, order twice as many orders as you think you want.
8. Unknown white steamy drink sold at night out of what look like samovars. Sprinkeled with cinnamon. Expensive (2 lyra) but worth it.
9. Turkish delight. Why are Americans generally uncreative with their candies? Fabulous. Like gummy candies for grown-ups.
10. Pite. Turkish pizza.
11. Cheese and olives and lots of them. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
12. Nutella. Seems to have spread world wide. Apparently originated in France??

Turkish words learned (spelled phonetically):
1. Kach-How much?
2. Merhaba-Hello
3. Tamam-Ok
4. Afadarsingiz-Excuse Me
5. –yorium-Ending of first person present continuous verbs, can be stuck to Turkmen verb stems for mediocre communication
6. Past tense, numbers same as Turkmen, vocabulary such as ‘pillow’ all same as Turkmen
7. Charlashmak (Turkish-to work, Turkmen-to exchange or bribe)

Famous Places visited:
1. Blue Mosque
2. Topkapy Palace
3. Princes Islands
4. Istanbul Modern. Wonderful art museum. I recommend it!
5. Spice Bazaar.
6. Grand Bazaar.
7. Starbucks. Hehehheeheh. Twice. Do I feel guilty? Only a little tiny bit.
8. Taksim square.

Not famous places visited:
1. Tea Garden- The tea keeps a’coming and the Nargile (Hookah) keeps a’burning.
2. Movie Theater
3. Ariel’s Apartment. Thanks for your hospitality!
4. Bar with live band playing “Turkish Fusion” which is, for the record, much more difficult to dance to than techno. Did that stop me, you ask? Not at all!
5. Multiple Park benches usually accompanied by one or more cats.

Favorite activities in no particular order.
1. Eating food and people watching on a park bench.
2. Sitting and drinking upwards of four to five vases of tea consecutively. Yes, vases. Then finding the closest bathroom. Flushing the toilet paper. HA!
3. Walking with arms linked. This is ok for any mix of genders or ages.
4. Scrabble after breakfast on terrace overlooking the sea.
5. Riding the ferry with feet propped on railing. Listening to country. Yes, I know. Don’t judge.
6. Biking lost around an Island. How lost can you really get on an island? You would be surprised.
7. Eating Magnum ice-cream while sitting on a wall, particularly caramel flavor. Try that for intense chocolaty taste sensation.
8. Buying street food.

And that about sums it up. If you can’t tell, my trip consisted mainly of eating, travelling via transit to a different area, and eating again. Oh, with the occasional, often accidental, seeing of a historical sight. It was heavenly.

Turkey is a must for all travelers.

Miss you all. E-mail me whenever!


Friday, February 19, 2010

Three Cheers for Cultural Exchange

To my loyal blog readers, I apologize for the belatedness of this post. It will probably happen again. Hang in there with me!

I had amazing classes yesterday. Lately, my life has been awash with the kind of cultural exchange to which Peace Corps aspires. These classes epitomize these experiences.

My first class was studying education, specifically the education system in Great Britain. This isn’t particularly applicable to them for a number of reasons. First, if these students were to leave the institute for a year abroad, they would not be allowed to continue their studies here. Second, the Britain only provides a couple of scholarships to Turkmen, and even these target those seeking graduate degrees. Enough background.

After tossing a ball around to review the basic tenses and playing hangman to review vocabulary, I decided to have them present on education in Turkmenistan. I modeled the presentation with a short presentation of my own on education in the US.

My students were astounded by the following: my university was small with only 3,000 odd students. UT, with over 50,000 students, was beyond their comprehension as was the fact that the US has over 2,000 colleges and universities. The cost of college, of course, was unreal to them. Me too, I said!

I, in turn, was surprised by the following information: when my students were at school, there was no physical education. Now, students in schools and universities have PE once a week. I also learned that there are specialized public schools: economics and management, languages, math, science, etc. Finally, to enter the institute to study English, three exams are required: English, Turkmen, and Holy Ruhnama.

In my second class, we discussed a text entitled “A Friend in Need.” After debating the relative worth of happy vs. unhappy endings and good vs. bad characters, I asked them to produce a list of five qualities that they seek in friends. “Tidy” and “polite” cropped up among the expected answers of honesty, kindness, and intelligence. I doubted both as a mis-translation but was convinced by follow up that these two words were exactly what my students meant.

We went on to discuss the following situations: If your friend needed money, would you give it? If your friend needed a place to stay, would you let them live with you? If your friend stole something, would you tell? If your friend asked you to write an essay for them, would you?
My students said that they would absolutely give their friends money, would absolutely let their friends live with them indefinitely, wouldn’t tell unless the crime negatively impacted another friend or family member, and would absolutely (with one exception who had studied at an American HS for a year) write the essay for them. They did not consider this cheating.

At this point, I am bursting to share with them the differences between their answers and those I would expect from American students. Emphasizing that identifying differences is different from passing judgment.

In other news, I have changed families yet again. One thing you must learn about living in a foreign country, any foreign country, and perhaps particularly in Turkmenistan is that things change suddenly, without warning. Perhaps this is because I am not savvy enough or experienced enough with Turkmen culture to pick up the signs or perhaps this is simply a fact of life in for millions of people. Perhaps as Americans, we take the relative stability of our lives for granted. Then again, perhaps I was merely protected from the winds of fate and fortune J by my wonderful parental unit.

Enough of rambling. My new family is wonderful. I live with two sisters, 19 and 23, and their uncle who is 70. The girls family, parents and three other sisters, visit often from a suburb of Ashgabat where they live. The girls are about as different as can be. The younger one is bubbly and open-hearted. Her English is good and she talks with me every chance she gets. The older one is quieter and motherly. However, she has a strong sarcastic streak that has made us fast friends. They both work.

The uncle is fabulous. At 70, he runs regularly and eats two walnuts before breakfast and after dinner everyday. He also drinks a concoction of vinegar, vodka, and walnut extract everyday. He remembers some English words from his 1 year of English class during 7th grade. Now, he is eager to learn more. I eat oatmeal every morning for breakfast and he has dubbed this “Gerculees” (Hercules). He plans to join me in my morning consumption of Gerculees.

From my new family, I have learned:
· lots of Turkmen vocabulary such as blessing, tradition, unfortunately, to augment etc.
· that if my palms itch, money is coming my way
· never to flick water from my hands after washing
· how to make borsch
· how to crack seeds open with my teeth and extract the meat with my tongue

That’s all for now. If you’ve made it this for, congrats. You are a super-committed blog reader. Thank you.

I’m off to Istanbul, Turkey for a week of vacation! I’ll tell you all about that soon!


Sunday, January 3, 2010

Home (to T-stan) for the Holidays

I have learned a couple of things about celebrating Christian/American holidays in Muslim/foreign countries.

First and foremost, the best part is you still get a full set of holidays on top of the Christian/American ones! All kids know that this means double the excitement, double the presents, double the excitement, and double the food.

I have also learned that every English teacher is fully expected to not only know and be able to sing Jingle Bells well, but also to produce the soundtrack. After a number of requests from my teachers, I put out feelers. I asked my site mate who produced a number of Christmas favorites including Rudolph. I also asked other volunteers in the area who also handed over their bounty of Christmas music. To my surprise and disappointment, Jingle Bells was absent from the whole lot. It wasn’t until I confided my embarrassing dilemma to a host country national friend that I finally got my hands on the music. HA! Goodness. Only then did I notice that a number of the other teachers had downloaded Jingle Bells for their latest ring tone. Oh, technology! Ha!

Finally, I have learned that there are a number of theories and practices behind gift giving. In the US, we do our best to buy what we think the other person needs or wants. Despite our best efforts, we often fail in our gift buying endeavors hence the existence of gift receipts and gift cards. In Turkmenistan, there are varying levels of gift givers. Most volunteers are mere amateurs. We pick up chocolates or cookies to take with us when we go guesting and maybe, just maybe try to acquire flowers for Women’s Day. We are last minute, low cost, low effort gifters. Shame on us! Then there are level two gift givers. My host mother is a level two. She has a perpetual stock of chocolates. Her chocolates range in quality and price. She is prepared for surprise guesting or surprise holidays. Also in this middle category is the single gift giver. This person has had success in the past with a certain gift, say a ceramic statue of two kids holding hands. This person will then give this gift for any and every occasion with no fear of repeat gifting. After all, one is better than two. Finally, there is the extreme gifter. This person has a wardrobe set aside entirely for gifts. These gifts include chocolates, cookies, lotions, ceramic statues, underwear, towels of all shapes, colors, and sizes, material for dresses, underwear, and stuffed animals. This person is ready for anything: for guests who bring gifts and must be given gifts in return, for hodyaloy (giving thanks to God by giving things to other people), birthdays, holidays, and every other gift-giving situation imaginable.

I also learned some important difference between the way we celebrate Christmas and the way Turkmen celebrate New Years.
1) In T-stan, Santa does not have a wife. He has a very young, very attractive granddaughter. My students were astounded when I told them that Santa had a wife and even more astounded when I told them that she is old.
2) Santa’s suit does not necessarily have to be red. Often his suite is blue. This is strange to me.
3) Children do not rush of to bed on New Year’s Eve. Quite the contrary. They stay up as late as possible. For this reason, there is not designated time for Santa’s arrival. The presents simply materialize. As a result, most children never actually believed in Santa.
4) All salads have either mayonnaise or oil. But this holds true of all salads everywhere on Christmas, New Years, or any other day of the year. Noteably lacking from these salads is lettuce.
5) Turkmen children are fundamentally different from American children. My host sister turned down pumpkin pie in favor of a second huge chunk of duck meat which she ate happily with her fingers, the grease all over her face and hands.

All in all, I had a fabulous Christmas and New Years. For Christmas I wrapped presents with my host mom for my host sisters. Then enjoyed the surprise of Christmas morning. I made stockings out of an old dress and an old scarf and gave one to my host mom filled with goodies. She gave me a nice brocade jewelry box. I wore read stockings and a red sweater to the institute and pranced around with garland around my neck singing Rudolph with my students. My teachers bought me a large plush pink bathrobe for Christmas and gifted it to me at the end of the day. My sitemate and I made chicken cachitore, salad, and cake for my host family.

New Years was a bit more low key. I helped my host mom cook a bit, we all dressed up in our holiday finest, and then we sat down for a feast. A little later, I took a walk with my host sister. Then I fell asleep a little bit before 12. It was wonderful. I’m kind of a grandma.

That’s all for now! Happy New Year to everyone! I wish you all the best in the New Year!