MUHNOW NIH-MIH-KNEE? (What is this?)

Sunday, May 23, 2010
3:00 p.m.

A small lamb bleats near the house – I suspect it is probably lame. Mother is inside preparing a meal. Outside, grandmother is sitting on top of felt that has been unrolled in front of the brick home*. She is stitching together pieces of felt that make up the (interior?) walls of the yurt. We arrived close to midday and the women (mother and grandmother) whom we interviewed the day before came out to greet us. The two little boys (ages 4 and 7?) are curious and delighted by our strangeness.
When we arrived, there were men sitting and having tea in the smaller of the two rooms (the kitchen/common area). The men greeted each other with handshakes (both hands clasping) and pleasantries. Again, I stood demurely behind my company, and looked shyly at the women. We gave our food item gifts to mother (brick tea, flour, a pack of expensive cigarettes for father, etc.) and waited in the adjoining room sat on the kang (a raised sleeping platform, over bricks, heated in cold weather, covered in handmade and manufactured textiles).
The men in the smaller room soon left, mother and Chalkhar moved the low table to the kang. Soon the balsak and snacks were laid out and we had milk tea (no butter or fat in mine this time). I had two cups of tea. Grandfather, in a low and steady voice, recounted his life experience in this area; an oral history that included Soviet activity here in the 1950s. He also said that there is now a copper mine in his summer pasture. We can see a smoke or steam stack of a mine approximately 50 km from here, though I don’t think it’s the same one he’s talking about.
Grandfather is proud of the Kazakh tradition of hospitality – it is unlike the Chinese, he says. I welcome you into my home without question, I give you tea and food, and when you leave, I won’t ask where you are going.
I asked Dr. Z what my interaction with the men should be, and he told me that it should be none at all, really. Basically, I should ignore and not even look at them. This was one of the most difficult things since we aren’t accustomed to what, in a narrow interpretation, might be seen as a limitation. However, I came to understand that this level of non-engagement was considered polite because I was a stranger, a foreigner, and a young woman. The women of the household interacted with the men quite freely, though they did not sit with them for tea when male visitors stopped by.

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*Their home was actually a small, one story brick structure with two rooms – a small common/kitchen area with dirt floors, and a larger multi-purpose room used for sleeping, eating meals, and entertaining. No running water or electricity, but there is a solar powered generator that runs the radio and one light bulb. This sort of dwelling is common, and the grandfather of this household prefers it to staying in a yurt during the winter, as it is much warmer and less of a hassle when the crosswinds pick up. Despite the humble appearance, the family had a good number of livestock including sheep and camels, the latter of which are extremely valuable (maybe $1000 USD per head). They expressed an interest in finding a way to transport the camels milk their stock produced to the market…no capital…no refrigerated vehicles.

5:32 p.m. Beijing time

I’m grateful that this household has little children – they are the first to get over their shyness and soon do not hesitate to peer over your shoulder to see what you are doing. The littlest one is rambunctious and mischievous – I lost nearly a full bottle of water and a pencil eraser to him in very short order. The older boy, whose name I think is Ainar, is sweet and smart, and is helping me with my vocabulary. I draw simple pictures of animals in my little notepad (a horse, a sheep, a camel, an eagle) and he says the word for me in Kazakh, which I repeat and then say in English for him to repeat – he is a quick study. He has also taken it upon himself to write the words in Kazakh (arabic script). I show them how to make paper airplanes, and play a short-lived game of hit-the-paper-ball-with-a-stick. Luckily, I have some milk candy leftover and play guess-which-hand-it’s-in, which is a hit. They don’t have conventional toys to play with, in fact, the youngest one is entertaining himself with plastic bottle caps.
I am sitting on a roll of felt in the middle of a nomad pasture. I just helped mother fetch water from a well nearby the house. She carried two full buckets counterbalanced on either end of a pole (the larger plastic attached by twine or rope one at the front, the galvanized pail in the back). We paused on the way back to the house and I tried to lift it myself, but could not. Earlier, I watched mother and grandmother stitching felt and mother gestured for me to try and cut the felt with scissors (two blades that you press together with the palm of your hand, there is nothing holding the hinge together so the two blades come apart very easily), but I failed miserably – she laughed indulgently and later gave me a small piece of felt to practice on. She seems most curious about me and I am grateful for her patience and her efforts to include me. I suspect we are close in age and yet our life experience couldn’t be further apart.
Guests have stopped in, driving by on a tractor pulling a trailer, upon which sits a motorcycle and two rosy-cheeked little girls. I haven’t seen many girls in the pasture – Dr. Z says, yes, they most likely stayed back in the village.

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Personal Business…
It’s outside of Kazakh culture to announce one’s bodily functions, so when you have to relieve yourself, you just get up and go – no need to announce it the way we often do in the States. When you are out in the pasture and feel the urge, you just go for a walk until you find a discreet place to do your business. and was gone several times for nearly an hour – I wonder if my host family thought I was having issues with my bladder!
We are close to the Altai mountains, the peaks of which are visible in the distance and are still covered in snow. The range is not as high as the Tien Shan – the herders will use the pasture at the very top in the summer, after the snow melts. The house is located at the lip where the pasture slopes down into a basin. Standing at the top where the pasture levels out, I have a good view in all directions. In the distance, several horses are being herded by someone on a motorcycle (a relatively new technique, I hear); to the southeast a small group of camels are grazing nearby another single-story, flat-roofed structure (another home?) – I don’t know to whom either belong.

6:00 p.m.

Earlier, Dr. Z said the antics of young children are usually indulged and shrugged off. However, I did see the boys disciplined – I think the youngest one got a smack for crying alligator tears. Other than that, just harsh words every now and then from mother and grandmother, sometimes father. A young man came by on motorcycle and relaxed for twenty minutes or so in the kitchen – I don’t know if he is a relative or a paid hand (he eventually comes back and stays, helping with the livestock, ate dinner, slept alongside the family).

7:30 p.m.

Almost dusk, I helped mother and grandmother unroll more felt – I think they are repairing weak spots in it (cutting the seams and applying patches). The thread they are using to stitch is spun camel hair…it is not as coarse as I thought it might be. I am nearly useless, so I take some time to go for another walk, then come back and make a sketch of the home. I think Ainar and grandfather have both returned to the village. I am assuming it’s because Ainar attends school there during the week (I saw him take out what looked like an illustrated school book from his backpack earlier in the day).
Nightfall came on quickly after the felt was rolled up and put away for the next day. Accompanying the dark of night was a fierce wind that literally howled across the pasture and around the home. The blue plastic sheeting covering the two windows reminded me of a set of lungs expanding and collapsing as the air whipped around ferociously outside.

In the kitchen/common area, I helped mother prepare dinner by peeling and chopping vegetables. When the light from outside finally faded and we closed the door because of the wind, we worked by the light of a single candle, and the glow of the light bulb from the next room.

daikon radish (lots)
potatoes (3-4)
eggplant (2)
onions (2 small ones)
seasoning – uncertain what kind

I think mother also chopped up dried lamb meat as well. Everything was stir-fried in a large qazan, over the small pipe stove (used dried brush, small branches, and dried animal dung for fuel). After, I helped to wash dishes (boiling hot water poured over dishes in a large tub, soak, rub clean with hands) and prepare the low table for dinner. The vegetable dish was served on a large platter and placed in the center of the table – the family used spoons to eat from the single platter. We also had milk tea, balsak, and bread.
After dinner was finished, I helped to clear and clean dishes. As I washed the dishes, the women prepared the bedding on the kang. The sleeping order was as follows:

[Ashely] [Grandmother] [youngest boy] [male relative] [Father] [Mother]

I had some trouble getting to sleep because of the loud wind, grandmother snoring to my left, and sheep bleating behind the house. Otherwise, I stayed warm and comfortable under my fleece liner and heavy blankets. Also, I was nervous about not being able to fall asleep fast enough before I my bladder had a chance to process (Dr. Z said it would be best to either go right before bed or hold it until morning).


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