As I sort through the survey from two weeks ago, I’m posting this deleted scene. It’s one of my favorites because it shows in a concrete way how naive I was.


Being naive can be a not-so-bad thing, you know –as long as you know you’re naive–  for it leaves you open to new ideas, new ways of seeing the world. Well, I knew there was much I didn’t know; I just had no idea what, and these “opportunities” would pop out at me at the most surprising, often embarrassing times. And, as is common with “embarrassing moments,” time gives us the luxury to laugh at ourselves.



Enough time has gone by, now, for this one.




“Imagine teaching American Government in the former Soviet Union,” I say to Gulzhahan as we begin our lesson planning for this week. “I am in awe.” She nods in agreement. The symbolism has not escaped either of us.


We’ll teach “The American Political System” for the next two weeks. It’s a perfect topic for me, having spent nearly four years in a PhD program in political science, between the Berlin Wall coming down and Kazakhstan independence. I’ve taught “the American Political System” before, as a teaching fellow, and I’m eager to do it again.


Gulzhahan is good about meeting with me for lesson planning, though she has a busy life. We both want our team teaching to go well and planning helps. I serve chai and Woody makes a dessert. Today he has made rice pudding, which we eat while we talk. We have about an hour.


“We had special drills when I was in grade school,” I tell her while we just visit. “We hid under our desks and thought the Russians were going to bomb us. Did you have anything like that?”


“No. We didn’t do that. We had stories of the ‘evil capitalist empire’ that wanted war,'” she tells me with a smile. “But we had no drills.”


“We had a president in the eighties,” I say, “who used the term ‘evil empire’ to describe you guys.”


“Reagan. Yes, I know.” I’m surprised–and impressed–that she knows one of my Presidents. And aware that her tone seems derisive. But I let it pass.


We are both committed to making this a great class. I’ve asked Natalia Kotova, the Peace Corps’ education specialist to visit our classroom during this lesson. We want to do well.


Rice pudding behind us, where to start?


“Do you know the preface to my Constitution?”


“I don’t know the preface to my Constitution,” and again she smiles.


So, I go to a folder I brought from America and pull out a copy of Kazakhstan’s Constitution that I’d gotten off the Internet before we left. In reading it, I found their preamble strikingly familiar, as though the Kazakh framers had used mine as a model.


We the people of Kazakhstan, united by a common historic fate, creating a state on the indigenous Kazakh land, considering ourselves a peace-loving and civil society, dedicated to the ideals of freedom, equality and concord, wishing to take a worthy place in the world community, realizing our high responsibility before the present and future generations, proceeding from our sovereign right, accept this Constitution.


Both begin with “We the people,” and move into the rationale for the existence of a new state. Of course, the people of Kazakhstan “accepted” their Constitution, while mine fought for it.


I’d eventually come to see the significance of that distinction. I’d also come to realize that there were different opinions on just who these “people of Kazakhstan” were: native, ethnic Kazakhs? Or, any of the 126 different ethnicities that called themselves citizens of Kazakhstan? But I wasn’t thinking about such things that afternoon with Gulzhahan.


“Do you know the Bill of Rights?”


Again, she shakes her head “no.”


“I’d like to introduce something about how my Constitution is be amended,” I say. I know that a few years after independence their president rewrote their Constitution, giving him a longer term in office. Certainly not the way my country works! My political wheels are spinning and I’m getting excited at the possibilities ahead here. The changes I can make; the good I can do.


“We need a vocabulary list,” Gulzhahan states simply. She’s obviously the one with the training in foreign language instruction. I’m here as the “native speaker” only. I can so often get ahead of myself.


After an hour we have our thirty-two word vocabulary list and two topics I’ll introduce: Separation of Powers and The Bill of Rights.



English 49 first year Dinara, Gulsana, Gulya and Yestai
Some of my students from English 49, my first year of teaching in Kazakhstan. From left are Dinara, Gulsana, Gulya, and Yestai.That might be Mahabat in the distance.



Natalia observes our American Government class, English 49, from the back row. Gulzhahan and I have prepared well and none of our twenty-six students are absent. We begin with the vocabulary list:


political, power, force, influence, equal, equality, liberty, freedom, rights, Bill of Rights, speech, religion, press, peaceful assembly, redress of grievances, amendments, truths, self-evident, creator, endowed, inalienable, pursuit, secure, consent, federal, state, national, Congress, Senate, Executive, Legislative, Judicial.


Try reducing the most important elements of your way of life to a thirty-two word vocabulary list!


I say each word, the class repeats after me, and Gulzhahan writes the word on the board from our list. The students write them diligently in their copybook.


After all thirty-two words are written on the board I move to the front of the room, point to each word silently, and have the class say the word again, without my prompting. We practice a few times until the words become easily for most. Then we talk about what the words mean, forming definitions as we go. This takes close to half an hour.


I move on to “Separation of Powers,” drawing a nine-cell grid on the board with “Local, State, Federal” across the top and “Executive, Legislative, Judicial” down the side.


                     Separation of Powers






As I point to a particular cell, I talk about it briefly, offering examples of government duties in each. Gulzhahan weaves into the discussion at appropriate times and we take turns moving around the room, watching the students write while the other speaks in front.


At appropriate moments, Gulzhahan interjects with a comparison to their own system, but usually only where there’s similarity. Natalia must be loving this, I think (naively).


This is a class I enjoy a lot and, as usual, I’m enjoying today’s. But I’m also eager to hear from Natalia. At the end of the class, Gulzhahan and I pull up chairs to the desk in back where Natalia sits.


“First, let me tell you, you work great together.” Natalia always starts with a compliment. “I love how you comment to each other in the classroom with out any sense of criticism.”


Gulzhahan had at one point used the word “Senate” with the emphasis on the second syllable. Not even considering this might be a  British pronunciation, I had repeated the word quietly to her with the accent on the first syllable. She thanked me, pronounced the word a second time “correctly” to the class, and continued her original thought without skipping a beat. I assumed that this was what Natalia was referring to.


“I’m so impressed that you do this,” Natalia tells us. Indeed, Gulzhahan and I have great rapport. But, I’m impatient for the real stuff. I want Natalia to tell us that we need to plan more.


“But,” I insist, “You came all this way. Isn’t there something we can improve on?”


“There is one thing, Janet.” She has become quite serious and I feel nervous, a schoolgirl again. “You must learn not to point.”


“Point?” I had no idea. I think how easily pointing comes to me, unconsciously. I look at Gulzhahan for her reaction and she nods in agreement with Natalia.


“Don’t you remember during training?” Natalia continues. “We drilled on this many times.”


Natalia supervised the elementary school trainees, not the university trainees. This is the first I’ve heard of it; but I don’t say this to Natalia. It’s not really important. What is important is figuring out how I’m going to remember to not do something that comes automatically to me.


Kazakhstanis don’t point with their fingers, ever. They don’t point at people, at words on the blackboard, or maps on the wall. They don’t even point when they give directions. When working at a blackboard, teachers use a pointer, or a pencil, or a pen. Or an open hand. Pointing is vulgar, rude, offensive, low class – a sign you are uneducated. Natalia, appropriately, is adamant that her volunteers learn not to point.


I have, in effect, been “flipping the bird” to my students every day for the past three months.



After a week of embarrassingly pulling my finger down from the blackboard, I raise the issue of pointing with English 40. I want to stop, but I find it unusually difficult to remember.


“I point with my finger here,” I start. “I have recently learned you don’t. It’s hard for me to remember; harder than I thought. So, I’m wondering what you all think when you see me pointing.”


“You’re an American. We’re used to it,” is the response I get from the most vocal student.


Thank goodness for previous volunteers who paved the way for me. But it’ll take me the rest of the year to remember. And then, when I get home, years to forget.


How about you?
  How might you reduce your way of life to a vocabulary list?  What words would you absolutely have to have?  OR, here’s a chance to share your “most embarrassing moment,” get it out of the closet to see the light of day.  Is it one you laugh about yet?

7 Responses

  1. Susan
    | Reply

    Love it

  2. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    I love this story, Janet. It reminds me that in Ireland you never address a hitchhiker with, “Do you need a ride?” It’s considered very, very naughty!!

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Oh my, Joan. I can see that one ending very badly. ? I had no idea.

  3. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Great post, Janet. Thanks for sharing your experience! I think there are bound to be cultural differences wherever you go–even a new town, workplace, or school. Fortunately, it only embarrassed you. It seems like the students were forgiving of American ignorance on this matter, and gracious as you tried to change your behavior.

    I believe the US Constitution was the first written national constitution (there were previous state constitutions), but now constitutions are commonplace, and many of them are much longer than ours. Some of the rights that we have in our Bill of Rights are included in some more modern constitutions. (You probably know all this.) 🙂

    The beginning of your post reminded me of a TV show called “The Americans.” It’s about Russian spies in the US during the 1980s. They’re the “heroes” of the show, so it’s kind of the Soviet perspective on political events and culture, as well as the American, and you want the spy couple and their children to be safe, even though technically, they’re “the bad guys.”

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Merril, Absolutely. Cultural differences are all around us, every day, even here at home. I’ve been chatting with folks on the I Grew Up Country FB group about the “cultural differences” in how farm families and city families treat their dogs. Things I don’t usually think about, or certainly take for granted.

      I vaguely remember the premise of the show you mentioned. Don’t think I watched it, but NOW would love to. I can see lots of opportunity for humor there. Something akin to Third Rock from the Sun. Remember that one? It was packed full of cultural differences.

      Thanks, as always for stopping in

      • Merril Smith
        | Reply

        Oh yes, Third Rock–good example! The Americans is not a comedy though. It’s very serious.

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