As you may remember, I changed host families after my first month in Shymkent, as my previous situation was proving to be untenable. The rules of Peace Corps are that each volunteer will have three host families to choose from upon his/her arrival to site, and that way alternative options exist if one family doesn’t work out. We are required to live with our host families for the first 6 months at site for the purposes of language and cultural integration, but can stay longer if we wish (some village volunteers stay with host families for their full two years of service, since separate apartments for rent are not always available in smaller sites). The families also are all checked by our Regional Manager (RM) to see that they conform to some standard safety and privacy rules: we each are supposed to have our own room with a lock on our door, keys to our room and the apartment, and some basic things like a bed, dresser, desk and chair. As it so happens, through no fault of Peace Corps’s, I had a last-minute region and site change and thus my host families were not checked out…understandably, they did not end up actually meeting the above criteria. But with some great help from my sitemate and my RM, I was able to move into a wonderful new family. My host mom is actually Phillip’s host mom’s sister, so we are now “cousins” (which here is usually referred to as “brother” or “sister,” emphasizing the importance of extended family), and get to hang out with each other and our host families together on a regular basis.
Most of the population of Shymkent is ethnically Kazakh with the largest minority being Russians, but funnily enough now none of the Kaz-21s here live with either Kazakh or Russian host families. Sipra’s family is ethnically Korean (but speak Russian), and Phillip and my host family is a mish-mash of Uzbek, Turkish and Uighur (but speak Russian). I personally think that we all lucked out in the food department as a result. 😉 It also so happens that all three of us live with single moms and their kid(s), which I find interesting but not that surprising. According to general CIS demographic trends, male life spans are much shorter in this area of the world and we see examples of that every day – whether it’s smoking, drinking, driving or physical labor, a variety of unfortunate male mortality factors contribute to the seemingly omnipresent existence of widows (some quite young) here.
My host mom Nadira embodies a lot of characteristics that are both wonderful and typical in a mom. Her sons are her life, and she is constantly worrying after them and taking care of them in some manner. She is an amazing cook, which is lucky because as all my sitemates can testify, she will hover over you while you eat, continuously offering you another piece of cake or another cup of tea and telling you (no matter HOW much you’ve eaten) that you need to eat more. I’ve been fed two dinners in a row by her before, and it honestly shocks me that I’ve somehow managed to escape the typical “Freshman 15” of female Kaz volunteers. It all makes sense though once you see her sons, who both seem to have hummingbird-like metabolisms. Agzam is my age and in his last year of a 5-year university program in Tomsk, Russia, studying to be an electrical engineer. Aziz is 14, and goes to middle school here in Shymkent. They are both sweet and unassuming; Aziz is quiet and well-behaved while Agzam already makes me feel like a kid in the presence of a grown-up when he is around, taking care of his brother and looking after his mother (their dad passed away two years ago from cancer). Agzam took Kazakh in grade school and knows it quite well, whereas Aziz’s second language is English. Everyone speaks Russian with each other (and with me) though in the house.
[My Peace Corps family – Agzam, Nadira & Aziz, + me, Phillip and Sipra]
We live in a nice, relatively central area of Shymkent, readily accessible by public transportation. The apartment has two bedrooms and a big living room, which makes it quite large for city standards. Apparently they bought the house a couple decades ago for $5,000 USD, and it is now worth over $50,000. Inflation here is crazy. Even though there is an extra bedroom, like many families here mine likes to sleep together on the floor of the living room. It’s just more comfortable for them I guess (and also good for your back!). I sleep in the large bedroom with lots of closet space and my own giant teddy bear, lent to me from Phillip’s little host sister. 🙂
Like most Soviet-era apartments, ours has centralized heating and a toilet that is separate from the shower/sink room. Nadira thought that I wouldn’t want to live here because they do not have facilities like a laundry machine and automatic hot water (you have to light a little water heater with a match and run the water 10-20 minutes before showering), but I assured her it was not a problem whatsoever. Plus, I’ve found that contrary to what I’ve heard from other volunteers, my clothes are very clean after a good hand-scrubbing in a bucket (maybe it helps to have running water and normal detergent). And if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that the lack or presence of amenities is also never what makes it hard or easy to live in a place. It’s the people you live with that are far and away what make you comfortable – and I have been very blessed with my host family. 🙂