Saturday, April 19, 2014

When It Rains, I Let It

I'm going to be writing a short article for the event booklet at the Pennsylvania Literary Festival ( 30th through June 1st) about how my Peace Corps service influenced my writing. While looking for inspiration, I found this article I wrote for my high school newsletter last fall. In the interest of posting on this blog more regularly, I thought I'd share it here.

Borovoe, July 2011
Whenever I mention I spent time in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan, someone inevitably makes a Borat joke or asks, “Where’s Kazakhstan again?” Even though it’s sometimes challenging to explain why I made the decision to go or what my time there was like, I love talking about it. I chose to serve in order to help others and learn more about the world, but I also ended up experiencing some strange and amazing things and learning more about myself.

Peace Corps service consists of approximately three months of language and technical training followed by twenty-four months of individual service. My group of volunteers, the 23rd in Kazakhstan and known as the 23s, was placed in the program for teaching English as a second language. For training, I lived with a host family in Ecik, a moderately sized town about an hour away from Almaty, the country’s largest city. In addition to cultural classes, teacher training, and language classes, we were treated to a school play by the elementary students, went to the Golden Man museum, and learned how to haggle at the bazaar, which I never quite got the hang of. We also had the opportunity to explore Almaty, including Ascension Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Panfilov Park, and Medeo, the highest-elevated ice-skating rink in the world, which can be reached by climbing over 700 steps (also by car, but that’s not too adventurous). Peace Corps service offers countless new and interesting opportunities, and I learned quickly that it’s up to volunteers to make the most of them.

We were lucky to arrive in the country only a few weeks before Nauryz, Kazakh New Year, and experience our host town’s celebration. Men and women dress in traditional outfits. They play a lot of music, both English and local pop music as well as traditional, which often utilizes the dombra, a two-stringed instrument akin to the lute. There are yurts to dine in and lots and lots of food. The national dish is called beshbarmark: noodles, meat (often horse, but beef, pork, or chicken, too), potatoes, and onions. They also have a mouthwatering dessert called baursaki, which are, simply, fried dough. Delicious fried dough. This past March, I made these, along with plov, which is rice with boiled meat and carrots, and cucumber-and-tomato salad for my family members to introduce them to Kazakh food. The good thing is that it’s generally easy to make; the bad thing is that recipes are somewhat difficult to find. However, it’s possible to find a few on recipe websites. If you’re intrigued and are looking for something new to eat, I would suggest plov, samsas (croissant-like pastries filled with cheese, meat, potatoes, etc.), or piroshky (fried buns filled with meat, potatoes, cabbage, etc.). As you can imagine, the meat-and-potatoes theme can get tiresome, especially as spices are generally not used. My babushka even used to tease me because I always brought salt to the table to give dinner a little more flavor.

Our country director was fond of telling us that our greatest asset in living in Kazakhstan would be flexibility, and we found out how right he was when we began teaching. English language classes are required in all schools, and some schools start English classes as early as second grade. I taught in secondary school, which is fifth grade through eleventh (there is no twelfth). The goal of the Peace Corps is not to take over jobs, but to assist country nationals in the learning and imposition of new tools. We worked with counterpart teachers and practiced a method called team teaching. Language education there heavily relies on memorization and translation, and our main goal was to practice different approaches to teaching within the classroom and to introduce our counterparts to these methods so that they could continue after we left. These included games, total physical response, group activities, the use of music and other activities, and an emphasis on speaking and listening rather than rote memorization.

Working with new coworkers was a challenge in itself, but limited language often contributed to that, and we even occasionally ran into resistance to try new methods. The school schedule was a trial in and of itself, as it would not be set until late fall. Every afternoon, I had to check which classes I’d be teaching the next day. This meant that instead of spending the weekend on lesson plans, I had to complete them the night before. Difficulties that came with living and teaching in a small village added to the confusion. My village was very close to two others, and the three often assisted one another. Much to my surprise, such cooperation involved my students traveling by bus to the next village over to help with the potato harvest. I walked into the classroom one afternoon after lunch and found no students. It happened the next day, and again and again, and my counterpart couldn’t tell me when the potato picking would be done. Add in a six-day school week (students go to school on Saturdays), and it becomes exhausting in more ways than one, though also rewarding. The students were always very receptive to new games and activities, although they sometimes would like one so much that they refused to go on to the next. During the summer, I assisted at my school’s camp, which was conducted mostly in Russian. I had an afternoon English class with the kids, and once I introduced them to Duck, Duck, Goose, it was impossible for a day to go by without playing it.

In addition to professional growing pains, personal ones came with the territory of living in a new country with new people and conversing in a new language. Every Peace Corps Volunteer experiences and expects trials. At about one million square miles (roughly four times the size of Texas and the ninth largest country in the world), Kazakhstan is a very large country. My first village, which boasted a population of about 1,000 people, was only an hour’s bus ride away from the capital city, Astana, but difficult transportation conditions prevented me from visiting or being visited by nearby volunteers. Being present in the community helped with integration, but going months without seeing friends or having a conversation in English that isn’t about school or the weather was isolating. On the days when lessons went poorly and one more word of Russian threatened to send your head spinning, chocolate and text-message jokes from fellow volunteers were the only things that kept us going.

Yet there were also rewards. The most satisfying was hearing a student’s ambitions to learn better English in order to go to university and even study abroad one day. As we learned as we went along, the Peace Corps is not about changing the lives of your whole village or about altering the entire educational system. It’s about changing one life, in our case, by teaching a student the communication tools they’ll need in the future. And once we saw the good ripples we created in one life, it was that much easier to keep trying.

As you can tell, Peace Corps service is filled with many challenges. However, one of the best aspects of the Peace Corps is the friendships you form, both with fellow volunteers and host country nationals. It was easy to be charmed by the students, who welcomed a new face in town and tried their hardest to impress you with their language skills. The more language we learned, the easier it was to converse with people of all ages, which led to some really great experiences. I lived in a boarding house where I met an older woman who would sit outside with me after school and tell me about her life. And once, when three fellow volunteers and I got lost on a short hiking expedition, a Kazakh man gave us directions and showed us the correct path. Above all, being thrown into a new country with fifty other strangers makes befriending them remarkably easy, and friendships made during new, scary experiences are friendships that last.

The Peace Corps often advertises itself as “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” Before I became a volunteer, even while I was planning to, that tagline always struck me as silly. Now, I believe it. Despite the hardships, or perhaps because of them, I carry good memories of my time in Kazakhstan, of the people I met and the unique experiences. I played in a basketball tournament with my village, held an eagle, learned a new language, ate horse meat, learned a few songs on the dombra, and made friends to last for a lifetime. Looking back, I also remember a valuable lesson that our Peace Corps Medical Officer taught us. A week or two into training, he tried to put us at ease by telling us a story about a very old man. He was so old that people often asked him the secret of his longevity. He would reply, “When it rains, I let it.” The lesson was simple—to take life as it comes, one day at a time, and, in the words of the Peace Corps, to be flexible. And when people ask me about my experience, that’s exactly what I tell them—I learned to let it rain.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

COVER: The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes by Albert Wendland


A science fiction novel that begins as a murder mystery and is taken over by an interstellar treasure hunt.

What could draw poet, explorer, loner and paranoid Mykol Ranglen away from the relative peace of his own ring-in-space habitat?
He has no choice in the matter as one by one acquaintances are murdered or disappear altogether. Propelled by ever changing and deepening mysteries Mykol embarks to uncover secrets which could make people rich beyond their wildest dreams…or tear apart human civilization.

The escalating quest takes him through worlds of many dangerous extremes, leading him to confront the deadly alien Fist of Thorns, extinct species refusing to give up their power over the future, and those racing against him to uncover the secret first. But in the course of his pursuit, he must also face his own secrets. And some of these are even more dangerous.

The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes by Albert Wendland

Cover Art by Bradley Sharp

Foreword by William H. Keith

Space Opera Paperback coming from Dog Star Books in June 2014


What They’re Saying About The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes

"Mystery, heart-pounding adventure, and the dazzling wonders of far-flung space play significant roles in Wendland's breakout novel, all while gifting us with a mesmerizing tour of alien landscapes destined to get under your skin and remind you of the very reason science fiction exists: Not to escape to other worlds, but to find ourselves within them."
--Diana Dru Botsford, author of THE DRIFT and FOUR DRAGONS

Inside are alien worlds and titanic space habitats and a brilliant and paranoid hero, all skillfully blended together with long-vanished galactic secrets. Science fiction… good science fiction, by a college professor of literature who loves good SF."
--From the foreword by William H. Keith, New York Times Bestselling Science Fiction Author

Friday, October 11, 2013

Five Reasons I Loved the New Romeo and Juliet

When I found out about this movie sometime in the summer, I was stoked. Any mention of bringing Shakes to the big screen makes me happy, especially my favorite tragedy of his. Then I found out that it truly was an adaptation, that Julian Fellowes had changed the Bard’s words (sacrilege! the English major in me cries) and replaced them with his own. Despite my misgivings, I went to see it, but mostly out of curiosity rather than excitement.

I loved it. And here’s why. (Even though the play is hundreds of years old, the movie did make some changes, and here’s a spoiler cut.)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Knits and Things and Fine Array

I don't consider myself a very talented knitter, but I do enjoy how relaxing the hobby is. My mom, sister, and grandmother all crochet, but I never quite got the hang of it. Since I've been home, I've asked them to reteach me. That hasn't worked out, but my sister did get me two knitting classes for Christmas 2011. So while I'm still a beginning, I'm enjoying teaching myself new techniques and finding new challenges (which, for me, means things that aren't rectangular).

While I was in Kaz, my host sister taught me one crochet stitch. I'd like to blame this on my limited time there, but there is a good possibility she thought I was too dense to learn any more. However, one stitch was enough to get me started, and I promised my fellow goons (an affectionate term, I assure you) that I'd make them each a little something to get through the Siberian winter. Even though that didn't work out, I'm still working on my goal. One friend asked for an article for the hands (like gloves). I made her these arm-warmers (because I'm not skilled enough yet to make fingers):

I admit that they're not much to look at, but I guarantee they're warm! And then, while I was watching Doctor Who all spring long, I made myself a cool TARDIS hat. I believe I found the pattern on ravelry. Something to keep my head cozy next winter.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Наурыз құтты болсын

Happy Nauryz! Nauryz is a new year holiday celebrated in Kazakhstan on or around March 21st. This year, I decided to be adventurous and cook a Kazakh meal for my family. It was my first time cooking Kazakh food, and recipes are difficult to find online, but with the help of my Peace Corps cookbook, I muddled through all right.

For the first course, I made a cucumber-and-tomato salad. This was one of my favorite dishes during service, and it's really simple. All that's needed to top it off is a splash of oil and some salt. Easy and delicious!

The main course was plov, which is also easy because it's just rice, meat, and carrots. I used strip steak and cooked it separately, sautéed the carrots, and then added both to the cooked rice. Some garlic and onions can flavor it up nicely.

For dessert, I made baursaki, a doughnut-type dessert made especially for Nauryz. I managed to find a recipe for the dough online, and then I just fried them up. They were less lovely than the baursaki I remember eating over there, but they still tasted good!

Homemade baursaki! Yum!

And to top it all off, vodka for a toast and some authentic Kazakh tea my babushka gave me before I left! My family said they liked everything, so I consider the meal a success.

Monday, March 11, 2013

School Update

Just a quick update on the semester. I turned in my second monthly submission, which brings my thesis work up to 61 pages (approximately 17,000 words)! At this point, I don't even know if that's good progress or not. Between work, school, and volunteering, I'm really just trying to get enough sleep without completely losing my sanity. I resisted going to grad school mostly because I valued my sleep too much, but I really forgot how overwhelmed I was in undergrad. I'm very much looking forward to spring break.

 But two months down is an accomplishment. "I may not be there yet, but I'm closer than I was yesterday." (Unknown) :)

In other news, it's two years to the day my group arrived in Kaz. We would still be there with two short months until COS. It's a strange day that brings up a lot of memories. At times, it doesn't even feel real. But in the spirit of positivity, I remember a common saying from over there: все будет хорошо. Everything will be okay. It was a thought that kept us going on the tougher days, and it stills helps today.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Happy International Women's Day!

This holiday was first celebrated in 1911 and is now an official holiday in over 25 countries, including Kazakhstan. The purpose is to draw attention to women’s issues as well as honor the women in your life. As my own little way of celebrating, I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite female protagonists in literature who have shaped my reading experiences as well as my outlook on life.

01. Francie Nolan from Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a coming-of-age tale about a young girl’s adolescence in the city. I confess that I barely remember this book because it’s been so long since I read it. But I do remember walking into the library at 14 in search of that magical, elusive book. A librarian handed me this, and I was changed. Francie loves reading, but it’s her strength of character that carries her through heartbreak and makes her a relatable protagonist.

“Dear God," she prayed, "let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry...have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere - be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”

02. Cassandra Mortmain from Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Cassandra’s a 17-year-old who lives with her eccentric family in a castle in the English countryside. She longs to be a writer, like her father, who locks himself in the tower in order to finish his second novel. In pursuit of this goal, she sets out to ‘capture the castle’ in her diary, but the story is set in motion when two American move into the hall nearby and change Cassandra’s life, as well as her sister’s. Through it all, Cassandra is funny, strong, graceful. I reread this in Kaz and then lent it to a friend, who commented that I’d marked up the text so much that she could just read all my underlinings and brackets and not miss any of the plot. That’s how good it is. Every line speaks.

“Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.”

03. Jo March from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. 95% of girls who read this book identify with Jo in some way, because she’s fantastically outspoken and brave but also flawed. She desperately wants to become a famous writer, but her family’s situation forces her to work. And her desire to keep her sisters together doesn’t work as well once they all begin to grow up. Throughout the novel, she faces setbacks, arguments, and devastating loss with fortitude and determination.

“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, something heroic or wonderful that won't be forgotten after I'm dead. I don't know what, but I'm on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all someday. I like good strong words that mean something.”

04. Nan St. George from Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers. At turns funny and tragic, this is the story of five American girls who aren’t accepted in New York society because of their ‘new’ money, so they try their luck in England, to varying degrees of success. Nan St. George, the youngest of the five, rebels when told she’ll be getting a governess. But the two become fast friends and form a friendship that stands the test of societal disappointment and disillusioning marriages.

"The greatest mistake is to think that we ever know why we do things. . . . I suppose the nearest we can ever come to it is by getting what old people call 'experience.' But by the time we've got that we're no longer the persons who did the things we no longer understand. The trouble is, I suppose, that we change every moment; and the things we did stay."

05. Irene, the queen of Attolia from Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series. This is my favorite series, but it took me a while to warm up to Irene. Beautiful but never accused of being kind, she’s cold and distrustful because of the things she’s been forced to do to take and keep her throne. When Gen sees her dancing among the orange trees, he realizes she’s not as intimidating as she seems. She’s a complex woman who evolves through her relationship with Gen but also stays true to herself.

“I inherited this country when I was only a child, Nahuseresh. I have held it. I have fought down rebellious barons. I've fought Sounis to keep the land on this side of the mountains. I have killed men and watched them hang. I've seen them tortured to keep this country safe and mine. How did you think I did this if I was a fool with cow eyes for any handsome man with gold in his purse?”