I am writing this post on my 32nd birthday. On this day, I have been in Kazakhstan for longer than I’ve been in any other foreign country. Coming in at a close second is Ghana; Peru and Thailand are tied for third. In my 32 years of life, I have been outside of the U.S. a total of only three-and-a-half months.
The last 32 days of my life have been some of the most confusing, infuriating, frightening, and (somehow) fulfilling days I’ve known: coordinating all of the moving parts that would help us make the transition to Kazakhstan; leaving dear friends behind; making new ones; navigating a culture that is slow to smile, and short on manners; and becoming an artist without having to answer the inevitable query: “But, what do you really do?”
The last 32 minutes have included writing the first two paragraphs of this blog entry, then realizing that an eerie calm has settled over the house. Normally a good thing, this is not the case when a brand new puppy—my birthday present from Sam—is in the picture. Officially: quiet equals trouble. Only moments after I realize Mishka is missing, she comes trotting into my studio, blinking innocently, cat litter thoroughly coating her wet, black nose.
I know that I will find an explosion of cat litter in the bathroom. I will also find, if previous episodes are any indication, a litter-covered cat turd in the hallway. And I do. Mishka watches me clean up the mess with a joyful, satisfied, puppy smile, while Hank, peering at us from under the guestroom bedsheets, fails to conceal his revulsion.
I have to give Hank a lot of credit. He is an opinionated creature, but truly sweet-natured. He has been a patient older brother—no claws, no cussing. In fact, he has spent much of the last two days wrapped tightly in the bedsheets in what we’ve been calling a cat-tortilla, eager to escape the shrill whining and puppy-teeth gnashing just beyond his bedroom door.
Me and Mishka go on a lot of walks. Because of the frequency of our walks, the people in and around our building have started recognizing us, and talking to us—in Russian. At this point I’ve gotten pretty good at saying (in Russian), “I’m sorry, I don’t understand” in response to their quick-fire questions about the dog. At very least, I can eek out a “Her name is Mishka.”
This exact sort of exchange happened with a group of children in the park behind our apartment building. Having just gotten out of school for the summer, they were running around like wild things. Obviously they wanted to play with Mishka. A group of five approached me nervously, ranging in age from four to nine, and ranging widely in ethnicity: from very blond and Russian-looking to very dark with Mongolian features. (Genghis Khan’s reign included most of modern-day Kazakhstan.) I had never spoken to children who speak another language; their frustration with me was palpable. While I was able to tell them that yes, Mishka is a puppy, not a dog (or a wolf—as one of them asked), I was completely unable to answer any of their other questions. One of the little boys spoke a tiny bit of English, and was able to do some translating, but I knew our exchange was officially over when he had to lean over to the littlest girl in the bunch and whisper, “She doesn’t understand.” In response, this little girl glanced up at me with an expression of complete confusion. Why would a grown person not understand?
As me and Mishka walked away I turned and yelled, “See you soon!” over my shoulder. Rather than return my goodbye, all five started calling out, with noses pinched, “Bock! Bock! Bock!” Apparently, this is how Americans sound to Russian-speaking people. And after I recovered from the weirdness of this exchange, I realized that they’re right. Americans do, indeed, speak through their noses—the “nasal resonator” if we’re being technical—while Russian-speaking folks are much more likely to use their throat to get their point across. In fact, it is fairly common practice in Central Asia to pinch your nose when you’re talking about American-made movies that have been only somewhat successfully dubbed over, as the nasally American English can still be heard.
Despite the fact that a large percentage of Kazakhstan is Muslim, dogs are still welcome members of society in Almaty. (Given the cosmopolitan nature of this city, religion is not a significant factor in everyday life.) But, in wild contrast to America, Kazakh dogs are not typically considered members of the family. On one of our walks, Mishka and I had a particularly interesting exchange with a group of Kazakh laborers who were taking a break on the side of the road. Somewhat embarrassingly, they were seated close to Mishka’s favorite pee-patch. All six men, squatting in the traditional Asian style, appeared to be wondering why I led my dog to the patch—but all was revealed when Mishka squatted to pee. In response, a hushed “Ohhh!” escaped from the lips of each of the men. Initally, I was horrified, and assumed I had gravely offended the group. But there was some delight in their response, as if they were impressed that she had done her business in the location of my choosing. I was unwilling to stick around to find out which it was. As I write today I’m still unsure.
It is through daily diplomatic exchanges like these that Mishka and I are making our way in our new environments—she, a Kazakh street mutt, now living in an American household, and me, an American artist, carving out a new life as an expat.