Double Agent, Disavowed

IMG_1036 IMG_1026

In one of Almaty’s expat outposts, an Indian-run Irish bar, the tutors of Kazakhstan’s elite progeny gather to drink tall beers and pick on samosas. It’s an odd mix of Brits, Russians, and Americans, who proliferated the city when the hunger for English peaked under Nazarbayev’s  2011 decree for a tri-lingual policy.

(from materials of the Nazarbayev Intellectual School of Astana: Kazakh is the official state language, acquisition of which is the duty of every member of the school community; Russian is a language of interethnic communication; and English is developed within the school as it is necessary for integration into the global economy.)

They came, planning on staying a month, a year. If there are motivations – religion, romance –  under the teaching narrative, I have not established, nor perhaps never will, sufficient intimacy to determine them. And in the anonymity of the green pub – one in every major city, Ireland’s greatest export – such questions are, perhaps, not welcome.

Spaces like this seem established to flourish expressly beyond specificity, to encourage proximity, act as temporary balm to loneliness, displacement – but disclosures, real, extemporaneous “sharing,” vulnerability, that buzzword – discouraged.


No matter. I can’t help myself. I ask questions. Perhaps I pry.


“She’s a spy,” says one guy, who motorbiked, McGregor-style from the UK to Almaty without changing his socks. He’s grounded five months, plans on closing out the year – although that word, plans, provokes a smirk – and projects a puckish, elfin grace, complete with cowlick, straight of central casting for a by-the-seat-of-his-pants temporary Almatian.

Ewan, presumably months after concluding his ride.

Ewan, presumably months after concluding his ride.

“He means that as a compliment,” reassures another man at the bar. “Really.”


January, with a week of bone-emptying cold, gawking monuments, the peculiar charm of grocery aisles’ milk product variations, and breathless letters to the States, a mandarin’s never-before sweetness, a glutted social calendar (all in the name of research, and establishing community) — these tropes of new-arrived’s euphoria, the “new eyes” that writers long for… January is over. 


I thought I’d be exempt. Not from elation borne of the boundary between there and here, but, like any asshole new-in-love who forgets the inevitable shift from novelty to routine, thinks everyone but me.

I’m losing it. I cannot be losing it.

Hall, Beyond Culture: In this context, it is important to keep reminding oneself that the part of man’s nervous system that deals with social behavior is desgined according to the principle of negative feedback. That is, one is completely unaware of the fact that there is a system of controls as long as the program is followed…we are denied knowledge of important parts of the self by virtue of the way the control systems work.

I was smug when listening to others’ Tales from the Stans: the abrasiveness, the weather, blah, blah, spoiled, not I. I don’t judge through that lens, and besides, I’ve been in (roughly) this part of the world before. And my Russian. And my faintly Asiatic appearance. 


It takes me an hour to fill out my utility bills. As I cross the street and another Land Rover nearly runs me over, I say, aloud – fuck this., fuck this. I lock myself out of my apartment and the neighbors’ windows go dark. Who is this person? Grey snot pills on my massive cream-colored gloves as I stand outside the money-exchange booth and the woman tells me that, with only three hundred dollars, I can’t step into the warm. “For three thousand, maybe, devochka.” I am constantly lost.  I blow my nose at the lunch table, the first rule of what-not-to-do. You stupid girl, you imbecile, I say aloud. I fall on the black ice. I am late to everything. No one keeps appointments. I cannot coax open the little plastic bags at the Ramstore and the line of families waiting me to handle my shit and exit grows longer. I don’t sleep. I wake, convinced someone is trying to jigger my double-locks. I accidentally pay the telephone shyet, delivered to my door, of my building-mate, the policeman, and when I hand him the slip of paper and explain, he nods, exits.

Tiny dollar bills a-scatter.

Tiny dollar bills a-scatter.

In Panfilov Park, I glare at the young couple entwined together on a bench, his hand lost in her long dark hair. I curse the huge gray hiking boots, purchased for the trip, that take too long to unlace, their clunk and filth, as my colleagues at KazNU saunter blithely by in heels. In my translation workshop, the (overworked, supervising) teachers sitting in hold loud conversations over mine and answer their cell phones. How can everyone be so rude? That my colleagues refer to the other American faculty (male), warmly, is evidence of a deeply-entrenched sexism! Everyone is so superficial here. Everyone is…everyone is…


New eyes, new eyes, wherefore art thou?

The great gift…is an opportunity to achieve awareness of the structure of their own systems….first, [one] must give up some of his narcissism and make adjustments in their own program, such as freeing himself of the binding and preset schedules that determine the rate at which transactions must process.

And the moments of absurd, unfair beauty, hilarity: scaling a mountain on the city’s outskirts and sledding down via ass, the discovery of a Kazakh Live Action Rollplay (LARP) community, parrying with plastic swords on said mountain, children everywhere in bright snowsuits, my new students whoop-whooping when I am introduced as guest speaker on a panel about “Intercultural Communication,” Kazakhstan’s equivalent to “vulnerability”; a woman my mother’s age, tentative on the slick staircase to the hair salon, and the tall young man, a stranger, who stoops to take her arm.

February, I told myself, would mark the transition from process to product, when I would start “doing” rather than “thinking about,” dedicate myself to speaking the truth. But whose?

A spy is only conveyer belt, bridge, information delivery system. Form irrelevant. Content, insofar as meaning is concerned, beside the point Here’s what’s troubling me: like any faux-spy – my first book was called Double Agent, after all – it’s the versus. (And not the Pearl Jam album, although shit, nineties-nostalgia has not translated to the these parts yet, sadly).

Vedder  Vedder2
Observation vs. passivity. Process vs. product. Soviet vs. modern; new elite vs. old; real vs. fake Kazakhstani; Russian vs. Kazakh….vs. vs. vs. At what point am I supposed to cease absorbing in the name of experience, and begin generating output?

I am beginning to realize that my compulsion to come to Kazakhstan may have an intuitive truth that is part, but not all, of my articulated purpose. I want to know how culture is made, she says, modestly. I flirt with ethnographies, anthropological methods, the language of which seems imbued with a mid-seventies vagueness, and I’m discomfited by my image of these authors as safari-vest wearing, benign white men. Ethnographies strike me as both Really Interesting and Totally Not Science.


I write to MS, a post-doc whose brilliant dissertation (and soon, I hope, book) on the region humbles and inspires me. What sort of questions am I supposed to be acting?

She advises “deep hanging out,” a phrase I love. Heartened, I set aside a hierarchical notion of interactions, ask anyone whom I encounter – my Russian teacher, the gypsy cab drivers, the hip intellectuals – about Kazakhstani identity.

I note that they ask me my nationality. Again and again, I hear this caption to Kazakhstan, from the “people”: we are a multiethnic nation, we embrace all, this idea of race is an American construct. Maybe my approach is wrong.

I want to know why I am asked, so often, my nationality: what can be inferred from it, what are the connotations? Ranking is seldom a matter that people take lightly, Hall writes, and points to the American obsession with corporate space (who moved my stapler?) and the British conflation of accent with class. (“Plummy.”)

I hear this we-are-one narrative enough that its uniformity whets my suspicions. Received, especially in light of this recent story. ( won’t load in my apartment).

On February 7, the Kazakh police informed that it had detained a 38-year-old resident of Bostandyk village on suspicion of murder. He was detained across the border in Uzbekistan and subsequently extradited to Kazakhstan. was also reporting February 7 that the Kazakhstan authorities were blocking reports of the ethnic clash, in a sign of sensitivities in Astana over friction between two of the country’s 140 ethnic groups.

I have not even begun to consider language.


In my poetry class, an English-only space where I use Russian as rarely as possible, I discover, one week in, that my student – and, incidentally, the only male (it’s philology, Michelle, my students tell me, in much the some cadence as Nicholson’s buddy in Chinatown), born in Uzbekistan, speaks no Russian. In the group work I foist upon them in the great American pedagogical tradition of the “student-centered classroom,” I realize that he cannot work with my other student, a Russian who speaks no Kazakh, and so they sit grimly together, not collaborating.

And English the solution.


Each culture and each country has its own language of space, which is just as unique as the spoken language. (Hall).

Painting by Paul Lipp

Painting by Paul Lipp

My former husband grew up in a small Connecticut town. He has many siblings. I remember the novelty of their holidays’ ritualizing, how time (now we eat, now we walk on the beach) and the arrangement of objects and space (Stilton here, orchids thus, seating chart, seasonal napkin holders to the left). A photograph album spanning five years indicates only variations in argyle patterns, emergence of crows’ feet, bangs vs. no bangs. This dedication to sameness touched me – part nostalgia, and part attempt to render each passing year as the same Cornell box of the family’s culture of youth…their innate culture. (Hall, again.)

A Connecticut ritual from former life-as-wife:  lobster.

A Connecticut ritual from former life-as-wife: lobster.

“Touched” sounds patronizing, but it’s not. Maybe I mean envy. Longing. I never…

Hall says that growing up tri-cultural “can be a tremendous asset..because it accustoms one to the fact that people are very different in the way they behave.” But there’s an assumption here, I think, of a core, an integrity, a whole. And then: “Man automatically treats what is most characteristically his own (the culture of his youth) as though it were innate” and then suggests that “the foreign service keeps people moving precisely so they won’t establish lasting relationships with local people.”

Painting by Paul Lipp

Painting by Paul Lipp

Following an informational interview, a contact squinted at me skeptically, asked, but did you grow up in many cultures, or in a singular culture?” If I have a “culture of youth,” it’s a panorama of Prague, Krakow, trips to Berlin, the issued couches and non-odor of the State Department housing, and and an answering, subtler monotony within this monotony – that all the Foreign Service officers decorated claimed their spaces with a Kyrgyz rug, a wall hanging from Goa, the collections not interchangeable but signifying a certain kind of life. 

As a child, swept up in this constant movement, the swans of Prague and  the rusting Ferris wheels of Moscow, the midnight drunks in Ukraine and the gypsy houses in Belgrade registered equally. But these places are not the same, and I was not the same in them. I am trying to puzzle out the distinction between judging nothing and knowing how to observe.

At the Berlin Wall.

At the Berlin Wall.


I’m aware of a deep sensual rightness that comes from the morning odors here. The apprehension, when crossing the street into another produkti and buying the same hard sour-molasses loaf of black bread. The sentimentality I attach to the Soviet-style buildings, feeling them violated by signs for Sberbank and Eurasiabank & co. & co. Why did I think of the Pentagon when I saw this, the by-all-accounts excellent British school here, next to the Vuitton store, blocks from my neighborhood Soviet-style Kafenat and produtki?


I wondered if my disavowal of an innate childhood culture is disingenuous: that what resonates about Almaty is not the city as it is but my own impulse to pick, like one would a New England baked stuffed lobster (another feature of those Connecticut holidays) the knowns from my youth. What I thought was antipathy towards Almaty’s homogenization/corporatization may be my own solipsism: like Humbert Humbert, I resist seeing the city beyond the limits of an already-lived experience.

ACTEUR  HumberHumbert1HH3



Central Museum, internal.

Central Museum, internal.

The features, and spatial idiosyncrasies of the Central State Museum and the Kasteev Museum of Art, their resistance to conventionally user-friendly, inviting presentation of, say a Whitney or a Smithsonian, are precisely what made the experience of visiting so comforting, from the ill-translated placards to the grandmotherly docents, garbed in traditional vests, who bossed me, definitely not “chic and serious, moving languidly, with a great handbag” (L. Moore, “You’re Ugly, Too”) around from room to room, touching my shoulder should I be in danger of missing a corner, and seemed affronted when I said I was not interested in.

The non-functioning gift score and closed KAFE. This is the real Kazakhstan, I said to myself.

Mega, internal.

Mega, internal.

Versus, again. Later, I taxied to another public space, the mega-mall called, er, MEGA, in search of boots that would render me more visible (read: feminine, attractive) and less (obviously foreign, oblivious to the street glamour that is clearly important to the Almatians).Oh, vanity. Although I break into private hives when I hear (Western men) wax about the beauty of Kazakh women, a vigilance, an attention to one’s ensemble is undeniable in Almaty. Schoolgirls and pensioners alike are attired here, evidenced through small, deliberate flourishes: the belt around the quilted coat, handsome spectacles, a perfectly matte orchid mouth at seven AM on a Tuesday. It’s not quite the exaggerated femme and spike heels I remember from nineties Moscow as a student, that my tank-topped friends made fun of, perhaps out of insecurity, a diluted assertion of American superiority (we’re too busy being academic to master lipliner).

This space, complete with skating rink, high-end wine shop, and boutique after boutique of faintly Euro Forever 21 clones, and stands selling gelato and crepes, and more than five Sephora doppelengagers, lights strung everywhere, and immaculate white floors, and that inimitable Smell of Commerce in the Morning (I can’t seem to stay away from the Nineties, it seems…), provoked an unexplained hostility. Disappointment. I’d traveled all the way here for – this? Could the commingling of these two spaces be, then, the spatial response to hybridity? Opposition, only?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s