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What is shpargalka? Adventures of a Kazakh student in America

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By Anastassiya PASTOUKHOVA

“….On my first days in a campus I was sick for Atyrau. Sitting on a bench under a big American tree I dreamed of going back home soon. All Japanese, Chinese and Thai students passing by glanced at me, apparently taking me for their fellow citizen. Whoever I told I was from Kazakhstan, in return smiled and asked if it was true that young Kazakh girls get married at the age of six and in Kazakhstan cars are hauled by horses…”

Not Borat

From the very beginning, fifteen year old Maira Aldiyarova from far Kazakhstan, felt uncomfortable due to hidden mocking and, sometimes, straightforward jokes about her country.
She had difficult three weeks ahead to acclimatize to local environment. They say, normally, it takes a teenager’s vulnerable mind three weeks to get used to a new place.
Within less than a week, speaking good English, Maira got the feel of everything and could easily explain her peers the absurdity of the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s hero Borat and his silly jokes.
It turned that I was the only Kazakh to ever study in an American secondary school in Foreman, Arkansas, says Maira. So I had to defend the name of Kazakhstan on my own.

Picnic of nations

I made friends with everyone who, like me, came to study in the United States by student exchange programs. I discovered that reserved Chinese are not similar to easy-going Japanese at all. Hot tempered and smiling Brazilians and Mexicans, delicate looking Thai girls, temperamental Italians – various people were there.

Italian friend

One day, during sightseeing as part of an adaptation program, I heard from behind of me “Hi, I am Francesca.” Again, I had to explain my new Italian friend that Kazakhstan was not only a country of yurts and we had already quit the Soviet Union. Then I taught her how to pronounce my name correctly, not to call me Maya, Maria not even Mariah. Once she said my five-letter name in true way, I realized she regarded me as if I was her best friend.  But these Italians, thanks to their hot blood can easily find friends. And enemies. So we decided to live together with a host family that wished to accept two righteous foreign girls.   

Don and Lynn

Don and Lynn Way, our host parents, are a lovely retired couple. Maira says American pensioners are very different from ours. They are happy. While Kazakh old ladies and old men complain about their lives: long queues, carelessness of children and grandchildren, government, weather and old age as a whole, old people in America travel a lot, enjoy barbecue and the only thing they moan about is maybe a dozen or two extra kilos or short breathing. And their president.
Most of them criticize him, but they discuss him when they are alone. They don’t talk about him in presence of foreigners, as if a family avoids talking about a retarded relative in front of guests. Apart from this, Americans openly talk about anything.

First names and a cat

For a Kazakh girl educated in the spirit of respect to the older, to call Don and Lynn by their first names, which they insisted, was an odd thing.
“They have a big rancho with livestock: chicken, cows, horses, cats and dogs of various breeds lying on the sofa, lawn, and doorstep, everywhere. To begin with, I was shocked - I love animals, but not to that extent.”
Soon, she got accustomed to the situation, moreover, a huge grey cat demonstrated all its warm attitude to Maira. Reluctantly at first, she allowed this murmuring lovely creature to keep her company in the bed.  
By the way, Don and Lynn seemed to like the modest and homish Kazakh girl more than the naughty Italian young lady. While Maira was teaching her host mum how to cook beshparmak and manty, Francesca used to go to every party with her friend Will and come home almost at dawn. Of what her parents were informed soon.


Every Sunday we went to church. I am a Muslim, but it didn’t prevent me from exploring religious traditions and customs of this country. In fact, if I refused, Don and Lynn wouldn’t insist. I was just curious to see what it was like. Generally, this couple took great care of us everyday. Before letting us go to a party they would ask who else will be attending it, where it is and when we would come back, and then they often called us checking if we are safe. Behind them were relevant supervisory services, which would watch them and talk to exchange students once in a few days.
“Did you face any insulting words to your address, or maybe violence from the side of host parents?” “Did they touch you or show indecent pictures?” they would ask.
If a teenager complains about his current parents, supervisors shortly offer him or her to move to other family. The same right is available to host parents - they too may refuse responsibility over a naughty foreigner.  
According to Maira, host parents do not charge for food and accommodation. To them it is another way to do charity.

What is their schools like?

By initial test in the secondary school, Maira was evaluated as nearly a child prodigy.  Unlike our schools, in the United States children are not taught all subjects in a row. There are no regular groups of students like in Kazakhstan that attend fixed classes together. Instead, each student selects classes he or she liked and thinks will be of use in future.
Every single student has his personal daily class schedule. You select any five subjects, but mathematics, English and physical training are compulsory disciplines.
They treat sports very seriously and sport instructors are much respected in schools. In Kazakhstan, sport instructors and handicraft teachers are usually two buddies, which always smell alcohol. But there, a sport instructor is always honored, like a mathematics teacher.
Teachers were a bit amazed about my good knowledge of chemistry, physics, geometry and other sciences, of which my American peers then only heard from Discovery Channel. So after testing I was sent to study 11th year instead of 9th. In fact, in a year of studies I completed three years and received a 12-year education certificate.  

Be the best in what you do

There is an unspoken rule in American families: Not all children are gifted. I should be happy with what I have and my child is the best for me. The society there is set so a child from the early age understands that he has the right to choose. Everyone can not be a mathematician or a painter, but there is a rich selection of interesting activities to shine in. It is not a shame to be a locksmith at all, because well-being and social status of your family depend on how good you do your job, but not on the type of job.    

Cheating? No way!

Relations between students in schools are far different from those in Kazakhstan. Everybody is for himself. Copy someone else’s paper? No way. If you look into someone’s exam paper, at least they will sweep eyes over you and close the paper. Or, tell the teacher at once.
To make cheat notes on desks, to miss classes or to play Battleship – things students often do in our schools, although deviant according to teachers, in America, are considered the height of disgrace, what may easily lead to expelling from school.
Shpargalkas - cheat sheets, so loved by every Kazakh student either in a public school, a college or a university, are something beyond imagination in USA. There, if a student does not want to study a certain subject, he simply doesn’t and he will never cheat to improve his grades.

February 21 2013, 15:00

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