Saturday, April 27, 2013

Help A Young Kazakh

It makes me sad that once again Kazakhstan is in the news, but not in a good way. ("Borat" was only the beginning!) Two friends of the Boston Marathon bomber are in custody, not just for being friends with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but for failing to attend classes pursuant to the requirements of their student visas. I came across this piece about a Kazakh high school student who has the opportunity to go to summer school at Cornell to study hospitality. If you know anything about the Kazakh culture, it's all about hospitality. I was back in Kazakhstan in 2006, where I visited the home of the interpreter we had had in our adoption trip in 2004, Aida. Her mother put on such a spread I felt like a visiting dignitary!  This opportunity will give Yerkebulan a huge step up if he ever returns to Kazakhstan, and even if he remains in the US.  I am hoping that if any of my friends and readers has a few shekels under the cushions on the sofa, they can send them on to this guy and help his dream come true. Thanks ... click on the link to learn more about Yerkebulan and how to donate to his cause:  

Help a young Kazakh realize his dream to study Hospitality | Tuition -

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Road Home - The Professional DVD

Several weeks ago I talked about the Oscar-shortlisted independent film, “The Road Home” produced by fellow TCK Rahul Gandotra.  More recently I had the opportunity to see the professional version of the DVD.

I would like to think that every international school has a kindly staff counselor whose main focus is the adjustment of its students.  (If they don’t they should!)  Kids at these schools are mostly transient, moving in for a year or two, and then leaving.  They are Third Culture Kids, with their own stories, their own personalities and their own struggles for identity and belonging.  Each of these hypothetical counselors should have the professional version of “The Road Home” as an integral part of his or her reference library. The DVD, which is available for purchase on the website, offers commentaries by two of the most renowned scholars and authors about Third Culture Kids:  Ruth Van Reken, a co-author of “Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds” and Heidi Tunberg, a licensed psychologist who has worked for 15 years with TCKs and has written several articles about their journeys.

The first commentary is about the film itself.  The two women take us deeper into the mind of Pico, the young Indian boy who grew up in England.  They clarify what is happening to him on a deeper level, why he is behaving the way he is behaving.  They explain his reactions, his confusion and his dilemma, looking Indian on the outside, but being English on the inside.  They talk about each of the peripheral characters in the film, and how they add to the narrative.

In the second commentary, also played with the film running in the background, the two women discuss in detail the TCK experience and its mantra: “[A] sense of belonging is with others with shared experiences.”  They each touch on their own personal stories; Heidi talks about her experience as a freshman in college, back in her passport country, and the dreaded question: “Where are you from?” She also relates the story of a young man in college, a TCK, who gained a reputation as a “player”.  He connected on a deeper, emotional level with many girls, many of whom were under the mistaken impression that he was their boyfriend. The truth, however, was that he, like many TCK’s, had learned to connect with others quickly and deeply, because they grew up knowing that many relationships are temporary and short-lived.  For obvious reasons this was received very differently on his American college campus.

Filmmaker Rahul Gandotra
The professional version offers password-protected access to a comprehensive list of resources for educators and parents of TCKs: books, websites, articles and children’s books covering topics such as moving overseas, and raising children internationally.  Each category is color-coded to designate the audience for which it is useful.  Furthermore, the purchase of the DVD also includes public screening rights to groups of any size.  Add to all this a discussion sheet for students, parents and educators, and you have a one-stop, invaluable resource.

When you consider that a textbook or scholarly journal may run in the hundreds of dollars, at $79.00 the professional version of “The Road Home” is more than worth its cost.  It would behoove all international educators and college counselors to consider adding this short but powerful film to their collections.  It will pay for itself tenfold in the valuable insights it brings to the TCK and those who care for them.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Extraordinary Running

I’ve been watching the news coverage of the explosions at the Boston Marathon.  I was outraged when I saw the horrible photos of Jeff Bauman, on the ground, his legs blown off, surrounded by too much blood.  People cried “FAKE!” and “Photoshopped!” I suppose, because their brains couldn’t wrap themselves around such awful reality.  The photos of him being wheeled to the hospital by a bystander, whose own son died in Iraq, and whose other son, bereft by the loss of his brother, committed suicide.  The young man, bent over the prone body of another victim, possibly the young restaurant manager who was one of the three fatalities.  The pictures of the young boy, Martin Richard, who died while watching his father finish the marathon. 

Recently I was a spectator at the Austin marathon.  (Actually we were coincidentally downtown when it was happening).  I remember the electric atmosphere, the loud bass of the enormous speakers, playing enthusiastic music; the paper cups strewn everywhere, thrown aside after the runners took a quick swig before they carried on their journey; the police, the medical personnel, the splashes of color in the sponsors’ advertisements.  I’m sure that these snapshots were present in Boston as well.

A few years ago my husband and I stood on that very corner in Boston, taking pictures of the little church that stands on the corner across from the Boston Public Library.  Mitch is an architectural aficionado, and loves the intricate details.  As I was a library student at the time, we spent a great deal of time wandering through the buildings of the BPL, starting in the modern annex at the back, then moving to the classical front, admiring the majestic marble lions and the statues representing Art and Science.

Why do people run?  Is it the flush of endorphins that induce the “runner’s high”?  Why would people force their bodies to such lengths, punishing their feet, exposing their knees and ankles to constant injury?  Can it be good for the human body to run for that long?  What does it do to the heart, the lungs?  For those of us who don’t run, it’s a mystery.  After all, didn’t Jim Fixx die while he was running?

Many years at the Great River Road Run
My dad, Bill, was an athlete and a runner.  After a long career as an international businessman, (in which he ran, figuratively, to the corners of the globe) he focused on his physical fitness.  There is a picture somewhere of him in the mid-1960’s on an exercise bicycle at Clark Hatch’s first club in Tokyo, way before health clubs were de rigeur.  (Clark Hatch was described as “a cross between Marco Polo and Jack LaLanne”, opening fitness clubs all over Asia after serving as the Recreation Director at the Tokyo American Club).

Dad had that runner’s body: lanky arms and legs, not an ounce of fat anywhere.  He went to bed very early at night, and was up before the chickens.  He “only” ran half marathons; he was in his late 60’s and early 70’s when he started.  He took part in many of the events in Baton Rouge, including the Great River Road Run and the Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot.  One year my two oldest sons participated, aged six and four.  When the starting gun went off, the crowd surged forward, but my younger son stood rooted in his spot, crying piteously and traumatized by the multitude and the gunshot.  So much for his running career! (Although he did run cross-country when he was in high school). 

Dad was a NCAA Track & Field Official, and would travel with two of his buddies all over the Southeast to referee at meets.  One of his favorites, he being a Texas-Ex, was the Texas Relays at the University in Austin.  Back at his old stomping grounds, his life had come full circle. He later refereed at the Junior Olympics and also volunteered at the Special Olympics.

He was a popular employee at a local women’s health club in Southdowns, where he opened up every morning at 5:00.   Which meant, of course, that he was there around 4:30.  He was “Mr. Bill” to the patrons, loved and appreciated.  He got the job because no one else wanted it.  Before he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma, he was studying to be a certified personal trainer.

So many mornings we dragged ourselves out of bed to go watch Daddy run.  It was usually dark when we got out there, and as we yawned and stretched, sipping on coffee, part of us felt a little resentful, longing for the warmth of our beds.  But at the same time we were proud of him.  Many a time I recounted the story of my dad, and his commitment to running.  He tried, unsuccessfully, to get me involved in fitness by presenting me a membership to a health club.  He sent me copies of running programs.  I once ran a 5K in Baton Rouge, following behind a platoon of police officers as they sang their cadences.  I do love to run, but my arthritic spine won’t allow it any more.  And I never got to Dad’s level. 

So when I hear about some maniac, lunatic, fanatic, planting bombs at such an event as the Boston Marathon, an event filled with happiness, enthusiasm, encouragement, anticipation, family! my mind just cannot grasp “why”.  What insane agenda is served by killing and maiming people who are there to support their loved ones in their quest to run in a road race?  My jaded mind wandered for a bit to the people who live in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, for whom this is a daily occurrence.  Not much media coverage there. 

I am certain that God created this world with certain physical laws, which can’t be broken.  You can’t drive a car into a brick wall without dire consequences.  Human bodies get diseases.  Yes, people die needlessly.  How can we possibly try to understand the nature of evil?  God is grieving, weeping, right along with us.  We have to accept that there are so many things we will never understand.  

Dad with all of his grandchildren, 2007

Friday, April 19, 2013

Chechen Men **Edited**

I woke up this morning to the news that one of the two Boston Marathon bombers was dead, and that his brother was on the loose.  Many of the channels on my TV are showing the coverage of the shoot-out that took place overnight, with scenes of SWAT teams fanning out on streets, yellow crime-scene tape everywhere.  People are told to stay in their houses, schools are closed, public transportation suspended.  I can’t remember anything this gripping, so terrifying in recent memory.  I’m sure people are scratching their heads, too.  Russians?  Too many people were quick to jump to the conclusion that the bombings had been carried out by Muslim Jihadists. 

Do the names “Beslan” and “Chechnya” ring a bell?  In September of 2004, this happened: 

On the opening day of school in a small town of Beslan, in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia, Chechen separatists (many wearing explosive belts and underwear) seized a primary school.  Not only were there teachers and students there, but also parents escorting their kids to school for the traditional “Knowledge Day”.  Nearly 600 people were held captive in a gymnasium that had been wired for explosives.  Executions took place, including that of a newborn baby.  The prisoners were kept for four days, with no food or water.  No one is sure what happened on the fourth day, but there were explosions and a fire broke out on the gymnasium roof, causing it to collapse on the hostages below.  It is theorized that a terrorist on the roof had his foot on the “dead man’s switch” of a bomb; the Russian authorities shot him, resulting in the bomb’s detonation.  There are conflicting stories, however, and no one was sure if the inferno was caused by the Chechens or by the storming Russian military, or the combination of both.  In either case, the horrifying result was more than 380 people dead.

I could go into the history of Chechnya, but suffice it to say that in the case of Beslan, a local warlord was intent on Chechen independence from Russia, and recognition by the UN of its status.  Why anyone could think that taking innocent men, women and children hostage would accomplish these goals is beyond comprehension. Conflicts continue in the area to this day. 

The area is geographically on the fringes of the Middle East; the population is predominantly Muslim.  When you look at a map of the area, you’ll see that Turkey is just southwest across the isthmus from Chechnya.  Azerbaijan is south, and below that, Iran.  If you head east from Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, you cross Daghestan to the Caspian Sea, and across that, is Kazakhstan.

The Beslan siege happened in September of 2004.  In late October of that same year, we headed to Kazakhstan to complete the adoption of our daughter, Melanie Karina.  There seemed to be a pattern forming: we had traveled to Kazakhstan in 2001 to adopt our older daughter, Lisa, right after 9-11.  We seemed to constantly travel in the shadow of international unrest. 

After we had completed the adoption process, Melanie’s dad traveled back to the US to be with his mother and father, who had moved into our house to care for our other children while we were away.  His father had had a fall, fracturing a vertebra, and David was needed at home.

Susanna, Liz and Melanie in Almaty
I remained in Almaty for the final steps of bureaucracy required to take Melanie home.  My mother had flown there to be with me, to help with the practicalities of caring for a two-year-old.  In between consulate appointments and passport photos, we shopped and visited museums, trying to absorb as much of my daughters’ native country as we could.

We were driven to a local museum, which also housed a merchant who sold rugs; exquisite Kazakh, Persian and Indian rugs.  I wrote this entry on my blog at the time:

(Vitalik was the driver assigned to us.  He was a quiet, but imposing man: over six feet tall and nothing but muscle, with a military haircut.  He told us later that he had formerly been on President Nazerbaev’s security detail.  As a parting gift to us, he presented us with a military officers' hat that he had worn while in the service).

“Today we woke up to rain. For having been here nearly 34 days, we have had only a day or two of inclement weather. It's actually kind of pretty, with the yellow fall leaves everywhere, and the shiny slick streets. Okay, the traffic jams kind of take away from the picturesque flora, but hey, you can't have everything, can you? This morning we were up at the dawn of crack ... Melanie had an early wake-up call, so I think I have committed the first parental taboo: I took her into my bed to go back to sleep. Will she ever sleep in her crib again?! I was semi-comatose when she woke up (had already been roused once by the barking dogs) so I was on auto-pilot. I have no idea what time it was, but it was near to o'dark thirty, and she did go back to sleep. The phone woke me up at 7:30; Charlotte calling.

Susanna and Mel, Almaty
"Then it was up for the day!
 Dilnoza from the (adoption agency) office called, and we had to be there at 11:00 to fill out some paperwork for the US Embassy on Friday. Vitallik drove us there; and then once again, we went to the Ramstore (the local department/grocery store). It's becoming our second home. Vitallik apparently has some kind of discount card that he uses every time. I haven't figured out how much it is.  We then paid a visit to the apartment of "Silk Road Sasha" who has started a little business of Kazakh rugs, dream quilts and paintings on silk fabric.

"After that we set out to a rug dealer. Everyone who has ever spent time in Kazakhstan knows about the great deals you can get on Oriental rugs ... from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and many of the other "stans". We pulled up to the museum of art, where a very nice young guy named Azamat had a store. It was a small shop, and Azamat enthusiastically pulled out rug after rug. So many to choose from! Where do you begin? There were some made of wool, some of camel hair, some of llama. There were rich dark burgundies and greens, rusts and oranges. 

Fruit vendors, Almaty
"While we were looking, a motley group of scary-looking men walked in, bearded and wearing Muslim 'caps', felt shoes and long coats. They started asking questions of Azamat, not waiting for us to finish. I figured, well we're just women, to heck with us ... After looking at some rugs, they walked out. A moment later they walked back in. One of them asked Azamat, in Russian, where these women were from. (I can understand Russian a heckofalot better than I speak it!) Being the cheerful friendly sort I am, I answered 'Amerikanska' but mom said, 'Canada!'  Behind the Muslim man I could see Vitallik motioning to me not to talk, and making the shush signal.  Frightened, I didn't say any more ... and the men walked out yet again.  Vatillik, speaking  in a low and serious voice, said, 'Chechen Men!' Chechen men?  The ones that blow up schools with small children in them?  Yikes almighty. And I just told them we were Americans! Good grief, can't I shut up once in a while? Last I heard Americans were not on the Chechen's 'friendly' list. We could see them milling around outside the shop, and I was scared to leave.

"We finally made our selections and haggled with Azamat. While we were talking, the men started to come in the shop again, and Azamat gruffly told them to wait outside. I was scared to death about leaving the money with Azamat, wondering if the Chechens were going to rob him or something. There was a policewoman sitting at a table in the lobby of the museum, which made me feel a little better. I hoped they weren't lying in wait by our car ... but much to our relief, when we left to leave, they were nowhere in sight.
  [I nevertheless felt that their eyes were somehow on us.  Thankfully we were insignificant people, not worth bothering with.] 

"You read about these things on the news ... about the school in Beslan, the planes going down in Russia; as horrific as those incidents were, they may as well have been on Pluto to us suburban US housewives. Granted, these guys were probably just tourists in Kazakhstan to buy rugs, I don't mean to make hasty generalizations and jump to conclusions. However, when you're up close and personal with Chechens, and reality hits a couple of feet away from you, your blood tends to run just a little cold. And the fact that Vitallik and Azamat were on their guard about them makes me realize that there is an element of "prejudice" against Chechens in Kazakhstan. 

So now we're home, having a quiet afternoon on a rainy afternoon. Melanie is down for a nap, and I'm right behind her. I'm washing a few clothes, and otherwise practicing my domestic talents. I am very ready to be home; to sleep in my own bed, hug my other children, and introduce them to their new sister! This has been a long and difficult trip, but I wouldn't have traded it for anything.”

Many people today woke up to learn that the alleged Boston Marathon bombers were from Chechnya.  I’m sure this was unexpected; people probably haven't even thought of Chechnya in a decade.  So often in this day and age, it is easy to think of the usual suspects: Al Qaeda. Granted, historically there has been a connection between the Chechen rebels and Al Qaeda.  However, we need to try to control ourselves from jumping to any conclusions about associations. Evil is evil, regardless of any religious affiliation.  We need to keep our mental paintbrushes clean, and not try to paint anyone into a judgmental box.  

There are no words to describe the cold sick feeling in my heart.  For an optimist who believes in the inherent goodness of humanity, it is a crushing blow to see that evil keeps rearing its disgusting head.  

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Adventures in Airport Security

And now for something completely different:

The other day we were flying home from Charlotte to Austin, after a rain-soaked, chilly week at Myrtle Beach with the kids (the fun of which would comprise an entire blog post).  As we were herded into the TSA checkpoint, emptying pockets and removing shoes and belts, I was hoping that I hadn’t forgotten some errant bottle of liquid buried in my carry-on bag.  It was similar to being fingerprinted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service all those years ago in conjunction with my daughter’s adoption: you know, of course, that there are no skeletons in your “closet” but you’re still irrationally afraid that something nefarious will turn up; that there is some nugget of your crazy college days floating around in the ether.  (Did someone take pictures that night?)

Then the feared question from the man in blue: “Is this your bag?” 

“Yes” … trying to act innocent, even though you know you are completely that, and wondering if there is some smidgen of guilt on your face.

Not too long ago I was in this same place.  I was pulled aside, and thought, “Oh hell, I forgot to pull out the bottle of shampoo.”  I told my better half, “It’s the shampoo, I know it.”  The TSA agent said, “No ma’am, it’s not shampoo,” and in that instant I remembered the two ultra-cool colored paring knives that we had bought at a high-end kitchen store the day previous.  You know, “Sur la Table”, or in my husband’s words, “the table store.” 

After our 2011 wedding in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, we were flying home.  The TSA agent questioned us, going down the checklist of forbidden items that might be in our checked luggage … any knives, explosives, HAIR SPRAY?  My husband and I looked at each other and groaned.  There was indeed a can of Aqua Net in my bag.  I opened it up and felt around until I found it, producing the illicit can, (and yes, I use Aqua Net, famous for freezing little old ladies’ hairdos for decades on end. What can I say, the stuff works).  The agent smirked and said, “No ma’am, I said BEAR SPRAY”.  You know, the Counter Assault Bear deterrent that contains capsaicin and shoots 12-30 feet in 7 seconds?  The one that warns: “Use with extreme caution, if not used properly it can disable the user, rather than the bear”?  Yes, that one.  We had both heard “hair spray”.  Maybe the guy was messing with us.  From that moment on my innocent Aqua Net forever became “bear spray”.  I suppose if it can save a hairstyle under Niagara Falls, it could keep a bear at bay.  (Or was that White Rain?)

So, back to the other day:  I was pulled aside, and they pulled out the dreaded wand with which they swabbed the inside of my computer case.  The agent put the sample into a machine, and all kinds of alarms started going off.  He called for a manager, and a swarm of four or five blue shirts descended on me.  A woman agent who reminded me a little of the Headmistress in the Roald Dahl book, “Matilda” (complete with sensible shoes and chin mole) told me she was going to pat me down.  And pat she did.  I mean, really patted.  I felt like I needed a cigarette when she was done. 

Meanwhile, I was thinking about the bag.  It was a new one, and I was using it for the first time.  I am pretty sure my husband is not into illegal drugs, but you never know everything about a person, do you?  (Kidding!)  These are the places where the mind goes when one is confronted with law enforcement on such an intimate level.  Did someone slip something into my bag when I wasn’t looking?  The film, Brokedown Palace suddenly was playing in the movie theater of my mind’s eye.  Remember Midnight Express?  At least I knew if I was going to prison it was only Charlotte, not Turkey.  Part of me, also, knew that I was scheduled to work the next day, something to which I was not looking forward.  How sick is it that it flashed through my head that I might get a day off if this situation went south?

They unpacked everything in my bag, and I swallowed hard every time they pulled something out.  I was cooperative and polite.  They were just doing their job.  I felt good knowing that they were being thorough and professional.  When people complain about the intrusiveness, don’t they realize that it is making them safer?  Would they rather the TSA be lackadaisical and sloppy?  I think not.  Ever wonder why the US posts signs warning about security standards in certain airports around the world?  Because some places aren't as careful, and a bribe can easily get an official to look the other way.  Would you feel safer there?  I don't think so.  Next time you feel frustrated by the long line at security, or uncomfortable being patted down, remember that these people are doing their best to keep YOU safe. It isn't their fault that a few extremists have made all this necessary.  It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Bad Guy would use a child to smuggle a drugs or a weapon, is it?  Stooping low is their modus operandi.

Of course, my little story has a happy ending.  They found nothing.  Asked what it was I had tested positive for, they said that they didn’t know; the alarm was just for “something”.  Truth?  I may never know.  Maybe it was just a drill for a rookie TSA agent, and I was just the guinea pig.

I was reminded of another time in the early 1970s, when my family was traveling from Europe to the US.  We transited through JFK, at the height of the Cuba hijackings.  I was frisked pretty vigorously (I was eleven!) in a little cubicle.  Asked later that summer what my favorite part of the trip was, I replied, “Getting frisked at JFK!”  Ah, the innocence of youth!