Saturday, April 28, 2012

Two Easters

Until this year, I hadn't realized that the Eastern Orthodox Church's Easter falls on a different date than the Catholic tradition's celebration. This is because the Eastern Orthodox Church follows the Julian calendar, instead of the Gregorian. Both holidays fall on different dates every year. This year, the Orthodox Easter fell one week after the Easter we are familiar with. 

Kyrgyz people (being Muslim for the most part) don't celebrate Easter; however, the Eastern Orthodox Easter is a significant holiday for Russian people. The traditional Russian Easter breads appeared on the streets in the days before the holiday. Called kulich, the breads are tall, narrow loaves with raisins inside, topped with white icing and sprinkles. As I walked Misha and Sebby home from school, we would buy some of these little loaves to munch on.

The Russians also attend a special church service on Easter night. We were invited and would have liked the chance to see it, but a few things deterred us. The main drawback was simply the fact that the service started at midnight and lasted until 3 a.m. Traditionally, everyone remains standing for the entire service. People dress in dark, drab colors and congregate in the church. The pastor then recreates the light of Jesus returning to the world in an involved ceremony, and everyone walks throughout the church lighting candles. The service culminates joyfully and everyone participates in a feast. Since we had school and work the next day, we decided that trying to make it to the service would be a stretch!

However, on our familiar Easter date, we did manage to dye some eggs:

Then the kids hid them for Daddy to find. Sebby was so excited he was screeching at the top of his lungs and pointing out the exact location of the eggs, as if he were shocked to find them where he himself had hid them!

Let the hunt begin.

We re-hid the eggs so many times that most of them had cracks in them by the time we were done (but we only hid the hard-boiled ones) and we were missing a few of the eggs. These turned up a few weeks later ...  and I hope none are left rotting in the living room behind the couch!

Little Linguists

Misha and Sebby join the slide madness at the park in front of our apartment.

Josh and I still can't get over how good our kids have gotten at communicating in a second language. After a solid six months of Russian immersion at school every day, the kids do just fine in school and at the playground without relying on English. Now that the weather is so ideal, we have been playing outside with the children in our area. And since the boys are able to understand so much more now, it is much more rewarding for them as they socialize with other kids and improve their Russian at the same time.

Two girls join Misha to dig up dirt for our flowers.

Misha can really hold his own in Russian. There are always new words that he doesn't know, of course, but he's great at using context to understand the meaning. On top of that, his accent is so good that it leaves his parents feeling extremely envious. Misha now corrects our pronunciation. For example, when I say words, like быстро ("fast"), he tells me, "Mom, it's not beestra, it's bistra." (The Russian letter ы is a sound we do not have in English, and most adults learning Russian find it a bit tricky. It's like putting your mouth in the shape to say "eeee" but trying to say "i" as in "pig.")

Misha and Vladik on scooters.

Now that he is almost ready for first grade, he has started bringing home math homework and short texts to practice reading in Russian - sometimes about elephants, sometimes about dogs who traveled in space. To help Misha learn even faster, we found a teacher to give him extra lessons a few times a week. These home “classes” aren't really work; they're mostly fun conversations and having stories read aloud as a way to learn new words. We always hear Misha jabbering away in Russian and laughing during his lessons!

A three-person hug with Alihan

Misha and Sebby both have a natural sense of the language. When they hear Russian spoken around them, they switch immediately to speaking their second language. Misha knows more vocabulary than Sebby, which is understandable since a seven-year-old's world is much bigger than a three-year-olds. However, we are constantly surprised when we hear how well our little Sebby can speak Russian in complete sentences. When our friends come over and ask him questions, he responds easily and naturally. If they ask him what he did, he might say, “Ya mnoga paspal. Ya pakushal.” (I slept a lot. I ate.) Last week my friend asked him, “Gdye Misha?” (Where's Misha?) and Sebby launched into an explanation: “Misha nietu; on tuda uyehal.” (Misha's gone, he went over there.) After school, we sometimes ask Sebby "Chto ti kushal?" (what did you eat?) and he pipes up immediately, "Soop i hleb!" (soup and bread).

Saule teaches the boys a Russian hand-slapping game.

In many ways, Sebby's youth has really given him the chance to learn a second language completely naturally. Sebby has learned the language purely through situations, without using translation. Young children Sebby's age don't even understand the concept of translation. They have learned a set of words in their first language, and separately they have learned a set of words in their second language. They can use both sets of words very well. If you ask Sebby “Do you want water?” he will say “Yes,” just as if you ask “Ti hochish vodu?” he will say “da.” But if you ask him, “What is 'water' in Russian?”, the question doesn't even make sense to him. Since he has learned all of his vocabulary and expressions naturally, he speaks very well, with a more natural sense of grammar than adults.

To take one example, Sebby uses the expression “I have” perfectly in Russian. To say “I have an apple” in Russian, you say “u menya yest yablaka” - which word-for-word means “To me there is an apple.” Misha sometimes says it incorrectly in Russian (“Ya est yablaka”) because he's thinking of the English equivalent in words. Sebby, in contrast, learned the phrase as a whole without translation, and I hear him say “u menya est!” and “u menya nyet!” (I have it!, I don't have it!) just as Russian children do.

Being older isn't always a drawback, though. Misha has the advantage of knowing and appreciating the differences between languages. He finds words interesting and he often asks, “Why does Russian say it that way?” He also has a lot of chances to share knowledge with his classmates. They ask him words for objects in English and in turn he asks them the Russian names for things. Also, we have noticed that Misha is starting to pick up the correct endings for words, simply from listening to Russian all day. Russian has six cases, which means word endings change to reflect what part of speech they are used as (like German, which has four cases). Both boys have made so much progress already that we can confidently say they will be extremely comfortable in Russian by the end of next year!

The wonderful thing about Bishkek is that Russian isn't the only language you hear on the street. Kyrgyz is prevalent also (even though some city Kyrgyz people don't know their own language well and prefer to speak in Russian), and Kyrgyz language is a required subject in schools. That means that Misha knows a good handful of words in Kyrgyz, such as colors, numbers, and animals, as well as several Kyrgyz songs. Sebby also hears Kyrgyz at school, and sometimes I hear him say Kyrgyz phrases, like “chong bala!” (big boy) and “Bul emne?” (what's that?). 

Misha and Sebby with Vladik

Now for an interesting story about Misha's friend Vladik:
When Josh and I were in Kyrgyzstan the first time, we taught a Russian guy named Pasha, who worked as a guard for the U.S. Embassy. Pasha's wife had just had a baby, and I was pregnant with Misha. After Misha was born, we started to hang out with Pasha and his wife Marina, and the kids - Vladik and Misha - would play. When we went back home to America, we lost contact with them. However, by a funny turn of events, when we came back to Kyrgyzstan in September, we realized we are neighbors with Vladik's family. On top of that, Vladik now has a little brother Yarik who is less than a year older than Sebby.

This photo shows Misha and Vladik together in Kyrgyzstan the first time around, when they were about a year old. :)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Proud to be 7

Every birthday seems to be a major step into growing up, but for some reason seven sounds like such a big jump! Even Misha felt it. In the months and weeks leading up to his birthday, he would say things like, "Six is still little, but when I'm seven, I won't be little anymore. Seven is really big." Then he'd laugh and say, "And Grandma Kate is gonna tell me to stop growing up so fast!"

April 6 sneaked up quickly, and Misha celebrated his 7th birthday in the very country he was born. As usual, he had two mini-parties: one at school and one at home. For the school party, we made a brownie-cake and sent Ben 10 pencils and Smurf erasers for all the children. For our own party, we grabbed Alihan's family and went out to a nice pizza restaurant with an outdoor playground. The kids played on the swings and slides while we waited for the pizzas. Then we all chowed down and moved right onto cake and presents!

For the record, I didn't misspell Misha's name. In the Russian alphabet, his name looks like Миша. :)

Misha had to blow the candles out quickly before Sebby could beat him to it.

I still can't believe I am the mother of a seven-year-old! Amazing.

Pizza Party

On to the presents!

Legos - thanks, Alihan!

New books. :)

And a brand-new SDSU Jackrabbit sweatshirt sent all the way to Bishkek from Grandpa and Grandma. He looks great in it!

And Sebby loves his vest-style Jackrabbit jacket too (his early birthday gift from the grandparents). Now it's difficult to get Sebby to wear anything that doesn't have a jackrabbit on it!

At home, we had one more present waiting for Misha - his own guitar. He's been asking for one. It's a bit big for him, but he's getting used to it. Josh has been teaching him a fun CCR song (Creedence Clearwater Revival). We're working on a few easy chords too, like Em and A.

The Legos provided hours of entertainment for Mommy and Daddy as well!

Josh and I realize more and more what great boys we have. Misha is such a good kid with a huge sweet streak and the curiosity and motivation of a whole roomful of children. He is also - more often than we give him credit for - a patient and kind big brother. We sometimes watch the two of them without their being aware of it, and we see how Misha truly enjoys making his brother happy. If something makes Sebby burst out laughing, Misha will keep repeating the action over and over simply for Sebby's amusement. When they dash madly around the house, Misha tries to be careful with Sebby. And when Sebby gets hurt, as he inevitably does, Misha shows compassion and tries to help. He even comes to us and tells us (with guilty eyes) that Sebby got hurt on accident. At night, once in a while, Misha will read The Cat in the Hat or another story to Sebby while Josh and I treasure a few quiet moments together.

Though definitely his own stubborn little person, Sebby has Misha's sweetness and interest in new things. For an under-three-year-old, Sebby has a pretty impressive attention span. He loves to paint (he chooses one color at a time, and methodically fills the entire paper up until it is a solid color with no white showing through - and sometimes he turns it over and paints the back as well!). He also draws, colors, and decorates pages with stickers. He desperately wants to participate in whatever activity Misha is doing, whether it's building with Legos, stirring cookies, or planting flowers. Even if Misha is vacuuming, Sebby will demand, "I want to vacuum too!" He is very affectionate, always sneaking back into our room at night for an extra kiss and hug from each of us. "I need another kiss!" he'll say, and what parent could turn that down? 

They are both doing so well in their school. Sebby had a stomach bug this week and had to miss a day, but when he saw Misha leaving for school, he ran to the front door, put his shoes on, and begged, "I want to go too! I want to go too!" As we were walking home Friday after school, Misha said, "I want to go to school tomorrow." Thinking he had forgotten what day it was, I said, "But tomorrow is Saturday." "I know," Misha responded, "but I want to see my friends." Now that the weather is so pleasant, Misha's class has been playing zamorojka (freeze tag) at every recess, and Misha loves it. It's wonderful that the boys both feel comfortable with the other students and their teachers. Naturally, a good deal of their confidence comes from their continuing familiarity with Russian. More on that soon!

Happy Birthday, Misha!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Mountain Getaway: Tyopli Kluchi

At the very end of March, we had a few days off, and naturally, we were eager to take advantage of this time to go somewhere. First, we were hoping to trek to the village of Talas to the West to visit the parents of our friend, but avalanches in the mountain passes made us reconsider. Therefore, we simply spent two nights in the mountains about an hour out of the city at Tyopli Kluchi ("Hot Springs"). I'm not sure who enjoyed it more - the adults or the kids.

Here is our timed-shot of our whole group: Saule, Anara, Turat, Alihan, and the four of us.

Though Bishkek has warmed up quickly, the weather in the mountains is much cooler. Snow patches dot the landscape between budding trees and new grass. The warm sun feels wonderful in the crisp air. The mountains are still draped in white at their peaks, but the snow is already melting with gusto. Water trickles merrily down the the dirt roads, creating lots and lots of mud, and down the slanting sidewalks that lead up to the cabins, pooling muddily at the bottom of steps. I brought extra clothes for Sebby, which turned out to be a very good idea. His quick movements, lack of coordination, and the uneven terrain resulted in him flat-out belly-flopping into more puddles than I could count. He was on his third set of clothing within 40 minutes of arriving!

One activity we made sure not to miss out on was grilling shashlik. We brought plenty of beef and fat to chop up and marinate in onion, garlic, salt, and sour cream or kefir (plain liquid yogurt). Then we skewered the chunks of beef and fat and roasted them over a fire, enjoying the delicious scent riding on the breeze while they were cooking.

Josh and Turat headed up the grilling committee.

Cooking to perfection!

With my talented shashlik chef.

Digging in. Shashlik is best eaten with raw onion and vinegar - yum! 

Sebby was excited to taste it, too.

When darkness fell, we let the three little monkeys watch a cartoon while the adults played cards. Saule tried to teach us the secrets to Durak (which means "Fool"), the most popular card-game in Kyrgyzstan.

Our second day was perfect, a warm and sunny day with no wind. Misha and Sebby were eager to be outside, so Josh and I took them up the river valley on an amazing three-hour hike. Not only did they love it, but they didn't even run out of energy. Interesting rocks of all sizes, jutting branches, and long grasses inspired Sebby to climb as much as he could by himself. The sound of running water burbling along under the ice was pleasant to listen to. When the going got tougher, we helped Sebby out a bit, but Misha acted like an accomplished climber, jumping from rock to rock across the river. Eventually we left the river and scaled some huge boulders before turning back.

The snow got deeper as we ventured higher. Sometimes it came up to Misha's waist! Needless to say, his shoes were completely soaked by the time we got back to our cabin.

In addition to making more shashlik (and more and more), we also got the chance to swim in the hot-springs-heated indoor pool. The boys were so excited to swim again after so long.

The next morning dawned cool and misty, with mysterious fog shrouding the tops of the mountains. After breakfast and a dip in the pool, we returned to Bishkek relaxed and refreshed.