The Expat Life: 500 Words for Competence

In working at Atameken* University, I’ve had the goal of getting to know the expat community, so that these connections might help me more easily travel and find work in the future. But as a librarian on local pay, I’m also a bit segregated from the faculty.

But I’m a clever anthropologist. My chance to meet them, I figured out, is to go to the cafeteria at lunchtime, slip into the faculty/staff lounge… and pretend like I’m just one of them.

So I arrived to school around half past noon today for my evening shift, bounced up the steps to the second-floor stolovaya (cafeteria). Grabbing a tea and pastry, I plopped myself down in the last seat at a table with five professorly types.

Scientists and Teacher by plakboek, on Flickr

“Scientists and Teacher” by plakboek. Not these people, but the resemblance is clear!

The professorly types shift around the table, and I get introduced to everyone: There’s *Rudy, a guy who’s lived across Montana and Alaska, as well as *Doug, who has spent 14 years living and working in Russia (He’s a pudgy guy with curly dark hair, who moves a toothpick around his mouth, left-right-left, for most of our conversation). Then there’s *Karen and her husband, and an unnamed short science type, dressed entirely in khaki.

They’re mostly finished with their lunch, but perhaps in a nod to me, the heftier guys go back up and grab pastries for dessert. The conversation circles around foreign places:

Just 500 Words

“How do we learn Russian well?” Karen’s muzh asks. I missed his name, so I start thinking of him as Muzh, the Russian word for husband. Old but physically fit in a neat pressed charcoal-grey shirt, Muzh wears gold cuff-links and quietly dominates the table.

“Well, you have to be about five years old and live in Russia,” Doug slurs through his toothpick. He also recommends at least one intensive hour every day to get to any level of competency.

“I’ve tried to learn 500 words,” Rudy says, mathematically. “It’s exactly the level you need to survive.”

Doug starts to protest, and Rudy continues with a self-satisfied expression: “Straight, left, right, bus, help!”

“Well, survival, yes…” Doug mumbles.

Animals and Women

“I went looking for dog food the other day,” Muzh comments, “and tried speaking in Russian. My guy assured me that the store would be open, but when the driver got there it was closed. So how do I find dog food?” Everyone jumps in on this one; they all seem to have pets. After an extended comparison of their luck in finding pet food at Green Market vs. Ramstor, they comment on how much Kazakhs love their cats, but that cat food just won’t do for a dog.

“Same in Saudi,” Muzh leans back, extending his cuff links towards his tea. He tells a story about how they love horses and falcons there. His wife Karen talks about a falcon surgery they saw in Riyadh, “I mean, we were invited right into the operating room to watch!”

“Did you have culture shock?” Doug asks her, suddenly interested. His toothpick stops moving. “I mean, with the role of women.”

“No, it’s okay if you accept it,” she says. Karen seems to have taken advantage of her feminine role. She got to see the horses in the King’s stables, she says, because I went straight up to the guards and asked them, “Can I pet your horses?”

Who are you? they asked. Why, my name’s Karen, she replied. And why do you want to come in? They ask her, glancing at the doors of the gate. I would just like to pet them.

So Karen somehow wrangled an invitation to the King’s stables, and got to walk up and down the rows of stallions with Muzh. There must have been forty or more beautiful pedigreed horses, mares and stallions, each with a pedigree prominently displayed above the stall. But they never met the King, as the royal family was rather distant there.

Oh, it’s different in the Emirates, Rudy assures us. He eats the remainder of a banana, picking off the bad spots. “Costeau and I were invited to the Emir’s house several times, including for the month of Ramadan. We were told to come every evening for a month, and sometimes it didn’t start till after midnight.

“One night Costeau didn’t want to come, but they wouldn’t allow it. They had me call his hotel to get access to his room. He was in the bathtub, but they came in, and I said, hey Jack, neither of us is getting out of this, we have to go. That’s how it was, every night.”

I’m unclear if this is Jacques Costeau or some other famous Costeau, but these professioanl expats continue swapping stories. There’s the wildlife in Alaska, the MooseMobiles used to drag off roadkill moose. There’s the way Muzh’s friend in Kansas would get a call from the state troopers early in the morning. Hey, want a deer? He’d hear a voice say, and he would grab his truck and get it. He’d string it up on a basketball hoop on his front driveway, then start cutting it open before he had to leave for work at the university — at least as crazy a story as from any foreign country.

Khaki shirt hasn’t traveled as much, and only speaks up at the End. I learn that he’s from the East Coast but moved out Colorado to study robotics.

“Everyone in robotics is from Colorado,” Muzh says, “I’ve just been reviewing the resumes. A lot of people from [the Colorado School of] Mines.”

“Well, mines are dirty, dull, and dangerous,” Khaki says. “So that’s what you use robots for, right?” He tries to tell a story, but stumbles painfully in the act of anecdoting. Everyone checks their watches and patiently listens, but soon they excuse themselves.

As soon we pick up our pink trays and hand them to the local cafeteria ladies, we’re replaced by other expats sitting down for their lunches. I slip out without a word… a moderate success. I may be practicing with rather odd expats, but I’m sure that social fluency will be mine soon! 🙂

1 Comment

  1. love your descriptions…I can almost “see” all of you around the table 😀

    and “just” 500 words sounds almost manageable enough to get me started on learning Navajo…

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