by Laura Lucht
October’s blue sky shone outside the classroom window, softened by treetops and by the haze of exhaust from Almaty’s heavy traffic. I fidgeted in a wooden seat, half-way back at the far right side of the classroom. In my black business suit, bright scarf and heeled shoes, I felt slightly out of place beside the dozen blue-jean-clad teenagers I would be teaching later in the day. I had asked to sit in on Kazak language classes to keep up with the pace of lessons at home during the three weeks of my teaching trip to Kazakhstan. Both eager and nervous for this first chance to test my skills in a group of native speakers, I was glad that these particular “native speakers” had grown up speaking Russian and had just started learning Kazakh at the university. Their level matched mine.
The first few minutes put me at ease. The young teacher, Sulu-apa, included me in her smile to the students as she suggested, “Let’s start out by practicing grammatical relations.” Students shuffled papers on their two-seater desktops, and Sulu-apa turned to the blackboard.
“They were friends looks like this. Adding this makes it say, They had been friends for a long time.” So far, so good. I wasn’t sure who had become friends, but it seemed a promising start.
“Spilled. The milk spilled.” I drew a cup tipped over on my clean sheet of block-note, adding a seeping puddle. Spilled.
“Its tail. These endings make it the particular tail that something was done to.” The endings are familiar from my Kazakh class in Washington, but the verb that comes next gives me a puzzle: “Pulled off. The cat’s tail was pulled off.” Starting to suspect that I’ve missed something, I draw a frowning cat with a striped tail still attached, then add a large arrow pointing away from the cat’s body.
“This is how you make it say my tail. Give my tail to me.” A logical next step.
Now I’m drawing a spotted cow. “To the cow. This shows where you are going.” I’m pleased to have learned the word for “cow,” since I haven’t seen this yet in the news articles that make up our curriculum at home. Now I’ll know what to say if I ever need to visit a cow.
And so it continues: vaguely odd examples illustrating grammatical relations that I recognize from a year of basic Kazak language study. If you’re really hungry, you say your stomach is open. I draw a donut-bellied stick figure to illustrate. This is tree, and this is leaves. One leaf – some leaves – lots of leaves. I’m glad for the vocabulary, but perplexed when suddenly the cat appears again: The cat went to the tree. Next comes the word for thirsty. The stick figure smiles and pours water into his mouth. Girls – egg – hen – mouse. I draw the mouse. Now, a list of sentences I’m proud to understand:
The tree gave some of its leaves.
The cat gave the leaves to the cow.
The cat gave the milk to the girl.
The girl gave the cat’s tail back to the cat.
I stare at the page with the same emotions I felt as an eight-year-old, trying to turn a heap of crumbs into a pie crust. I recognize the parts: the grammar is familiar, and the characters are the same as those in the storybooks sitting in my suitcase, ready for this afternoon’s lesson on “Using Children’s Stories as a Tool for Language and Culture Learning.” However, I have no idea why the cat is feeding the cow or suffering bodily harm at the hands of the girl. In the space of twenty minutes, I have realized that these are not just random examples, but parts of a story. The pattern of that story escapes me.
Sulu-apa turns to the blackboard again, dusting chalk from her white linen suit. She draws a time line, left to right, and sketches a cat at the starting point. Then she punctuates the line with five points, and calls Nurlan to the board. “Nurlan, show us where the cat goes, and what he asks for.” Excited, I copy the line into my notebook. First, cow and milk. Then, tree and leaves. Next, three girls and water. After that, the chicken and the egg. Finally, the mouse and the grain. A long empty stretch of line, then the cat again, with an arrow pointing to “Cotton Girl.” The pieces begin to fit: I know the story is about the cat; the three girls seem innocent, but “Cotton Girl” is a sinister character; each creature lines up with a reasonably associated object. But I’m certain that I have not yet grasped the gestalt. What is going on in this story? Why am I so confused? Could the pattern I’m missing tell me something important about how things work in this place,
Sulu-apa smiles and nods. “Good, Nurlan, now tell us back the story.”
Nurlan draws a deep breath and begins. “One day, the cat spilled the milk….” and the pieces fall into place. This story explains the importance of the appropriate gift, the essential skill of making connections within a personal network in order to resolve conflict. Nurlan told on, and I began to understand:
The cat spilled the milk, so Cotton Girl took his tail. The cat said, “Please give me back my tail!” But Cotton Girl said, “First go get me some more milk.” So the cat went to the cow. “Cow! Cow! Please give me some milk!” said the cat. But the cow said, “I’m really hungry. First go get me some leaves, and then I’ll give you some milk.” So the cat went to the tree. “Tree! Tree! Please give me some of your leaves!” But the tree said, “I’m really thirsty. First go get me some water, and then I’ll give you some leaves.” Then the cat saw three girls who were drawing water. “Girls! Girls! Please give me some of your water!” But the girls said, “First go get us an egg, and then we will give you some water.” So the cat went to the hen. “Hen! Hen! Please give me an egg!” But the hen said, “First get me some grain, and then I will give you an egg.”
At this point, the story turned perplexing again. The mouse and the grain appeared, but the exact terms of the grain transaction between the mouse and the cat escaped me. I suspected something sinister, but I didn’t want to jump to any hasty conclusions. In any case, the successful cat retraced his steps back up the timeline. Nurlan continued:
So, the cat gave the grain to the hen, and then hen gave him an egg. The cat gave the egg to the girls, and the girls gave him some water. The cat gave the water to the tree, and the tree gave him some leaves. The cat gave the leaves to the cow, and the cow gave him some milk. The cat gave the milk to Cotton Girl, and Cotton Girl gave him back his tail.
Delighted with my new insights, I told the story back to the students in my seminar that afternoon. They smiled and nodded, and agreed with the moral I had pinned to the story. The cat used his network to solve the problem, discovering what each person needed and finding someone else who could supply it. “Here, it’s all about who you know,” they said.
Two points still bothered me: the severed tail and the mouse’s grain. I entered Sulu-apa’s classroom the next morning with a different group of students, still puzzling about the pattern of the story. This time I noticed two photocopied sheets on each of the students’ desks: text punctuated with little pictures. Their task was to fill in the grammatical relations for lexical items represented by cartoonish icons. This advanced class breezed through the story and moved on to a discussion of Zodiac animals, leaving me perplexed. How did violent retribution, extortion and payback fit into a children’s tale? No worse than Grimm, perhaps, but how would Kazak people explain this story? Determined to discover the missing piece, I asked Sulu-apa if I could copy the story and read it for myself. She gladly handed over the rumpled original, and I hurried off to the International Programs office to run a copy.
After returning the original to Sulu-apa, I sat down in the teachers’ lounge, eagerly reading through to the section about the cat and mouse. When I got there, I was stumped. The tricky sentence surpassed my grammar and vocabulary. Word-for-word, it reads thus: Now what to do not knowing cat soul open-who mouse-from one pinch millet brought gave. Did the mouse really give the grain to the cat just out of the kindness of his heart? I decided that the next day, I would speak up in class and ask Sulu-apa and the students to explain it to me.
Wednesday morning found me in my seat, half-way back on the right-hand side of class with yet another group of students. I listened through the story again, scribbling now-familiar vocabulary on my block-note page. The cat-and-mouse sentence still puzzled me. At the end of the story, I raised my hand. “I have a question….” Sulu-apa smiled, and all the students turned to look at me. “So, the cat didn’t give anything to the mouse?” The students giggled, and nodded that this was correct. “Then why did the mouse give the grain to the cat?” At this, the class burst into laughter. “Because he was afraid for his life!” Aziz explained. So, my worst suspicions were confirmed. Sulu-apa shook her head and sighed. “Some people are like that,” she admitted. “This story shows how everything in life is connected.”
I ran across the cat and mouse again on my way out of the country. At the departure lounge in the Almaty airport, I spent the last of my tenge to buy the entire inventory of children’s books on hand at the news stand. Among them was a small book of Kazak folk tales with translation into Russian and English. Hurrying to the gate, I stopped to check: sure enough, the cat story was there, but in a slightly different version that involved a detour to the shop for bubble gum demanded by the three girls. This edition was a bit more grisly: a cartoon at the head of the story showed Cotton Girl scolding the Cat, with a pair of wicked-looking shears hanging from a nearby nail, ready for tail-slicing. The story spelled out the interaction between the cat and the mouse that I had found so perplexing:
The cat was thinking, “What will I do now?” when she saw a mouse digging a hole. The cat caught the mouse, and she said, “Tell me everything. What is in your home?”
The mouse said in her fright, “In my home there is one dish of millet.”
“Bring me a handful of that millet!” said the cat.
The mouse went to his house, and brought back one handful of millet….
(Uiukbaeva, p. 33)
On the long flight home, I thought about the story. It is so easy to judge the sensibilities of another culture. The books I had left behind in Kazakhstan showed pictures just as shocking: a wolf trapped by a pig in a pot of boiling water, a talking tree suffering gradual dismemberment at the hands of its best friend. Despite these shared motifs, the pattern of retribution and extortion in the Cotton Girl story still set off my internal alarm that cried, “Corruption!”
Finding corruption in a children’s story gave me new eyes to see it with compassion. I understood the starting point: a mistake leads to a consequence that requires resolution. Those who have power wield it to set restitution in motion. The chain exchange plays out nicely until the person making amends runs out of options. At that point, he may try to take advantage of someone weaker to lay the situation to rest. Through the lens of the story, two facts come clear: it is better to be a girl with scissors than to be a mouse with grain. And if someone tries to take your grain, someone else likely has his tail.
Uiukbaeva, M. I. (2010) Kazakhskie narodnye skazki na trekh iazykakh. [Kazakh folk tales in three languages]. McGuire, G., Trans. Almaty: Vox Populi.
Laura Lucht is a second-year REECAS M.A. student working on a thesis regarding Kazakhstan’s internationalization of higher education. She spent three weeks in October 2011 visiting two universities in Kazakhstan for teaching, research and language study. In her spare time, she collects children’s books.