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Better Know a Commenter: aaj

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Royals Review's resident web developer by way of Brazil, Uzbekistan, and Russia sits down for a chat.

Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand
Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand

While we're all much more than just being Royals fans, it is the tie that binds us. What brought you to the Royals' front stoop knocking on the door to be let in? Perhaps more importantly, why did you stay?

I moved to KC last May and got caught up in the excitement. I’ve never really been a sports person before last year, so while I guess you could say that makes me a bandwagon fan, I plan to stick around regardless of whether or not we win any more titles. My wife and her family are casual fans, and we went to a couple games this summer. They’re the ones that introduced me to the Royals, and I followed every game last season all the way into the WS. Plus, I live in KC now so I couldn’t help not being a fan – it’s an easy way to begin to belong here.

Standard dating profile questions: Age? Sex? Height? Hair color? Marital status? Kids?

22 in June, male 6’3", brown hair, married, no kids (yet). We just got married last June (the reason I moved down here) and while we’d definitely like to have kids sometime soon, it’s not on the radar yet until mrs. aaj gets out of school.

While many choose not to define themselves by their job, what do you do to make ends meet? For how long have you been plying that trade?

I am a web designer/developer for Midwestern Seminary in Gladstone. I’ve been a web designer since high school, for about seven years now but have only worked at this job since July. MBTS hadn’t had a web developer before me, so it’s a challenging job since I’m writing my own job description and trying to build some processes for us to follow in the future. I quite enjoy it, though, and it keeps me busy!

Where do you live now, and where did you grow up?

My wife and I live in Grandview right now, but that’s pretty recent – since last summer. I grew up kind of all over the place, though I was born in the US (North Carolina) When I was three we moved to Brazil, where my dad taught in a Brazilian seminary. We were in Brazil all through elementary/middle school, and following that we moved to Tashkent, Uzbekistan and then Moscow, Russia. My dad was in Uzbekistan on a woodworking venture, so when that didn’t work out, we moved to Moscow where he teaches English to Central Asians.

Mr. and Mrs. aaj

Mr. and Mrs. aaj

Actually, I met my wife in Moscow, at a Christian high school called Hinkson Academy (both her parents teach/direct at the school). I did a year and a half there, and we started dating in high school. After graduating, I went to college in Minneapolis and she came back to KC. When we got married two years later, we moved to KC as I had no ties to Minneapolis other than the school, and she has lots of family in the area. This looks to be our home base for the next several years, but we may yet end up in Moscow alongside our parents – my wife is studying to be a teacher and Hinkson has a lot of appeal to both of us.

So there's a lot to unpack there in the where did you grow up area of the question. Where did you live in Brazil? Were you in American school there, were you in Brazilian school, or was home schooling the best option for you there?

We lived in Porto Alegre, which is in Rio Grande Do Sul right next to Uruguay. My brothers and I went to a small international school. Most of my teachers were actually Aussies and Kiwis, and most of my classmates were Brazilian. So I got an American education, but I also learned Portuguese through immersion because that's what all my friends spoke. I'm really grateful for that balance because I didn't have any throwaway years in school, due to not speaking the language, but I was still learning the language naturally, by hearing it spoken. The only downside was I had to attend both English and Portuguese grammar classes in middle school.

I'd imagine I speak for most of the community when I say that I know next to nothing about Uzbekistan other than that Tashkent is the capital. What was living in Tashkent like? Describe Uzbekistan to those of us who know little about the former Soviet state.

Man, I love Uzbekistan, but like most people I didn't know anything about it before we moved there. It's a very interesting country. The people there have really just been under different empires throughout most of history, so Uzbek "identity" is pretty unique but also pretty young and difficult to peg down. Islamic, Russian, Arabic, even some east Asian - it all kind of melts together. For me, the coolest part is Uzbekistan's identity on the Silk Road. Samarkand used to be a major trade city between Europe and Asia, and you can still see it in the architecture and history there. I've been more than once to see the buildings from Old Samarkand - just like a lot of Islamic buildings, they're very ornate and detailed. This patterned emphasis also comes out in their ceramics and woodworking stuff. And Uzbek food is also delicious.

What do Uzbek dishes generally consist of? Is it similar to anything other ethic cuisine?

Lots of rice and meat. Generally lamb, beef, and horse (in that order, as far as frequency goes). I absolutely love lamb in a good naan wrap, and horse is really good as well. The Uzbeks serve it shredded over cold noodles as a wedding dish, which is actually way better than it sounds. In terms of cuisine, they’re similar to Arab/Mediterranean foods many people have had, like shawarma, gyros, dolmada. Stuff like that is starting to be more popular here in the states, and it covers everything from Greece to Turkey to the Middle East to Central Asia. And it’s freaking good food to boot.

A woodworking venture? Please explain.

So my dad worked for Osborne Wood Products. They were hoping to find a good way to manufacture Uzbek/Russian lacquer boxes for export back to the US as souvenirs/knick-knacks. These lacquer boxes are black and red, with detailed paintings on the lids and sometimes the inside. We never worked out a viable way to make it work, but I still have some of the boxes, and I think they're really cool looking.

What is living in Moscow like? Is it tough for an American in this heightening political climate, or is that tension mostly isolated to the political sphere? Do you speak Russian, Uzbek, or Portuguese?

You know, it can be tough. When I describe the whole situation, I say Russia and the US are two great cultures that don't understand each other. I think the US really doesn't understand the Russian sense of motherland and national pride, and Russians really do think of the US as an empire that's trying to take over the world. I really love both cultures, though, and one of the things I love to do is promote cultural transactions - like introducing people to Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn or Tchaikovsky - Russian culture really is very rich.

I speak Portuguese fluently, since I spent ten years there. I have some Uzbek and Russian in my brain, but now living in the states those ones are fading fast ;) I think the Portuguese is wedged in there pretty well, though.

My cousins also mostly grew up abroad, and I always suspected that they might have had difficulties in adjusting to life in America after a youth spent bouncing around the globe. Have you ever felt like growing up as an American abroad has made for an awkward reintroduction into American culture? What's it like being in America after spending most of your life in Brazil, Uzbekistan, and Russia despite still being an American?

Yeah, it can definitely be weird. I think I had a smooth transition for the most part. I'd say the biggest thing is that I don't totally feel at home here in the US. People expect that I do because it's where I was born, but "home" is actually a weird mix of four or five different places I've lived and significant people in my life. I don't have, say, a hometown, because I've been all over. But I think since becoming an adult I've been able to wrestle with this idea without having an identity crisis. I do know it's a huge thing for many (most) third-culture kids, though, so I definitely don't want to minimize it.

What is your educational background/area of study?

Currently I have an associate’s degree in History and Worldview, but I’m not entirely out of college. I taught myself web design, so I’m a little skeptical of degrees and the benefits they supposedly offer, but I do get that in today’s culture you really need a four-year degree to open some extra doors for you. Fortunately, in web work your experience can speak as strongly as a certification or degree, and I have a good deal of experience.

I’m planning to go back to school to get a BA in Biblical Studies at some point because I get perks for working at a seminary, but I’m not clear yet where that’ll take me. A lot depends on if we head back overseas or not.

With the understanding that obviously baseball and the Royals are an area of interest for you, what other hobbies and interests do you have?

Well, I’m an avid reader. Dostoevsky is a favorite, as are several others. I read pretty voraciously, and that’s what I’m doing most evenings there’s not a ballgame on. A few friends and I have a side project called Into the Book that pulls together book reviews, blog posts, and content on reading/writing. We’re jumping into self-publishing this year, as well, so that’s been fun to learn. My background in design has served me well in learning how to format interiors and book covers.

I’m also a big board games fan, which is a more recent hobby but one that I really enjoy because of how much it brings folks together. We host a weekly board game night, and it’s one of the highlights of my week every time. There’s just something special about getting together to eat food and have fun.

Does your familiarity with Russian culture inform your love of Dostoevsky? Do your tastes in literature typically run in the international vein?

Yes! One of my dreams is to learn enough Russian to read Dostoevsky in the original Russian. I'd say my tastes are pretty eclectic. I try to be very intentional about reading from a broad swath of viewpoints, cultures, and perspectives, just to keep me well-rounded and adept at studying things that are different from me. That said, I read a lot of American/western literature as well.

The site's great. How are you looking to make the transition into a published form? Do you have an area in which you intend to focus?)

Right now we're preparing to launch G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy. This is a short little book in the public domain that really is a classic, but there aren't really any good print editions of it (I checked because I had to read it in college). Our short-term plan is to find forgotten public domain books like that, and republish them. Pretty modest at the moment. Eventually, though, we'd like to move into original content, specifically fiction. I have some friends and we've got the ItB team, so we think we could do self-publishing right and maybe graduate to something bigger later on. But right now, it's mostly a spare-time thing so that's all in the future.

Between Chesterton and wanting to finish up a degree in Biblical Studies, it seems like there's more that we need to talk about in regards to religion. Do you have theologians to whom you gravitate more than others? Have you found that as you've studied more, your religious beliefs have changed, incorporating new (at least for you) information into the larger belief structure in which you were raised?

I gravitate towards theologians that make much of God. I don’t make it much of a secret here on RR, but everything turned upside-down for me when I grew into my parents’ faith as my own. I was raised a Christian, but as I continued to pound on the Bible and on its teaching, I realized two things: it was all true, and I hated it. My own self hated how much the Bible talks about God’s grace, about remaking men in the image of God, and how sinful and messed up we all are without God. I mean, really hated it. But in the end, my life experience showed me that was true – there’s not anything good in me. And God has turned up again and again. I really do owe my life to him.

As far as theologians, not many specifically, but I love Jonathan Edwards. And J.I. Packer is a great 20th Century theologian. I was also really shaped by Augustine’s Confessions and Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, who are much older guys. I also love it when I find parallels to faith in the fiction I read, which explains my love for C.S. Lewis, Dostoevsky, and many other great authors.

What's the best thing you've read in recent memory? Describe it as though you were trying to convince someone else that they should read it.

I’d say Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, but that’s not very accessible. C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy is a fantastic set of books. He really captures the foreignness of living overseas (by telling about a human on Mars/Venus), and I love how he paints those worlds so vividly. It’s been a great read and is packed with some pretty gnarly philosophical stuff too, which I’ve enjoyed.

We all have a long list of stupid shit that we've done. What's the dumbest thing you've done?

I was a pretty big idiot in high school so the list could be long. Dumbest thing, though, would have to be when we were in Turkey. Me and my buddy found this island several miles from our hotel, and walked along the beach to get to it. When we got there, we tried to wade out to it (it was connected to shore by a sandbar). Well, the water turned out to be chest deep and there was rain blowing in, so we got knocked down several times. Eventually, we decided we needed to turn back because our feet were cut from the rocks we were walking on.

Well, we get out of the water, and it hadn’t been rocks but sea urchins. I think I had 84 spines in my feet and several in my hands as well. We walked back to the hotel, in the rain, with sea urchin spines in our feet, and then, because we didn’t want to tell our parents, tried to pull the spines out ourselves with tweezers. We ended up at a Turkish urgent care where they numbed our feet and dug the spines out with a knife. To add insult to injury, my Dad’s credit card info got stolen at the urgent care, and he had to reissue everything. To be honest, I’m amazed at how well my dad handled the situation. He didn’t blow up or anything. Hope I can be that good to my kids when I’m a parent.

Growing up overseas, did you get to travel a lot? What are the most interesting places your travels took you?

Fortaleza Canyon

Fortaleza Canyon

I did, yes, and it's one of the richest/most valuable parts of my childhood to me. I think my favorite place on earth would have to be Fortaleza Canyon in Brazil. It's a national park, but there aren't guard rails or anything...the parking lot is just dirt. And you walk, and all of a sudden there's this gash in the earth, just empty space and sheer cliffs, and you're right there. It's breathtaking. I'd love to bring my wife there someday.

What's the weirdest place you've visited?

Weirdest place, huh? Hard to say. I’ve loved most places I’ve visited. There’s one hill in a park in Uzbekistan, though, where everyone ties scraps of fabric to a certain tree. They say all your wishes will be granted there. For a nominally Muslim country, there’s a lot of superstition tied up in the hill. It felt weird to me while I was there.

Describe yourself in three sentences or less.

Follower of Jesus who loves ideas, exploring, and literature. Creative/writer. Bit of a nutcase that appreciates obscure vocabulary and convoluted speech.

What Royals Reviewer would you be most interested to meet in person? Why?

I picture Scott McKinney as a seven-foot-tall Sluggerrr who hits home runs, with commenters who disagree with him as the ball. Kind of hard to say no to meeting someone that attractive!