Before I arrived in Kazakhstan, I was determined to keep my expectations limited and my mind open. This would not be my first experience studying abroad, but it would be my first language focused trip, and it would also be in a region that I have only recently begun studying. Knowing that I would be reprogramming my brain to think and speak in Russian, I hoped that I could proactively lessen what I assumed would be inevitable culture shock by not having too many preconceived ideas of what life in Almaty would be like. To my good early fortune, my first three weeks have gone relatively smoothly. For me, the cultural differences between the United States and Kazakhstan are nothing compared to the difficulty of transitioning from the English language to Russian. My only expectation was that it would not be easy. But I came because I was ready to push myself, even if my language skills were abysmally weak, and even if this program proves to be the most difficult thing I have done in my life so far. In short- Challenge accepted.
Compared to the hundreds of travel videos and articles of students and expats traveling to Western Europe; few Americans write about studying in Kazakhstan or Central Asia. Few people back home know anything about Kazakhstan at all. Eventually as I continued to tell more friends and family about my upcoming trip, I began to consider this general lack of knowledge as even more incentive for me personally to be in Almaty compared to any of the other cities where I could have chosen to study Russian. I was attracted to Kazakhstan originally by the idea of how the history of Central Asia is connected to the history of the Soviet Union. There are diverse stories here of families that I know so little about and that I am eager to hear and to better understand.
During my first week in Kazakhstan I was introduced to a new friend who had been teaching here in Almaty, and we had coffee with a former classmate of hers. She is from Turkmenistan, her classmate is from Uzbekistan, and they both studied in the United Kingdom. They both speak fluent Russian, among other languages, but having only so recently arrived they allowed me to speak in English. My friend from Turkmenistan has been studying transitional justice in Russia. We nonchalantly began discussing utopias and the nature of communism. Communism has affected many lives, including their own. Many years ago, a young Tatar-Russian girl from Kazan watched her family be murdered by Soviet soldiers. She ran away and escaped on the first train out of the city. The train took her to Turkmenistan, where she never left. Her granddaughter now studies human rights and transitional justice. Communism affected many lives, she said, but too few talk about it. My new friends also told me about the food and hospitality of Central Asia. They described an “aggressive hospitality” that insists on serving and providing for guests; often seen at mealtimes when guests are given extra helpings of food. A quintessential food in Kazakhstan is plov. My host family served me plov as my first meal after arriving in Almaty. I knew that plov was basically rice and beef with carrots, but I did not realize that there are Central Asian culinary competitions dedicated solely to plov and its regional variations. Food is a daily conversation among both my classmates and my host family.
I have never stayed with a host family before, and being a twenty-five-year-old graduate student with no younger siblings, it has been a while since I have been a part of a family’s daily routine. My first thought when I arrived was being impressed by the size of my host family’s four room apartment. After sharing a studio apartment with my best friend in Washington, D.C. for the past two years I now have a greater appreciation for square footage. I live with my host mom and her eleven-year-old son. Her husband works in Aktau, and her daughter goes to university in Astana, so my first weekend was the only time we have all been together. My host dad and sister both speak English, which gave me a few days for language transition before classes started. We had a lovely weekend at home and I grew fond of my host family very quickly. On my second day in Almaty we had our first group excursion which was a hike in the mountains. I discovered the hard way that a “hike” in the mountains is not the same as a “hike” through the metro parks of Ohio; but with assistance and many pauses I did manage to climb to the top of the path.
My host dad helped call me a taxi to take me to where I was to meet my group that morning. As we left our apartment building we walked past a rose bed and my host dad stopped to literally smell the roses. It such a brief and simple moment, but it struck me as the perfect metaphor for his personality and for his family. He is the type of person who pauses in conversation to call his wife a superwoman, and my babushka cannot look at her grandchildren without smiling. For me, I found being in the presence of their shared affection to be both comforting and encouraging. Every day I look forward to talking to my host mom (trying to speak a little clearer and use more vocabulary), and every day she is filled with kindness and patience.
Almaty is not like any other city I have visited before. There is an essence here, a vibrant soul, which is almost romantic in both its colors and in the character of its people. I have only begun to scratch the surface of this city, and every day as I walk from school and see the mountains spread out before me, I am grateful for this experience and continue to look forward to the next lesson Almaty has to teach me.
By: Victorialyn Keay
Term: Fall 2017