Food as Cultural Comfort

Two weeks ago, I boarded a plane from Washington, DC to Munich, from Munich to Frankfurt, and from Frankfurt to Almaty. The flight was long, but I was incredibly excited about Almaty, Kazakhstan and the adventures that awaited myself and the rest of my cohort. We were nervous, we were excited, and we were ready.

Upon landing in Almaty, my first experience was going through customs, and afterwards, my host mother and her two children whisked me away to their home in Taugul. It is true that the people of Kazakhstan are incredibly hospitable—and they take much pride in it. After a disorienting amount of flying, it was nice to sit around a dinner table and be taken care of. After just two hours, I felt like a member of the family. Kazakh hospitality reminds me of my hometown. I live near Kansas City, Missouri, in a town where you cannot visit someone’s house for more than thirty seconds without them offering you food. Kazakhstan is similar; it inspires memories of childhood trips to my grandmothers’ houses where I would be offered food from the moment I arrived until the moment I left. From the minute I arrived at my host family’s apartment, there has never been a moment that my host mother has not gone out of her way to take care of me, and I am incredibly grateful. Everything that reminds me of home makes me just a little more comfortable in a situation that could easily be jarring and disorienting. Studying abroad is not easy, but the reflection of my native “southern hospitality” in Kazakhstan has been extremely comforting.

I love to discuss food with my host family. Despite the differences in culture, food has always been, for me, something that transcends boundaries. For my first meal in Kazakhstan, I was served калина, which is horse meat. Although I ultimately decided I would rather not partake in eating it again, it inspired a conversation about food, which really challenged my Russian speaking skills. My host mother’s friend asked me what I liked to eat. I struggled, because my food vocabulary had been limited to Russian foods. I knew the words for борщ and шашлык, but I had no idea how to describe my love for nacho cheese Doritos. I knew the word for chips, but then I had to clarify that Doritos are corn chips, rather than potato chips, but I had forgotten the word for corn. This lead to a tangent in which I described corn in manner similar to playing Pictionary, Taboo, and charades, simultaneously. Once we were back on track, I had to describe that the chips were cheese-flavored, but did not actually have cheese on them. It was incredibly frustrating, because unlike in my language classes at home, I could not ask my professor, “Как сказать cheese-flavored?” In the end, I was successful, and it was at that point that I realized what a challenge immersion was going to be.

Through that conversation, I learned a lot about my host family, and they learned a lot about me. It was a strong comfort to know that Kazakhs value a family-centered meal as much as I do. It was funny to describe my love for Kansas City BBQ, and try to explain that burnt ends are burnt, but not…burnt. All in all, the conversation was enlightening. As a person who takes great comfort in food and views it as art, I was delighted to learn about all the best places to eat in Almaty, and tickled to learn about my host brother’s love for KFC. All in all, I’m excited for the culinary insight this trip has continued to provide—but if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to grab some шашлык.

By: Gracen Blackwell

Program: Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program

Term: Summer 2018

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