I had my own reservations about traveling to such a mysterious country as Kazakhstan. Although I had been given an in-depth guide to follow about what to bring and what to expect, I had my own preconceived notions and expectations about what my experience would be like in Almaty. I am happy to report that I was completely wrong. Prior to my arrival, I most frequently heard about Kazakhstan in reference to its Muslim population and conservative culture. Ironically enough, I have yet to blatantly experience these associations.
Granted, Almaty is a dynamic city with its own culture and every person here does not speak for every person within Kazakhstan at large. Despite this, however, I know that there is value in sharing how unique my experience has been living in Kazakhstan thus far. I am fortunate enough to have been placed within a host family that is nothing short of incredible. I have a host mom, dad, grandpa and sister, all of whom have actively and genuinely welcomed me into their space. I expected to live in an incredibly conservative space, in which the woman is expected to do everything for everyone else. I was honestly taken aback when my host father first offered to cook for me. This should not have come as such a surprise, but I did enter the space with assumptions that were eventually proven wrong accordingly.
I have seen the husband both cook and clean, and while my host mom definitely has a stronger presence in taking care of these things, I mistakenly expected the most extreme of situations and I find great value in the fact that I was wrong. Similarly, as I have mentioned before, I also have a host grandpa. Initially, I was unsure of how to interact with him. He is naturally interested in who I am and where I come from, and his directness has not swayed him from asking me anything personal. As someone who generally prefers not to talk about especially personal topics, I had no choice but to be open and honest within this space. This family has offered me a home, and they have really taken me in as their own. I knew that the least I could do was present myself to them in a completely honest and open way. In this, it has been an equally rewarding experience. I shared with my host grandpa about the death of my father, and how recent it had been. He immediately called out his guess for the cause of death and went on to talk about the recent death of his wife, who also died for a similar reason. As difficult as this situation was, I found a sense of comfort in it and in him.
Since living with my host family, I have learned a lot about the importance of letting my guard down and in letting go of the assumptions that I came in with. I truly do feel like this space is my home away from home, and that speaks volumes about the family that I am living with. Given that I do feel so at home here, I have surely struggled because it is a feeling I often long for and that I no longer have at home. With that being said, however, the fact that this space has reminded me of the things that I so strongly associated with home has provided me with an experience that I can’t quite formulate into words. I have a host mom who goes out of her way every morning to make sure I’m well fed, a host dad that has made sure I am okay with every daily check-in, a host grandpa who reminds me to be careful every time that I go out, and a host sister that treats me as if I were her own. We often enter new spaces feeling very sure of ourselves and very unsure of everyone else, but I think it is our way of coping with the fact that we simply cannot entirely understand what it will be like until we are immersed within it. I have been fully immersed and have experienced great transformation because of it.
By: Melissa Leyba
Program: Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program
Term: Summer 2018