Just when her life felt right: new career, new home, new grandchildren, Janet Givens leaves it all behind and follows her new husband into the Peace Corps. Assigned to Kazakhstan, a Central Asian country finding its own way after generations under Soviet rule, Givens must also find a way to be in a world different from what she knew. And what she expected. Stresses of a difficult new language, surprising cultural differences, and unexpected changes in her husband lead her to question the loss of all she’s given up. Will it be worth it?
Four days after Hadija’s mother died, Woody’s credit cards arrived at the Peace Corps office. We boarded the local bus into Almaty to pick them up and book our return flight to Zhezkazgan.
It had been a long summer, a tiring vacation in many ways, and getting back to our apartment in our little town held great appeal. We said a sad farewell to Hadija and her family, not knowing when or even if we’d see them again, and moved to a hotel in Almaty for our final evening, closer to the airport.
Woody doesn’t feel calm when we’re traveling unless he gets to whatever gate he’s going through hours before he needs to. So, after checking our bags with the airline, we settled in at a Nescafe red café where we could keep an eye on our departure gate.
With hours to kill, I dug out my journal as Woody opened the book he was currently reading. American pop music blared disconcertingly in the background.
As I opened my frayed notebook, I saw my list that Gulzhahan and I had been working on over the past six months or so, a list we called “Cultural Differences in the Classroom.” It reminded me that, as I moved into my second year, I knew more of what to expect.
While I’d been so quick to notice the oddities and strange practices among my Kazakh colleagues that first year, Gulzhahan had been equally diligent to let me know that the identification of odd “cultural differences” went both ways. I smiled as I looked over our list, remembering the question I’d posed to her one afternoon in the school’s café.
“What do I do that seems strange to you?”
It turned out that my “flipping them the bird” every time I pointed to a word on the blackboard had been only the beginning. It was not enough to chalk the differences up to the individualistic culture (mine) versus communal culture (hers). We wanted concrete examples of these differences. So, we started our list.
My water bottle was a case in point. For years, I’d taken for granted that sipping water throughout the day, especially in hot weather, was a good thing. Unfortunately, the sips I’d taken in Kazakhstan during my lectures weren’t viewed as healthy. Rather it signaled I was “undisciplined and self-indulgent.” Kazakh teachers never drink during a lesson—water on a hot day, coffee on a cold day, even the ever-present chai—in front of their students.
When I sat on the classroom desk, or, to be more accurate, leaned against it to give my weak back a little respite, I might well have been perceived as sacrilegious.
“Table tops are holy,” Gulzhahan had told me early on. “It’s where we may eat. We would never sit on one.” It had taken me months to absorb the idea that this taboo included any surface that might ever be used as a dastarkhan (a table top), a teacher’s desk included.
Kazakh teachers never count their students. During one of my early team-teaching classes with Gulzhahan, I began counting the students by twos, needing to know how many chocolate bars to hand out. Gulzhahan stopped me.
“Counting is only for animals,” she had explained.
“How do you know how many there are?” I’d asked, baffled.
“We take attendance.”
I was proud of my collaboration with Gulzhahan. Neither of us was trying to convert the other. Indeed, the idea never occurred to us that either of us was wrong. We were simply curious about our differences, often laughing at the absurdity of some of them. Our intent was to learn, to understand, to grow as human beings, and, hopefully, to try to find a way to expand our process to include other cultures, other classrooms, other teachers.
We both loved our own culture and understood the larger role that culture plays. It shows us where we belong and binds us to those who are like us. But sharing a culture can also set us apart from those who are different, creating outsiders, aliens, the ominous “other.”
We were a well-suited duo to tackle this challenge. Gulzhahan and I trusted each other, talked to each other, and were eager to answer each other’s questions without judgment.
At the same time, I had never felt judged by anyone there. Through naiveté and ignorance, I’d made multiple faux pas, and each one had been met with understanding, patience, and not a little resignation. I remembered a student in one of the classes that first semester after I’d learned about pointing. I’d had much trouble remembering to not point. Something I’d done so habitually, so unconsciously for so many years was hard to stop. I’d turned to my students and let them know.
“It’s hard for me to remember,” I had told them. “I’m hoping you are not too offended when I forget.”
A student along the far wall, one of the stronger students, responded.
“It’s okay. You’re an American. We’re used to it.”
Sitting in the airport’s bright red café, I chuckled as I remembered how I’d felt when I finally used my pen as a pointer: as though I were putting on airs. I’d ignored my internal affectation-alert and just kept on. How would I fare with the pointer this second year? Would it still feel like an affectation? I was eager to find out.
Our boarding call pulled me out of my reverie, and I realized how eager I was to get on board, to get back to our town, our work, and to my friend Gulzhahan and our shared vision. I was going home, home to my life in Zhezkazgan. Home to the Kazakh steppe.
by Janet Givens