Wrap-up: Kazakh life

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In previous posts I have discussed my personal commitment to service, the advantages and pitfalls of the Peace Corps, and issues specific to the Peace Corps TEFL program in Mongolia. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.

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Most PCVs are trained in Mongolian language and culture, then spend two years in a Mongolian-speaking, culturally Mongolian Buddhist or shamanistic community. I and three other volunteers were trained in Mongolian language and culture, then placed in a Kazakh-speaking, culturally Kazakh Muslim community. My experience has differed somewhat from the average volunteer’s.

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It’s hard for me to encapsulate the differences between Kazakh and Mongolian culture, partly because I have become so intimately familiar with them, and partly because they are so subtle to Western eyes.

A tourist will first notice the architectural differences: the хашаа or yard contains not a couple of felt gers and maybe a one-room house, but a mudbrick or whitewashed multi-room home accompanied by a single tall кигіз үй (ger) only in the summer. On the inside, a Mongolian ger is furnished with orange-and-blue wood and two elaborately carved or painted center poles[1]; a Kazakh ui is larger, often with more furniture, and every surface is bright with traditional embroidery or felt. The tapestry-covered walls of a Kazakh ui draw the eye while the central pole is utilitarian; Mongolian walls are covered with a bright but generic fabric, whereas the poles form the focus of the room. Mongolians add a layer of felt to their gers in the winter; Kazakhs strike their ui and leave their summer houses for a more sturdily built winter home or apartment.

The languages are entirely different. Kazakh is closely related to Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Turkish, whereas Mongolian is an esoteric member of the larger Altaic family. Their grammar patterns are more similar to each other than to English, but distinct, and the vocabulary has very few cognates. Mongolian Kazakh is moreover a tricky dialect, with borrowings from Mongolian and variations in grammar from its standard Kazakhstani sister.

Most Mongolians are Buddist, shamanistic, or atheist; the majority of Kazakhs are Muslim. They are steppe Muslims — i.e. their expressions of piety are looser than in most parts of the world, expressed more in cultural tradition than careful adherence to the Qu’ran — but they profess a strong belief in Allah. There are several mosques in my town, one of which calls the faithful to prayer several times a day through crackling speakers; while only a handful of my friends observed Ramadan, virtually everyone celebrates Kurban Ait. Bare shoulders or knees are a rare sight here, as is public drunkenness. The Turkish evil eye and Arabic prayers are common on walls and rearview mirrors. Kazakhs are also more strictly patriarchal than Muslims, with the youngest son of the family (and his wife) responsible for his parents-in-law in their old age and inheriting the hashaa and herds after their death.

Kazakhs and Mongolians eat the same everyday meals — hushuur, tsuivan and buuz — although Kazakh food tends to oiliness whereas Mongolian meat can be a little dry. At holidays, however, Kazakhs have their own plates: besbarmak, koje, and kaz. Additionally, Kazakhs practice дастархан (dastarkhan) at parties and festivals; the table is sometimes so full of snacks and salads you can’t find room for your plate.

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Many of the differences I’ve experienced are similar to that of other PCVs. The sense that things will happen in their own time and there’s no point in rushing to the finish; the belief that a laid-back month in the summer countryside, relaxing, is the ideal reward for a year’s hard work; family and community as the central pillar of one’s life; ingrained deference for elders and authorities — these things are common to many nomadic cultures, and shared by Mongolians and Kazakhs alike. But it’s funny how different that feels when the trappings change. Not just the language, but self-presentation — Kazakhs are, in general, more reserved than Mongolians, with stricter principles for obedience to one’s elders and boundaries between men and women. Beyond that, the challenges they face as an isolated minority group frame their culture very differently from mainstream Mongolians. I’ve often struggled to express these subtle differences to other PCVs, vacillating between their apparent insignificance and their importance to me and the people I work with.

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I found out I would be living in a Kazakh community about two weeks before I moved there. I had maybe twenty-five words in my Kazakh vocabulary, courtesy of a single five-hour crash course at the end of my training period. My cultural and integrative training was not a three-month homestay with additional weekly lessons, but three hours of passing around traditional paraphernalia and silently reading handouts.

Considering this, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of making a home in my community. My Kazakh is passably conversational, though not fluent; I’m familiar with Kazakh custom (you don’t have to shake hands when you step on someone’s foot, but you do when you haven’t seen someone in a while or owe them a congratulations); most importantly, I’ve made a number of friends I’m going to miss dearly. My biggest regret is that I’ve never spent a weekend in the summer countryside — the heart of the Mongolian-Kazakh experience that many in my community speak of with fondness, and a true test of one’s language and cultural comprehension.

I don’t credit Peace Corps with helping me achieve this, except in the way that their Mongolian training offered a template for me to recreate as I forged ahead on my own. I’ve consistently experienced a lack of understanding and support from staff.

Kazakhs comprise about 4% of the Mongolian ethnic milieu: a tiny percentage, but Mongolia’s largest and most divergent ethnic minority. And — as with most ethnic groups other than the majority Халха (Khalkh) — it is concentrated and isolated in a small part of the country. As a result, many Mongolians go about their lives without ever encountering a Kazakh person, forming their impressions of the ethnicity based on stereotype and hearsay. Some of these stereotypes — especially in the few regions where Kazakhs and other ethnicities mix — are virulently negative.

My managers, who work with local agencies to place and assist volunteers, have been mostly supportive and comfortable working with Kazakhs; likewise the American staff is at least sympathetic and claims to want to support us. However, I’ve experienced firsthand the unease of Mongolia staff visitors to my town. Some are visibly discomfited to be surrounded by a language not their own — sometimes seeming to reflect, “Why don’t they speak Mongolian? Why do these people make me feel like a foreigner in my own country?” rather than observe the challenges of a group perpetually made foreign by their efforts to hold onto their culture and mother tongue while finding a place in the home they have chosen. I had one person doubt my assurances that I felt safe at my site, even though Kazakh cultural mores have meant I have not experienced safety problems common to PCVs (i.e. publicly belligerent drunks or pressure to drink).

There are no Kazakhs on staff at our Peace Corps office, despite about 30 Mongolian employees. This has resulted not only in a lack of cultural understanding among Mongolians and Kazakhs alike, but also in oversights and inadvertent exclusions during our conferences. (For instance, at our close-of-service conference, we had a session about closure and goodbyes with a heavy cultural component. What cultural tics will you miss? How will you say goodbye at a party? I was the only person at the conference who would be making goodbyes at a Kazakh site in the coming months; the discussion was entirely about Mongolian culture and Mongolian language.) When I’ve made criticisms about this to staff, I’ve been told they went so far as to request Kazakhs in their job postings but received no Kazakh applicants; likewise, I was told it would be too expensive to hire a Kazakh language trainer for a group of two to four. It seems that four percent is too small to warrant support, yet large enough to merit a volunteer.

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Don’t get me wrong: I want people at Kazakh sites. I love this culture, and I love its uniqueness — the way that it is its own self, not wholly Kazakh, not wholly Mongolian. I have met many hardworking, creative, intelligent people who deserve the Peace Corps’ best efforts. Living here has changed the way I look at time and at community. Yet how can I recommend that at the expense of the volunteer? Three of the seven people placed at Kazakh sites in the last two years have moved homes or sites because of a fundamental lack of understanding about the differences between Kazakh and Mongolian housing. Several have found themselves frustrated and stymied, untrained in the language, unable to find a suitable tutor, and as a result unable to fully participate in and understand their communities.

I hope that more support will be provided to Kazakh sites in the future. I’ve heard rumors and promises that this year’s group will have more language training, better housing, better support; but I’ve been hearing about Peace Corps’ commitment to supporting us for two years, and yet here I am, the last Kazakh holdout from my cohort. I love this place and I’m happy to have lived here, but my experience in the Peace Corps program has not done the organization credit.

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[1] Decoration styles vary depending on the region, tribe, and financial means of the family, but the orange-and-blue painted wardrobe and the decorated door and poles are the most ubiquitous.