WASHINGTON – Kamila Issabekova,25,a graduate student in public administration at American University,wrote in her first letters to a friend in Kazakhstan that relationships between men and women are interesting in the U.S.
Men are passive,she wrote,and rarely take the initiative; they wait until the woman shows interest. That's because they are afraid they could be accused of sexual harassment.
Issabekova came to Washington from Almaty,Kazakhstan,as a Muskie scholar almost two years ago. Here,Issabekova said,she can see how male and female roles “kind of changed or just became equal.” She also found that Americans are ambitious and hardworking. They like to accomplish things on their own.
The State Department said more than 1,400 students from Kazakhstan have visas to study in the U.S. this year. Many pay their own way. More than 700 have Bolashak scholarships,funded by the government of Kazakhstan,to study at 107 U.S. universities. Bolashak means “future” in the Kazakh language. About 20 students have scholarships through the Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program,funded through the State Department,which brings Eurasian graduate students to the United States to study.
Kazakhstan,in Central Asia,was part of the Soviet Union and has been independent since 1991. The world's ninth-largest country by territory – it's four times the size of Texas – it is bordered by five countries,including Russia and China,and has a population of 15.3 million.
Four students who have been studying in the D.C. area for two or more years shared how they live their lives in D.C.,far away from their families. They discussed cultural differences, how they adapted,what they like about Americans and what they miss about home.
Issabekova spends most of her time studying. But she and her husband visit museums,galleries,and the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage,which hosts free daily concerts.
“This is not common in Kazakhstan,” said Issabekova,of the free cultural events.
She said her “main achievement” in the U.S. is that she was married last summer to Pavel Mkrtchyan.
“We met in Washington,D.C. He is from Kyrgyzstan and also Muskie,as I am,” she said. The young family often attends “kuryltai kyrgyzov,” or meetings of the D.C. Kyrgyz community.
“I did not experience so much a cultural shock as IREX prepared us. …We've been taught how to adapt in the U.S.,” Issabekova said. IREX,a non-profit agency,administers the Muskie program.
She said she found a number of differences: “food,an attitude to life,relationships between people,values – but then you adapt.”
The most frequent question she gets is about the movie “Borat.”
She tells them the real story – that the movie is fake. It was shot in Romania in a Gypsy village and nothing is about Kazakhstan. Issabekova said a fourth of Americans are familiar with Kazakhstan,but only through the movie.
Issabekova said she misses several things from home.
“I used to wake up and go to bed with the view of mountains from my window,” she said. She loved to go to Medeo,an outdoor skating rink in Almaty. She misses Kazakhstani nature,her friends and relatives.
After graduating,Issabekova wants to return to Kazakhstan,but is not excluding the possibility of working in Europe or Canada.
“One you visit the U.S.,you understand that the level of life is different form Kazakhstan's. A lot of Muskie students feel that opportunities in our home country are less,and then they try to go to Europe or Canada or stay here in the U.S.,” she said. Issabekova speaks Chinese,English and Russian.
She talks with her mother two or three times a day by phone or Internet phone.
“Here,when you are far away from your parents,you start to value the relationships with them. You understand how you are rich when you have support from parents,grandmother,grandfather,and relatives,” she said,saying she hasn't seen the same relationship among Americans she knows.
“Americans are getting together only at Thanksgiving Day,on Christmas. That is different form our culture. We can feel support at any time of the day,” Issabekova said.
Issabekova said American students are active,know what they want and have planned their lives for five years ahead at a minimum. Students often pay for their own education,which is why they take the most useful classes.
She said in her university in Kazakhstan some students didn't work hard,and it was normal for them to give money,sweets or to drive professors home to get a good grade.
Akhmet Ishmukhamedov,21,is a junior political science student at American University through the Bolashak program. He is from Karaganda,Kazakhstan's second-largest city. He said he did not experience much cultural shock at AU because he attended a Western-style university in Kazakhstan and has traveled a lot.
Mostly he was surprised by students' disrespectful behavior during classes.
“They speak too loud,eat sandwiches or put their feet on top of table or chairs,” Ishmukhamedov said. “It is not appropriate in Kazakhstan.”
He said he overcame cultural differences with a smile and positive view and tried to understand and adapt through open discussions. Ishmukhamedov said the U.S. has a culture of individuals,while in Kazakhstan,as in other Asian countries,”community culture” is emphasized.
During AU's International Week this week,Ishmukhamedov planned to play the dombra,a national stringed instrument and attend an international bazaar,where groups of students from more than 100 countries were to share aspects of their culture.
Merey Makhambetova,21,a senior political science student at American University,is from Almaty,the country's former capital. A Bolashak scholar,she was surprised at the relationship between parents and their children.
“The more they grow,the more distance between parents and children,” Makhambetova said. She said some students she has met are financially independent from their parents. She said a lot of students have part-time jobs at shops,cafes and restaurants. In Kazakhstan,students usually wait for their parents to use their connections to provide them with a full-time job and a high salary,Makhambetova said.
She also said that American people are more disciplined,and “we are more relaxed.” That is because in the U.S. if people work hard they will succeed. In Kazakhstan,that is not enough she said. Family connections,plus money,are necessary.
Erden Zikibay,23,a junior digital arts student from Almaty,Kazakhstan,studies at George Mason University,in Fairfax,Va. After graduation,he plans to get some experience in the U.S. and return to Kazakhstan. He speaks Kazakh,Russian and English,as do many students from Kazakhstan.
One of his interests here is communicating with Kazakh people,which he does through the Kazakh American Association. The group organizes picnics,nights out and dinners to celebrate national holidays such as Republic Day,Independence Day or Nauryz,the Kazakh New Year.
He said he describes a Kazakh American as a someone with a clearly defined life goal,communicative and patriotic.
Zikibay said the most interesting time is when people return home and experience a different sort of cultural shock. He said people adapt here and adapt again when they return home.
“Now I value more Kazakh traditions and culture,” he said,”We are a unique culture. We have things to be proud of,things we have to save,things we have to share with people.”
Zikibay plays soccer with other Kazakh students every Sunday.
Some students are planning to launch an official student Web site,with the help of the ambassador of Kazakhstan,Erlan Idrissov. Zikibay said Idrissov has met with the diaspora and students.
Although Zikibay is enjoying his time here,he said some things make him homesick – meeting and talking to Kazakh people,viewing Kazakh movies and listening to Kazakh songs.
“I just miss the Kazakh essence. It is hard to explain,you just feel it,” Zikibay said.