Three years ago, if I had told my friends I was going to Kazakhstan with the Peace Corps, their response would have been a mix of confusion and mystification. The first question undoubtedly would have focused on why I want to “give up” two years of my life. The second question would have been “Where’s Kazakhstan?”
However, after the film “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” what they say is “Say hi to Borat for me.”
If the 140 current Peace Corps volunteers in Kazakhstan all found Borat and said hi, I imagine he’d be slightly overwhelmed and prefer to retreat to the country with his new wife – the former prostitute meets while filming.
Much of the Kazakhstani population acknowledges that the film “Borat” was a mixed blessing. Because of it, more people learned that Kazakhstan exists, but this realization has been accompanied by a few unflattering misconceptions of the country. While I’ve only lived here for about two months, I’ve been here long enough to weed out Borat’s fiction from fact.
Kazakhstani society is complicated, with all the problems of a country attempting to reinvent itself in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Its government is taking significant steps to aid its 15 million citizens, many of whom still live in very rural communities. The government has focused on its two largest cities, Astana and Almaty, grooming both to become oil industry leaders and competitive international financial centers. Kazakhstan is likely to emerge the second largest oil and natural gas producer in the world within 10 years.
The progress, innovation and intellectual merit of Kazakhstan (it has a 99 percent literacy rate) was not portrayed in “Borat.” Instead, in the crude caricature of Kazakhstan, drawn by “Borat” creator Sasha Baron Cohen, suggests rampant anti-Semitism and unchecked violence against women. But that’s not what makes it funny. What’s really funny aren’t the lines like “Look, there is a woman in a car. Can we follow her and maybe make a sexy time with her?” which he asks a driving instructor at one point. It’s how the Americans he runs into don’t see through the act.
Even though I knew much of the material in “Borat” was aimed at making Americans seem foolish, and not as a critique of Kazakhstan, I was still worried about anti-Semitism and Anti-Americanism on my way here. But rather than anti-Semitism or a hatred of America, I have been confronted with friendly curiosity regarding Judaism and a welcome interest in the diversity of religious beliefs. Almaty has two synagogues and a very warm Jewish community. I have already had a number of intellectually stimulating conversations about religion with some new local friends in a town near Almaty where my group is training and living.
In two months here, I have seen only two swastikas, one painted on a tree and another in graffiti on the side of a building; I know that there may be more extreme segments of the population with these views, but it looks to be an extreme minority.
Unlike the portrayal of Kazakstanis in “Borat,” I have found Kazakhstanis of all ethnic and religious affiliation to be open and generally warmly accepting of and interested in the variety of beliefs that exist around the world and within Kazakhstan. I’m pretty sure no one here sings “Throw the Jew down the well.”
Some of the villages look similar to the images in “Borat.” Even in my town, only 45 minutes outside of Almaty, there is a donkey that often watches over our soccer games, goats tied up outside of houses and stray dogs running amok, yelping and fighting at all hours of the day and night. On the road to Almaty, we’ve encountered herds of cows and sheep meandering down the middle of the street, sometimes accompanied by a herder. Many houses are small farms with tenants who grow their own crops and raise a number of animals next to the house. There may be running water, but not always hot water, so showers often involve traveling to the local banya, which means bathhouse.
But Almaty isn’t the 30th most expensive city in the world because of the nearby grazing grounds. There’s rapid development, and the city seems to add new luxury stores daily. Small street stores selling local foods like samsa and shashlich stand alongside Tiffany’s & Co., an Apple Store, an InterContinental Hotel and the site for the new financial district. Also nearby is a huge bazaar selling anything you could want, including sheep heads.
I’m told that in many small towns farther out into the country, which is physically the ninth largest in the world, many villages have no running water, yet houses have satellite television. Where there may be no banks or hospitals in the towns, there are still cell phones with video. Here, there’s a focus on the future despite the lack of what Americans would consider basic needs.
The people are wonderfully generous, kind and curious. Instead of hating America – we are blamed for “Borat,” despite its British beginnings – Kazakhstanis want to know more about us. and also love telling us about themselves. You can’t escape from having at least two glasses of chai tea, usually accompanied by chocolate, bread and other candy, multiple times a day. People delight in opening their house to you and always want you to feel at home.
Sometimes it’s awkward. When it’s just you and a new friend who speaks no English, sharing a few cups of tea, you realize that gesturing only allows a certain degree of depth, and while visual aids might help, no one has ever showed me naked pictures of their family members, as Borat was wont to do.
I don’t always know what’s being said around me, and it’s a tough realization that third graders speak better Russian than I probably will even after two years living in the country. The language, however, is not an insurmountable barrier. The warmth of the people helps.
Kazakhstan is a nation of contradictions, conflations of identity and emerging and resolving conflicts. While “Borat” painted millions a distinct picture of the people and the country, the picture is wrong. The five universities in Almaty speak to the broader and greater depth of knowledge than the stereotypes supply. There’s much we can learn from and about our neighbors. We can laugh at others’ differences and very often embrace this freedom of expression, but I’d prefer to laugh alongside the locals rather than at them.
-Perry Teicher graduated from the University in 2007.