This deleted scene is one of my favorites. It highlights the lighthearted relationship I had with my four closest colleagues and friends: Gulzhahan, Assem, Gulzhan, and Tolganay.
Here we are at Tolganay’s apartment for dinner in early June. I would leave Kazakhstan in just two days.
Each time I read it, it not only brings back a wonderful memory, it reminds me how fun loving, accepting, and gracious my Kazakh friends were. Not just to me, to everyone.
The reputation for hospitality among the Kazakh people is well-deserved.
PCV, btw, is shorthand for Peace Corps Volunteer. We never used the long version. They knew me as a PCV (not to be confused with PVC, as in piping).
NATEK stands for the National Association of Teachers of English in Kazakhstan and serendipitously has the same acronym in Kazakh as it does in English. It’s your basic teacher’s conference and a good one.
After a time, I got back in the conversation, interrupting them. “You’ll get a new PCV in November.”
The laughter stopped immediately.
“No one will ever replace you,” Tolganay said with such seriousness.
They murmured agreement and I allowed a fleeting sense of pride in what we had accomplished. We’d had an extraordinary two years and I wanted them to have another just-as-good experience with the new volunteer. An “almost-just-as-good” would be even better. The idea made me smile.
Knowing them, I knew they’d accept whomever they got and make that person feel welcome, just as they had welcomed me. But, I’d spent a few weeks teaching Oscar Wilde with Tolganay and knew the prevailing view of homosexuality in the country. Missing the earlier frivolity, I used this knowledge to tease them.
“I think you need a gay man for your next volunteer.”
They giggled at this and I added before they could respond, “Yes, I think I’ll have Peace Corps send you a pretty, gay man.”
They’d had no experience with homosexuality, except to hear it demonized, and I knew the best way to conquor prejudice is to conquer ignorance. I also knew I had no say in whom the Peace Corps would send next. But they didn’t.
I pushed on, enjoying their nervous giggling, adding, “Maybe a gay vegetarian.”
Suddenly the atmosphere turned serious. The giggles stopped as one and they gasped, in chorus, “Oh no.” Curious, I continued.
“Which would you rather have,” I asked, pushing into the next part slowly, “a homosexual … or … a vegetarian?”
“A homosexual,” they chorused without hesitation.
“We wouldn’t know how to feed a vegetarian,” laughed Assem.
How I loved hearing them laugh; I would miss them dreadfully.
Many of the Peace Corps volunteers that Assem and Gulzhahan had met at NATEK were vegetarians. Eating with them at the conference, they were as flummoxed by vegetarianism as I was by bride stealing.
Although homophobia was rampant and, in some villages, dangerous, a vegetarian volunteer would present a greater challenge for them. Kazakhs must be able to feed their guests.
Guests are, after all, gifts from God — no matter their sexual orientation.
Heck, as another Kazakh proverb promises, they’d feed them before they even asked their name.
Friendship is such a powerful force in life, or it can be if we are among the lucky. What’s your favorite friendship memory? What makes it a good memory? Does it make you smile? Does it remind you you’re cared about? Are you still in touch with those old friends?