Culture As An Iceberg


Culture is an iceberg.

Art, food, tools, language, music, holiday, styles of dress, those aspects of culture we can see — those that show above the metaphorical water line — are important parts of any cultural puzzle and good to know about. They fill countless coffee table books of exotic lands and times and people.


But far more interesting to me, are those parts of a culture that lie unseen, beneath the water. The “whys” of those behaviors that rattle my sense of right and wrong or leave me gasping “Oh, no” grab my attention and won’t let go.  I’ve long been this way, and so it was in Kazakhstan.


In the beginning, the “complacency” I found all around me was such an “Oh, no.”


I was in the teachers’ lounge when I heard one of the teachers say, “Things here will never change.”


“With an attitude like that it’s no wonder,” I snapped. I shouldn’t have, but I did. It was not my finest moment.


The teacher never flinched. I’d just said something rude at best, intentionally insulting at worst, yet she did not react. None of the other teachers in the small room reacted, in fact. Not even with an uncomfortable silence. They just carried on with their hum-along conversation.


There wasn’t an aggressive bone in any of them and I wanted to scream. Deep in my genetic code there was no problem that couldn’t be fixed, no mountain too high to be climbed. Or was it just my individualistic culture rearing its head once again? Was it an attitude I had learned and now took for granted?


The religion of my childhood — once I got past the predestination part — taught of free will and personal responsibility. Islam, the professed religion of the majority of Kazakhs I met, anchors its tenets in submission.  They are strong believers in fate; they’d probably love the concept of predestination. But for me, if I saw a problem, it was MY JOB to fix it. Change was within my reach. That belief ran deep. This was a below the water-line “why.”


Maya Angelou had been an early muse of mine.


Thanks to reprobatemagazine.come
Thanks to reprobatemagazine.come


Then, in my early forties,  I was confronted with the fact that there were some things I could not change.  Changing my attitude — my only route to keep my sanity — was painful. I complained a lot. Maya Angelou would have been very disappointed in me.


Then along came the Serenity Prayer and I grabbed it like a mantra:


With thanks to
With thanks to



Eventually, my attitude did change. Maya would be proud of me again.


For thirteen years before leaving for Peace Corps, I worked hard to accept what I could not change and was content. The energy I saved often left more energy to change what I could and I loved the trade off.

It was the wisdom to know the difference that I forgot about in Kazakhstan. There was no  tradition that said if the system was broken, fix it. In fact, that first year, I never heard anyone acknowledge that anything in the system was broken.


During that first year, I missed my country. I missed the beauty, the comfort, the safety that I had taken for granted and was now idealizing. I missed the really simple things: like eating fruit without having to peel it, or bathing in a tub of water that wasn’t grey.


I didn’t forget the problems America faces — pockets of corruption; regions where we can’t drink the water; crime, ignorance, and poverty. But in the America I missed, stories of corruption are exposed when found; water filters are attached beneath kitchen sinks; crime fighters are our heroes (at least on TV and in the comics).


Our schools are in trouble, and there is the gap between rich and poor that continues to grow at an alarming pace. But while Americans disagree on the relative importance of these issues and how to address them, we talk about them openly: we protest, demonstrate, write letters, or we just plain complain.

And we do so protected by the rule of law.


In Kazakhstan there were no protests, no demonstrations, no letters, no complaints. Law wasn’t the final arbiter; money was.

Corruption — payoffs, bribery, kickbacks — was rampant. I saw it in the policemen who stopped traffic arbitrarily to collect the small stash of paper tenge kept always in each glove compartment; in the licensing bureaucrats who charged for a driver’s license, either $200 US or a sheep, depending on if they were in the north of the country ($200) or the south (the sheep). New hires turned their first month’s salary over to whomever hired them as a show of “gratitude.” Grades could be raised for a mere 5000 tenge; even diplomas were bought.

If not money, then nepotism and favoritism ruled.

Then, I reminded myself that Kazakhstan was a very young country. Even in my “land of the free, home of the brave,” we too had had our wild west, our Tammany Hall. Even bride stealing was once common in some of the southern states.  Yes, America’s history is riddled with things we won’t tolerate today. Or at least say we don’t.


Thanks to LongMountain
Thanks to LongMountain


Once again, I had to cut this country, and the people in it, some slack.


Then, as I prepared this Deleted Scene for my December 3 blog, Ferguson, MO came back in the news again and I am rethinking how much slack I want to cut my own country.

Cultural differences exist in my own backyard, and they are ones that lead to violence, anger, mistrust, and fear. Hoodies and swaggers fall above the water line along with angry retorts and shows of physical superiority. But what lies beneath? What do we not see; what do we not want to see?   I’d like to say more about this next week.  Is this a conversation you’d like to have?


[box] Interested in reading At Home on the Kazakh Steppe? I hope so. Just click here if you are outside the USA. Here for the PAPERBACK and eBook versions. And here for the LARGE PRINT or eBook versions. Amazon makes it easy. And, you can always order it from your local independent bookstore. If you’ve read it, leaving a review on Amazon will help bring me closer to being able to offer a weekend with a discounted price.  [/box]

11 Responses

  1. Ian Mathie
    | Reply

    Maya Angelou would be proud of you, for not only did you change your attitude, you understood why it was important to do so. That’s the hardest lesson. Well done!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Ian, Thanks. You know, I met Maya Angelou once. I was a grad student at Kent State and she came to talk. Seats were at a premium and those of us standing in teh back were directed to sit up on the stage. I was maybe ten feet to the side of Ms Angelou as she gave her talk. An imposing woman, physiclly as well as her personality. I went out immediately and bought all her books. Courage, she often said, was the one attribute more importnat than any other. I’m still not sure I agree with that, but she felt courage made it possible to fully utilize the others. I wonder who will fill her shoes.

      • Ian Mathiei
        | Reply

        I don’t think anyone can ever fill her shoes. They threw away the last when the made them. Others may wear similar shoes, but they’ll walk in their own footsteps. She just gave us a shining example of how to walk well and with good purpose.

  2. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    From the title on, you grabbed my attention with your timely quotes and gripping anecdotes. Writer Laurie Buchanan displays a quote on her banner that seems appropriate here: Whatever you are not changing you are choosing. Mary Gottschalk also posted with a similar topic on her blog recently:

    I think you have started a conversation your readers will want to continue, Janet.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Marian. Yes, I read Mary’s blog; in fact hers spurred me to include the reference to Ferguson. We must keep the conversation going, I think. Somehow. We have such luxury in this country to be able to even have a conversation. I keep coming back to that. Congratulations on your One Lovely Blog Award; I did as you did, you know: not list those who’d already been tagged. Otherwise, you’d have been on my list for sure.

      • woody
        | Reply

        Nice work Janet. Nail on the head and all that.

  3. Kelly Boyer Sagert
    | Reply

    Wow! Talk about grabbing the corner of a whole lot of deep subjects all in one post. I think you could use this as an outline for a series of posts (Not saying that you necessarily SHOULD; that’s up to you. But, you could!).

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Kelly. And thank you. You offer an interesting idea. I’ve been writing from “the pants” lately, so not too much structure up front. But I’ll experiment. You never know. Best wishes on your new writing group. Sounds very nurturing.

  4. Joan
    | Reply

    I have found that the judgements I make about others and the way they live always comes back to haunt me in that I suddenly recognize them as the mirror in which I see myself. We in this great land of the free and home of the brave are not setting an example of greatness.

    This is a great intro to a most important topic. I’m looking forward to the next post and the conversations to follow.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks so much Joan. I appreciate your comments. They reminded me of the adage about when pointing a finger at someone: you’ve got three pointing back at you. I look forward to what will come next in this conversation, too. At this point, I have no agenda.

  5. […] ended last week’s blog post, Culture As An Iceberg, with this […]

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