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.
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:
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.
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?