“Wherever we go,” I’d declared to Woody at the start of our Peace Corps application process, “I want a nice beach, friendly bugs, and a good mattress.”
I figured I could make friends for America without having to suffer.
“Friendly bugs” would be the only one of the three I got as houseflies were plentiful. And, oh yes, the occasional mosquito was curiously lethargic.
I gave up on the idea of a nice beach upon learning where Kazakhstan is.
With Russia to the north and west, China to the east, and the other “Stans” (as the press continues to refer to the countries of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan) to the south, Kazakhstan, the ninth largest country in the world, is the world’s largest landlocked country.
As for our mattresses, turns out horsehair, even just four inches of it, works well enough.
While I didn’t get any of the things I’d expected, I did get friendship. I also got acceptance, hospitality, and laughter. Not in that order. In fact in almost the exact opposite order.
Laughter. First I laughed, giggled actually, with my new counterpart, Gulzhahan. I couldn’t remember the last time I had giggled and it felt good.
Whenever my colleagues and I got together, particularly during my second year, I laughed: that deep-down-in-the-belly laugh that hurts if it goes on too long, but that’s OK, it’s worth it because you just don’t want to stop, the laughter feels so good.
Hospitality. I couldn’t enter a home without feeling as though everything came to a halt while I was made to feel welcome. The Kazakh saying, “A guest is a gift from God” is taken seriously. I’ve not felt like a gift from God since my grandmother was alive and I was ten. It was pure grace.
Acceptance. This was so important. I made amazing cultural faux pas every day.
- I pointed at words on the board (an index finger there is akin to a middle finger here. Need I say more?),
- I sat on my teachers’ desk in front of the classroom (tabletops of any sort, even desks, are considered holy),
- I drank from my water bottle during class time (a sign of impulsivity and lack of discipline in their eyes),
- I refused food when it was offered (the height of insult), and
- oh so many other things I had no clue about those first few months.
Yet, I was never made to feel slighted or embarrassed. I never felt “tolerated,” either. Indeed, I felt accepted and appreciated daily.
The only down side was that I got rather used to it, which made it harder to adjust when I came home.
Friendship. Of course. What else could there be after laughter, hospitality, grace, and acceptance?
My friendships were with women who would have been excluded from my circles here in the US, in my culture, simply because of our differences. Not there. We were of different religions, some of us held different marital status, we had different income levels and education, and we were different ages. Yet we loved each other, cared about each other, and accepted each other as equals. We learned from each other. And, for me, I just liked to hang out with them.
In hindsight, it’s good I never found that beach.
How about you?
What disappointments have you faced that, in hindsight, turned out to be a blessing?
Have the traditional barriers of age or religion or income prevented you from forming friendships?
Wouldn’t you just love to dip your toes in that beach scene? (Thanks again Diana)