Seeing Ourselves Through Others’ Eyes: Gulzhahan Tazhitova


This week’s guest will be a familiar name for those who have read my book, At Home on the Kazakh Steppe.

Gulzhahan Tazhitova was my counterpart while I was a Peace Corps volunteer and was instrumental in my success both living and teaching in Kazakhstan. I believe I describe her in the book as “an energizer bunny,” and indeed she was. She was also savvy, level-headed, and eager to bring good things to her students and her colleagues. And she showed me how I could help.

For more on her bio, see our opening post in this series from last May.

Take it away, Gulzhahan.


Gulzhahan Tazhitova


I was in the USA in 2007 for a TESOL Conference (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). It was my first time to go abroad and everything I saw was exciting and meaningful for me.

And surprising!

Especially the way that Americans live.

The conference took place in Seattle and there were six delegates who came to this conference from Central Asia. We were placed in host families through the Tashkent – Seattle Sister City Association. The first thing that surprised me was that my host mother was living in the cottage alone. In Kazakhstan we do not live alone, particularly in such a big cottage.

Another surprising experience was when my host mother invited her friends to her home to meet me, but she didn’t cook anything! She just prepared some glasses and chairs. Everybody brought their own drinks and then they ordered pizza.

It was very funny for me because in my country when we invite people to our house we always cook and prepare a lot of food. My host mother just took a shower and didn’t do anything before the guests came. From one side, I liked this way of inviting people to the house; but I am a Kazakh and I could never do it.

During the party everybody was drinking, singing, talking and playing some games. So that part was not so different from gatherings in my country.



Caption from JG: Here we are on my final night in Zhezkazgan, with my colleagues, my teachers and my friends. See how full the table is? See the bowls of candy?


Also, when I was in the US, I noticed flags everywhere. Besides the government buildings, there were flags on the houses, the balconies, and even on the cars. In Kazakhstan we are not allowed to hang the Kazakhstan flag just anywhere. They are only on the top of government buildings or educational institutions.

Seeing the tourist city of Williamsburg, Virginia was an exciting experience for me. It was interesting to see this 17th and 18th century museum city with its traditional craftsmen and tradesmen.

Thanks to Williamsburg Virginia for the image.

I was surprised looking at those 17th and 18th century homes, boats, and other things that people of the century used.  There were people acting and showing the life of that century, and even there was a restaurant where you feel like in the 17th and 18th century life. One can also participate in a court proceeding, tour the Governor’s Palace, and see how the American Revolution affected the people of this historic town.


Thanks Gulzhahan.  I remember getting the US Embassy in Kazakhstan to extend your visa so you could fly from Seattle into Washington DC to visit us in Chincoteague.  And I remember our drive from there to Ohio to meet my sons and their families.  Even my mother flew up from Florida to meet you.  That was over ten years ago now!

I remember you mentioning on that drive how green the grass was. That, when you’d seen green grass in our movies, you’d thought it was just make-believe for the movie.  That was the first time I began to appreciate how green my country is. Thanks to you, I would no longer take that for granted.

I’m so glad you mentioned the differences in hosting styles.  I’m sure it must be harder on Kazakhs coming here and being told “make yourself at home” than it is on the Americans who go to Kazakhstan and are treated like a “gift from God.”   I had it relatively easy.

What I can’t remember is when we fit in that trip to Williamsburg and Jamestown.  I so enjoyed showing you Williamsburg, especially the meal at The Tavern — our “bishparmak.”  Good memories, all.

I really appreciate your participating in this series.  Hugs over the miles.


How about you? What stood out for you?  


13 Responses

  1. Nurken Aubakir
    | Reply

    This was too short, we need more! 🙂

  2. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    I remember Gulzhahan vividly from your memoir, Janet. Her bright smile here reflects that Energizer Bunny personality you describe.

    When we visited Ukraine in 2011 we were treated royally in every home, much like the “gift from God” you mention. Recently, when my Aunt Ruthie died the refugees she sponsored, many from Viet Nam, brought mounds of spring rolls and rice. They were puzzled too why we would ever consider selling her multi-generational homestead. Even though we live in other states now and are down-sizing ourselves, the thought of giving up this part of our history to strangers seemed incomprehensible to them.
    Marian Beaman recently posted…What Do You Want to Do When You Retire?My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes, that word, “incomprehensible” is a good one. And, it works in both directions, doesn’t it. That’s where, I think, a sense of humor is most valuable. Thanks for stopping by, a bit early this week, Marian. (the blog post got dated incorrectly. Mea culpa).
      Janet Givens recently posted…Seeing Ourselves Through Others’ Eyes: Gulzhahan TazhitovaMy Profile

  3. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Gulzhahan — I feel like I know you a bit from reading Janet’s book, ” At Home on the Kazakh Steppe.” How fun it is to see your face in the vivid color photographs and “hear” your voice in this guest post.

    I love that your host mother “just prepared some glasses and chairs. Everybody brought their own drinks and then they ordered pizza.” No muss. No fuss. But I can see how it might be odd (maybe even off-putting) for a person whose culture prepares, cooks, and feeds, Feeds, FEEDS guests.
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…Bicyclers BewareMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      “Kushit, kushit, kushit,” I so remember hearing those first few months. “Eat, eat, eat.” It was a scene out of Jewish-mother movie. The idea of showing love through food seems to be universal, huh Laurie?

  4. Gulzhahan
    | Reply

    I really appreciate Janet for including me to this interesting conversation that unites people from different worlds. It is very valuable to hear everybody’s opinions about different cultures. To my mind knowledge of the other culture enlarges your own viewpoint about your own culture and you start respect your nationality and traditions of your own nation. I am grateful for everyone who shares her/his poinions in this series and wish fruitful life to everyone.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Gulzhahan,

      Thanks for joining us today. Your post came out early (because I used a wrong calendar when I set the dates), so I’m particularly pleased that you came by today. 🙂

      How could I possibly hold a series on cultural differences and not include you? You taught me so much about how I look at other cultures and how I look at my own.

      I hope the Internet in your apartment is consistent for you this week, for I think your post will bring more good questions for you over the next few days. I know for me, it has gotten me thinking once again about how I entertain, what it means for me to entertain others in my home.

      And, ever since your visit here ten years ago, I’ve noticed how often I see the flag flying.

  5. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    It was interesting to read about Gulzhahan’s experiences in the U.S. That was funny about putting out the chairs and glasses, but not preparing food. There are all sorts of entertaining styles here though–and it could also be that the host did not enjoy cooking or knew from experience that her guests were picky eaters. My family tends to have lots and lots of food when we get together. 🙂

    I remember visiting England when I was a child. It was during Christmas vacation and the grass was SO green there. I was amazed. We lived in Dallas, TX, then, and our grass was usually brown and dry.

    I’m glad you got to see different parts of the country and have different experiences, Gulzhahan. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!
    Merril Smith recently posted…For Those Who Came Before, To Those Who Come AfterMy Profile

    • Janet
      | Reply

      You’re right, Merril, there are many ways of hosting here. But one thread running through every gathering I’ve been to in the US, is the idea of “make yourself at home.” Doesn’t it? And I’ve come to see that there is a certain responsibility put on the guest for having a good time.

      I’d love to hear Gulzhahan’s or others take on this.

  6. Gulzhahan
    | Reply

    Dear all,
    I would like to thank you for sharing your ideas and posting your thoughts here about my memories from my trip to America. That was really exciting as was my first trip to a foreign country. I have learnt many useful things from that trip in both career and personal experiences. And I still remember those unforgettable days and I am very glad that I have ever been in this great country with wonderful people.

  7. Tracy Lee Karner
    | Reply

    Hi, Janet,

    I finally did find your blog – but it still isn’t linking from your profile on — not sure why.

    Gulzhahan’s sentence ” My host mother just took a shower and didn’t do anything before the guests came,” spoke volumes to me about how different values and expectations (about what we should and should not do) can be, from culture to culture. I think in many ways American’s mobility and sense of independence have given us the freedom to do what we want, with much less regard for what everyone in the group thinks or feels. It ties in with “living alone.” Many Americans value that kind of individualistic independence; some cultures would find it isolating and lonely.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I’m so glad you did, Tracy. Thanks for stopping by. I have a session planned next week with a website guru to see if we can’t parse out this / mixup. I do know that I have to have a account in order to comment on blogs that use that platform (yours among them). What I can’t figure out is why it sends everyone to that ancient book review comment I made years ago. Oh well.

      I love your comment on Gulzhahan’s post. We are, overall, an individualistic culture and that sense of independence and freedom from what others think certainly ties in there. I hadn’t thought of the influence of our mobility; I think you’re on to something. We have been a very mobile people. Certainly we are all descended from folks who packed up and moved. (of course, if you go back far enough, we are also all related).

      I once asked another colleague in Kazakhstan (not Gulzhahan this time) about travel during the Soviet years. I grew up hearing that Soviet citizens were not allowed to travel outside the Soviet Union. What I heard back was that she and her family never felt restricted. They could travel all they wanted, but all they wanted was to see other Soviet countries. They didn’t think there was much else out there. Interesting, huh. Made me wonder how I “knew” what I knew to be true. Your post of a few years back touches on that. Here’s the link:

      Thanks again.

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