A love story about Kazakhstan from a former Peace Corps volunteer

29 июня 2015, 21:19

Janet Givens had dreamed of being a Peace Corps volunteer since she was young.

She finally got the chance when she was a 56-year-old grandmother.

In 2004 the Philadelphia psychotherapist and her speech-pathology husband, Dr. Woody Starkweather, headed for central Kazakhstan to teach – she at Zhezkazgan Humanitarian College and he at Zhezkazgan University.

The two stayed in Zhezkazgan for two years. Janet wrote a memoir of the couple’s experiences, “At Home on the Kazakh Steppe,” that was published late last year.

Many of those at the Kazakh Embassy in Washington, including my press-relations buddies Nurgali Arystano and Dalel Ismagulov, were so smitten with the book that they’re holding a reception in Janet’s honor on July 1.

“At Home on the Kazakh Steppe” is a fun read that both expats and Kazakhs with expat friends will relate to. And it includes some surprises for even longtime Kazakhstan expats like me – like Kazakhs’ views about bride snatching. More about that later in this piece.

The cover of Janet’s book shows students she taught in Zhezkazgan eagerly raising their hands to answer a question she asked. Photo courtesy of Janet Givens.

You can order the book at Amazon.com. You’ll also find it at hotel bookshops in Kazakhstan, and I’m guessing at the Books & Coffee American-style bookstore and café in Astana.

Janet writes about the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture, the friendships she developed and how she came to feel Kazakhstan was her second home. She became so close with some Kazakhs that they visited her when she returned to the States.

Peace Corps volunteer Janet Givens celebrates her 56th birthday with Kazakh friends in Zhezkazgan. At the back is Saule Mursatova. In front,  from left, are Symbat Mukushev, Gulzhahan Tazhitova and Zamzagul Kashinbayeva. Photo courtesy of Janet Givens.

Her story resonates with expats like me who have spent considerable time in Kazakhstan. It includes both ups and downs, which we’ve all had.

Adjusting to the culture was more difficult for Janet than me because I worked at two Western-style universities – KIMEP and Nazarbayev University – where a lot of the professors are foreigners and most of the Kazakhs have been exposed to Western thinking.

In contrast to the part-Western environment I had, Janet and Woody had no anchor to grab on to while adjusting to a different culture.

The Peace Corps, which left Kazakhstan in late 2011, trains its recruits in what to expect in their new country, of course. Although that orientation helps, it can’t prepare the recruits for the culture shock many will feel when they get to their assignments.

Janet’s memoir includes a number of stories about learning cultural differences the hard way or saying something to Kazakhs she wished she hadn’t. I nodded my head when I was reading these passages because they made me think of some of the mistakes I’d made.

One day Janet and Woody decided to get a post office box. The operation was closed for lunch, so they sat down on a low concrete wall in front of the building to decide what to do before returning.

Suddenly a grannie rushed up to them shouting and waving her arms.

Janet and Woody had forgotten about a Kazakh superstition about sitting on concrete.

“It was either sterility that was at risk, or back pain; we’d heard both,” she wrote.

My ties with Kazakhstan go way back, and I’d heard other superstitions, but not the one about sitting on concrete. I guess I’d avoided flailing babushkas by never sitting on concrete simply because it was dirty.

Janet enjoyed teaching English. She must have been good at it, because her descriptions of her interaction with students indicated she’d connected with them. 

Her account of a classroom discussion with her students about bride snatching was the most intriguing revelation in her book for me.

Stories about Kazakh men kidnapping women for marriage pop up from time to time in both domestic and international media. Even worse, video of some snatchings has surfaced on YouTube and on news portals, showing kicking and screaming women trying to fight off a guy intent on marriage and his kidnapping-crew buddies.

The international stories have embarrassed Kazakhstan because the snatchings are portrayed as barbarism rooted in an oppressive and misogynist male mentality.

Every time a snatching makes headlines, media are usually quick to quote a government official or academic as saying the practice is rare.

That’s not what Janet’s students told her. 

Once they began discussing the issue in class, she wrote, “English was pouring out of my students’ mouths telling me stories of abductions they each knew about.”

The discussion came about by accident.

Janet noted one Monday that one of her students, Aktigul, was missing.

“She’ll be back next week” the rest of the class, which consisted mostly of girls, told her.

“Where’d she go?” Janet asked.

“She was stolen,” the students replied as if it were no big deal.

Janet was stunned. She asked the students how snatchings were carried out, why the abducted women’s parents didn’t try to rescue her, whether the women tried to escape after being kidnapped and other questions.

Janet’s four-page account of the classroom discussion was riveting, and I thought the best part of the book.

I wished I’d had a discussion with my students at KIMEP and Nazarbayev University about this issue. I would really like to know what they thought.

I’m not going to tell you everything that’s interesting about Janet’s bride-snatching discussion with her students because I want you to buy her book, but let me offer a couple of highlights.

One is that most kidnapped brides stay with the man who abducts them, the students told her. That’s because the parents of most of the women won’t take them back once they’ve been with a man.

Janet describes a lively discussion between Mahabat, a student who said she would escape from any man who snatched her for marriage, and the rest of the class.

“If someone steals me, I’m outa there,” Mahabat said.

Other students said she wouldn’t be able to leave because her parents would refuse to take her back.

“My mother told me I don’t have to stay,” she shot back.

Another eye-opener in the bride-stealing section of the book was Janet’s contention that snatching by a stranger is not the long-held Kazakh tradition that some try to portray.

Before Soviet times, some Kazakh couples would elope for various reasons, and it would often be depicted as a bride snatching -- but the bride and groom knew each other and wanted the marriage.

The Soviets nearly stamped out bride snatching during their 70 years of rule in Kazakhstan. It resurfaced after Kazakhstan became independent – and only then did it involve strangers snatching women, Janet wrote.

As I paged through her book, I found myself becoming a kindred spirit with her -- agreeing with many of her insights, understanding her joys and sympathizing with her travails in Kazakhstan.

I particularly liked what she wrote toward the end of the book about defending Kazakhstan to non-Kazakhs who try to belittle it.

Bakhit Shakentaevna, one of the assistant directors of the school where Janet taught in Zhezkazgan, tries to put a birthday-present earring on Janet’s ear. Photo courtesy of Janet Givens. 

When she and Woody took a trip to Copenhagen, she said, she found that most Danes knew little about Kazakhstan, a situation that’s true in much of the developed world.

Some of the Danes had formed opinions about the country on the basis of news snippets they’d read, however. And, the news business being the news business, many of the snippets were negative – like accounts of crumbling Soviet-era infrastructure and contamination from nuclear testing in the Semey area. So some of the opinions were negative.

In Denmark, the negatives were “all they knew, and I found myself defending the country I was slowly growing to love,” Janet wrote.

She said she viewed the Soviet occupation of Kazakhstan as the reason for some of its shortcomings, then asserted:

“The Soviets haven’t destroyed Kazakh hospitality. They haven’t killed the great sense of fun and good humor my friends there have. And they certainly haven’t affected the Kazakh ability to accept the unacceptable with grace and dignity.”

What a great tribute to the Kazakh people this was – and one that I and many of my friends share.

I remember an argument I had several years ago with a visiting international journalist who was disparaging Kazakhstan’s propensities and leadership. When I mounted a spirited defense of my adopted homeland, the argument became heated.      

Like Janet, I, too had grown to love the country.

When you love others, you get love back – and that’s what Janet saw when she and Woody finally boarded a train from Zhezkazgan to Almaty for a farewell flight from Kazakhstan in 2006.

Janet and her husband Woody Starkweather. Both were Peace Corps volunteers in Zhezkazgan. Photo courtesy of Janet Givens.

Dozens of Kazakhs – teachers, students and friends – showed up at the train station to see them off, waving, shouting and cheering.

“This sea of energetic, grateful faces was the best possible (farewell) gift,” Janet wrote.

When she came to Kazakhstan, she gave up a good career, the ability to see her children and grandchildren, and a big, comfortable home.

But as her eyes swept across the well-wishers in the train station, she said, “I recognized fully that what I’d given up to be there had been worth it.”

When I’ve finally cut my physical ties to Kazakhstan, I know I’ll have the same feeling. I say “physical ties” because it will always be in my heart.

If you’d like to contact Janet, who is now living with Woody in the Green Mountains of Vermont, her website is at www.janetgivens.com.

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