Leora is one of 15 undergraduates who were awarded 2018 Streicker International Fellowships. Streicker Fellows design their own projects or internships in conjunction with a hosting organization. During her fellowship, Leora is interning at Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where she is researching differences in income and career choice between students of Russian and Kazakh-speaking schools.
If I’m being honest, I’ll tell a Kazakhstani that most of my peers have heard of their country thanks to Borat.
But if I’m not being honest, I’ll tell a Kazakhstani that my peers have heard of Kazakhstan thanks to its beautiful mountains, famous hospitality, and incredible history. It makes me deeply sad that many, many Americans have never heard of or plan on visiting this country, so I hope that this snapshot of my time here will give you some insight on why I’ve come to love it so much.
I moved into an apartment with seven people in it, with me the only a) foreigner and b) non-Kazakh (which is the majority ethnicity in Kazakhstan, as opposed to Kazakhstani, which is the nationality of people living in Kazakhstan). At first, naturally, it was really difficult for me: they liked to scrutinize my habits or ask why I have such a loud voice (although, to be fair, people ask me that question stateside as well). I knew that I was a bit of novelty for some of the roommates.
But just a few days ago (already well into my fourth week here), I woke up to a warm blanket being tucked around my shoulders. In those few moments of lucidity before drifting back to sleep, I realized it was my roommate, Gulnura, who had covered me up before leaving for work. She thought I was cold.
That interaction has come to epitomize most of the relationships I’ve formed in Kazakhstan. At first, Gulnura, like many others, was hesitant to approach me, but as time went on, we became very close. Many of the locals here are somewhat suspicious of me but later accept me — leading, in some cases, as with Gulnura, into a beautiful friendship.
I’ve made a lot of friends in Kazakhstan — in a surprising number of ways, and I’d like to tell you a little bit abut them.
Method #1: I made a few friends ahead of time using language forums. I tried to learn some Kazakh before I went (although everyone speaks Russian here as well, which I am fluent in), so I tried to find some individuals in Almaty looking to learn English as well. It was so cool to meet many of them in person! Below is a picture of me (far right) with the family of my language exchange partner Aidos, who is wearing the aviator sunglasses.
I also met my friend Symbat, who regularly invites me to her home for dinner with her family. I am helping her write her documents to apply to PhD programs in the US. (Sorry, I don’t have any pictures of that.)
Method #2: I’ve attended a bunch of clubs here — I have gone to Toastmasters International Almaty and Bas Qosu, which is the Kazakh language club (photo below).
Method #3: I’ve been going to the local synagogue here on Saturdays, which has been a great experience, mainly when combating homesickness. I’ve so immersed in the local culture — from my six local roommates to my job — that going to synagogue has sometimes been the only familiar thing I encounter over the course of any given week. The local rabbi and his wife have invited me over to their house for lunch and dinner, and it’s been great getting to know them.
Method #4: Getting to know my roommates! I cannot stress enough how much I love them. Gulnura, with whom I am especially close, has really taken me under her wing, and shown me Kazakhstan from her favorite chocolate bars (incidentally called Kazakhstan chocolate, photo below) to helping me navigate the local bazaar. My other roommates are great, too: Erke, Rinat, Eric, Mira, and Aray. Below is a photo of some of us when we had some guests over.
Method #4: My coworkers! To be fair, I’m the youngest person in the workplace, but sometimes, they go to a restaurant after work or have a party in the office, which is a good opportunity to socialize.
Method #5: Friends of friends! I really didn’t know anyone before I came here, so a lot of my friends back home were kind enough to introduce me to those whom they knew here… I lucked out! These were the people who brought me to Toastmasters International and took me with them to see the Big Almaty Lake (photo below).
I hope that this has given you a taste of my life here in Almaty. It’s going to be so hard to leave in a little less than a month. I’ve made so many great friends here. This country is beautiful. I wish people knew about it from experiences like mine, as opposed to films like Borat!