I sometimes get to wondering how much I've been able to assimilate and integrate into the Kazakhstani culture. I know I'll always stand out like a sore thumb, the “foreigner” (people usually assume I'm German) who draws surreptitious stares wherever she goes. This isn't for lack of trying to blend in. I've tried to adapt my facial expression on the street, hiding my American smile behind a bland, uninterested look as I wait for the bus. I've also tried to wear the appropriate clothes, although I know on this front I fail miserably, because I refuse to wear high heals or see-through lace shirts (with a leopard print bra!) or so many rhinestones I look like a disco ball. Nonetheless, I find Kazakhstani fashion a lot less shocking than I did when I first came here. Some of the dresses and sweaters that I probably would have joked about before I now think are pretty cute. Not that I'd wear them, but they aren't hideous anymore. Does that equal a step toward adaptation?
I also find myself making small steps toward cultural assimilation. For example, as I talked about in an earlier blog entry, here it's considered rude to set your cup down on the table too loudly. When I was out at a cafe recently for a Kazakh friend's birthday, I felt my nerves jar a little when one girl set her glass abruptly down on the table. “How ru...,” I thought, then caught myself and smiled a little at the cultural thinking I'd just unconsciously been engaging in.
Another time, I was standing in my director's office for a meeting with several other teachers. The room was not crowded, but nonetheless one of the other teachers was pressed up against my arm as if we were sardined on a bus. For a full five minutes, I didn't feel as if my personal space was being invaded, and I had no inclination to step away, because frankly I didn't even notice anything strange. (Kazakhs have a much smaller personal bubble than Americans do.) It was only after the director had kept droning on about something I didn't understand, and I began looking around to entertain myself, that I noticed a full five feet of space on the other side of the teacher and began to wonder why she didn't move over to occupy the free space. But since the room wasn't hot and I didn't want to seem rude, I stayed where I was and was less uncomfortable than I was curious about my own belated observation.
Food is becoming less of an issue as well. I'm beginning to wonder how you could possibly be hospitable to guests if you don't have tea in front of them within five minutes of them entering your house. And who ever thought that cookies for breakfast was strange?
And then there's mental assimilation. I noticed how this was happening to me when I was looking through some pictures of a friend from America having fun with her boyfriend. I felt a strange disconnection from my friend, who's 24 and the same age as me, as the two of them made silly faces at the camera and documented their trip to the bowling alley. Such behavior is abnormal in Kazakhstan, and as I looked at the photos I thought it just a little abnormal too. Over here, when a couple goes on a date, they might walk in the park or sit on a bench, but they always know that people are watching and making assumptions, so they don't do anything too crazy. The dating period is fun, certainly, but there's a definite end in sight: marriage. My friend, at 24, is pushing the boundary of being an old maid, which is definitely a bad thing. She should be working to secure her man as soon as possible so she can start her family. “What is life without children?” my host dad has told me rhetorically. “Children are everything.” People marry at 18 or 20 and start having babies soon after. At 24, my friend should be thinking about baby pictures, not silly pictures. And for a moment, I thought the same thing.
I'm the most curious about anything I may have assimilated into so completely that I don't even notice it. (Because, of course, just the fact that I noticed the previous incidents means that they are still somewhat foreign to me.) What additional habits or ways of thinking will I acquire over here that, on my return to the states, might make me seem like a foreigner to my own family? But will I ever even get close to fitting in over here?