Saturday, July 9, 2011

"I love New Jersey"

"I love New Jersey," are not words I expected to hear when meeting new Kazakhs in Almaty. Last night, I had coffee with my Kazakh friend Adilbek, who introduced me to his friend Mira. Mira is a native of Kostenay, a city in Northern Kazakhstan bordering Russia, and currently works in Public Relations for a firm in Almaty. When I met Mira, she greeted me with an enthusiastic, "Hi I'm Mira, Adilbek tells me you are from New Jersey. I love New Jersey! I used to live in Asbury Park, near Belmar. Do you know it?"
Yes, of course I knew Asbury Park. But why in the world was Mira, a well-dressed, intelligent, young professional, doing in Asbury Park?!
"I worked in Dunkin Donuts for a year. I was there through the work and travel program."
Wow. I was speechless. "Did you enjoy living in Asbury Park?"
"Oh my god, I loved it! I had so much fun, I miss it!"

I was half-stunned, half- confused, and 100% fascinated with Mira. Our conversation took off like lightning. We discussed everything Jersey and Kazakh, from food, films, culture and our experiences!

When Mira moved into the international guesthouse where she lived for several months before renting an apartment, she said there were a bunch of Mexican men doing construction work. Mira had nowhere else to go so for a few days, it was just Mira and the Mexicans in the house. We both joked that Mexicans are to America, as Uzbeks are to Kazakhstan: a source of cheap, migrant labor. In both countries, Mexicans and Uzbeks are frequently doing construction work and menial, physically laborious labor for low wages.

She said that on the first morning, she noticed a bunch of black, gangsters sitting on her backyard porch. Their pants were down to their knees, boxers showing, rapping and smoking. Mira and a friend did not know what to do and when they opened the back door, all of the guys were like "woah, sorry." Mira befriended them and they became her "black, gangster friends," who took her to local clubs and bars.

I tested her Jersey-ness. I asked her if she went to 7-Eleven and Wawa. She passed with flying colors, and commented she loved the 7-Eleven slurpees and liked 7-Eleven coffee more than Dunkin Donuts coffee. She only liked Dunkin Donuts' muffins. Adilbek said he misses American food. He patronized all of the fast food establishments I despise: McDonalds, Subway (his favorite), KFC and Starbucks (after all, he did live in Seattle).

Like a real Jersey commuter, Mira also took the NJ-transit train into NYC to Penn station. "I love Brooklyn. When I visited the Russian neighborhood in Brooklyn, I felt like I was in the former Soviet Union. Everything was in Russian!"

Of course, whenever Adilbek and Mira said they were from Kazakhstan in America, the universal response was "Borat!" They also received weird comments, like "oh, that's next to Afghanistan." No, America -- just because a country ends with a –stan does not mean that it is geographically proximate to or culturally similar to Afghanistan.  Mira also commented that one American told her that Kazakhstan is next to Azerbaijan. Yes, the two countries do share the Caspian Sea, but they also share the sea with Iran, Russia and other countries. 

Coming from different parts of the world, Adilbek, Mira and I were able to truly understand, appreciate and accept each other's cultures and world views'. Just as I know there is more to Kazakhstan than Borat, Adilbek and Mira know that America is considerably more complex than "Gossip Girl," and "Glee" (both of which are translated in Russian and shown on Kazakh TV).

To all my friends reading this blog – go travel and live abroad! Immerse yourself in a foreign way of life! Most importantly, support government funding for international student exchange programs. Funding has taken a hit with budget cuts. Adilbek, Mira and my immersion experiences in Seattle, Asbury Park and Almaty, respectively, crystallizes the value of international student exchange programs to the promotion of a positive American image abroad and promoting cross-cultural communication. 

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