Monday, July 7, 2014

International Interactions in Baraholka


I generally have avoided sharing anecdotes from the field on this blog, in order to protect the integrity of my research methodology and the privacy of my research subjects. But I've had some pretty interesting experiences lately, that I thought I would share.

So as many of you know, I work as a shoe salesman in the international hub bazaar in Almaty, Baraholka. Baraholka is actually an area of the city that includes some 25 to 35 independently owned bazaars. Tengrinews, one of the local media outlets, actually wrote an article on me, which was awkward and funny.

Anyways, I was in the field on Saturday and two dudes walk into our container. I thought they were Tajik, as they had a darker complexion and were speaking what sounded to me like Tajik. I asked them who they were shopping for. One of them said his wife. I asked what is her size, and he said "I don't know, she's 25, can you tell me?" I laughed because usually we have clueless guys looking for a gift for their daughters, wives, girlfirends, etc., but usually they know the shoe size. They recognized my accent and asked where I am from. I said America. It turns out, they were from Afghanistan, specifically the town of Kunduz. They came to Kazakhstan four years ago on a government scholarship. As part of the Silk Road strategy and fostering regional ties, the Government of Kazakhstan provides scholarships to Afghan students to study in Kazakhstan's universities and then return home to work. Tuition is covered and students receive a living stipend. The program started with around 200 students, but has apparently reached 1000 students. These two guys were some of hte lucky students to study here.

They were pretty interesting, and down-to-normal guys. Both of them in their twenties. One of them was married, while the other was not. Neither of them had been home in the past four years. They knew no Russian prior to arriving in Kazakhstan, and had to quickly learn. They commented it was hard to learn. As someone who started learning Russian in Almaty three years ago, I certainly sympathize with their sentiment. They both recently completed university in dentistry and were returning to Afghanistan in a week to work as dentists in their local towns.

They then said I should invite them to America (which is something I hear every single day from all of my coworkers). I responded that they probably know a lot of Americans, given the heavy build up of forces there over the past decade. They said of course, but since Americans traveled through Afghanistan, now they should have the opportunity to tour America, specifically California.

We joked for a bit, and they ended up estimating the wife's shoe size, and I sold the pair to them at the wholesale price. They are students with limited budgets, after all. And who knows if the shoe will even fit.

Either way, student exchange programs between the U.S., UK, Australia and EU states are pretty common, but public diplomacy exchanges is a side to the "New Silk Road" strategy and South-Central Asian relations that you do not really hear about. Given Almaty's multinational population that includes Tajiks and migrant populations from China and Central Asia, it is a pretty good destination for Afghan students to feel at home, gain exposure to a cosmopolitan city and gain an education. Almaty is neither Moscow nor New York in terms of its population, wealth and level of hustle and bustle. But it is a wealthy city with a Ritz Carlton, sky scrapers and a metro. Almaty's universities are considered some of the best in Kazakhstan, if not the region. I have an office in one of the universities here, and have guest lectured throughout the city, which has allowed me to meet a lot of faculty members and students. Several universities here have international adjuncts from the U.S. and Europe, which gives students the opportunity to receive a "Western educational product" without the Western price tag.

It was great to see some Afghan students who directly benefit from the exchange program. Now they have a skill, and can return home and work as dentists. Plus, they have exposure to living in a developed city and interracting with people of different backgrounds.

On Sunday, I had another Afghan client. Three young girls came in. I originally thought they were Turkish or from the Caucuses. It turns out, they were also Afghans, but only one of them spoke Russian. This gal served as the translator. She said that her cousins were just visiting her. They were all in jeans, t-shirts and ballet flats, and one clearly was experimenting with new make-up trends. None of them had their heads covered. They ended up buying a pair of platform sandals and ballet flats. I didn't get into a deep conversation with them, but I have to say that after living here for almost ten months and being exposed to a very conservative mentality on gender roles, it was refreshing to see some young, Afghan girls shopping in Baraholka like their Kazakh, and American, counterparts. In the states, we tend to have a stigma of Afghan women as veiled, when in fact, the country is really diverse and people have different interpretation of gender roles, and religiosity.

A few months ago, I also had another Afghan client. She noticed my American accent. She was wearing a head scarf, but one of those colorful ones, and her face and hands were showing. She was visiting Almaty with her husband, who was here on business.

The point of this post was to share some anecdotes about my interactions with Afghans. There is a significant Afghan population in the states, but for the most part, I feel that we, as Americans, do not have a lot of interaction with people from Afghanistan and know very little about the country beyond the context of the war. Plus, I hope this posts sheds light on the value of student educational exchanges. These programs are relatively cheap in the context of national budgets and are an investment in a country's most sacred asset -- its people (or in economics terms human capital). Finally, these informal social interactions foster cross-cultural communication and diminish stereotypes. If there is one thing I've learned from this year, it is that people are simply, people. And if people of different races, nationalities and religions could just talk to one another, a lot of confusions over expectations, suspicions regarding another person's motivations, actions and beliefs, could be clarified and mitigated. This sounds so corny, but the motto of the story is the following: you cannot make general assumptions about a group of people and communication is key to getting along (between countries and between people).

Well I am now in the dog days of research. I'll be flying home on July 30th, which is CRAZY. While I am so, so excited to be reunited with my dog, friends, family, seafood, Mexican food and Chipotle, the Jersey Shore and the Hilltop, among other things, I will so dearly miss Almaty, and Baraholka. But I'll save the nostalgia for another post.

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