Probably one of my biggest fears when going abroad to study in the US 3 years ago and again upon my arrival in UK was that I would not be able to stay true to my culture and values held by my people. Kazakhstan, being a country of only 17 million people, does not have a large diaspora outside the Post-Soviet region, which made me feel even smaller when travelling.
Being Kazakh abroad comes with ups and downs. Most people have no idea where you are from, but this is also why they find you interesting. Usually, my response to people asking me where my country is – “Open the world map. It is pretty hard to miss.” Although it was a bit frustrating at the beginning to realize that you are not as important as you thought, it helped me be more open and receptive to the values of foreign cultures. So, ironically, sometimes I feel grateful that I was born in a country that nobody has heard of.
Staying Kazakh in London
Although London has enormously diverse selection of international cuisine, I found out that there isn’t a single Kazakh restaurant. So it is pretty tough to find authentically made Kazakh food, but there are many alternatives, which serve mainly Central Asian food. I was not too disappointed because most of the ingredients that I need to make home dishes are available at local groceries. Given that I have been cooking Kazakh food since my freshman year of college, it was not awfully difficult to do the same in London.
A really challenging task in the US was to find people that speak Kazakh. There are not many Kazakh students in the US (only 1000), while the UK is a more popular place (4000 students). So studying in London was also an opportunity for me to find out more about Kazakh students abroad and practice my Kazakh along the way. I was very curious about how they retain their identities abroad. Interestingly, all Kazakh students that I met in my classes chose to speak Russian, instead of Kazakh. I think this is more of a general trend among Kazakhstani youth rather than something specific to students studying abroad. My initial expectation was that being away from home will make them feel an urge to speak their mother tongue, but it did not turn out to be the case. I wonder if that is because Russian culture, being more dominant and well-known abroad, is more attractive identity for Kazakh students to assume.
What have I learned?
While it turned out to be quite difficult to retain my Kazakh identity while studying abroad, I have learned many lessons about my identity. Finishing off my junior year abroad, I realize that fighting and resisting your host country’s culture is not going to help you retain your own. The way I learned to approach this is by acknowledging other people’s values, and learning to understand their importance in their lives without judging them from my own cultural standpoint. Additionally, studying abroad in England helped me look at my culture from the perspective of an outsider once more. One of the unexpected realizations that I have had was that I assimilated some elements of US culture more strongly than I realized before. For example, I found myself smiling to people that I come across, which local people do not tend to do as often as Americans. I am curious to see whether I will have similar realizations about England when I am back to the states.
Bakdaulet Baitan is an economics major at Kenyon College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at Queen Mary University of London in 2019. He is an international correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-To-Study Program.