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Surprising, Vexing, and Attracting


I've had a lot of time this summer to think about the little things that surprise, vex, and attract me to life in the former Soviet Union, and Kazakhstan in particular. While far from comprehensive, I feel like this list helps capture some of what it feels like to be here.

1) When women order beer, it comes with a straw. If it's a particularly classy place, you can bet that the straw will, at a minimum, be fun, twisty, and brightly colored. I really love drinking through straws, so I find this peculiarity simultaneously bemusing and fun. I can blow bubbles in my beer if the mood strikes. However, it also, in my opinion, highlights gender differences apparent here: it would undermine one's femininity to slurp directly from a big mug of beer.

2) Don't EVER put your purse directly on the ground. You will lose all your money... or so the superstition goes. I once, in the course of conversation, mentioned placing my purse on the ground to my yoga instructor; this statement was met with a horrified expression and an aghast, but WHY would you ever do that?? Since I am a grad student and have little enough money to spare anyway, I have surreptitiously carried over this practice of purse-off-the-ground into my daily life even in the U.S. Just in case.

3) To the uninitiated, anything that would normally feature an orderly queue in the West resembles a small mob scene in the FSU. This is actually not the case. Lines exist, they just aren't... linear. Upon arriving somewhere that people are waiting for service, you must yell out, "кто последный?!" in order to determine the person ahead of you. Remember this person, because they will usually kindly save your place in line if you need to run to the bathroom.

4) Direct speech gets you a lot further than timidity. The first time I lived in this region, I found this directness unspeakably rude. If I were working as a waitress in the U.S. and someone caught my attention by yelling "girl!" I'd probably refuse to wait on them. Now, with a few years in Russia and Kazakhstan under my belt, I find that I sometimes enjoy doing away with niceties. I've become a lot more assertive. In a way, it's refreshing to be able to say to a taxi driver who clearly has no idea where they're going -- "where exactly are you going?!" -- with no "excuse me" or worries about injured feelings. Everyone has a bit thicker skin here, and maybe that's not a bad thing.

5) Older women in this part of the world tend, in my experience, to be a wonderful mix of incredibly tough, self-sufficient, direct, practical, warm, compassionate, accepting, and mothering. They will, simultaneously, sympathetically listen to your problems, feed you an insane amount of food, comfort you, and tell you to stop feeling sorry for yourself and get on with your life (in so many words). There really is nothing else in the world quite like a бабушка. I look forward to dying my hair a crazy color and following in their footsteps in my old age.

6) Coffee usually means instant coffee... no, I will never be able to see the sunny side on this one. Luckily (for my classmates, especially) real coffee is increasingly easy to find.

Margaret Hanson is studying Kazakh in Almaty, Kazakhstan.