When you study abroad, you always meet new people coming from different places, speaking different languages. And when you meet new people, you have to introduce not only yourself but also the place and the culture you come from.
I look like a cute Asian girl. People guess, Chinese, Japanese, or Korean? Even the Chinese look at me suspiciously; some of them start speaking to me in their language. Honestly, I expected less attention here in Germany, but at least I was lucky enough not to be jeered at (“ni hao!”) as some of my friends were.
But once I speak, usually to my boyfriend or on the phone, people become more confused because I speak Russian. It is my first language; my parents taught me it, and I read my first books in it.
This is usually the moment when people wonder where I come from. And here’s the answer.
I come from Kazakhstan.
The next stage is — people stare and smile because they don’t know. I don’t blame them. I also don’t know that much about, say, Montenegro.
I explain that it is a post-soviet country in Central Asia and that we are the ninth biggest country in the world and that we used to be nomads centuries ago. I also explain that Kazakh is the official language, but it was suppressed in the Soviet Union, and schools were mostly Russian, and when the Union collapsed, our policies weren’t strict enough to make the Kazakh language great again.
I am actually okay with the language issue; moreover, I’m happy with it, as speaking Russian gave me access to Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, and Nabokov. I never thought language is a big deal. Neither was nationality or ethnicity. It does not define who I am, I thought. I never wanted to feel guilty about the negligence of my ancestral heritage.
But something went wrong, and here I am, trying to explain myself to random people who can’t locate Kazakhstan on the world map.
Ben Anderson claimed that a nation is an imagined community. Its members are tied up together, but it’s so huge that nobody will ever meet all other members of the community in the whole life.
Many things that are so valued in my country are imagined. We were taught in school that the word “Kazakh” meant “brave and free”. However, sources only claim that this term was used in the 15th century to identify those who were unhappy with the ruler Abu’l-Khayr and left and created their own community — the Kazakh khanate. Basically, the sacred meaning of the name we call ourselves is bullshit. Our history is imagined.
Our pride is imagined, too. There is an idea that “true” Kazakhs should know their “zheti ata”, or seven male ancestors from father to great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. There is a tendency to blow the dust off the traditions, often based on strict gender roles. There is an urge to make everyone proud of their ancestry.
There are always people who make others feel ashamed of not knowing their language. As I said, I don’t speak Kazakh very well. My dad was born in Novokuznetsk, Russia, so he and his siblings only speak Russian. My mom was more exposed to Kazakh as she grew up in a village in Kazakhstan. Sometimes my mom and I tried to speak Kazakh at home, and my dad was happy to listen to us. He even made me promise that I would speak Kazakh fluently by the end of my undergrad studies—I agreed, of course, but I failed.
I failed mostly because of a Kazakh rhetoric course, which was the most dreadful experience at university. In that class, everybody else spoke Kazakh better than me, and we had to speak and present a lot. Our teacher, a young woman with old-fashioned views, assigned us to discuss, for example, international marriage or the number of children in a family. I would be okay if it were sharing our views in a casual, friendly manner; but in the end, the teacher criticized marrying foreigners and promoted having as many children as possible. Same-sex marriages were claimed to be an invention and an attempt to stop the population growth (which is a threat to a country that has a density of 7 people per square kilometre). I tried to protest, but it didn’t help. The problem wasn’t the university; in fact, I’m forever thankful to my literature professors who taught me to be open-minded. It was only some teachers in the Kazakh department who were still stuck in the Middle Ages. I completed the required Kazakh language course hoping never to undergo the same experience again.
So I’d never considered myself being part of an imagined community; I supposed my nationality would never be the first thing to define me. But it is hard if you go abroad, especially for a long time. “Where do you come from?” is always an immediate question after “what’s your name?”.
In 2015, I went to Milan with other students from Kazakhstan. We participated in a competition, which included a visit to EXPO-2015, a huge exhibition with pavilions representing different countries. I would be lying if I said I didn’t like the Kazakhstan pavilion. Honestly, it was the most elaborated; there was our national food, and there was a short film about our country. There was everything we usually present as our national features: nomads, horses, and steppes in the past; steppes, industries, and skyscrapers in the present. There were hospitality and abundance. I had never felt as proud as on that day. It struck me then that I was not as estranged from my national identity as I imagined.
I don’t know if it’s right or wrong. I still prefer to be rather proud of myself than of people I never knew. I still think some traditions better remain in the past.
But sometimes I want to be able to read Kazakh literature and reflect on it. Last time I went to Kazakhstan, I bought a t-shirt saying “kop soz boq soz” which means “talking too much is shit.” Sometimes I want people to know about the place I come from because, no matter what I’m thinking, it’s part of who I am.
My name is Kamila, and I’m from… You know Kazakhstan? It’s a large and beautiful country in Central Asia…