Culture Shock Moments

This first month in Shymkent has been full of surprises and hilarities. Welcome to another episode of “Kazakhstan: Things Are Not What They Seem.” Also known as “Things That Make Becca’s ‘Culture Shock’ Journal in Shymkent a Running List of Absurdities That Keeps Growing and Growing…” At this point, everything to me is downright hilarious, so I hope this following “Top 10 List” will bring you all a bit of Peace Corps Kazakhstan life-humor, too. Enjoy!

Culture Shock Moment #1: I decided it was time to treat myself to a “Sanity-Salvation Beauty Splurge of the Month,” which I’d hoped would become a regular staple in my life. I saw that a lot of girls here have French manicures, and asked a teacher assistant in my office where I could get one. The nice girl generously offered to take me during our lunch break. The result?


….This monstrosity. Apparently “I want a French manicure” (Russian) and then “No!! Why are you using black???!! I don’t want black!!” (Russian) followed finally by “Is this zebra print?? Oh dear god” (English) did nothing to prevent me from receiving the following. I don’t think it was language barrier…just here, it don’t matter what you want, it matters what they want to give you. Which they decide without you, of course. 😛

Culture Shock Moment #2: I realize that Shymkent is a well-developed city with more amenities than you would likely find in almost any other Peace Corps site placement, Kazakhstan or otherwise…but that doesn’t mean they always work. Like when the traffic light randomly went blank one day on the main crossroad from my house to my office, and cars started jettisoning their way through at random. Take a look:

Culture Shock Moment #3: I am faced every day by the fact that the “office” my organization works out of is actually a busy and bustling teacher’s cabinet in the middle of the biggest university in Southern Kazakhstan (UKGU). My director is also a teacher at UKGU, and thus we are basically squatting out of her small allocated bit of office space. As a result, every day someone comes in while I am sitting at “my desk” (loosely named) and asks me where various teachers are…in Kazakh, of course, because I look Kazakh and they have no clue who I am. Soooo, in awesome Jeff Mason style (thanks for the tip, Jeff!), I put up the following sign, shown here. So useful…so necessary.

[It reads: “Rebecca Gong, Peace Corps Volunteer from America. Does NOT speak Kazakh, and does NOT know where Aigul is.” What a time-saver!]

Culture Shock Moment #4: I was approached by a teacher in the university where I work. She invited me to judge an English language debate among students in the technical faculties. The teacher came multiple times throughout the week to remind me about the event, every time also insisting that I invite my fellow new PCVs to join as official judges. Though the time of the event suddenly changes the night before (of course), we all successfully show up to the auditorium hall the morning of and even find front-row seats reserved with bottles of water and little paper placards with our names printed on them (almost all correctly!).


The event begins, and we look at the printed “programs” we have been given. There is no sign of any type of debate: just songs, dances and skits. What follows can barely be described. Each faculty was represented by a team with creative, specialty-appropriate names like “The Mad Builders” (resource management & construction),“Biohazard” (bioengineering), “Chemical Brothers and Sisters” (chemical engineering), and “Bank of Knowledge” (economics). There was abundant lipsyncing to English songs, an all-male rendition of the Swan Lake quartet complete with tutus, and a hip hop dance by girls in what Phillip, Sipra and I dubbed “Lady Gaga” sequined hoods.

The most shocking thing though was the skits that followed. One team parodied university students sitting for an exam in Astana (quietly writing), in Almaty (talking loudly on their phones, being crazy and disruptive) and in Shymkent (holding an auction for their grades…the best scores go to the highest bidders!). One team did a skit about sexually propositioning your teachers for grades, in which one male student cross-dresses as a woman to gain the affections of his professor. The rest was too inappropriate to even retell in full – every single team had something along the lines of gay jokes, sexual harassment jokes, jokes about hitting on women at clubs (and then beating them when they don’t respond favorably), and even rape jokes. All in front of the entire combined faculties’ teachers and deans. It was difficult for us to give out the “awards” with a straight face, as we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry and what we really wanted to do was disqualify them all. Of course, what we witnessed was in no way a debate – as we later discovered, it was actually performances of the “KVN” variety: “Клуб Веселых и Находчивых,” or “The Club of the Funny and Quick-witted”…basically, our version of a comedy club. This made the whole affair a little more comprehensible (and I wish we had been told in advance), but still could not redeem it as something we would deem kosher for an official university setting…certainly not with judges and their officially-typed name placard! 😛 Oh Kazakhstan.

Culture Shock Moment #5: The other day, Phillip and I were walking back home from dance class and witnessed this little gem. A snappily-dressed gentlemen with a girl…on each hand. Not very visible here, but nevertheless…you get the picture.

Culture Shock Moment #6, 7, 8 , 9…: Some of you have asked about my host family switch. Worry not, I am in good hands now…but I have plenty of amusing CSMs from my first month here. The first was arriving to my large new apartment, putting down all my luggage, and being told that my two grown host sisters will take turns sleeping with me in my bed to “facilitate greater language learning.” After my lovely Peace Corps Regional Manager sorted that one out for me, I found out that I was not allowed to have a key to the actual apartment itself…making it difficult to enter and exit the house on my own schedule, among other things. If you want the rest of this particular set of CSMs, comment and I’ll put you on my email list. 😉

Culture Shock Moment #10: I owe my new host mom for this gem. We were having another one of our long, pleasant post-dinner chats the other night, and somehow got onto the topic of studies and exams here in Kazakhstan. She pulled out one of her older son’s old books back from when he was in school, and showed me the contents – perforated columns in teeny tiny font containing typed-up “best essays” for a wide variety of subjects, to be cut out along the dotted lines, rolled up and snuck into your sleeve for surreptitious usage on exams. I asked how no one would be able to tell if everyone showed up and wrote the same exact essay plagiarized from a “cheat book”…and she responded that probably, students bought different books. I have since been informed by a local friend that in fact, students just get together in advance and decide who is using which essay on this particular exam. Oy.
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4 Responses to Culture Shock Moments

  1. marissa eve says:

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE THE NAILS. In fact I just asked my counterpart to take me out to get mine done. When in Rome, right???

  2. 和平使者 says:

    Love your blog. Got so many information from it. Please keep posting on, and I'll read them regularly.By the way, the nails look very pretty and cute. But you should ask Jojo to do it for you next time.

  3. Mark says:

    Great stuff Becca! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Anonymous says:

    #1 I guess this girl just took you to a wrong place for a french manicure :)and second – you know it's funny when you go to hairdresser's they say – OH MY GOSH your hair is sooo bad and spoilt, what do you do with it?? it looks sooo sick! and you know they just keep blaming me for not taking caring of my hair! whatever :)) this is just the way they think they should work 🙂 everyone around here is a teacher, still left-overs from soviet union)#2 same happens in almaty (i live in almaty) and actually, the police men do it on purpose for controlling the traffic themselves. they just always want an extra work :D#3 this is hilarious :))) very creative, Becca! especially the "ne znaet gde Aigul" part :P#4 i have no comments 😀 just sooo typical for UKGU as for the host family, you know I had some reverse culture shock in America 🙂 but it sooo hilarious about facilitating to learn english while sleeping :Dand #10 is such an issue, I hate to admit, but it's real here.. You know a year in America has taught not to cheat and gave me a bad attitude towards cheating, thanks America :)Thank you for sharing this, Becca :)I'll see you at the office! and so happy you're now with us! hope we won't be much of a culture shock for you :)Zauresh

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