Zhanibek Amankulov, a 21-year-old first-year AU graduate student from Kazakhstan, muses about his mom’s cooking, Borat and life in America with the Observer’s Wah-Hui Ong.*
Tell me about Kazakhstan and the city you are from.
Kazakhstan is located in the middle of Eurasia. It’s the ninth largest country in the world in terms of size. The country shares borders with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. I’m from Almaty, which is the former capital of Kazakhstan. It’s known informally as the southern capital. The present capital of Kazakhstan is Astana, which is in the north.
There are about 14.5 million people in Kazakhstan and more than 130 ethnic groups. Kazakh, which has its roots in Turkish, is the official language, but Russian, which has Slovak roots, is the common language spoken among the different ethnic groups. I speak Kazakh, Russian, and also Turkish, because I attended a Kazakh-Turkish high school. I also speak basic Spanish. There are still other languages that I want to master, like Arabic and Chinese. At home, we usually speak Kazakh, although with friends and in day-to-day social interaction, I usually use Russian. That’s usually the case for most Kazakhs living in the cities.
What do you miss most about Kazakhstan?
My family, friends, and food! I miss my mom and her cooking the most, especially beshparmak, which is the most popular traditional Kazakh meal. It’s basically boiled lamb served on dough. And I miss the nature, the greenery, and the mountains in Kazakhstan. Almaty, where I live, has beautiful mountains.
What is Kazakhstan’s favorite sport or game?
We have so many. Soccer, basketball, martial arts, just whatever sport or game you might think of. Though I know that baseball and American football are not so popular. We actually have good national teams in ice hockey, water polo, gymnastics, wrestling and boxing. Also, our soccer team plays in the European League.
What are some of the important issues being discussed in your country right now?
The development of rural areas is a top priority for our country. Our government wants to develop the rural areas to stimulate and encourage the growth and modernization of our agricultural industries. Wheat is one of Kazakhstan’s main exports.
If given the chance, what misperception of Kazakhstan would you try to change?
First of all, I’d like to address Borat the movie. (The 2006 film, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” stars comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.) In the movie, Borat speaks of Kazakhstan as if it was an underdeveloped country. But Kazakhstan is actually a prosperous, democratic country where people of different religions and ethnic backgrounds treat each other equally. Women also have equal rights and are treated with respect, unlike in the movie, where Borat doesn’t see them as equals.
If Americans want to visit Kazakhstan and see the reality for themselves, what’s the best way to travel there?
From Washington D.C., you fly via Frankfurt or Amsterdam to Astana or Almaty. You can take KLM or Lufthansa, and I think you can also take our national airline Air Astana.
Depending on when you travel and which city you visit, you have to be prepared for the weather. For example, during winter in Almaty, the temperature will go down to minus 30 degrees Celcius (minus 22 degrees Farenheit). In the summer, the weather is moderate, about 35 degrees Celcius (95 degrees Farenheit). Almaty, where I live, is also very humid.
What made you decide to come to the United States for your graduate degree?
I won the Presidential Scholarship for a master’s economics degree in the U.S. I think there are about 500 other students in the U.S. under this same scholarship. In AU, there are about 18 of us in this Bolashak program, which means â€˜future’ in Kazakh. It’s the president’s initiative that was started in 1993 to meet Kazakhstan’s needs for highly qualified professionals.
What kind of job do you want to have after you graduate?
That’s a difficult one. Our government would like us to join the civil service, because that’s the objective of the scholarship — for the scholars to contribute to the economic development of the country. But I am interested to work in the private sector, in the corporate finance world, where my knowledge of the English language will be an advantage. I have to serve a five-year bond after I graduate, but we’re allowed now to work for the private sector while serving our bond. Previously, they didn’t allow it.
What are your views on America?
It’s my first time in America, and also the first time I’m abroad. I had high expectations of the United States, in terms of the socio-economic development. I really expected something special. I thought it would be a different world. But it is not so much different from what I am used to seeing in Kazakhstan. I thought it would be perfect. Coming here, you see the homeless on the street, rubbish piling up on the street, and then you understand that no country is perfect. All countries face the same problems. There is nothing so exciting about being here. But I must say that I am really satisfied with the education system, with what I am learning, which is my primary interest here.
What are your best and worse moments in America so far?
I’ve never lived on my own for a long time, this is my first challenge living on my own and being abroad. The best moments are traveling to different cities. I’ve been to New York, Philadelphia, Miami, and I plan to go to Los Angeles in May. The other thing is meeting so many different people from almost all over the world. I have become more knowledgeable about their cultures and sometimes it even changes my view and perceptions about some other countries.
The worst moments are related to food. That’s the most crucial thing. Everything here tastes so different from the food back home. I like beef steak and I want to have good lamb or beef but usually there is pork in almost everything. And I don’t eat pork because of my religions views. In some restaurants or cafeterias, there are no dishes that are pork-free. So for me, food is a big issue. The only food I like here in the U.S. is the beef steak.
Are there any restaurants in D.C. where we can sample Kazakh food?
We usually go to Russian restaurants because the food is almost similar. In CIS countries, we have common cuisines, so it’s sometimes hard to differentiate between national cuisines because we cook Russian, Uzbek, Ukranian whatever. The first Russian restaurant in the U.S. I went to was in New York, Brighton Beach, where most of the Russian-speaking people live.
In D.C., I’ve heard that there are some Russian restaurants but I’ve never been to any yet. I think the only way you can taste traditional Kazakh food is to persuade one of the Kazakh AU students to cook for you.
What are some main differences in culture that show up in the classroom?
The classroom is so diverse here, as there are Americans and also international students. Most of my friends are international students, but, of course, I also try to interact with the Americans. The teaching style is also different and classes here are more informal. In Kazakhstan, we have a Soviet-style of education where you usually wouldn’t argue with the professor and the professor is considered to be the expert in the subject they teach. Sometimes, professors here might not have an answer to your question, and they will try to address it later on, which is kind of unacceptable in our country.
What, in your opinion, are some misperceptions of America?
Many people have the view that Americans don’t have a good knowledge or outlook on other countries. But the American schoolmates I’ve met at AU seem to be knowledgeable about social and political events in other parts of the world. It could be because AU has an international focus, and so the students here are more exposed to other cultures and countries. But if I were to go to another university, I may not observe the same level of interest in other countries.
*Editor’s note: This is an edited transcript.