There I was, riding the circuit of the city without the slightest idea of how to find my destination, with hardly any street smarts in my repertoire. The sun was setting, the Soviet-era concrete block buildings blended into one, and my imagination came out for the night. Who out there was former KGB? What about the issue of excessive vodka consumption? Where was my bus stop, anyway?
The time I got lost on a bus in Kazakhstan cemented in me the importance of learning your host country’s language and what happens when you don’t.
In my early career in education, I participated in two summers of cross-cultural exchange in Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan), present to help and to learn. Each member of our team of young Canadian adults was housed with a Kazakhstani university student in a dorm room for the month; we studied each other’s language, actively experienced the other’s culture, ate and played together.
After trips to museums, mosques, Orthodox churches, an orphanage, a local market, natural spaces and more, the bones of the place began to emerge. Additionally, I saw how the multiple cultures that live under the flag have their own stories, histories, symbols.
When my roommate invited me to her family home for a weekend, I was given the best bed in the house. I was privy to poverty and sensitive family dynamics that I keep confidential to this day. When it was time to say goodbye, my roommate’s mother gifted me with a ridiculously large box of luxury chocolates for my own mother in Canada.
English language-learning is seen as the gateway to progress and success in Kazakhstan, and so my Canadian team and I tried our upmost to design classes that would be of value to our friends. Most of the local students were already quite fluent, so we planned conversation-based classes and activities.
By contrast, by the end of my second summer spent in Astana, my language skills had not evolved, so the determination of my Kazakhstani friends and others who are required to permanently adapt to a new language was even more humbling.
I am still somewhat in touch with a few of my Kazakhstani friends, forever thankful for the gift of their lives.
Joanne Paterson is an educator and community volunteer in Kingston, Ontario. In her early career she taught English in Kazakhstan and South Korea. She loves to spend time with her family, write, cook, and connect people with ideas and resources.