Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Kazakhstan
In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race, and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other, despite our many differences. Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal.
In other ways, however, our diversity poses challenges. In Kazakhstan, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyles, background, and beliefs will be judged in a cultural context very different from our own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics considered familiar and commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed.
Outside of Kazakhstan’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What is advertised as “typical” cultural behavior or norms may also be a narrow and selective interpretation, such as the perception in some countries that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Kazakhstan are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to differences that you present. Volunteers need to be supportive of one another.
In order to ease the transition and adapt to the ways of your host country, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, women trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions will need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limits. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.
The Peace Corps staff in Kazakhstan recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of cultures, backgrounds, religions, ethnic groups, and ages and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who will take pride in supporting each other and demonstrating the richness of American culture.
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
Kazakhstan is a traditional, patriarchal society. It is among the challenges of living and working in Kazakhstan to cope effectively and constructively with the differing status of women and men and the different standards of behavior to which they are held. To promote greater understanding, many Volunteers participate in Women in Development (WID) and Gender and Development (GAD).
Female Volunteers may:
- find that being a single woman living alone is not the cultural norm;
- receive more unwanted and inappropriate attention from men than in the United States; and
- have to work harder than male Volunteers to gain the respect of host-country colleagues. Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
Volunteers of color may work and live with individuals who have had no experience with or understanding of the African-American, Hispanic American or Asian-American culture. Volunteers of color may be evaluated as less professionally competent than white Volunteers; they may be treated suspiciously, especially in rural areas of Kazakhstan. They may be the only minority trainee or Volunteer. The Russian word for a black or dark-skinned person sounds like the English word “Negro.” As such, its use is not meant as a racial slur. Asian-American Volunteers may not be accepted as Americans. They may be identified by their cultural heritage, not by their American citizenship. They may have to deal with peoples’ higher expectations of their language learning ability or cross-cultural adaptability.
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
Respect comes with age in Kazakhstan. Younger Volunteers may have to work harder than their older colleagues to be accepted as professionals. On the other hand, older Volunteers may face challenges solely due to their age. Throughout your service, you will be working and living with individuals in the Peace Corps community (the majority of Volunteers are in their 20s) who may have little understanding of, or respect for, the lives and experiences of senior Americans. Your interactions with Peace Corps staff may be different than that of younger Volunteers. Staff may not give you the necessary personal support, while at the same time, you may be reluctant to share your personal, sexual, or health concerns with the staff. You may find that younger Volunteers look to you for advice or support. While some seniors find this an enjoyable part of their Volunteer experience, others choose not to fill this role.
Peace Corps countries vary greatly in the physical and human resources available for in-country training. Some senior trainees have encountered inattentiveness to their needs for an effective learning environment, including timing, presentation of materials, comfort level, and health. You may need to be assertive in developing an effective individual approach to language learning.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
While homosexuality certainly exists in Kazakhstan, there may not be as much cultural acceptance as there was in a Volunteer’s home community. Moreover, host country acceptance of homosexuality among nationals may be quite different from their acceptance of homosexuality among foreigners. Lesbian, gay, or bisexual Volunteers may serve for two years without meeting another gay Volunteer. Straight Volunteers and staff may not be able to give needed support.
Most lesbian, gay, or bisexual host-country nationals will have migrated to the larger cities, while many Volunteers are posted in rural sites, where cultural difficulties may be greater. Though relationships with host-country nationals can occur, they may not be easy and could result in dangerous situations. AIDS (SPID in Russian) is a critical issue in many countries, including Kazakhstan. There is a backlash being felt by gay American men for supposedly bringing the disease into some areas.
Civil liberties are sometimes nonexistent or ignored. Homosexuals may be hassled in bars or on streets. Lesbians will face constant questions about boyfriends, marriage, and sex (as do all women). Wearing an “engagement ring” may help. Gay men must deal with machismo: talk of conquests, girl watching, and dirty jokes.
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
Volunteers are free to exercise their personal religious beliefs, but you may not engage in religious proselytizing or otherwise engage in activities that could be contrary to law or would impair your effectiveness as a Volunteer.
Possible Issues for Volunteers with Disabilities
As a disabled Volunteer in Kazakhstan, you may find that you face a special set of challenges. In Kazakhstan, as in other parts of the world, some people may hold prejudicial attitudes about individuals with disabilities and may discriminate against them. There is little to no infrastructure to accommodate individuals with disabilities.
As part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you are physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodation, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Kazakhstan. Your service should be without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption during your time in Kazakhstan.
The Peace Corps/Kazakhstan staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in their training, housing, job sites, or in other areas, to enable them to serve safely and effectively.