Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Kyrgyzstan
In fulfilling its mandate to share the diversity of America with our host countries, the Peace Corps is 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 our 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, it poses challenges. In the Kyrgyz Republic, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyles, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in the Kyrgyz Republic.
Outside of Bishkek, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What is viewed as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief in some countries that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. Members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.
To ease the transition and adapt to life in the Kyrgyz Republic, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female 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 limitations. The Peace Corps staff will be available to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.
- 1 Overview of Diversity in the Kyrgyz Republic
- 2 What Might a Volunteer Face?
- 2.1 Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
- 2.2 Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
- 2.3 Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
- 2.4 Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
- 2.5 Possible Issues for Married Volunteers
- 2.6 Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
- 2.7 Possible Issues for Volunteers with Disabilities
Overview of Diversity in the Kyrgyz Republic
The Peace Corps staff in the Kyrgyz Republic 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 you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who support one another and take pride in demonstrating the richness of American culture.
What Might a Volunteer Face?
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
Many female Volunteers find it difficult to adjust to the relatively conservative attitudes toward women in the Kyrgyz Republic. In many parts of the country, it is important to wear long skirts, cover one’s head, and not be seen smoking in public. The rules of dating and talking with men are throwbacks to the early 1900s in the United States, and what American women tend to think of as harassment may be an everyday occurrence in many places. Female Volunteers are constantly asked if they are married and, if they are over 22 and single, why they are not married when they are so “old.” Be prepared to be constantly reminded of your gender.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
Volunteers of color face additional challenges inside and outside of the Peace Corps community. Within the Volunteer community, you may be the only minority trainee or Volunteer in a particular project. You may not receive, or be able to receive, the necessary personal support from other Volunteers, and you may not find minority role models among the Peace Corps country staff.
Once you move to your site, you may work and live with individuals who have no experience with or understanding of non-Caucasian American culture. Because of ignorance, stereotyped cultural perceptions, or the country’s current or historical involvement with other countries, you may encounter varying degrees of harassment in your day-to-day life. Hispanic and Asian-American Volunteers, for example, may be identified more by their cultural heritage than by their American citizenship. Consider the possibility of using an ethnic-nationality indicator such as Costa Rican-American, Venezuelan-American, Chinese-American, Korean-American as a strategy for conveying your dual ethnic heritage and American citizenry. For the most part, the question of “Where are you from?” really is an attempt to understand where your “family’s family” is from given your physical features. Further, you may not be perceived as being American, or you may be evaluated as less professionally competent than a white Volunteer. In any community in which you are not known, you may be treated suspiciously. Finally, you should be prepared to hear racial terms that would be completely inappropriate in the United States today. The word for a black or dark-skinned person in Russian is “negger” and while it is unlikely that a Kyrgyz is using the word as a slur, you will encounter this word used from in some areas. As a method of increasing local cultural competence, treat these encounters as teachable moments by making individuals aware of the more appropriate term African Amerikanskaya (this is the best term to refer to a Black person given the language limitations in both Kyrgyz and Russian).
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
Respect comes with age in the Kyrgyz Republic. 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 age. Most of the individuals in the Peace Corps community with whom you will work and live with are in their 20s and may have little understanding of, or respect for, the lives and experiences of senior Americans. In addition, the Peace Corps staff may not be able to give you as much personal support as you need, and you may be reluctant to share your personal, sexual, or health concerns with the staff. You may also find that younger Volunteers look to you for advice and support. While some seniors find this a very enjoyable part of their Volunteer experience, others choose not to fill this role. Training may present its own special challenges. Older trainees may encounter a lack of attention to their specific needs for an effective learning environment and may need to be assertive in developing an individual approach to language learning. Finally, dealing with family emergencies, maintaining lifelong relationships, and handling financial matters from afar may be more problematic for older Volunteers than younger ones.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
Although the Kyrgyz Republic decriminalized homosexual acts between adult men by presidential decree in 1998, homosexuality is still sometimes considered immoral by local norms. Homosexuals certainly exist in the Kyrgyz Republic, but not with the same level of acceptance Volunteers may have experienced in the United States. Civil liberties may be ignored, and homosexuals may be hassled in bars or in the street. The Kyrgyz people’s view of homosexuality among nationals may be different from their view of homosexuality among foreigners. Certain hairstyles, clothing, and mannerisms, including earrings on men, which are considered acceptable in the United States, may be viewed with suspicion or derision in the Kyrgyz Republic. AIDS (SPID in Russian) is a critical public health issue in many countries, and gay American men have been blamed for bringing the disease to Central Asia.
Gay and bisexual Volunteers may serve for two years without meeting another gay or bisexual Volunteer. Fellow Volunteers may not be able to give the necessary support. Many Kyrgyz homosexuals have probably migrated to the larger cities, while most Volunteers are posted in rural sites. Although relationships with host country nationals can happen, as with all cross-cultural relationships, they are not likely to be easy. Lesbians, like all women, have to deal with constant questions about boyfriends, marriage, and sex. Wearing an engagement ring may help.
For more information about this issue, you can contact a group of lesbian, gay and bisexual returned Volunteers at www.lgbrpcv.org.
Possible Issues for Married Volunteers
Before committing to Peace Corps service, couples should consider how different degrees of enthusiasm about Peace Corps service, adaptation to the physical and cultural environment, and homesickness will affect their lives. Couples may have to deal with changed marital roles resulting from societal expectations in the Kyrgyz Republic. A husband may be encouraged to be the dominant member of the relationship, while a wife may find herself in a less independent role than she is accustomed to, which can create tension for a couple at work and at home. For example, a wife may be expected to perform traditional domestic chores instead of working, while a husband may be ridiculed for performing domestic tasks or for refusing to have extramarital affairs. Finally, a couple may need to cope with issues of competition if one spouse learns the language faster than the other or has a more satisfying job.
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
Although the Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Tajiks in the country are predominantly Muslim, the “Russification” of indigenous ethnic groups and cultures has been significant. While there has been a resurgence of Islam in some regions of Central Asia, religion does not seem to play a dominant role in the political or economic life of the Kyrgyz Republic except in the southern region of the country. Volunteers are frequently asked about their religious affiliation and may be invited to attend a community mosque. Those not in the practice of attending religious services may be challenged to explain their reluctance, but it is possible to politely decline if the religious services are not of one’s own faith. Most Volunteers have found effective ways to cope with these issues and have come to feel quite at home in the Kyrgyz Republic.
Possible Issues for Volunteers with Disabilities
As a disabled Volunteer in the Kyrgyz Republic, you may find that you face a special set of challenges. In the Kyrgyz Republic, as in other parts of the world, some people may hold prejudicial attitudes about individuals with disabilities and may discriminate against them. In addition, there is very little infrastructure in the country to accommodate individuals with disabilities compared with what has been developed in the United States.
As part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, of performing a full tour of Volunteer service in the Kyrgyz Republic without unreasonable risk of harm. Peace Corps/Kyrgyz Republic staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations in training, housing, job sites, and other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.