How was it?
The only word that works to describe it is privilege. In the sense that, it was entirely a blessing and it was entirely undeserved. Extended exposure to a different culture gave me an appreciation of the culture that shaped me; it grew in me a patriotism I didn't know I had. The hospitality and warmth we received was baffling; with openness people welcomed us into their lives. I went to this frozen land to serve others, but abundantly I was served. It's funny how these things get turned around.
Do you speak the language?
Usually I respond, "Я не могу говорить по-русски, потому что я была плохо учился." We took Russian lessons once a week, and . . . yeah. Everyone did their part to help us practice, from strangers at the bus stop to students outside of class, but at the end of the day it was my job to speak English, so, that's what I spoke. So I'm still a beginning in Russian, but I can say a reasonable number of things. And I know some basic phrases in Kazakh. I'm planning to continue studying Russian in the fall.
What was the food like?
Kazakh food is all about the meat. Russian food has a lot of dill and mayonnaise. The Russian definition of salad is very different from the American one: green leafy vegetables are almost entirely absent and brings to mind 1960's cold potluck dishes. GMOs are a hot topic in Kazakhstan, and I think that explains the cabbages bigger than my head and carrots as thick as my arm. It was also great to live in a place where very little of the food was industrialized and for the most part was farm-to-table. I came to really love the cuisine, and now I definitely eat sausage more than I ever did before. I learned how to make lipioshka, plov, and borcht, all really tasty. I'm also an even bigger fan of some more atypical proteins like duck, rabbit, mutton, horse, and dog.
What was the culture like?
The wonderfully reassuring thing about crossing cultures is that people are people, anywhere you go. You will always have basic humanity in common with others. And because I lived in a city and worked with people who had a lot of exposure to foreigners, the cultural divide did not loom as wide as it could have. I noticed mostly little things: the habit of greeting others when entering and leaving a room, the social acceptance of snot rockets, the phenomenon of Russian lines, the scapegoating of exposure to cold temperatures for illness, Kazakh courtesy and hospitality, and grocery store etiquette. Most of all I loved the emphasis and priority placed on community and relationships, on knowing people deeply and growing together through time.
Do you miss it?
At first, no. Not at all. Sure, my heart flip-flopped when I thought of the dear souls I might never see again, and I sighed a little when I watched my students' lives on social media, but I was too contented with being home to possibly want to go back. Now that I've settled back into life in the USA, and am confronting scary things like law school and moving out and The Future, I want to be back in Karaganda so bad. I miss being able to take public transportation everywhere, or grab a cheap taxi where the buses didn't go. I miss discovering new cafes and marveling at a developing country exerting its economy. I miss eavesdropping on conversations around me and rejoicing when I understood snatched phrases. And I miss teaching, a lot, the preparing of lessons and watching my students relish their linguistic acrobatics.
How have you changed?
This is the hardest question for me to answer. I ask it shyly of my family and they don't know how to answer it either. The shift is subtle, and difficult to describe. I was shown in new depths many of my weaknesses over the year, and in cowardice I avoided confronting them. That has changed my soul somehow, but in ways that have yet to finish playing out. I gained some bad habits, sure, and picked up some new recipes, but more substantially, I think I've become more comfortable with uncomfortable social situations. This is the result of exposure therapy: when you're a foreigner your life is one long uncomfortable social situation, and so I've acclimated to it.
What did you learn?
Reflecting on the past year always leaves me wanting to impress upon anyone who will listen this exhortation: just go. I am the opposite of an extraordinary person. I am not brave. I am not wise. I was not the ideal person for this job. I am completely and entirely average. And yet . . . I had an amazing year. I had the opportunity to be a cultural ambassador, to teach eager students a useful skill, to speak the truth about Jesus to people who had never known a follower of His. Just go. These privileges did not come to me because I deserved them, but because in His grace He freely gave them to me. If I learned anything this past year is that His grace never runs out. He gives it so abundantly you can never reach the end of it. And you can't encounter that grace and walk away unchanged.