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"Not-So-Small Talk: Reflections on Fifteen Years of Working in Central Asia " by Samuel Buelow

Samuel Buelow will soon graduate from Indiana University with a PhD in Anthropology. Throughout his time at IU, he has volunteered with the IAUNRC, giving presentations on Kazakhstan to elementary and middle schoolers and on syllabus design for graduate students.

 

As my time at IU draws to a close (I defended my dissertation in February), it seems like an opportune moment to reflect on my travels to Central Asia. Since coming to IU in 2006, I have been to both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan five times. Over the years, my project changed several times before settling into its final incarnation – an examination of the relationship between ethnonationalist trends and LGBT experience, centering around a group of young, ethnic Kyrgyz who call themselves “crossdressers.” While LGBT issues had been on my radar since I first travelled to Kazakhstan in 2002 as an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh, it would be several years before I would give in to the desire to center them in my research.

While traveling to Kazakhstan in 2008, studying Kazakh in Almaty with the American Councils for International Education (the same organization that would eventually fund my fieldwork in Kyrgyzstan in 2014), I had the good fortune of meeting several gay men, an experience that would eventually shape the future direction of my research. I had been reading gay websites from Kazakhstan, so I knew a little about the hardships faced by LGBT people there, which include violence, discrimination in employment and housing, forced marriage, and secrecy. Although the English language term “coming out/ kaming aut” is used, it carries a very different meaning than it does in the US – that of accepting one’s own gayness rather than having a public gay persona.

While in Almaty that summer, I frequented the gay club a few times. Almaty has been home to several gay clubs over the years, but most are short lived and there are seldom more than a couple operating at the same time. Even the most enduring clubs switch locations periodically for safety reasons. While things weren’t great in 2008, the environment has grown steadily more hostile since then.

One conversation that has always stuck with me occurred at the gay club in Almaty in 20008. I came to the club with a mixed group, gay and straight, men and women, Kazakhs and Americans. One of my friends was a regular at the club and he introduced us to a Kazakh friend of his, I’ll call him “Quanysh.” Quanysh was a tall and lean man in his mid-thirties, whose rectangular face reminded me of my uncle, who, like me, is mixed Japanese, German, and Irish. He was out going and kind, gregarious but with a certain softness. At some point, we are sitting across the table from each other, and he strikes up a conversation in Kazakh.

Quanysh: “So, how old are you?”

Me: “Twenty-five.”

Quanysh: “Are you married?” I’d heard this question a thousand times that summer, but here it throws me a little for a loop. However, it’s not an unreasonable question, many gay men in Kazakhstan are married.

Me: “No.”

Quanysh: “Why aren’t you married?” I debate whether to give my normal answer – that I’m a grad student and have neither time nor money – or to say that in America, gay men don’t get married, but we get distracted and the question drops. Then a few minutes later he asks: “Do you have any kids?”

Me: “No.” At this point I can’t discern if he is just making polite conversation or if he is trying to feel out whether or not I’m gay.

Quanysh: “You should marry a Kazakh girl.” Again, I’ve heard this many times, but the context throws me. The suggestion always strikes me as odd, given the way that Kazakh women (but not so much Kazakh men) are discouraged from marrying outside the ethnic group. It seems everyone wants you to want to marry a Kazakh girl, but no one wants you to actually marry a Kazakh girl. “What about ‘Aisulu’ she’s pretty.” He points to “Aisulu,” the woman sitting next to me. I’m left unsure how to react. Quanysh continues: “Do you think Kazakh girls are attractive?”

Me: “In my opinion, Kazakh girls are attractive, but Kazakh guys are very attractive.” Apparently, this was exactly the right response since Quanysh grins from ear-to-ear and claps me on the back. Now, almost 10 years later, I still don’t quite know what to make of that conversation but it still strikes me as significant.

Going back is harder now. In my thirties, the grad student answer doesn’t stretch quite as far, although I’ve also found that fewer people ask about my marital status to begin with. I tend to just tell people that Americans marry latter, but eventually I’ll out live this excuse as well.

I was once introduced to a gay Kazakh man who was in his late thirties and unmarried. The straight friend who introduced us said people tended to assume he was unmarried because he was an alcoholic. This struck me as a little odd, since many alcoholics are married, but I think I missed the point. I wonder now if I too am crossing into the zone where people will just assume there is something wrong with me, that I am somehow broken, and will I be able to discern how this breakage occurred or will I be left to wonder what oddity is being imposed upon me. Or perhaps, the oddness of being an American will be enough in and of itself.

Samuel Buelow will soon graduate from Indiana University with a PhD in Anthropology. Throughout his time at IU, he has volunteered with the IAUNRC, giving presentations on Kazakhstan to elementary and middle schoolers and on syllabus design for grad students.

 

Samuel Buelow in 2008 at the Medeu Skating Rink outside of Almaty, Kazakhstan.