Kristin Ruger, who served in Kazakhstan,  just received her Master’s Degree in Peace Studies and while it hasn’t (yet!) enabled her to get a job, it has helped her understand why “nations and people do the crazy things they do to each other.” Kristin currently lives, she writes, “with the woman of her dreams, whom she met while in the Peace Corps, and is currently searching for the ultimate brownie recipe.” Here is what Kristin has to say as she looks back at her Peace Corps career in Kazakhstan.

Kitchen Diplomacy

by Kristin Ruger (Kazahkstan 2005-07)

Very early into my Peace Corps training period in Kazakhstan, I got into the habit of walking through Qapshygay with my friend Greg. Qapshygay has seen better days.  Although it is a “recreation zone” due to its proximity to a huge man-made resevoir, the main industry of the area had closed since independence, and unemployment was extremely high. Poverty is part of everyday life, and so is the crime and violence that accompanies poverty. But kids in Qapshygay loved to talk to us, and would follow us around the town shouting questions at us. One day we met a girl named Aisul playing with her sister, surrounded by discarded, used syringes and broken alcohol bottles in a pretty depressing playground. She asked us all the normal questions kids ask us in their limited English, and we exhausted our limited Russian. We discussed school, teachers, America, family and Britney Spears before deciding to return her to her home. As we neared her house, her father was out front, and I was nervous, thinking he was upset because it was so late. I was shocked to find that he been waiting outside to invite us up to his house for tea. I looked at my watch- it was almost eleven at night, but he insisted, so up we went.  To my horror, he woke his very pregnant wife who lumbered to the kitchen and began putting out a feast that would feed fifteen or more people.Out came the family photo albums along with tea, coffee, salads, bread, soup, meats, candies and cakes. By the time we left, maybe three hours later, I had made friends with a local family, had some local food, and improved my Russian. This spontaneous offering of food would happen, again and again, throughout my time in Kazakhstan. People who seemed to have almost nothing would constantly shock me with their generosity and hospitality. Over the next two years I would drink gallons of tea and eat hundreds candies and cookies- partly because of the Islamic emphasis on hospitality, partly Soviet-inspired ideals of community, but mostly because of the curiosity that people have about Americans. I would explain for the 600th time that it IS possible to survive as a vegetarian and respond to their anger about the war in Iraq. And I would attempt to explain why a person with a University degree would volunteer to come to a foreign country without a (substantial) paycheck. Mostly, I would learn about their culture, their histories, and the stories of their families that would replace, in my mind, what the history books said about life “behind the Iron Curtain”. Yes, life in America is more comfortable- even lower-income Americans have a standard of living that most people around the world can only dream of. But when I think of those two years, I don’t think of having to wash my clothes in the bathtub, or the frequent power outages. I think instead of the kindness shown to me by unemployed, struggling strangers who wanted to share their culture and open their homes and their lives to me, even at eleven o’clock at night.