The Importance of Being Flexible and Open-minded as a Visitor to Another Culture
Students will identify the advantages of being flexible when visiting or living in a culture different from one's own.
About the story
Solomon tells about a cross-country journey by train in Kazakhstan from the capital, Almaty, in the south, to her host city of Kokshetau, in the northern part of the country. In vivid detail, she describes the crowds in the station and on the train, the stifling heat in the coach, the bustle, the generosity of the Kazakhstanis, the desolation of the landscape, and the endearing qualities of a journey that appears on the surface to be merely arduous.
Note about teaching: This lesson concentrates on the author's writing techniques; as such, it is ideal for language arts classes. However, social studies teachers who are teaching about the post-Soviet era will find in Solomon's letters rich primary-source material for students to investigate—along with related issues in John Deever's chapter about his Volunteer experiences in Ukraine (see "Mr. John and the Day of Knowledge").
About the setting
Covering 1.1 million square miles, Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country in the world, about the size of Western Europe or half the size of the contiguous United States. Kazakhstan is a vast country of desert, steppe, and mountains in Central Asia. About 17 million people live there in an area four times the size of Texas.
Kazakhstan was the second-largest republic of the Soviet Union. Upon the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., Kazakhstan declared its independence in December 1991. The first Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in the country in July 1993, and Volunteers have been there since, working with communities to make the transition from communism to a free-market economy. In collaboration with government ministries, local governments, and nongovernmental organizations, Peace Corps Volunteers in Kazakhstan work in four program areas: English education, economic development, environmental education, and public health.
In addition to their assigned tasks, Peace Corps Volunteers engage in cross-cultural exchanges that help Americans and Kazakhstanis better understand each other's history, languages, and cultures. Indeed, given Kazakhstan's isolation from the West when it was part of the Soviet Union, Peace Corps Volunteers often have been the first Americans that Kazakhstanis encounter. The first meetings between Peace Corps Volunteers and Kazakhstanis often provide an opportunity for Volunteers to break the stereotypes Kazakhstanis might have about Americans—and vice versa. Americans and Kazakhstanis can represent their respective countries in a more positive and realistic light than stereotypes usually do.
For further information about Kazakhstan, visit the country-information section of the Peace Corps website at www.peacecorps.gov.
- To help students realize that open-mindedness and flexibility can facilitate understanding between cultures
- Wrench: To grab forcefully
- Devushka:: Young girl (a term used by a stranger to address a young woman)
- Tenge:: [ten-GAY] Local currency. Two hundred tenge equaled roughly US$1.35.
- Steppe: Grassland; plain; prairie
- Hobbled: Hampered or hindered
- Hefting: Lifting (a heavy weight)
- Succumb: To give up; fall victim to
- Sweltering: Extremely hot
- Hobble: To walk unsteadily or with a limp
- Read aloud the statement: "Being open-minded and flexible can facilitate understanding between cultures." Discuss with the class:
- In what ways was the author open-minded and flexible in her story? Remind students to support their opinions with examples from the text.
- In what ways might Solomon's train ride have been different if she had gone into the experience with a negative attitude rather than a positive one? If she had held on to the need for creature comforts? If she had not been open to seeing the good in cultural differences?
- Ask students what it would take for them to adjust to life in another culture as well as Solomon did.
- Review with students the specific strategies Solomon used in conveying a sense of place, of movement, of desolation, of kindness. You might want to list the strategies on the board as students recall them, and have the students make notes.
- For homework, ask students to write a letter from the point of view of one of the Kazakhstanis who were fellow travelers on the train with the author. Point out that this will be the same trip but from a different perspective—that of a local person for whom the conditions were familiar. What might a local person observe about the foreign traveler in their midst? How will the thoughts and observations of a local person differ from those of a traveler for whom most of the experience is new and different? Encourage the students to be inventive and to employ many of the devices Solomon used in her writing. Students can use the list of strategies the class created in reviewing the letter.
- The next day, have students divide into groups of four or five and read their letters to each other. Ask them to critique each other constructively, especially acknowledging effective use of the strategies they were asked to employ.
Frameworks and standards
- Living as local people do is an effective way to understand a culture different from one's own.
- Being open-minded and resourceful can help us cross cultures.
- How can living as local people do in another culture help a visitor understand the people and their culture?
- In what ways can the ability to be open and resourceful help us cross cultures?
English Standards: 2,3,6
Social Studies Standards: I, IV
National Geography Standards: 4, 6, 9, 10, 12
For more information on the standards in Uncommon Journeys, see the Appendix under supporting documents.