Between Cultures: A Chinese-American Peace Corps Volunteer in the Kyrgyz Republic
I applied to the Peace Corps because I wanted to represent the United States, my country, in a positive light as well as explore another culture in depth.
I developed a passion for learning how people view the world through their own unique perspectives while studying anthropology in college. Being of Chinese-American descent, I especially wanted to represent the diversity of the United States in another country where people might not be aware of our cultural and ethnic diversity.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer I live in a very small village of about 50 people in the western mountains of the Kyrgyz Republic. Around 130 students from my village and a few surrounding villages come to attend the secondary school where I teach English. My community is a very small, tight-knit group of people who are deeply connected through the Kyrgyz values of family, tradition and cultural identity.
Growing up Chinese-American, I was raised between two different cultures. From my family, especially my grandparents, I learned the values of Chinese culture, while I learned a variety of perspectives from others with more typical American backgrounds. This helped me adjust to living in the Kyrgyz Republic, as I was already used to balancing the values of different cultures in my own life.
When I meet someone for the first time in the Kyrgyz Republic and they learn I’m from the U.S., one of the first words I always hear is “окшош,” meaning “same” or “similar” in the Kyrgyz language. Most Kyrgyz people assume I am a native at first glance. Although it’s not possible to know for sure, I feel my community has found it easier to accept me because of my appearance. The fact that I look Kyrgyz is mostly referred to in a positive light whenever I hear it mentioned. Often when I visit new schools or give a training, I am mistaken for a student due to my appearance as a young Asian person. In addition there are few male teachers, and the vast majority of them are much older than me.
In addition, when traveling on public transportation by myself or walking around in unfamiliar places, I have often found my appearance to be an asset. Unlike other Volunteers, who obviously stand out as foreigners, I can blend in and avoid the long stares or long lines of questioning if I so choose.
In brief interactions, I can typically get away without having to explain my whole cultural identity, which can be a big relief. The frequency and depth at which I am questioned about my nationality and ethnicity can be tiresome. When I respond that I am indeed an American, and that I was born in the U.S. and my parents were also born there, people eventually accept what I say.
At the same time, longer interactions can turn out to be rewarding experiences, allowing me an opportunity to teach others about American identity and to reflect on my own.
Relating that my grandparents hail from southern China and immigrated to the United States many years ago has become almost a prepared speech over the years. I have always struggled with my identity as an American. During my childhood in California, I felt like a Chinese person who just happened to be born in the U.S. My first language was Cantonese and because I was raised in large part by my grandparents, I felt much more connected to Chinese culture. I learned more about what it means to be American as I grew older and became more educated, and have as a result become much more accepting of my identity.
During my Peace Corps service, I hope to teach Kyrgyz people how open-minded and diverse Americans are. With my host family, I have been able to share a lot about American culture from my experiences growing up in California, as well as about Chinese culture as it was passed down in my family.
I am working to change the perception of America as a monolithic group of people, helping my Kyrgyz community understand that Americans are individuals who come from a variety of backgrounds.