“Excuse me, would you be able to tell me where the Baikonur metro station is?”
So go my usual interactions with the people of Almaty as an American who finds herself getting lost almost everyday on the way back to her host family’s apartment. The passerby in question usually gives me a strange look, most likely due to my heavily accented Russian, then proceeds to direct me to the nearest metro station.
“Just keep going straight until you get to Abay street,” the woman tells me, pointing ahead, a cigarette balanced between her fingers. “Cross the street and turn left.”
“Spasibo!” I say. Thank you! She nods and we part ways.
Almaty is a great city to get lost in, I’ve discovered. The city was built like a grid, or as my host mom told me “a chessboard.” Therefore, after my daily Russian classes have finished, I’ll wander around the city with no particular destination in mind, my only goal being to get home before dinner time. It’s the experience of taking a stroll, getting lost, then practicing my Russian with pedestrians that I find the most exciting. I have to live in the moment and remain mindful of where I am, while at the same time take in the sights of the city, surreptitiously taking photos and trying hard not to stand out too much as an American.
Having spent the last two years studying in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Almaty provides a stark change of scenery that I still find myself marveling at. Squat, pastel buildings in shades of mint, cotton candy blue, and bubblegum pink line the streets next to sleek, glass skyscrapers housing banks and multinational companies. The architecture is eye candy in itself, but the real treats lie in the dozens of kiosks selling ice cream bars; manti, little dumplings not unlike ravioli or dim sum; and pirozhki, pastries with a variety of fillings ranging from ground beef to fried potatoes to sweet creams and berry jams. I often find myself wandering up to one of these kiosks against my better judgement and buying an ice cream bar or a pastry to nosh on as I find my way back to the train station.
Yet, food and candy colored buildings are only one part of my trek home. I came to Almaty to study Russian and therefore try to speak as much as possible. Often, when speaking with salespeople or asking for directions, I’m usually asked “Are you Korean? Are you Chinese?” This gives me an opportunity to explain my family background and how I’m half Filipino, although in the end, I’m still usually deemed a Korean (I still don’t quite understand this myself). These types of conversations usually veer into the territory of how I look like a Kazakh myself, and why in the world I chose Kazakhstan of all places to study Russian. With each of these conversations, I find myself easing into the nuances of the language, making myself feel more at home than before. The words simply flow out; I barely need to think at all to hold a conversation.
When I finally find my way back to the Baikonur metro station, I let myself get swept away by the crowd of commuters making their way towards the space age platform. Reminiscent of the cosmodrome, the station is piercingly bright under the fluorescent beams illuminating the ultramarine and moon white walls. Yet, despite the commotion, I feel a sense of calm wash over me; I’ve made it this far without any problems – I must be pretty good at Russian!
It’s this sense of ease and normality though, that means I need to keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone, to learn as much as I possibly can. I’ll only be in Kazakhstan for two months – I need to make the most of my time here.
In a swoosh of bright white, the train finally stops at our platform. I hurry on and grab the plastic overhead handlebars for dear life, wedged between businesswomen, skateboarders, and university students. When the doors shut, I let out a sigh; I don’t have to think about anything until I reach Alatau station, where my apartment is located.
Suddenly, an older woman in a headscarf bumps into me, than exclaims something in Kazakh. It’s another common misconception I’ve encountered while in Almaty; I’ve often been mistaken for being Kazakh. I stare at her wide eyed, then quickly gather my words as she waits for a reply, the train speeding off into the dark.