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The Pain of Misconceptions

The other evening Daughter and I were sitting in the family room, just relaxing together. I was reading a historical mystery written by a friend (more on that in another post) while Daughter was catching up on Facebook.

‘Wow, sometimes Kaia can really go off on a rant,’ she said, turning to me. ‘But you know what, when she does, she writes about things that are really important to her and it ends up so good. Here, listen to this.’

Now I must confess that I almost fainted at this point. Not because of what Kaia had written, because Daughter hadn’t even begun to read. I was stunned because Daughter was not only sharing with me something from her ever-private FB page, but something personal from one of her best friends.

Sensing the importance of this to Daughter, I managed to refrain from what would have been my stock reply when my teenager does something so opposite of her standard behavior: Who ARE you and what have you done with my daughter?

I’ve met Kaia many times, and know her to be a sweet, thoughtful young woman. She and Daughter attend an international high school together, and became friends when we moved here three years ago.

Kaia, who is from Kazakhstan, has been working on plans for running the booth representing her country in this year’s upcoming International Day at school.

Rather than betray my excitement at being allowed into the inner sanctum of Daughter’s personal life, I tried to act nonchalant. But when I heard Kaia’s words, I was anything but.

The pain behind them oozes out between the lines. I share them here with her permission:

I am so annoyed of people criticizing Kazakhstan. Like seriously, Borat was such a long time ago and people still remember the freaking anthem. Like I don’t know, but that movie wasn’t even good, only some parts were funny. And like I feel so bad that all the Kazakh children living abroad or in Kazakhstan have to live in this society where people have these weird ass rude misconceptions of them.

I feel bad for (a Kazakh classmate) who doesn’t even want to participate in the Kazakh booth or even wear Kazakh clothes because it’s so embarrassing. I feel the same way too, and sometimes I feel so awkward and so embarrassed when I have to say where I’m from because I know inside, the person is probably thinking I’m from a 3rd world country with no access to water and where there’s prostitutes and sheep roaming through the country. Yeah Borat made our country more ‘non-invisible’ and helped our country get ‘out there’ but it’s just so mean to do that to a country that has been in Soviet rule for so long and just got out 20 years ago and is now criticized.

Yeah and it’s really weird how some people just can’t respect others’ cultures. So what that we still have a tradition of eating food that might be considered ‘disgusting’ to others. Some people just gotta learn manners and f*!%ing etiquette before criticizing stuff, or just keep it in their head. I don’t criticize others for eating stuff. Whatever. Yeah, sorry for the rant, just gotta let that one go.’

Here is a bright young woman, fiercely proud of her country and her heritage, eager to share about it with others willing to listen. Yet she’s fighting against the stereotypes perpetrated by British actor Sacha Baron Cohen in his movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit of Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

Now I love a good comedy as much as the next person. I’m not here to debate whether Cohen’s Borat was good comedy, or even funny. That’s not my point. He’s known for playing outlandish characters. Many people enjoy his films. They watch, they laugh, and for them that’s the end of it.

For people like Kaia, and other Kazakhs around the world, the pain remains. They aren’t the first people to have their country ridiculed for the sake of entertainment, and they won’t be the last. Yet they face an uphill struggle to share with others their nation’s culture and history when the main reference many people have of Kazakhstan is of the fictitious Borat.

The misconceptions reflected in this movie were meant to make people laugh. Whether Cohen and the producers of Borat even bothered to think about the possible damage that might be incurred by those who were being laughed at is not something we’re likely to ever know.

Identity is fundamentally important to every one of us. It gets to the very core of how we see ourselves, and how others see us. Who we are is in part a result of where we come from: physical place, family, culture, nationality. When we are living in a different culture, our identity can be challenged, by others as well as ourselves.

Let’s face it. Unless you’re a saintly person or have been living in a cave your whole life, each of us is likely to carry around more than a few preconceived notions about other countries, and the people who come from them. Too often we give voice to these misconceptions: out of frustration, teasing, prejudice, ignorance or simply not realizing what we’re doing.

If I had a euro for every time I’ve heard a joke or slight or dig at one group or another, this country or that, (including my own) I would be one wealthy gal.

We might cringe when we hear such pronouncements, or we may not even notice. Sometimes we may even gently chide those saying such things, or simply wish that we had. And occasionally we feel the shame of realizing that what we said gives offense, to those in the room and/or to those not present.

It is why I’m glad that schools, organizations and communities take the time and effort to organize events such as International Day. It’s fine to be proud of our own country, and better still to share that pride with others while also learning more about the many places from which we come.

I’m particularly proud that, as in past years, Daughter and other friends will be helping Kaia to share about Kazakhstan on International Day.

In the end, we can all take a lesson from Kaia’s words: some people just gotta learn manners before criticizing stuff, or just keep it in their head.

Because no one deserves to feel awkward or embarrassed about where they’re from.

No one.

UPDATE 24 March 2012: If you think Kaia’s feelings were essentially an over-reaction, think again.

Imagine how Kazakhs feel now that the Borat movie’s fake anthem was mistakenly played instead of the actual Kazakh national anthem recently at an international sporting event in Kuwait. Unbelievable, yet true. Here’s the Washington Post link to the story.

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