And then I said, "Yes." Once I did, I was all in. Found K2 on a map and Googled all I could about the origin and culture, etc. of both countries. But, not surprisingly, none of that could have prepared me for what I experienced the 2+ weeks we were over there.
At first blush
My initial introduction to the culture began before I stepped foot on the ground, as we were all boarding my flight from Amsterdam to Kazakhstan. A lady across the aisle from me, maybe 30 and quite pregnant, was sitting in her seat and stretched out a smidge onto the empty seat next to her. A few minutes pass and the doors are being closed, when the flight attendant brings a woman from the back of the plane, maybe 45, to sit next to her. The pregnant lady, whines a little and in English tells the flight attendant that someone else told her she could spread out a little and not have someone sit next to her. By the way, I completely understand her feelings of being pregnant and uncomfortable and about to be on a 7 hour flight. However, the flight attendant did not and kept insisting that this lady was cramped in the back and needed space too. There were several rows in front of us with empty aisle seats as well, so I was confused. Things heated up, and there was arguing and the flight attendant and the lady from the back were making the pregnant woman feel terrible. It was really uncomfortable. That's when the college student sitting next to me, leaned over and told me this was an ugly part of the Kazakhstan culture. I gulped and thought, "Yikes! What will I experience?" Turns out, the pregnant woman was able to sit by herself, though miserable looking and sad, while the other lady made a best friend in the row ahead of her and could not stop telling the flight attendant how thankful she was not to sit by the rude lady behind her. Oh.My.Stars!
There were definitely other times when I noticed that people seemed out for themselves. Not a lot of people let others enter or exit stores, the street, etc. before themselves. It just wasn't the way we live in the South. You know, when we almost fight in the grocery store to let the other person go ahead of us, or practically trip to run ahead to open the door for someone else.
Central Asian Hospitality not Southern
But what I found out quickly, was that if you were a friend, there was nothing these people wouldn't do to serve you.
While we were in Kazakhstan, we volunteered at a Young Life camp for children with special needs. We spent our time with the moms of the children with special needs, getting to know them, share in each others' lives and build relationships, all while encouraging them as they spent time away from their children. It was the toughest time for me on our trip. I struggled not knowing the Russian language and learning bits and pieces of these moms' stories through a translator. I questioned why I was there and wanted so badly for them to have Eternal hope in life. I've processed through that part of the trip and definitely know it was a time of growth for me. Part of that processing came through the last few days we were in Kazakhstan.
We had the honor and privilege of being welcomed into the homes of these families. They were delighted to serve us. Some of them prepared elaborate meals, with multiple courses. Some of them took off of work, losing vacation days or pay to spend time with us and serve us their best. Some of these moms had no furniture in their house, and spent hours in the kitchen preparing us food to make us feel welcome and show us their life. And I couldn't have been more thankful.
Bringing it home
These home visits were humbling, reality-piercing, heart-breaking, joy-bringing, encouraging and life-giving. In the South, where I live, people talk about Southern hospitality. People bring out their best, often to make people feel welcome, but maybe sometimes to show-off or to out-do each other. And sometimes, in an effort to keep things real around my house, I do the opposite and have people fend for themselves in hopes of making people feel at home. Eeesh!
But after experiencing Central Asian hospitality, I'm ready to make some changes in our house. I want to pour out love on our friends and family like these new friends did for us.
"even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for many." Matthew 20:28