Culture Shock: A Kyrgyz in the States

Published: April 24, 2006

One of the greatest advantages of studying abroad is the experience of culture shock.  It teaches us that even our most basic assumptions of “how things are” do not always hold true and that cultures can exist, and even prosper, while holding assumptions that shock and bewilder our own. It is often only through this experience of shock that we can come to understand another culture and, to a certain extent, to understand our assumptions about our own. 

 All sayings are provided first in original Kyrgyz (which uses the Cyrillic alphabet) and then transliterated to English, with stress and syllabic breaks indicated.

Miraj attends a baseball game in Florida

The more a person knows, the more he or she is supposed to learn and be shocked by his/her discoveries. Before coming to the United States, I got in touch with some people who had been to America. They frequently warned me about a big sort of monster named “Culture Shock” which they had faced in America. They made me increasingly aware of the monster. That is why I thought I would never experience culture shock when I was in the U.S. But it was a premature judgment, and I was obviously wrong. As a Kyrgyz, I was shocked the most by the American family culture: especially, childless marriages, adoption, and upbringing. These facets of American family culture are as different from the Kyrgyz family culture as black is to white.

The first culturally shocking fact I discovered in the U.S. was the peoples’ views on childless marriages. My landlord and landlady have been married for almost fifteen years without having children of their flesh. Once I asked them the question whether they were happy in their marriage; and, they answered without pondering, that they had been extremely content with their coexistence during those years. Their parents and friends had been happy for them as well, despite the fact that they were childless. This concept, at least I can assume, is beyond any Kyrgyz imagination. For Kyrgyz couples, their parents and siblings, the whole meaning of marriage is to have their own children and leave their footprint (generation) behind them. In other words, a childless marriage is not regarded as a happy one for Kyrgyz people, and frequently ends in divorce. It was not said by chance the Kyrgyz proverb about a childless marriage: “Уулу жоктун – мууну жок,” (UU-lu zhok-TUN – MUU-nu zhok).  It means that having one’s own children is the most important part of this existence and the hereafter.

Next, it was also somewhat difficult for me to understand that adopting a child from another culture, religion, and race is widespread in the U.S. My landlord and landlady, who are originally from Italy, also proudly told me about their strong desire to adopt a Chinese child. This is a child who will be from a completely different racial, cultural, and religious background and resemblance.  They intend to adopt the child not because they could not conceive their own, but just would like to have a Chinese child as part of their family. I could not comprehend what they meant and asked one of my American colleagues at Stetson University about this. She explained that some American people adopt children simply to help orphaned children from other countries. To that she also said that this type of adoption is widely and positively accepted in America. Unlike in the U.S., adoption of a child is rare in Kyrgyzstan. Even if a Kyrgyz couple decides on adoption, they definitely adopt a Kyrgyz child — most of the time the son or daughter of one of their relatives. They never adopt a child from different culture and religion. A Kyrgyz couple never adopts a child even from another Central Asian culture (e.g. Uzbek or Kazakh) that is culturally very similar and follows the same religion. The reason is explained by another Kyrgyz proverb: “Боору баласы ит болбойт (BO-ru ba-la-SY IT bol-BOYT), which literally translates to: “A wolf-cub never becomes a dog.” According to the belief of the Kyrgyz, this means that an adopted child from another religion, nation, and culture does not bring happiness to a Kyrgyz family, because the child will never be able to truly step in the footstep of the parent and take the parent’s place in this world.

Lastly, it seems to me that American people pay less attention to the care of their parents. Many older American citizens live by themselves or in nursing homes, although they have children who can take care of them. As far as I understand, the aim of upbringing in America is to create independent individuals. Most Americans expect their children to leave home at eighteen, and encourage them to do something entirely different from what mom and dad did. Likewise, parents have no expectation, and little desire, to become the wards of their children; by and large, elderly people live independent of their families because they desire it. Dissimilar to the American upbringing, Kyrgyz parents bring their kids up hoping that the kids will take care of them during their old age. The youngest male in the family is obliged to live with the parents even after he has his own family. This does not mean that the older brothers in the family do not hold any responsibilities to look after the parents. Despite that they live separately from the parents, they are also expected to contribute to their care. There is a Kyrgyz proverb explaining this tradition: “Ата-Эненди сыйласан, оз уулунан жакшылык коросун (a-TA enen-DI siyla-SAN OZ UU-lun-DAN jak-shy-LYK koro-SUN). This can be understood as “if one respects one’s parents, one will be respected by one’s children.” This expresses the fact that the Kyrgyz feel a duty to take a very personal responsibility for their parents.

In summation, having lived in the U.S. for three months, I now realize how the American family culture differs from the Kyrgyz – it is as different as day and night. This realization led me to the first cultural shock I experienced in my life. Before living with my landlord and landlady, I had never met a couple without a child who regarded their marriage as very happy. Furthermore, I had thought that people around the world adopted children only from their same ethnic, religious and cultural background. Lastly, I had strongly adhered to the thought that all over the world parents lived only for their children and vice versa, and every parent wanted their child to step in their footprint. All previously mentioned culture shock I went through in America can be found embedded in the true meaning of the Kyrgyz saying:”Дуйнодо канча улут болсо, ошончо каада-салт бар (Duy-nodo KAN-cha u-LUT bol-SO osh-ON-cho KAA-da SALT bar). “So many countries, so many traditions.”

About the author

Mirajidin Arynov

Mirajidin Arynov, at the time he wrote for this site, was a studying at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. He is a native Kyrgyz speaker from Kyrgyzstan.

View all posts by: Mirajidin Arynov