The Kazakhstan Tales: Ordinary and Special
She was all cheeks and teeth. That’s what I remember, and that her smile split across her face, her eyes disappearing behind her cheeks. She wore a sweater under her nondescript, cheap apron. Her dark straight hair was pulled back into a long ponytail, hair spilling over her shoulder.
I don’t know her name, where she lives, or what she studied at university – or even if she went to university at all. I don’t know what she wanted to be as a child or what her favorite color is. I don’t know anything about her.
She shouldn’t mean anything to me, certainly no more than the ordinary girl texting beside me at the mall, or the ordinary man eating семечки (semechki – sunflower seeds) and spitting the shells across the sidewalk.
And yet –
I wanted a Французский салат (Frantsuzskiĭ salat), or French salad, for dinner. She grinned when I ordered it, grinned when she weighed it, and grinned when she told me it would be пятьсот тенге (500 tenge – less than $4). As I handed her the money in exchange for a salad made of julienne cut beets, cabbage, carrots, fries, and beef with a scoop of Mayo, I must have said something that gave me away.
Her animated face shifted from Cheshire grin to a large surprised “O.”
It could have been anything – my limited Russian vocabulary, my pronunciation of the number 500, or even the way I reached for the salad, but she knew that I wasn’t like her.
“Yes,” I said. I could feel the blush spreading like fire across my face.
She leaned forward, as though she wished to share with me some great secret, and said,
“I’ve never met an American before.”
And then she smiled and said goodbye, and I left the warm store for the smoggy fall Almaty air.
Sometimes being singled out as an American can make me feel like a rock star. People gawk and stare. They ask for odd favors. They want pictures. They assume that all Americans always have money, and lots of it.
It’s exciting. It’s a bit of a rush. It certainly strokes my ego. And yes, I know Americans who feed off it and strut around Almaty, invincible because of their passport.
But it’s fake. It’s a label, an assumption. Shallow.
It’s playing a role that I’m not comfortable with.
Am I special because I’m an American? Or because I’m Emily?
Am I special at all?
Other times, being singled out as an American can make me feel utterly alone.
People stare as though I’m something meant to be scraped off the bottom of a shoe. They’re rude. They assume all Americans always have money, and lots of it. And they have to convert me to their view of American politics.
It’s fake. It’s a label, an assumption. A pre-conceived notion based on the joint efforts of Hollywood and Washington.
Sometimes all I want is to be accepted, and sometimes Kazakhstan just doesn’t want me.
That Kazakh girl working at the deli counter of a small grocery store was a stranger to me and I to her. She thought I was special. The truth is, I’m just as ordinary as she.
I shouldn’t remember her, but she thought I was special, so I do.