An Intimate Glimpse into Kazakhstan through the Eyes of a Peace Corps Volunteer

WASHINGTON, DC – As Janet Givens watched the terrible events of September 11, 2001, unfold, and the subsequent U.S. “global war on terror,” she felt she needed to do more to sow peace, not war.

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So, at the age of 55, the Philadelphia psychotherapist and grandmother followed her husband, Woody Starkweather, a speech-pathology specialist, and applied to serve in the Peace Corps.

When the application process was almost over, Givens and her husband were finally given the name of the country where they would serve, teach and live for the following two years: Kazakhstan.

“We were given two weeks for consideration, but made our decision in two days,” Givens said at the launch of her book, “At Home on the Kazakh Steppe: A Peace Corps Memoir,” hosted by the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Washington, D.C.

In 2004, the couple sold their house in Philadelphia and departed for the town of Zhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan. Upon arrival, Janet found herself teaching English at the local college, and learning for herself how American culture looks when seen through the eyes of students born in the Soviet Union but raised in a newly independent country with a long and proud tradition of hospitality. Her students taught her about the ways of Kazakhstan and about the complex process of comprehension that takes place when you are immersed in a foreign, diverse culture.

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Terribly homesick for her infant grandchildren as well as her career, which she had to abandon, Janet went through culture shock and periods of strain with her husband over their two years in Kazakhstan, but also developed a deep bond and forged lifelong friendships with the people and the country.

“My best friends in Kazakhstan were my son’s age, and my age was never an issue,” Janet said at the book launch. “Unlike here [in the U.S.], I never felt old there,” she quipped.

It took her some seven years to write the book, which this year won the 2015 Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award. In her book, Janet weaves a tale that combines human psychology, history and the politics of Kazakhstan, and provides an unforgettable portrait of a city that, like much of Kazakhstan, is seeking to modernise. It is both an intimate personal story of the couple’s life in a foreign country and a colourful exploration of the way of life, culture, attitudes and resilience of the people of Kazakhstan.

The life-changing experience and the immersion in Kazakh society, known for its tradition of respect for elders, who often live with their children or grandchildren, had a transformative effect upon Janet. “Today, my mother lives with me. It would never have happened before Kazakhstan,” Janet admits. “Before Kazakhstan, I forgot my mother and we never really got along.”