Менамерикандық (I am American): Kazakhstan Through My Eyes

There I sat, horrified. A fifteen year-old girl clutching the arm rest of the movie theater seat as my father sat next to me, trying not to acknowledge that the movie we were watching was less funny and more vile than we expected to see. The name of the movie was Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and right off the bat I tried to remember in my head if Kazakhstan was actually a real country or some strange place made up for the film.

Little did I know, Kazakhstan is a very real place, and the character, Borat, was a very false representation of the people who hail from the post-Soviet country.

Kazakhstan was a country that I probably learned about for a day or two in geography class as we tried to memorize the map of the world and regurgitate it back onto paper for the sake of earning a good grade. Other than that, there was no mention of Kazakhstan in public school in New Jersey or South Carolina, and therefore I was at a complete loss of any knowledge of the culture or the people of Kazakhstan upon watching the film.

Fast-forward nearly eight years later to my college years when I met a girl named Anastasia who was friends with my brother. Anastasia is a woman from Kazakhstan, and upon meeting her, I realized that her blonde hair, blue-eyed appearance differed greatly from the “Kazakhs” portrayed in the film that I watched with my dad in high school. Of course, since watching Borat, I have learned that you cannot trust everything you see in movies, and that many cultures are wrongly represented in popular media forms such as television, movies, books, and more.

Ever since I met Anastasia, I have been learning things about the country of Kazakhstan that I never imagined I would have learned. She also helped me get a job writing for a blog about Kazakhstan, so I have been educating myself on the culture and people of Kazakhstan so that I can perform as an informed writer.

It has been over two years that I have been writing for this blog about Kazakhstan, and just recently I decided to revisit Borat and see what my perception of the film would be now with all of my newfound knowledge on the subject of Kazakhstan. To my surprise, I actually found that Borat is not only a severe misrepresentation of the people of Kazakhstan, but also a slight satire of some truths about the Kazakh people.

For one, the scenes in Borat that took place in Kazakhstan were actually filmed in Romania, and therefore portray the Kazakh people as Eastern European Romanians. However, native Kazakhs are actually descendants of Mongols and therefore look Asian. Of course, there may be Romanians living in Kazakhstan, but the majority of the people living in Kazakhstan are ethnic Kazakhs, with the second largest ethnic group being Russians. Therefore, this segment of Borat misleads those who are not familiar with Kazakhstan to think that the people portrayed in the film, such as Borat himself, are what Kazakh people truly look like. This scene also tells the audience that the people of Kazakhstan are poor and cannot afford doctors as well as technology such as an iPod. In all actuality, while there are definitely some underdeveloped sections of the country, Kazakhstan is growing as a modern entity with beautiful landscapes, stunning architecture, and innovative initiatives towards a greener future.

Another huge problem with the film is the fact that the character Borat is an anti-Semite. Borat voices his hatred and disgust with Jewish people several times throughout the film, and in one scene he even believes that the Jewish couple running a bed and breakfast he is staying at have turned into cockroaches because of their “shape shifting” ways. This depiction of the Kazakh perception of Jews is completely false, as Kazakhstan is known as being a country that prides itself on interethnic tolerance and freedom of religion.

In addition to being an interethnic tolerant country, Kazakhstan is also known for its hospitality. Kazakhs are known to be friendly people, and the character Borat actually displays this throughout the film. Borat goes up to many people and tries to introduce himself by kissing them on the cheek, overstepping the personal boundaries of many Americans that he meets. While the Kazakh people are very friendly and courteous, Borat’s personality is almost a satirical take on the kindliness of the Kazakhs.

I could easily get in to many other flaws about the film, including the incorrect language that is used, but, if I did, this article would go on forever. Instead, I’d like to make one last point about the film, which is the depiction of Kazakh-American relations. In one scene of the movie, Borat attends a rodeo and highly offends the Americans in the crowd by insulting the national anthem. While this may imply that Borat is either ignorant of his actions or actually believes his country is superior to the United States, the reality of the situation between the two countries is quite different. Contrary to the film and to the character’s statements, Kazakhstan and the United States hold a positive relationship, and have celebrated the 25th anniversary of Kazakh-United States relations this year.

Sure, when I talk about Kazakhstan to my American friends they all still refer to Borat and like to make jokes about the film. But I am quick to inform them on the truth behind the real Kazakhstan. It has been almost 10 years since the movie was released, and, while the nation was still quite newly independent at the time the movie aired in America, Kazakhstan has come a long way in all imaginable aspects. Not only has it become a wonderful travel destination, but Kazakhstan is beginning to pop up all over the news for amazing things.

But while some of my friends may remember Kazakhstan through the Sacha Baron Cohen film, others don’t even know where or what Kazakhstan is. This isn’t their fault; Kazakhstan isn’t really taught about in schools here, and popular media doesn’t mention the country very often. It has been ten years since Borat came out, so any inkling of an idea about Kazakhstan has disappeared throughout the years along with hype about the film.

However, that’s about to change.

Not only are Americans being introduced to the undefeated Kazakh boxer, Gennady “GGG” Golovkin, but we will soon be hearing more and more about EXPO 2017 as the opening day of the event gets closer and closer.

Pretty soon, the perception the Kazakh people among Americans will start to look less and less like Borat Sagdiyev, and people will start to associate the work ethic and kindness of Golovkin with the Central Asian country. Though Golovkin is a champion boxer, he does not let the fame go to his head like many American athletes. Instead, Golovkin appears as a humble and friendly person, just like Kazakh people are in real life.

And, once pictures, videos, and stories start to flood social media from EXPO 2017, Americans will be amazed at what Kazakhstan has to offer, and at the progressive ideals and visions a post-Soviet country possesses. We, as a country, will see that the whole Republic of Kazakhstan is not made up of dusty antiquated villages, but rather, it is a place that is reaching for the future with an open hand.