Thursday, August 1, 2013

Questions and Answers

I've gotten plenty of questions about my trip since I got back.  My favorite, or course, has been, "You left the country?" But the most often-asked is not one you might expect.  No, it wasn't "You went where?", "How long were you gone?", or even "What was it like in... what was that place called again, Russia?" No, the question people ask me the most since I returned to the U.S. has been, "Glad to be back?"

Now, I am by no means a psychologist, but I know a loaded question when I hear one. You've gotta know that when a person asks a question like that, they expect a certain answer. And I'm happy to oblige, as it happens. Why yes, I certainly am glad to be back in a place where things make sense, where the traditional order of things I've known since birth is still in place, and where I can take advantage of all those, well, advantages I've been taught belong to me. Yes, I enjoy knowing my place in the world.

Not that everything and everyone didn't have a place in Astana. It was just an equally, shall we say allotted, place for all. Take for example any business larger than a basement-level mini-mart. They all have lockers. Not for the convenience of shoppers, especially in malls where you might have many bags by the time you're done, but for the convenience of the ever-present security. Everyone who walks into a business—for some reason in grocery stores more than any other place I've seen—is under suspicion, without exception. Ok, maybe grandmothers, but everyone is afraid of them, so I can see cause for dispensation. And everyone who walks into these places just knows and accepts it. People aren't to be trusted, no matter how they're dressed, or whether they follow the unwritten no-smiling-in-any-place-there's-a-chance-someone-might-see-you-do-it rule.

Now, I suppose I might have come under more suspicion in the "everyone's a criminal" initiative. It's not what you think though. Well, not directly. Security didn't profile me because I was a foreigner, but because, being a foreigner, I looked differently. Being a female who wore clothes that were actually comfortable, roomy even, naturally brought me under suspicion for intent to steal everything in the store. Wearing a sweatshirt into Gal-Mart, the upscale grocery store in one of Astana's many malls, is just an open invitation for a security guard to follow you around and stare at you the entire time you're in the store.

Also, I had a silly proclivity for carrying things—a messenger bag, a backpack, a purse that could hold more than a tube of lipstick—that immediately made me stand out as an obvious shoplifter. Women in this city, as I'm sure I've mentioned, don't carry things, often not even a purse. Probably it has to do with the fact that even a clutch is enough to upset the balance and tip those tiny women right off their four-inch heels. Luckily, there are men willing to display their masculinity at every opportunity and carry the purses of their women.

Now, I suppose it was a bit easier for security people to pick me out, being that I was recognizably not Kazakh. I could've passed for Russian, I suppose, if I'd dressed differently, but clothes were so expensive I just never bothered to try. So yes, I'm also be glad to be back in a place where I'm so recognizably not the person meant to be profiled. I can wear what I like, carry what I like, do incredibly suspicious things in places of terribly expensive commerce, and I don't even get a look. You can't be that, can you?

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