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The Milton Measure

Dariya’s Background Narrative: “Yes, I’m Sure That I’m Asian”

by on Friday, May 19th, 2017

The first thing I share when I’m graced with the pleasure of meeting someone new is that I’m from Kazakhstan, and I live in England, but my family is currently based in France. Pretty simple, right? Each time I introduce these fundamental facts, I hear a strange rush fascination with my “complicated background.” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told, “Wow, you’re so exotic”.

My family made their great migration of the Subkhanberdin Clan from Almaty, Kazakhstan, to London, England, back in January 2010. Back then, two kids fewer, when we were just a humble home of 8, my family dropped everything from our home country, the place where both my parents grew up, the place where my sisters and I grew up, and moved to London. I remember coming back home those first few weeks, exchanging laughs and stories with my fellow sisters about those strange cringe-worthy encounters one inevitably experiences as the new kid in school, the new kid in a country; for example, people would casually slide the movie Borat into every conversation.

One anecdote in particular has stuck with me throughout the years: my younger sister Shantelle, six years old at the time, came home one chilly London afternoon. We asked her an array of questions like, “How was school?” and “What were your teachers like?”— you know, a classic display of the eternal bond between sisters. In response, Shantelle told us about a momentary incident of confusion between Shantelle and her teacher: “Hi Shantelle, welcome! So, I think the class would like to know, are you Chinese or Japanese?” Shantelle responded with, “Japanese.” Two choices, one answer.

Last time I checked, we have no Japanese blood in our family. None. Wow, Shantelle sure does love Japanese culture, huh? Seen as a funny story, both today and back then, it didn’t even occur to me that this casual assumption was a microaggression: a statement of ignorance. A microaggression is the casual degradation of a marginalized group and often goes unnoticed— unless you’re a person of color who experiences these microaggressions everyday. When middle-aged white men pass you in the street, bow their heads, and say “Ni hao” to you, you start to notice the little things. Throughout my time at Milton, I’ve endured many of these microaggressions:

Do you like speak Kazakhstani? Wow, but your English is so good. Can you say something cool in Kazakh? I’m telling you, Kazakhstan is definitely in Russia. Are you okay? Your eyes look really small. But you’re like pretty— you look white. You’d be one of those weird Asian girls. I’ve never been with an Asian girl before. Are you sure you’re even Asian? *points to Asian middle schooler* Is that your sister? Are you Chinese or Japanese? Oh Kazakhstan, like in Borat?

This year has been quite the year. We’ve had cross-cultural discussions with tears, posters, and meetings with the deans. The presidential election seemed to have been a wake-up call to many; it has sparked conversation about race, sexuality, gender, and privilege that’s been hushed up at Milton for years. We’ve had the Women’s March, stand-ins, and strikes. Clearly, the “It was a joke, get over it!” attitude simply doesn’t cut it anymore.

I’ve always wondered what it means to be Kazakh. When all people think about when they hear of Kazakhstan is a poorly-made American movie, I start to wonder what it means to be Kazakh in America, at Milton. Kazakhstan is in Central Asia. It is the ninth largest country in the world. As a former Soviet republic, Kazakhstan has undergone decades of gentrification—a history lesson for another day. It has its own space station, many landmarks, and a rich and interesting culture. My parents grew up there, I’ve spent eight years of my life there, and I still see it as home.

If my own country has only just started rediscovering its own rich history, language, and culture, how am I expected to know who I am as a Kazakh, let alone a Kazakh woman at Milton Academy? One’s background can either play a key part in one’s identity or be a simple fact used for introduction. I’m still figuring out what being Kazakh means to me. I’m from Kazakhstan, I live in London, and my family is based in France. Ask me in two years what it means to be Kazakh and maybe I’ll tell you. And for those wondering: yes, I can speak some Kazakh. No, that’s not my sister. And yes, I’m sure that I’m Asian.

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Posted by on May 19 2017. Filed under More Opinion, Opinion, Recent Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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