Aigerim, 28, Kazakhstan

FullSizeRender-2What is your story of strength?

It’s a really hard question but I think it started when I decided to travel to the United States when I was a freshman in university. We had a program that allowed us to work and travel to the USA. I was a girl from a small town in Kazakhstan and I’d never been outside Kazakhstan or even outside my own town by myself. When I went abroad to the United States, the journey changed my life. It made me strong. I had always had a strong personality. I graduated with high marks and worked really hard so I received a scholarship which was a big help for my parents to send me to university. When I was accepted into this program, it let me see the world.

On my first trip to America, I was supposed to fly alone. My sessions ended earlier, so I went earlier than my other friends in the program. I traveled through Milan but my friends were through Zurich. When I arrived to the U.S., I was overwhelmed. I didn’t realize that there would be so many planes coming from Zurich. I hadn’t written down the number of my friends’ flight! I was so nervous. Imagine, an 18 year old girl for the first time out of the country by herself, I was terrified. When I arrived in JFK, it was huge! (In Kazakhstan, our airports are so much smaller, only one terminal!) Somehow I figured I needed to go to another terminal to meet my friends. I stalked the flights from Zurich to find my friends. I was so stressed. And then I met (by coincidence) a guy from Kazakhstan while waiting. I was so relieved and happy to see a person who I could speak with. He was the closest person to me in the world at that moment. And then in turns out he had met my friends at the bus station! I would’ve totally missed them but he connected me to them– it turns out, my flight had been delayed and theirs arrived early, so we missed each other.

After that, I gained self confidence in myself. I knew even if I wouldn’t have met my friends- I would’ve found someone to help me. I knew that I had resources, and that everything would be okay. And I had the courage to do it myself. When I returned from my trip to America, all my group mates, they saw something changed in me. “You’ve become self confident and a little bit sassy!,” they told me. For me, my whole world changed. I saw a new world, a new culture, different people. From that  moment, I knew I needed to see as many cultures as I could. That passion made me stronger. The hunger to travel… each new place I saw made me richer, taught me something new.

I know some people who travel and see other nations but they still won’t open themselves to accept new ideas. They judge it, and remained closed with a kind of cultural shield in front of them. I am lucky because I had made this trip early, experiencing it myself, and I think learning how to open my eyes to others made me an adult. Each new place I traveled to, I learned something new.

Can you tell me about a woman in your life that embodies strength?

I am against the idea that you need to have someone as an example for you. I think each person has their own unique personality. I don’t have that one woman that I see who is the ideal strong woman, but I have two friends who I admire for the things that they are doing in their lives. The first friend, we lived in the same dormitory, she has such a unique story. She pursued her own path in life. In our country, people (especially women) are dependent on the opinions of their parents and society. We are very sensitive to those opinions. In spite of that, she pursued her own path and moved to another country and began a whole new life. I know how she struggled and how many obstacles she went through. She is both amazingly strong and really sensitive. She always finds a way to keep in touch and maintain her relationships. In Kazakhstan, family is very important. It is the closest bond we have. It is very hard to move out from that and pursue something outside of that. All your life you’re with — or very close to– your parents. She is an example for me, whenever I think of strength, I reach to her for support.

The second is my other dear friend and former roommate. She is very inspirational and creative writer. She works in PR but she also blogs and writes stories. When I need advice or a kick to push me toward action, I always call her. She is very supportive and I learned a lot from her. She challenges me, and calls me out by pushing me. She’ll say “you are more than that! You can do more.”

Can you tell me about a time you failed or disappointed yourself?

Whatever happens to you when you were younger really affects you. As an adult, you are less proactive and more reactive. Now as an adult, I can overcome obstacles. But when you’re young, you don’t have the skills to do so alone.

I had just graduated the university, got my degree, and ready to conquer the world. But after several failures to find my dream job, my ambitions were quickly put down by cruel reality. By that time, the job that I had since I was a senior, and which supposed to be temporary job had suddenly became my permanent job. I felt lost, disappointed, stupid, and started blaming myself for not being perfect. That period of time was really difficult to overcome and fight for your place under the sun. Thanks to my family, I didn’t lose faith in myself, and got through the obstacles. Now, I think that time after university graduation is very sensitive for young people who accept fate, and do not immediately pursue their dreams. And it’s not our fault, it’s the fault of the system. I wish we had some specialized centers to guide young professionals and support them at the beginning of their career path.

How can women better support each other?

You know, I actually reviewed the website before our interview. I was confused with the question. In my understanding, how you support women is that you have to start with yourself. As a woman, you need to work on your potential and your character and then as a woman and a future mother, you need to pass all your experience and wisdom to your daughters. I think when we can raise our daughters with all the values that make women strong. Especially in different places with different cultures– where there is a male dominant society, you need to do a good job of raising your daughter and make them confident in themselves. Society predisposes women in these societies to be quiet and shy. So as women, we need to instill that strength.

Everything starts from childhood. How we set examples of strength, how you develop your character, we have to make sure our girls are raised so she won’t be afraid to challenge herself. In Kazakh culture, the main thing that makes a woman strong is to be a really good wife and mother. She should be soft and supportive for a man. I see it in my family. I see it in my community. We always put men in front of us, and that is seen as a kind of strength. It doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice (maybe centuries ago, yes), but now we are equal at home. But when you’re exposed to the broader community, to a larger audience, Kazakh culture generally views women as standing behind the man, supporting him and the family. In Kazakhstan, we have a proverb, “the man is the head, but the woman is the neck.”

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