When we were on the train coming back from Thanksgiving in Karaganda, the usual crowd of locals gathered around the Americans' bunks to ask questions about America and politics. This time it was a teenage Judo team coming back from a competition. I was with three other volunteers, two of whom have only been studying Russian for six months and another who was born in Russia and speaks fluently but was nowhere to be found, so I was left to manage the crowd. I did well enough, but was helped by the fact that when one boy brought up September 11th, the rest of the crowd silenced him and moved on to other things.
After the crowd left, politely offering to let me get some sleep, I found out that the fluent Russian speaker - the bastard - had been sitting in the next alcove listening to the whole thing. He told me that the Kazakhstanis in the bunks next to him, believing he didn't speak Russian any better than I did, had quietly responded to the September 11th question with comments like "good riddance" and "they got what they deserved".
Kazakhstan doesn't enjoy freedom of the press. And it occurs to me that I don't have a good idea what kind of freedom of speech - I mean conversational speech - the people feel they have. As I've said, I haven't encountered any significant anti-Americanism (there's plenty of anti-Bushism and anti-War-In-Iraqism, but plenty of very American people oppose these too), but now I wonder how much of this is politic silence. Suddenly I feel like the Ambassador in The Ugly American who didn't know the local language well enough to understand the political cartoons about him.
This sounds a little paranoid. I'm not afraid of persecution here by a long shot. But I've been taking my acceptance as an American for granted. The Peace Corps may be, too - I think there are too many volunteers that simply don't do any work, or behave in an undignified manner. (In fairness, I may have been one of the latter once or twice.) We aren't really held accountable to anyone - managing us is too great a task for such a large area and so few regional managers. How hard would you work if the only thing making you work was your own motivation? But this is a subject for a different entry.
And in contrast, there's a Filipino volunteer here. (The poor girl speaks only a couple words of Russian, has never seen snow before in her life, is only here for a year, and has an ill-defined objective to organize community health projects. But I'm glad to have her here - through her we can possibly get some women's rights groups started, which is something that this community clearly needs but which I am anatomically unqualified to initiate.) Whatever the failings of the way her volunteer program is organized, she's automatically here representing herself much more than she's representing the Phillipines. Anti-Phillipinesism isn't a word.
Now, I'm an American, I'm proud to be one, I'm glad to have the substantial political weight of my country behind me, and I'm glad to be here representing America. But my job here is to represent the fact that America is composed of real people and not a monolithic homogenous culture, that Americans can be both lazy and industrious, both like and unlike MTV, and that Americans were instrumental in starting both the Iraq War and the United Nations. This is - to show that "Americanism" or "Anti-Americanism" are meaningless phrases used to oversimplify issues for political goals on both sides of the fence. In this regard, the Phillipines are way ahead of us here in Kokshetau.