The Central Asian community: A minority within a minority

Nina Huang June 15, 2009 0

The API community is ever-expanding its demographics. New communities are emerging in Seattle and force us to re-evaluate the API experience.

There isn’t much to be found on the under-represented Central Asian communities in Seattle. Geographically, the five countries that make up Central Asia are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Many individuals of Central Asian background reside in the Pacific Northwest. They traveled across the globe for better educational opportunities, to escape the political regime, or to experience a chance at a better life.

Lennura Zhataganova, the winner of the International Examiner’s InspirAsian Fashion Show and Competition on May 20, is from Kazakhstan. She moved to Seattle three years ago to study fashion design at Seattle Central Community College.

Zhataganova compared the respective Central Asian countries to the relationship between the U.S. and Canada, where most residents share a common language and culture. Most people in Central Asia speak Russian and share a similar cultural and historical background, having been ruled under the Soviet Union years ago.
Vitaly Nishanov, a lecturer in management at the University of Washington, came to the United States with his family in 2004 from Kyrgyzstan. His father is from Uzbekistan and his mother was born in Ukraine.

He says Krygyz immigrate to the United States due to political problems from a controlling government—a reason he shares—and for economic reasons. Others seek freedom, hoping to find that in the United States.

Despite no longer living in their home country and with no intentions to return, Nishanov and his family feel they still represent the Krygyz culture, although they’ve adjusted to an American lifestyle.

However, distinct elements from other countries have influenced Central Asian culture. Nishanov said that tea and certain foods have been directly inherited from countries such as China and India because of the historic Silk Road that ran through their region for hundreds of years.

Nishanov said one thing that most people may not realize about Central Asians is that they are generally more educated than people think.

Education is a popular reason why many Central Asians choose to study in the U.S.

Yuliya Zhumagulova arrived in Portland last August from Kazakhstan when she won a fellowship to study at Portland State University. She will move to Seattle for a full-time internship this summer.

Zhumagulova says of her identity, “Although Kazakhstan’s history is very interesting, I don’t really think I am of a certain nationality,” Zhumagulova said.
She has a mixed heritage: she’s half Kazakh, one fourth Tatar and one fourth German. Despite growing up in Kazakhstan, she doesn’t follow traditions nor does she speak Kazakh.

But, Zhumagulova says she is proud of her heritage and likes to present her country and defy the stereotypes that were portrayed in the movie, “Borat”–a film starring actor-comedien Sasha Baron Cohen, who pokes fun at Kazakh stereotypes.

She says she thought the movie was funny but could understand why some Kazakhstans are offended by the satirical humor. Fashion student Zhataganova felt the same way. She thought it was funny that some film-goers believed the country was, in reality, how it was represented in the movie.

Aziza Zayniddinova attended school in Tacoma for two years before moving back to her home country of Uzbekistan. She defines herself as Asian, but only due to its continental meaning.

“I think we are different from each other in terms of culture and attitude,” she said, referring to the differences between Central and East Asians.
Like Zhataganova, Zayniddinova often had people curious about their cultural background.

“It was even very interesting to be the only one from Central Asia, because everyone wanted to know about our culture and asked different, very interesting questions which actually excited me,” she said.

Zayniddinova tried looking for other Uzbeks in the area when she first came to Seattle and said that Seattle and the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, are sister cities. She says she was fortunate enough to attend the 35-year celebration of Seattle/Taskhkent sister city relations last year. That was her first, real exposure to other Uzbeks in the community, otherwise she had not known others to have existed.

Both Zayniddinova and Zhumagulova agreed that two of the primary motivations of leaving Central Asia for the U.S. were to find better job and educational opportunities.

Like the rest, Alisher Bazarov, who is originally from Turkmenistan, first came to Seattle when he was 17 on a scholarship to study in an exchange program for a year.

After his studies, he returned to Turkmenistan in hopes of attending college but was expected to pay more money to go to a public university after studying abroad. Bazarov decided to return to the U.S. to attend college instead.

He says while he has a few local Central Asian friends, it’s unusual to see them in large communities.

Due to the Central Asian countries’ history before Soviet Union control, neighboring countries and regions such as Russia, China, Mongolia, and the Middle East influenced the area. A Central Asian will often share a mixed heritage and ethnicity. Some Central Asians may appear with more traditionally Caucasian features while others may share East Asian characteristics.

Bazarov said Americans aren’t always well-versed in Central Asian culture and regard them by stereotypes. But, as you’ll realize if you take a moment to reach out to a person of Central Asian or any ethnicity for that matter, is that they have an interesting story to tell that you can learn from and will help to expand your own horizons.

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