“Kyrgyzstan? Is that a country?!”
Reciting the same lines, as I have for most of my life, I explain how Kyrgyzstan is a small country in Central Asia, bordering Kazakhstan and China.
“China! So you’re basically Chinese?” I shake my head, explaining how my country and its culture are completely different than that of China and other well-known Asian countries, countries that have impressed themselves upon the Western consciousness.
Being a minority in a minority, so minor that most are not even cognizant of our existence, is a familiar scenario that I’ve experienced countless times. It is to be expected, coming from a country of just 6 million people. Even so, I always hope that there will be more awareness surrounding my country, that it will be seen as a unique, rich culture, rather than just another small country in a strange region.
When I arrived at Yale, I did not expect a great deal of awareness regarding Kyrgyzstan or Central Asia at large. Nevertheless, having been constantly reminded that this is a place that champions diversity and prides itself on a unique student body, I stepped onto campus with a degree of expectation that my culture would be recognized in some form. Yet the irony is that even with so much diversity, it feels as though my heritage is more invisible than ever.
The Asian American Cultural Center is a great institution, albeit slightly too idealistic. Its intent is to foster and include all facets of Asian culture. However, what struck me more is how it has lumped every single unique culture on the large continent that is Asia, sweeping all of them under the general term “Asian.” And, to be frank, when people think of Asia, their minds tend to envision East Asians, simply because there are a greater number of that subgroup than others. What this creates is a mirage of diversity, recognizing Asia’s more populous groups while discarding the cultures of those who are less noticeable. Arabs, for example, are included in the AACC, yet they have a background so different from those of Japanese people or Indians that it makes more sense to recognize the Middle East through a separate center, rather than grouping these immensely different cultures together. My own Central Asian heritage is essentially nonexistent. No one would create a cultural center dominated by Italians, for example, and then expect British people to feel at home there. Yet when it comes to the umbrella of Asia, this is not the case.
This mirage of diversity continues, even within Yale’s admission statistics. The Office of International Students & Scholars, for one, groups Central Asia with South Asia. Indeed, in their 2017 fall report on international student enrollment, there were 279 graduate and undergraduate students of Southern-Central Asian descent. Yet, take a closer look and you’ll find that only 2 of those are from Central Asia. Look further still, and you’ll discover that there are no Central Asian undergraduate students. Lumping both Central and South Asia together contributes to a culture where we erase smaller minorities, rather than celebrate their rich heritage and culture.
To some degree, we need to be realistic. I readily acknowledge that a lack of Central Asian awareness is simply due to a lack of strong Central Asian representation. That inevitably leads to a greater focus on other cultures that have a larger presence on campus.
However, I still believe that it is important to create a future where Central Asia has more recognition, where people at least know of its existence. As one of the poorer areas of the world, it is already an uphill battle to gain access to world-class educational institutions such as Yale. This is only made harder by the reality that their existence is practically invisible to both the faculty and student body here on campus. Kyrgyzstan will never have a significant number of students represented overseas in comparison to other countries, but creating recognition for it and its neighbors is the first step to creating a truly diverse community. Along with that, it’s also important to remember that Asia is not a monolith, but rather a collection of greatly different cultures, each composed of a rich heritage. Perhaps in time we will see more Central Asian students celebrating their unique, unheard cultures. But for now, the first step is getting people to hear our voices, to realize that we exist and that our cultures do matter.
Syimyk Kyshtoobaev is a first year in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .