Navigating culture, gender, and politics in Central Asia

Kathleen Connell ’20 is an anthropology and Chinese major who has recently been traveling the world. She stayed in Kyrgyzstan over the summer, studied abroad in Taiwan last fall, and is off to Mongolia this spring, doing human rights work across all three countries.

She discusses the highs and lows of her trips with Beloit News.

Can you talk a little about the scope of your travels, where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing?

I went to Kyrgyzstan last summer to work on Russian. [Professor of Chinese Language and Literature] Daniel Youd introduced me to a man who is the CEO of an non-government organization in China. When I was in Kyrgyzstan, I was to meet with a director to discuss making a film for an upcoming film festival, the 1905 International Human Rights Festival in Hong Kong. We made a film together [a short film called “155,” produced by the 1908 Company, Hong Kong]. The topic is bride kidnapping.

After I left Kyrgyzstan, I flew to Taiwan. I chose Taiwan because I had previously spent a year in China when I was in high school, so I wanted to see the other side of China. I also continued working with the NGO in Taiwan, and I’ll have directors I’ll be meeting in Mongolia.

Why did Daniel Youd introduce you to this NGO?

Daniel knows I’m very interested in women’s rights issues—I’m pro-female, pro-human, I’m not really that focused on going down a road just to make money and do something corporate, but in doing something to give back to society.

What does the NGO do?

It focuses on women and human rights issues throughout Asia. My job in Kyrgyzstan and these Central Asian countries was to meet directors and tell them what we’re doing and see if they’re interested in making a film about a certain issue that’s affecting their country. 31 women are kidnapped every day in Kyrgyzstan to become a wife. Suicide rates are really high for women. This is an NGO for film festivals, so it’s to bring filmmaking to show the world.

What was Taiwan like?

I have a very thick mainland Chinese accent, and whenever I was speaking Chinese in Taiwan, I got a lot of negativity and some discrimination for the way I spoke. Taiwanese would tell me, “If you’re going to speak that way, you should just go to China.” Since I lived on mainland China before, the only Chinese I knew how to speak was a very thick northeastern dialect, and sometimes the Taiwanese were just very uncomfortable. I would be refused service in a restaurant, even one time I found spit in my tea. Even though I’m a foreigner, it’s interesting how sensitive they are to anything that is mainland Chinese. They’re angry. And the protests, seeing them really expressing their hatred openly about China—for me, I feel like I don’t want to pick sides. But in Taiwan, it’s like you’re kind of forced to pick their side.

How were you treated in Kyrgyzstan?

When I was in Kyrgyzstan, men wouldn’t look at me to talk to me; they would talk to a man next to me to talk through me, so they would never give me eye contact or talk to me, and wherever I would be, they would never really care or think about my presence there. I kind of felt like they saw me as a waste of space, and that was a very eye-opening in a country where women are easily kidnapped as brides and women just don’t really matter. It was very difficult for me to stay in Kyrgyzstan because of that even—with my host family, I could feel that sort of culturally-grown sexism. Especially when I work for women’s rights, it’s just so difficult to stomach.

But in Taiwan, I have to say I felt very safe there, very comfortable. All of my courses were taught in Chinese. I was the only foreign student in a class of only Taiwanese students, so that was a little bit of a culture shock for me because my first day of class, the Taiwanese students would be like, “Oh, are you lost? I think you’re in the wrong class.” Or I’d sit down in a class and they’d move away from me and not sit next to me. I guess immersion is the most difficult and near-impossible thing.

It’s so interesting that you would experience hardships and continue to do work in places like Mongolia. What made you continue and to want to study abroad again?

I just feel like the world is just so fascinating and interesting, and working with this human rights NGO really ignites my passion. I’ve had some not-so-good things happen to me in my travels, but I also chose countries that are off the beaten path, or have some sort of political sensitivity. I feel like traveling is one of the best forms of education because you get to learn and navigate around your gender, your privilege. You learn how to become sort of smarter, in a sense, with the street, and knowing when you feel safe and what to do if you’re in a stressful situation.

March 06, 2019

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