ASTANA – Vera Swanson was one of the 40 student ambassadors who worked at the United States pavilion at EXPO 2017. Two years ago, she learned Kazakhstan was not only the destination for her Russian language studies, but also the place where her grandfather was born. Through her summer experience, she reunited with her relatives in Taraz and now has a big family in Central Asia.
Vera Swanson with her great-uncles
“I went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I studied environmental science and Russian. In summer 2015, I had an opportunity to come to Kazakhstan and study Russian. Before coming, my mom said that we have relatives there that I absolutely needed to meet,” said Swanson in an interview with The Astana Times.
Her mother was born and raised in the Caucasus, Northern Ossetia, but her father, like her grandfather, is from Taraz. During Soviet times, he moved to Almaty to study at the Mining Institute and was then sent to the Caucasus to work as an engineer. He ultimately settled in the region.
Vera Swanson’s grandparents Gennady and Vera
Vera, a Russian name meaning “faith,” was also her grandmother’s name.
“My mother grew up in the Caucasus, then moved to Moscow to do graduate school and then she went to the United States under the Fulbright programme. She is a virologist. The last time she was in Kazakhstan was like 40 years ago or so,” she said.
In 2015, Swanson came to Almaty to study in the philology department at Kazakh National University. Later, she travelled to Taraz with her aunt (her mother’s cousin), who lives in Moscow and grew up in Merke, a city near Taraz.
Swanson discovered her grandfather was one of four brothers, one of whom was the chief physician at the regional hospital where his memorial plaque is displayed. A second brother worked as a chief builder in Taraz. Unfortunately, only two of the men are still living. Her grandfather is buried in Vladikavkaz; his brother, in Taraz.
The reunion was very sentimental, said Swanson.
“I was very emotional just because now when you know that they exist and it’s the anticipation of meeting them and having gained and developed the language skills that I did. I was able to talk to them. They have a big library to be able to read those books. I remember after New Year we made shashlik together and, joking around and being able to understand that, connect on a deeper level, was very special,” she said.
First meeting with great-uncle and his spouse in 2015
Swanson has relatives living in Taraz, Karaganda, Almaty and the capital.
“I feel like I have more relatives in Kazakhstan than I do in the States,” she added.
New Year celebration in Taraz
Swanson, whose interest in Russian began several years ago, speaks the language fluently.
“I thought it was important for me to study my mother’s native language. I started taking classes in college. My university has a Russian flagship centre, which is the initiative of the government for students to study critical languages. So, when students study abroad they go to Kazakhstan and Almaty,” she said.
Swanson visited Kazakhstan in summer 2015, returned last August and studied until May, then went home for a few days before expo. In Almaty, she stayed with Kazakh families, with whom she keeps in touch and has only wonderful memories.
“One time we went to Barakholka Market to eat the best shashlik. I remember when there was Oraza and they were fasting that first summer I came, so we would have dinner very late. My host mom’s mom would always come and I call her ‘apashka,’” she said, smiling and using the Kazakh word “apa” (grandmother) in a diminutively affectionate way.
Vera Swanson’s host family in Almaty
After almost a year in Almaty, Swanson chose to be one of expo’s student ambassadors.
“What makes our pavilion special – we have 40 students, recent graduates, all from different states, working here and interacting with the local Kazakh citizens. Our job is to greet people in their own language. All of us know Russian and we are learning Kazakh to explain a little about ourselves and, if they have questions, explain what life is like for us. Because oftentimes through the media, people have a different view of a place. We were just there to give a face to our country, to provide conversation,” she said.
Vera Swanson and her friend in Borovoe
During her stay in Kazakhstan she has visited Turkestan, Shymkent, Aktau, Mangystau region, Karaganda and Ust-Kamenogorsk, as well as Charyn Canyon, Kolsai Lakes, Borovoe and many other sights.
“I think it is a wonderfully warm country, some of the best landscapes I ever seen – mountains to steppes to canyons. It is a very diverse place; it has something to offer everybody. The warmth of the people and diversity of the nation, I think, are what makes this place really special and I hope many people can discover it,” she said.
First visit to Astana in 2015
“I feel like Central Asia often gets overlooked by many people and when I am telling where I am going or where I am studying, I always have to come with the map and be like – ‘I’m here.’ And they say that’s huge. They know Mongolia, but they don’t know Kazakhstan. I hope that going back to the states I can bring the story and the pictures of this place. Kazakhstan’s already on the map, but I want to make sure it is a recognised place,” she added.