J-1 Visas (…And Grassroots Public Diplomacy) At Risk

In April, Trump signed “Buy American Hire American,” an executive order that targeted the H-1B visa because it supposedly screwed over American workers by driving down wages. Think what you will about the H-1B, which brings foreign workers in specialty occupations (especially tech) to work at US companies by a lottery system.

But now, the White House is reportedly looking to cut J-1 visas, which allow 300,000 foreign visitors to see the U.S., experience our culture, and bring what they’ve seen and learned back to their home country. These are visas given to research scholars and students (like my brilliant friend Asel, who’s getting a Master’s at Columbia through the Fulbright program in order to go back and rock the world of education policy in Kyrgyzstan), au pairs, Work and Travel visitors (like many of my students in Kyrgyzstan, and those featured in this This American Life episode, who come to the US for a summer just to see it), kids on academic exchange programs, trainees participating in structured professional development programs, and — closest to my heart — camp counselors.

If you know me at all, I’m a summer camp person. I’ve spent the majority of my summers since high school at the Concordia Language Villages in northern Minnesota — these camps provide an immersion experience for learning 15 world languages, but they also foster a sense of curiosity about other cultures and responsibility as global citizens. These camps are a magical place, and the diversity of staff who work at the Concordia Language Villages is a huge part of that magic. Each year, around 200 people travel from around the world to Bemidji, Minnesota to offer language and cultural skills and develop genuine international friendships.

I would not be the person I am today without those connections — I think about Valya, who has been working at the Villages for 9 years, who is the best babushka a summer camp could ask for and who has hosted me in her cozy St. Petersburg apartment multiple times; I think about Rahat, who showed me my first glimpse of Kyrgyz culture; I think of Vadim, a literature teacher from a small town in Siberia who is a brilliant thinker and who taught me a foundation of Russian that helped me skip several semesters of coursework; I think of Lida, Yulia, Olga, Anton, Cholponai, Sasha, so many people who have spent their summers teaching kids traditional crafts, music, dance, and language from their home countries.


Losing this visa means losing these people, and these connections. This visa is so important to public diplomacy at the grassroots level, and taking away this arm of intercultural exchange also blocks a path to a more peaceful, understanding world.

So please take a minute to contact the higher powers that be and ask to protect the J-1 visa. You can send a written message to your representatives via Alliance for International Exchange; if you’re more the phone call type, you can reach the White House Comment Line at (202) 456-1111 or the State Department Operations Center: (202) 647-1512.


Small Scenes of Summer

In the last three months, I’ve: finished up 2 years of Peace Corps service; moved into a new apartment in New York City; wandered through 12 airports on layovers, customs checks, and diverted flights; journeyed by bus, plane, train, car, and even boat to visit old friends and new cities across Russia and New England; settled down long enough to sift through several hundred pictures of these adventures. And it’s not even August yet.

As I make the transition from Peace Corps volunteer 3rd Goal proponent extraordinaire to full-time graduate student, I’m trying to be intentional about how this space will change. In the meantime, I’ve been inspired by the #VantagePoint project (an initiative from the folks at Light.Co who are developing new camera technology) to get back into sharing snaps from my travels.


From the Kazan River to Casco Bay, my travels this summer have afforded some beautiful sunset views — being so far north, sunset has ranged from 10pm to 1am, giving me plenty of daylight to explore these cities and enjoy the outdoors.


Gorgeous sunsets in popular tourist spots have meant vying for the prime #VantageSpot with tons of other people — learning to take a step back or swap out of selfie mode on my camera have made for some nice shots (my favorite being the anachronistic French general handling a smart phone, taken in the Alexandrovskyy Garden before a reenactment of a battle from the Napoleonic Wars). Stay tuned for stories from Russia and the end of my time in Kyrgyzstan!

Kyrgyzstani Classics: The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years

Did you get a chance to read Mark’s guest post about Chyngyz Aitmatov’s novella Jamilia? If not, check it out, and while you’re on his site, check out a few other gems of his — in addition to knowing all about Central Asian pop stars, he’s better than me at blogging about the nuts and bolts of Peace Corps service here.

Kyrgyz people are often confused when I can’t list off the national clothes, national drink, or national food of the United States (though, to be honest, I just always say that hot dish is our national meal). The idea of a national “everything” is very important here, and these symbols of Kyrgyz(stani) culture are fairly fixed: kymyz is the national beverage, kara jorgo the national dance, and besh barmak the national food (though, as a resident of southern Kyrgyzstan, I’d make a case for ash).

When it comes to Kyrgyzstan’s “national writer,” arguments could be made for various poets and authors, but it would be pretty hard to beat Chyngyz Aitmatov. His short stories and novellas have been a joy to read, but nothing so far compares to his 1980 novel The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years.


The book takes place in the course of a single day: villagers of the Boranly-Burannyi rail station learn of the passing of a respected elder, Kazangap, and go on a journey to bury him. The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years gets its name from the weaving together of several stories: some intense magical realism involving a pair of Soviet and American astronauts who make contact with an alien planet, the fallout of Stalin-era purges on a man and his family, the main character’s relationship with his feisty Bactrian camel, and two Kazakh folk tales (3, if you’re reading the original Russian).

The fate of Central Asian traditions and identity is a focal point of the novel, highlighted by the efforts of Yedigei, an old man who made his home at the rail station, to bury his beloved friend and fellow railworker Kazangap. Yedigei is determined to bury Kazangap in the Ana-Beiit cemetery, but is frustrated with the perceived lack of dedication and care on the part of the other, younger men in the burial party:

“Looking at his young companions on the tractor, Burannyi Yedigei was genuinely distressed and sorry to think that none of them knew a single prayer. How then could they bury one another? With what words, covering the beginning and end of a life, would they sum up the departure of a man into the unknown, into non-existence? ‘Farewell, comrade, we will remember you.’ Or with some other sort of nonsense?” (97)

The Ana-Beiit cemetery is off limits to the villagers, who decide to bury Kazangap in a random patch of the steppe instead. Ana-Beiit, which means “mother’s grave” in Kazakh, appears in the landscape of another fairytale told throughout the novel, that of the “mankurt.” According to Central Asian legend, mankurts were prisoners of war, tortured by roaming Chinese tribes, and turned into zombie slaves with no memory of their former village, family, or identity.

The movie adaptation of The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years focuses solely on this sub-plot, entirely ignoring the more magical threads of the novel’s narrative structure. Shot in 1990 in Turkmenistan, the movie (aptly called Mankurt) follows the fate of a young soldier, Yolaman. Yolaman is captured by Chinese bandits and is tortured with a piece of camel flesh tied around his head; as other captives die of starvation and dehydration, Yolaman slowly loses his mind and all his memories.


Yolaman, still taken from the 1990 film Mankurt

Yolaman’s mother, Naiman, is waiting impatiently with in the canyons; on a hunch, she decides to head out to the steppe to fine her son and bring him home. Naiman is devastated that her son can’t remember who he is; as she shouts “Dorunbai! Dorunbai!”, the name of Yolaman’s father, a bird picks up the call and repeats the name over and over as the encounter turns tragic.

This same bird circles overhead as Yedigei tries to gain entry to Ana-Beiit, the final resting place of Naiman herself, calling out Dorunbaiiii, dorunbaiiii. Here, the bird doesn’t speak to recall a forgotten father, but instead forgotten traditions. Aitmatov uses the novel to make a statement about this generation of people, fully transformed Homo sovieticus, who are disconnected from the language and cultural staples of their ancestors.

In a eulogy for Aitmatov published in Harper’s, Scott Horton writes, “One of the great charms of Aitmatov’s life was that he charted first the decline of the Central Asian life and identity, and then participated in its resurrection as the Soviet Union collapsed and as the Central Asian states regained, quite unexpectedly, their autonomy and footing on the world stage.”

It’s fitting, then, that Aitmatov, a Kyrgyz man, wrote this book that takes place on the Kazakh steppe, and a team of Turkmen filmmakers picked up the mankurt tale. The struggle to protect and pass on traditional ways of life persisted in many areas of the Soviet Union, and Chyngyz Aitmatov was able to give voice to the way that played out not only in Kyrgyzstan, but all across Soviet Central Asia.

Reading this book, I couldn’t help but wonder at how these works – The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years and Mankurt – were produced and distributed before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The film portrays the danger of losing grasp on traditional mores, and the book advocates individualism, wariness of state authority, and Islamic rites. Somehow by the grace of glasnost, it made it through, and thank goodness for that.

Kyrgyzstani Classics: Jamilia

Fellow PCV and Central Asian culture enthusiast Mark, who blogs at Monday Bazaar, agreed to do an exchange of posts on the work of Kyrgyzstan’s most famous author, Chyngyz Aitmatov. His post about the classic novella Jamilia and the fantastic film adaptation is up first. Check out his blog on Facebook and follow on Instagram for more from Mark!

Louis Aragon called it “the most beautiful love story in the world.” He wasn’t talking about Romeo and Juliet; he’s talking about Jamila (also spelled Jamilia in some translations), the first significant work of Kyrgyz author Chingiz Aitmatov first published in 1958.

Jamila postage stamp

A postage stamp from 2009 featuring Jamila, Daniyar, and the cart they take to the station each day.

Jamila might best be described as a novelette, since the edition I have is less than 100 pages. But, it’s one of the most beloved pieces of literature in the entire Soviet Union. First published in Russian in 1958, this was the book that put Aitmatov on the map and led to him becoming the most beloved author in Kyrgyzstan and one of the most revered across the USSR.

Jamila tells the story of a family on a collective farm in northern Kyrgyzstan during the Great Patriotic War (for more info, check out my post about Victory Day in the former USSR). The story is that of Jamila, a young woman whose husband is at war, and Daniyar, a young soldier who has returned to the village from the front due to injury. Narrated by Jamila’s younger brother-in-law, Seit, the three of them together each day take loads of flour and grain down to the main town and its railway station to dispatch the food to the soldiers at the front in Europe.

Spending so much time together combined with the spirited nature of the characters drives the plot in a direction that is both expected and unheard-of for the time in which it was written. I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling it, but I highly recommend you take time to read the book and watch the movie. It provides such a nuanced look into the family relations and life in a small village during the era immediately after collectivization and forced settlement of the Kyrgyz nomads, exploring themes of family, devotion, true love, and the question of what is true happiness.

Once you’ve finished reading and watching, there’s a fantastic literary analysis of the book and its historical context here that I recommend you check out.

How to read and watch Jamila:

The book (which you MUST read!) is available at Amazon and other bookstores, and is also well worth the read. It’s on my list of my 10 favorite Central Asia books.

You can watch the video dubbed in English or with English subtitles over at Soviet Movies Online, a great website which hosts hundreds of important films from the Soviet era. Since they pay for hosting costs out of their own pockets, I’m not going to embed the movie here, but I hope you all get a chance to take a look at the film. There is also a 1994 version made in Germany, but that version has the character of Daniyar played by a blonde white guy (in the book, the character is clearly said to be Kyrgyz), and I’m not really a supporter of whitewashing in cinema.

For When Internet Jok 9

Although I’m often amazed at how great telecommunications work in this country, there are still stretches of time when internet jok — there’s no internet. In anticipation of those long hours, days, weekends, I like to load up on reading material while at work or cafes. Here’s a compilation of some of the things that made me look twice and think a while, mostly about Kyrgyzstan, international development, foreign policy, feminism, and language. Enjoy.

The Falling of the Lenins: The podcast 99% Invisible recently did an episode about the visuals of de-communization, with a focus on Ukraine, which at one point was the Soviet republic most densely decorated with statues of Lenin. So how does that factor now, 25 years after declaring independence, and while a war over Ukraine’s identity and relationship with Russia rages in the eastern part of the country? “According to the Institute of National Remembrance, the process of decommunization isn’t just about removal — it’s also meant to help Ukrainians learn their own history. Which is why, in many cases, they have suggested that towns revert to the names they had before the Soviets changed them. But whether they choose to revert to old names or pick new ones, Ukrainians do not have the option of keeping the Soviet names.”

Photos of Women Villagers Who Run the Show in Rural Russia: ““[A] village woman is strong. She can do almost everything by herself, she doesn’t really need a man for house work or raising children,” says Ivanova. “She does all the supposedly men’s work: mow, carry heavy logs, chop wood.”

A drinker’s guide to Islam: To add to the bizarreness of the situation, this Oktoberfest, the seventh of its kind, took place not in hip Ramallah but in the remote village of Taybeh, perched picturesquely at 850m above sea level and with a population of just 1,500. Moreover, readers in western countries may wonder why thousands upon thousands of revellers had trekked all that way to attend a beer festival with only one beer on tap.”

Post-Yugoslav ‘Common Language’ Declaration Challenges Nationalism: There’s a lot of…overlap, to put it mildly, between Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, and Montenegrin languages. In regions of these former Yugoslavian countries where the local ethnicity does not match the titular nationality, public signs or cigarette boxes comically display their message in multiple languages — but the message is letter for letter, word for word the same (except for Serbian, which is written in Cyrillic). A recent Declaration on the Common Language has caused a stir in the Balkans. ““I don’t believe this is a linguistics issue, but a political one,” she added.” 

In Tblisi: An excerpt from “Trip to Tbilisi” by Victoria Lomasko, a Russian journalist based in Moscow. Lomasko documents her conversations with Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, and Russians she meets in Georgia’s capital, and accompanies their words with lovely portraits. “In Tbilisi, I heard repeatedly from Armenian friends that despite the ongoing conflict between their countries, Armenians and Azerbaijanis understand each other better than they do Georgians. There were no people closer to them, the Azerbaijanis told me, than the Armenians.”

These Passionate Latvian Linguists Refuse to Lose Their Language: Livonian, a Finno-Ugric language (think Finnish, Hungarian) native to the Latvian coast, no longer has any living native speakers — a small group of enthusiasts and academics, about 30 in total, have taken up the responsibility of keeping this language alive. “But Ernštreits is just one of a handful of speakers, and one of only 250 people who identify themselves as Livonian in government surveys. He can write poetry in it, but he can’t buy a loaf of bread.”

A Glimpse Into Moscow’s Little Kyrgyzstan: “Every year, tens of thousands leave the republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — the poorest countries in Central Asia — to find seasonal employment in Russia’s main cities. Many stay for years; others never return home, but their remittances form an important share of their country’s economy. The World Bank estimates that, in 2014, money sent back home by migrants was comparable to 36.6 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP, and 30 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s.”  Moscow’s Little Kyrgyzstan, a 25-minute documentary, explores the dynamics of migrant labor in Russia — many of which mirror those of migration patterns in the United States.

Watch the documentary here:

When A Name’s Not Just a Name

Schools in Kyrgyzstan are registered according to a number, but people identify a school by its namesake. A school might be named for famous Russian writers (Pushkin School) or revolutionaries (Lenin School), for respected Kyrgyz leaders (Kalygul Bai uulu School) or ballerinas (Beyshenalieva School).

The ability to name a place – whether it’s a school, a street, a government building, a town, or a whole country – is huge, and one can see what and who is valued by looking at the names of places. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the process of renaming these things has been an important step in shaping national identity. Towns and streets have been Kyrgyz-ified: Sovietskaya Street is now Baitik Baatyr or Abdrahmanov Street, depending on where you are in the capital, which also underwent a name change from Frunze to Bishkek.

Government efforts to rename the public space aren’t always effective, though. Names of streets in Bishkek have been changed, but are locally referred to by their old name, such that cab drivers don’t know what you’re talking about when you ask to go to Abdryzakov, and only respond when you finally demand to be taken to Sovietskaya. My host parents in Cholpon-Ata, whose Russian was quite weak, still referred to Balykchy, a large town on the western tip of lake Issyk-Kul as the Russian Rybachy.

Kerimbekov or Karasuiskaya

This (tiny side-) street is officially called Kerimbekov, but graffiti shows that it’s known as Karasuuskaya. Photo cred: my girl Valentina Michelotti

How can we discern how much of this – the renaming of public places, but locally referring to them by their old names – offers some sort of commentary about national and ethnic identity, as opposed to just a force of habit?

Both are surely at play, and after just 25 years of independence from the Soviet Union, questions about what it means to be Kyrgyz and Kyrgyzstani still dominate the forefront of public and state dialogue. Kyrgyzstan is a multiethnic country struggling with how (and whether) to celebrate that.

I’ve seen this struggle play out especially in the sphere of public education. In Kyrgyz, the word for education is bilim beruu, which literally translates as “giving knowledge.” Teachers, vessels of the state, feed children knowledge; who controls the knowledge (and how it’s delivered) has huge repercussions.

Sure, there are questions about methodology, but the primary concern about delivering information comes down to language. Russian is Kyrgyzstan’s “official” language, while Kyrgyz is the “national” language – in some parts of the country, it’s common for a Kyrgyzstani person to know basically no Kyrgyz and rely entirely on Russian (or another language, likely Uzbek or Tajik) to get an education, to find a job, to fall in love, to raise their children. In other parts of the country, it seems obvious that a Kyrgyzstani person would only know Kyrgyz.

It’s written into the constitution that minorities have the right to study in their native language. Over 15 ethnic groups call Kyrgyzstan home, but for logistical reasons, schools offer education in Kyrgyz, Russian, and Uzbek (plus a tiny handful of Tajik schools in the Batken region). When we say a school is “Russian” or “Kyrgyz,” that doesn’t necessarily reflect who studies there, but rather describes the language that kids learn algebra, history, or chemistry in.

There are practical limitations to which language these classes can be offered in: a shortage of teaching materials, shortage of teachers, or shortage of students.

One of the 2 schools in Cholpon-Ata town, Issyk-Kul region is technically “mixed,” but it’s effectively a Russian school. The school administration is made up of mostly ethnic Russian women who don’t speak Kyrgyz, which has an undeniable effect on the atmosphere among teachers and students who are more comfortable in Kyrgyz.

osmonov kids

Kids in this Cholpon-Ata school’s 7th grade Russian track class. The vast majority of students are ethnic Kyrgyz.

There’s a certain irony that this school is named after Alykul Osmonov, a writer who published almost exclusively in Kyrgyz, even as other famous Soviet-era Kyrgyz writers pushed out work in a combination of Russian and Kyrgyz. Osmonov published over 500 original poems in Kyrgyz, and translated the work of Shakespeare and Pushkin into his native language. Our school is named for this man, whose face is on the 200-som bill, because he wrote the poem “Ata-Jurt, Fatherland” while on holiday in Cholpon-Ata; for that reason, there’s a one-room museum dedicated to him on the 3rd floor of the school. Many of the people who work and study in the school can’t read his work in the original Kyrgyz, but still they are proud of this school and their town.

osmonov poster

A series of posters about Alykul Osmonov’s life, family, and poetry (written all in Russian) greet those who come in through the school’s main entrance.

In Dostuk village, Jalal-Abad region, 3 of the 4 Uzbek schools converted to mixed language schools. Some might say it’s because the national government is forcing Uzbek-language schools to switch to a Kyrgyz-language curriculum, but local villagers told me it was just because there haven’t been enough young Uzbek-speaking children to fill 1st grade classes. Accompanying the switch of curriculum, the government asked these schools to choose a new (and more Kyrgyz) name.

Farhad Agai, my host in Dostuk, poured himself another cup of green tea as he told me proudly that his school, the 1 Uzbek school remaining in his county, pushed back against the requested name change. The school is named after Alisher Navoi, a famous poet and central figure in Uzbek cultural identity; the same way Manas is omnipresent in Kyrgyz infrastructure, Navoi’s name is on main streets, metro stations, libraries, universities, and an international airport in Uzbekistan. It’s amazing that this tiny school, where enrollment has dropped significantly in recent years, has survived as Navoi School. In the main entrance, students and visitors are greeted by a massive portrait of Navoi and two descriptions of his life: one in Kyrgyz, one in Uzbek. How special, that residents of this town – who are simultaneously proud of their country and their ethnicity – can represent both those identities, against the odds of being in a town that experienced interethnic violence in 2010, in a region of the country experiencing heavy pressure from the national government to favor Kyrgyz institutions and Kyrgyz language.

navoi outside

The gate of Navoi school in Dostuk village.

navoi kids

An 11th grade class at Navoi school; every student but 1 identified as ethnic Uzbek.

navoi poster

The entrance of Navoi School — a portrait of Alisher Navoi and a description of his life and legacy in Kyrgyz (left) and Uzbek (right).

Names and nuance matter; it’s never as simple as dividing people or regions into categories like Russian, Kyrgyz, Soviet, or Uzbek. Exactly how those identities, languages, and histories relate isn’t entirely clear, and certainly not stagnant, but it’s worthwhile to critically engage assumptions about how they play out.

Happy New Year!

No, this post is not 3 months late — today really is the beginning of the new year, or at least one interpretation of it. March 21 marks the vernal equinox, on which a 24-hour period is split perfectly between day and night. Persian and Turkic communities across the world celebrate this day as Nooruz, deriving from the Farsi word for “new day.”

Nooruz (I’m sticking with the Kyrgyz transliteration for this post — depending where you are in the world, N’ovruz, Nevruz, Nauryz, Nowruz also work) has deep Zoroastrian and Persian origins, hence the day being best known as “Persian New Year.” The Zoroastrian story of creation is one of light and darkness, and the religion incorporates a lot of fire (both symbolically and literally), so it makes sense that the spring equinox would carry a special significance. Though Nooruz remains a holy day for Zoroastrians, elsewhere it is a secular celebration of light, cleaning, and new opportunity in other areas of the world.

Before 1991, Nooruz was an official holiday in only one country: Iran. The holiday was banned in the Soviet Union for religious purposes, though it was allowed in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan starting in 1967 as an ambiguous springtime festival. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many independent states reclaimed Nooruz as an essential part of local culture that had been suppressed for decades by Moscow. Now, Nooruz is a national holiday in countries across Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe, with informal gatherings in many other cities around the world. The United Nations declared March 21 International Nowruz Day, after the holiday was added to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.


A  map (in Russian) showing the countries where Nooruz is a national holiday or traditional celebration. Taken from BBC’s Russian blog.

In many countries, the most important symbol of Nooruz is the “Haft Seen” (7 S’s) — a traditional table setting, in which 7 items, all starting with the letter ‘s,’ are gathered: wheat sprouts, a pudding made from germinated wheat, fruit, garlic, apples, berries, and vinegar all start with ‘s’ in Farsi, and are displayed to welcome spring. The Haft Seen is tailored to local customs across Central Asia, and different countries emphasize particular items or add their own (eggs make the Azerbaijani table, and there’s some conflict over the millions of goldfish that show up on Iranian tables).

From what I’ve seen in Kyrgyzstan, there’s not so much of an emphasis on collecting all the 7 S’s, though it wouldn’t be a holiday celebration in Kyrgyzstan if there weren’t a well-laid out dastorkon. The “sabze” (wheat sprouts) are key, though, since the wheat is grown in the weeks leading up to Nooruz in order to cook the Kyrgyz version of “samanu:” сүмөлөк, sumolok.

The magical origin story of sumolok, a type of wheat pudding, which I learned by watching skits at a summer camp for Kyrgyz exchange students, is a tale of a poor mother and her hungry children. In the leanest days of the year, the late weeks of winter, this distraught mother has no idea how to console her babies, who are crying out from hunger. She has nothing to feed them, and nothing to distract them from the rumbling in their stomachs. She sends her children out to find kindling for a fire, and while her children are gone, she dumps some rocks and water into her kazan. The children, who associate the fire they build with a full dinner, fall asleep dreaming of the warm soup they’ll eat in the morning. Watching her dozing babies, the mother offers a last desperate prayer to god for something to feed her children. When morning came, lo and behold! The family found hot and delicious (not to mention nutritious) sumolok sitting in the kazan, waiting to be eaten. With this food, the family survived the winter and was able to plant their fields and live richly the next year.


Image from super.kg

Sumolok is not a dish you can decide to make at the last minute. It takes at least a week to prepare, and that’s just the rinsing and soaking of the wheat and sprouts alone; the actual brewing of the pudding takes a labor-intensive 24 hours of close attention and aggressive stirring. It’s a neighborhood affair, and primarily up to women to prepare, from what I observed — people gather at someone’s house and take turns stirring the sumolok with a 4-foot wooden stick. They stand on a stool in order to reach over the massive kazan, a metal pot that could fit several small children, or several hundred servings of sumolok. The bounty – a goopy, rich brown liquid – gets distributed between the neighbors in recycled Coke bottles or empty pickle jars.



Your girl stirring up the somolok in Kengesh village, Osh region in 2016

Traditionally, the first time you taste sumolok each year, you’re supposed to dip your pinky three times and make a wish. Some prefer to dip bread into their sumolok, and others (like me) would rather just tackle the Coke bottle by the spoonful.

So get out there, blast this special Nooruz playlist, dance in the sun, eat your weight in sumolok, and enjoy the first day of spring. Nevruz Bayramınız Kutlu Olsun! Нооруз Майрамыңыздар менен кут болсун! Nowruz mobarak! Happy Nooruz!

Small Scenes of Central Asia 7


I spent the second half of February on an epic roadtrip around Jalal-Abad oblast; the official objective of the trip was to follow up with teachers who participated in my summer methodology camp, but the unofficial objective of the trip was to hang out with the teachers who came to my camp, meet their families, and eat great food.


After landing at the Osh International Airport and being shuffled into a taxi, the little girl sitting on her mom’s lap held up her hands to pray – her gesture prompted everyone else in the car, myself included, to fold their hands over their face and whisper “oomin” before setting out for Jalal-Abad.

10 months have passed since I last saw my host family in Jalal-Abad, and I was nervous that time had worn away at the goofiness I shared with my siblings or the stories I could share with my host mom. It felt like I had been gone for a few weeks, not a few months, when I stepped through the gate. Nazgul and I talked for hours over pomegranate candies and green tea while Barsbek showed off his new math skills (he can add and subtract, as long as there are plenty of zeros) and Aliya danced around and pointed to her nose on command.


The drive from Jalal-Abad to Kochkor-Ata was generally familiar to me, and the stretch from Kochkor-Ata to Kerben recalled vague memories from my trip last summer, but from Kerben to Ala-Buka was entirely new terrain for me. I had the front seat of the taxi, which is my favorite place to be on trips to new places, because it affords the best view. I watched as our car hugged the Uzbek border, which wasn’t identifiable as such by a wall or a fence, but by a deep trench and the occasional sign warning that someone (from which side?) will shoot upon crossing.


When I first got to Kyrgyzstan, I didn’t have the classic “what the heck are these people saying” moment, since my host family spoke Russian and preferred to speak to me in Russian until my Kyrgyz was good enough to say anything of real interest. So it was a very bizarre experience, almost two years in to Peace Corps, to stay with a family that spoke no Kyrgyz and no Russian – only Uzbek. Granted, Kyrgyz and Uzbek are pretty similar (yakhsy v. jakshy for “good”), but most of the time when my host’s kids were talking to me (read: at me) I could decipher maybe only 10% of what they were saying. It felt totally normal to fall asleep next to 8-year old Mahlie while she cut up an apple and laughed at an Uzbek soap opera, though.


My host in Ala-Buka, Farhad, sat with me for hours drinking cup after cup of green tea. He asked me some of the most thoughtful questions I’ve heard since coming to Kyrgyzstan, and his enthusiasm for teaching, bringing together his community, and public service (he’s one of the rare men in his profession, teaching at a public secondary school, and he works for free as a deputy to his town council) was inspiring.

Also a joy to spend time with was Farhad’s wife, Moxidil, who used to be a teacher but now works at a café in downtown Ala-Buka to make more money. Both days I spent in Ala-Buka, Farhad took me to his wife’s café for some of the tastiest (and cheapest) shashlyk I’ve eaten in Kyrgyzstan.


A man named Erkin (the fifth Erkin I met in the Ala-Buka area) joined us for lunch one afternoon. Erkin fought in the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s; and though he was injured twice, he had only positive things to say about his experience. He talked at me in Tajik for a few sentences, proud to show what he learned on the battlefield (it wasn’t clear to me whether he picked the Tajik up from his Soviet comrades or the men he was fighting). Erkin serves on the town council with Farhad, and he also had some really beautiful observations about world peace and international friendship. It’s connections like these that make the stress of Peace Corps worth it, really.


Beauty Around the World: Part 1 Peru

My friend and fellow Kyrgyzstan PCV Steph writes a beauty blog, and based on my recommendation started a series that explores how PCVs around the world stay beautiful. The first interview is with friend-crush and PCV Brittany from Peru — check out the beauty blog, check out Brittany’s blog, check out all the blogs.


My dear friend and blog idol Colleen (https://prekrasno.wordpress.com/) suggested this idea for my blog when I was in a bit of a creative slump.  Talk to Peace Corps volunteers around the world about beauty and how they feel beautiful at site and different beauty standards where they live.  So I did.  My first entry in the series is with my friend Brittany White who is serving in Peru and is also blog goals (https://siyahenperu.wordpress.com/) we became obsessed with Britt when we discovered her blog during the Blog It Home contest and because Colleen and I are both shameless we stalked the shit out of her and followed her on all social media platforms possible and declared that we would all be friends.  Her blog is amazingly beautiful and she always posts gorgeous photos on her Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/basileiabrittany/) of her community. So lets get down to it.
I’m Brittany and I’m…

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For When Internet Jok 8

IT’S TIME. THE HIATUS IS OVER. I’ve procrastinated long enough with getting back to this blog, and as the gap of time since my last post grew into a gulf, the pressure of wanting to write something ~big~ took over. But no more! Surprise, surprise, I’ve had a lot of time in the past three months with internet jok. Here’s a compilation of some of the things that made me look twice and think a while, mostly about Kyrgyzstan, international development, foreign policy, feminism, and language. Enjoy.


Slavs and Tatars, “Dig the Booty” (2009)

Listening to Russia’s Female Migrants – “The first issue of Gul was published in St Petersburg in mid-December 2016. The newspaper, whose name translates as “flower”, isn’t just for women from central Asia — it’s produced by them, too. All of the publication’s founders are current or former labour migrants from the region, who are well versed in the problems faced by central Asian women arriving in Russia to work. In their words, these women face double the discrimination, due to both gender and legal status. Their need for help is twice as great.” If you read Russian/Kyrgyz/Kazakh/Tajik/etc you can read Gul magazine on VK.

Edge of Europe – A journalist traveled along the supposed “border” of Europe and Asia (hint, there’s no real border, geographic or political) writing about the cultures and attitudes that line both sides. The article about Georgia and the one about Russia were my particular favorites.

Goodbye, Eastern Europe! – “The truth is that Eastern Europe belongs less to the geography recorded in road atlases than to psychogeography. It isn’t really a place, but a state of mind. Many times, I’ve fallen into pockets of Eastern Europe far west of the Oder–Trieste line. It’s happened to me below highway overpasses, in line at the DMV, and in the waiting rooms of neglected bus stations.”

Wall to wall: meet Slavs and Tatars, the art collective slaying stereotypes from Berlin to Beijing – “Why, you might ask, is their work relevant? What can work about teahouses, linguistics, watermelons, failed transliteration efforts, monobrows, dubbing, phonemes and kebabs made by a collective that presents its work across Europe, the US, the Middle East and eastern Europe tell us about Eurasia’s regions? Well, everything.”

Learning to Make Lasagna in Kyrgyzstan – “I didn’t understand how life strung together in Kyrgyzstan—the instinctive local calculus seemed to repudiate planning and bow enthusiastically to chance. I was 22, anxious and selfish, and increasingly anxious the more selfish I got. It was so cold I rarely left the room I rented from a local family. I realized that much of what I’d previously thought of as my cheerful and winning personality depended on having frivolous things to do. I was pining very hard after a boyfriend in Texas. As some attempt at pleasure substitution, I decided to teach myself how to cook.”

Svetlana Alexievich: The Truth in Many Voices – “Alexievich’s sad chronicles—about women soldiers in World War II, veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, victims of the Chernobyl disaster, among other subjects—are thus the opposite of escapism. She does not allow herself to jump ahead with the toolkit of fiction and then look back for meaning, redemption, or distraction. She instead rescues the recent past from the patterns of collective forgetting by the hard work of speaking to thousands of people, and then arranging their voices in a way that rescues experience without imposing narrative.”

Letter of Recommendation: Presidential Biographies – “Presidential biographies don’t tell you that everything is going to be O.K., but rather that nothing was ever really O.K. to begin with. And yet, for hundreds of years, Americans have not only survived heartbreaking, backbreaking periods but also stood tall in them. My advice, for these divisive times, is to find the perspective that history gives us.”