In the past two weeks, I have taken a trip to Istanbul so I could visit the U.S. Consulate, submitted an application for a second passport and a visa, had my fingerprints taken, and spent a bunch of money sending these documents to Washington D.C. It finally feels real enough to say: I have accepted an invitation to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Kyrgyz Republic.
The Kyrgyz Republic, Kyrgyzstan, Киргизия (take your pick), a small country (about the size of South Dakota), situated snugly between China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. I visited there in October, but here it is on a world map for context:
This is a 27-month commitment. In April, 2015, I will spend my 23rd birthday on airplanes heading to Bishkek and will live in Kyrgyzstan until I finish service in July 2017. This will be the longest I have lived continuously in one place since I left Minnesota for Washington DC in 2010 to start university. Since then, I have lived a nomadic life – packing a suitcase once every month or so for a trip; printing out tickets for planes, trains, and ferries; saying hello and hugging goodbye. The decision to move to Kyrgyzstan and live there for more than two years is huge for a lot of reasons, but largely because of the commitment to stay in one place and grow roots.
Unlike many of the blogs and stories I have read, my decision to apply to the Peace Corps was fairly impromptu. I was sick, lying in bed in a hotel in Ankara, when a wave of anxiety about the future and job security rushed over me – I spent the whole afternoon writing essays and reaching out to friends and bosses for letters of recommendation. I read through the list of posts available, carefully choosing three former Soviet states to list as my preferred places to serve. I assumed I could think and reflect after I submitted the application; everything I’d read said it would take a year for things to fall into place, anyway.
The new application system, which I used to apply, meant that this wisdom was outdated. I interviewed in late September, and received an invitation in mid-November. In all, just over two months separated my application and acceptance. Nevertheless, I am thrilled about the opportunity, primarily because I see the Peace Corps as a path for public service.
The Peace Corps operates with three goals:
- Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
- Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
These goals are simple, and I hope that my skills, passions, and talents can lend themselves to promote mutual understanding abroad and at home. I want to empower people and communities to realize their potential and build a better world. I will work as an English teacher in secondary schools, meaning my work will largely revolve around language education and language acquisition pedagogy. I strongly believe in the role language can play in empowering communities and creating bonds between cultures. My work at the Concordia Language Villages and my experiences abroad have shown me first-hand just how powerful an exchange of simple phrases, “Hello, welcome, thank you” can be between strangers.
I hope this blog will advance the third goal, to promote an understanding of the people I met and work with in Kyrgyzstan among American readers. Kyrgyzstan – and Central Asia in general – is a mysterious place for Americans. The country is framed as “obscure, oriental, and fractious,” to borrow from Nick Megoran and John Heathershaw, and so is seen as a place of insecurity, terrorism, violence, and danger. This discourse of danger in turn shapes the policy-making decisions, which end up further endangering Central Asia (in terms of aid money, military operations, and energy deals, for example).
When not seen as dangerous, Central Asia is portrayed as unimportant – one “Stan” can be replaced for another, with no real repercussions. Stephen Colbert riffed on Secretary of State John Kerry’s mix-up of Kyrgyzstan with Kazakhstan, in which Kerry mumbled a strange chimera of the two, “Kyrzakhstan,” during a press conference. With feigned indignation, Colbert says:
“How could anyone ever mix up Kazakhstan with its neighbor Kyrgyzstan? Sure, people in both countries enjoy drinking fermented mare’s milk and they both sleep in yak-fortified yurts, but everybody knows that in Kyrgyzstan they play a fretless string instrument called the komuz, which is nothing like Kazakhstan’s dombra, also a fretless string instrument (though with a slightly thinner neck). And what are you going to do Kerry, go to downtown Bishkek and try to use a bunch of tenge to buy a new kalpak? Not without first exchanging into soms, you’re not! What are maroon. Quit embarrassing yourself, John Kerry.”
But actually. It’s not cute or funny to sing songs from Borat when Central Asia comes up in conversation or to play off mixing up the names of these countries as a meaningless mistake. (Because, who even cares about Central Asia, right?)
I hope to use my blog to share stories of the people I meet and the culture I experience in order to change the commons perceptions about Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia. I’m fascinated by Kyrgyz politics and history, its constructed notions of nationalism and ethnic identity, the involvement and influence of outside powers (Russia, China, Turkey, Europe), gender dynamics, economic development – oh man, there’s just so much to learn and share.
This will be a long and difficult journey, peppered with setbacks and small victories; replete with mountain hikes and unthinkable cold; and shaped by new foods, words, people, and places.