At the hotel in Bishkek, we crammed several hours of language class into our orientation. The majority of these first sessions was dedicated to getting down greetings. It’s not so hard to pronounce these greetings in Kyrgyz, though there are lots of different combinations depending on age and gender of the person being greeted. My group played lots of games to practice saying hello, though, so the whole process seemed fun and simple. Our teachers taped faces and ages on our backs, and we wandered around our blue classroom throwing out handshakes and waves left and right, laughing when we made some mistake.
After two days at orientation, we piled into buses to meet our host families at a big matching ceremony. Little kids sang, danced, and played instruments before it was time for the big reveal. Village by village, we climbed on stage, where we looked for our names on host parents’ slips of paper. I found my host mom – Mairam – and told her “Salamatsyzby! Hello!” She responded, “Salamatchylyk! Hello!” and we walked off stage together to sit in the back. After all 60 of us found our host families, we convened for snacks in the lobby – my grandmother (another trainee’s host mother) is a small woman, and she pushed her way to the front to make several bowls filled with fried bread and candies for me and her host son, Jacob. We stood around awkwardly for a few minutes before it was time to go; I carried my bags to my host uncle’s car, and with another trainee piled in for the long drive to International.
They told us it would be an awkward first night, but it really was great. In the car, I mostly just pointed out the window and identified objects I knew, throwing out guesses in Russian and Turkish for words I hadn’t learned yet in Kyrgyz. Once home, I met my host siblings: Albina, a tall and thin 12 year old girl; Almas, a 10 year old boy with his dad’s face; Samira, a shy 8 year old girl; and Nurai, a naughty 3 year old who took a few minutes to warm up to me, but once she did, she was climbing all over me. I passed out for a few hours, but by the time I woke up, my host dad Urmat was home from work, and we all ate dinner together. It was simple to greet all of my new family for the first time, because most formality went out the door and they were very patient with my stumbling and long pauses.
It has now been almost a week since I came to International, where I live with 11 other trainees. Every day we have language class from 9am until 3pm, though we have a half hour coffee break and an hour for lunch. Other than that, I wander around the village with people from my language group, hang out at home with my family, or study alone in my room. When walking to and from class with the other trainees, we pump each other up to greet passing neighbors. “Okay, this is an older man, so Nick, you go first with an ‘Asalam aleykum’ and we’ll follow up with a ‘Salamatsyzby.’” “Let’s just say ‘Salam’ to this group of kids, even if they yell ‘Hello!’ at us.”
Even with all the pep-talks and the hours of practice with greetings at orientation, I still have not entirely figured out the science of saying hello. There have been a lot of awkward moments: hellos that go unanswered on the street; accidentally giving a formal greeting to a much younger teenage girl, who should have been the one to greet me first; not recognizing my host dad in the dark of dusk and giving him too formal a greeting; saying hello to a Russian family in Kyrgyz; forgetting to actually say hello and skipping straight to the conversation; deciding whether the women in our group can say hello to the young man passing by, or if perhaps it’s better that the guy accompanying us be the only one to shout hello. It’s a pretty complicated calculus of gender, age, group composition, distance, and ethnicity – all just for saying hello.
But there are also small victories, the old man wearing a kalpak, a tall felt hat, who gets very excited and gets up from his bench to talk for a minute; the kids who quit their games to introduce themselves and ask if we know the volunteers who lived here last year. It’s hard not to be excited when walking away from these encounters; finally, a successful exchange entirely in Kyrgyz. Here’s to hoping that the ratio of victory to awkwardness continues to grow each day.