I feel the weight of this overprotection most strongly in the morning, when leaving the house is often a battle. I try to put back a few pieces of the loaf of bread my host mom tried to feed me in my packed lunch; she catches me, scolds me for not eating enough, and puts the bread back into the plastic paket. While slipping out the door as quietly as possible, I am more often than not caught with a wrinkly shirt and pulled into the laundry room to fix it. In the first phase of training, I dreaded this part of the day, having to iron my shirts, knowing that they would just become wrinkly again after the commute to the training site. In an effort to maintain the peace and have more control over whether I am late, in this third phase of training I have been proactive and made an effort to iron my clothes every morning – I do it loudly and very visibly, so that my host apa would see and notice me taking her advice.
Today, though, the ironing board was hidden in a different room than normal, and it refused to stay standing long enough for me to do anything to fix my shirt. I had no problem finding the ironing board in the bedroom, but apa refused to let me carry it to the laundry room – “It’s too heavy for you,” she said, setting it up, plugging in the iron, and laying out my shirt. She hovered over me, pointing out parts of the shirt I should iron again, until she just took the iron away from me and finished the shirt for me. “It’s too hard for you, give it to me.”
(Granted, I should say that I appreciate having someone there to pack my lunches and iron my clothes, the little things that don’t always get done during this stressful, busy time of training.)
There are probably a lot of factors at play in the overprotectiveness of my host moms. One likely reason is that Peace Corps, a U.S. government organization, has entrusted me, a young, American woman, in their care. “Make sure she’s well fed! Gets enough sleep! Takes enough showers!” the woman who organizes our housing told the host families at trainings. I’ve been reading a lot of Peace Corps volunteers’ memoirs recently, and this is a common theme in female volunteers’ work – that locals perceive foreigners in general, and more often foreign women, as more fragile and in need of strong support than local women of similar age.
I think there’s something else at play though: the interplay between gender, marriage, and adulthood – which come together in the Kyrgyz words for “girl” and “woman.”
Kyz is the Kyrgyz word for girl. Ayal is the Kyrgyz word for woman. Like most Kyrgyz words, kyz and ayal have other meanings. Kyz also means virgin, which basically implies a pre-marriage state, while ayal means wife. The dividing line between girls and women is marriage; without a ring on her finger, a girl cannot be a woman.
I’m not married and have no intention to get married anytime soon – I hold on to the idea of being a “grown up,” maybe to clutch to some semblance of independence and control that I’ve largely had to set away in the Peace Corps, maybe as a form of posturing to make myself seem older than I am. At a certain point, though, it will be easier just to accept my status as a kyz and learn to flourish and function within that role.
In the United States, adulthood means personal responsibility. It’s about learning to manage one’s own life, to take care of finances, health, and relationships. There’s a long period of adolescence, a lot of time and space for exploration and mistakes and being selfish and learning about oneself. Here, where women are married young (I’m approaching old maid status), that time doesn’t really exist. Kyrgyzstan is a collectivist culture, so as people grow up, they are forced to come to terms with responsibility for the whole, for the family unit. Even very young girls learn to help with chores, taking care of siblings, giving up free time to help the family function more smoothly, more harmoniously.
I recently talked with a friend about being selfish. We both expressed worry about being too self-centered, and talked through how we can give back. I laughed at myself, that even as a Peace Corps volunteer, I fret about being too selfish. Even though I’m volunteering, going for two years without earning money, I think I have a lot to learn from Kyrgyz culture about balancing self-care and independence with attention for others and the bigger family unit. Coming to terms with the fact that I’m a kyz, and not yet an ayal, even though in English I am (maybe? not quite?) a woman, though definitely no longer a girl, could help me along that journey.