Why Peace Corps? Why Kyrgyzstan? Why teach English? Why now?
I’m often asked whether this is “my first visit to Kyrgyzstan.” Having been here for almost a whole year, it’s a bit awkward to answer – 10 months is hardly a “visit,” after all. Locals are often very surprised to hear that I had visited Kyrgyzstan previously, and they are even more surprised to hear that I’ve been interested in Kyrgyzstan and have been learning about its culture, politics, and history for many years.
My journey to Kyrgyzstan began when I was 15: a burst of urgent inspiration had me learning Russian by myself, carefully studying the Cyrillic alphabet and verb conjugations at home with a used textbook. I had a chance to actually speak Russian at the Concordia Language Villages, a cultural immersion summer camp in Bemidji, Minnesota – just a four-hour drive north of my hometown. For two years, I was taught Russian by a Kyrgyz man named Rakhat. Given how weird the whole “Russian summer camp” thing was, it didn’t seem any more strange that I was learning to play komuz, the national instrument of a tiny Central Asian country, from a woman named Asel.
It’s amazing that a random hobby picked up by my 15-year old self has been sustained as a lifelong passion, but I continued to study Russian throughout high school and university. My interest in Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan, which was first lit at the Concordia Language Villages in those afternoons with Rakhat and Asel, grew as I took classes at Georgetown about Central Asia and researched the region for the majority of my final papers. I even studied Turkish for 2 years, all the while thinking about how useful it would be to one day learn Kyrgyz. In my senior year of university, with graduation looming and still no job lined up, I took the plunge and bought a 1-way ticket to Istanbul and told myself I would make my way from Turkey to Kyrgyzstan.
It was never part of the Master Plan to join the Peace Corps. Sure, I took my fair share of classes about international development, and I was aware of the Peace Corps’ development model – but the 27-month contract freaked me out, and all the vocabulary of “service,” “sacrifice,” “hardest job you’ll ever love” felt a little corny and cult-y. But, only communists make 5-year plans, and I found myself having a panic attack about my employability, my career, and my future in an Ankara hotel room. Cue the Peace Corps application and, a few months later, I had accepted an invitation to work in Kyrgyzstan and was slowly making preparations for the move.
After the first few days of training, I thought I had it made. Yes! All those years of studying Russian and Turkish, all those classes about Central Asia, all those hours in marshrutkas across Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan PAID OFF! I distinctly remember thinking: wow, it’s going to be such an easy transition to this life in Kyrgyzstan.
“10 months in Kyrgyzstan” Colleen laughs in the face of “1 week in Kyrgyzstan” Colleen. (And not just a giggle or polite laugh, but that full-bodied, shaking laughter.)
It’s one thing to learn about a place from textbooks, academic articles, and documentaries; it’s another to take short research trips or vacations to visit the places you study. It’s a different beast entirely to live in that place – not for a month, or for 6 months, but for 2 years. You can read all you want about “wedding practices in Kyrgyzstan,” “dietary habits in Kyrgyzstan,” “bureaucracy of higher education in Kyrgyzstan,” but surviving wedding season here, eating bread and mutton day in and day out for 6 months, and trying to teach in a public university is a whole different ball game. I have been absolutely humbled by the past 10 months, and I expect the next 18 have a lot more lessons about patience, respect, and uncertainty in store.
This prompt first struck me as a little awkward and an obvious beginning to a Peace Corps-centric blogging challenge, but it’s actually a really useful exercise to think through the moments and reasons that led me to be in Kyrgyzstan. It’s been a rough few weeks in all spheres, and so as I work myself up over how dysfunctional my university seems, how obnoxious public transportation here can fee, how unhealthy my diet is, how much I miss driving, guacamole, the YMCA, or any semblance of personal privacy…it’s a useful practice to remind myself how badly I wanted to live in this country, speak this language, and experience this culture.
I’ll end with this, the one story that I think back on over and over again when I doubt my choice to join the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan:
I was enjoying lunch in Bishkek with other volunteers before making my way to my training village for a visit to my first host family. asked me if I wouldn’t mind saying hello to her host parents, who live just down the road. We got to talking about how this host family’s oldest son lives in America; he’s married to an American woman and works as a doctor in Colorado. I mentioned that I knew a Kyrgyz man who works as a doctor in Colorado… Remember Rakhat?
I’m normally not seduced by ideas like “it was meant to be!” or “fate!” but realizing that Rakhat – the man who taught me Russian, who showed me komuz and Chyngyz Aitmatov, who first introduced me to Central Asia – lived just down the street from my first home in Kyrgyzstan is just too big a sign to ignore.