Out of the Ivory Tower and into the Lada

They tell you to show up for Peace Corps service with no expectations; I totally ignored this advice. I learned about Kyrgyzstan’s culture, history, and politics for years before coming here as a PCV. I studied relevant languages, read up on famous authors, and listened to local music. I even visited Kyrgyzstan 6 months before joining Peace Corps. As such, the fifth Blogging Abroad prompt (“I Never Knew…”) stumped me pretty hard, but after taking an extra week to think, I’ve realized that even with so many expectations and all this preparation, plenty still manages to surprise me in Kyrgyzstan.

blogging challenge

Culture

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I slid down this rock three times because a crowd of Kyrgyz teenagers told me it would help with any fertility and back problems. Integration: achieved.

No amount of book-based research can prepare an American for host family living in a collectivist culture. No amount of listicle-style blog posts about superstitions and health remedies can prepare a person for their host mom wrapping a scarf around their stomach to protect them from the dangers of the wind. Writing a paper about the north/south divide in Kyrgyzstan doesn’t come close to living in both regions of the country and seeing how the divide manifests (and why people perceive one in the first place) with my own eyes.

I’ve also surprised myself at the cultural features I’ve internalized in the last year. On vacation with friends from university, I bit my tongue when my travel companions stretched to the back of refrigerators for the coldest bottles of water (in Kyrgyzstan, drinking cold things is a surefire way to get sick, and ice is unheard of). It feels weird to get up from a table without oomin‘ing (bringing your hands over your face after a meal, sort of like a prayer), and I catch myself doing it even in an empty room. One thing I’ve refused to embrace with open arms: the way Kyrgyz people do lines (aka, not at all). If it’s pension day at the bank, I’d rather go without lunch than try to battle my way through the ATM line to withdraw money, and at the airport, I’m not ashamed to be the last one on the plane and the last one off if it means avoiding a line.

Bureaucracy

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Proud teachers showing off their certificates after a training conference. Certificates are gold to teachers, who collect them in a binder to show their school director at the end of the year when up for a promotion. Whether or not a participant attended the whole conference or learned anything new, the certificate is an artifact of bureaucracy in education.

In all my Russian classes, throughout high school and university, I was around people who had spent lots of time in Russia and former Soviet countries. I heard so many stories about studying abroad and working in Russia that sometimes it felt like people’s anecdotes and jokes were my own. Had I ever lived in a Russian apartment building? No, but I’ve heard enough stories about water heaters and electricity that I feel like I have. Had I ever tried to sign up for classes at a Russian university? No, but I’ve heard enough complaints about the system to know about corruption and plagiarism and class scheduling.

Being able to conceptualize how an abstract system operates is so different from having to live and work in an actual system, though. Reading about the obstacles facing higher education in Kyrgyzstan doesn’t require the patience and perseverance that teaching at a public university does. Teachers skipping their classes to write reports about how their classes are going, piles of paperwork that all essentially capture the same information, grades that appear out of nowhere – sure, it’s been frustrating at times (many times), but I’ve learned to take these frustrating moments in stride and treat them as moments for observing and learning.

It’s not only Kyrgyz bureaucracy that’s been eye-opening, but also American bureaucracy. When we write grants, we have to follow very strict rules for collecting receipts, reporting spending, and evaluating results – in a country where most things are bargained for in bazaars, it’s really difficult to comply with American rules about reporting prices and collecting receipts. But, it gets done, and overall it’s been fascinating to see two bureaucratic systems interact (and sometimes collide).

Language

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A Dungan mosque in Karakol, with a mural in Arabic, Kyrgyz, Russian, and English. Mind blown.

Honestly, I could write a million words about the ways language in Kyrgyzstan surprises me, but I’ll try to contain my enthusiasm for the sake of this post.

So there’s the obvious, self-centered nature of linguistic surprise – as a Russian and Kyrgyz language learner, there’s plenty of stimulation in Kyrgyzstan. Every day I’m discovering new words in Kyrgyz and Russian; every day I’m building both my professional and conversational vocabularies; every day I’m working through the calculus of Turkic sentence structure. During training, we were given a 50-page PDF of idioms, and between that and day-to-day conversations, I’ve got a treasure trove of turns of phrase that make me smile and that make locals smile when I use them (one of my favorites so far: шайтан араба, shaitan araba, demon wagon –> bicycle).

Beyond my own linguistic abilities, though, I also find the social aspects of code-switching and bilingualism in Kyrgyzstan fascinating. Why did my Jalal-Abad host family watch Vladimir Putin’s Russian-language New Year’s address instead of Atambaev’s Kyrgyz-language one? Why did my training host family, who spoke to me in Russian even when my Kyrgyz teacher begged them to speak only in Kyrgyz, suddenly switch to Kyrgyz months after I left for my permanent site? How and why does an Uzbek guy decide to address someone in Russian, Uzbek, or Kyrgyz? After 8 months, I’d gotten pretty comfortable with the balance of things, though comfort didn’t necessarily mean I stopped finding surprises.

My move to Cholpon-Ata has just added fuel to the fire to that curiosity, and I’m flipping out over all the different ways ethnicity, class, and language interact. My new host family boasted about their тап-таза кыргыз кровь (tap-taza kyrgyz krov’, super pure Kyrgyz blood – the bolded word is a Russian word with a very clear Kyrgyz equivalent); they speak only Kyrgyz at home, but they run their summer tourism business in Russian. The director of my new school is ethnically Russian, but most of the teachers and students are ethnically Kyrgyz; even though the director doesn’t speak Kyrgyz, she got upset at the last teachers’ meeting about how (apparently) the students can’t speak Kyrgyz well. Just when I think I can put my finger on how all these pieces fit together, a Russian taxi driver who insists we speak Kyrgyz to talk about Uyghur national foods shows up and throws off the whole equation.

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A bunch of young Kyrgyz guys on Kalpak Day, which gives proper respect to the kalpak – the hats you see all these guys wearing in the picture. I’ll never cease to be surprised at the reasons for public holidays in this country.

Peace Corps has recently changed its application process in a way that gives prospective volunteers more choice in where they serve. I think this is a fantastic development, and that it will give people who’ve studied a region or a relevant language an opportunity to apply those skills to their service. But it doesn’t mean that the magic of discovering a new place is sapped before a volunteer even gets there. My year in Kyrgyzstan is proof of that. Here’s to another year of surprises!

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