For When Internet Jok 9

Although I’m often amazed at how great telecommunications work in this country, there are still stretches of time when internet jok — there’s no internet. In anticipation of those long hours, days, weekends, I like to load up on reading material while at work or cafes. Here’s a compilation of some of the things that made me look twice and think a while, mostly about Kyrgyzstan, international development, foreign policy, feminism, and language. Enjoy.

The Falling of the Lenins: The podcast 99% Invisible recently did an episode about the visuals of de-communization, with a focus on Ukraine, which at one point was the Soviet republic most densely decorated with statues of Lenin. So how does that factor now, 25 years after declaring independence, and while a war over Ukraine’s identity and relationship with Russia rages in the eastern part of the country? “According to the Institute of National Remembrance, the process of decommunization isn’t just about removal — it’s also meant to help Ukrainians learn their own history. Which is why, in many cases, they have suggested that towns revert to the names they had before the Soviets changed them. But whether they choose to revert to old names or pick new ones, Ukrainians do not have the option of keeping the Soviet names.”

Photos of Women Villagers Who Run the Show in Rural Russia: ““[A] village woman is strong. She can do almost everything by herself, she doesn’t really need a man for house work or raising children,” says Ivanova. “She does all the supposedly men’s work: mow, carry heavy logs, chop wood.”

A drinker’s guide to Islam: To add to the bizarreness of the situation, this Oktoberfest, the seventh of its kind, took place not in hip Ramallah but in the remote village of Taybeh, perched picturesquely at 850m above sea level and with a population of just 1,500. Moreover, readers in western countries may wonder why thousands upon thousands of revellers had trekked all that way to attend a beer festival with only one beer on tap.”

Post-Yugoslav ‘Common Language’ Declaration Challenges Nationalism: There’s a lot of…overlap, to put it mildly, between Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, and Montenegrin languages. In regions of these former Yugoslavian countries where the local ethnicity does not match the titular nationality, public signs or cigarette boxes comically display their message in multiple languages — but the message is letter for letter, word for word the same (except for Serbian, which is written in Cyrillic). A recent Declaration on the Common Language has caused a stir in the Balkans. ““I don’t believe this is a linguistics issue, but a political one,” she added.” 

In Tblisi: An excerpt from “Trip to Tbilisi” by Victoria Lomasko, a Russian journalist based in Moscow. Lomasko documents her conversations with Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, and Russians she meets in Georgia’s capital, and accompanies their words with lovely portraits. “In Tbilisi, I heard repeatedly from Armenian friends that despite the ongoing conflict between their countries, Armenians and Azerbaijanis understand each other better than they do Georgians. There were no people closer to them, the Azerbaijanis told me, than the Armenians.”

These Passionate Latvian Linguists Refuse to Lose Their Language: Livonian, a Finno-Ugric language (think Finnish, Hungarian) native to the Latvian coast, no longer has any living native speakers — a small group of enthusiasts and academics, about 30 in total, have taken up the responsibility of keeping this language alive. “But Ernštreits is just one of a handful of speakers, and one of only 250 people who identify themselves as Livonian in government surveys. He can write poetry in it, but he can’t buy a loaf of bread.”

A Glimpse Into Moscow’s Little Kyrgyzstan: “Every year, tens of thousands leave the republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — the poorest countries in Central Asia — to find seasonal employment in Russia’s main cities. Many stay for years; others never return home, but their remittances form an important share of their country’s economy. The World Bank estimates that, in 2014, money sent back home by migrants was comparable to 36.6 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP, and 30 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s.”  Moscow’s Little Kyrgyzstan, a 25-minute documentary, explores the dynamics of migrant labor in Russia — many of which mirror those of migration patterns in the United States.

Watch the documentary here:


When A Name’s Not Just a Name

Schools in Kyrgyzstan are registered according to a number, but people identify a school by its namesake. A school might be named for famous Russian writers (Pushkin School) or revolutionaries (Lenin School), for respected Kyrgyz leaders (Kalygul Bai uulu School) or ballerinas (Beyshenalieva School).

The ability to name a place – whether it’s a school, a street, a government building, a town, or a whole country – is huge, and one can see what and who is valued by looking at the names of places. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the process of renaming these things has been an important step in shaping national identity. Towns and streets have been Kyrgyz-ified: Sovietskaya Street is now Baitik Baatyr or Abdrahmanov Street, depending on where you are in the capital, which also underwent a name change from Frunze to Bishkek.

Government efforts to rename the public space aren’t always effective, though. Names of streets in Bishkek have been changed, but are locally referred to by their old name, such that cab drivers don’t know what you’re talking about when you ask to go to Abdryzakov, and only respond when you finally demand to be taken to Sovietskaya. My host parents in Cholpon-Ata, whose Russian was quite weak, still referred to Balykchy, a large town on the western tip of lake Issyk-Kul as the Russian Rybachy.

Kerimbekov or Karasuiskaya

This (tiny side-) street is officially called Kerimbekov, but graffiti shows that it’s known as Karasuuskaya. Photo cred: my girl Valentina Michelotti

How can we discern how much of this – the renaming of public places, but locally referring to them by their old names – offers some sort of commentary about national and ethnic identity, as opposed to just a force of habit?

Both are surely at play, and after just 25 years of independence from the Soviet Union, questions about what it means to be Kyrgyz and Kyrgyzstani still dominate the forefront of public and state dialogue. Kyrgyzstan is a multiethnic country struggling with how (and whether) to celebrate that.

I’ve seen this struggle play out especially in the sphere of public education. In Kyrgyz, the word for education is bilim beruu, which literally translates as “giving knowledge.” Teachers, vessels of the state, feed children knowledge; who controls the knowledge (and how it’s delivered) has huge repercussions.

Sure, there are questions about methodology, but the primary concern about delivering information comes down to language. Russian is Kyrgyzstan’s “official” language, while Kyrgyz is the “national” language – in some parts of the country, it’s common for a Kyrgyzstani person to know basically no Kyrgyz and rely entirely on Russian (or another language, likely Uzbek or Tajik) to get an education, to find a job, to fall in love, to raise their children. In other parts of the country, it seems obvious that a Kyrgyzstani person would only know Kyrgyz.

It’s written into the constitution that minorities have the right to study in their native language. Over 15 ethnic groups call Kyrgyzstan home, but for logistical reasons, schools offer education in Kyrgyz, Russian, and Uzbek (plus a tiny handful of Tajik schools in the Batken region). When we say a school is “Russian” or “Kyrgyz,” that doesn’t necessarily reflect who studies there, but rather describes the language that kids learn algebra, history, or chemistry in.

There are practical limitations to which language these classes can be offered in: a shortage of teaching materials, shortage of teachers, or shortage of students.

One of the 2 schools in Cholpon-Ata town, Issyk-Kul region is technically “mixed,” but it’s effectively a Russian school. The school administration is made up of mostly ethnic Russian women who don’t speak Kyrgyz, which has an undeniable effect on the atmosphere among teachers and students who are more comfortable in Kyrgyz.

osmonov kids

Kids in this Cholpon-Ata school’s 7th grade Russian track class. The vast majority of students are ethnic Kyrgyz.

There’s a certain irony that this school is named after Alykul Osmonov, a writer who published almost exclusively in Kyrgyz, even as other famous Soviet-era Kyrgyz writers pushed out work in a combination of Russian and Kyrgyz. Osmonov published over 500 original poems in Kyrgyz, and translated the work of Shakespeare and Pushkin into his native language. Our school is named for this man, whose face is on the 200-som bill, because he wrote the poem “Ata-Jurt, Fatherland” while on holiday in Cholpon-Ata; for that reason, there’s a one-room museum dedicated to him on the 3rd floor of the school. Many of the people who work and study in the school can’t read his work in the original Kyrgyz, but still they are proud of this school and their town.

osmonov poster

A series of posters about Alykul Osmonov’s life, family, and poetry (written all in Russian) greet those who come in through the school’s main entrance.

In Dostuk village, Jalal-Abad region, 3 of the 4 Uzbek schools converted to mixed language schools. Some might say it’s because the national government is forcing Uzbek-language schools to switch to a Kyrgyz-language curriculum, but local villagers told me it was just because there haven’t been enough young Uzbek-speaking children to fill 1st grade classes. Accompanying the switch of curriculum, the government asked these schools to choose a new (and more Kyrgyz) name.

Farhad Agai, my host in Dostuk, poured himself another cup of green tea as he told me proudly that his school, the 1 Uzbek school remaining in his county, pushed back against the requested name change. The school is named after Alisher Navoi, a famous poet and central figure in Uzbek cultural identity; the same way Manas is omnipresent in Kyrgyz infrastructure, Navoi’s name is on main streets, metro stations, libraries, universities, and an international airport in Uzbekistan. It’s amazing that this tiny school, where enrollment has dropped significantly in recent years, has survived as Navoi School. In the main entrance, students and visitors are greeted by a massive portrait of Navoi and two descriptions of his life: one in Kyrgyz, one in Uzbek. How special, that residents of this town – who are simultaneously proud of their country and their ethnicity – can represent both those identities, against the odds of being in a town that experienced interethnic violence in 2010, in a region of the country experiencing heavy pressure from the national government to favor Kyrgyz institutions and Kyrgyz language.

navoi outside

The gate of Navoi school in Dostuk village.

navoi kids

An 11th grade class at Navoi school; every student but 1 identified as ethnic Uzbek.

navoi poster

The entrance of Navoi School — a portrait of Alisher Navoi and a description of his life and legacy in Kyrgyz (left) and Uzbek (right).

Names and nuance matter; it’s never as simple as dividing people or regions into categories like Russian, Kyrgyz, Soviet, or Uzbek. Exactly how those identities, languages, and histories relate isn’t entirely clear, and certainly not stagnant, but it’s worthwhile to critically engage assumptions about how they play out.

Sing the Songs of the Land You’re in 4: Kyrgyz Language Day Edition

There’s a Kyrgyz saying: Кимдин жерин жердесең, ошонун ырын ырдайсың, Kimdin jerin jerdeseng, oshonun yryn yrdaisyng. The literal translation is clunky, so I prefer this more poetic rendering: “Sing the songs of the land you’re in.” Having lived outside the U.S. before, I was used to being out of touch with American Top 40 lists, and as a Peace Corps volunteer, it’s part of my job to be familiar with the local culture. “Sing the songs of the land you’re in,” right? At first, Kyrgyz pop seemed cheesy to me, but I’ve come to love the music that plays on marshrutkas and on TV, and I cheer with everyone at weddings when my favorite songs blast on the loudspeakers. And so begot this (semi-)regular feature on the blog: Kyrgyz pop music videos and brief explanations of the songs, artists, and any prominent cultural symbols.

I love this feature and the chance to share Kyrgyz-language music, and it’s even more special this time because on September 23, Kyrgyzstan celebrated Kyrgyz Language Day. The day honors the national language of Kyrgyzstan; Russian is technically the country’s “official” language, which is useful as a lingua franca here given the impressive ethnic and linguistic diversity, but many Kyrgyzstanis are passionate about preserving the language and its cultural heritage. My friend and fellow PCV Mark wrote a pretty comprehensive history of Kyrgyz, its language family, and its role in politics and society in Kyrgyzstan — check it out here.

Since Kyrgyzstan became independent 25 years ago, there have been all kinds of efforts to promote the language. Some, like Kyrgyz Language Day are organized by the government and have the stamp of state approval. This song, the “Anthem of the National Language,” written by Seiit Altymyshov in 2006 for a national competition, sings the praises of the motherland and Kyrgyz people’s mother tongue. “Kyrgyz language is my heart, the flag that father Manas carried. Kyrgyz language is my homeland, Kyrgyzstan is my country!”

Though the music is certainly majestic and the strength of the songwriter’s patriotism is clear, the lyrics aren’t very subtle and songs like this might not be the most effective way to inspire young people to rally behind Kyrgyz language. That’s where pop culture comes in.

Begish and Bayastan, two Kyrgyz rappers, collaborated on this song, called “Mother Tongue.”

As the video shows a Kyrgyz secondary school classroom and kids smiling as they study the language, the chorus assures the listener that Kyrgyz can be everyone‘s language, a message reinforced by non-ethnic Kyrgyz people lipsynching in the video:

This is my song, my mom’s too

The listeners’ and yours

It’s the song of the woman who taught our Kyrgyz classes

These words are my motherland’s

These words are my mother’s

They’re this life’s and yours

Those of the woman who taught you Kyrgyz,

These rich words are the Kyrgyz people’s

I get why songs like this are popular, given how many people are concerned about the degree to which Kyrgyz is spoken in the country. I often hear locals complain (more so in Cholpon-Ata than I ever heard in Jalal-Abad) that children can’t speak Kyrgyz, that people don’t care about the language.

Bektour Iskender, founder of independent media outlet Kloop and Kyrgyzstan’s first TED fellow, wrote an article asking how Kyrgyz could be made more popular. Iskender is careful to avoid taking the position that all people should know the government language; instead, he suggests that it’s better for people to decide themselves that they want to learn Kyrgyz for the sake of learning it. He suggests that the level of Kyrgyz language education should be improved, a point I agree with – Peace Corps volunteers focus a lot on foreign language methodology training for English teachers, but barely do any work with Russian or Kyrgyz language teachers, who could also stand to benefit from incorporating communicative methodologies into the classroom to better deal with mixed-level classrooms (cough native-speakers mixed with non-native ones, all expected to perform at the same level). Iskender continues to say that Kyrgyz language education should be more closely linked to English, a point I didn’t entirely understand and still don’t necessarily agree with, but his final point gets at the contrast in tone and content of “Anthem of the National Language” and “Mother Tongue.” He says that the development of Kyrgyz should come from below, not above, and that a pro-Kyrgyz language movement will be successful only if it comes from within the Kyrgyz-speaking community.

On Wednesday the 28th of September, a few days after the official Kyrgyz Language Day, my school put on a spektakl’ in honor of Kyrgyz language. Students of all ages performed in a play about Manas and his son Semetei, I recited some Manas and sang the National Anthem in Kyrgyz, teachers sang traditional songs, and there was a big dance. After the concert, the director (an ethnic Russian woman who doesn’t speak much Kyrgyz) praised the concert organizers and participants for 15 minutes straight – her enthusiasm for the concert and the students’ reaction to it was genuine, and I think she’s right that this sort of event is important to showing kids the richness of their own culture and language. I’m not sure what to make of the irony that a Russian-only-speaking administrator at a school where classes taught in Kyrgyz are shutting down because of low enrollment praised Kyrgyz Language Day celebrations in the language of a former colonial power (and I’m not sure I ever will know what to make of it), but for the moment, I was proud of being one of ~5 million people on earth to know Kyrgyz.

Kyrgyz may not my mother tongue, but while I’m living here, it’s certainly my language.

When “Ya” Means “What”

As a Midwesterner, the word “ya” has a special place in my heart. There’s an argument to be made that movies like Fargo or Drop Dead Gorgeous might exaggerate the accent, but “ya” is one of those words that Minnesotans honest-to-goodness throw around: “Are you going to the cabin this weekend?” “Ya, sure, you betcha!”

For the first few days in Kyrgyzstan, I felt like the luckiest, smartest girl in the world when my host family and neighbors answered “YA” to everything I said. “Dang, I’m learning Kyrgyz so fast!” I thought to myself, sassy-strutting my way to language class. With time, I realized that a Kyrgyz “ya” and a Minnesotan “ya” carry vastly different meanings. I’d ask my host mom a question and get a “ya” in return; when I looked glad, nodded, and walked away, she’d repeat the “ya” and in Russian ask me to repeat my question. After enough of these exchanges, I figured that my Kyrgyz friends and family were using “ya” as a repair word: a one-syllable sound that signals a misunderstanding and need for clarification.

The Kyrgyz “ya” is a unique repair word, it seems. The linked article mentions that in most languages, the word has a rising pitch to mimic the tone many languages use for asking questions. Not our “ya,” though – it’s really flat and sometimes descends in pitch. Combine my regionally-ingrained understanding of “ya” with the fact Americans use uptick to signal confusion, and you can imagine why it’s been a bit tough to adjust to “ya.” The initial satisfaction that I made a coherent point in Kyrgyz quickly fades when I remember that “ya” means my conversation partner did not, in fact, understand me.

It’s rare for me to get through a conversation in Kyrgyz without “ya” coming up at least once. Either I can’t understand the person speaking to me or my American tongue mangles the pronunciation of a word, but in any case – mutual understanding jok. Bringing myself to blurt out “ya,” which even today feels rude, was at first difficulty. But, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do, and to figure out what someone’s saying, that means throwing out a “ya” or two (or seven, on bad language days).


You betcha I was saying “Ya” in a “what the heck is happening behind me” kind of way when this picture was taken – which was a sheep being chopped up, by the way

Crushin’ Krussian (or, Code-Switching in Kyrgyzstan)

Before leaving for Peace Corps, one of the most commonly questions I heard was, “What language do they speak in Kyrgyzstan?” It’s not such an easy question to answer here… Kyrgyzstan is a thoroughly multiethnic country, not so unlike the United States, where people of many different cultures live and work together. It obviously has a large population of Kyrgyz people, along with other communities of Central Asians like Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kazakhs; there are Turks who were deported from Georgia in 1944; don’t forget about the Koreans who fled the Japanese invasion in the 1930s; Germans first came here during Catherine the Great’s rule over the Russian empire in the 1800s; and there are also big groups of Dungans and Uyghurs, Muslim communities who originally come from China. (Take a breath, I know that was a lot.)

So I guess the simple answer to the question “How do people here communicate” is: in tons of different languages, depending on where you are in the country and which circles you choose to roll in. But, given Kyrgyzstan’s Russian imperial and Soviet legacy on the one hand and the administrative preference for the titular ethnicity (Kyrgyzstan = land of the Kyrgyz), I have seen mostly a balance between Kyrgyz and Russian.

The balance between the two languages in public and private spaces has consistently amazed me. Signs at restaurants often communicate items on the menu in both languages, neighboring billboards represent both Kyrgyz and Russian; families begin a conversation in Kyrgyz, and a Russian commercial sparks a switch, and the chat ends in Russian. Granted, this is only based on my experience in Chui, just one of Kyrgyzstan’s 7 oblasts, and I was living very close to the capital, which is heavily Russified. Even so, just in the few days I’ve been in Jalalabad City, I’ve also seen and heard a lot of switching between the two.

…which brings me to Krussian. Krussian is the magical blend of Kyrgyz and Russian, the code-switching unique to this country. Code-switching is a linguistics term that describes alternating between multiple languages in a single conversation. Here, I’ve seen it at the sentence level – one sentence in Kyrgyz, then immediately switching to Russian. I’ve seen it within a sentence – throwing in Russian nouns or verbs to a Kyrgyz conversation. I’ve seen it within words – borrowing Kyrgyz grammatical endings and putting them on Russian words instead of the more difficult Russian endings.

As a speaker, it’s convenient to use Krussian – when taken together, my Krussian vocabulary is wider than my Kyrgyz vocabulary. It opened up doors to make myself clear to my host family during training, to add complexity during my Kyrgyz language exam (and I was not docked points, because it is a realistic use of the language). As a listener, it can be surreal – at a conference to meet our Peace Corps counterparts, I didn’t realize until the guy sitting next to me said, “What the heck just happened?” that the presenter switched between Kyrgyz, English, and Russian in one sentence. I understood it fine and barely noticed the switch, and it wasn’t until someone mentioned how weird the session sounded that I realized the extent of code-switching here. (Especially in the Peace Corps English program, which adds a third common language into the mix.)

Clearly this is a topic I’m excited about and fascinated by – look out for more musings on language in Kyrgyzstan and how it relates to culture, identity, government, history, colonialism, ethnicity, etc. etc. etc. In the meantime, a picture of how even Coca Cola panders to the prevalence of both languages here:

code switching coca cola

The bottles say: “For my friends/for my friends” and “For dinner/for dinner” in Kyrgyz and Russian, respectively.

“Where are you coming from?”

“Where are you coming from?”

“We just walked in from the mountains.”

“No, where are you from? America?”

“Yes, America.”

“Did you come by foot?”

“From America?”

“No, from the mountains.”

Moments of misunderstanding like this happen all the time. A visiting friend or relative asks “Where are you coming from?” and I stumble over what should be a simple answer, because the grammar of the question leaves its meaning open to interpretation. The “coming from” gets me every time… The person could be asking in a broad sense, looking for an answer like Ohio or Los Angeles, or they could literally be asking where it is that I just left, maybe the school or the ice cream stand. Having been here a month, I feel like I passed the “Oh you’re from America!” stage a long time ago. The way information and rumors pass through this village, it sometimes feels like common knowledge that there are volunteers living at so-and-so’s house or with so-and-so. Since this person probably has heard that there’s an American living with Mayram and Urmat, and I don’t look very Kyrgyz, when someone comes to visit and asks me where I’m coming from, I usually go with my most recent whereabouts. If a person was interested in my home state or cities I’ve lived in, they chuckle and ask again, “No, but really, where are you coming from?” After I answer, they usually redirect their interest to where I was coming from in town anyway.

international mountains


Salamatsyzby (Or, the Science of Saying Hello)

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.