“Who are you?” “Anton.” ” Where are you from?” “Kyrgyzstan.” Interesting. “What are your plans?” “Well, I want to do something with business, or maybe something social.” “Something social? What do you mean by that?” “Well, maybe something with orphans.” “oh REALLY. Me too. In Kyrgyzstan.” I think it took Anton a week or so to realize I was serious…
I knew almost nothing about the place when, kneeling in prayer at church, I asked God where I should go to after my internship at an orphanage just outside Mexico City. I’d been asking this question for a while, so I was shocked when I felt this very strong one-word impulse inside: Kyrgyzstan. Convinced, I wrote my friends and family informing them of the news, and I began to e-mail schools and NGOs who work with orphans in Kyrgyzstan. Only one school replied, and but rejected me because I wasn’t married. So I reckoned I’d try to get as close as I could to Kyrgyzstan and try to do some good along the way. I returned for a third stint as a Student and Spiritual Life co-ordinator at a summer language program in Klaipėda, Lithuania. So as I’m DJ’ing dance socials and leading discussion groups about life and God, my mind is halfway across Eurasia, but still no response (and no money to get there either). Between that day in Mexico in February and July when this camp was happening, I began to notice a strange pattern. Maybe I was stressing too much, but everyone I met–my grandmother, my pastor, some of my friends-told me I just needed to rest. The last person to tell me was a student at a prayer meeting in Lithuania…I was telling her about this stress and feeling lost and unsure about where I was going next month and she interrupted me and said “You just need to rest.” Rest. Right. I mean, I believe and I’ve seen that God can make things happen without my help, but I also know that I’m an adult and I should take care of things if at all possible. The next day, the pastor at my Lithuanian church stood up and said “These next three weeks we’re going to talk about rest.” I got out my pen, expecting an answer and knowing that this was for me somehow.
The three weeks came. I found more calm in my soul, but I left church that day a little disappointed, no response, and as usual we went out to the cheap pizza place for lunch after the service, and I sit down and there’s this guy I don’t know beside me: “Who are you?” “Anton.” ” Where are you from?” “Kyrgyzstan.” Interesting. “What are your plans?” “Well, I want to do something with business, or maybe something social.” “Something social? What do you mean by that?” “Well, maybe something with orphans.” “oh REALLY. Me too. In Kyrgyzstan.” I think it took Anton a week or so to realize I was serious… “Well, I’ll be done in a year here with Uni, maybe we could meet up in a year in Kyrgzystan?” And I was like, “hmm…well, I’m ready now.” So he called his mom, and two weeks later I was cancelling my flight to Azerbaijan, boarding a plane to Bishkek, and teaching 5th-11th class at the private school his brothers attend. Arriving in Bishkek, I was pleasantly surprised that the massive culture shock I had been expecting was nowhere to be found. Bishkek is a post-Soviet, Russian-speaking city, and I’d been to many similar cities before in Russia, Latvia, and Lithuania: big grey concrete apartments stretched on and on, and imposing Soviet statues–even Lenin is still around–impose their cold faces on the city center. There were however, many differences, many of which took me quite some time to figure out.The most difficult thing was the lack of trust between people. My Russian was poor, something that Russians especially have little time or respect for. Beyond that, my roommate’s first advice to me was basically “Don’t trust anyone.” Another pattern began to make itself shown in my church, as almost everyone there asked me for months and months “So when are you leaving?” It wasn’t that I was unwelcome…but there is an air of suspicion around, and these people had seen many foreigners come and quickly go, reinforcing the ideas in their head that life is better somewhere else, and probably leaving some emotional scars as they went. I didn’t understand then how much recent events were responsible for the lack of trust: Revolutions in 2005 and 2010 meant rioting and widespread looting in the capital. Especially for Russians, the minority community with whom I was kinda stuck because of language and just the makeup of my school, the disregard for others’ property and lives reinforced general feelings of insecurity, racism, nostalgia, and the inferiority of Kyrgyzstan, the nation that they call home. Race riots in Osh in 2010 also gave an added element of fear and distrust, as tens of thousands of Uzbeks fled ethnic violence. The Uzbeks: rich, hard-working, proud, Islamic city dwellers, had long been an object of jealousy and disdain for the wild, pastoral, and free Kyrgyz. But when the President’s son started taking away Uzbek lands, protests exploded into a wild free-for-all. I have two Russian friends who were in Osh during the race riots, who, unlike many Russian Kyrgyz, are patriots of their country, but both of them told me that they would never live in Osh again after the things they had seen there. I’ve met quite a few Uzbek people who are afraid, even in Bishkek. Some Uzbeks, for example, say that they’re Uighurs to avoid ugly situations.
Among the many races and different kinds of people in Kyrgyzstan, there is one thing they can all agree on: Kyrgyzstan’s natural beauty is a source of pride for all. Issyk Kyl, the huge sparkling lake that stretches across half of the North, is ringed in mountains, making it a Skier’s destination in the winter, and a swimmer’s destination in summer. If you’re ever in Bishkek in August, you should be aware that half the city (or so it seems anyway) is away soaking up the hot sun and enjoying cool lake waters around Issyk Kyl. Kyrgyzstan’s mountains are also a great natural resource: hydroelectric power from one valley is sold at profit to surrounding countries, and the Canadian-operated Kumtor gold mine provides the government with most of its revenue. Kyrgyzstan is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
The Kyrgyz are a proud and fiercely independent people. While corruption runs rampant, the two revolutions have imposed a sort of mob democracy not found amongst the other 30-year presidencies of Central Asia. Of course, in the post-soviet Asian (and Russians are included in this) mentality, corruption is just a part of life. As long as the leader more or less does his job (and expectations on that are very low), and maintains the social order (no chaos or shortages), his job is fairly secure.But in the volatile Central Asian region, it’s best to cover all your bases. The first thing I saw after landing at Manas airport was a US Air Force C-17. My countrymen had made it here before me. The ongoing saga of the unpopular base was amusing. The government liked the balance of power (and the economic benefits) of having both Russian and American air force bases some 100 kilometers apart. The people were less enthusiastic, and widespread protests lead to the President announcing that the US base would be closed, but after negotiations, the US agreed to pay triple the rent, and things went on as before.
The educational system, and the economic map also mirrors this balancing act. With Chinese-built roads, Korean churches, Turkish Universities (as well as American and Russian), Turkish malls, the Movie Theater “Russia,” and restaurants featuring everything from Burritos to Kimbap (Korean rolls similar to sushi) to American Barbecue, a few weeks in Bishkek makes you feel like you must have landed at the center of the world, even if it is 12 time zones from “home.”
Kyrgyz cuisine is simple but tasty. Lagman noodles with meat sauce compliment tasty Lepyoshka bread. Plov (an Uzbek speciality) is widespread, as are Samsi pastries filled with meat and manti, which is basically monster ravioli (my favorite is the pumpkin-filled kind). Many of my students, however, when asked what their favorite food is, will simply say “meat.” And with the herds of sheep and cows roaming beautiful green mountainsides being the livelihood of much of the country to this day, it’s no wonder that Kyrgyz meat is much higher quality, more natural, and tastier than American meat. While Americans struggle with the ethical dillemas of organic or not, food additives and where their food comes from, in Kyrgyzstan most stuff is done naturally just because well, that’s the simple, cheap, and traditional way to do it.
Development, however, is a big problem. Of course most educated people emigrate or consider it strongly. I try not to think about it too much, but it seems absurd and cruel that a teacher in the US makes 10 to 20 times what a teacher in Bishkek makes. And a teacher in Bishkek might make 10 times what a teacher in the south of Kyrgyzstan makes, so that someone teaching algebra, a pretty universal subject, might for the same work make 100 times what they would make somewhere else, just on the basis of geography. It’s an injustice so big it’s hard to know where to start pointing fingers. However, as one of my friends at the teacher’s college informed me, almost all of her classmates have stopped going to class, attending school through the corrupt process of paying regularly to “study” for a degree and working, sometimes even working abroad, instead of being in class. Kyrgyz pupils will certainly suffer, and it seems that Kyrgzystan’s future might get worse before it gets better. Although I think the mild, big-eyed Uzbek features make them the prettiest people on the planet, I find the hospitality, passion, and simplicity of the Kyrgyz to be exciting and enchanting. A Kyrgyz person might look Mongolian. And after all, he might be Chinese, probably Dungan or Uighur, or Korean. He might look white or dark brown, more or less Russian or not Russian at all. Despite the widespread racism among the peoples of Kyrgyzstan, it’s clear that they have mixed over the years. Some of my students are a delightful mix of Kazakh, Ukrainian, Korean, and more, but culturally, they are Russian-speaking Kyrgyz. Many local Russians think of themselves as Russian, but they are usually more Kyrgyz than they know.
After living two years in Kyrgyzstan, I feel confident that, if they will have me, it’s the place I want to spend my life. I’m hoping to open a family-style children’s home, support the local church, and try to work to improve education, even if it’s just for a few young people. One of my teaching moments sticks out in my mind: we watched a video about Nigeria and the bustling metropolis of Lagos, and I asked them what they saw and they said “poor people.” And I said “where?” They were shocked to learn that many people in Nigeria live better than they do, at least when it comes to purchasing power, modern buildings, and income. We spent the rest of the class talking about assumptions, social problems, and racism. And hopefully, I will have many more such moments, and hopefully, they will learn to love their neighbors and themselves as a nation. It is an amazing place, an enchanting and beautiful land, filled with hospitable people, tasty food, and simple life. Exotic? I like to think of it as home.