Thursday, May 20, 2010

School's Finished

I taught my last day of class yesterday and graduation on the 25th will mark the end of my two years of teaching in Tory-Aiger Village. I’ve always been antsy for change, so I’m excited for a relaxing summer at the lake and am already making plans for a brief stint of travel before I come home, grad school (fall of 2011), and a magnificent marathon of reunions in the States. However, all of these things don’t negate the sense of home and family that I’ve found in Kyrgyzstan. Saying good-bye to my host-family, friends, students, and neighbors is going to be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do; and that’s no exaggeration. With three months left the only real responsibility I have left is to live in the moment. So, the following are a collection of stories that celebrate the charming mystique of Kyrgyzstan:

One of my favorite school activities is dropping in on the cafeteria ladies. The only items on the menu are sweet rolls, cookies, tea, and “pirashki” – potatoes and onions stuffed inside deep-fried dough. Despite the forewarning black-toothed grins of all the elementary students who file in for their snack, such sweets always seems to be just what I’m craving. So, I’ve gotten to know the cafeteria ladies pretty well and I’ve spent many hours chatting with like-minded colleagues over a few cups of tea. Well, the other day one of the cafeteria ladies gave me a disco-ball-inspired bracelet and just sealed herself a place in my list of top 10 favorite school employees! She gets points for her bold taste in accessories, but what really made me smile was the unexpectedness of it all. It was a good reminder to stay keen on delivering small acts of generosity.

Coming back from my Grandfather’s funeral in the States this April, I was consoled by all of my colleagues and neighbors. Dealing with the death of a loved-one is something that transcends culture and Kyrgyz people pay serious respect to the deceased. They follow Muslim tradition, infused with some untraceable customs such as group wailing and grand-scale animal slaughter (in my experience a cow, horse, and sheep). Well, when I came back, my host mother invited our neighbors to have some tea and salad at our house, so they could recite some of the Koran in honor of my Grandfather. It was a nice gesture, but this event ended up serving more as an opportune moment of self-deprecating humor. One of the women brought her year-old daughter along and, as usual, I reached out my arms and asked her to come to me. We all know that this child is absolutely terrified of me, but I’m determined to force my affection upon her before I leave – it’s disconcerting that my face can bring a baby to tears. Well, this time she held back. She leaned back into her mother, shaped her little mouth into a perfect oval and tweeted, “Mo-mok jok!” I thought she had told me that I wasn’t her mother, which sounds similar, but the eruption of laughter at the table prompted me to clarify. Turns out, the direct translation of her rejection was, “No boobs!” How do you translate “touché” in Kyrgyz?

I feel compelled to share that I made honey from Dandelions with my host mother. I’m certain this is the same weed that we seek to exterminate from our plush green lawns in America and that little kids pick to make head wreaths or smear on their playmates’ forearms, depending on their disposition. But it’s true – we filled a jar full of Dandelion heads, added water and a kilo of sugar, boiled it the next day, and put this “honey” on our bread and in our tea. I am amused by how resourceful people in different parts of the world are. I enjoy eating a product of Dandelions! Now all I have to do is convince my host family to eat the skin on their potatoes, something that they find equally hard to fathom.

My school director has been really buddy-buddy with me lately, a curious development that I’m just going to embrace. Yesterday we played three hours of volleyball and basketball with other teachers and 11th form students. Seeing my director and colleagues run around with no restraint can only be described as sheer joy. But the pinnacle of my uncomfortable interactions with the director happened last week, when she invited my host mother and I over to her house for dinner at nine in the evening. I had just finished baking nachos for my host family and somehow ended up bringing a full tray over to her house, which was rather awkward. My host mother insisted that it wasn’t strange, but there’s no way that it wasn’t and quite frankly, Kyrgyz people aren’t the best at expanding their palate. So, on top of extracting insincere compliments from everyone as they grazed on their plate of cold nachos, I also endured the “joking” attempt at an arranged marriage between myself and the director’s son. I’ll save my judgments and just assure you that we’re incompatible. So, there we were, all sitting on floor cushions around the table, drinking tea like addicts and eating dinner long after our metabolism had check-out for the day. I noticed that my director was wearing a putty colored polo that had a patch that said “security” over the left breast pocket. The humor of this image was lost on everyone else, because it ewonder if she knows what that word means. Conversation was spotty and I soon felt the temptation of sleep pulling at my eye and muffling out everyone speaking Kyrgyz. I felt myself going cross-eyed in an effort to keep my eyes open and developed a strong distaste for the artificial in-door lighting and white noise silence of late night. Ironically, this late night rendezvous made my director really happy – just a couple a gals hanging out past their bed time, gossiping and eating. I wonder what our next date will entail…..karaoke, riding horses, the options are endless.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Making Friends

Whenever friends and family ask about my life in rural Kyrgyzstan, the most engrossing conversations seem to center on primal needs – the outhouse, mutton and carbohydrate overloading, and bi-weekly bathing, to name a few. Sure, I’ve played up the shock factor to encourage a charitable flow of care packages (my mom’s dramatic reports have even inspired unwarranted tears of sympathy). But, on the whole, I deal with these challenges best by reasoning that there’s no use resisting my environment. By adopting this mentality, I’ve given myself a license to be what others may deem “disgusting.” So what if it’s a fringe holiday and I indulge in heaps of deep-fried bread (a.k.a. “borsok”), 10 plus cups of tea, and cookies galore….I’ll dive right into the hunk of meat I’m given during the second course and massage the fatty grease/natural moisturizer into my hands when I’m done. No one here is going to judge me, because they’re too busy doing the exact same thing. But, I had better stop with the confessions – there are some experiences that are best kept within the Peace Corps community. Quite frankly, if I share too much information about my intestinal wars, only some Peace Corps buddy is going to view this as an opportunity to divulge their own toilet record next.

What I really want to get at is the rather unexpected challenge of carving out a legitimate social life. As a 24-year-old single female, my social situation is a bit of an anomaly here. All of the women my age have either moved to the city for work or school, or they are tucked away in their mother/mother-in-law’s house. Of course, my host mother was kind enough to share her friends with me. However, it’s exhausting trying to pose as a middle-aged woman who is concerned with gardening and the domestic affairs of everyone and their cousin and their cousin’s mother. And so, the search for my people continued. I kept losing the battle for the attention of my new pals to newborn babies, job opportunities, and persistent house work. Despite marriage proposals that come on a rolling basis, I refuse to join the club. Instead, I’ve conceded to a much more direct approach: forced friendship.

Making girlfriends in my village requires a certain level of assertiveness on my part – not unlike the gumption that it takes to find a date to a middle-school dance. I’d like to think that I don’t come across as desperate for friendship, but I’m pretty certain that telling someone, “I want to be your friend,” doesn’t help my case. After a ruthless battle for my local social identity, I’m happy to report that I’ve now got 4 friends. It all began when I offered to write a grant with Azamat, a young male teacher at my school. He’s very passionate about his work and he is a morally grounded individual. Since the success of any grant depends upon the commitment of the local counterpart, I presented him with the million dollar question: “What would you do for your school if money weren’t an issue?” Without missing a beat, he enthusiastically delved into his idea for a youth puppet theater…that involves life-sized puppet costumes. Since I was expecting something like text books or new desks, I was caught off guard hearing a 30-year-old Kyrgyz guy speak so passionately about Barney-esque costumes. His reasoning, though, is flawless:
1. Theater is a healthy outlet for village youth – it builds life skills such as communication and team work.
2. There is a strong need to revive local passion for the fine arts because it’s richer/more wholesome than popular culture.
3. As an educational venue, theater embraces creativity and lends itself to a variety of different learning styles, something that is neglected by left over Soviet teaching methods.
4. Costumes act as a buffer between culture, age, and gender. This anonymity grants youth the opportunity to campaign for progress in controversial fields such as health and social change.
So, we submitted this grant to Peace Corps and received 3500 USD to custom-order 10 costumes (bear, eagle, boy, witch, dragon, dog, fox, wolf, rabbit, lion). Skipping over an explanation of the finer details of this project, Azamat will coordinate the opening performance with Children’s Day, on June 1st. Peace Corps work truly is unpredictable…I’m both amazed and grateful that fate landed me in the hands of Azamat and his puppet ensemble.

Once my friendship with Azamat was established, I set out on a mission to befriend his wife, Kyndyz. My host mother and I often invited them over for pizza dinners, and eventually the formalness gave way to casual conversation. Spurred by my own impatience, last week I attempted a social breakthrough by inviting Dawn (my site-mate) and myself over to their house for dinner. Fortunately, they were not off-put by my invasion. In fact, this dinner date was the first time in-country that I felt a genuine sense of young adult camaraderie. Azamat’s brother and his wife (my two bonus friends) joined us as well. Some highlights from the evening include Kyndyz’s mayo pizza – which looks deceivingly like cheese pizza – and the ride home in a donkey cart that they referred to as the “Mercedes.” I love my Peace Corps friends and I’ve got a wonderful support system back home, but it’s a huge relief to finally claim some local friends of my own. All four of them.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

I'm back

Homestretch – I’ve made it through my last Kyrgyz winter and it’s already time to start making plans for when I go back home this fall. Then again, I may be getting ahead of myself. While I may be looking forward to warm showers, English TV channels, colorful food, and a social life that begins (rather than ends) at 9 at night, I’m going to miss the spontaneity of life in Kyrgyzstan. In fact, sometimes I feel like the fate of my entire service was to inspire a top-notch comedy routine…and I’m not disappointed by this in the least. We could all benefit from a bit more humor in our lives. When I’m lucky I’m granted the chance to play spectator; but when I’m participating it’s the clarity of a moment of separation that brings out the richest humor. To better articulate this feeling, I’ll break it down into a couple recent anecdotes:

Earlier this week I had the strangest dream. It was around 7 A.M. and I was leisurely coming out of a good night’s sleep. Then, I remember a sudden shift in my dream – a guy with a fro of curly black hair invaded the scene and I couldn’t stop staring at him. Actually, I was probably sneering at him because he was sticking out his tongue and making a rude “Baaaing” sound. Eventually I woke up because it was so disturbing. Just as I began to shake off a lingering feeling of irritation and thought to open my eyes, I heard the “Baaaing” sound again. In real life, I recognized the call of my bunk buddy – I share a clay bedroom wall with 15 sheep. I guess she was crying for her newborn, who my host family had kept warm near the earthen stove that night. What should you do when farm animals start invading your dreams?

Men’s day was February 23rd. It’s comparable to Father’s Day, except it warrants a day of pre-emptive celebrations, a day of official celebrations, and a lazy day of “recuperation.” Come to think of it, most Kyrgyz holidays follow this three stage festivities pattern. Anyways, I dutifully attended our school’s staff party the first day and found myself strategically avoiding eye contact with all uninhibited (the brand that comes with red cheeks and a thick tongue) male dancers during the “disco tech” in the cafeteria at two in the afternoon . The next day I went to school expecting some sort of student competition/celebration. I blended into the crowd for about a minute before a teacher called me forward as a guest judge. Funny thing is, I was to judge two competing student army troops, as if I were familiar with Kyrgyz military standards in marching, uniform, and standards of strength. So, I did my best to stifle the constant urge to laugh - temptation intensified by the seriousness of everyone around me - and made sure that my average scores didn’t draw any attention to myself. For round two, we moved from the playground to the activity room, where some of my favorite competitions took place. Before the potato peeling event we were instructed to judge three criteria: the thinness of the peel, the number of whole potatoes peeled, and the cleanliness of all peeled potatoes. There was also trivia, acting, and button sewing. I decided that I’m a fan of Men’s Day.

Women’s Day is March 8th….I’m overtaken with the simultaneous desire to seek out all the action the instinctual call to hole up in my room. My curiosity boasts the stronger track record.