Friday, October 23, 2009

Weddings, Engagements, and More Continuous Confusion

October 15, 2009
Today was an interesting day for me. It seemed like a normal morning, except for that it was really cold. (I can't figure out how to dress in this country! It is always freezing when I walk to school and hot when I walk home. I can't win.) First of all, I only taught one lesson because there was some guest speaker that came, so I sat around and did some planning with my counterpart and then headed home at about 10:30. I started to worry when I saw the good rug spread out in front of the door--indicating that my family would be having guests. If there were any doubts of the seriousness of this guesting, I only had to turn the corner to see my host dad and brother skinning a sheep. I didn't really want to be around the smell of said sheep-skinning since I had been kind of sick on Tuesday after eating what I suspect was a bad melon, so I hid in my room.

Later, I could hear my host mom running around frantically, so I went to help her the best I could. This really was quite the guesting. One of the neighbor ladies was in the kitchen helping to cook, and the table was really set to impress. Once Apa stopped panicking a bit, I finally figured out that my host brother's bride-to-be's family would be coming over to finalize the engagement.

Now, I wasn't quite sure that Nurgaze was actually getting married, even though there had been a lot of talk about it lately. This is just more evidence of how little I understand of my everyday life. Later, after all the guests had gone, I had a nice chat with my host mom about Kyrgyz customs while we cleaned up the table. I guess that when a couple becomes engaged, the bride's family typically comes over to the grooms house where the grooms family kills a sheep, feeds them, and basically grovels at their feet in the hopes that they won't suddenly decide to give their daughter away to someone else. Apa complained about how tired she was and how much work she did that day to make and serve the in-laws food, but she says that it is all good in the long run because now Nurgaze's wife will do all of the work and she can have more time to rest. Lovely.

Anyway, I'm glad I didn't know about this trying to impress the in-laws thing before, because I would have worried that I scared them away. I had been helping in the kitchen, and when there was a lull, I grabbed a bowl of soup and took it to my room for lunch. As I was eating, I could hear the in-laws in the next room finishing up their soup, and then moving around a bit before the next course comes. I knew that they must have been poking around a bit, because, really, who wouldn't? Also, they are Kyrgyz, so they have no concept of privacy. For this reason, they shamelessly opened up my bedroom door to come face to face with this strange white girl sitting at a table by herself, playing sudoku. Talk about a skeleton in the closet.

They very confusedly said hello in Russian, and I smiled, stood up, and said, “Hello, my name is Audra” in Kyrgyz, and left it at that. Serves you right for poking around, I thought. They kind of slowly backed away from the door. Apa came in and said simply, “thats the American who lives with us,” and left it at that. Awesome.

Anyway, I was glad that I had changed my club to an earlier time so that I had an excuse to get out of there. I even brought a book along, planning to sit around in the schoolyard afterward since it was a nice day, to delay my return home a bit. Anyway, there was no need for that because my students invited invited me to what they called a concert, but what I would call a 9th grade dance. Ignoring the fact that the kids set up a typical Kyrgyz feast for themselves and did some traditional dancing at the beginning of the evening, this was pretty much exactly like an American 9th grade dance, which I found to be so surprising. If anything, it was a bit racier, with games like this one where two boys held apples in their mouths and two girls had to race to eat the most out of the apple before time was called. It was really fun to watch, but I can't imagine an American high school allowing their 9th graders to do the same thing.

I left during the slow dance, as the couples were awkwardly shuffling back and forth in what must be the international 9th grade style, wondering how these girls who eat apples out of boys' mouths and dance with them and joke around with them, how do they come to be the girls whose parents decide their future over a dead sheep, signing them up for about thirty years of slavery? And are they ok with this? I just don't know. I can't wait to meet Nurgaze's wife-to-be. I hope we can be friends and I can learn Kyrgyz well enough to ask her.

October 20, 2009
I am trying to figure out how I am still able to stand. Yesterday, the next-door neighbors' son got married and they had a huge party. They dragged in a big sound system and the music started at about three in the afternoon. It continued until 7:30 a.m.

Since my bedroom has a window facing the neighbors' yard, my host mom made up a bed in the dining room for me (she is a master at folding the cushions just right and I can't figure out exactly how she does it), but it didn't make all that much difference as I didn't sleep a bit. This morning when I got up, my host mom asked if I had slept, and I said no, did you? She didn't, but didn't seem the least bit upset by it.

Just as I left for school, a car passed me with the huge sound speakers piled in the trunk. Once I got to school, I told my counterpart why I hadn't slept, and she showed no reaction. “Is that normal for Kyrgyz people?” I asked. “Yes,” she answered in a tone of voice that suggested that it was a stupid question. I told her that in America someone would have called the police. To that she answered, “I think we like weddings in Kyrgyzstan more than Americans do.”

Real time update:
My host mom just came in to get me to go “see the neighbors' new kalin.” Kalin means daughter-in-law, but the position of kalin involves so much more than is associated with a typical western daughter-in-law. In fact, during my first day with my training host family I was under the impression that their kalin was hired help. Anyway, the way my host mom said this, it was like she was inviting me to see their new car. And she was obviously not under the impression that she was going to have to explain all of these traditions to me. She told me to bring my camera, and then as we were heading out the door, she looked at me and said, “What, didn't you bring a joluk (headscarf)? You must bring a joluk to give to the kalin.” Well, how was I supposed to know that?

When we got over to the neighbors' house, the proud mother of the groom told us that the bride was sleeping and she would go wake her up. I waited outside the bedroom door, but my host mom dragged me in and explained that the kalin must stay in the room all day today. The room was divided in half with a curtain hung from wall to wall and ceiling to floor. The mother of the groom called the kalin's name and a girl wearing a white headscarf emerged with her head bowed. She wore sweatpants and ratty old green slippers that had “LOVE” printed on them in English. She held a large white veil over her head and shoulders and bowed repeatedly before us. My host mom motioned that I should drape the headscarf I brought over her shoulders, and I did so. Then I took a few pictures of her and the family. All the time while everyone else was laughing and smiling, the kalin kept her head bowed and her expression serious. As we walked back to the house, my host mom asked, “Did you like her? Wasn't she beautiful?” and I agreed, though I wanted badly to say “well, I never got a good look at her. She kept her head bowed and didn't smile at all, and I find it difficult to decide if I like someone when they don't speak and don't show any expression at all.” But even if I had the language skills to say that, I should recognize that this is simply their tradition and I should respect it.

Ok, on to other things. I might have said this before, but I so often feel like I am doing one of those activities where you have to explain an everyday concept to a Martian, but with some extra complications. Sometimes I am the Earthling and sometimes I am the Martian. My vocabulary is always cut at least in half, and the grammar structures at my disposal are extremely limited. It is a difficult game that my counterpart and I, even though she speaks pretty good English, find ourselves caught in a lot. One time I mentioned “roasting marshmallows” in passing, and she stopped me to explain what both words mean. Try explaining what a marshmallow is, even to a fluent English speaker. Then try explaining why you would roast it. I simply had to give up. We are even though, because at a party I was offered to try a bowl of this dip that was the color and consistency of refried beans, but tasted like cream cheese that has gone bad. I asked my counterpart what it was, and she only got as far as telling me that there is milk and sugar in it before she had to give up.

Today in my 7-8th grade club I wanted to do some Halloween vocabulary. I assumed that they would be at least slightly familiar with Halloween because my host sister and the girls on my street know quite a bit about it and even asked me if we could all make Jack O' Lanterns together. I neglected to remember that these girls go to a different school that has had volunteers for quite a few years. My kids had no idea, other than a vague acknowledgement that they might have seen a carved pumpkin before. Now, try explaining Halloween when your vocabulary is quartered. Poor kids. They were so confused.

October 24, 2009
Right now I am in Osh for a few days helping out with a camp for high school aged kids. Yesterday was the first day, and I just helped with leading some games and team-builders and stuff. On Sunday and Monday I am apparently facilitating some sessions on communication skills and cross-cultural friendship, and at some point I will help them make friendship bracelets. I love the kids at my school, but it is such a nice change to hang out with kids whose English is more advanced. It is a group of mixed nationalities, too, which is a switch from my almost entirely Kyrgyz school. More on this later, I suppose.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


September 27, 2009

Yesterday morning I woke up in the early hours to go the the bathroom. As I stumbled through the hall, I smelled something strange that reminded me of the bazaar. The door to the room next to mine was open, and I glanced into it as I walked by. This room is fairly small and just had a low square table sitting in the middle of it. In the middle of the table was a large mixing bowl full of raw, bloody meat. That explained the bazaar smell. I was reminded of a scene in a movie (I forget what the movie it), where the character has a hallucination that he sees his own brain sitting on the ground in front of him. I stood there and looked at it for a while, trying to figure out why the meat was there and who put it there. It was awfully early for someone to have gotten up and put it there, and I didn't remember hearing anyone coming in the night before. And why in that room? I have only seen them use that room for eating once when they had a huge guesting, and they never prepare food in there. So odd.

I wanted to do some laundry today, but with all of the dust that the house builders kick up, I think it would be counterproductive. Apa brought out the “washing machine” and asked me if I wanted to use it, but I hate that thing, and I would rather take the time to scrub my stuff by hand and get it more clean and not wrecked. Oh well, I have enough clothes left behind by other volunteers that I can just do some underwear and let the rest of it keep piling up for a while.

The builders have been here for at least three weeks now, and I wonder if they are getting sick of being here. They all sleep in the room connected to the kitchen that Apa usually uses as a dough-rolling surface and storage shed for dusty junk. When the place was first built, it must have been intended as a dining room, because it has a built in platform for eating on, which is typical of a lot of Kyrgyz houses. It is kind of gross and dusty, I think, and it has to be chilly at night. The platform has just enough room for the four men to sleep side by side, and they also eat all their meals there. They keep to themselves all the time and I never even see them talking with my host dad or brother, which seems strange to me since we have all been living in close quarters for the past few weeks. The compound isn't that big, and plus, there is only one outhouse, so there is a bit of a mad rush in the morning when everyone wakes up.

I would like to just sit and watch them work sometimes because it is absolutely fascinating, but that is kind of weird, and I always feel uncomfortable when I walk past them and they all stare, probably still trying to figure out why a random American is living here. I wonder if anyone has explained it to them?

Anyway, they have been building this house completely by hand, and it is a very interesting process. I love watching them throw the mud bricks from the ground up to the scaffolding. They have a very practiced rhythm to it, and they make it look like the bricks are nothing more than bean bags. I am excited to see how this house will turn out.

October 8, 2009

I have realized that making frequent trips to the city is essential for my mental health. It’s not like I am completely isolated. I meet up with the two other volunteers in my region during the week occasionally, I have a phone, and then there are the two English-speaking teachers at my school that I can talk to, but there are always these little things that wear me down and make me a little bit on edge. Just now, I was watching an episode of “The Office” on my computer. It was the last episode of season 2, where Jim finally tells Pam he is in love with her. I got choked up. I'm not kidding. I actually cried while watching “The Office.” Another example: last night I was reading a book of short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne that I inherited from past volunteers. To be honest, Hawthorne drives me nuts, but I always feel like I should give him another chance, so I am making my way through this book a little at a time. There was this horrible story about a minister who wears a black veil, symbolic of some past sin or something stupid like that. Now, I need to say a bit about this really unreasonable fear that I have. In this area, many women wear full, burka-like garments. At first I could always feel myself be a stupid westerner and stare with my mouth open while these women walked past. Now I hardly notice it anymore. However, there are other women that cover themselves in another manner, with one scarf covering their entire face with another scarf tied over that in the typical Muslim fashion. This never fails to creep me out, and I have had three or four nightmares since I have been here that feature these covered women. Anyway, I was reading this story last night, and I couldn't finish it because I was scared. How ridiculous is that?

OK, now on to these little things that wear me down to the point that I become this nut case. Last week I was in Uzgen to run some errands and hang out with some volunteers for a bit. I ended up heading back to the village in a rush because I spent about a half hour at the post office trying to get an envelope mailed, and I was going to be late for my club. I climbed in a taxi at the taxi stand and hoped that it would fill up quickly so we could go. It did fill up quickly, but unfortunately one of the passengers was a very, very drunk older man, who was deposited into the seat next to me, leaving me squashed in the middle seat of the Tico, probably the smallest car ever made. Anyway, long story short, the man was bothering me so much that I made the driver pull over and I switched seats with the young man in the front, even though the ride is only about 20 minutes and I was in a hurry. I usually don't let things like that get to me, but I realized that I wouldn't put up with that kind of treatment in the states, so why should I let it fly here?

Last Saturday was Teacher's Day, and the other teachers at my school convinced me to stay in town for the festivities. I wasn't too excited about this because there had just been another teacher's party in honor of the director's son's wedding (they find every excuse for a party here, I swear) and it wasn't a lot of fun for me. There were two tables in two different rooms and I found myself sitting at the one with no English teachers, but with the young male teacher that all the women are trying to set me up with. It was a very long afternoon for me. They managed to get me to drink enough so that I participated in their little singing bowl game, and now that they have heard me sing, I am going to have to do it all the time. Great.

However, the Teacher's Day party was great. All the teachers gathered together in the cafeteria, the grounds keeper-janitor guy cut up some brush from behind the outhouse and started a big fire on the playground, and a few moms cooked a ton of food on it. Beside the food, there were games and dancing, and a lot of toasts, which I usually hate, but for some reason it was really fun this time. It might have had something to do with the fact that this party happened to have wine in addition to vodka and cognac, and although Central Asian wine is really horrible and, according to custom, must be drunk in shots out of a tea cup, it is definitely preferable to vodka.