Monday, February 14, 2011

Culture, part I

E was one of the first people I met here in 2009. "She's a real sweetie," D had told me beforehand. This was unusual; he'd often been homicidal towards OMs in the past. He mentioned she'd recently left an abusive husband and that her mother was pressuring her to get married again. She had been dating Bolot for several months, "whom everyone," D said, "agrees is a waste of space."

E made tea for the two of us and we sat down in the office kitchen. She asked the standard new- acquaintance questions.  Her Russian was gentle, clear, and unusually high-pitched; sort of crystally, I thought. (E inspires trite, pseudo-romantic imagery.) I mentioned my sister was pregnant and she smiled; D had told her. Was it a boy or a girl, did we know? A girl, I said. She beamed: "Girls are so much better!" She had a ten-year-old son. I explained that my Kindergarten boys in Philadelphia were sometimes simpler to work with – my girls often seemed unnaturally aware of their own attractiveness, and it made me sad. She nodded and told me about a friend of hers who'd moved to London and started dressing her eight-year-old in heels and miniskirts. Little Kyrgyz girls, she said, were usually "better taken care of."  I said I had noticed; that little girls here looked so innocent and brave and classically beautiful. I naturally felt silly having said this.

I asked if she spoke good Kyrgyz. She said not really, that she really didn't like it. It was very crude; it hadn't developed since the Soviet Union took hold. She said her husband had been from the country. People there made a big deal about speaking authentic Kyrgyz, only they didn't agree on what was authentic. People made up rules as they went along, she said, and then insisted their made-up rules were part of a timeless tradition. People would label others as "half bloods" or fake Kyrgyz, on the ground that features of their speech  differed from their own. She described what seemed a classic situation of people desperate to belong to a cohesive unit, who then define this unit so narrowly that only they can fit.

She went on to suggest that rural areas were big on made-up customs in general. She cited bride-kidnapping, stating that it had never been a deliberate and celebrated custom. She said it had previously been condoned in select situations, like when parents wouldn't allow a couple to marry. Now kidnapping-rapes were labeled patriotic acts. I remarked that I was familiar with some parallel sorts of phenomenons in Russia. She walked me to a fruit stand down the road and we continued to talk. She was about eight years older than me, but seemed about twenty years more grown-up.

Bishkek seemed full of soft-spoken, gentle people. As I made a point of saying when I got back to Philadelphia, I didn't hear a single person yell at a child while I was here.  Little girls had the bravest, most placid faces I'd ever seen. Even older boys held their mothers' hands as they walked around the city. Language and ethnic identity seemed to be a source of zero anxiety. To my ears everyone spoke a crystally, precise, slangless Russian, like that of E. The categories "Asian" and "white" hardly seemed to apply, just as, when I was a child, they hadn't seemed to apply in Moscow outside the walls of the Anglo-American school. We were all points on a glorious Eurasian continuum. One might think Bishkek, or Frunze, as it used to be called, had been developed as a show city to embody the Soviet concepts of child-centeredness and "friendship among nations."

While Big V was on vacation, we would take taxis to and from the office. D would almost always ask our driver for his take on the upcoming elections. That elections were meaningless here was a standard response. Several public sector employees, who, as they explained, were obligated to vote in groups with their colleagues, responded resignedly but thoughtfully, "I have to vote for the one who's going to win."

 One night, our driver segued from the elections into one of those "national character" discussions. "The Kyrgyz, we can't be anything," he said. It was clear, I thought, that our interlocutor was not saying this was a bad thing: We can't be just one thing, he meant; our identity can't be pinned down.  "We can't be serious Muslims, or Christians, or warriors, or anything. We're just nomads. Now, the Caucasians, that's a warlike people." This last statement was trite and old, but his previous words left me with a joyous feeling: Despite what E had said, Kyrgyzstan was a nation of people whose identity was so strong as to transcend permanent living space; to transcend destructive and rigid patterns of thinking that had paralyzed other nations– patterns whereby culture derived its meaning through holding itself up in opposition to that which was "foreign." It really was the "druzhby narodov nadyozhny oplot" –the reliable fortress of friendship among nations– sung about in the Soviet Anthem (in Russian, of course).

E stayed at the office for most of the month.  D explained she had an aversion to places outside Bishkek. Small V, meanwhile, was in exile in Almaty, having been picked up down south shortly after D's report on corruption was published. It was just me, D, and Big V on our trips to the countryside. I didn't see much of E until my last night, when she had a going-away party for me. Here I finally met Bolot, along with a few of his colleagues. Also present was lovely S, D's intern and mentee. E had requested we say nothing of the party to Big V. As D explained, there was some tension between him and Bolot.

Seated at a large table that E had decked out with a feast of banquet-like proportions, Bolot, with some difficultly, prevailed upon D to kick off the toasts. D toasted E and her hospitality. Next, one by one, Bolot and his friends toasted my stay in Kyrgyzstan, and wished me bright and happy memories of the country. After the first of the three such speeches, I lifted my glass to get it out of the way of one of the dishes. Bolot reacted swiftly: "Excuse me, if you don't mind the men will toast first." I explained that I was in fact not gearing up for a toast but simply moving my wine.

When it did come my turn to toast, I toasted E and S, and the prospect that lovely and educated women like them would come to lead this country and other countries of the world. Bolot giggled, meeting my gaze with wide-eyed, good-natured amusement. "The women!" he chortled. I was glad he'd found my toast so witty. E refused to make a toast. She wasn't good at it, she said; it made her uncomfortable.

Bolot announced that they had prepared a game for me. E suggested they skip it. Bolot and friends insisted that it would be fun; it would teach me about their culture. The game, he explained, was a role-play of "a custom of ours"–  bride-kidnapping. He selected one of his friends to play my "beloved." The selected fellow and I were to go into another room while Bolot informed my father about our so-called elopement. After a few minutes, I was to compose a letter to my father to convince him to bless our marriage rather than disown me. The Beloved and I exited into E's bedroom.

We sat awkwardly on opposite sides of the bed. After a few minutes Bolot informed me that enough time had elapsed to make our relationship credible, and that I could start my letter. Did I have a love interest in real life? he asked. I could use his name in the letter. I wrote a letter informing my father that the two of us planned to have twelve children and to name them all Bolot. As D read it out loud, Bolot giggled, looking flattered and confused. Did D approve the marriage? he asked. "No," D replied, with a demonstratively tight-jawed smile. "This letter tells me that my daughter didn't really take to the theme." E announced she had borrowed a guitar from a friend. We played it and sang Soviet bard songs until we were sleepy.

For the final act, E brought us back to the table where I was presented with a woven bag, a white felt hat, and a necklace of chunky felt beads. E now addressed me with an informal toast: "Our strongest custom in Kyrgyzstan is hospitality," she said. She said she hoped they would have the opportunity to offer me hospitality in the future. 

E and I kissed goodbye. "Until next time," I said. S, one of the Bolot crew, and D and I all went out to hail a cab to share. Bolot followed us. A cab was located. As we started to pile in, Bolot asked to see D. After what seemed like ten minutes of conversing with Bolot in the stairwell, D joined us. "That just such a fucking bore!" he said, once the friend had been dropped off. "I don't know how many times I'm going to have to tell him, no, I really do not want to go into business with him!"

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