Shortly after writing my last post, I was told that my family was going guesting a few doors down for a birthday party and that I should come. It was already 8 and I was about to start getting ready for bed, but what the hell – I went.
I was the only woman seated at the head of the table, next to a familiar drunk man who is at my house quite often (still not sure of his name). He made sure I had plenty of food in front of me at all times, and harassed me any second he caught me not eating.
At first, I was enjoying the Kyrgyz form of entertainment – random outbursts of singing Kyrgyz songs– which is something you’d rarely see in America. It’s actually kind of a nice way to keep their culture alive. However, this moment of admiration was cut short when the vodka came out.
This was apparently a birthday party for a 5-year old, but I only saw him once. The rest of the evening, the adults sat in a different room toasting and taking shots “for the boy’s birthday”, “for Nooruz”, “because the children came and sang”, “because you gave a toast”. The number of reasons we had to take shots is ridiculous. I did my best to not take whole shots, but apparently when toasting for children and Nooruz, this is unacceptable.
I managed to maintain my composure, despite the excessive amounts of vodka and beet salad. At some point in the night, I saw a man open a bottle of wine with a 2L bottle of Sprite…and after that things get a bit hazy. Probably my most authentic guesting experience to date, but definitely something I’d like to keep to a minimum.
Happy Nooruz! Nooruz is a slightly confusing holiday (to me at least), but the main point is that it is a celebration of the end of winter and beginning of spring. It is also apparently the Muslim New Year celebration. Anyway, as usual, I spent my day having no clue what to expect.
I seem to have missed out on the majority of the festivities, but I did manage to make it to the city center to see what was going on. There were several yurts set up, and we were ushered inside one by my host father to have chai and plov. After successfully avoiding the vodka, kumuz, and now bozo (a fermented millet beverage) we left the yurt to go watch some wrestling!
I’m not sure if this is a normal Kyrgyz tradition, or just a Barskoon thing, but we killed a good hour watching boys from the age of 5 to 17 compete in Alysh wrestling. We originally thought this was Greco-Roman wrestling, but thanks to the internet I discovered Alysh wrestling, or belt wrestling. This is a traditional Central Asian style of wrestling and, as you can see from the pictures, each competitor wears a belt and they must hold on to their opponent’s belt the entire time.
The best part about the day is that it is finally starting to feel like spring! The weather was warm enough to not need a coat and boots and the whole vibe of the town has changed. I can feel summer coming!
I also had the pleasure of witnessing the Russian celebration of the coming of spring while I was in Karakol last weekend. Their celebration is called Ма́сленица, which translates to «butter week». I couldn’t really figure out why this is the name as the only butter related thing has to do with eating blinis (Russian crepes). The best part of this celebration is that they have a Lady Maslenitsa – or a bunch of sticks dressed in women’s clothing with some sort of makeshift face. At the end of the festivities, they burn her to start fresh in the new year and then spend at least an hour jumping over the fire. Super entertaining.
A quick add on to my previous post.
I returned last week from Bishkek for the Gender/HIV Conference hosted by Peace Corps. Around 15 volunteers attended with one or two local counterparts, so a nice mixed group. It was an interesting, although slightly disappointing experience. There were, however, two particularly interesting moments during the conference.
First, at the beginning of the conference we had a discussion about feminism and what it is. I was surprised to hear the same negative connotations associated with the word “feminist” here in Kyrgyzstan as you hear in the United States. I was shocked that some of the locals who work everyday in women’s rights, combating domestic violence, said they would not call themselves feminists. This idea of a radical movement for women who hate men has managed to take hold all the way over here.
Unfortunately, this discussion didn’t last long and I don’t feel like this was ever cleared up. So for everyone out there who looks at this here is the dictionary definition:
the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.
Nothing crazy. Just equality.
The second interesting/frustrating moment was a discussion about divorce. As mentioned previously, divorce in this country is very looked down upon. Women in horrific situations will stay with their drunk, abusive husbands to avoid shame. We asked the local women why this is, and they said that it is better to stay and try to fix the situation than just give up and leave. This back and forth went on for a while.
What I took away from this conversation is that women should always behave well and tolerate men’s bad behavior. If a woman misbehaves or does something a man doesn’t like, then he has every right to leave her or abuse her. It is up to women to make things right.
These two moments were disheartening for many reasons, but particularly because the women at this conference are some of the more educated and progressive women in our communities. It only emphasized how much more there is to do here.
Anyway, hopefully this will be my last post on gender for a while. Exciting things soon to come!
“Women here always feel they must do things; they must clean the house, they must cook, they must forgive their husbands.” And so I dove straight into the world of women’s rights, gender roles and healthy relationships here in Kyrgyzstan.
One thing I want to make very clear is that the problems women face here are not unlike things we experience in the United States. Some things, bride kidnapping for instance, are a bit different but the overall themes of domestic violence, sexual assault and discrimination are the same, if maybe just on a slightly different scale.
This was the topic of our most recent Mom’s Club session and while encouraging in some respects, it has also left me feeling numb, confused and unfortunately, a little hopeless.
While it doesn’t upset me as much as it used to, I am still taken aback, frustrated and angry every time I experience the gender inequality first hand here. I have been blatantly ignored by men, especially when I am with a male PCV, and I experience some form of verbal harassment at least every other week. Many people are confused when I tell them I am a business volunteer and not a teacher, calling me “businessman” which is humorous but annoying at the same time.
All of this, however, if nothing compared to what locals experience here. I was quickly brought back to my days of working at DVSAS (Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services) during our session. Our discussion of healthy relationships quickly took off into a debate over what to do in an abusive relationship. Should the woman leave? What would she do if she did? What would her family think? And worst of all: maybe she did something to deserve getting hit.
Domestic violence and sexual assault are topics that are hardly discussed in the United States. Here it is almost unheard of, sexual assault in particular. I have heard of some of the worst cases, which only makes me wonder how much is going on under the surface. The enormity of this situation all over the world feels like an unbearable weight I have no idea how to move.
The only thing I feel I can do at this point is encourage women to talk about it. This is not something to keep quiet, hidden within the household. It needs to be brought out and discussed, so that hopefully, someday things will begin to improve.
The one point of hope at the end of the session was the oldest woman in the group pointing out that “We only feel this way because of how we were raised. If we raise our children to think this is wrong and that they should expect more from their spouses, then things will begin to change.”
Some days I wake up here and almost forget where I am. Then I hear the roosters or someone driving by yelling something incomprehensible through a loudspeaker and I remember. I admit, I do get homesick.
On a Sunday morning back home, I could sleep in without feeling any guilt and I’d wake up naturally to the smell of coffee brewing. I’d eventually roll out of bed and go get myself a cup, then settle down in a cozy chair, with a blanket and a book. At some point, I’d make myself something to eat and then fall right back into that chair with my book. I could spend the entire day like that and would rarely feel judged or disturbed.
Here I feel that I have to stay (or hide, really) in my room for as long as possible, because as soon as I open that door, I am no longer in control. My meals are not my own, I am judged for spending too much time in my room, or not enough time at home. I struggle to explain myself in Kyrgyz. It seems that the concept of a weekly day of rest does not exist here, and why would it? I know it is a luxury, but it is something I hold dear and would very much like to reclaim.
At least one thing has not changed though: there is always still a cat trying to shove their way in between me and my book.
Here’s to my first New Year’s celebration abroad!
New Year’s in Kyrgyzstan is not exactly how it is in the states and I had no idea what I was getting into. I spent most of the day nervously venturing out from my room to see what was going on, only to be told that they didn’t need any help and that we’d eat at 9. So, after a long day of anxious curiosity I was finally called to dinner and got to see what was in store for me.
The whole room was decorated with ribbons hanging from the ceiling, a very colorful “New Year’s” tree, and a table overflowing with food! The best part was the potato salad in the shape of a snake. Apparently Kyrgyz people follow Chinese astrology fairly closely because they all kept telling me that 2013 is the Year of the Snake – hence the awesome salad snake.
I was served an excessive amount of mystery meat, and then randomly my little brother brought me a gift right in the middle of the meal: an orange Adidas towel. Nobody else got gifts at that time, and I’m still confused as to what exactly happened.
After we all ate our fill, I was told we had to go make manti. Manti is basically a large steamed dumpling. I was actually really excited about this part because they rarely let me help with cooking, but apparently on New Year’s everybody helps with this. They were very impressed with my manti folding skills – check it out!
Just a couple more pinches and Voila!
After we finished with the manti, we waited patiently for midnight to arrive. We were briefly interrupted by a fight that had broken out in front of our house, but then things quieted down again. As midnight approached, I was expecting the usual countdown that we have in the US but I was sadly disappointed. Once the Kyrgyz president came on the TV we all went into the other room, drank champagne and toasted and then quickly rushed outside to set off some fireworks.
I’m 99% sure these fireworks would not be legal in the States. I was a little too close to the first one and it felt like a bomb went off. So, feeling deaf and seeing stars, I learned my lesson about Kyrgyz fireworks. Everyone in the neighborhood was doing the same, and it reminded me a lot of the 4th of July.
After the terrifying fireworks experience we went back inside to eat the manti we had prepared earlier and also some cake! We finished our champagne, exchanged some gifts (this time I got a candy bar) and then the night wound down. By this point it was almost 2 in the morning which is waaaay past my bed time, and so ended my first New Year’s Eve abroad.
2012 was a year full of change and many struggles. It was definitely a year of growth for me, and I can’t say I’m too sad to see it end. I am very excited for 2013, however, and am working hard to make it a year full of adventure!
2013 will be: My first full year away from the U.S. The year my parents come visit Kyrgyzstan! The year I go back to Europe and possibly India or Bali too! Hopefully the year my work here in Kyrgyzstan takes off and I finally feel busy! Who knows what else this year has in store for me!?!
Happy New Year to all my friends and family around the world! I hope 2013 brings great things for you all!