Wednesday, October 17, 2012
I sit cross-legged on my bed after a long day. It is dark outside and lightening flutters in the distance. Wednesdays are by far my longest day of the week. 5 English classes back to back in the morning, lesson planning, and 3 English clubs in the afternoon. Earlier, I’d ambitiously wrote out an evening “to-do list” in my planner, only to find myself now pushing so many of the items to the next page- tomorrow’s tasks are boxes waiting to be checked off.
I think about how I find rest in my life in Kyrgyzstan. Days are exhausting- standing in front of classes of students then leaving class only to be the continued center of attention. I have found that I need the evenings to rest in the comfort of my home in order to maintain the energy and enthusiasm to keep up with the children I teach. Though it makes me wonder, how do my fellow teachers keep up with the responsibilities of their lives? This struck me today as my Counterpart, Kushtar, tells me story after story of her family’s struggles.
Kushtar is subject to a Kyrgyz tradition, which dictates how the parents of a family will be taken care of in their older age. The wife of the youngest son in a family is known as the “Kalen”. A woman who becomes a Kalen is responsible for moving into her husband’s parent’s home upon marriage and becoming the main caretaker of the entire family. Some women, especially those who have kind parents-in-law, enjoy the tradition and the family closeness it promises. Others, who may have demanding and harsh inherited parents, will end up detesting their role and live in an endless abyss of unhappiness. Thankfully, Kushtar thoroughly enjoys her husband’s family and is happy to serve them. Though this fortunate reality does not make her role lighter than other Kalens.
Kushtar’s day starts very early each morning and often does not end until after midnight. She will make food for her family in the morning and get her young sons ready for school. She is always at school before 8am ready with new ideas, questions, and topics to discuss with me, which she thought of the night before. Her English is incredible- especially for a young teacher living in the village. She is constantly reading, looking up words in her dictionary, and asking me questions to improve her English. She and I teach classes and clubs together every weekday, and spend numerous hours lesson planning, in meetings, or simply talking about life in the school’s “Canteen” (I’ve tried to change the name to the Cafeteria in an attempt to reduce the wartime Army barrack-esque nature calling it the “Canteen” evokes). In the late afternoon (and sometimes not until early evening) Kushtar returns home to clean her home, help her sons and niece (whom lives with her) with their homework, and organize whatever family events are unfolding that day.
Kushtar cooks dinner for her family every night without fail. In the states cooking could range from a 2-minute hot pocket to a 2-hour cook fest. In Kyrgyzstan, women do not have the option of “the easy way out” when it comes to preparing food. Cooking is always a strenuous endeavor, as almost everything has to be made from scratch. After cooking, eating with the family, and cleaning everything from the meal, Kushtar will often work on her lesson planning or brainstorming new activities we can do with the children. I asked her before if she has much time to relax and her response was “Relax? I am confused. Do you mean sleep?” Thus my question was answered.
Despite her heavy home responsibilities, work expectations, and ups and downs of everyday village life, Kushtar maintains an extremely positive and upbeat attitude. She is part of the minority of Kyrgyz women who flash big, teeth-y smiles when they greet someone rather than the simple eye blink greeting most Kyrgyz women employ. She’s an impressive teacher and her students adore her.
I have yet to meet a woman in the village who would be caught dead with her feet up. In fact, I doubt they exist. Or if they do exist, I think they may have to wait until their old age in order to lounge. That said I’ve come to the conclusion that the idea of “rest” is a product of culture. I’m from a culture that says, “You’ve had a long day. You deserve to rest and watch your favorite T.V. show with a glass of wine in hand.” And Kushtar is from a culture that says to women, “You’ve accomplished much today. It has been a long day. What else is new?” I’m learning that this idea of “rest” is not only a product of culture, but also a learned luxury. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with rest (in fact, I’m a big fan of the concept), I’m simply realizing that my personal thoughts on the matter differ drastically from the culture I’m emerged in on a daily basis.
Monday, October 1, 2012
Yesterday, while enjoying the last few hours of a last minute escape to the city, I received a call informing me that school in the village was cancelled for the week due to "potato harvest". As it is now Monday and my students are aiding their families in picking potatoes thus leaving yours truly with no work for the day, I feel inclined to do some other productive activities. Now that the ever laborious cleaning and laundry are completed, this blog is the result of said notion. My apologies if this entry lacks direction as it concurrently also lacks inspiration.
Lately I've been thinking a lot about what Peace Corps likes to call "The Fishbowl Effect". As volunteers, we were warned at pre-country departure orientation, in-country pre-service training, and possibly even in the initial interview about this fishbowl concept. Most prominent in villages, The Fishbowl Effect can be described as a volunteer becoming like a fish in a fishbowl to villagers- the subject of conversation, curiosity, interest, gossip, gawking, intrigue, and constant requests for "things"- just to name a few. There is no way to prepare for this reality, as one cannot understand what is it like until experience takes place.
My conclusion regarding this fishbowl idea is that it ends up putting a whole heck of a lot of responsibility on the volunteer. In the states, I could go to the grocery store and be completely anonymous- I'd most likely never met any of my fellow shoppers before nor would I likely see them again. In my village, I venture out to the magazine (store) and I am stopped by people on the street (many of whom I've never met) asking where I am going. At the store, I'm asked what I am buying and why I need such things. The following day at school, I'm approached by a fellow teacher telling me that she heard I bought bread at the large magazine, but it is much better and more fresh at the Asel's store on the main road.
Forget anonymity because, in the village, whether I like it or not, I'm apparently a person of extreme interest. I never thought that I would mourn the loss of anonymity- I mean, don't we spend our lives longing to be known? Whether by our family, friends, or a significant other? In America, I'd grown accustomed to this idea that I could hand pick what I wanted people to know about me, what I wanted people who knew me to view me as, and even what I spent my paychecks on. The thought of anyone, unless they were stalking me, to take interest in what I bought at the grocery store was a ridiculous thought. When I wanted to talk about things with others, those things became known, and what I didn't care to talk about stayed tucked away. Now, in the colony known as my village, it's widely the topic of conversation and incredibly interesting when I go for a run, walk to my sitemate's home, or when my boyfriend comes for a visit.
The people in my community don't find it rude to ask about the details of my life because, in their upbringing in the village, very little managed to remain private and the prospect of a question possibly seeming rude never occurred to them. Privacy- yet another intriguing idea. I doubt that my Eje has spent more than maybe an hour in alone time in her life. Constantly surrounded by immediate family, extended relatives, friends, neighbors, or whomever- the Kyrgyz would likely be confused if I brought up the concept of alone time. My host family finds it perplexing that I can spend hours in my room by myself, if I were to broach the idea that I indeed need this time, they'd just as soon assume me to be crazy. Oh the glory of cultural differences!