"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." -Mother Teresa

Friday, September 21, 2012

Bon appétit!

                                          Fried bread. Mmmmmmmm.

It’s lunchtime in the village. I sit, elbows resting on the plastic tablecloth, hunched over my ceramic bowl-like cup of steaming tea at the L-shape benched table. My 4-year-old host sister, Bermet, stands on the bench to reach across the table for a piece of bread. I watch as she uses a spoon to scoop butter from a small plate by the spoonful and spreads over the petite piece of bread. It would have been reasonable for her to stop after the first spoonful of butter, however, when it comes to grease, sugar, and butter- the Kyrgyz cuisine is anything but reasonable. She continued until the plate, once full with butter, was emptied onto her single bread piece and then she promptly devoured the gooey light yellow substance in heaping mouthfuls. I couldn’t help but laugh at her. “Emne?” What? She looked at me confused.

Kyrgyz people argue that our bodies need three “food groups” to stay healthy and function well: tea (known here as chai), sugar, and meat. People think it’s odd that I do not add sugar to my tea and especially odd that I do not enjoy eating a lot of meat. “But a doctor told me that our bodies need meat in order to be healthy” one English teacher told me over an afternoon “chai eech” at our school. A discussion with the older Kyrgyz woman about the countless food products aside from meat that contain the same (and in some cases more) amount of protein found in meat would have been pointless. In this case, culture trumps science for the vast majority of Kyrgyz people.

In the novel, “This is Not Civilization”, based off one Kyrgyzstan Peace Corps Volunteer’s experience in the country, the Kyrgyz cuisine is not so surprisingly mentioned. “She appeared carrying a new mutton dish each night: mutton dumplings called manti, a mutton and turnip stew called lagman, the mutton kebabs called shashlyk- and what Anarbek claimed was a special delicacy, known as “refrigerator jelly”: a wobbling glob of congealed fat from the previous day’s mutton.” Although this account was of a volunteer who served nearly 20 years ago, not much has changed in the realm of food for this gradually modernizing country.

My favorite Kyrgyz dish is actually derived from a traditional Russian dish- Plov. Maybe because it reminds me of Chinese fried rice or possibly because it strokes my life-long obsession with any dish involving rice. Whatever the reason, I’m always relieved to see the rice dish adorning the chai eech table. With only a few simple ingredients, Plov is considered a rather easy meal to prepare among Kyrgyz women. Rice is cooked in an overwhelming amount of oil and sliced carrots and onions are added. Most Plov dishes are made with the Kyrgyz favorite- mutton, though I prefer the dish with chicken.

How to make Plov:

3 Tbsp oil (though most KG recipes use more)
½ kg beef or mutton, cubed (or chicken)
1 large onion, sliced
½ kg carrots, julienne-sliced
4 cups water
3 garlic cloves, whole (optional)
½ kg rice, cleaned and soaked for 30 minutes

Heat oil in kazan or deep skillet over medium high heat. Add meat and sauté until browned, about 10 minutes. Add onion and sauté until soft, about 8 minutes. Add carrots to mixture and sauté 15 more minutes. Add water and rice; bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer partially covered for about 30 minutes. Add garlic (optional). Simmer until rice is just tender, about 15 more minutes.

Tamaginez tatuu bolsen! (Bon appétit!)

Friday, September 7, 2012

Pics from First Bell Ceremony :)

 With my 8-year-old sharp lookin' brother, Begsat.

 With my Counterpart English Teacher, Kushtar.

 With English teachers (from the left) Gulsara, Jumagul, Dinara, myself, Kushtar, and my sitemate, Aly.

 With my 14-year-old sister, Altynai.

With a physical education teacher and Dinara, the head of the English department.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"Ding, ding, ding!"

I close the final pages of Maya Angelou’s “The Heart of a Woman”, and I am inspired. The wind looms loudly among the trees and a chain on a metal gate just outside clanks violently in a demanding rhythm. I close the book on my bed and, as it sits on top of my blue and yellow busy floral bedspread, I gaze at my hands as they rest on top of the book. My hands are young and, at the moment, look as though they might belong to a teenaged schoolgirl. The chipping red nail polish splotched across my unkempt fingernails desperately needs to be removed before I lose a certain amount of respect among the impressively dressed, neat, and clean Kyrgyz teachers at school. Respect… this term has been brought to my attention increasingly in the past several days in ways that cause me to ponder it’s weight in this culture, which I currently call home.

In Kyrgyz culture, a person’s age is the ultimate determining factor in terms of respect. A person’s age will determine how they are to be called, their place at the table, which parts of an animal they will eat at a Toi (party), whether they sit or stand on a Marshrutka, and the list goes on. What I have recently discovered is the abrupt reality that age, regardless of experience, determines much in the work place as well. In my case, this means that age determines the picking order of the teachers at school. Of course, because I am a volunteer and a guest, I am treated differently from my fellow young teachers (who are all older than I with more practical teaching experience) and I am honored, listened to, and respected. This interesting reality with which I have bumped shoulders will be a steady companion, I’m sure, throughout the next 2 years.

As the wind continues to race through the trees outside my protective window, I think back to this past Saturday’s “First Bell Ceremony” which took place at my school. Nearly 1,500 students along with over 100 teachers collected in the school’s courtyard, dressed to the nines, anticipating the coming school year. Multicolored banners were strung above the concrete yard and the students collected in a three-sided square awaiting the beginning of the ceremony. A long table stretched the length of the fourth side of the square and placed neatly on it were pinkish purple iridescent vases bustling with roses and greenery. At the table were seated some of the older teachers, the director of the school, the mayor, and other school administration.

“Amanda, you will speak, won’t you?” My counterpart, Kushtar, asks me expectantly. I had been warned that I would be asked to speak and, though I hadn’t prepared an official speech, I politely obliged. “Of course I will speak. Will you help me to translate?” I asked Kushtar, knowing what her answer would be. “Yes, yes, no problem.” After some hushed questions to some fellow helpful teachers on the pronunciation of Kyrgyz introductory phrases and congratulations, a microphone was thrust in my direction. I barely made it through “Salamatsizdarbuh” before a few girls approached me with roses. These students knew what it meant to have a volunteer, they were grateful and an obvious appreciation of my presence preceded me. I said a few words on the importance of attaining knowledge and even used a cheesy line like “this school year marks a new journey on the road of knowledge for all of you” which I’m sure did not translate into Kyrgyz. Five of the youngest students walked the inside perimeter of the populated square with a bell in tow. "Ding, ding, ding!" Was the sound that resonated from the bell and the crowd clapped and cheered. The school year had begun with the simple dinging of a bell. Like the flurry with which it had begun, the ceremony ended and the students dispersed to their first lessons.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

my Kyrgyz family.

My Kyrgyz family :) missing some members... Included are (from the left) Chynara Eje, Bermet, Altynai (yep, she's flashing a "peace" sign...) , myself, and Begsat.