…it would be convincing readers that Kyrgyzstan is, in fact, an incredibly normal (and sometimes absolutely wonderful) place to live (and visit).
A pretty popular travel website recently posted that Vice documentary on bridenapping that I ranted about a while ago. My first reaction was “UGH!!!” How could they!? Introducing so many people to Kyrgyzstan in a way that is totally off-putting. The comments about Kyrgyzstan’s barbaric way of life had already started rolling in. I was pissed.
I’ve mostly calmed down now, but it goes along with how I’ve felt lately like an unofficial spokesperson for Kyrgyzstan. While I was back in the states recently, I could not believe how often I would hear the phrase “Can you get ______ over there?” or “Oh my gosh! You can really get _______ over there?!” for the most mundane things. A haircut? Clothes? Fruit? Vitamins?
Uh… yes. I can, in fact, get a haircut in Kyrgyzstan. I don’t have to haggle in a dusty bazaar to buy a camel for my transportation needs. There are blue skies and green grass. I can buy clothes, household items, and a pretty decent variety of food and ingredients. I’m not in any danger of being kidnapped (neither was my young, beautiful, single female employee who recently did fieldwork in rural Issyk Kul, where men were too shy to even speak to her directly).
After living here for this long now (nearly two years!), Bishkek is just another city to me, so sometimes I can’t quite find the words to describe it to someone who’s trying to get past the fact that it’s (relatively) near Afghanistan. It’s a small city, but it’s fairly modern and cosmopolitan. Farrell frequently compares Kyrgyzstan to Colorado because of their similar populations (5 million-ish total, 1 million-ish in Bishkek and Denver), climates, topography and population density. Bishkek is definitely less “city” than Denver, but decidedly more so than the towns where Farrell and I grew up, for example. In Bishkek, there’s more going on (rock festivals! fashion shows! international soccer matches!), there are more tall buildings, there’s more personality. But think of any small-ish city or large-ish town you’ve lived in or visited before. Sure, compared to something like Denver, Philadelphia, or New York, there are things to be desired with living in a smaller city. But you certainly wouldn’t feel deprived. You’d know that you could still get a haircut in Grand Junction, Colorado, for example.
Another way to look at it could be like this. There are McDonald’s restaurants all over the world. Maybe you’d be surprised to believe it, but there are McDonald’s branches in over 120 countries. For the most part, the set-up is pretty familiar. You can get burgers, fries, chicken nuggets, milkshakes, happy meals, etc. But from country to country, things are not 100% similar. In the Middle East you can buy McFalafel, McShwarma, or special Iftar meals during Ramadan. In Malaysia, there’s the McChicken Rice Porridge (uhh…yum?). In Italy, you can enjoy a McItaly sandwich, made with Italian parmesan and cured meats.
There are differences from place to place, but the basics of every city are still the same, you know?
(Is my analogy completely useless once I admit that there are no McDonalds in all of Central Asia? We do have Begemot though, a homegrown knock-off that satisfies the need for cheap, mediocre fast food burgers and fries.)
I don’t think that people are reacting specifically to Kyrgyzstan. I think it’s human nature that most people just aren’t familiar with what’s outside of their own culture, and they rely heavily on the few things they know from the media to paint broader pictures. I get reactions like the ones you describe all the time about Colombia (in addition to snide comments about cocaine and such). On the flip side, I can’t tell you how frequently Colombians don’t believe that I’m American (but wait, you’re not tall, fat, OR blonde?!?!).
Excellent as always. If my wife and I still lived in Kochkor, Naryn, we’d totally want to hang with you. Not just because of your awesome digs, but you are awesome too!
My daughter just moved from New York
to Kyrgyzstan to teach at the European School in Central Asia and she is loving it!!!!
I’ve been living here for a year now; I love it here! A very nice blog you have here.:-)
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