Culture Shock? I don’t know her.

In one week, I will have been living in Bishkek for one month! It’s gone by really fast, but I’ve had a lot to keep me busy. Next Saturday, the program-included time with my host family will be up and I’m moving into the dorms of the London School for the rest of the semester.

I’ve really enjoyed living with my host family. I have a host mom and dad, as well as four host brothers. They’ve made me feel very welcome and a part of the household. Living with a local family has also provided me with a lot of invaluable cultural insights. There’s a lot going on in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and Central Asia that is unusual and sometimes uncomfortably different from life in America. I’ve been rolling with it fairly well so far, and wanted to share some of what I’ve been experiencing.

Food

I knew it when I signed up for a semester here. Kyrgyzstan is not necessarily known for its cuisine. Granted, it is delicious. Rice, potatoes, meat (lots of it), noodles, bread, jam, tea, honey, tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers make up most of my meals. Dill is put on everything here. The SRAS students went to our favorite watering hole the other night and ordered a pizza and although we should’ve suspected it, we were humored to find dill sprinkled atop. I ordered scrambled eggs and toast at midnight last Saturday at a fairly nice restaurant close to the bar. I just wanted sliced bread and something without dill on it and almost cried because my dreams were stomped on.

I will say that my greatest asset in this country is my willingness to eat tomatoes. On the occasion that someone offers you a salad, it will generally not include leaves of any kind. A salad in Kyrgyzstan is tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions. Maybe salt and oil. (Actually, oil is almost always a guarantee. I can’t get noodles to stay on my fork because they are so slippery.)

Interestingly, Kyrgyzstan’s national dish is called besh bamark. This translates to “five fingers”, because it is a utensil-free dining experience. It is noodles served with either sheep or horse meat, depending on the event. Light appetizers like “salads”, tea, and bread are served at the table and before eating besh bamark, you must wash your hands in a basin with water being poured out of a teapot. Then you pick up the noodles with your right hand and slurp them into your mouth as best you can. In my experience, there will also be a teacup of fat and oil you can wash it all down with.

I visited my host mom’s hometown in the countryside and the besh bamark we had there was made of sheep. I am positive of this because its head was on a platter. The ear was cut off and given to a young boy (it’s so that he listens well!) and I saw a man pop both sheep’s eyeballs into his mouth as if they were grapes.

I have purposely not been inquiring with my host family about the specific origin of the meat I’m being served, but horse is generally saved for special occasions so I was in the clear.

Until! My host-mom’s brother and his wife visited one night and at dinner I was informed that the meat was special because it was Kazakh. The meat was tough and tasted a little game-y, which was sus. I reached for seconds and it was then that they let me know exactly what I was eating. The Russian word for horse meat is Конина (konina) which I learned a few days before in class, but they made sure I understood by repeating the actual word for “horse” a few times.

Honestly, it was something I’d eat again and it got me thinking about the 2013 horse meat scandal in Europe and why I was predisposed to being disturbed by eating it. I found some interesting articles that discuss the differences between America and Central Asia in culture, cuisine, and people’s relationship to horses that put my experience into perspective.

Breakfast here is very different from breakfast in America. I usually don’t eat breakfast anyway, which is probably a good thing because in Kyrgyzstan it’s very common that breakfast is leftover from lunch or dinner the day before and it often doesn’t make it into the refrigerator in between. For this reason, I stick to tea and bread because eating meat that’s been sitting in a pot on top of the stove for at least 10 hours isn’t a risk I’m eager to take.

Traffic

If I need to dip into the $100,000 repatriation of mortal remains benefit provided by my insurance (shouts out GeoBlue!) and it’s not from a food-borne illness killing me, it will be because I got run over by a marshrutka.

Marshrutkas are mini-buses that cost 10 som per ride. Riding in one is an experience that I have not yet had because I live walking distance to most things and take extraordinarily cheap taxis coming home from late nights. However, it is not just marshrutkas that drive recklessly in Kyrgyzstan. In private cars, seat belts are ignored and there are typically no buckles for seatbelts in the backseats of most cars. Probably about half of cars have the driver’s side on the left. Lanes are merely suggestions, as are speed limits. One can cruise around other vehicles as he or she pleases.

One fundamental rule that I have determined (there is plenty of time for my hypothesis to stand corrected) is that vehicles will stop for you if you start walking across a crosswalk. Most big intersections have lights, which solve this problem, but for the crossings without the only way you will ever get across the road is if you start walking. I’ve been really testing my luck with this so far but it will probably be fine.

A Quick Feminist Rant

As a white woman who generally stands out from the local Russians on account of my fashion choices and the North Face backpack I carry to class every day, I’ve never felt unsafe walking across the city in daylight or short distances at night. I can’t imagine a solo female traveler would be at risk of any maltreatment if she possesses common sense.

There are cultural nuances that are easy to notice and can be frustrating to observe. There is, of course, bride-kidnapping but it’s currently really a problem just in the countryside. Cultural norms regarding women in the city are still outdated. We were told in our cultural orientation provided by the school that it would not be uncommon for people (host families, taxi drivers, family friends, etc.) to try play matchmaker to set us up with their sons/daughters, their family friends’ sons/daughters, nieces, nephews, etc. My host mom recently took me to her home village for a party at her brother’s house and sure enough, it was suggested that I get set up with the hosts’ son. This is a scenario that is typical for anyone in Kyrgyzstan in their early twenties who is not in a relationship. There is occasional heckling about why you might not be looking to get married or start a family right now as well.

Couples typically marry and have kids when they’re fairly young, compared to Western culture. Family is very important in Kyrgyz culture, which fuels the fire. Although women commonly go to university and have jobs, their roles in the house are traditional and they are still expected to do all of the housework and childcare regardless of whether they’ve got a job or not. Men are a lot more likely to be controlling about how their girlfriends or wives dress, their male friendships, and when they go out and with who, which I believe is fundamentally wrong regardless of the culture one belongs to.

Living Cheaply

Kyrgyzstan is great because of the currency, the Kyrgyz som (69 som to 1 USD). Here is a quick breakdown of a night out’s expenses if you go to the right places:

  • Pregame Drinks: 400 som for two quality mixed drinks = $5.75
  • Drinks at the Bar: 240 som for two beers = $3.44, 170 som for a shot = $2.44
  • Late Night Snack: 300 som or less for splitting a pizza = $4.30
  • Yandex Taxi: 130 som for a ride across town with multiple people = $1.86

The SRAS students have been sampling a lot of the lunch spots around the school because it’s so cheap to eat out. After moving in to the dorms next week, I’ll be needing to buy groceries and I can’t wait to continue to be surprised at how cheap it is. (10/10 would recommend studying abroad in a developing nation! Thanks, USSR!)

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