That’s, I guess, some of your beeswax

“How much money do you make?”

“What’s your religion?”

“What are you?”

  

Are these questions between intimate lovers, or between you and the man who just sat down next to you on the bus? The answer: Well, it depends where you are.

I get into these kinds of conversations all the time. People always seem to ask the exact same questions in the exact same order. It’s not that my Kyrgyz is great but that I’m fantastic at repeating a set of syllabic mumblings over and over again. I can even feel some of these conversations coming on and just hit the auto-pilot on my tongue and let it do the work. It usually begins when I’m standing outside with a man I’ve just met waiting for something. His face gets this look, he turns and spits, and then opens his mouth…

 

Here it comes.

Local: Are you married?

I friggin’ knew it.

Me: No.

Local: When are you getting married?

Me: I don’t have a girlfriend.

And now for a blank stare and repeating of the question.

Local: … no, I mean, when are you getting married?

(In Kyrgyzstan, men often pick a wedding day first and a bride second.)

Me: Only God knows. Cue the laughter.

Local: (Laughs) Maybe you will take one of our girls back to America? (More smiles)

Me: (Mouths Maybe you will take one of our girls back to America at the exact same time as Local is speaking) We’ll see.

 

Sometimes I mess with the answers, just to shake the question fatigue.

 

Local: America is wonderful, yes? Much better than Kyrgyzstan…

Me: No, they’re just different. I like Kyrgyzstan.

Local: But, America, life is so much better there, right?

Me: It depends. Life in Kyrgyzstan can be great.

Local: Ah, but American life must be wonderful.

Me: … Actually, all the streets in America are made of gold. If you get hungry, you can take a shovel and dig up a little bit of the road and go buy yourself a hamburger.

Local: …

Me: …

Local: … (lights cigarette)

 

I feel like I’m reliving the movie Groundhog Day whenever I have these conversations. They go exactly the same every time, down to the punctuation, and I’m now rolling somewhere in the 300’s of times I’ve been through these.

And it’s not just because I’m a foreigner that I get asked personal questions. My Kyrgyz friends say they too are often asked some of these, and I’ve been on many a mini-bus ride where the young men are asked by the older women if they are married, if yes, how many children they have, etc. It’s just kind of a Kyrgyz thing. Since there are few Kyrgyz people in a small country I suppose it’s a way of figuring out how you know each other, since fun connections do pop up in these conversations almost as a rule. Family relationships and belonging are important here.

image                   On the upside, a mini-bus is a great place to make new friends

In America it’s the weather. We’re constantly making pointless observations to strangers about the activity in the sky—or not even the current activity but the potential of it to act a certain way at an unforeseen point in the future.

 

“Looks like rain.”

“Yep. Glad I have an umbrella.”

“Yep.”

 

My grandpa is one such exemplary American, always commenting on his thermometer in his mini-van if it gains or loses even a degree. I asked him why people talk about the weather so much. He said, “It’s the one thing we all have in common.”

America, it is said, is the great salad bowl and it can often be difficult to find commonalities between pepper flakes and a slice of tomato. But here in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan, personal questions are the common ground.

Love your neighbor

WWRD – What Would Randall Do? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself lately. Randall’s what Jesus would look like if Jesus had been a 6-foot-5 American training English teachers in Central Asia. I got to know him recently during a long conversation spanning working in Kyrgyzstan to Uzbek and Kyrgyz cultures to motivation of English teachers and the challenges of development work.

“Jesus didn’t command us to change the world,” says Randall, elbows and knees poking out beyond his desk. It’s covered with photos of family, local artwork and pithy motivational statements.

My mind dwells on just that: changing the world. It’s something I’ve been obsessing over lately, something I’ve been daunted by, wrapped up in, exhausted with. I wouldn’t necessarily have used the words “change the world” because when saying it out loud it sounds ridiculous. But practically, in my thoughts and my general attitude toward development work, that was what I was trying to do. I pictured myself as the agent for world peace. I was a grassroots diplomat. I didn’t have time or energy to waste pumping water for the widow who lives down the street.

“But what is Jesus’ command?” Randall continues, “To love God and love your neighbor.” That’s it. Randall nailed it. Or, Jesus rather, a few years earlier.

So what are we doing here on the other side of the world working in unfamiliar terrain among people we’d never met? Had we left our neighbors behind and abandoned that high calling? Maybe we need to return to the question that follows: “Who’s my neighbor?”

This was asked by a lawyer on the road to Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago, and it elicited one of Jesus’ most memorable parables: The Good Samaritan. In this familiar illustration, a man is beaten, robbed and left for dead. Both a priest and a Levite see the man and pass him by before finally, a Samaritan stops, has compassion and cares for his needs. Jesus asserts that the Samaritan was a neighbor to this man and that each of us are to do likewise.

A good neighbor recognizes those who are in need and does something to help them. It seems simple, but here is where we get lost—we try to define need as the general condition of the world—broken and in pain—and we attempt to do work that we see as alleviating the world’s ills or fixing the world’s problems. But when we make our work so general, our declaration of love in service thins into a transparent sheet, like a single sheet of tissue, trying to catch all the world’s tears as they fall in one, torrential downpour. Our intensity drowns in this flood of need and our flame of passion once bright with fresh and youthful energy is doused beyond any chance of relighting.

So how is it done? How do you serve the world and survive?

Here’s the secret: The work must be done in specific with our love directed toward a person. The need must have a face, a name, a body and a soul. This doesn’t necessarily make the work itself easier. But it makes it possible.

“Who’s my neighbor?”—The one with the obvious need, lying in the path of your life, the one whom you must either stop to help or step over and pass by. What does it require?—A bent knee, an offering of help, a little money, the involvement of others, and continuing to check if they’re doing ok.

What does that look like in the Peace Corps?

It’s buying a few calves for a friend to raise and sell for income. It’s writing a project for a summer camp to give aspiring English majors a chance for practice and inspiration. It’s shaking a homeless man’s hand and walking together to a café for a bite to eat. It’s verbally standing up to a husband when he’s belittling his wife. It’s cooking dinner for some neighborhood kids when all they’ve had that day is bread and tea.

image   A good neighbor shows up with gloves and a bottle of fermented horse milk

Back in my conversation with Randall, I’m stuck in the daunting and debilitating task of trying to fix the world’s problems. Here he lifts his hand as if to show the way out:

“It’s amazing really, [us trying to change the world.] We try to do what we’ve not been asked to do and that which we’re not capable of, yet we neglect to love our neighbor which is what we’ve been commanded to do and are actually capable of.”

It’s so much easier to say we’re working to change the world than it is to dirty our knees for a neighbor in need. But we’re not called to turn our eyes to the world. We’re called to love in simple, practical ways—and those are the ways that are truly, desperately needed—the people immediately in our lives.

And you know what’s so magical about this? When we love our neighbors—when we seek their good and show it by helping them when and where they need help, the world does begin to change, one neighbor at a time.

My neighbor sells drugs

(This is probably going to blow their cover but) my neighbor sells drugs. They have a sign and everything; “Drugstore,” in Russian graces their front gate. Business must be good because they recently upgraded their sign from a pencil-on-cardboard to the standard placard-sized plastic model for higher visibility and prestige. As if anyone in town needed a sign to know where to find them. With fewer than 300 houses, not only does everyone have each house memorized, but will have looked through the windows of half of them in their morning jaunt down to the water pump and can tell you who had raspberry jam for breakfast and who had apricot.

Their house is not mainly a drugstore. It’s mainly a house. They sell pharmaceuticals for the extra needed inflow of cash. Almost everyone in town runs some kind of business it seems. With an official unemployment rate around 90%, people need to turn to entrepreneurial enterprise to make ends meet.

Not that 90% unemployment means everyone is doing poorly. Those figures only count those with government paid positions in the village—teachers, city hall workers, and a few people at the clinic. The owners of the largest store in town don’t count as being employed, even though they have a two story house and own multiple vehicles. Many of those with private businesses are actually doing much better. 

                                                          Business is booming

“What do you think her monthly profits are, Nazgul?” My counterpart and I are leaving school and I stop by the little hut to buy a pack of cookies. There’s a lady who runs a tiny little shack outside the school, barely big enough for her and one customer. She sells piroshkis (fried bread with potatoes), snacks and a few school supplies. “I’m not sure but I know she makes more than me,” says Nazgul, biting into a Kontik Milk. “If all she sold was 150 piroshkis a day, she’d make more than me. And I have an education.”

I ask Nazgul about her AVON business. Once in awhile she gives me a small bottle of cream or cologne as a gift and I wonder if she’s making any money. “I mostly sell for the free gifts I get as a rep,” she tells me, “but I’m not losing money.”

But with a teacher’s salary of around $100 a month, selling AVON products isn’t just a hobby, it is a way of helping Nazgul and her family provide for daily necessities. Government salaries are only paid once a month and cash is needed throughout to buy foodstuffs and household goods. “If we didn’t have animals I suppose I’d be in the city,” says Nazgul, brushing her hands of chocolate crumbs.

Almost every household here raises farm animals and these are the true source of financial survival in the village. One of my business volunteer friends here calculated out profits for raising sheep and while he found it wasn’t a hugely profitable business it did provide two important things: food, and a buffer against inflation. A sheep can always be sold at market price.

The families with fewer farm animals are struggling. “When you have animals you have food and money,” my neighbor told me one day over the fence. He’s pitching hay. “No animals—no food and no money.” My good friend Maksat is one such family. His father passed away a couple years ago and through the various obligatory cultural ceremonies, hosting of guests and new financial burdens, he and his mother had to slaughter or sell off most of their animals. He has a job as a math teacher at the school, but the combination of his government salary plus his mother’s government pension is barely meeting the cost of living. He’s thinking about taking off for Turkey so he can find a job and send money home.

Since many Kyrgyz people who go abroad do so without visa’s or documentation, it is difficult to say exactly how many are abroad. Some conservative estimates put it at 20-25% of the population. This speaks volumes about the current economic situation here. When a quarter of the population has simply up and left, it sends the message that people are not able to live the kind of life they want here. Or at least they don’t believe they can.

Maksat is an incredibly intelligent and sharp man. His work ethic is inspiring and personally motivating. But Kyrgyzstan is about to lose him and his acumen to a foreign market. I often wonder about the kids and young people we train and teach as Peace Corps Volunteers here. How much are we contributing to the so called brain-drain in Kyrgyzstan? Are we simply providing them with the way to get out? While I would like for those with the knowledge and work ethic to make Kyrgyzstan a better nation to stay, I can’t blame them for doing what’s immediately best for their own families. Often that means taking their skills to further shores that will reward them for their work.

I drop my bag in the trunk of the taxi and head off to find a pit toilet while our driver is waiting for one more person to fill the cab. I pass by the group of men hawking DVDs on the side of the road. A sign displays a new price, 25 som, or about 50 cents for a burned disc of dubbed American and European films. It’s 5 som lower than last time I was here; it’s a competitive market. Those who don’t want to leave Kyrgyzstan, or those who aren’t able, still find ways to make a little cash. Here among the entrepreneurial stalls of a small village, hope floats above the dust of gypsy taxis and cows returning home. Somehow, people survive.

Cigarettes and Jesus

It’s currently 2am as I write this, here on this side of the world, in my little village, lost somewhere up the side of a mountain. I’ve got a couple more hours to go, or fewer, if I decide to cut my losses and go to bed.

This post is more personal than any of my previous posts to date. Not that each and every one doesn’t hold dear, personal meaning to me, nor that they’ve been somehow untrue. Just removed maybe. Or not quite as raw.

It’s been a stressful few months since returning from a quick Christmas visit back home. I’ve been stressed out by schedules and lack of schedules, ineffectiveness and having too much to do, relationships and the void that comes with being out here all alone. It seems to be everything or nothing at all.

My stress is both fueled by and relieved by those little moments in between drags, standing, as Alanis Morissette would put it, with “one hand in my pocket and the other one…flicking a cigarette.” It’s not the healthiest way to deal with these crushing feelings, but at least I’ve got a little paper stick to crush at the end of it.

It seems like the night is the only time to get anything done. I’m constantly interrupted by life—random text messages and phone calls from people all over the country, the neighbor kids wanting me to watch their dance routine, the constant tea breaks when trying to get applications and lesson plans written with counterparts, the horses coming home… And then I realize I’m out of water and have to walk down to the pump and wait in line, or I try to make a run to the outhouse and my landlord’s brother is walking by and needs to engage in a half hour chat about Islam and then my modem won’t connect to the internet and my e-mail won’t load and I’m hungry and need to think about making something to eat…

A lot of it would be normal interruptions anyone would face, but it seems like here I put in nine hours and then I come home to another full days worth of work.

And I’ve been stressed out by the looming decision to extend or not. There are so many pros to staying and so many cons to make me want to escape, and so many negatives about returning home now and so many good things to go home to. It’s stressful to try and put a weight on each of those and then watch as the scale swings in the winds of my emotions.

And then there’s Jesus. Sweet Jesus. Jealous Jesus. He’s been taking a bat to the idols in my inner worship hall recently, smashing to bits what I’ve so carefully constructed from glittery patches of worthless things, and that’s been good. Really good. I really don’t know why I don’t listen to him and rest in his presence more often. He’s always been so good to me and that whole advocating on my behalf thing before God…well, I’d be in a world of hurt without him. Life always goes better with him, even through the pain of giving up the things I’ve been using to get me through—resentment, lust, gossip, envy, laziness, and that inward “self bending in on the self,” as my namesake so eloquently put it.

Long, out-loud conversations seem to do the best. They move in a direction instead of spinning on that dwelling spiral, like a penny in those wide, yellow donation tubs that only seem to be found in malls, spinning, spinning forever it seems, hypnotizingly slow at first and then faster and faster until they hit the bottom of the bin with a trapping clunk.

Long conversations that last longer than the glow at the end of a penny cigarette—long conversations about this life here and just who it is I’m talking to, a God who has been at the moment of this feeling, at the inception of this temptation, at the end of this thought and walked on to the grave and stepped back out of it, yanking victory from the pit of hell and ascending to lead captives in his train. Captives like me. Oh! How lovely is your dwelling place!

Thank you Jesus for being here and being my friend.

image                                                                      Psalm 121

The map changes

I have a friend who is trying to visit 30 countries before she turns 30. Since I’ve already turned 29 for the second time and am only sitting at 9 countries, I’m fairly impressed. As we sat and talked about numbers and places, I wondered what people do when a country they’ve visited gets split or is absorbed into another. For example, if you had traveled through Sudan from north to south prior to 2011, could you now up your count by one?

And if you’re traveling with your Chinese friend from Beijing down to Taiwan, would you dare boast to him about hitting a “new country?”

And don’t forget the Central Asian conundrum. Having declared into being the new country, “Kyrzakhstan,” American Secretary of State John Kerry in a word docked the lists by one of any traveler to these two, unique countries. (If nobody’s heard of the countries you’ve been to, do they still count?)

My friend is counting Scotland even though it’s not technically a separate country, although it could become one after a referendum to be held this September. (By then my friend will be 30 anyway!)

It’s strange, this shifting and changing world. For all of human history we’ve physically only added and lost a few islands, but think of the millions of miles of arbitrary borders that have bobbed and weaved over mountains, along rivers and across valleys for millennia! It’s a strange concept, that borders change, because we’re used to living in the present and at any given moment (the miles of disputed borders aside) there is one lay of the nations.

I was one who used to think the world stayed the same. I had a printed map, after all, and Mr. P, my seventh grade teacher, expected me to memorize the names inside all those squiggly lines or else I’d fail the class. To me countries were green, yellow, purple and orange and smaller than my hand.

But rivers shift. New presidents are elected, or generals usurp control. And the ideas of these leaders shift more than rivers. Some start to think that maybe the grass really is greener on the other side.

image

                  Hanging out in Transnistria. Wait - does that put me at 9 1/2?

The recent news about Crimea has most of the western world up in arms. (And let’s hope they don’t accidentally fire one of them.) But think about it—if you were learning geography in 1958, you’d say America has only 48 states and it wasn’t until various referendums, acts and contentious votes that the president finally signed the bills that joined two new states theoretically to America’s shores.

And if it’s Putin’s military presence we’re upset about, it was only a couple generations ago that Great Britain—still today America’s biggest ally—ruled an empire procured through decades of bloody campaigns across the world.

The world changes. That is a fact. Whether it should or not is another debate, but we can’t be surprised when it happens. Rulers of nations and peoples have been changing borders since the beginning of history and aren’t going to stop anytime soon, no matter how many Eurovision concerts are held or joint space flights are launched.

Sunday’s vote by the citizens of Crimea to join Russia plus Putin’s signing of the annexation today proves that. I’m not defending nor decrying the legitimacy of these actions. I’m just saying it happens all the time and we shouldn’t be so surprised.

So add another question to the list: should you have happened to visit Crimea in the past and counted it for Ukraine, do you change your mark for Russia? What’s the call now?