Bride-kidnapping, dining on horse meat, bribes, corruption, a city-wide heating failure in January, stray dogs, the worst air quality in the world… all points of interest that were revealed to me as I researched my host country after enrolling in the Russian language and Central Asian studies program for my out-of-classroom experience.
I was first drawn to Kyrgyzstan for its mountainous terrain and beautiful scenery. After Russian influence and Soviet rule, Kyrgyzstan is a great place to practice Russian. With a population of 6.2 million, this small Central Asian country holds over 80 different ethnic groups, perfect for my global theme of Politics and Culture, and my challenge: exploring multiculturalism in Kyrgyzstan and how it influences the political and cultural activity of the region.
Identity in Kyrgyzstan is fascinating. In the capital city Bishkek, where I lived, demographics were flipped after the fall of the Soviet Union. Kyrgyz people comprised only 12% of the population; 80% were ethnic Russians. After Kyrgyzstan gained its independence in 1991, steady gains have made Kyrgyz 66% of the population and Russian less than 20%. Russian remains the lingua franca and dominant in the city.
I had several opportunities to visit rural Kyrgyzstan, significantly less affluent and more conservative than the city. Islam re-emerged as the dominant faith after the Soviet Union repressed religion for most of the 20th century. Kyrgyz people are also incredibly proud of their nomadic heritage. Some of these traditions are in direct conflict with Islamic practices, convoluting the religious aspect of Kyrgyz culture, already balancing Russian influences.
As a new, democratic nation located between two global superpowers (Russia and China) vying for influence in the region, Kyrgyz politics offers a unique vantage point for international relations and foreign policy playing out on an international scale. Ethnic conflicts at borders and recent revolutions to promote democracy are important topics of national politics, revealing the role identity plays in Kyrgyz culture and politics. The SRAS program included a month-long stay with a host family and many opportunities to engage with locals in their language, which created opportunity to understand differences in culture and there were a lot.
Yes, I ate horse (once), and felt lucky to experience Kyrgyz hospitality. No, I was never in danger of being kidnapped to be a bride but several of my teachers shared personal stories of misfortune and dissatisfaction with arranged marriages, prompting discussion of women’s societal expectations. I pitied the “no-touch dogs” locals ignored. I often had to defiantly argue (in poor Russian) my way out of unfair “extra fees” made up by scheming taxi drivers but could appreciate that the fare was already so low.
There was the one time I was memorably stranded visa-less with my fellow students for four hours on the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the latter being an authoritarian dictatorship. An oversight between our school and tour company left us without visas, a guide, and a way to contact anyone. After pleading with border guards and friendly locals who were crossing that let us use their cell phones, we got a hold of the right people and were sent safely back to Bishkek.
These experiences had me practicing patience, flexibility, and receptiveness, all necessary for understanding Central Asian cultural dynamics and valuing my own. I’ve returned to the United States with a much broader perspective, very glad I put myself out a little bit further into the world and in a place so incredibly different from my comfort zone.