Fables only sound ridiculous when they’re not your fables

The presumed father of all Kyrgyz people is this man called Manas. I wanted to write “legend” instead of man, but people here really believe he was a real person. And maybe he was, before the stories grew.

Manas is like what Paul Bunyan would be if he had founded a religion and was also the moral center of the government. The stories surrounding him are epic. I’ve even climbed a mountain he built with his bare hands.

image Newly-wed photo shoot under the watchful eye of Manas

There’s this million-line poem too about him called The Epic of Manas and some people devote their entire lives to memorizing huge stretches of it. It’s spoken in a kind of trance verging on the spiritual and indeed, the times of old must have been. Us foreigners chuckle in vindication when we read the history books that say much of what is known of Manas was compiled a hundred years ago and then systematically disseminated by the Soviets.

But the thing is, we have fables too, even if we don’t label them as such. Like self-esteem or six o’clock dinner. We just can’t see them because we’re so entrenched. And even if someone opens our eyes to our own absurdities we grow indignant and feel attacked.

Now sometimes I feel like I have the right to be defensive. I’ve given up a lot to be here and have adapted and changed so much I feel like a chameleon who’s forgotten his true color. I don’t want to abandon self-esteem or six o’clock dinner. I happen to know they’re cultural and that right there has a big deal to do with why I like them, thank you very much.

My host mother told me a few weeks ago, “You’re the one who came to Kyrgyzstan so you’re the one that needs to change. Get used to it.” While that’s not the most accommodating sentiment I’ve received since coming, it might be the most realistic. It allows me to see a little better what others go through when they reach our shores. “This ain’t ching-chong China, bud. We do things the right way here.” We think they should change – they must follow the rules. But unlike human rights, most rules pour from culture and don’t make sense to those who haven’t been steeped in it their whole lives.

So we hang on to our own and yet change and adapt. We see both sides and feel the pain as we twist and stretch to try and be in both places at once, both mindsets at once. I’ll never get used to eating at 10pm and then going to bed. Or my stomach won’t, anyway. But I might be able to listen to a story or two of Manas before I drift off to sleep. He was a pretty incredible man.

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