‘Foreign’ is a word we use for things we don’t understand

Almost everything I’ve ever read about Kyrgyzstan has made it seem so foreign. And why not, I suppose; it fits the definition fairly well of being something other than one’s own, and from a general western perspective it is strange and unfamiliar. However, I think this label gets applied more often because so few know even the first thing about this place. How often do we call Australia a foreign country? When an undergrad goes “Down Under” does she proclaim to Facebook she is “off to a foreign land”? No. She just says she’s going to Australia.

Kyrgyzstan’s really not that strange, once you get to know it. That’s the whole point of travel, or it should be anyway—that we go places for understanding and not to draw lines in the sand between what’s “us” and what’s “them.”

This week I’ve been going through the book Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron. In his book he states he is traveling again through Central Asia for understanding, yet I can’t keep from being shocked by how foreign he makes everything sound through his verbose description. I would assume it’s my problem as the reader since he certainly is introducing a lot of new things. Except…I live here. Take a look at Thubron’s rendering of a meal in Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan, my backyard:

“An hour later I descended the hill to the tent. The lamb’s intestines were swimming in a bowl, and its bloodstained pelt curled on the floor. Twenty men had assembled to feast. They settled in a famished circle, squatting or cross-legged in their hefty boots, I in the place of honour. Their mouths gaped black or flashed gold in hard, burnished faces. Soon they were engorging minced lamb in pudding-like fistfuls, scouring their plates with work-blunted hands, while noodles dribbled from their lips like the whiskers of so many cuttlefish. Their cups filled up with tea, then vodka. They wrenched and gnawed on the bones, picked them white, discarded them, and sucked in the last gravy with a  noise like emptying bathwater. Then they dispersed without a word, or slept.”

If I were writing this part of the journey I would say, “And then we had dinner.” Because that’s what we eat: sheep and noodles. That’s what’s available here and people sit on the floor because no one wants to drag a wooden table and 20 chairs up to a yurt in the mountain. The name of this meal was left out as well: besh barmak which means “five fingers” and gives a pretty good indication that it is to be eaten with the hand and not a fork and knife.

But it’s not as sexy or fun to say, “And then we ate.” No one’s going to pay you to write a travel book that sounds just like life at home.

 Emerging from hibernation, the Minnesotans squint into the sunlight 

So, to show just how funny and ridiculous it can be, let’s take a look at how a Kyrgyz travel writer might describe a typical meal in say, suburban Minnesota, a la Colin Thubron:

An hour later I mounted the steps to the dining hall. The pig’s rump was screeching in a pan, it’s dried out skin flaked in a bag upon the elevated counter. A man with a woman and several offspring were gathered to feast. They stormed the table, some sitting in plastic butt-shaped booths to extend their reach. I was forced to sit at the end of the table, closest to the door, in shame. Their mouths shone ungodly white with teeth bleached by chemicals, their faces occasionally rubbed by the roughage of a felled tree. Soon they were slamming back gallons of milk and stabbing pig stomach in fits of fury, drowning the torn flesh with an acrid, vinegary brown sludge, while milk dripped from the children’s mustachioed faces. Their cups filled with a bubbling and frothing sickly sweet liquid, and food was soon replaced with an even sweeter dense cocoa based goo procured from a searing hot oven not two meters from where they lapped at their utensils like flint on steel. Then they dispersed with cries of sorrow as the opening scenes of prime time television had inadvertently passed away.

When first making contact, it’s ok to revel in the peculiarities and laugh at what’s so strikingly different than what you have known. It’s fun to read someone who says, “I went somewhere no one’s heard of. It was crazy!” These experiences are unique and different. But don’t leave it at that. Find in your travels people who are like you—people trying to not be bested by life’s challenges, trying to find a bit of rest from a day’s toil, trying to turn a dollar to support a family. Find in your travels the things that make us all the same—shared meals, the enjoyment of a good story, and the desire for justice and hope and a shot at making a life for ourselves in this crazy world.

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