Spying on sheep: The diplomacy of a Peace Corps ‘foreign agent’

In recent legislative news here in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is proving that once again, life in a former Soviet Republic truly is stranger than fiction. In a country where I’m still asked about once a month if I’m a spy, it’s necessary to discover ways to traverse these conversations.

For my Internet friends: I am not a spy. (Just what you’d expect a spy to say, I suppose.) But I can do better than that. Here’s how I usually handle it:

New acquaintance: Are you a spy?

Me: Yes. Yes, I am a spy. A shepherd spy to be specific. I’m out here in the village to count sheep. How many sheep do you have?

Agent ShepherdAgent Shepherd, busy at work

There is a combined total of zero points of useful intelligence out where I live and though I’m sure the Ambassador would drop everything if I were to call her with news of disputes over watering schedules for local gardens, I think national security and development holds the trump. This question is usually asked of me a bit tongue-in-cheek anyway, so it’s ok to have a little laugh.

Access CampI’ve always been quite good at keeping under the radar

Other than the sticky situations that arise from pushing a ‘foreign agenda’ of peace and friendship upon the people of Kyrgyzstan while indoctrinating their children with a working knowledge of English, there are other kinds of conversations that require the same delicate step and well placed word. As a “grassroots diplomat,” I’ve developed five basic strategies for diplomatically dealing with the more hairy situations:

1) Feign ignorance

This is usually not very difficult since most of the time I don’t have to feign. I’m just straight up ignorant. But for those situations or conversations I would like to get out of, I try to either look really confused or give answers that have nothing to do with the question.

Man on street: Hey, we’re headed up to the mountain—you think you could spare a hundred som—you know, for just a wee bottle.

Me: Yes, I have 2 sisters.

Man on street: No, we’re headed up to the mountain see, and just to celebrate, it being spring and all, and you do want to be respectful of us and so forth…

Me: Thirty.

Man on street: Huh?

Me: I’m thirty years old. Your mountains are very beautiful. I like to play Frisbee.

Man on street: Alright, take care now, we’ll see you around, Luther.

2) Make a joke

Older man: You can marry my daughter. We will have American in-laws.

Me: I can’t marry your daughter because I don’t own any sheep for the bridal gift.

Funny and, sadly true. (Though I’ve been keeping my secret agent eye on a few of the more ‘suspicious’ ones.)

3) Be profusely grateful

Host: Drink the vodka!

Me: Thank you! (Leaves vodka on table.)

Host: No, I mean, drink—you should drink.

Me: I am so grateful for your hospitality! (Smiles like an idiot and looks around room.)

Host: But…the vodka…

Me: You are so generous! Thank you deeply from my heart! (Continues to ignore vodka and shoves an entire fistful of raisins in mouth.)


4) Give a culturally appropriate response

Neighbor: Come over to my house for besh barmak for dinner.

Me: Oh, that would be good. God willing. (Smiles, shakes hand and leaves.)

5) Call a spade a spade

I believe in the importance of dealing candidly and directly with important issues, and I don’t shy away from engaging others in conversation when the greater good of our community or the future of Kyrgyzstan is at stake. Simply laughing off bigotry, laziness or abuse is a sin in of itself. (Though showing these stances to be ridiculous by bringing them to their logical conclusions like the article above can sometimes be effective.) The trick is to be able to respond with the appropriate level of gravity without creating enemies. This balance is exceptionally difficult to strike, especially given the fact that ideological differences can sometimes preclude any chance of friendly relations.

Sometimes creating enemies is unavoidable and therefore the right thing to do. I believe when it comes to the topics of justice and a fair shot at opportunity we shouldn’t compromise. Still, we have a wide array of possible choices of discourse and should always weigh carefully the cultural implications, choose responsibly and act with discretion. If that makes me deserving of the title, ‘foreign agent,’ so be it. Those sheep had it coming to them anyway.

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