Should “small” languages be preserved?

Yesterday was National Kyrgyz Language Day and I couldn’t have felt more out of place. I had agreed over the weekend to show up for a recording for a show on foreigners who speak Kyrgyz and instead found myself on live television, sharing the stage with a host and 5 other Kyrgyz gentlemen—fathers of the Kyrgyz Republic.

I was the little kid brother to a 6th grader. A peon to the president. A proletariat to an aristocrat. I was a strange, thirty-year old foreigner in a purple checkered shirt and Adidas tennis shoes among congressmen, professors and those who have written Kyrgyz history with pens dipped in the sweat of their brows and the blood of their struggle. Let’s just say I felt…inadequate.

IMG_1290Public Teleradio Corporation (Коомдук Телерадиоберүү Корпорациясы)

Why I was on this show is beyond me. I was told there would be other foreigners there and that we would be briefed on simple questions like, “Why are you learning Kyrgyz? Is it hard? Do you like puppies? Here’s a piece of candy…” The host’s first question was something along the lines of, “Dear gentleman so-and-so, you were the one in congress who pushed for the recognition of the Kyrgyz language in the Soviet Republic of Kirgizia back in the late 1980s. Could you tell us a little about the history of that historic vote?”

We were told this would go on for an hour and now I was really nervous—how many questions was the host going to ask me? How was I going to understand the question, much less be able to put together a string of coherent thought cogently processed and well reflected given the diverse and nuanced point of views on the usage of the Kyrgyz language in today’s culture and society?

What ended up happening was the host asked me a question, I ignored it and then rattled off every piece of Kyrgyz that was anywhere near the front of my brain to tens of thousands of people tuned in to watch this talking head make a blunder on live, national television.

Basically I just talked about how I studied and learned Kyrgyz and gave some advice, but I also added that I thought both Kyrgyz and Russian are important for people to know. In some places, mainly small villages, students speak almost entirely in Kyrgyz and practice Russian very little. Then when they come up to the capital to attend colleges and universities, they really struggle because they don’t have a strong academic command of the Russian language. In order to function in the top tiers of Kyrgyz academia, business and society in general, you really need to know both.

That was about all I had time to say. I had been worried about the whole hour long thing, but luckily I was on stage with several senior gentlemen who also happened to be very opinionated and so that quickly ate up the time. (The first question above took over ten minutes to answer just by itself since we were receiving a minute-by-minute replay of the vote in congress from the distinguished gentleman on my right.)

IMG_1285I missed the memo on wearing a kalpak

The discussion never really got to anything truly controversial or interesting. Basically they just said Kyrgyz culture and mentality is best preserved through the language. That in order to best understand and preserve a culture, the language must first be preserved. Others added that since this was Kyrgyzstan, populated mainly by ethnically Kyrgyz people, the language should be the main operating language of the land.

I agree with this but thinking about it afterwards, I wish I had asked some questions like, “How do you ensure that everyone learns Kyrgyz, especially when Russian is already the operating language?” The world today is so interconnected that it makes little sense to huddle up with a small language almost no one outside of these borders understands. I’m all for preserving Kyrgyz and yes it is useful for those living here, but we can’t deny that Kyrgyzstan—like any nation in the world—is dependent upon relationships with surrounding countries near and far. If we are going to preserve Kyrgyz, let’s also push for fluency in Russian and English. English is the language of the world—you can go to China and speak English. You can go to Argentina and speak English. It’s a transferrable skill that offers immediate benefits in business, tourism, and education and the sciences, all areas that Kyrgyzstan needs so desperately to improve.

After what seemed like hours, the minute hand on the clock hit one revolution and the “live” light went dark. I was completely soaked on every limb of my body except for my mouth which felt like it had been lined with sandpaper and then filled with sand. I performed the perfunctory handshakes and cell phone pictures, received my little gift folder for being on the show and scooted out into the afternoon air.

IMG_1292Gift package including a Russian-Kyrgyz medical dictionary

I may not have had the time or language to get into a deep discussion at the studio, but maybe we could chat here if you have some thoughts to add? How important is it to preserve languages spoken by very few people? Does it make sense to require all people in a nation to speak one mutual tongue? What direction is Kyrgyzstan going? And what part should the English language play here?

Preparing the sheep head


Cooking up some sheep for dinner is one of the things that Kyrgyz do best. I would say mutton, but really it’s just sheep. A big pot of sheep. You get used to it after a while, and it even starts to taste pretty good. I especially enjoy it when the power goes out and we’re eating in the dark.

Today we’re looking specifically at the sheep head (and legs). This is shortly after the cutting-the-head-off step which I thought I would spare all of you, and immediately following the neighbor-who-came-over-and-sliced-off-a-little-bit-of-the-raw-head-fat-for-tasting-to-see-if-it-was-any-good step. (I’m not entirely sure that one is standard.)

Yes, it’s a bit gruesome, but that’s what makes it fun, right? …right?

This is step one. Maksat took a break from lighting a fire inside of a bottomless, upturned bucket to snap this photo. The bucket acts as a kind of a makeshift blowtorch. Firing sessions are swapped in and out for the scraping of the burnt hair off the skin with a knife. After the firing comes the boiling.


Here Maksat is preparing the “torch.”


We had to keep yelling “white rabbit!” and hopping around the fire to keep out of the smoke of the shifting winds.


The head’s getting pretty close to done, but there’s still some scraping to do on the legs.


Now for some serious scrubbing with a rag and hot water. I think I might need to brush his teeth too. Next step, the boiling pot.


Things I’ve discovered about Kyrgyzstan

Part II of ‘Things I’ve discovered about America.’

Мекениңдин кадыры башка жакта билинет

“The value of your homeland is known once you’re in another place”

As a foreigner living in Kyrgyzstan, I’m asked all the time what I like about it. It’s a regular part of introductory conversations. Some people are just looking for the typical answers like, “it’s nice” or “it’s pretty” or “the food is…edible.” But others really want to hear your opinion. It’s not normal for foreigners to live in Kyrgyzstan outside of the capital, Bishkek, for any extended period of time.

The westerners who do venture forth usually do so in government registered vehicles with tinted windows and fly through the villages, staying not much longer than the time required to tick a box on their grant checklist or shake a few hands.

It’s not always their choice—they have loftier goals than the common Peace Corps Volunteer since most are busy doing great things at the national level. Yet, there are so many aspects of a place that can’t be experienced until you dive in and stay awhile.

IMG_5603Hanging out with Grandpa, watching TV

The fly-by rule is also true of many natives. There are Kyrgyzstanis who wouldn’t spend 2 weeks outside of Bishkek much less 2 years. It’s hard for them to believe why someone would put themselves through that kind of “ordeal” for the sake of “peace and friendship.”

Some believe we’re operating under ulterior motives beyond our work at schools, village health committees and organizations. Add to it the decades of being conditioned for suspicion, and you can understand why some people seem a bit incredulous that we would give up 2 years of our lives to live in tiny villages without the comforts of showers or coffee shops or broadband internet or whatever else it is that Americans spend all their time on.

In truth the question of what I like about Kyrgyzstan does make me a bit introspective. Why am I in Kyrgyzstan? Why did I re-up for a third year? What is it exactly that I like about the country?

So here it is, a working list. Maybe I should call this Part I: What I’ve discovered about Kyrgyzstan:

  1. I miss the Kyrgyz language. It is fun and exciting to see the world through the lens, or in this case filter I guess, of another language. Specifically I miss saying, “God willing.” There’s this deference towards a higher calling on life that I miss being reminded of.
  2. Friends. I’m not ready to leave and I’m thankful for another year with them.IMG_0265
  3. The way you can always catch a ride, if you’re willing to expend a little patience. Since I don’t have my own car in Kyrgyzstan, I have to rely on public transportation. Oh wait—there is no public transportation out in the regions. So you rely on people going the same direction as you. It’s usually fun, and if not, there’s always a story to tell.IMG_0242
  4. The incredible potential. Kyrgyzstan is a battle ground for good development and in the last decade or so businesses and organizations have been springing up like the wildflowers that cover the mountains. I have a few ideas floating around for how to maybe stick around after Peace Corps.
  5. Working with my hands. I never made the time for this in the states.IMG_7419
  6. There’s an entire set of history, pop-culture, local lore, friends, systems and a myriad of interests that’s only accessible within the Kyrgyz language and within the borders of the country. It’s an incredible notion that there are all these totally different places in the world waiting to be explored.
  7. Kyrgyz proverbs. There are hundreds. You’ll keep hearing about these from me.
  8. Akmoor. She’s a lot of fun to be with and I miss her!
  9. Joking around with friends and being ridiculous.
  10. Maksym. It’s this naturally carbonated, non-alcoholic drink made from wheat, corn and barley and is sublime. You can buy it from little stands all over the capital, and many people in the villages make it in their homes. It’s a summer drink and will keep you strong, healthy and I suppose hydrated. It’s delicious!Luther Shoro
  11. The benefit of a community that knows each other and has each other’s back. In small communities you have to put up with the gossip and the fact that you can’t even make a dash to the outhouse anonymously, but the trade-offs are huge: you find a group of people that look out for each other, never let someone be alone and pitch in wherever help is needed. A sense of belonging.
  12. Vodka being the cause of, and cure for, all of life’s problems.
  13. Komuz music. The komuz is a 3-stringed lute like instrument. The sound is lovely and quite unique. While its tone is not like a violin, the komuz is comparable in the fact that it takes a lot of practice to make it sound beautiful. I purchased a cheap $30 one and have so far proved to be quite the talented hack, so I enjoy listening to people like these guys play instead.
  14. Canning delicious pickles and winter salads.
  15. Students who make you feel like a superstar. IMG_6346
  16. Extremely long meals involving many courses.
  17. Bishkek! The capital is also the “true Kyrgyzstan” because it exists there. It’s my opinion that the difference between village culture and city culture is bigger than the difference between America and Kyrgyzstan in general. (Think about rural life America vs. City life America and all the ways we contrast those.) The capital is where a lot of cool things are happening in education, health and business and there are a lot of opportunities for volunteers. Bishkek is also a good place to come to take a long, hot shower, have a drink and use the internet. 🙂


What else would you like to know about Kyrgyzstan? Send me any questions and I’ll answer them in future posts!

Things I’ve discovered about America

“Makal” in the Kyrgyz language means “proverb.” Kyrgyz is full of wonderful and puzzling little proverbs – some that match common proverbs often heard in English and some that are real head scratchers. Most Mondays I’ll post one of the more fun ones for you. Let’s see if we can’t make some of these commonplace in America by the time I get back!

Mekeningdin kadyry bashka jakta bilinet

Мекениңдин кадыры башка жакта билинет

“The value of your homeland is known once you’re in another place”

This proverb conjures up the melody of Big Yellow Taxi: “Don’t it always seem to go—that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone…”

When a volunteer extends their service for a third year, the Peace Corps kicks in a free month-long trip back to the states in between the second and third year. This is quite the perk and currently this volunteer is enjoying his Minnesota summer quite thoroughly.

IMG_0599Onion ring towers bigger than your face and maps of America made out of beer labels. It’s gonna be a delicious month of July.

It does seem to take some significant time spent out of the United States to realize how good we have it. Most Americans enjoy everyday opportunities that would be considered privileges in many other countries. In many ways I took for granted the comfortable life my circumstances, upbringing and family have allowed me. For this, I’m grateful.

On the lighter side, having been living outside of the states so long the absence made me forget many things I once had—only to be discovered upon return to these closer shores. And I mean discovered, of course, in the same way Columbus “discovered” America. So hang onto your cockle hats Americans—here they are—my discoveries:

  1. First and foremost, judging by the above paragraph, I seem to mostly have been being in the forgetfulness state of English usage. Methinks I need to study this book.
  2. Being able to mostly speak the native language is kinda nice and (for the most part) I’m not all that socially awkward.
  3. Mosquitoes and 95% humidity are actually not that pleasant.
  4. Toilet paper goes IN the toilet.
  5. The joy of utilizing the personal manifest destiny machine aka the automobilefamilycar
  6. Frozen pizza
  7. An entire bag of Chili Cheese Fritos fulfills all your daily needs for calories, fat and sodium.
  8. (And on a related note) America shrinks all your clothing. Food just tastes better when it’s red, white, and blue!IMG_0741
  9. Everyone shows up so early to stuff. I show up right on time, 30 min. late.
  10. Not having good internets, I’m now catching up on all the youtubes.
  11. I follow my family members around on errands because I’ve found they tend to buy me food.
  12. Disc golf. My goodness, how I’ve missed you! I just fell off on a tangent of watching more videos. (And I’ve hit up 6 different courses since being back.)discinred
  13. There’s a lot of stuff and things. I kept taking pictures of the size of food containers at Sam’s Club.
  14. Parades and dancing ice-cream cones.IMG_0581
  15. There’s family here! And I missed them. Also, weddings take a long time to prepare for. (Congrats Marie!!)IMG_0743
  16. I like it.

Thanks America! And thank you Peace Corps for the trip!

Stay tuned for part 2 in which I list the top things of value about Kyrgyzstan that is becoming known to me now that I’ve been away for a few weeks! Мен Кыргызстанды сагындым…I miss you Kyrgyzstan!


If you’ve returned home after spending significant time outside of your native land, what were some of the things you re-discovered?

‘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.