Hidden rules – a meditation

The idea of “hidden rules” comes from Dr. Ruby K. Payne’s book A Framework for Understanding Poverty first published in 1996. It advertises itself as “a must read for educators, employers, policymakers, and service providers” and I’m going to add, for anyone who does anything.

Knowledge of hidden rules is defined by Dr. Payne as “knowing the unspoken cues and habits of a group.” This she specifically applies to the three classes—poverty, middle class and wealth—with adroit attention to the different ways classes use and value things such as time, personality, education, etc.

While the book focuses on understanding poverty and discusses strategies for improving people’s lives, the concept of hidden rules can be applied for anyone trying to function within a group where they don’t yet have a working command of the unspoken habits and cues.

It’s a simple yet enlightening concept. What I like about this book is how straightforward Dr. Payne presents the strategies for functioning in a different group.

For example, one might say to a group of fourth-graders, “Do we use the same rules when we play basketball as when we play volleyball? No—the rules are different. Just as we must use different rules in different games, we must use different rules in different situations in life.”

The part in which he considers hidden rules and his identity

This concept revealed a lot for me as an America Peace Corps Volunteer living abroad, half-submerged in a different culture. Sure there’s always been the tossed around phrase “when in Rome,” but I couldn’t quite unravel it all from my sense of identity. That, as I fall in step with the habits and cues of a group, I begin to edge towards an identity crisis, wondering how much of who I feel I am is changing into something else.

This Dr. Payne acknowledges as a “painful process” but one that can be smoothed by being “aware of the choice.” I wonder, though, is it possible to eventually work ones way up to being able to swoop in and out of several different groups while maintaining a static understanding of one’s identity? I personally am having a hard time with that.

I think it was being raised in such a monochromatic middle-class culture that made it difficult for me to see that transitioning between groups was less a matter of simply being born into it and more about being able to apply an understanding of the cues, habits and hidden rules. I can play the part of the blonde, blue-eyed, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup, sitting on a folding chair in a church basement, Norwegian heritage sweater wearing, uff-da muttering, reaching-out-and-putting-an-awkward-hand-on-your-shoulder in an act of consolation, self-esteem shunning, seasoning hotdish with the three God-given spices of salt-pepper-and-ketchup, pretty gosh darn well. I’m pretty miserable at fitting in almost anywhere else.

But now I have the language to be able to deal with things a little better. I have the permission of someone saying, “Go ahead—learn the new rules and then decide to what extent you want to change, shape or mold your identity.”

The part in which he becomes less lucid

In Rudyard Kipling’s book, Kim, the young protagonist Kimball O’Hara becomes a master of ‘The Great Game’ in Central Asia and India in the second half of the 19th century. He grows up as an orphan on the streets of Lahore and it’s there he learns the ways of unnumbered classes of people scurrying about their lives.

It’s such a fascinating book full of intrigue and adventure. I wish I had the mind of young Kim to traverse multiple cultures and identities with such ease and mischief.

Even though I’m more than twice his age, in a lot of ways I’m just learning his lessons.

To open my eyes to the world around me.

To seek without jadedness.

To desire knowledge and merit beyond what I know today.

To humbly accept my reality yet have the humility to learn from it and be better.

To watch people without staring.

To remember without memorizing.

To engage without shutting down.

And to fight when necessary.

I think that in trying to smooth my rough edges I dulled the point that had any chance of poking into new worlds and new thoughts and new ideas and new stories. I never want to reduce my walk to that of the mailman, down known and tired paths, working the same little messages into smart little boxes. I want to be the trash-digger, the treasure hunter, the guy who sifts past an old banana peel to save a magazine or a piece of furniture.

I’m ready to get back at it, and though I’m well past what university would call my “prime” and the military would deem “acceptable for use” and though this mind is dusty and these wheels need a little grease, and though I’ve sacrificed much on the hills of newsfeeds and consumerism, I’m making the turn. I’m repenting. I’m facing a new direction.

Well, the proof’s in the walk and not the talk, as they say, and so I’m two weeks into a six week course on journalism at FutureLearn.com. Yes, the rest of the course is in week five, but I’ve been catching up and will meet up with the class for the final. It’s so good to be learning something again rather than just consuming.

And that’s a topic for a future post—the idea of a “CREATE MOVEMENT” or a call for us to produce more and consume less. This idea started to formulate during my first months on my blog hosted by tumblr. I realize that tumblr was developed and is created around the repost, but what I find fascinating and discouraging is the number of blogs that consist entirely of reposts. (And I suppose this is the point of pinterest as well. Does anyone actually add pins or are they all repins? And then where do the originals come from??)

It’s no more than a statement of one’s hobbies and interests. It’s not a blog. Blogs are supposed to be creations, not regurgitations. Tell me I’m wrong?

The part in which he wraps up his still forming thoughts

This blog has been an experiment over the past 3-4 months since I moved platforms. I’ve been experimenting with different kinds of posts and on many occasions have slipped away from my originally intended structure for the blog. I think I’d like to get back at it again and get back at it in the way the steam of indignation over injustice boils in an engine, hauling thousands of tons of weight screaming through the countryside.

I hope I’m not alone.

A cause for Kyrgyzstan, 16 years and counting

A life-changing conversation with a leading expert on bride-kidnapping

Last week I had the honor of meeting with Dr. Russell Kleinbach, one of the world’s leading experts on bride-kidnapping in the Kyrgyz Republic. A professor emeritus of Philadelphia University, this is his tenth trip to Kyrgyzstan since first teaching in Osh as a Fulbright Scholar in 1998.

Born and raised as a Minnesota farm boy, Dr. Kleinbach went to seminary in Kansas City then worked as a civil rights activist, once meeting with senators on Capitol Hill in the mid-1960s.

After returning from his trip to Washington, D.C., he was asked to be a guest on a talk show debating the Vietnam War. Going head to head with staunch proponents, the “green” Dr. Kleinbach quickly found himself in over his head. “They tore me every which way and loose,” he told me, with a quiet chuckle.

For the next six months he read everything he could on the war, educating himself on the history and perspectives of the conflict. This led him and his wife to spend the last two years of the ‘60s living and working in Vietnam. The experience helped shape his deep ideological belief that “the foundation of all conflict in the world is inequality.”

Dr. Kleinbach worked for most of his career as a professor teaching psychology and the humanities. Having had a keen interest in the Soviet Union, he took the opportunity to live and work in Kyrgyzstan, a former soviet republic, a few years into its newly forming history. Here Dr. Kleinbach was first made aware of the phenomenon of bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, a social ill that affected his students and those in his community. Sixteen years later, Dr. Kleinbach continues to work researching and educating Kyrgyz people on the effects of this practice and how it can be stopped.

Bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan is an extremely complex issue which runs the spectrum from those who elope to those who are physically taken practically at random off the street. Dr. Kleinbach’s cause works to end what they call “non-consensual bride-kidnapping” or the practice of forcing a woman to marry who doesn’t want to. (More detailed information can be found in this well-written 2013 Eurasianet article. A descriptive account can be found in this NYT article from 2005.)

Reducing bride-kidnapping rates one village at a time

I was initially invited to meet Dr. Kleinbach by my Japanese volunteer friend in our village. Entering the guest house where he and the director of the organization he started, Kyz Korgon, were staying, we found them folding pamphlets and rolling posters for their next round of seminars and door-to-door canvassing in villages in our region.

He started right in with the history of his work in Kyrgyzstan since 1998, the research he’s done, and the methods of education they employ.

Bride-kidnapping is a prevalent practice that, according to his research, has been growing in Kyrgyzstan since the 1950s. It is popularly believed here among Kyrgyz people that this practice has ancient cultural roots, yet Dr. Kleinbach believes it’s a more recent phenomenon. “In a culture without a written history, tradition can develop quite quickly,” he tells me, adding that no where even in oral tradition does the idea of bride-kidnapping appear as a legitimate way of gaining a wife. “It’s not in the Manas,” he says, referring to the world’s longest epic poem and what today many Kyrgyz people consider the foundation of Kyrgyz culture.

This is one of the appeals he makes to people during his organization’s seminars. They focus on a multi-pronged approach to reach people which includes a discussion on how according to the Koran, Muslim Imams are forbidden to bless a marriage that is non-consensual.

“The issue is start the thinking process,” he says. But he’s doing a lot more than that. His work is getting results.

The organization he works with canvasses an entire village, conducting interviews with women and men to determine the statistics on the number of women who have married non-consensually. Then, they meet with students and unmarried youth to show a video of women who have been kidnapped and discuss the devastating effects it has on people’s lives. The sessions end with an appeal for a written and signed “pledge of resistance” form stating that for girls, if kidnapped they will leave and return home, and for boys, that they will promise to only marry someone who will agree to the marriage.

The next year his organization returns to the same village and conducts interviews with those who have been married since they were in that village the previous year. The results are showing nearly a 50 percent drop in the number of non-consensual marriages.

His talk on the organization’s work only slowed when our host brought out the afternoon lunch of rice soup and steamed dumplings.

You’re asking the wrong question

As the conversation moved on to the kind of chatter associated with all meals, I felt this growing urge to ask him a selfish question. Maybe it was his professorial demeanor. Maybe it was his warm heart and open ear from decades of mentoring students. Maybe it was simply a deep gift for relating to people. Whatever it was, I felt that tug that comes whenever you’re in the presence of someone great, that tug to ask for sage words of wisdom gained from a life of living with purpose.

“What am I supposed to be?”

As a 30-year-old, still hopping the world every couple of years without a clear plan, I yearn for that calling. A cause that pulls my feet out of bed every day to stand for something instead of that listless noise that’s made me fall for everything.

“If you had a calling, you’d probably know it by now,” he says, tossing the thought ball back to me. “Don’t worry about the question ‘What am I going to do with my life?’…Focus on a cause you can pursue.”

Indeed Dr. Kleinbach didn’t discover the cause of bride-kidnapping prevention until he was in his late 50s. “Ah, but I already had a full life teaching. This is just sort of the icing on the cake.” He went on to commend the role of the teacher I’ve been playing saying that’s cause enough, an honorable cause.

Always one to make things practical, he followed this immediately by challenging me to pick up the cause of educating people of the dangers of bride-kidnapping and helping people work out a better way. To stake my claim here, in Kyrgyzstan, working with local people to end this practice that wrecks havoc in so many lives.

And there it is: the secret. It’s nothing more—and nothing less—than simply doing something. To start thinking about others and what needs to be done. To not worry about having what it takes or being on the right path because in his words, “the education will take care of itself.” That each and every cause is fought by people who through doing the work are discovering how to better people’s lives.

I’d been asking the wrong question and seeking its answer in the wrong direction. Focus on the self is where the problem lies, not the solution.

A cause to celebrate

“You ever hear about stone soup?” Dr. Kleinbach gave me a whimsical look.

I had—I remembered the story from grade school, where a man with only a stone for dinner invites the village over for soup, but first cleverly asks each person for just a little something to flavor the stone. The story ends with a simmering pot of vegetable stew and dinner for the entire community. I nod.

“I’m the guy with the stone.”

Dr. Kleinbach looks at me with the smile of one wise enough to know it’s not the personal cause alone that changes the world. It’s a focused heart, a willingness to do something and an invitation to draw others in to make a difference.

IMG_6310A student painted poster hanging in my school reads: “The 8th of March! Dear ladies and girls–we congratulate you on your upcoming holiday.” (International Women’s Day)

They’re in it to win it

And I’m not talking about Kyrgyzstan’s chances to play in the World Cup, though there has been some positive movement.

I was sitting across the table from three recent graduates of my new school. We were chatting about university entrance exams, and all three were set to interview at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Bishkek. We practiced interviews and essay formats and went over a few grammar questions.

These girls were already at the top of their games. Each girl placed in the top five nationally in one of Russian Literature, Kyrgyz Language or English Language Olympiads. Now they were competing for spots in a year-long prep program for the most prestigious university in Kyrgyzstan and for scholarships for an education they couldn’t afford otherwise. AUCA is also the most expensive university in Kyrgyzstan.

IMG_0171High school seniors at graduation, ringing the bell for the last time

There are cheaper universities and colleges in Kyrgyzstan, but few offer a high standard of education. With low salaries for professors and lecturers, many feel the need to accept bribes to supplement their incomes. This leads to a drop in the quality of education as many students opt to simply pay for their diplomas instead of submitting homework and attending classes.

This is a big reason why diplomas from the vast majority of the 50-odd universities in Kyrgyzstan are not accepted by institutions abroad. This in of itself should be a wake up call to those in charge of higher education. Corruption must be dealt a heavy and widespread blow from top legislators and administrators if the education system is going to have a chance at providing their students with quality education. There are many more students who deserve to be accepted to the few top universities than will be. Many will have to settle for studying in environments that reward those who pay bribes and punish those who refuse.

Earlier this week a message popped up while I was on Facebook. It was one of the girls I had briefly tutored and she was just writing to say she’d “entered to the New Generation Akademy at AUCA !!!” (I’d have used a lot more exclamation points if it were me!) It was super exciting to hear that one of them had gotten in. It’s still no guarantee for her whole university education—the New Generation Academy is a fully funded extra year of prep for university, and then students need to figure out their own methods of paying tuition. But it’s a great first step and one that will give attending students a quality education and experience resultant to their effort.

These kids are more than pulling their weight on their end of the line. Kyrgyzstan—it’s time to step up and give your students the chances they deserve.

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.

Things don’t always move forward (yet I digress)

There’s a joke by the late Mitch Hedberg that goes something like this: “You ever heard someone say, ‘Hey, wanna see a picture of me when I was younger?’ Every picture of you is when you were younger. I’d like to see a picture of you when you were older. ‘Hey wait a minute—lemme see that camera.’…heh heh, yeah…”

Have you ever looked back on one of those photos—one where you’re younger—and noticed what’s in the background? Most of those things have probably improved since the sepia toned days of your youth. Consider the finned monster of a car you dad was driving, or the crib you’re standing in—you know, the one with the side that opened and closed like a guillotine—or the polyester pants you’re wearing at the July 4th parade, melting onto your thighs.

Yes, we’ve come a long way since those bare-leg-on-vinyl days, when cars guzzled a gallon every 6 miles and kids sat unbuckled in the backseat clutching throat-sized toys doused in lead-based paint. We’re so used to things changing and improving that somehow those words have become synonyms. But in reality, not everywhere experiences forward progress.


 Welcome (back) Home

There are many people in Kyrgyzstan who pine for the old Soviet days. While most of life was dictated by a bureaucracy on high, that life held a calming order and sense of security. No one had to wonder where they would find a job or how they were going to feed their family. Teachers were respected and schools were given priority in government budgets. Students flourished in an education system that put the first human in space. People enjoyed leisure time taking effective public transportation through cities and towns dotted with green parks and running water.

Three-and-a-half bouncing hours south from the capital lies my own little Peace Corps village. Its school, constructed just before the breakup of the USSR, was built with every modern convenience. The school boasted multiple networked computer labs for the sciences linked to a central station in each room where the teacher could listen by headphones to individual work or display work on a raised monitor. There was a coal-burning heating plant pumping hot water through a system of radiators to three floors. Each floor had its own bathrooms with flush toilets and running water. The cafeteria served hot lunch for all attending students.

But, shortly after independence, things began to quickly fall apart. The director cut many of the radiator system’s pipes out of the school, installing some in his own home and selling the rest for a personal profit. Along with the heat, the running water went too, when pipes from the nearby spring broke due to lack of maintenance and were dug up to be sold.

The school’s lunch program degenerated into cookies and tea, now served only to grades 1-4 in a 10 minute passing period. Today I trip on old metal tubes in my classroom that ran the wires for the networks, their stubs jutting out, betraying where computers once stood.

A school that once graduated significant contributors to science and math in the USSR is now part of a national education system incapable of producing enough engineers and skilled workers to take their own gold out of their own land, instead relying on foreign companies who reap the majority of the profit. The breakup of the USSR is a macrocosm of all the little systems that soon broke apart as a result.

What infuriates me about all of this is not the fact that things got worse or that there was no longer money to keep things going. This is understandable. What brings my righteous rage to a full boil are the personal choices made by individuals to hurt their own country. Here we are huddled together in school, all winter long, trying to form English words between chattering teeth because the previous director decided he wanted to steal the pipes for his own personal gain. It’s maddening.

But I also need to check my judgment before walking through that door. (Which is really, really difficult to do.) Who is to say I wouldn’t react in the exact same way if all of a sudden the U.S. was to split up into 50 different countries and in the chaos the paychecks stopped, shops closed down and it was every man for himself? If something can be taken advantage of in the face of no oversight and without any chance of falling fate to some ill consequence, many are going to go ahead and do what makes sense for their own personal survival.

Sure independence had been declared, but it wasn’t after a long battle for freedom. Independence was sort of thrust upon Kyrgyzstan after the breakup of the Soviet Union and all of a sudden people needed to figure things out for themselves.

I asked Nazgul, my counterpart, what it was like back when the Motherland collapsed and Kyrgyzstan found itself stepping out on toddler’s legs, blinking into the dawn of independence. “There was no bread,” she said without pause, offering no lofty ideals of freedom or independence nor mention of a nation-state bearing the name of her people. She was only 9 years old at the time; those aren’t the things one notices at that age, but rather a father conspicuously home from work, a hungry belly and the crumbs that line the bottom of the bread basket. “Kyrgyzstanis may be more free,” one man told me, “but you can’t eat freedom.”


 Teachers enjoying flatbread with great Kyrgyz poets and thinkers

The task before us is huge. There is so much work to be done. There is a definite need for Peace Corps Volunteers in education, health and business to work with locals to establish right practices and effective methodology. There’s an even bigger need for Kyrgyzstanis to work for their own fellow citizens. We need people willing to invest their time, energy and strengths to build a nation, not place more obstacles in its path.

It’s not that most people are totally complacent. People want more and demonstrate so, but they turn to old desires for authoritative control and to central government for finding solutions to pressing issues. We do need a public system of checks on citizens’ free reign decision making, but corruption continues to eat away at growth. Many people still haven’t worked up the full committal of courage to take these challenges head on and are just beginning to feel their way gingerly out over untested and fragile ground. People must be willing to change, to sidestep culture to a certain degree, to invest money, to make unpopular yet necessary decisions, to put in the hours and to know they have a chance at seeing results commensurate to their level of work. Bit by bit, people are coming around, and more than any other demographic, it’s Kyrgyzstan’s youth leading the charge.

This new generation is at an unprecedented point in history—they are the first to have been born into an independent Kyrgyzstan, a country now responsible for its own future—and are more removed from its soviet past. I’ve worked with groups of youth who dream big but more importantly, have a track record of applying their learning and have logged hours upon hours working for the betterment of their communities.

One such youth attending a goal-setting session stated she would study English three hours every day until she won a spot in a study abroad program to America. I told her I thought maybe that was a bit ambitious and how was she going to balance that with school and other demands at home? She answered that she already studies English three hours a day—after finishing washing the evening meal’s dishes—and this was sort of just a recommitment. Far be it from me to discourage her. She exemplifies the future hope of this nation. This is the way forward.

Kyrgyzstan—may your future be as bright as the sun that blazes upon your flag, high and free.