“How much money do you make?”
“What’s your religion?”
“What are you?”
Are these questions between intimate lovers, or between you and the man who just sat down next to you on the bus? The answer: Well, it depends where you are.
I get into these kinds of conversations all the time. People always seem to ask the exact same questions in the exact same order. It’s not that my Kyrgyz is great but that I’m fantastic at repeating a set of syllabic mumblings over and over again. I can even feel some of these conversations coming on and just hit the auto-pilot on my tongue and let it do the work. It usually begins when I’m standing outside with a man I’ve just met waiting for something. His face gets this look, he turns and spits, and then opens his mouth…
Here it comes.
Local: Are you married?
I friggin’ knew it.
Local: When are you getting married?
Me: I don’t have a girlfriend.
And now for a blank stare and repeating of the question.
Local: … no, I mean, when are you getting married?
(In Kyrgyzstan, men often pick a wedding day first and a bride second.)
Me: Only God knows. Cue the laughter.
Local: (Laughs) Maybe you will take one of our girls back to America? (More smiles)
Me: (Mouths Maybe you will take one of our girls back to America at the exact same time as Local is speaking) We’ll see.
Sometimes I mess with the answers, just to shake the question fatigue.
Local: America is wonderful, yes? Much better than Kyrgyzstan…
Me: No, they’re just different. I like Kyrgyzstan.
Local: But, America, life is so much better there, right?
Me: It depends. Life in Kyrgyzstan can be great.
Local: Ah, but American life must be wonderful.
Me: … Actually, all the streets in America are made of gold. If you get hungry, you can take a shovel and dig up a little bit of the road and go buy yourself a hamburger.
Local: … (lights cigarette)
I feel like I’m reliving the movie Groundhog Day whenever I have these conversations. They go exactly the same every time, down to the punctuation, and I’m now rolling somewhere in the 300’s of times I’ve been through these.
And it’s not just because I’m a foreigner that I get asked personal questions. My Kyrgyz friends say they too are often asked some of these, and I’ve been on many a mini-bus ride where the young men are asked by the older women if they are married, if yes, how many children they have, etc. It’s just kind of a Kyrgyz thing. Since there are few Kyrgyz people in a small country I suppose it’s a way of figuring out how you know each other, since fun connections do pop up in these conversations almost as a rule. Family relationships and belonging are important here.
On the upside, a mini-bus is a great place to make new friends
In America it’s the weather. We’re constantly making pointless observations to strangers about the activity in the sky—or not even the current activity but the potential of it to act a certain way at an unforeseen point in the future.
“Looks like rain.”
“Yep. Glad I have an umbrella.”
My grandpa is one such exemplary American, always commenting on his thermometer in his mini-van if it gains or loses even a degree. I asked him why people talk about the weather so much. He said, “It’s the one thing we all have in common.”
America, it is said, is the great salad bowl and it can often be difficult to find commonalities between pepper flakes and a slice of tomato. But here in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan, personal questions are the common ground.