That’s, I guess, some of your beeswax

“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.

Me: No.

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: …

Me: …

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.

image 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.

People are the same everywhere. They’re just different.

There was a knock at the door.

Bang bang bang

I decided to ignore it. I had come home from school not feeling very well and so had slipped into bed for a couple hours of afternoon rest. The door was locked to keep any neighbors or friends from just wandering in as they occasionally do so I could have a couple uninterrupted hours.

There was another knock at the door, this time combined with callings of my name.

Bang bang bang “Lu-ter!” Bang bang bang. “Luuu-ter!”

It was my landlord, who lives in the adjacent house on the property.

“Ignore him,” I thought naively, “That’s the best way to make him go away.” Unfortunately, it only served as a challenge.

There were several yanks on the door, the loose deadbolt rattling in its locked position. More knocking. Then the phone started to ring. I let it ring through. It rang again. I let it ring through again. It rang twice more before there was a reprieve in ringing and knocking.

“Thank God. He’s finally learned I don’t want to go to the door.” But it was just the eye of the storm. Moments later he returned with his son who, while my landlord began a barrage of knocks on the front door, walked around the side of my house and launched an attack on the window. It was too much. I waved my white flag.

“WHAT?!?” I screamed from my bed.

“Lu-ter,” my landlord said in a cheery voice, “Come drink tea!”

I was furious.

“Is my house on fire?” I yelled back.


“Is. My. House. On. Fire?”


“Then leave me the hell alone and stop knocking!”

“Lu-ter – just come open the door.”

“No! I will not open the door!”


“I want to rest! Why is that so difficult to understand?”

“Ok, ok, just asking…” He walked away.

By this point I was so irritated I couldn’t get to sleep. Why didn’t he understand that when nobody answers the door, it means they don’t want to and aren’t going to? Doesn’t he know how rude it is to knock more than 2 or 3 times?

Doesn’t Luther know how rude it is not to answer the door when someone is knocking?

I didn’t get why my landlord wouldn’t stop knocking. My landlord didn’t get why I wouldn’t answer.

The difficulties in living and working cross-culturally are in our expectations. Growing up in one particular culture, we are conditioned to expect certain behaviors from people in specific situations. And when people don’t behave as we expect, we get frustrated, annoyed, confused or upset.

I came in knowing there would be cultural differences, but I didn’t think about how difficult it was going to be to draw the line between what makes us all the same as humans and what separates us by our cultural habits. It’s not so easy to know if your landlord is simply knocking because it’s the culturally friendly thing to do, or if he is inherently rude. Just what is it about human beings that makes us the same? What are the universal truths about our species? What are the behaviors we should expect out of any person, anywhere?”

imageEveryone wants to be immortalized…in carpet.

I believe it comes down to God’s truths laid out in the Bible. God’s truths cross all cultures and all of history, laying out the expectation that we are to respond in service and honor and worship of Him by doing things like pursuing justice, taking care of widows and orphans, being honest and showing one another grace.

But just how this plays out in our behaviors isn’t always clear. Being raised in one environment makes it very difficult to separate out truth from behavior. Kyrgyz and Americans are both hospitable, but a Kyrgyz person will show this by force serving you multiple cups of tea beyond your bursting point while Americans will tell you to “help yourself.” Americans and Kyrgyz will want you to eat well so Americans will feed you a portion from each section of the food pyramid while a Kyrgyz person will watch in eager expectation as you try to swallow the lump of pure-fat-sheep-butt in a breadless sheep-liver sandwich. Americans and Kyrgyz respect the elder generation and so Americans will create opportunities for elders to continue to take control of their own lives while grown Kyrgyz children will make space in their already small homes to provide for all the needs of their elderly parents.

Our intentions are often exactly the same because as humans we’re following one, collective gut in how we should treat people. But, while what our gut tells us may be the same, what our gut tells us to do can be oh, so different.

Change is complicated

There are many things in Kyrgyzstan that need to change. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. We are invited to be here by the government because of what we can offer in making the country a little better place. Where I’m stuck, however, is in what that definition of “little” means.

Along my search, let me share an anecdote as example:

Take the English teacher who is inflating grades or changing scores on his students’ tests to make him look better. It would seem at first glance that this is a very morally corrupt man and he has issues that need to be righted. Cut and dry. After all, he’s hurting his students’ motivation to study. When they know it doesn’t matter what scores they get on the test because they will pass regardless, most students lose interest in exerting any kind of effort.

So you approach the teacher and tell him what he’s doing is wrong and that he is detrimentally affecting his students’ futures. You’re going to make your mark: he’s going to change. But you’re not ready for his answer. He tells you he would love to grade fairly, and it makes him angry to inflate the grades, but if he doesn’t he will 1. Get yelled at by the parents of his students and he has to live next door to some of them 2. The parents will complain to the director that he is a bad teacher and the director will take the parents’ side and 3. The director will himself give him a hard time and possibly even fire him if he doesn’t report good grades.

So you feel sorry for him and your incensed rage and moral compass guide you to the next level. You approach the director and tell him what he’s doing is wrong and that he needs to support his teachers in a united front against all that opposes the forward progress of knowledge. But you’re floored by his response when he tells you that he can’t let anyone in the school fail because if he does the superintendent will yell at him and he could possibly get fired and then how would he feed his family? Not to mention all the teachers who are older than him who would call the superintendent themselves to make up lies about him if he tried to tell them how to run their classrooms.

So you realize the problem lies with the school district. You march right up to the superintendent’s office and you demand a meeting. You tell him directly that he can’t force all schools to allow every student to pass because this is hurting the quality of education and is greatly affecting attendance at your school, especially among upperclassmen. He needs to do the right thing. But once again your righteous indignation is turned on its head—he tells you that if there are any failures in his district he will look really bad compared to all the other districts who are just passing kids through and then someone from the ministry of education will come down, chew him out and put someone else in charge who will take orders.

At this point you’re wondering how far up the ladder you need to go. There are so many obstacles at every level that getting a teacher to grade fairly might require an official decree from the president of the country and enforcement by the executive branch.

Other countries have succeeded in doing this, including the former Soviet Republic, Georgia. The Rose Revolution in 2003 saw massive sweeping changes executed by strong leadership that led to a significant rise in quality of life for everyday Georgians. Corruption wasn’t tolerated on any level and within a matter of a couple years, citizens were enjoying higher salaries, a competent and helpful police force, and fair chances for more people to get a higher education. It took strong, unified leaders with an unwavering sight on their vision to turn things around.

But this is really, really hard to do. It requires a perfect storm of people with the same vision all falling into place at once. Unfortunately for our hapless English teacher, if he tries to stand up and do the right thing on his own he will be quickly swallowed up in a system outside of his—and any other individual’s—control.

I wish I as an individual could change the whole country—stand up and give that rising speech—and suddenly everything would turn on its corrupted heels and march towards fairness and justice. I care about this country and the direction it’s headed because I live here—Kyrgyzstan is my home—and what happens affects my students and my host families and my friends. They’re the victims of these broken systems. Yet a strange fact remains: the same people who are the victims are the ones who are responsible; they’re all so interconnected it’s like a knotted ball where if you pull on just one loose end, the whole thing only becomes more tightly tangled.

Where do we, as Peace Corps Volunteers, fit with trying to help untangle the knot? If we stand up and say something it could be our job as well that’s pulled out from under us to be replaced with a plane ticket back home. Or we could just be noise that’s dissipated by local winds less sympathetic to a foreign voice. Or we could offend our friends with harsh words when our only intent was to help.

So do we just try and do the “little” things? Keep our heads down, teach our classes, give our trainings, lead our camps and hope that something somewhere rubs off on the right people who will stand up and be that change? Are those little things actually the big things that will someday tip the scales?

It’s something I don’t have an answer to. I wish I could be more directly involved. Maybe it’s my job to inspire the voices rather than be the voice. Yet that is complicated too.

imageKyrgyzstan – a country of vast potential

Wash your hands

When I was little and would use the facilities so to speak, I would wash my hands with soap if it was #2 or simply rinse them a bit for #1. Those were the standard operating procedures for Little Luth. I never really thought about the science behind why hands needed to be clean or how one methodically went about ensuring they were so.

Now my hygiene habits weren’t particularly worse than anyone else around me on a typical day back in the states, but they probably weren’t as clinically sterile as they could have been. How often did I rub my hands on my pants and then take a bite of a sandwich or open the door of a Chipotle before enjoying a burrito? (Mmm…burrito…wait, what are we talking about again? Oh yes.)

In the past year and a half my hand-washing habits had gotten worse. Even now I’m sitting in my house, a head cold and nervous it might be hep A since a bout has been going around my village lately picking off one student after another. The opportunities for hand-washing are greatly decreased here due to lack of running water and hand-washing stations posted around plus the cultural habit of shaking every man’s hand no matter how soon you need to be eating something. That’s one more incentive to ‘get it right’ when you do have the chance.

A health volunteer friend of mine, Tori, came out to my village earlier this winter to do a couple of health lessons for my students, one being hand-washing for the adorable second and third graders. Or at least I considered them to be adorable until my counterpart decided it was a good idea to stuff 90 of them into a classroom for the lesson. It’s easy to have a less gracious view of 90 little snots all talking at once and shoving each other to get as close as possible to the front of the room.

imageSaving the world, one pair of hands at a time

I listened to her lesson in between breaking up fights and rerouting attention and realized, “Wow. I’m learning something.” There’s a kind of technique to hand-washing that goes beyond just letting water run over your hands. I was especially impressed by the double fingernail scrub (picture a row of choir kids singing with their hands clasped in front of them) and the thumb wash (picture milking a cow). I was going to be so much healthier from her on out, and a lot more happy each time I washed my hands singing the full ABCs before I walked away.

The neatest thing about the training though was how memorable it was. To this day I still wash my hands differently because of that training. And this is what any of our trainings focus on: behavior change. Just how you can get someone to change risky behavior for healthier behavior is a tricky task set before volunteers on a daily basis.

So thank you Tori! My hands have never felt so clean, nor have I had so much fun washing!

Health volunteers are doing amazing things and are making a big difference in communities around the world. Remember to thank a Health Peace Corps Volunteer the next time you see one!

Bread tastes better when you bake it yourself

One of the great benefits of living with a host family is having food. It’s an even greater benefit for the volunteer who lives far from any kind of substantial food market and so doesn’t have to be responsible for the slaughtering for all his own meals.

Despite our hitherto “I-live-here-you-feed-me” agreement, my host parents took a trip to the big city for a few days so it was up to my 16-year-old brother and me to cook food and generally fend for ourselves. How the whole house didn’t descend into Lord of the Flies was a miracle, and counted up there was the fact that dinner appeared on the table at regular intervals. It didn’t even resemble a raw pig on a stake, most of the time.

imageA Peace Corps volunteer’s last supper. No pork on this table.

I’m a fairly good cook when I feel like cooking, namely when starvation is the other option, and I follow a mean recipe. There’s something about making bread, however, that a recipe doesn’t tell you and that’s the secret ingredient of love. You have to romance the dough, with a sweet-water bath and full body massage with oil.

The bread I tried to make that day, however, wasn’t feelin’ the love. I got a slap on the face in the form of ten little hockey pucks of hardened flour. Being, again, the only option between us and starvation, I took a bite. My host brother took off for the neighbor’s.

She cut me deep, that bread, (no, I mean literally—she was really hard) and it was a long time until I had the confidence to put myself on the line for another.

I got the chance some months later now living on my own. This time I wasn’t going to fail and laid it on thick with the charm, sweets and tush patting. How she could have turned out to be a spoiled little fruit cake is impossible to tell, and I’m sure there was no connection. Anyway, I ended up passing her off on a friend who was apparently more desperate than I.

If love can be reduced to a fortune cookie, and I think we can all agree that it can, the third time is the charm and the secret is in the second rise. You let her think the romance is on, then you introduce that walnut seed of doubt, working it in then finishing with a redeeming spin of honey. If my first bread was a date at McDonald’s, this one was a full day at the spa followed by dinner at something French sounding.

I don’t think I have to tell you what the best part of that date was though. That bread hung around for breakfast, if you know what I mean.

Bread just tastes better when you make it yourself. (And I think now is a good time to drop the love metaphors.) It’s enjoying something that you labored over and saw through from inception ‘til the delicious end. And even if that end was bitter, it’s still something to know that you did it yourself.

Lesson learned. Now I wonder if the host ‘rents still have a room available.