pcv life

I’m the foreigner

When the Japanese travel to the US and other foreign countries, it’s not uncommon to hear a Japanese person walking down the streets of, say, Las Vegas proclaim, “Just look at all these foreigners.” He’s looking right at hundreds of American citizens and it never occurs to him that in fact he is the foreigner traveling about.

It’s easy to fall into this trap. Suddenly you find yourself surrounded by people who are not like you and you feel them to be strange. But, being heavily outnumbered and after the novelty quickly wears off, your head tells you, “Wait a tick. I’m the one who’s strange!!”

Adding evidence are those vast numbers quickly pointing out to you all the ways in which you so expertly meet the criteria of being a strange foreigner. Sometimes though, it hits you all on its own, like when I met up with some American friends for the weekend at a rented apartment in the capital.

“Oh no. We’re now that group of 15 foreigners stuffed into a one-bedroom apartment, from which strange, ethnic smells waft and the sounds of new beats of music keep the locals awake.” Stereotyping is funny and cute until it’s happening to you.

Yet again it’s me on the other side. I’m the token American, pulled out at parties, name-dropped at school seminars. The one who’s expected not to understand, who sometimes finds himself sitting alone while everyone else is at a meeting I didn’t catch the memo for.

To some extent, no matter how long I stay I’ll always be an outsider. After all, this place isn’t part of my shared history and no matter how many days I lay out on the beach on Lake Issyk-Kul, my skin tone will never blend in. I suppose I’ll always have this “cute” accent too, as some of the more kind-hearted so eloquently patronize.

wedding crashersWedding crashers, Kyrgyz style. You can see the relative joy.

When I lived in Japan, I never did become part of their culture. But that’s also not surprising due to their general culture of insider status only being granted to those born to two Japanese parents in Japan and staying there perpetually while constantly and continually displaying centuries old established social mores.

Luckily I’ve got it a little bit easier here in Kyrgyzstan. Every host family I’ve lived with has referred to me as their son, with even relatives accepting me into the fold with corresponding labels. People want me to have a Kyrgyz name and encourage my participation in holidays and so forth. (Though the whole Kyrgyz name thing might have something to do with “Luther” being completely unpronounceable in any language, or dialect for that matter, outside of middle America—I was “Duusaa” in Japan and now enjoy the extra 2 or 3 “rs” added to my current name, “Liuterrr.”)

Well, to wrap things up here, I’ll make a bold promise to you all so you can help hold me to it: As soon as physically possible, I’ll be adding a post about how to serve sheep’s head. For those of you who find yourself in Kyrgyzstan, knowing how will go a long way in the effort to scrub down that rough and itchy foreigner edge we so easily display.

Exercising is apparently good for you

I would say about 90% of the people in the world today are better runners than me. And that’s counting the little tiny infants born this morning. Yeah—that would include you Kaylin. (Eight pound jerk.) Oh, hey, heh, congratulations Steve and Jess!

Last week was the first time in almost four years I exercised 5 days in a row, and I’m enjoying all sorts of benefits not least of which is the super-human ability to poop on consecutive days.

I was inspired by the women of Kyrgyzstan through a health training held last year. (The inspiration had a long incubation period.) I didn’t attend the training myself because, well, they were requiring participants to move and stuff, but I heard those ladies did well. Having made the mistake in the first place of showing up, many were required to jog in a little 5K and several of them did it in healed sandals and you know I wasn’t going to be shown up by that. I just happen to be able to shimmy and shake all up and down the catwalk in stilettos thank you very much.

Along with my previous mentioned feats of awesomeness gained from moving my feet slightly faster than normal, here is a list of other benefits I have observed: (Beat these ladies…)

  • I can now touch my toes (one leg at a time. Let’s not get crazy here.)
  • More people are talking to me when I leave my house (Yes, “Hey! Where are you going?!” still counts.)
  • It’s forcing me to drink more water.
  • (And on a related note) I’m getting more quality alone time in the outhouse.
  • Increased appetite has encouraged me to cook. Anything at all. (Also my bread recipe has begun to be secretly copied by the housewives. Ask Nazgul if you don’t believe me.)
  • It’s a good excuse to wear figure revealing pants in public. (Damn, does my butt look good.)
  • The world seems more bearable. (Note the word “seems.”)
  • It doubles as a fantastic new procrastination device.

All selfie photo attempts of me running ironically turned out blurry so I leave you with a pre-running shot while I was seeing the doctor in Bishkek. (Always consult your doctor before beginning any new exercise routine.)

This is actually part of a new experiment Peace Corps is doing to create a fleet of “Ironman Volunteers.” This new breed won’t ever need to sleep and can run all day, literally, on a diet of sheep butt and borsok alone. But—(clasps mouth)—I’ve said too much.

Life is raspberry flavored

What’s the flavor of your life? Is it sour like a sugarless glass of lemonade? Or maybe bitter like a dark roast of coffee? Or sweet in the way of a jolly-rancher, sickly grape and then razor sharp as it melts on your tongue?

At some point in Kyrgyzstan’s soviet past, someone proposed that the perfect life is like a raspberry, round and plump, juicy and sweet. Life of a kind that’s plucked from the thorn bush, staining your fingers red and finishing with a perfect balance of flavor as it moves across your tongue. This phrase, “Life is a raspberry” means life is awesome, life is grand, life is wonderful.

But it’s rarely heard these days. Maybe people aren’t finding enough to warm their hearts over. Or maybe they’re not seeking the secret joy that can be found in any circumstance.  Lenin, still holding a tight grip on secret joy

“Yellow! Hey, yellow! Oh, the yellowest of boys—woo! Over here!” I spun around. He was standing next to his taxi, another voice yelling at me, the quintessential looking tourist, as I walked through our region’s city center.

“I’m not yellow,” I thought, “I’m…peach…or…translucent…or heck, I don’t know, but I don’t like being the brunt of jokes when people think I can’t understand.” Tourist season has arrived and soon I’ll be enjoying more stereotypes, and attempts at higher taxi fares and prices at the market. I can choose to react in anger, letting my passion escape in short staccato bursts. Or I could choose to bottle it up and slink away, licking my wounds of resentment.

Life can be faced like this, back stooped and shoulders curled, wrapped around each burden of stress and anxiety as if harboring them in deep waters under your chest. Worry will always be looking for a place to anchor and only needs a hollow cove to come and hide. The secret is to stand tall, shoulders back and chest out as if to dash to pieces any hope worry might have of settling in your soul.

My friend Akmoor and I were on our way to the bazaar to do some shopping.

“Osh City, Osh City, leaving for Osh!” cried one man, leaning over a Honda.

It was always the taxi guys, and for some reason I was feeling a bit devilish.

“Ok, 100 som!” I said cheerfully, offering 10 times less than the going price.

“100 som!? 100 som! How ‘bout I just take you for free? C’mon, I’ll take you all the way to Osh for free!”

“Ok, let’s go Akmoor!” Giggling we started to walk over to the taxi. Now I don’t understand Russian, but the tone bursting from this man spoke volumes.


We quickly turned and scooted ourselves away from the spittle forming at the corners of his mouth. “Wow, he’s sure got a stick up his butt,” I said in English.

“Stick…huh?” said Akmoor with a quizzical look.

I translated into Kyrgyz and she lost it, doubling over in laughter. We had to keep practicing this new phrase the rest of the way to the bazaar and I kept fielding questions like, “Stick up his butt…can I say stick up her butt?”

“Yes, Akmoor…”

Our taxi driver hadn’t taken it with his shoulders back or chest out. And it could have turned my mood sour like his as well, taken me down a notch, leveled me to the lowest common denominator. But Akmoor’s boisterous merriment simply washed over all that was wrong and lifted me on the giggles of her bubbling joy.

Life is always as good as your reactions. It’s been said 100 ways, but it’s true. There will always be tragedy, frustrations and setbacks but how you respond makes our earthly walk a trek in darkness or a journey to be enjoyed.

Life can be wonderful or life can be dark and I’m not saying everyone has a level playing field. Some suffer tragedy while some seem to sail through life with ease.

But life circumstances have never been a good indicator of happiness or satisfaction. I’ve seen those with high privilege bicker and argue with family members and create bitter enemies, and I know others who have lost a spouse and raised children without so much as a sheep in the yard thrive and grow and bring joy to those around them. Life can be like a raspberry if only one knows how to traverse the thorns.

Unfortunately, there are those who see the thorns as a barbed wall of fate and surrender the fight to the ironic idiosyncrasies of life. There’s an idea in Kyrgyzstan that all of life is fated and if anything good happens at all, it’s the blessing of God.

The puritans and fundamentalists of the first two centuries of America also held these beliefs, that God’s will was supreme and lives were predestined since before the foundations of the earth. But instead of acquiescing to a life outside of their control, they sought to actualize God’s providence by being some of the best workers, entrepreneurs and producers the world has ever seen.

Why? I’m not sure. I find it fascinating that two can respond to the same set of circumstances and belief in fate with diametrically opposite behavior. It seems to be the difference between, “If God wills, it will come to me,” and “If God wills, he won’t stop me.”

I settle up to the table for another meal of bread and vareniye, the jam that graces a Kyrgyzstani’s table at each meal, and ah! there it is: a dish of raspberries, preserved during summer months of plenty for the harsh of winter when no fresh produce can be found. It’s the perfect daily reminder to choose joy in those winter seasons of life and to remember that truly, “Life is a raspberry.”

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.