Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Just Call me Madame Ambassador

February 5, 2008

Okay, don’t actually call me that. I did, however, have my first class at the American Embassy on Monday. Going into the Embassy compound is just like going onto a military base – something I’m very familiar with from my days as the long arm of the law. Of course, back then, my badge would get me in wherever I wanted to go, unescorted. It was an odd feeling to have my things searched and to then be given a bright red MUST BE ESCORTED badge. Amazing how things have changed in my life in just three years. The compound had such an overwhelming US government feel, even though I only spoke with one American, and that was merely to say hello. So many buildings in the former Soviet Union are built of poured concrete, but the buildings of the embassy (at least in the part of the compound where I was) were made of standard US concrete blocks, covered in a thin veneer of bland paint, just like the innumerable government buildings I’ve been in during the course of my life. And it even SMELLED like a US government building: musty, vaguely mildewy, with a stale odor of coffee and that ubiquitous yet indefinable odor which makes one think good enough for government work.

Anyway, about my class: It’s a very low level class (still working on I am / he is / they are kind of stuff). I’d been told that they were very weak, so I’d prepared all sorts of activities to get them talking to one another in English, even if it was simply things like introducing themselves or their friends to each other. Unfortunately, while I’d expected three, possibly four, students, only one showed. He told me that one of the others was sick, and the other was considering dropping the class on account of not having liked the previous teacher. This meant I pretty much had to shelve all my interactive student-to-student activities, but I’d like to think the fellow got a lot out of his personal lesson. He’s the embassy’s plumber. We actually had a good chat (in both English and Russian) about the crackheads stealing my copper pipes, and about how stealing pipes is common in Kyrgyzstan, although here the thieves are usually common criminals, not наркоманки (drug users).

Part of the lesson dealt with nationalities. You know: He is from Germany, he is German. She is from Spain, she is Spanish. That sort of thing. Well, you’d think that He is from Kyrgyzstan, he is Kyrgyz would be a perfectly legitimate thing to say. However, nationalities in this part of the world are a wholly different concept from what we think of back home. I mean, I have grandparents who were born in Europe, but if you ask my nationality, I’ll tell you that I’m American, not Irish or Scottish or Italian or whatever. Perhaps it’s because everyone in the US is an international mutt that makes us all adopt “American” as our nationality; perhaps it isn’t merely the countries of the former USSR which have trouble handling this question. However, I do know that this particular concept is difficult for the entire land of Central Asia. My student and I had just gone over He is from Kazakhstan, he is Kazakh, She is from Uzbekistan, she is Uzbek, They are from Kyrgyzstan, they are Kyrgyz, and I asked him What is your nationality? His answer? I am Ukrainian. Apparently both his parents and all his known ancestors were born in Ukraine, although he was born in Bishkek (and, oddly looked more like an ethnic Kyrgyz than an ethnic Ukrainian or Russian). I didn’t press the issue or try to make him adopt the American point of view, that he is Kyrgyz, since ethnicity is still a big deal in this part of the world. Passports here have your ethnicity printed on them, and there’s definitely a division in the north between ethnic Russians and ethnic Kyrgyz. In the south, ethnic Uzbeks add tension to that mix – I believe the Uzbeks and the Kyrgyz massacred one another in Osh in the early 90s. And of course there are ethnic Uighars, Dungans, Chinese, Koreans, etc all floating around the country as well. Unlike the alleged melting pot of the US, where we all at least dress ourselves in the veneer of American nationality, these groups are far from ready to coalesce into something wholly and intrinsically Kyrgyz.

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