Monday, July 21, 2014

The Beginning of the End

Comrades,

I officially have eight days left in-country. Oh the time has flown by. While I am sad to leave a place I have called home for the last ten months, I am ready to return to life in America and my last year of grad school. I will so dearly miss all of my coworkers in the bazaar, my friends, Baraholka (yes, I will miss it), and all the craziness and unpredictability that goes along with living and researching in Almaty. I view life overseas as an ongoing SNL improv skit, and all of my acquaintances are character actors. So, as I reflect on the past ten months, I shall write a Julia Ioffe-inspired post on what I will miss and not miss about living in Almaty. As always, these are my opinions, and they do not reflect the experiences or beliefs of any other person or organization.

I will miss my Soviet-era, one bedroom apartment (built in 1982) that has recurring electricity outages and no air conditioning, which makes sleeping in 94 degree F weather quite unpleasant. I will miss looking outside my window onto the construction site where Uzbek migrants work and live. I will miss the 70-year old retired Russian who every morning squats outside the building door, smoking a cigarette, drinking water or kvass from a plastic bottle, wearing nothing but his bathrobe. I will also miss him doing the same thing in the afternoon, and in the evening -- "guarding" my building. I will also miss the retired grandpas who play chess, betting 2,000 tenge a piece, at the Dungan lakhman cafe in my building. And I will miss the old, Russian guy who strides at a glacial pace, like old people do, as he visits that same Dungan lakhman cafe every afternoon for a 100-tenge, 50-ml shot of vodka, followed by a cigarette during the walk back to his apartment. The waitresses all of his order memorized.

I will mis the affordable and quality fruits and vegetables imported from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and the Almaty suburbs. I will miss Dungan food. I will miss bottles of vodka that cost all of $3. I will not miss the Nescafe coffee and having to explain what a gluten allergy is all of the time.

I will miss being called the following names: Denochka, Devochka (girl), Krasavitza (beauty...very complimentary), and Kavkazka (a Caucasian girl...less so complimentary, but a reference to the fact that I look like I'm from the Caucuses). I will not miss being asked what my nationality is and responding that I am an American, only to receive the follow up response that American is not a nationality. I then say I am a Evreika (Jew), and the response is "aaa ponyatno, vyi pokhoj na chistakrovnuyu evreiku," or in English, "Aa, understood, you resemble a pure-blood Jew." (The back story to this is that during the Soviet Union, everyone was classified as a nationality, and the Jews were one of them. An individual's nationality written on the fifth line of their passport. So identifying myself as a Jew makes sense to them.)

I will so dearly miss Arasan banya. I will miss the smell of varenki in the Russian sauna. So much.

I will not miss the random Passport/document checks.

I will miss Baraholka bazaar. I will miss the chaos, and energy of the traders. I will miss lounging in the stall and interacting with customers. I will miss 14 year old girls and their mothers debating the proper high heel height, much like I did with my mom at that age. I will miss receiving people's reactions to the fact that their saleswoman is an American, and not a Turk or Azerbaijani.

I will not miss the porter potties in Baraholka. I will not miss the lack of trashcans and the sunflower seeds on the street. I will not miss working in the bazaar -- freezing when it is -30 C and sweating like I'm in a banya when it is +40 C weather. I will not miss the crowded aisles and pushing. I will not miss the 40-minute bus ride.

I will miss all of the traders in the bazaar. And I'll miss my local, corner "produktyi" store, and the two Kazakh ladies who run it. But most of all the bazaar.

I will miss the older-Kazakh guy who is a belts and socks wholesale trader in the stall next to me, who always tells me I should marry his son and live in Kazakhstan forever.

I will so, so, so dearly miss my boss in Baraholka. I will miss him ending every sentence with "Denochka." I will miss him making side comments on other traders and customers. I will miss him leaving me in charge to trade as he goes to get new goods and take care of business for an hour or so. I will miss him explaining to me where things are located in the container, the sizes available, and the prices. I will miss opening new boxes of shoes and admiring the models as we put them out on the display shelf. I will miss drinking tea with him in the winter, and eating cherries, putting the pits in an empty shoebox, in the summer.

I will miss Ke, who, like my boss, is originally from Osh, but now has a wife and daughter in Bishkek. Every Sunday night, he goes home to Bishkek to see his family. I miss exchanging my extra som (Kyrgyz currency) with him after my travels. I also will miss his lingo of "privyetochka" and "salemochka" (basically adding an extra "-ochka" to a standard greeting).

I will miss the pregnant Kazakh gal from Shymkent who sells children's clothing next to me. I will miss her calm demeanor amongst the chaos of Baraholka. I'll also miss De, who sells children shoes next to the Kazakh guy who sells belts.

I will miss my coworkers in my bosses containers. I will miss Ed, who is an ethnic Korean born and raised in Dushanbe, and his wife, Gan, who is from Taldikorgan. I will miss Ed coming to me and asking to verify a shoe size due to his poor eye site, as he held a cigarette in between his lips, and at times, wreaked of vodka. I will never forget the time I was working in the bazaar while my boss was getting new goods, and the okhraniki came by and were giving me a hard time, so Ed came by to sweet talk and help me. I will miss Gan's no nonsense tone. I very much respect them. They both came from nothing, and while they are unable to work outside of the bazaar, they have used their money to put their kids through school. Their son graduated from KIMEP and just secured a job at a US big-four company in Almaty. They even asked me to give their daughter English lessons -- but I don't have time.

I will miss my Russian coworker, S, who used to drive me to and from work until he moved. I will miss S explaining to me the local gossip and how things in the bazaar worked. I'll also miss his "vents" on marriage and kids, like the time his wife asked him to buy pantyliners, and he couldn't figure out which model to purchase. S was also my source of slang. I have an entire document on my iPhone dedicated to all of the Russian curse words and slang expressions, and 90% of the contributions this year came from S. When I had an issue with my landlord attempting to hike up the rent after devaluation, I discussed my negotiating strategy with S. I will miss the really local advise he gave me.

I will miss the Tajik migrants. Oh there are so many to list. I will just name a few. To protect them, I'll shorten their names to one or two letters.

I will miss Ne, who works in our third container, and his "brother" who sells men's shoes there too. I will miss chatting with Ne when there are no clients about everything from life in America, life here, health issues, etc. I will miss relying on him to find me a model when I don't know where it is. Ne is 27 and just got married in February, which is late by local standards. He went back home to Kurgan-Tobe and had an arranged marriage -- which is quite common. He had refused to get married earlier and expressed his support for the "American way" of getting married later, and only having one wife. I remember one time when we were chatting with another Tajik, who also said that it is better to get married later and to have fun while young. I asked if he wanted a second wife and he said, "no, one wife is enough." Ha. Ne responded that his wife was ignoring his calls and intentionally not answering the phone, because the previous week he ran out of money on his cell phone, and had to wait until he had enough cash on hand to put money on it and call her. Fortunately, a week later, she forgave him, and now he is conscious of not letting his phone balance go down to zero.

I will miss Az, who always calls me after I am not in the bazaar for a day, or two, or a week, and asks where I am and if my health is ok. I will miss him telling me how he has two wives, one here, and one in Taj. The wife here works and corresponds with the wife at home, and her work is a major financial relief for the family when the sales season is slow. He approached me to help one Taj, who is his "adopted" son. This Taj, Mo, is 18, and was born and raised in Dushanbe. Mo's father paid for Mo to have private English lessons. When there were no jobs after graduating school, and university was not an option, Mo came to Baraholka to work. Az came to me and asked for me to practice English with Mo every day because Az worried that Mo would forget it. So every morning, when I come in, I ask Mo how is the weather, how are his sales, etc. And honestly, Mo is not half bad. His English is decent. For various reasons, he was unable to enter university. Az later asked me how he can send Mo overseas to America to study. I showed them some programs and explained the application process. Even though it is unlikely Mo will ever be able to make it to America, I was so touched by Az's desire and serious intention to preserve Mo's level of English and use me as a resource for his education.

I'll miss A, who is a lanky 19-year old whose mother died of cancer when he was 5 and father passed a few years later, leaving him to grow up with his brothers and other relatives. "A" came to Almaty three years ago to start working in the bazaar. He was selling men's shoes across from me and would always come into our container to try to sell to women's shoes whenever an attractive young girl came in. When a girl and her mother came in, he would always offer if they needed a security guard. He would always mention a ridiculously high price, and surprisingly enough, managed to sell it. My boss would give him a cut of the profits. I will not forget the time when he hit on a pregnant woman at the bazaar with her husband looking for a comfy shoe. When A kept on proposing heels, the husband eventually exclaimed "do you not understand, she is pregnant, and cannot wear heels," at which point A backed down out of fear. He explained to me that he thinks that when women are there with their boyfriends, the boyfriends/husbands will buy heels for a higher price. In reality, though, from my experience, the male figure usually takes the lead in bargaining. I will also miss how A likes to impress girls and will say to me from across the aisle, as if he is my boss, "give it for a good price," and when he comes in and tells a girl that we have a certain size of a model, even though I know the inventory, and know 110% that we do not have that size.

I will miss my Tajik friend, K, and his father, KF,  two containers down from me who moved to Almaty in the 1990s during the civil war. They used to own two containers, but now own one after suffering a bad season this winter. I will miss chatting with K during the times when there were no customers. K always asked me about getting loans in America, school and education, the differences between life here and there. At one point his father went back to Taj for a bit and K and I were both in Almaty alone -- so in a way, we could vent to each other about being away from home by ourselves for a while. And KF's father  is one of the sweetest people ever. He is in his 50s/60s, and during the Soviet Union, worked in agricultural sales in the auls in Tajikistan. He spent all of his life working in sales and the bazaar. I remember one time I was chatting with them when another trader walked in and shook hands with them. While it is unconventional for a Muslim, Tajik male to shake hands with a woman, most do with me. But this trader refused to shake my hand as it is not proper according to Muslim law. Fine, I was not offended. I understood, as I have Jewish acquaintances who do not shake hands with women. After the trader refused my hand, KF turned to me and explained the thinking -- that any contact with a woman can be interpreted as sexual. He said that sort of thinking was stupid, and what is important is what you think in your heart when you shake someone's hand. If someone has a good heart and is a good person, then they won't be thinking those bad things.

I will miss my local vegetable guy, M, also a Tajik, who always asks about my work, and health.

I will miss the loads of other Tajiks who practice the few words of English they know with me. I will miss their innocent and at times, ridiculous, questions. I welcomed the opportunity to interact with them and explain American culture. This is a demographic that rarely gets the opportunity to talk to an American, and I was happy to take on the role of an "unofficial Ambassador" as a Fulbright scholar.

I will not miss their crazy conspiracy theories told me on global events. And I absolutely will not miss their highly inappropriate sexual and crude comments (not all of them, but a handful). In fact, I really look forward to escaping this aspect.

I will not miss how I am perceived as a woman. I will not miss being asked the following questions, by men and women: Are you married? How old are you? You're 23, why are you not already married? Why are you studying? Why don't you stop studying and just get married and have children, and let your husband provide for you? How many children do you have? (I wear a wedding ring, so I get this question a lot...I intentionally wear a ring for security reasons when I am on the bus, traveling, etc.) How many children do you want to have?

I will not miss my opinions as a woman being diminished by others, and when I say that I plan to work after graduation and the response is, "no, you will accept Islam, wear a veil, move to Tajikistan and be my wife." While this is a joke, and I have a good enough relationship with traders to joke about these things and say "absolutely not," and "to each their own...everyone has their own culture and beliefs and we can all respect each other," on a more fundamental level, I think that this view is quite common in South and Central Asia. This is a fairly traditional view, and that is fine. Again, to each their own. I am not making a value judgment and saying this perspective is wrong, or bad, but rather, there is no acceptance of any alternative lifestyle, and the idea of "live and let live." Moreover, this view is important for international NGOs and women's rights organizations to keep in mind. Gender empowerment is not about the women, it is about the men. So long as the predominant mindset keeps women as uneducated, housewives whose decision-making power is surrendered to their male husbands, gender empowerment will not occur.

I will miss my friends outside of the bazaar, who are mostly well-educated, working young professionals. I respect and admire their tenacity, optimism (and pessimism) and practicality. It is this group of people that makes me optimistic for Kazakhstan's future -- and I wish them all of the luck and success in the world. There are so many more people to note here, but I'll just mention a few.

I will mis Kh and his wife Ai. We always have fun together and I value our deep conversations on Kazakhstan's economy.

I will miss my "Kazakh family" who live in Astana, Ma and Ti. Every time I visit Astana, I stay with them. I know Ma since she studied in DC as an undergraduate on a Bolashak grant. I will miss their hospitality and I will miss their words of wisdom on life in Kazakhstan. I spent New Years with them and their parents in Astana, and I will never forget their gracious, Kazakh hospitality, and unwavering friendship.

I already miss D, who was one of my best friends in Almaty. We met three years ago during my first stay here and I stayed with her last winter. Until mid-June, when she moved to Tbilisi, Georgia, D lived one block away from me, and I could always count on her for a good, old-fashioned heart-to-heart/vent/girltalk. D has a big personality, and an even bigger heart.

I will miss G, who I met through an email connection, and has since been a major resource in terms of advice and fleshing out ideas. I will miss G's parents, with whom I stayed with in Karaganda.

I will miss T, who is from Uzbekistan and has worked his way up, after studying in the US, to work in a successful finance firm in Almaty. I appreciate his insights on life in general, and Central Asia.

I will miss my office neighbor, Al, who is a professor of Economics at KIMEP. If it was not for his insights and criticism during the research process, and our long chats on informal economic theory, I would be totally lost in my research.

I will not miss being on the same time zone as my family and friends in the USA. I will miss being on the same time zone as my friends in Kazakhstan -- especially when this is such an oral, phone-based culture. I will miss getting all of my emails at night, and not being a slave to emails during the day.

I will not miss being told that drinking cold water = pneumonia = death. I will not miss having to buy water and not drinking from the tap.

I will miss Almaty's wide sidewalks and walkable city. I will miss the view of the Tian Shan mountains. I will not miss the polluted air and "black nose."

I will miss speaking Russian. I started learning Russian late in life -- when I was 20 -- and have managed to become nearly fluent in a short amount of time. It is such a beautiful language. And I will miss speaking the little Kazakh I know in Baraholka.

I realize that this post got quite long, and there are a lot more things I can write, but this was quite a cathartic exercise. Overall, this was one hell of a year. Never a dull moment. I had my moments, as all humans do. There were highs and lows. But overall, I very much love and respect the people of Kazakhstan and of Central Asia. So I will enjoy my last eight days here (until the next trip), before I head back home, where I will return to the stressful "hustle and bustle" of grad school, and reunite with my friends, family, beloved dog, and copious amounts of Mexican food and (shell)fish.




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