7 October 2006
One of the standard questions posed to me almost daily by both Kyrgyz natives and other international faculty is how is the transition into a new culture is going. It’s a pleasant, well-meaning conversational opener, plus the answer can change daily, sometimes within the space of few hours.
Yesterday afternoon, I realized that the biggest challenge I have felt is not living and working in a new culture, learning new customs and sensibilities, or wrestling with new languages (Russian and Kyrgyz), but instead becoming part of a corporate workplace. I have had to adjust make is in being an employee of corporate institution, learning its formal and informal policies and practices, and operating within a structure stratified by rankings of power, prestige, credentials, title, history, etc. It’s also been a while since I shared a workplace with others and had to negotiate office micropolitics while learning to read and fruitfully co-exist with a new set of personalities. I am very fortunate to be working with some lovely people, but being part of collective identity has been, well, odd. I feel like an outsider when I observe (and am asked to part) in the university’s effort to create a corporate consciousness based on the “American liberals arts tradition,” which has been anything but clear in its nation of origin for the last 20 years.
Then, of course, there is the seemingly endless speechifying and communiqués from university administrators, which I could easily ignore or extract myself from in my last several years of employment in the States. We recently had elections for the Faculty Senate and the candidate who was ultimately elected to represent international faculty was a tall, handsome and all-smiles American member of the business program who actively sought the position by organizing a campaign staff, distributing handbills and emails, and going office-to-office with sales pitches and glad-handing. (There were no babies to kiss.) After his victory, and before any of the official results were posted, he emailed faculty members a message in which he accepted the burdens of power granted to him by his trusted colleagues and confided that that there was no higher calling than the opportunity to serve humanity. So the great irony is that I am most alienated by the part of this experience that is most familiar.
I’ve learned enough Russian and have honed my gesture-making skills sufficiently enough to shop, order food, pay the bills and I have enough sense to ask for help when I am in over my head. Learning the Central Asian, and more specifically the urban Kyrgyz, way of being in the world has been exciting and for the most part as much fun as I hoped it would be. And there’s nothing new for me about living by myself (even though that it is almost unheard of here).
I miss my friends, my loved ones, my dog and my yard, but little else about the United States, although it’s probably worth pointing out that customer service in the U.S. of A. is much better than I realized. At the grocery store where I shop, a Turkish-owned chain in which virtually everything is marked with a price, the checkers hardly say a word to any of their customers, locals included, and simply toss the plastic bags in your direction, usually without turning their heads, and you are expected to quickly bag your groceries before the next customer’s purchases get pushed into your pile.
Parting thought: We have a weeklong fall break starting 14 October and I hope to see some of Kyrgyzstan outside of Bishkek then. I’ve done a couple of hikes in the nearby (and spectacular) mountains, a white-water trip and may be doing another hike tomorrow in Ala-Archa National Park, which is about a 40-minute drive from here.