14 October 2006

Sound of heavy rain

I work up early this morning to the sound of heavy rain after several consecutive days of “Indian summer” weather. My early morning routine, in absence of a daily newspaper, is to watch the TV news (CNN, BBC and Sky News in English) or to get my sports fix on ESPN. Sports programming is heavy on golf, soccer, motorsports and cricket. ESPN shows its “The Legends of Cricket” several times a week and promotes it relentlessly. The irony is that I’ve not seen any evidence of cricket being played in Central Asia. The explanation rests in the fact that Hong Kong is the broadcasting hub for many of these global networks and cricket is widely played in India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand and the remaining vestiges of the British Empire.

Fulfilling my sports needs, especially for college football, has proven to difficult, so I content myself with the occasional Thursday evening college game and Sunday and Monday night NFL games, which are broadcast “live,” meaning 12 hours later than Rocky Mountain Time, i.e., on Friday, Monday and Tuesday mornings.

Early morning fare on one of the Russian language station TV stations—until 6 a.m., before the kiddies arise—is explicit though not totally hardcore American-produced pornography. I am still getting a handle on the sexual politics and religious beliefs of Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan, for example, is 80% Muslim, though Islam in most of Central Asia is worn pretty lightly compared to the fundamentalist strains that dominate Western airwaves and fears. I think it safe to say that there are as many varieties of Islam as there are denominations of Christianity. Many of my students view ultra-conservative Islam with the same kind of disdain that many of the moderate faithful in the United States have for righteous fundamentalist Christianity.

Young women’s fashion in Bishkek is anything but conservative and appears to be torn from the pages of Western popular culture, particularly and MTV and its counterparts. Women are expected to be married by about 24 or 25 or risk the very strong likelihood of being seen by friends and families as unmarriable—an unthinkable option. Even the most feminist students say that waiting until 26 or 27 for marriage is upsetting the apple cart of expectations. The centrality of the extended family also means that being single, especially living alone, is almost incomprehensible for a man or a woman. I saw a student walking her dog and during our brief discussion she asked me who I lived with. I explained that I lived alone and her cocked head and facial expression revealed both astonishment and pity (which I found amusing). I got a similar response when another student asked me about my children.

Women often walk arm in arm as do men, though not as frequently, but the acceptance of same-sex relations is low, even among college students, though my travel guide indicates there is at least one gay bar in Bishkek. When I said in a class that some estimates in the West suggest one in 10 people could be gay or lesbian, one of my student’s lower jaw dropped and. wide-eyed, she scoured the classroom in search of an imposter. In another class, I asked about the availability of birth-control measures other than condoms and several gazes dropped to their readings, perhaps out of concern that a knowledgeable answer would be interpreted as an admission of indiscriminate sexual activity.

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