From Little Caterpillars to Children

The most shocking part of parenting so far is looking up and realizing I’m the parent of a kid.  Some time in the last month or so my daughter has gone from babyhood to childhood.  She’s a toddler – a small child – with a full-blown personality and mind and manners and opinions and conscious desires of her own (often realized in contradiction of my own).  She’s no longer a baby-baby.  Yes, of course she still cries when she’s frustrated (she had a few minor melt-downs this morning), but she’s becoming conscious of herself.  She acts, and then reacts: she pops the top off a jar and then laughs and holds out the top to us, showing us what she’s accomplished; she pulls the garlic chives and arugula out of the grocery bag I have unwisely left next to her in the backseat and then pushes a fistful of greens towards me when I open the door; she struggles to open the zippers on my purse and then shakes it and yelps her frustration.  When she does THINGS NOT ALLOWED (like throwing her spoon on the ground) she favors us with a rapturous grin and nods her head up and down like a bobble-head doll, delight and mischief sparkling in her eyes.  We find it hard not to laugh, which is of course what she intends.

Suddenly, she’s a person (not a baby); a person not just with emotions and desires, but conscious of those emotions and desires, and aware of her own knowledge.  This seems to be developing along with her mobility – the more able she is to move at will, the more conscious she becomes of the possibilities around her, and the possibility of doing something different than her parents are offering at the moment.  Oftentimes this consciousness of desire seems to arise when her will is in opposition to mine, in realizing that there are other possible actions, in watching my reaction.  Sometimes she’s exhausted by bedtime (we’re also struggling through the transition from two naps to one), and she slings her pajamas over her shoulders and crawls onto her toilet (backwards).  Other times, as soon as we strip her down and unfold a diaper for night she hustles into her fort and sprawls, naked, against her stuffed animals, then flashes us a wide gummy grin.  And somehow, suddenly, I’m no longer mother to a baby.

Sleep with Children

Sleep is an odd demon.
Sometimes I wake up, refreshed, at five am, rejuvenated at the sight of a rosy red dawn and the first fresh whiffs of mountain air. I actually hope that my daughter won’t go back to sleep after I feed her, so that we can catch that beautiful golden morning light on our walk, that serene hour of summer golds and greens and blues before the sun boils.
Sometimes I sleep in until 7, or 8, and wake as if from a coma, dragged from some deep place. My daughter slowly enters my dreams, crawling across the screen. I gradually become aware of her dropping her pacifiers on the floor (there are many) and chatting as she rattles the side of her crib. I interact with her in my dreams, reluctant to let myself rise from slumbers. Her chattering grows more insistent, and my subconscious self slowly allows me to become aware that she’s calling me from outside the dream. I open my eyes but barely, pull my legs from sheets tangled in sleep, and give her mussy hair a morning kiss. Usually I hope she’ll fall back asleep once I’ve fed her – even if she’s slept her ten or eleven hours. Vain hope. I bring her back to bed with me, where she snuggles between us and turns to me with expectant mouth and bright eyes.
Sometimes she falls to sleep again, and I wake up an hour or so later, wondering at the thick sun pouring through the window. More often, however, she has her morning sip and then begins babbling away, nuzzling up against her (still-sleeping) father, crawling all over us and then collapsing into chest-hugs, standing on the edge of our bed to place her hands on the window ledge and play peek-a-boo with the curtains. I finally sit up, take her downstairs to wash up, talk about the day as I make a cup of coffee, and then stretch out on the living room floor, shaking the sleep out of my joints.
Our neighbors are silent almost all throughout midday – not a kid in the garden or a bike on the street. They sleep, hibernate through the heat. At dusk they appear, spilling out onto the sidewalks, filling the tea garden. When we sleep at ten or eleven I can still hear them, little kids calling to each other and scootering up and down the street below. My husband tells me to sleep when our daughter sleeps, to nap during the day. I can’t. If I did, I wouldn’t get anything done. My entire day would be taking care of our daughter, or preparing meals, or sleeping. But I also *can’t*: my body doesn’t know how to sleep during mid-day. Once I’m awake, that’s it – I’m up. Unlike my husband I can’t just drop off for a nap after watching the baby for two hours. I’ve tried to explain this to him again and again on my morning to sleep in – that if he hands her off to me while he uses the restroom, or takes a half an hour to get them out of bed, then that’s it for my sleep. I just drink coffee throughout the day, and then somehow, around 6 or 7 pm, I feel awake. In the evening I try to do everything I couldn’t focus on during the day and then, once again, I can’t sleep until well past 10:30.

Nearby Excursions: The Farm Guesthouse at Rot Front

From the Farm Guesthouse at Rot Front
There’s honestly not much to do here. In a sense that’s ideal for us – a break from the stress and dust and daily life of Bishkek where my husband is more than busy with work, and every day we have to contend with being a non-Muslim family surrounded by a mostly conservative Islamic-oriented community covered and fasting for Ramzan under the parching summer sun. I’m tired of worrying about wearing shorts every time I walk outside. It’s hot; how can those women bear to wear full skirts and overcoats when it’s 95 degrees?!
An occasional break from Bishkek is good – clear our lungs, clear our minds.
But I wouldn’t want to live in the Kyrgyz countryside, for it doesn’t seem a place of happening, possibility. What would you do if you were a youth here? What are the possibilities? For there doesn’t seem to be a great notion of innovation, of opportunity. Men squat by their cars in the shade; cows bellow as they wade through the grass or take great, lumbering strides across the road, oblivious to the traffic stopped for them to pass; women stand around in small groups, babies on their hips, or hang laundry in the garden. The people I pass seem to be waiting – perhaps not waiting for anything in particular, but not likely to initiate momentum themselves. Waiting for someone else to take the first step, waiting for something to happen, waiting for the government to come in, waiting for commands, options, instructions.
The other guests at the farm are an older Swiss German couple. The husband works for a company that sold some radio equipment to a station here and has thus traveled here for work dozens of times over the past decade. When I asked him what changes he had noticed in the Kyrgyz countryside he paused and then said “Nothing. They have more modern tractors”.
Across the street mountains loom over the fields and quaint white houses with peaked roofs painted sky blue. Last night as we drove through the winding countryside the mountains were a study in gradients of grey. This morning was hot and lush and green, the colors of a Kyrgyz summer – brown earth, blue skies, green leaves and grass, bright red cherries in the trees, a poke of purple or yellow flowers by the road. Beautiful, but still.

I can’t really complain about the guesthouse, and yet there are so many ways in which it could be improved, details here and there. Perhaps it’s usually more on target, when the owner/managers are on the property, for the gushing reviews seem to be describing a different place than the one where we stayed. Meals – communal, held at the long table outside the summer kitchen – are sometimes an affair of awkward silence, as if the youth working here aren’t quite sure how to talk to their few guests on equal footing. The food is also not our usual fare. I thought the huge mound of pasta peppered with slices of spam-like salami we were served up last night was on account of the power outages following yesterday’s storm. But lunch too was a literal mountain of pasta, with a tiny side salad, and a few chunks of meat barely visible atop the sliced and steamed potatoes covering the noodles. Dinner was a bowl of rice and potatoes with some sauce, and a plate of pork to share. Our only vegetable was the leaves of lettuce used for garnish on the plate of pork. Ironic – I’d expect more fresh food when staying on a farm in mid-summer. After our meals I felt both overly full and under-satisfied, as if I’d eaten too many calories, but not gotten enough nutrients.
I realized how healthy we usually eat this morning when breakfast turned out to be a stack of thick golden blini and a half bowl of buckwheat porridge. I looked at the pancakes and almost asked if there was yogurt and fruit, or eggs on the side. Even our one year old was perplexed – she’s used to having “little little into the middle” at every meal, with half her plate being fresh produce, and some protein at every repas. I ran back to the mini fridge in the guesthouse and took out the hardboiled eggs and cheese we had brought, along with a container of mixed nuts and dried fruit. Later we snacked on cucumbers and sour cherries from the guesthouse tree. Three meals a day can’t just be based on starch. (Though they are in many parts of Kyrgyzstan, which is how the country has simultaneously high rates of type II diabetes *and* malnutrition). When we got back to Bishkek I threw together a French carrot salad, and our baby sat in her high chair stuffing handfuls of shredded carrot into her mouth. More balanced meals would certainly be better.
So would a number of other little things here and there – actually comfortable seating in the garden (backless benches do not count), a cleaned-up courtyard outside the guesthouse, a better attached shower-head that wouldn’t droop down and bop you in the head mid-rinse, better sweeping up of the cobwebs that seem to be in every corner. Even *I* saw too many spiders for my own comfort this weekend. Dropping down to the floor to find a fallen pacifier I also noticed that the floor seemed to have not been swept in… a while. Not good when you have a toddler still crawling around on her hands and knees. Our room has three beds plus a crib in it, but no wardrobe or place to hang clothes or store the suitcase, which means there’s barely space to walk, and it’s dark. Little things that are easy to do. The guesthouse is nice for Kyrgyzstan, but I’m tired of saying “nice *for*”; especially when places can be nice in and of themselves. They already have the farm; why not turn the guesthouse into something wonderful – meals made from fresh produce, a nice garden where guests could sit and read books or sip coffee, a clean place to retire to at night.

I finally started reading about the organization that runs it on our way back. It’s called “Act of Kindness” and is run by a biblical Canadian couple and their Canadian daughter and her local husband. Their mission with the farm is to provide a place for orphans who have ‘grown out of government assistance’ (I.e. are too old for orphanages) and yet still need some structure and support. Not a lot of work seems to be going on on the farm, but, again, that might be in part because none of the people who run it were on site this weekend. I don’t believe in private charity towards persons – the inevitable creation of a hierarchy of persons and class divide between benevolent endowers of charity (who may remove their charity at any time) and grateful recipients makes me uneasy in a way that state aid (which persons have access to based on their *rights* as *citizens* to a certain equal minimum standard) does not. But it’s not my project. It would just be nice to know a little more about it (i.e. that it’s not primarily a guesthouse) before arriving. This is because, for guests, the farm seems to exist in an odd, in-between, space. Because you are paying (1000 som/night including all three meals) you do expect some service (I.e rooms cleaned of cobwebs and dust, functioning shower heads, etc…); but, because it’s a charity, it’s also awkward to ask for any of these things. Is your presence – and payment – part of the act of charity too? The same with meals – CBTs (Community Based Tourism, through which locals rent out rooms in their houses to tourists) are around 450/night per person, but offer only breakfast. I’m not going to count in the cost of preparing the food, as guests eat with the half dozen or so residents of the farm, and everybody eats the same meal. Do we eat 550 som/day of ingredients in lunch and dinner? I’d say not, as all the ingredients used to prepare the meals are cheap – rice, potatoes, wheat flour, noodles, a bit of carrots, cucumber and meat from the farm. We just stopped at Globus to do our grocery shopping for the week, and our entire bill – including wine and meat – ran just over 3000 som. So the guesthouse offers accommodation comparable to that found at a CBT, but we’re paying more for food than we’re consuming. And yet, because it’s a charity, what can we say? Can we ask for eggs at breakfast, or salad with dinner? Perhaps their operating budget doesn’t leave a lot for food. Though even if it doesn’t, they could at least introduce healthier fare – beans and buckwheat and rye and seasonal vegetables are not expensive in Kyrgyzstan. The World Food Program works with Kyrgyz elementary schools to provide nutritious and well-balanced lunches for school children for 15 som per student per day – introducing healthier fare need not sink their budget. I also can’t see how condoning or encouraging residents to prepare and eat food that is actually harmful for their bodies – especially when there are so many programs in the country working to educate people in inexpensive healthy nutrition using local ingredients – can be an “act of kindness”. For me, I just felt bloated and irritable all weekend.
I also feel like a farm guesthouse should either be a place where one can go and relax – which would entail having places where guests could sit and read a book or have a comfortable conversation somewhere other than the rather dark rooms or the long benches by the dining table – or a place where guests can pitch in an actually have some active part, or both. When there’s neither – well, what are you supposed to do there?
In all, yes, we got away from Bishkek (and -sob!- missed a free open buffet Turkish brunch celebrating the end of Ramadan), but it ended up being less truly relaxing and enjoyable than I had hoped for. Alas.

Lessons Learned from the First Year of Expat Parenting

Our daughter is on the verge of becoming a toddler.  Next Friday she turns one (a day after my husband’s 35th), and I’m still grappling with the fact that we’ve been parents for a year and we’ve been parents for only a year.  The last 51 weeks seem both eternal (haven’t we always had our daughter in our lives? how did she ever not exist?) and impossibly fast.  The days when she curled her legs under and slept like a ladybug lump on our chests seem eons ago; walking, pregnant, under the blossoming boughs of Ayranci and Besevler seems like it was last week. Must be the first few months of sleepless nights and the rush of everbusiness that accompanies a baby.

But taking this year to a close, I realized I’ve learned a few things that I really wish I knew (or had been able to convince myself of) from the start, for it would have made the first year of parenthood much easier.

  1. Sleep.  Sleep is important – without it you can’t properly function as a normal human being.  Attempting to run on less-than-adequate sleep while diving into a brand-new, full-time, highly demanding job with a boss who doesn’t even send memos (and can’t yet speak your language) is nearly impossible.  Prioritize sleep for the first six weeks. Don’t take on new assignments; turn down projects if need be. Take naps.
  2. Following on this: Sleep train early. This was especially hard for us, as my husband gets really nervous whenever our daughter cries and, at first, whenever she stirred in the night (is she still breathing? Can you just check on her?). Most babies make lots of noise in their sleep for the first few months.  They make even move around and flutter open their lashes without actually waking up.  “Checking on them” can  wake them up; wait a little bit and let them settle themselves down if they can.  Likewise, watch your baby to figure out when their natural bedtime is.  We were having an awful time last August: starting around 7 or 8 our 2-month-old would just fuss and fuss, until she finally fell asleep, exhausted (no less than we) at 10…or 12, usually after I’d rocked her in the sling through an entire playlist of songs I collected expressly for this purpose.  Then I figured out that maybe she just wanted to go to bed around this time.  We started switching off or dimming all the lights in the apartment by 8 and, voila! suddenly we had hours more in the evening to enjoy being adults (and catch up on lots of overdue sleep).
  3. Continuing in the same vein: take night shifts.  After the first few days, there’s usually no need for both parents to get up.  So split the night in two shifts, say 8pm-2am and 2am – 8am.  Let whoever’s not on duty sleep on the sofa if need be – but let them get a full six hours of sleep, and you’ll both be more civil, rational, and all-around happier creatures.
  4. To make the above possible, get your baby used to occasionally drinking from a bottle from the beginning, even if you plan on exclusive breastfeeding.  Little-little babies do not discriminate: if it has milk, they will (usually) not object.  But if you go for several weeks without giving your baby any milk from a bottle, you may discover (as we did, when she was around 2 months old), that they will no longer drink from a bottle – and then there goes all hope of having your partner put them to sleep or having an evening out.  Relatedly, start going on date nights and having someone watch your baby early on, before they are old enough to realize that you’re leaving.  I think if we had started this earlier it would have seemed more normal to her and induced less anxiety.  As it is, she’s generally fine when we leave her with the sitter (who’s watched her since November and is thus a familiar face), but clings to us when we get back, and has a hard time going down for naps
  5. Don’t belittle the contribution of your spouse, however little it may seem.  If you’re female, or the primary stay-at-home parent, then you’re most likely doing more work around the house and in taking care of the baby than your spouse – both when they’re at work and when they’re home.  It’s easy to be scornful of their contribution when it seems so small (Congratulations.  You made one meal and cleaned the dishes. What about the other twenty meals in a week?), but it’s important to keep their experience in mind.  Babies bring big changes and force adjustments in everbody’s life; while what my husband contributes may not be a significant portion of all the work that goes on around here, it is a significant contribution (and a significant change) for him.
  6. That said, things will (would for us) be much easier if you talk to some current parents, figure out all the new chores you’ll actually have once the baby arrives, and then create a system for divvying them up before the baby arrives. One of the issue we had was that I watched our daughter alone from 3-6 weeks, after my husband had to come back to Bishkek for work.  Weeks 0-2 we stayed together with his relatives, and the third week we stayed at an all-included resort hotel in Antalya (great idea for new parents) and didn’t really have to worry about food or laundry or cleaning up. A lot of changes occur in those second three weeks, and, when I came back, my husband had no personal experience in that area – and thus no idea how much work went in to watching and taking care of a baby. Having clear areas of responsibility going in means discussing a lot less later.
  7. Going back to Antalya – take vacations with your baby!  But take it slowly, and make sure it isn’t more work than fun.  If you can go with a relative or reliable friend who will sometimes watch your baby so you can sleep in an extra hour, or take an after dinner walk (drink in hand), it’s more than worth their room rate.
  8. Enjoy being parents.  This can be hard if you’re overtired or stressed out or if it feels like too much work or someone is complaining or you feel your spouse isn’t doing their share.  But parenting – reveling in your child’s smiles and discoveries – is actually a lot of fun, if you let it be. Part of enjoying parenting thus relies on having some time off to yourself, and being able to relax once in a while before diving back in.
  9. Don’t plan on doing anything else while your baby’s awake.  I don’t know about all babies, but ours certainly does not play in her crib, and she’s only now starting to play by herself.  Plan on being present when your baby is awake, and don’t think that you can get work done while watching them, as composing more than a text message can be tough. Divided attention means that you end up doing neither task very well, and  you’ll have a frustrated baby on your hands.
  10. At the same time, choose one thing to work on or complete each day that isn’t related to your child.  This should be something that will make you satisfied, whether it’s actually finishing a film or updating your resume or getting some work done.  But it should be one thing.  As soon as your child goes down for a nap – do it.  Don’t first pick up the living room or wash the dishes or this or that; you c do these things later.
  11. Buy lots of clothes, preferably second-hand, preferably easy-on and off. For the first two months babies get a lot of their own liquids on clothes.  Just when their bodies are getting better at self-regulating, their introduction to eating produces a whole new realm of wardrobe wonders.  Having extra clothes on hand (and not having to do laundry every second day) makes life easier.  At the same time, as cute as baby clothes are, you have to know that they’ll get dirty before lunchtime and your baby will grow out of them in two month’s time anyway, so buying them in bulk off of departing expats is fine.  I found an American couple leaving Bishkek and bought about two bags of baby clothing off of them…I wish I’d been less picky and bought more, knowing now that anything
  12. Arrange “double dates” and make an effort to get out (even in winter, especially in winter).  Babies get cabin fever too, and it’s better for everyone if you have others to interact with (and commiserate with)
  13. Have dates with your spouse (and -see above – get your baby used to having evening with a babysitter early on). You need time together to keep up a whole relationship.
  14. Fret less.  Being first-time parents in a country that isn’t exactly known for its great infant health and overall public hygiene, we were nervous about everything.  Exacting, I could say.  And yes, babies are fragile creatures when newborn, but there’s no need to be tense about every little thing.
  15. (A running theme…) Start things early so they’ll be easier later.  Our daughter is now starting to toilet train herself (!) – she squirms in her seat, has a dry diaper, and then pees the moment we put her on her toilet – probably in great part because we started giving her “toilet opportunities” as soon as she could sit, and she soon discovered that it’s much more pleasant to not poop in her diaper.  Eating is also an area of no concern (though plenty of mess), because we let her eat with her hands as soon as she discovered she could use her fingers to pop food in her mouth.  Don’t push, but let your kids begin when they’re ready – and give them early opportunities to explore.
  16. Stock all your bags. The minimum you need is a diaper, wet wipes, and a change of clothes (for the earlier months).  Keeping a smaller bag stocked with the essentials and a larger diaper bag stocked with everything you could possibly need for an expedition (I sometimes feel like I’m a human caravan…), and replacing things as soon as you use them will make getting out the door much easier, as well as ensure that you never discover that your bag has five pairs of fresh socks, but not a single pacifier.
  17. Exercise.  Yoga will save your back, and tight gluts/hamstrings/shoulders/anything affected by suddenly carrying around a growing infant. I do ten minutes of yoga as soon as I wake up and again before sleep.  If I slack off for a few days I can definitely tell.  Likewise, having a strong core will help you put less strain on your back.  Plus exercise reduces stress, gives you endorphines, and will all around make you a happier, more energetic person 😉
  18. Meal prep.  Trying to prepare breakfast or lunch while watching a baby is no fun, while being able to pop things out of the refrigerator ready to eat is fantastic.  Plus, if you plan ahead, you’ll more likely eat more logical meals.  I often take an hour or so on Sunday to make two big salads (one cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, scallions, herbs, olive oil and lemon juice, the other grated carrot, grated beet, thinly sliced onion, fresh mint, vinegar, and cooked chick peas), soup for lunch (usually Turkish lentil soup with carrots, mint and pepper), and sometimes overnight oats or oatmeal muffins. I also prep the French Press before I go to bed, so I don’t have to think about making the coffee before my mind is fully functioning (and don’t end up trying to screw my thermos lid onto the coffee canister or scooping coffee into my oatmeal…)

The Inconsistencies of Central Asia

For hours today we listened to the same dizzyingly giddy Kyrgyz folk song interspersed with announcements concerning an international sports tournament held at the university, the broadcasts echoing off the apartment facing us and reverberating through our walls all day.  I’ve heard Kara Jorgo on national TV, at sporting events, during every public holiday, and even during weddings; I’m not sure there’s any event where it isn’t played, at least once, if not a dozen times (no, there’s not, as Kyrgyz abroad are even addicted).  It’s somehow a song that you can hear a hundred times (or more, much more) and yet somehow not detest.  Naps were shortened, windows were shut, and then finally we gave up and ventured out into the sullen late afternoon heat and humidity that comes before a storm to look at all the flagbearing students standing staunch on the soccer field sticky with sweat under the relentless sun.

The opening ceremony officially began this evening at 8, half an hour past our daughter’s usual bedtime.  We realized there was no hope of getting her to sleep with all the noise, so we took her down to the old soccer field and stadium behind the tea garden and stood on the track (as the stands were packed) with several hundred other spectators – students, most of the university families we know with young kids, media, people from around town.  Each team marched around the track under their country’s flag: Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkey.  Somehow the university here chose a teal horse as its mascot, and one slim kid swirled and pranced around in a sleek and velvety hip-hugging horse costume complete with a head that must have been hot. Apparently [someone at the university decided] teal is an ancient Turkic color. We chatted with friends and then all migrated over to the tea garden once we realized that the team parade would be followed by at least an hour of speeches from the various rectors and other ‘important figures’.  Little girls in white flouncy dresses and giggling university students in folk costumes and elaborate gold turbans or feathered headdresses snapping group selfies stood shuffling, waiting, by the gymnastics bars.  

Our daughter finally grew sleepy enough (and disinterested in the commotion enough) that we knew she would sleep, so we took her home.  While she shifted in her bed and splayed out into a soundless sleep the speeches reverberated off the building opposite.  After speeches – long, formal, all male – there were dances and quite a number of musical performances, everything from Kara Jorgo (twice) to It’s time for Africa half-translated into Kyrgyz. The pack of pint-sized street dogs that lives around the university shops began to yap and howl.  Our daughter slept on.  Then they were joined by fireworks close enough to shake the windows (I’m always amazed at the proximity of fireworks, and the seeming disregard for public safety – launch fireworks out your window on New Years, sure, no problem, but take a baby outside without a hat and – god forbid! I’ve never seen such a fuss [apparently babies are not flammable but, on the contrary, catch cold easily even in 90 degree heat]).  After the fireworks there was one more round of It’s Time for Africa, and then somebody started to DJ, and apparently the soccer field turned into an open air disco. The night call to prayer – sung live by the students from the university’s religious faculty – was drowned out by Pitbull rapping about partying in Miami. Little girls in flounced white dresses and embroidered vests flooded the street below our apartment building and flocked around the little stores with their proud parents, club of ice cream in their hands, as somebody blasted Daft Punk and then Rhianna over the university sound system.

The top administrators at the university – reflective of the current trend in Turkey’s ruling party – are all male, upper-middle aged, and have covered (headscarved) wives who walk around in shapeless button-down overcoats and have never had employment outside of the house. We’ve seen the faculty body grow more conservative over the years.  And yet somehow someone gave permission for students to flood the campus with songs about A$S. Comic.  

I remember being shocked the first time I boarded a marshrutka (before I learned better – the minibuses would be better termed “public saunas on speeding wheels of death”) when I was blasted with Like a G6 from a dusty speaker under a dangling decal asking protection from Allah.  After years of being inundated with pink bubble pop in China – where lyrics were all dripping romance and censored to not get past your socks – I couldn’t quite reconcile the idea of girls in long dresses with pastel-colored hair clips listening to lyrics like “poppin bottles getting slizzered” on their way to university classes where they might giggle at the thought of flirting with a classmate, or schoolchildren dressed in mock-folk costumes tapping their toes to beats I hope my own daughter doesn’t understand for another two dozen years.  But here we are – in Central Asia, where things we hold so separately in the US often layer on top of each other.

It’s a bit like when I returned to the US and people would ask me, “How was China?”, like I could just neatly summarize an entire country and all its people into a pat little response that would fit neatly inside a midwest framework.  “Big” I’d inevitably say.

Chinese in my ears

I fretted about forgetting Chinese.  Every time I ran into the ebullient Chinese teacher from the Confucius Institute who lives on the fourth floor I would stammer and spin through Chinese sentences ending in Turkish and Russian in my head.  I lived in China for over four years.  I spoke Chinese so well many people mistook me for a native [minority]. One year when feverishly sick my flatmate even informed me that I spoke Chinese while sleeping.

But I haven’t lived in Chinese since 2013 – almost four years past.  I started to wonder – fear – that I’d forgotten it.  So after visiting the US and deciding on grad schools (as the program I enter would, to some extent, determine the languages I need to speak), I determined to spend two hours a week on Chinese.  I sought out the Chinese teacher and arranged to visit her during office hours twice a week. (Bring your baby! she exclaimed. She’s so cute and guai [demure, well-behaved – she’s only ever seen her strapped in the baby carrier, and not wrecking havoc on our living room floor].  She can sit there while we practice [and rip up papers and eat the stapler]). I went through all the free material on half a dozen Chinese reading apps (do I really want to pay $14 a month when there’s a whole internet?).  I pulled out my old HSK 6 practice book before realizing that, unless I actually planned to take the HSK, the stiff language of test prep would serve me very little of practical use. And then I turned to Chinese TV.

I don’t watch TV except for the annual bout of Game of Thrones.  I didn’t watch TV when I was in China, though TVs everywhere were always on (perhaps that’s why I didn’t watch it).  However, back when I was in Beijing (and back in the days when we actually bought DVDs) I once bought a box set of a TV series and watched all 60 episodes, pausing the screen every time I saw a word or phrase I didn’t understand, looking it up in the dictionary, and carefully scribing it into my Chinese notebook.  It was a great way to pick up natural language in use, and fill in some of the gaps in my vocabulary of the everyday. Unfortunately, being out of the ‘Chinese loop’, the first twos series I chose to watch (based off of recommendation lists online, some of which are hilariously bad, and what’s actually available on Youtube), were terrible, soppy things (see here).  I can stand about ten minutes (sometimes fifteen!) before my brain starts smoldering and revolting against the plot inconsistencies, poorly drawn characters, and the way idiotic is portrayed as cute in girls and overtly critical and lovingly concerned in mothers.

Fortunately/unfortunately, I haven’t forgotten my Chinese.  I go to sleep with phrases from the TV shows reverberating in my brain, I hear their voices as little mental responses to a hundred different things during my morning.  I should have chosen better TV shows (any suggestions? Or should I just attempt news talk shows?), as the wide eyed girls from the shows squeak and squeal like cute little hamsters with crimped hair. It seems my Chinese was just latent, waiting just for a little electric prod.  My speaking still isn’t as fluid as before – my brain fumbles around words I know I know but can’t call up to the tip of my tongue.  But certainly, certainly I haven’t forgotten it. And gurgling up with the language comes all the memories – of old friends, of places once explored, of that sense of boundless possibility, along with all the things I really resented about popular Chinese culture.  I think next I’ll write a comparison of social-state themes in Chinese and Turkish TV series, as there’s certainly a lot both attempt to tell the viewer in instructing them in social norms.

Morning Shadows

I can’t remember the last sunny morning my daughter woke up after 7. This morning she was up at 6 and insistent on not going back to sleep. The sun billowed through our curtains and after making a quick cup of coffee we head outside for an early morning trek across campus. Last Friday we saw a few people out; today we were the only ones. It’s always surprising how empty a campus of 5,000 students (including 1200 residing in the dorms) and hundreds of staff (with about half living in the staff apartments) can be. Occasionally there’s a thin old man out jogging in black running shorts and a black hat. A stouter man shuffles along the sidewalk in a perfectly pressed lion red Kyrgyzstan-Olympics 2014 track suit. But this morning were were alone. Even the security guards seemed to be sleeping in.

As the sun grows hotter, I actually don’t mind my daughter waking up earlier.  By the end of this week temps will be pushing 90.  At mid day the sun beats down on us through the thin mountain air, and we relish our north-facing apartment.  In twenty years the university’s fledgling orchards will fill in and actually provide some respite from the hot, blanched sky.  For now the only shade is in the tea garden behind our building where we sometimes spend lazy afternoon hours.  But soon even afternoon will be hot and still.

I wish I could shape my daughter’s summer sleeping hours to match the sun’s relentless march across the sky, to let us enjoy the relative cool and softer palette of dawn and dusk.  If only I could get her to wake at 6, and then go down for one long nap from 11-3:30 or 4, during the stifling heat of mid-day, and then sleep again after 9, allowing us to stroll in that golden hour after work and then sit outside after the sun begins its lazy slide behind electric pink clouds. As it is now she wakes at 6 or 7, naps after two hours or so for an hour and a half or more, then takes her afternoon nap…sometime (it’s been a little random of late), and then sleeps around 7:30 or 8, at that hour of dusk when the light is at its most beautiful.  As I’m most productive and a natural early riser anyway I almost envy one of the other mothers in our mom-baby swimming class whose own daughter sleeps from 11-11.

Carnal Memories, and the worst candy I’ve ever eaten

The worst candy I ever ate was in rural Yunnan. It tasted like toilet bowl cleaner, or at least how I imagine toilet bowl cleaner would taste from the chemical smell. After hacking out two halves of hard ‘green tea’ flavor sugar I dug out another piece and found Hallie correcting homework assignments on the couch. “Try this” I said with extended hand. Hallie went around with bags of candy all week, crunching through them as she worked. She extended her hand and unwrapped the candy without taking her eyes up from the papers. She chewed, swallowed, then looked up at me pucker-mouthed. “What was that?! That was disgusting!”.
Hallie and I had a running competition which she would never admit. She was the good Christian choir girl who did drama and went to Dartmouth and somehow was on all the committees without doing any of the work – though her voice was always present in the planning. The year after I left she would go on to be our regional teaching fellow coordinator, then for years after that she would work at a mediocre educational consulting company somewhere on China’s eastern seaboard, a disappointment, though one she never saw.
In Yunnan we were always hungry. It rained and we were beset with a deep, wet winter cold that reached to our bones. We stroked our stomach furnaces with carbs. The skies were cloudy for days – weeks – on end. We watched for breaks in the clouds to run home and hop in a mildly warm shower before our solar-heated water tank chilled once again. Despite living directly across the street from the village power grid, our electricity was constantly out on the second floor, our space heaters moved dangerously close to the couches in the marble-floored downstairs, where we suffocated ourselves in polyester comforters for warmth. Every three days – or five – there was the village bazaar in the dusty space right below our apartment. Usually there was chicken breast; we always bought fresh eggs. But without a refrigerator, and with year round temperatures hovering in the forties to sixties, we couldn’t buy more than a day’s worth of meat to cook on our single electric hot plate. Eggs with rice noodles, eggs with tomatoes, eggs with pears and oats. In the school cafeteria they served up heaping bowls of hot rice noodles with little scoops of picked cabbage and minced meat. I always loaded mine with the cabbage, hot peppers, and ground green Sichuanese peppercorn, as spice is another way to keep the body warm. At the beginning of the year neither of us could finish a bowl of noodles; as winter settled in we were hungry two hours later, snacking on minced meat and salty mung bean moon cakes in our office above the school hall.
Lunch was more noodles, or large bowls of rice with three of four small helpings of vegetables and meat. Mostly it was vegetables, meant to flavor the rice more than provide sustenance.
I packed on ten pounds – insulation. Hallie grew an inner tube around her waist. But still we were hungry. Sweets and dry cookies and ice cream with plastic chocolatey skins and rice rolls and thick flat rice noodles and sticky rice balls we could always find, along with seaweed and tofu and sausages brushed with oil from a stained cococola bottle and grilled nightly by the young and cheerfully obese woman who ran the rice noodle under our apartment restaurant.
On market days we gorged on chicken breast; in retrospect I should have eaten more eggs and beans – despite the bother of soaking beans and boiling them for hours on a hot plate shared with four impatient housemates.
At Teach for China fellow dinners and official lunches and village celebrations – anytime there was free fresh food – we gorged ourselves on meat: chicken and fish and pork, but especially red meat, as if we were bulking up our iron supplies for the meat-free days to come, nervous we’d never see meat again.

The second-worst piece of candy I ever ate was at the wedding of Daniyar and Malika, at the former’s family home in Ozgen. We woke up at the pink fringes of a summer dawn, got out of the house by 6, and bought a few bottles of water for the ride before waiting – and waiting, and waiting – for a local female friend to get ready. She hopped in the car blurry eyed and we started off on the ride south. Somehow my husband didn’t realize or remember that there is almost no food to be found on the entire winding north-south road. We stopped after cresting the mountains at the gas station where the road forks straight to Talas or through thick forests to the Ferghana Valley, held our breath as we used to outhouse, and bought some cherry candies and mint flavored Russian tea cookies. An hour later, as we rounded the bend from high meadow into pine forests, where women by the roadside sell honey redolent with the scent of alpine flowers, we stopped at a restaurant built like a Swiss lodge. My husband thought he had stopped here  once before for a tasty lunch. We ordered kurdak and laghman and a Nescafé that never came. The kurdak was grisly and tasted old; the laghman noodles were soft and slimy in a sauce of oil and overcooked vegetables. We set down our forks and headed down the road, past the actual restaurant my husband had visited on his trip past, and where we stopped on our way back to have fresh grilled fish on a dais hanging over a stream.
By six pm we arrived at Daniyar’s family compound, a series of low houses – parents and cousins and aunts and uncles’ residences – connected through their courtyards. We were ushered in and sat down around low wooden tables on a raised platform. Dinner wouldn’t be ready for another two hours, but we were proffered tea and fizzy dairy drinks and stacks of hard glossy tandoor bread and the ubiquitous plates of gloriously wrapped Russian candy I’ve seen at every wedding in Kyrgyzstan since. We dug into the candy. Our local friend divulged truffle and wafer and cookie alike of their wrappers. I bit into one – and silently crumbled the other half in its wrapping before sliding it under its napkin and softening some bread in my bowl of tea. Dinner could wait.

Yesterday we headed to Daniyar and Malika’s country house for a May 1st barbecue picnic. Again they offered candy. The first piece I ate actually wasn’t awful, – sweet but not sickly, a bit of a crunch instead of that disconcertingly buoyant chocolate shell – and so I tried another. Again I slid it into my napkin.
Later, during dinner, I realized I still eat meat like I’m stocking the winter larder. Full after the first plate of shashlik, I ate on, until my stomach was hard and extended like I was four months pregnant and we avowed we would never eat meat again. This wasn’t entirely my fault: every time my plate was near empty (except for the chunks of charred juicy fat I kept pushing to the side), I’d find another kebab being slid off the skewer and the happily-offended protests of good hosts at my protests against more meat. But still – I’ve realized that my China habits never went away: the tendency to snack on high-starch carbs (instead of sensible things like almonds or a hard-boiled egg) especially when out from home; the desperation with which I face a plate of meat when eating away from my own table. I shed far over ten pounds within a month after departing Yunnan, but the memory of perpetual cold, that fear of not having, still lives on in my gut.

Dreams of Summer

My husband sill wants to go back to Turkey to see his family and have a vacation this summer.  I’m…not sure.

We planned, after our daughter was born, to go back every 3-6 months for pediatrician check-ups and seeing his family, as well as for our annual summer vacation.  The trip is relatively short – a five-hour flight followed by a 45 minute flight.  With check-ins and transfers it makes for a long day (but doesn’t flying anywhere these days, with the long lines and security delays?), but we’re far closer than we will be for the following 5+ years, after we move to the States.

But do we go to Turkey this summer?

I’d love to go.  Turkey is a stunningly beautiful country and the dripping golden sun along the coast, fresh fish eaten by the shore of the epic blue sea, exhausting our limbs swimming and then exploring town or heading off to dinner with our hair still crisp with sea salt,  leather sandals and ancient cobblestones, driving down the sweeping coast to have calamari by a boat house or seek ruins among the pines, feeding slivers of moist white cheese to ferocious kittens that prowl beneath outdoor tables, stopping in a village bazaar to buy figs bursting with the heat of the fields and green olives so briny they pucker your mouth, a beer and long conversation as the sun settles softly over the blueviolet horizon – is to me the definition of vacation. We should also see his family (we haven’t in a year), and bring back the baby to let her be coddled and bounced and hugged and kissed and smothered with the ebullient affection of a Turkish family.

But can we? It’s definitely better if we save more money now, as my husband won’t be working for several months after we move to the states, we basically need to set up an entire new household once we arrive (pots, pans, dishes, bicycles, replacements for everything that’s gradually worn out over our years abroad or is too low-quality to bother shipping), and we’re thinking of buying a house within the next year. However, it’s also en route to the US, and we’re closer now than we will be later. Fiscal considerations aside, however, I still wonder whether we should, if we have anything to worry about.

Living abroad it’s impossible to read the news and understand what the situation is like on the ground for people actually in the country.  I understand that Turkey’s meta political situation is currently not going in a positive direction.  I understand that, for people living in working in Turkey, the arena of free speech, of free movement, is becoming gradually constricted.  Especially after the [moderate, non-partisan] think tank I was working for last year was seized and shut down in the post coup-attempt sweep, I wouldn’t want either of us to be working in Turkey right now, as we would always have to be careful, always face that insecurity of the government just sweeping in and seizing companies or making it impossible for non partisan-supporters to do business or firing contracted state employees.  But we won’t live there, at least not for the present, so we wont necessarily face the concerns of daily life.

My husband’s family believes everything is fine (really?!? we watched the coup night bombing from my in-laws panoramic living room windows). What I saw when I was there was that change (social, political in the everyday) was not swift, but a gradual chipping away, a gradual constriction of old patterns: a few more police on the corners, a new tension in the air whenever we passed a demonstration downtown, a chill on the streets after each incident, a new worry at work or new words making their way into everyday conversation.  Over time the change is monumental, but from day to day, buried other a thousand other mundane things, inconsequential.

So – potentially volatile political situation, potentially few changes along the Mediterranean coast, impossible to predict what steps the party in power will take before the constitutional changes of the recent referendum come into being in 2019, especially considering the push-back they’ve received both from in-country opposition parties and the larger international community.  Maybe they’ll be slow and kind and cautious.  Maybe Turkish passport holders would have trouble getting out of the country.

Adieu, Sweeping Summer Eves on the Meditterranean

The Daily Sabah has been busy the past few days attempting to convince the international community that Turkey just held a legitimate referendum, that the country isn’t ideologically split, that democracy is still strong and healthy…and that the left party (HDP) is actually the polĵitical half of a terrorist group (the PKK) and joining into alliance with the centrist party (the CHP) still improbably holding on to the country’s last shreds of political dignity in this theater of farce. Turkey as we know it – as we hoped to know it – is gone. With hope I would add “at least until the tide changes” or, “unless opposition parties sweep through the 2019 elections and oust the AKP from power”.  But we both know that’s improbable – the party is entrenched, now controls every level in the political system, and no longer is so careful about making claims it would have cringed from in the past. As soon as the president declared victory (never mind a contested victory, with players and spectators from all sides calling ‘foul!’) he began talking about reinstating the death penalty.  Couple this with his hold over the court and the recent allegations that the opposition is arm-in-arm with terrorist groups, and it’s not hard to see that theres not much chance of a change in the balance of political powers.  So our summers in Turkey – may be at an end, at least for the forseable future.