Seat Fillers

No Christmas post, as Christmas is kind of a non-holiday in Kyrgyzstan (even among Orthodox Christian Russians, New Years is the big family day).

Instead, yesterday I spent two hours watching a classical Azerbaijani film put on courtesy of said county’s embassy and another hour an a half in an auditorium watching more videos about Azerbaijan and listening to several speeches.  The speeches were, I gather, followed by musical and dance performances, but I didn’t last that long as the speeches were still going on when the end of the work day hit.

Sometimes, when I’m talking to students I have great hope for this country.  They’re inquisitive, insightful, optimistic, open-minded.  They want to see their country progress, they want to eradicate inefficiency and corruption, they want to build professional careers for themselves.  Two weeks ago, for example, after I introduced our office at an event, three students from the international relations department sought me out at the office.  They wanted to know as much as possible about internships, preferably at embassies or international organizations.  One was interested in event planning, one report-writing, another research.  They were bright, vivacious, and completely forward about their intentions.

But our internship-establishing programme has been indefinitely postponed, as certain administrators are too busy attending events (such as the one last night) of late to look it over and give us the go-ahead for contacting organizations and creating an internship database. And no, we can’t do this without their approval.

Yesterday I saw the same three girls in the auditorium.  I was informed that, after the event, they introduced themselves to the Azerbaijani ambassador and told him they wanted internships in the embassy (and they got what they wanted too, provided he keeps his word). But that event – I attended a student-centered college, where we all assumed that the college existed to educate the next generation of scholars, thinkers, creators, activists, project planners, business managers, brewery builders.  And I still carry that assumption that the purpose of a university (or at least one of the main purposes) is to educate and prepare students to proactively engage with the world.

Yesterday’s event should have been that – a chance for students to learn about a cousin culture, to network, to see what kind of diplomatic connections are possible.  And yet, though students were initially shuffled into the auditorium (the embassy had specified that they wanted a student audience of 200), they later had to leave to make way for all the self-importants who belatedly flooded the room.  The front two rows of seats – about 100 places – were all reserved for different dignitaries and functionaries and a few university personnel and their wives. But as we neared 4 o’clock dozens more showed up, people who have no direct connection with the university, some of whom were invited by the embassy.  The parking lot (and campus roads, and sidewalks) filled with new cars and land cruisers, all but one or two glimmering obsidian or mud-splattered silver. Inside, self-important people jostled for seats in machine-made grey suits, bumping at elbows as they ignored cries of “This seat is taken!”, huffing and harumphing if their seat location didn’t match their perceived national bearing.  Some of the students got kicked out to make way for the aged newcomers, who proceeded to answer phone calls during a thirty-minute video on Azerbaijan (mostly focusing on oil fields, pipelines, and new airports), shuffle back and forth from smoke breaks, and generally display slightly bad behavior.  Because they could, because they believed themselves important, and thus above such petty laws and expectations.  And because this wasn’t an event about students, for students. They were apparently just seat-fillers until too many people showed up.

I believe none of these people were actually ‘important persons’, decision-makers in Kyrgyzstan.  Retired minor functionaries most of them, probably.  But it’s a huge problem in this country- the endless jostling for respect, for position, that eats up time and resources, makes everything less efficient, and ultimately lowers productivity (anyone who has ever driven in Bishkek will know what I’m talking about – the power-jostling on the roads here trumps anything in L.A.)

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