Finding Our Character – Sketches in a Transitional Country

In Kyrgyzstan I’m never quite sure if someone is genuine. In Minnesota we always knew that people of the next generation were Minnesota Nice (less so in my own, but we still said everything under a subtle veneer). In China everyone was blunt, and I learned to assume that everyone wanted something from me – in a country where there’s constant pressure for scare resources, constant competition in a mindset that was economy.

And in Kyrgyzstan – I’m never quite sure if someone is genuine. I’d make an exception here for the set of people who have lived and studied abroad, the people who came of age as the Soviet Union collapsed or grew up in its wake, went abroad to get Master’s in America or traveled extensively, and came back not quite Kyrgyz. I’d strike those people under the title “local international”. But everywhere else – I always have to question what people say, what their intentions might be. Even people I would count as friends, or friendly acquaintances – who are they? Who are they really? Often I’m left thinking they don’t know the answer themselves.

We have one friend, Sardar, who is a most conflicted character. I‘ve touched upon him before – a star barman, a devout Muslim, a gentle husband and adoring father of two young girls, a Turkmen-Kyrgyz married to a Tatar-Russian, a small-time businessmen in love with the high life, a man of talk, talk, talk. Good-hearted, but full of anxiety, and an anxious yearning for riches, luxury, fame.

One evening last year we went over to his house, invited for dinner. He’d recently quit his job as bar manager for Bar 12 (and here), now the city’s notorious hangout for the kids of the dirty money rich. He had a first floor, soviet-era flat, one of those tired places you look around before realizing that besides the living room you’re sitting in, there’s only a kitchen – no other private bedroom. A table was pulled up to the couch, which was next to the baby’s crib, and we sat down to dinner after a long prayer to his ancestors, apparently a Thursday rite. Halfway through dinner Sardar turned on the TV and we watched him interviewed by the local national news on the culture of making good cocktails. Sardar views himself as the premier barman in Kyrgyzstan. I have no idea if this is true. I do know that he studied busines administration, and previously worked in Turkey and Dubai.

A few weeks later, in high summer, we went out to his dacha for a day-long barbeque with his three girls and a few other ex-barmen he had trained. Sardar had just proudly traded his practical Honda for an ugly, impractical SUV. “But it’s better, because it’s a Lexus” he said (though I have no idea as to the actual brand of the car), and talked alternatively of selling the datcha and fixing it up to live in; of moving his wife and daughters to Turkey, and setting up a business in Bishkek. Two days later, one of the other barmen (who E had met just once or twice before) called to ask if he could borrow three hundred dollars. One of E’s solid sayings is “If you ever want to never see a person in Bishkek again, lend them money” (this goes for locals and expats). We didn’t lend him money, and we haven’t seen or heard from him since.

Sardar, however, didn’t go to Turkey. Instead he stayed in Turkey and the country’s premier barman…opened a tiny side shop selling dried fish and beer on tap for $2 a litre, one of a thousand shops across the city. We visited him a few times – it was an easy 25 minute walk from our house – and were plied with light hoppy beer, strings of dried squid, and tales of daily sales and summer sales and weekend sales when the weather was hot (apparently Kyrgyzstan drinks vodka in winter – to warm the gut – and beer in summer – to cool perspiration), and a few other patrons engaged E in a game of mixed Russian and Turkish-style backgammon on a table under the trees.

Two weeks ago Sardar opened another tiny shop, this one in the sprawling neighborhood behind our flat. We drove over on a cold and windy Saturday, when Kyrgyzstan was still stuck between winter and spring, and sat to tales of shop openings, buying a new flat, and plans for expansion. The space was set up like a micro-bar instead of the common Kyrgyz shop – one long counter with beer and kvas on tap backed by a wall filled with posters from Oktoberfests and other tomfoolery facing a row of red stools. The place can’t be more than six square meters. On one corner of the bar stood a collection of liquers. Sardar said that he did barman training here, and then complained that everyone studying to be a barman wanted to learn everything he knew in just a month of two. “No,” he claimed, “maybe if they study really hard for three or four months they can learn ten percent of what I know. What they do not understand is experience. All they want is money and quick fame”

He looked at photos of the car we planned to buy (and later purchased) and tsked. “You should buy a Lexus”.


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