Differentiated Expat Experiences: Bishkek

Comments in the past few day have made me wonder – how varied are other people’s expat experiences [in Bishkek] than mine? How is it we see and read the same city so differently?

Responding to a post I wrote a year ago (in which I claimed Bishkek to me often appears illogical as a city, and mentioned bribe-taking traffic police), an American woman who married into Kyrgyzstan berated me for posting negatively and not being grateful enough to our “warm host country”. When I raised this issue with a locally residing Turkish professional, he guaffed and exclaimed, “They don’t see us as guests! They see us as walking wallets.” Another locally-residing Turkish citizen, a girl of fifteen with long honey-coloured hair, near dares not step out of the university holdfast that contains her home and school, for fear of repeated harassment from Kyrgyz men on the surrounding streets. Expat wives have commented that living here with a couple of kids is not so bad, more relaxed, easier than other places. American and Canadian and British graduate students who come her for summer language courses seem to generally think the city is alright and laidback, though nothing too exciting.

My own experience is a really mixed bag. Bishkek is more relaxed than, for example, Urumqi. However, I’m usually mistaken as Russian on the streets, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Unlike in China I’m not an obvious foreign target and I don’t have people coming up and talking to me just because I look not local. However, Kyrgyz men (especially those not from urban areas) can be really rude and aggressive to young Russian women (local friends living in the area have conferred on this point); and if you look local, everyone expects you to adhere to local norms (which can be an issue if you haven’t spent a quarter-century attuning to their nuances; mostly this comes out in the respect older women believe are due them by someone who looks student-aged). The later also happened in Xinjiang, where I was assumed Uyghur, and thus an idiot (or government-sympathizer) for not really knowing the local language, especially in the first few months.

So why are our experiences so different? Why can’t we all bow down in heartfelt gratitude to our warmly welcoming host country? Why do some of us feel like honored guests, and others of us most certainly not? 

Obviously different sections of the city are quite different in their culture, their strength of community, and their street norms. Jal, where I live, is the Wild West of Bishkek. Few expats venture out here, as there’s little here but housing, the university and a government-run maternal hospital. Twenty years ago there was but an ethnic minority village stretching south from Osh and a few old soviet apartment blocks. Now there are new McMansions mixed in with the village houses, poorer recent housing further west, a dozen new apartment blocks built in the last five years, and a scramble of cookie-cutter houses (and faux castles…) of American proportion. A huge mix of wealth and poverty, of new money and the old city, of desperation and excess. A huge transitory population in the construction workers who sleep in half-constructed buildings and hoot down at female passer-byes or slam into them on the streets, a lot of people in new SUVs who need to prove their power through money by flaunting every known traffic law (and careening though the potholed streets on every side of the road), a decent number of free-ranging police who pop excuses for a bribe (best yet is probably sitting in the parked car with seat belts unfastened).  Again, it’s not that every person is terrible or rude or uncouth – like any other place, there’s a huge range, and most people will pass you on the street without incident.  Some people are downright polite. It’s just what a handful of people (or more…) believe is acceptable public behavior can make or break your day.

The center of town is far more lively and refined. The drivers are still insane, but there’s much more respect for pedestrians, and it’s definitely a more pleasant place to walk with plenty of parks and cafes and, um, actual sidewalks. There’s also spotchy hot water, gas and electricity supply (though I believe that’s getting better), and more problems with police coming to your door with false accusations looking for a bribe (Canadian, Turkish, Australian – though all men).

The leafy green boulevards and little side alleys stretching north of Frunze are actually quite pleasant, quieter. Little Russian bungalows and stately soviet-era state buildings and universities add charm and architectural interest. Out east of the city are low-lying village neighborhoods where extended ethnic Uyghur families live, and have lived, for generations in courtyard homes filled with friends and relatives of the most distant (but closest) strand.

And in the microrayons (micro-district expanded soviet housing complexes) there’s far more a sense of history and community. Numerous locals I know living in the various microrayons claim that their district dwellers are “good people”. Neighbors know each other, look out for each other. And even if the grass is overgrown and the buildings stained by time, there is a sure sense that you are in a place where residents belong.

Different people flock to different parts of the city; different behaviors are accepted as the street norm.

So yes, I could see that, if I wasn’t living in Jal, my experience of the city might be more positive. The same was true for my stay in Chicago. Some people enjoy Chicago. They live in Lincoln Park. I lived in Hyde Park, on the South Side, in the same neighborhood where my father witnessed three men murdered when he was a student in the late sixties, and my mother dared not cross certain streets or venture out alone at certain hours during her stay in the seventies, and where even today students receive multiple reports a week of muggings and armed assaults. Jal isn’t the South Side, but it’s also not the most pleasant place in the city.

Another factor in our contact with the city is obviously integration into the community. We’re here temporarily. We have local friends, but half of them already have moved to Russia or Europe or Turkey. A lot of our network contacts are here on behalf of the university, which is a sphere somewhat removed from the culture of the city. We’re also far less conservative than a lot of new university arrivals, and thus not fully integrated into that sphere. Kids who grow up in the university attending classes at the attached high school have a very select number of Kyrgyz classmates (and there’s apparently a lot of animosity between Turkish teachers and Kyrgyz students and Kyrgyz teachers and Turkish students). An American married locally has a built-in network of kin. Expat wives and mothers curry extensions through the international schools their children attend. Scholars here for the summer have their host universities or language school classmates and other interesting internationals who flock by for research or study.

Another factor: the comfort and shelter of money, and of fixed international employment. Employees of the embassies and international firms who move ground every few years are generally well-compensated (even by American standards), and have someone on this end arranging the transition, which partially removes the shock of acclimating to a new place.

And the last on my list today is far the ugliest: racism. One thing you see moving from the states is that racism isn’t always (as it is often in portrayed in American media) black and white. Racism and related prejudices – acceptable community behavior and individual interactions – can go a number of ways. Here there’s definitely a strand of Kyrgyz men who flat out do not like Turkish residents (or see their pockets for potential coinage), and (especially in the suburbs or the wilder parts of town, like around Osh) there are Kyrgyz men who believe it’s perfectly acceptable to make sexual remarks, knock into, and just be generally slimy and rude to young Russian women. There seemed to be some bias against American men at the US Army base (not necessarily unfounded…), but the base has now dismantled and most of the soldiers gone home.

Depending on how people see you – as a western foreigner, as a local, as a Turkish [assumed businessman] – some people will bare very different sides of their character, exhibit strikingly different attitudes. If you look American and speak the local language well, then expect to be honored and cherished or at least mildly fawned over. The same was [mostly] true for me in [most of] China.

If you look local, expect no pretensions. I’m sorry, but I don’t feel like a “guest” when I’m walking down the street stuffed in my winter jacket and some man young enough to be my student passes a bit to close and leers in my ear with words that would hardly befit an accommodating host.

If you look local, and aren’t fluent in the local language or don’t fully understand the nuance of local customs, expect to be treated like a rude idiot (I finally understand some of the feelings of Chinese-Americans struggling to learn Chinese in China).

If you look like you belong to a certain ethnic group somewhat or largely despised by the local population – expect to occasionally see the worst sides of people’s characters. In China, this was the Nigerians. To be fare, a lot of the Nigerians were in China for questionable ‘business’ purposes, could be really rude, and were often far too pushy with the female population (local and expat alike). But woe to my two Kenyan co-workers who were complete Gentlemen (save the top hat and coattails). Here it’s the Turks. And to be fare, there are a lot of Turkish-Kurdish businessmen here from conservative small towns in Eastern Turkey with questionable or criminal background, people who can also be rude and pushy.  But woe to the professionals and the university professors who get lumped in with people on the opposite end of the social spectrum in their home country.

Mix that with my looking Russian, and people’s stares are not always so polite, so warm and gentle, when we go out. Until I start speaking, a lot of people assume I’m a young Russian who has just money-attached myself to a buccaneering Turk. I’ve heard our Turkish acquaintances with Kyrgyz wives sometimes have an even harder time.

So – do I always feel like a guest, in the city as a whole? Not always, and especially not on the streets around the area where we live. Might other people feel like guests and have a delightful time, even stretching on for months or years? Quite possibly. This all depends – as in every other city on the planet, everyone’s experience will be different.


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