Bathroom Politics and Sacred Space

Yesterday I began grad school life, second round. Only this time, before I begin my program (backstepping to a MA, this time in International Relations) I have t take preparatory language classes, as very few of my courses will be taught in English. Monday at 8:55 (and all morning) was Turkish with the head of preparatory language classes (who is a truly wonderful and exuberant teacher)…and two dozen cute Kyrgyz teenagers. They crowded around my desk at the first break and pounded the American with questions – then stepped back aghast when they found out I was 27…and married. I might as well have told them I was a grandmother to four, they would have been less shocked (before I told them my age one of the girls guessed I was 18…possibly 20). But they’re enthusiastic and it’s OK. All of them are music or journalism majors, spry and chatting, fond of practicing their tentative English in breaks, and completely unsure of how to address me (one of them called me hanim today – close to the Turkish equivalent of Ma’am).
Kyrgyz course after lunch was a different story. Back in Xinjiang I had a Uyghur instructor who was a terribly timid Grass Sciences MA student and would sometimes begin class by selecting two students and having us ‘create a dialogue’ …and then leave us stumbling around for twenty or more minutes until we extended our vocabulary into the realm of the absurd. Not so different here. The ‘teacher’ arrived almost ten minutes late, and spent the first 45 minute period correcting students’ notebooks and periodically telling students to write sentences on the board, all from the command of her desk. The rest of the class proceeded pretty much accordingly. Considering that the only language in the textbook is Kyrgyz (no Turkish, Russian or English), this makes it pretty difficult to follow or catch up…seeing as I did miss the first four weeks of class and my Kyrgyz doesn’t really go beyond the bazaar. Oh well…we’ll see. Maybe I’ll just start Kyrgyz next semester instead of this, so I can actually start at the beginning (and with someone who actually has something of a lesson plan). [update, I did indeed decide to do Kyrgyz next year, along with department courses I’ll be able to take in Turkish at that time].
I’m also leading an English speaking class for staff starting next week. Since I’ve also already worked and taught at the university, this puts me in this really awkward space between staff and student – in a place where it matters.
One thing that really irks me is the toilets. You see, the university has separate toilets for students and staff, and enforcement of segregation is strict. The first three floors of the main building have only staff toilets.  Don’t ask me why. Beyond the “entry is forbidden to students” signs on all the staff toilet doors, staff and teachers will vocally challenge anyone they think is not staff who enters those doors. Actually, it’s usually the Kyrgy staff who will do this, and those ‘lowest’ on the totem pole (notably the cleaning staff) the most frequently of all. Since I apparently look 18…maybe 20? I’m confronted almost every single time I use the rest room. Today I walked in to a restroom to wash an apple during break and was told to “get out” by two Turkish women smoking by the sink (in flippant disregard of the equally large “NO SMOKING!” signs on the doors). I responded with “What? Excuse me?!” and they were then quite apologetic. But their attitude change towards me – assuming I was a student encroaching on forbidden territory versus a fellow staff member – astounded me. Same person, same clothes, absolutely opposite receptions.
For Americans (particularly one from equality-valuing Minnesota), this is ridiculous. I’ve never been to a college or university or any other institution with age or profession segregated bathrooms, save our primary and secondary schools. By university most of us are assumed to be adults and we all use the same washrooms, bathrooms, lavatories, even gym locker rooms. It’s even more ridiculous considering that there literally is no difference between the bathrooms, save that the scratchy brown tp that can be bought at the bazaar for 10 cents a roll seems to be changed more frequently in the staff restrooms. It’s about status – though what the defenders of staff bathroom territory don’t seem to understand is that respect is respect when it is given for merit, not when it is demanded or enshrined in law.
As for me… it’s an odd grey-area indeed. I used to teach English courses to students at the university, I used to work in the rectorate of the university and, starting next week, I will teach English courses to staff and teachers three times a week on the other campus. My husband is employed by the university. But I’m currently taking Turkish courses. So which restroom do I use? Any or none at all it seems. For me, it really doesn’t matter. But for the staff who think their private territory and their small privileges are being infringed upon, oh…

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One thought on “Bathroom Politics and Sacred Space

  1. Pingback: My Kyrgyz Conundrum - Mountains and the Sea

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