My greatest struggle in Kyrgyzstan has been what to do – with my time here, with my skills. I think that’s always a question when you follow another person to a foreign land, unless your primary purpose in life is creating a settled home in each place you go.
But my sense of purpose was for so long tied to place. I was a budding sinologist; I lived in China. Every place I went was a place to learn, a place to explore, a place I wanted to better understand, a place to expand my broad body of knowledge ad ask new questions. It took me a while to understand – and accept – that we won’t be fascinated by every place we visit, or even every place we live. And so now I’m living in a location that isn’t tied to my intellectual pursuits and (despite it’s proximity to China), doesn’t really support them.
I feel like an oceanographer stranded on the vast Central Asian plane. Sure, there’s the Aral Sea several thousand miles away (and that has salt water, doesn’t it?), but…uh… it’s not quite the same. I may have written the longest piece on underground literature in China’s Cultural Revolution to date, but that seems about as relevant to Bishkek as our aforementioned oceanographer turning their attention to zebras (mammals, nut mussels).
So now I’ve come to the same question again – what do I do while we’re here?
I first thought about moving away from academia into development – from the theoretical (and, at my former department, largely irrelevant), to the practical and applicable. Then I discovered that my distaste was not for academia, but for the stress and strain and worry of American higher education, particularly in the humanities/soft social sciences, and particularly as embodied by the rule-driven department I departed. I also discovered that, 1) my contribution to local development efforts would be greatly aided by a complete fluency in Russian and, 2) American academic isn’t the only sector that can be overly theoretical and largely paper-driven. I might as well do what I love – somehow, at some point in the future when I actually have resources at hand. I also worked in (and enjoyed working in) the Intentional Relations Office of a certain university…until a certain local employee blocked me from getting the annual contract that would have guaranteed me, among other things, a decent (and higher) salary. But, past is past.
Which still brings me to the question of what I can do now. I can teach – teaching was one of the great ways to get around China – and, while it’s not my ultimate goal it is something that I find challenging and enjoyable. So this is something I’m thinking about doing next year (Fall, Spring), after resisting for a very long time feeling that I would find something more ‘exact’. As my [academic] interests have shifted to also include rural-urban migration, inter-ethnic issues, pan-ethnicism and language policies in Turkey as well as in China (somewhat parallel cases that clash in the cultures of China’s western minorities), I have been studying Turkish, first on my own, and now in class…with a bunch of very chatty 17 year-olds who still view me with all the curiosity of a deep sea creature. As I mentioned earlier, I was going to do my MA in International Relations in Kyrgyzstan…until I realized that, ahem, not all schools carry quite the same standards and a time-filler for the sake of having a time-filler I do not want. I can read, I can pursue topics that interest me on my own, but somehow it doesn’t seem the same without the structure of a job or university – without a supportive and demanding community. I have started up a website/company/project with another expat, but so far that’s been pretty on-again-off-again as she’s often out of the country and can take a few days (or weeks…) to reply to e-mails.
For now it’s not so much of a concern. I have a Turkish level test on the 25th of this month, and then I’ll be back in Ankara from February until August (with a baby due at the end of June!), so my woes of what to do in Bishkek are rather temporary this time. It is…just difficult to adjust from being so goal-oriented and purpose-driven, waking up every day with something direct I want to accomplish – and trying to find that again.