Living in Bishkek: The Things I Long For

I was walking to Turkish class this morning through half-foot drifts of snow when I started longing for a hot cup of fresh-pressed soybean milk at the end of my journey.  Now this may sound like an odd craving, but soybean milk in china (豆漿, doujiang) is a beautiful thing: sometimes thin and almost bitter for dipping dumplings, sometimes thick and sweet, and almost ubiquitous across China, whether at the 7-11, fresh-pressed from the soymilk stall, or sold from styrofoam boxes from schoolgate vendors.  In Beijing we sipped it in class, warming our hands around the plastic cups.  In Yunnan we drank it with tiny dumplings stuffed with local mushrooms.  In Guangzhou I grabbed a cup, fresh made, of thick and hot creamy soymilk – or mung bean milk, or adzuki (Japanese red) bean milk – along with a guava or two for lunch almost every day. In Urumqi I drank it in the steamy noodle restaurant in the university courtyard complex that served up millet porridge and ‘tofu brain” (doufu naozi”) to warm the winter mornings. Here we have…weak black tea and oversweetened nescafe.

4801045478_126f5cca99_zThinking about Guangzhou guava (and persimmons, and star fruit, and bitter gourds, and papaya and litchi) brought up memories of another thing I miss: the fresh produce stands. Winter in a highland country where people traditionally feast on refined carbs, fat and meat, isn’t exactly an exhilarating time to be cooking. Some of the bazaars (Osh, Orto Sai) carry on okay, but by this time of year it’s mostly potatoes, limp parsnips, onions, and oversized tasteless carrots along with a few wilted herbs. Just two weeks ago I was at a brilliant Saturday bazaar in Ankara, with benches stacked high with fresh cucumbers that still snapped open, bright sprigs of basil and arugula, pyramids of pomegranates and pears, baskets overflowing with tri-colored peppers. Every day I would walk home past several grocers still displaying twenty or thirty varieties of fresh produce under the canopies in front of their shops – everything from sweet cherry tomatoes to persimmons.

7857419248_fddc97af40_zSouthern China was amazing in this aspect, with the giant green bazaars around the Pearl River Delta carrying everything from live fish (and chopped up crocodiles…and frogs…and dogs) to bundles of green produce and endless stacks of fruit year round, to the town bazaars in Yunnan stocked with exotic and everyday local produce – green papayas in chili sauce, black pigeon bean noodles, pink pomegranates, sweet-spicy picked radish, local figs, red and yellow plums, edamame beans from the stalk, fresh-ground flaxseed oil. I think we may need a trip to the [overpriced] Korean counters of the Orto Sai bazaar this weekend… (because now I’m just thinking about foooood)

4806825050_70d14f5b4e_zGoing on with food: different types of noodles, not necessarily made from wheat.  In Jindun, Yunnan (SW China by the Myanmar border) every morning was a choice between two types of rice noodles (round as spaghetti or square and thick) topped with cured beef or pork, picked cabbage so delicious I went back for seconds, and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. Southern Yunnan breakfasts were resplendent with Thai influence, with thin broad rice noodles topped with spicy vegetables, cilantro and chicken. And let’s not get started on cold Korean buckwheat noodles in Beijing, or the oatmeal noodles of Inner Mongolia…

Tofu.  I know we have tofu in Bishkek (ironically placed in the dairy section and labeled “tofu cheese” on the rare occasion that it’s actually stocked at the grocery store), but tofu is so much more than the spongy and sour stuff I hated as a kid. There’s soft tofu, sweet tofu breakfast porridge, wood-smoked tofu, chickory wood-smoked tofu dipped in Jiangxi hot sauce, soft tofu for soups, textured tofu skin for stir fries, thin and smooth tofu skin for meat dishes, strips of tofu that are great just heated until they sizzle and topped with a bit of sesame oil and sichuan pepper…. Oh, tofu…

And (going through my flickr account to find photos for this post): absurd and wonderful finds of unintentional cultural clash in China.  Stuffed bears, a British telephone booth and a dutch windmill standing in for a Christmas display in an upscale Urumqi mall? Yep. This adorable Beijing find? Aww…photo 1 4900197978_0c250891cf_m

Switching to the non-edible: meeting with friends who were also colleagues and co-workers once a week at the bubble tea shop in Heqing, or our little group of mixed expats and locals in Urumqi to explore around the city.  Simple having a group of contemporaries who, although quite different from myself, shared some of the same insights and experiences, and always had something to offer.

3441156346_0975b9570b_zHaving endless places to wander, right outside my door.  I’m a city explorer, and I love to be able to go out my front door and have new streets, new neighborhoods to explore.  In the Pacific Northwest this meant biking and weekend walks around cities forever blooming in mist-dappled flowers; in my hometown biking or horseback riding on winding trails across the state park a mere mile away; in Minneapolis taking long walks among the imposing classical buildings of the university lawn and gradually exploring the West Bank/Cedar Riverside with all it’s quirky cafes, yarn shops, and Ethiopian eateries; in Beijing, all the back streets and old neighborhoods still hiding behind the new sky scrapers; in Yunnan, biking up the valley walls and into the mountains; in Guangzhou exploring these secret streets of shadow still preserving Cantonese culture – or just enjoying the immense tropical garden growing in my apartment complex; in Urumqi, biking out to the rural suburbs or meeting new paths across the disappearing Uyghur section of town. Bishkek is a relatively small, car-heavy and new city – there are no truly old neighborhoods and, outside of the mile or two of downtown, most streets aren’t so pedestrian friendly (never mind bike friendly).

Another thing I miss – either blending in (Turkey, the US) or completely standing out (most of China). For racism is real and the fair of skin are not always favored.  Being mistaken for a young Russian in a country that many Kyrgyz view as exclusively their own (or being mistaken for Uyghur in Urumqi) can be quite unpleasant – whether men catcall you on the street (regardless of season or garb), drivers call you a whore for taking your right to use the crosswalk, the one homeless drunk picks you to leer at out of all the people waiting for the ATM (Tuesday), women demand your seat on the bus or budge in line – and then turn to swear at you when you protest (actually happened today with a 17-year-old at the university when I reminded her to not budge in line at the canteen cafeteria and was served with an epithet I shall not repeat), or just walk straight into you on the street. It’s not like being black in the 1960’s – I never feel acutely in danger.  But I do occasionally get the feeling that the people around me view me as a lower sort, simply based on assumptions from my appearance.   In Turkey, as in the US, I pretty much just blend in, and it’s quite easy to go along my daily life without disturbance.  In non-Xinjiang China I was always stared at, and (except for in the big cities) everyone around me was curious about me all the time – which is actually great if you are learning and looking to practice a language, and absolutely fantastic when you are a social-cultural historian who is interested in interviewing everyone anyway (until it gets to be 3 am and you just wish your fellow passengers on the train would let you maybe sleep).

And, to end on a light note: Chinglish.  Because Chinglish can always brighten your day, be it absurd, obscure, or even quite offensive:

I think this is just a reminder that we carry with us all the places we’ve been.  Being homesick when you live abroad – and when you’ve lived in many different locales – doesn’t necessarily mean longing for your original home.  I wouldn’t want to live in Urumqi or Foshan or even most of Yunnan anymore – but there are slivers of them that I’ll always miss (just as I’m sure there are pieces of Kyrgyzstan I’ll appreciate once we’ve moved on)

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