Cold Nights and Community

Last night a boy cried because E gave him 200 som. And by “boy” I mean youth aged 17-20.
200 som is not a lot. At 75 som to the dollar it’s less than $3. Even in Bishkek it’s less than the pot of orange cardamom tea we drank with dinner, the same as my bowl of creamed spinach soup, half the price of E’s entree.
We were out for date night dinner, this particular evening to Vanilla Sky, a cafe-restaurant known for it’s extensive dessert menu, greenhouse-like glassed-in dining room, and rather dainty portions.
E stepped out to purvey the dessert display by the entrance and noticed a youth talking to the girl working behind the dessert display counter. He was so bashful that it took E a few minutes to realize that he was asking for 135 som. Exactly 135 som – for the ride home. The girl said that she couldn’t do anything and turned away. The boy stood there crestfallen, nursing his freshly-cast broken arm. Seeing as the main city hospital complex is but a half block a way and it was nearing 8 o’clock it seems likely that he came in from one of the villages or towns around Bishkek to have his arm set, ended up having to wait so long that he missed the last local bus, and didn’t have enough money on him for a shared cab (which would be the only other way back to outlying towns this time of night). E fished out a 200 som bill from his pocket and gave it to the boy – it’s a pitiful situation to be in, alone and without recourse in a cold and darkening city. The boy stood there thanking him and thanking him, walked halfway down the block, turned around and came back to offer him his coat, telling E to hang onto his coat until he could come back and return the money. The temperature was already below freezing – and it was 200 som. E told him to go home and keep his coat on, and the boy started to cry.
Which brings me back to – community in Bishkek. It’s often a thing missing, so scarce that a half-grown man might feel himself utterly alone and without options in the city, and then cry when some stranger gives him bus fare. Bishkek is too new, too recent a city, growing without common identity or communal goal. The population has boomed in the past twenty years, and most people now hardly know their neighbors – and much less give people on the street a second thought. The main vibe coursing through the city sometimes seems to be competition, especially on the streets where altruism binds no driver to better behavior. The one segment of the population I most often see community compassion in – someone holding open a door, or asking you to help them carry an extra shopping bag up to their flat, or moving their legs and telling you to set down your package on the bus or chatting with their seat partner about the color of their hair (yep, still get that in Bishkek) – are older Russians, and particularly older Russian women – people who have lived in the city their whole lives and grew up in an era when people did know their neighbors, when there seemed to be far more trust in – and a desire to keep up relations with – the people filling their everyday lives.
I don’t trust Bishkek today, and I doubt few others do either. The ‘longtime’ residents (even if their families initially came from the outlying villages) talk down on the crass manners of the new; the new feel snubbed and distrust the motives of the old. I can understand now why some of the local friends I’ve made here (both Kyrgyz and Russian) prefer to live in Soviet-era blocks in the microdistricts on the edges of the city: because so many of the original residents remain and there is a greater sense of security and mutual community than in the newer complexes or more central apartments.
As I wrote about last summer, when visiting Kegeti, it is a completely different story outside of Bishkek: where people live in small communities they incorporate actions that maintain strong neighborly relations into their everyday house. They act not to brush you off and get ahead themselves, but with the view that they will see you again and again and again – and have something to invest in every interaction. The shock of a poor country boy who comes to Bishkek and finds his urban countrymen so cold.
Not to say that rural Kyrgyzstan is the ultimate standard just because it has more cohesion – but what is this place we live in, here, beyond a collection of names and streets?
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