Being Pregnant Abroad: Bishkek Edition

I’m halfway through my first pregnancy and six days away from a six month hiatus from Bishkek.  As I’m the oldest female among my siblings my last few months have been spent in a lot of research and reading – research and reading prepared for expectant moms in the US or UK.  As can be expected, this provides an odd juxtaposition to life in Bishkek.  For every place has it’s own customs and conventions concerning children, motherhood, and pregnancy.  Reading weekly updates written in the UK while living in Bishkek is a bit like reading a Sichuanese cookbook while living in Spokane – half of the suggested ingredients aren’t available, and no one around you seems to understand the allure of that spicy numbing pepper anyway – in fact, what they’d like is really a plain potato.

First, the Good: 

The first thing I should mention is that pregnancy abroad is doable. There’s no unwritten law of the universe decreeing that something will go bad or your whole term will be a string of unpleasant encounters simply because you’re in a strange country.  There are certain places I wouldn’t want to take my fetus (war zones, Beijing during air pollution red alerts), but so far no extreme negative experiences. One thing that’s actually rather nice about pregnancy in Bishkek is that, socially at least, it’s (for me) stress-free.  Women my age are expected to have kids (in fact, at 27, I’m already rather old to be having a first child here) and it’s just seen as matter-of-course.  People don’t fuss over you as much or watch what you’re eating or try to push this trend or that.  [As with other sectors] there’s also a lot less available.  Cradles, diapers, strollers – of course Bishkek has the basics.  But most stores don’t stock the 500 new things moms must have.  I remember reading one article claiming to contain a list of essentials for new moms.  I opened it expecting it to be short and pragmatic.  Instead the list was five pages long.  Most of the items I’ve never heard about in Bishkek, and I’m pretty sure my parents did without.  Along with this people also treat you with more respect, as if I’ve only just now become a legitimate wife/adult/woman.  While that’s somewhat nice, the gender disparty lurking behind this behavior change is… disquieting.


The Not-so Good:

However, there are obvious downfalls to this less-crazed approach to childbearing.  The first is definitely healthcare.  There are good doctors in Bishkek and there are…not so good doctors.  In my experience the main issues with quality of Kyrgyzstan medical are 1) Salaries are higher elsewhere and thus those who can leave, leave; 2) Continuing education is not very common; even if professionals do  attend continuing education classes to keep up their practice (as US doctors, psychologists, lawyers and other licensed professionals do), the training may not be quite substantial, here meaning that doctors may or may not by up-to-date in their medical knowledge (one local expat mother related that a doctor told her to stop giving her then six-month old son *calcium*  – as in, no milk? – in order to slow the hardening of the soft spot in his skull); 3) basic medical equipment exists, but there isn’t a guarantee that you can find a specialist or specialized medical equipment if something is out of the ordinary; and 4) sterilization.  Let’s just remember that our older cat died due to an infection he got *from* the vet clinic during a routine check-up. Kyrgyzstan is not as bad as China (where hospital restrooms often lack ped soap) on this account, but again it’s not consistent enough to be reliable. I’m sure you could get a check-up and ultrasound here and everything would [probably] be fine; I would’t be as confident about the outcome or your experience if there were any complications. This being my first pregnancy and my medical Russian being definitely sub-par I flew to Ankara for my two-month checkup; most foreigners I’ve talked to tend to leave as well.

I also haven’t heard of any pre-natal classes here, and there certainly aren’t any in English.  Besides the basics, we’re also lacking the nice parts of the ‘hip pregnancy’ trend that seems to be sweeping the states: no fitness classes for pregnant women, prenantal yoga, or anything of that sort. While along with this comes the whole perhaps over-emphasis on the perfect pregnancy, it would be nice to have at least a few options.

Small issues: icy sidewalks and crowded public places.  Sidewalks here are neither salted nor sanded (nor often shoveled), which makes them quite slick in the winter months.  Add to this uncareful elbows and the need to dash across slippery streets before being hit by a skidding car and…just make sure you have winter boots with extra-grippy soles.

And the last issue: food and food cleanliness.  In some ways, food in Kyrgyzstan is probably far safer for consumption than food in the states: there should be no GMOs, it’s relatively easy to buy fresh foods and most things aren’t loaded with chemicals or artificial flavors and preservatives; most of the meat and eggs we buy is free-range.  However, a lot of dairy products are unpasteurized and the state hasn’t really implemented a comprehensive system of checking for food safety.  We always have to check expiration dates and I’ve noticed that sometimes the meat at markets (or even the bigger supermarkets) isn’t fresh – the fat has hardened or the outer layer of the red meat browned from sitting out too long.  We don’t often eat at Kyrgyz restaurants, but I know that some do re-use oil, vegetables in salads may not be washed to satisfaction, and a lot of Russian dishes come with unannounced mayonnaise. So even if everything is more ‘natural’, I still have to be really careful whether eating out or at the grocery store. If you’re wary about eating out, go to places with an open kitchen, or where the manager will let you see the kitchen – Slim Fit and Park Cafe has been pretty good; Obama Bar serves up grub oily enough to give a cow heartburn, and I’ve seen cockroaches in Bishkek Park establishments.


The Ridiculous (i.e. Every Place Has it’s Own Old-Wives Tales)

Bishkek has…it’s own ideas about pregnancy.  Many of the warm suggestions that have fallen on my ears have been absolutely contrary to nearly everything I’ve read, especially when it concerns nutrition and exercise.

Let’s just use this “Happy New Year/Congratulations on the Baby” box from one of E’s colleagues:

imageE brought back a giant cardboard banana box the eve before New Years.  We set it on the kitchen table, sliced through the tape and wrapping, and saw…legs. We dug deeper and discovered the legs to belong to a small chicken and a bony duck.  Packed around the birds there were dozens of eggs (arguably healthy, though not pasteurized), apples (ok there), a giant box of black tea (caffeine…?), a litre-sized jar of raw honey that tasted more like sugar (um…lots of sugar there), a kilogram block of fresh white cheese (unpasteurized) and a litre-and-a-half bottle each of homemade yogurt, kaymak (Turkish kreme fraiche), cream, and milk (again all very unpasteurized).  Local friends didn’t understand why I found this assortment ironic – to them it’s a collection of the most nutritious things a women can eat while pregnant.  I looked at it and saw a box of stuff that could give me toxoplasmosis (or just put my digestive system in shock from all the sugar and cream).  I felt somewhat guilty about the box, as it was a lovely thought – but one  wasted on me, and far too much for E to eat alone.  I think we consume about that much cream in a year.

However, the box fits within the common concept that pregnant women really should “eat for two” – with a heavy emphasis on “nutrition-dense” (somehow it seems like ‘nutrition-dense’ and ‘nutritious’ get a bit conflated here) foods like creme fraiche, eggs, and sugar-fortified raw honey.   As I’m nearing five months and have only begun to look like I have a ‘burrito baby’ at best I’ve gotten this one quite a few times.  Never mind that my weight gain is right in the middle of recommended guidelines, or that doctors agree that the second person I’m feeding only needs two to three hundred calories a day.  Or that overeating can lead to heartburn, premature birth, pregnancy diabetes, or overweight babies (and thus a more difficult birth); I should fill my plate with heaping portions.  And if I eat only soup or have half a plate – what a protest!

In the same vein, apparently it’s absolutely astonishing that pregnant women should take more exercise than a few turns around the yard. I’ve been told at least a half-dozen times that I shouldn’t exercise, at least apart from walking.  Why?  Because apparently lifting weights or doing light cardio or engaging in any other type of activity could be completely detrimental to your baby’s health.  Again, never mind that doctors actually recommend at least 30 minutes of exercise a day and that not exercising  can bring great health risks (as well as apparently lower your kids IQ – Journal of Family Psychology)

On the other hand, cleaning the house with toxic chemicals is perfectly fine. (A side note: natural cleaners are not on the market yet, as the chemical cleaners are still ‘new’ and ‘modern’, desirable because they’re so distinct from their village counterparts). We had a temporary cleaner for about a month and a half while our regular was gone and she was forever calling me out of my office to help her with this or that.  I had to keep reminding her that 1) just because I was at home didn’t mean I wasn’t working (again, gender perceptions in Kyrgyzstan…); and 2) being pregnant, no, I was not supposed to go near those chemicals.  The rather surprising part of that is that she had a daughter but three years ago.

Another oddity: a few weeks ago we went to the Hyatt to take advantage of their holiday gym+spa+massage special ($15 for a full body one hour massage plus use of facilities for the day…). When I booked the massages I told the woman at reception that I was pregnant and specifically asked if their masseuses were familiar with prenatal massage.  She gave me an affirmative.  The next day we show up and, just as my massage is about to begin, I checked with the masseus.  Her immediate response? “But then you can’t have a massage! It’s not good to have a massage when you’re pregnant!”. Thanks for letting me know.  I think I’ll go and inform the entire prenatal massage industry in the US that their profession is illegitimate.  I should have listened to her, however, for during the massage she actually pulled something in my back and I had to stretch for two weeks before I managed to get my hips re-balanced.

Along with all of this – pregnancy as a turning point (a legitimizer) in women’s lives, the fact that comparatively few women pursue a career after marriage/childbirth, and the very special attention given to newborn babies in middle class families – is the predominance of the Baby Stroller.  There are now several dozen baby stores around Bishkek, most of them filled with three types of imported goods: formula, cute baby clothes, and baby strollers.  In just the past year I’ve started noticing baby strollers all around our apartment complex, when new mothers take their babies out for a “stroll” (usually culminating in the  parking the stroller by  bench while they sit and chat on the phone; it’s pretty hard to ‘stroll’ when it takes under a minute to walk across the complex). Almost all of these are brand new, uber-modern model strollers.  When we first started looking in Bishkek all I saw was sticker shock – many prices at least twice as high as in the states, another instance of Wallmart goods transformed into coveted luxury items.  People will pay more for a baby stroller than they do for rent – for several month’s rent.  And then I realized – for these young, stay-at-home new mothers, they serve the same status symbol function as the white Lexus SUV.  We bought our stroller online as we’ll need one for the first two months in Turkey anyway and I’d rather not pay way more for something than I know it’s worth.


imageAnd Bishkek Pregnancy Finds

  1. The Orto Sai Bazaar Produce Section:  As the weather cools the Bishkek markets start looking a little…sparce.  Even Osh has little more than carrots, potatoes, cabbage, onions and parsnips.  But even in the dead of winter the Korean stall-keepers at the Orto Sai bazaar keep the produce aisles full of color-rich vegetables: cherry tomatoes from Tashkent, spinach, arugula, waxy leek stalks, garlic greens, bok choi, asparagus, brussel sprouts, red and white radishes, turnips, green beans, even the odd sweet potato.  Granted, we do spent a lot more on produce in the winter (read, a LOT more), and some of it’s from China, but at least it’s there and it’s still fresh and green.
  2. Elevit Prenatal Vitamins at the Pharmacy on Toktogol/Manas: These are actually the ones that my doctor in Ankara recommended and one of the most popular brands in the west (though apparently more in Australia than America?).  At 1500 som/100 once-a-day vitamin box they’re quite a bit more expensive than the common Russian-brand vitamins, but still a lot less expensive than overseas (true for medicine here in general).

In short: it’s survivable, sometimes laughable; a bit inconvenient so, but nothing extreme.


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