The Inconsistencies of Central Asia

For hours today we listened to the same dizzyingly giddy Kyrgyz folk song interspersed with announcements concerning an international sports tournament held at the university, the broadcasts echoing off the apartment facing us and reverberating through our walls all day.  I’ve heard Kara Jorgo on national TV, at sporting events, during every public holiday, and even during weddings; I’m not sure there’s any event where it isn’t played, at least once, if not a dozen times (no, there’s not, as Kyrgyz abroad are even addicted).  It’s somehow a song that you can hear a hundred times (or more, much more) and yet somehow not detest.  Naps were shortened, windows were shut, and then finally we gave up and ventured out into the sullen late afternoon heat and humidity that comes before a storm to look at all the flagbearing students standing staunch on the soccer field sticky with sweat under the relentless sun.

The opening ceremony officially began this evening at 8, half an hour past our daughter’s usual bedtime.  We realized there was no hope of getting her to sleep with all the noise, so we took her down to the old soccer field and stadium behind the tea garden and stood on the track (as the stands were packed) with several hundred other spectators – students, most of the university families we know with young kids, media, people from around town.  Each team marched around the track under their country’s flag: Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkey.  Somehow the university here chose a teal horse as its mascot, and one slim kid swirled and pranced around in a sleek and velvety hip-hugging horse costume complete with a head that must have been hot. Apparently [someone at the university decided] teal is an ancient Turkic color. We chatted with friends and then all migrated over to the tea garden once we realized that the team parade would be followed by at least an hour of speeches from the various rectors and other ‘important figures’.  Little girls in white flouncy dresses and giggling university students in folk costumes and elaborate gold turbans or feathered headdresses snapping group selfies stood shuffling, waiting, by the gymnastics bars.  

Our daughter finally grew sleepy enough (and disinterested in the commotion enough) that we knew she would sleep, so we took her home.  While she shifted in her bed and splayed out into a soundless sleep the speeches reverberated off the building opposite.  After speeches – long, formal, all male – there were dances and quite a number of musical performances, everything from Kara Jorgo (twice) to It’s time for Africa half-translated into Kyrgyz. The pack of pint-sized street dogs that lives around the university shops began to yap and howl.  Our daughter slept on.  Then they were joined by fireworks close enough to shake the windows (I’m always amazed at the proximity of fireworks, and the seeming disregard for public safety – launch fireworks out your window on New Years, sure, no problem, but take a baby outside without a hat and – god forbid! I’ve never seen such a fuss [apparently babies are not flammable but, on the contrary, catch cold easily even in 90 degree heat]).  After the fireworks there was one more round of It’s Time for Africa, and then somebody started to DJ, and apparently the soccer field turned into an open air disco. The night call to prayer – sung live by the students from the university’s religious faculty – was drowned out by Pitbull rapping about partying in Miami. Little girls in flounced white dresses and embroidered vests flooded the street below our apartment building and flocked around the little stores with their proud parents, club of ice cream in their hands, as somebody blasted Daft Punk and then Rhianna over the university sound system.

The top administrators at the university – reflective of the current trend in Turkey’s ruling party – are all male, upper-middle aged, and have covered (headscarved) wives who walk around in shapeless button-down overcoats and have never had employment outside of the house. We’ve seen the faculty body grow more conservative over the years.  And yet somehow someone gave permission for students to flood the campus with songs about A$S. Comic.  

I remember being shocked the first time I boarded a marshrutka (before I learned better – the minibuses would be better termed “public saunas on speeding wheels of death”) when I was blasted with Like a G6 from a dusty speaker under a dangling decal asking protection from Allah.  After years of being inundated with pink bubble pop in China – where lyrics were all dripping romance and censored to not get past your socks – I couldn’t quite reconcile the idea of girls in long dresses with pastel-colored hair clips listening to lyrics like “poppin bottles getting slizzered” on their way to university classes where they might giggle at the thought of flirting with a classmate, or schoolchildren dressed in mock-folk costumes tapping their toes to beats I hope my own daughter doesn’t understand for another two dozen years.  But here we are – in Central Asia, where things we hold so separately in the US often layer on top of each other.

It’s a bit like when I returned to the US and people would ask me, “How was China?”, like I could just neatly summarize an entire country and all its people into a pat little response that would fit neatly inside a midwest framework.  “Big” I’d inevitably say.


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