On Leaving Kyrgyzstan

I’ve been in Bishkek longer than any other city I’ve resided in since I graduated highschool – 11 years ago. And yet I have almost no connection with the city.  Our departure is looming – one week away.  I’ve been thinking that I ought to have things I want to do, places I want to visit, one last time.  After all, we may never be back. Do I want to go to the Osh bazaar? Do I want to battle with parking and traffic police (or hard-bargaining taxi drivers with grimy cars) and the heat and crowds and worrying about pickpockets and my daughter getting sick from the many germs that float around an overcrowded bazaar? Anything I want to eat?  I’m not particularly fond of samsa (or the wheat-meat diet that is the mainstay of local cuisine); the only thing I really want to try is the Pad Thai at the new (and only) Thai restaurant that just opened up in Bishkek.  And then I remind myself that I’m moving to a country where there’s a Thai restaurant in every stripmall.  Half of our friends are gone for the summer, and we said our [envious] goodbyes when they left for the seaside months ago.  So…no, there’s nothing I’ll miss.  The mountains, pristine, presiding over the city, magnificent in the morning light, brilliant and sharp under the winter snows, coated in glimmering hues of rose gold and deep purple blues at dusk. But part of the beauty of the mountains is that they are so untouched by the city.

I’ve lived in Kyrgyzstan almost as long as I lived in China, and in Bishkek at least twice as long as I lived in Beijing or any other single Chinese city. I left China with the rhythm of the country ingrained in my memory – the regional cadences of speech, the sizzle and smell of a stirfry mixed with voices from a back kitchen, the bustle of a railway station, the texture of soupy rice noodles against my palate, a sense of expectancy, of the future always bringing more challenges, more possibilities, the idea that tomorrow would always bring something different, would always be an opportunity to grow.

In Kyrgyzstan I’ve felt stagnant; after 3+ years I’m still standing at the starting line.  I’ve tried so many different things – I came here thinking I might break from academia, thinking I wanted to explore different career options, establish a profession for myself.  I’m leaving having established no profession, having spent a lot of time trying to unearth opportunities that it turned out didn’t exist, a lot of time pursuing ventures that didn’t pan out.  In total, I worked for five different employers (though never for what I would consider a real wage; never what anyone could consider a real wage), I wrote one (thirty chapter) textbook, I collaborated with two entrepreneurs on joint projects including initiating three start-ups, and I started maybe 8 blogs or websites. I got more out of the three months I worked at a think tank in Turkey while I was pregnant.

Looking back, of course I could have done certain things differently – there are a thousand little choices along the way that could have set whole new paths, a hundred assumptions I shouldn’t have made.  I would have been happier – and felt more integrated into the city, invested in life here, if I spoke better Russian.  But, after taking two months of private lessons, I just failed the placement exam for full-time intermediate Russian group classes at the London School of Bishkek, as I guessed at the difference between “вход” and “выход” (“Entrance” and “Exit” or “In-going” and “out-going”) and thus got that whole section wrong.  I could have looked it up in two seconds, though my Minnesota moral code told me that would be cheating (would it matter though, when I’m not getting any professional or academic recognition for either the test or the classes I could not then take?). And so I didn’t take intensive Russian, as that was the only course available at the time, and I limped along only partially knowing the language of the city until I decided I just wasn’t interested in learning it anymore. One small choice – one click on my phone and I could have altered the entire trajectory of my time in this city.

And now it’s time to leave.  It’s done; our exit is just around the corner. I’m already in North Carolina, smelling the wet green of rain on the leaves, mentally arranging our apartment and filling up my Amazon shopping basket with necessary things for our new home.  I wish I’d had a more productive experience, that I had something more to show for my time spent here, that I had focused on one thing with the vision I have now and actually created something I could take away (apart from my acquired knowledge of Turkish).  But I can’t change that now; I can only make step ahead and relish the opportunity now to intensely focus on something, to step up and sharpen my skills, sharpen my mind once more.


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