The end of a season

Last night I stepped out onto the balcony with my daughter before tucking her in to bed (a nightly ritual) expecting a brace of cold air.  Instead I was greeted by a warm – almost balmy! – breeze. Today we took a walk in Ataturk park and I noticed the red dogwood brilliant against the mud.  Spring has come.

It’s been such a strange season, this winter.  Our first snow(s) came in October, which Tutos found magical, humming every time I put her in the baby carrier (she hums when she’s content; today she hummed at steamed broccoli).  We bundled up and prepared for a long, hard winter full of the Siberian frost that last bit in 2012. And then the snow melted.  And then it snowed again.  And melted. And snowed. And melted. And snowed.  We saw green grass at least once a fortnight all winter, and altered between going outside in a sweater to bask in the sun, and bundling up in every item of clothing we own. And now, the winter we so long expected, and always seemed to be on the cusp of arriving, is over.  Odd that.

I also am not sure what I’ve done this winter.  Several times these past few weeks I’ve been visited by that vague sensation of dissatisfaction, that my time is going by, but I haven’t really applied it to anything.  In fall I applied for graduate programs.  And then I waited, and I got in and  we planned a trip to visit them all.  But apart from that I feel like my time has been spent a little bit aimlessly, or less directed and less productive than it could have been. Perhaps I should have taken my husband’s advice and rested when I could, when our daughter is napping or the babysitter is here her 8 hours a week as, even with so little accomplished, I also don’t feel rested.

The problem seems to be that I’ve spread myself over so many small tasks – trip planning, teaching a few classes here and there, the odd editing job, studying languages (Russian, Chinese, Turkish and Uyghur), pursuing a few part-time jobs I could carry with me through the next few years – that I haven’t concentrated on one thing, and in turning my attention to many, haven’t done a single one truly well. The season has passed, and I look back and can’t see one single trajectory, one project I’ve worked on (besides raising a child), one thing I’ve done well or built a knowledge base on or developed my skills in. This is definitely something I want to change – I crave focus, focusing my attention on one thing (or several; as a former/future academic I tend to have multiple projects going at once).  It’s hard to make even medium-term plans now, as the immediate future is full of unpredictables.  March 11-April 3 I’ll be back in the states visiting grad programs I was accepted to.  Then we’re back in Bishkek for…several months? Until my husband completes projects at work, his green card arrives, and he secures a job near the school/community we’ve chosen? Or will we spend some of the summer in Turkey finally bringing our daughter to visit family before we move across the Atlantic (provided Turkey is relatively more stable by that time)? I don’t even know if we’ll move in April (unlikely) or August (slightly more likely?).

But what can I do in the short-term, in the spare hours (or more often, minutes…) in the 15 days between now and when we travel March 11? Honestly, I would probably spend my time best extensively researching the schools and arriving on site with a pack of smart questions in hand – the ones I (later) wished I’d asked when I did visit weekends at Chicago and Berkeley four years back. Perhaps if I focus on that, make a really smart choice for us, I will come back with a much better sense of our timeframe and what I should focus on in that period.  Sometimes it’s hard to make choices until we’ve settled on the preliminaries.

In the meantime, it looks like another winter storm is on it’s way.  Winter isn’t over. And I still have time before deciding that I’ve squandered the season.

Can-Do Recipes: Golden Milk Cauli Proats

A few weeks ago I decided to do the Whole30, in great part to finally discover whether or not (and to what extent) I actually am allergic to dairy and wheat.  I’m back to my pre-pregnancy size (i.e. not a single pair of pants in my closet is tight – I actually have no idea what I weigh, as I haven’t stepped on a scale since 6 weeks postpartum),  I generally eat pretty healthy anyway – our weekly groceries are 90% whole foods and zero processed items with unpronounceable ingredients (unless you count my inability to pronounce ingredient names in Russian), and all the digestive issues I developed in China gradually dissipated once I started eating lean-clean-green.  But after hearing about the program here and there I googled it and decided that 1) it couldn’t hurt, 2) if I did it I would finally figure out whether I’m allergic to wheat, dairy, peanuts, soy and anything else, 3) it might help clear up my skin, and 4) it would be good to finally not eat any wheat for a month, as I keep saying that I’m not going to have bread/pasta/wheat, etc…for a week/month etc… and then realizing I’ve just eaten bread on the second day.

So, Whole30: as the name suggests, the basic premise of the program is that one eats only (and they mean only) whole foods for thirty days, with a complete ban on sugars, grains, dairy, legumes (including soy) and peanuts based on the idea that these foods often irritate people’s digestive systems, and it takes about 30 days to clear everything out of your system.  For a more complete summary, see The Kitchn‘s post. Most people go through the program eating plenty of meat, fresh produce, and lots and lots of eggs, avocados, and sweet potatoes.  We have scant supply of the last two in Bishkek. I realized about two days in that this would be rather difficult and would require conscious eating, plus a few (fun!) modified recipes.  One you’ll find below.


For anyone who has done the Whole30 (and lives in a country without much fresh produce in winter, or any avocados that don’t look like glossy lumps of coal) you’ll know that, most mornings, breakfast options are eggs, eggs or eggs (or some strange sausage-spinach combination with more cholesterol than I care to count, or something with shredded coconut, nuts, and dried fruit that really seems more like a hippie candy bar than actual fuel. So today, wanting something hot and warm, I did a twist on cauli proats (cauliflower protein oats): golden (non-milk) cashew cauli proats sweetened with banana. It was soft and satisfying and rich and warm, an actual porridge that I might actually make again after the whole 30 (though I might add a tad of honey and a tablespoon of oats).

– 1 1/2c water
– 1 TBS raw cashews
– ½ TBS chia seeds (can be omitted)
– ½ head cauliflower, grated (cauliflower rice)
– 1-3 egg whites
– Golden milk spices (turmeric, cinnamon, ginger…)
– Salt to taste
– OPTIONAL: if you want it sweeter/creamier, top with coconut milk/cream, add in coconut flakes, add in chopped dates, dried apricots or raisins (I didn’t, but you could)

– Stir cashews, chia, and spices into the water
– While grating the cauliflower, bring the cashews and chia seeds to a simmer on the stove
– Add the cauliflower and chopped banana to the pot
– Stir in the egg white(s)
– Cook on low until tender (maybe this was 15 minutes? It doesn’t need close supervision, so you can go and get dressed or make coffee or do some stretching while your breakfast cooks)
– Top with dried fruit, sliced banana, or coconut milk

Feeding our Daughter

tutya-at-dinnerOur daughter is now eight months old.  As we started feeding her at 4 months, this means she now eats everything we put in front of her and still pines for more. For two months I was able to spoon feed her, and then one day she discovered that she could use her fingers to transport food to her mouth (!).  And after that, all innocence was lost (along with the prospect of an easy-t0-clean meal). Now, the only thing I can spoonfeed her are a few purees, like carrot.  Even oatmeal she refuses, and apparently yogurt is a finger food (or else she’s just a little ahead on the growth curve and already trying to apply her own facial masks).  As she will, eventually, have to feed herself anyway, we’ve adapted the way we feed her.  Little bits of everything go on her tray – some smashed peas, slices of steamed squash or carrots or sweet potatoes, roasted tofu (easy to clean!), tender flakes of chicken, banana-oatmeal baby ‘pancakes’ or homemade flax-oat-banana baby crackers.

Tutya sees the food on her tray and starts launching herself toward it, as if she’s swimming in air, in my arms.  I latch on the bucket bib and she’s already reaching out for everything on her tray, grabbing it and bringing it towards her magnetic mouth.  Much of it gets mushed or falls into her bib. But she enjoys herself, humming as she eats and looking up at us in bright-eyed amazement. When she wants more, she bangs her palms against the tray, delighted at the sound it makes.  By the end of the meal she’s a mess, and we take her into the bathroom to wash her hands and face… and hair.

[I know I haven’t been writing many blogs of late.  It is hard to find the time for a cultivated blog with a baby at home and so many things to do in the hours she sleeps.  Sometimes I feel I don’t have enough time to truly delve into and develop my thoughts enough for a post – or even to figure out my own opinions! Still, I want to write, and I do want to capture this place and our livesnow.  I’ve thus decided to post three times a week, anthology style, with a photo and text.  One post will be recipes, one our daughter/family, and one a certain place around the city.  Enjoy!]

The birthing of anxiety

Months after giving birth, when my husband again starts in the night because our baby has made a little noise in her sleep, I realize that there’s one aspect of medical care in Turkey that I distinctively do not like: the instilled anxiety.

My husband is not usually (was not previously) an anxious person.  He likes to do things well and won’t let certain things (like a odd noise coming from the car) slide.  But high-tension he is not.  Not, that is, until the night after our daughter was born.

She was born via [planned] cesarean at 8:46 am on a brilliantly sunny June day (just the day after my husband’s 34th birthday to be exact, on the auspicious date of 16/06/16).  It was hot in our 9th floor hospital room, with the unblocked sun baking the room overlooking rolling green hills on the city’s western side.  Our daughter fed at 11 am, and then mostly slept until dusk when the simmering city began to cool, refusing to be fully roused.  She fed again at 7pm, and later at 11.  Every few hours the doctors and nurses had been coming around to check our vitals, but at 10pm, as it was after hours in the maternity ward, we had to take her up to the intensive care unit on the 14th floor.  There they weighed our baby and, while I waited long minutes in the half-darkened hallway outside the swinging metal doors leading to that sanitized ward, told my sleep-deprived and shocked husband that, if our baby’s weight dropped any further (she’d gone from 3.1 KG at birth to 2.8, though one erroneous chart listed her birth weight at 3.3), she’d have to stay – days, weeks – in the ICU. My husband looked around at the blue-white premies attached to tubes in their tiny plastic crates and shuddered to think of our daughter so small and alone under those same fluorescent lights. As soon as we were back in our room he rushed out to the night pharmacy to purchase formula, a syringe and a bottle, and for the next two nights we tried (with laughably low success) to syringe 30ml of formula into our unwilling baby’s mouth every 3 hours.  It was only later (when I’d caught up on sleep and had time to read), that I found at that many doctors in the US now don’t encourage supplementing unless the baby hasn’t regained birth weight after 2 weeks – or even a month (!).  As I’d initially thought, it was just better to bring her back to the family’s cool and shaded flat, where neither excess sun nor heat would force her to sleep.

But it didn’t matter by this point.  For everywhere we turned there was anxiety in the Turkish hospital system. Was she too hot?  Was she too cold?  Would the dust from the street strangle her if we went on a thirty-minute walk? Would she have complications from jaundice?  How many times today did she eat?  When she was first born I attemted to write down every time she ate, slept and wet her diaper.  Drank for 3 minutes, from 2:14-2:17 am on the left breast? It went in the book. At one point I resigned myself to her having lifelong thyroid complications and we rushed back from our mini new-family vacation in nearby Safranbolu, skipping the relaxing day we had planned wandering the old town, to head to the local health clinic…and find out that a nurse at the hospital where she was born had just taken one blood sample a few days too close to birth. During our drive to Antalya a few weeks later (for a much, much-needed five day stay at an all-inclusive resort where all we did was sleep, eat, swim, lie on chaise-lounges and stroll around with the baby) we stopped every two hours on the dot to wake her up, feed and change her because we were still so nervous about her losing weight.  Poor baby. She probably just wanted to sleep. Experiencing an entire new world at once is exhausting, without anyone shaking you out of respite.

My anxiety gradually lowered.  Over the ensuing weeks and months I spent enough time around her to realize what she could handle, to differentiate cries of hunger pangs from fear or pain or just plain boredom or discomfort.  From our old apartment, situated right across the street from one of the local maternal hospitals, I also watched enough women carrying and taking care of their babies in ways that completely flew in the face of everything I had read to realize that, while we should still be careful, our baby probably wouldn’t break even if we didn’t follow everything every doctor and every child-rearing manual said to the letter. Instead of “doing this will immediately and undoubtedly bring instant and unalterable harm to your baby”, I realized that, for the majority of warnings leveled at new parents, the message was more likely “if you do this, there is a small chance that, for some babies, there may be non-optimal results ranging from slight discomfort to more serious reactions”.

However, my husband still viewed our baby as a most fragile thing, and – six months on -still starts at the smallest whimper. And no wonder – for all we were fed in the Turkish hospital system was fear.  From the 32nd week on we were worried that the baby would be born too early – that she’d already dropped into the birth canal, that she wouldn’t be able to turn around, that I didn’t have enough amniotic fluid, that I’d go into labor early.  My husband almost flew out to Ankara a month before he was due.  One night I stayed in the hospital just to be hooked up to an IV and pumped full of fluid again.  But I felt perfectly fine afterwards and continued walking everywhere up until 10 days before her original due date, when we went in for a checkup and were told I needed a cesarean immediately as she had dropped into the birth canal without turning and my amniotic fluid levels were down again. Could we have waited for a normal birth?  Would she have turned around during labor, as do half of babies in similar positions?  We’ll never know.

After she was born all we heard for weeks was nervous advice – look out for this, watch out for that, be sure to do this, that doesn’t look quite right.  I think sometimes we even doubted whether we’d given birth to a whole child. Looking back upon this – of course it makes sense (in a way).  People don’t go into Turkish hospitals as much for ‘soft’ checkups or little complaints.  The problems doctors see, and that doctors are accustomed to looking for, are usually severe.  What kind of babies does and ICU employee most often come in contact with? Not those who are discharged from the hospital within the first few days.

At our first visit to the [American] doctor in Bishkek even I faced her positive assessment with initial disbelief.  Surely there had to be something wrong. Jaundice – clearing up nicely.  Spots on the skin – a combination of sensitive new born skin and prickly rash from the Bishkek heat. Weight – exactly at he 50th percentile.  Teary eye – stuffed nose. Sleep patterns – pretty normal. Reflexes and neck strength – excellent. Strangely, there was nothing for me to worry about.

These past few months our daughter has fallen sound asleep at 7pm – only to wake slightly twenty minutes or two hours later when she rouses herself from that first cycle of sleep.  Sometimes she dozes off by the time I make it up the stairs, or if we pop a pacifier back in her mouth. Other times she wakes completely, giggles her ‘good morning’ laugh and thumps her legs against the bed in wakeful excitement.  The past few weeks I’ve been (slowly) working on my husband to use the 5-10-20 method – go in and see if she’ll go back to sleep easily, but if she doesn’t, calm her down and then wait 5 minutes before gong in again, then 10, then 20.  It’s usually during the 10 minute wait, when her chatter turns to cries, that he begins to break.  “It’s been long enough” he pleads after a mere 7 minutes.  “Can’t we go in now?”.  Wait, wait, I caution.  She needs to learn to fall back asleep on her own, and she’s perfectly fine.  We just went in, and she knows we’re here if she needs us. She wails again and my husband turns to me with wide eyes, voice rising to an anxious pitch, “She’ll never fall asleep like this!”.  Wait, wait, I tell him.  Two minutes later we hear nothing but the occasional murmur as she rolls back and forth a few times settling herself into sleep.  Five minutes pass.  “Shouldn’t you check on her to make sure she’s alright?”.  I tell him I’ll most likely just wake her if I go in before she hits deep sleep.  We wait a bit longer, and she sleeps long and deep through the night, until the grey morning light begins bringing hue to the sky at 7:45.

Last night we half woke past midnight to the rain lashing against our windows, a gale rattling the frames. We latched the windows tight with one hand, pulled back the curtains with another, and fell back asleep to dreams of New Years Eve and fireworks lighting the city skyline and peacocks and the soft dark warmth of bed. While the rain pounded on our windows, the last of the city’s firecrackers boomed beneath our building.

In morning I always wake in the dark, never sure if it’s 4 am or 6. The night sky is still an inky black when I creep downstairs to squeeze in a predawn workout in a living room lit only by Christmas lights. I always hope the baby doesn’t wake up, pray that she gives me until at least 7:30.  She beams when I walk into her bedroom and wiggles her arms to accompany squeals of delight before pulling the blanket up to cover her mouth in half-coy baby play.  Her eyes are always at their most beautiful the moment she wakes up and I walk over to her crib.  But, at the same time – I want my hour of morning.

Motherhood is always a struggle, between loving your baby – cherishing those smiles and cheeks and soft fluttery lashes, wanting to provide them with the best experience possible, endow them with a sense of the wonder in the world – and trying to stake some time for yourself.  Exercise, sleep, the chance to actually read a book without illustrations or tear-proof pages, a glass of wine with my husband.  Sometimes I feel like I’m forever wishing her to sleep, so I could just finish one more thing (or take a shower, or dinner prep without feeling like she must be bored watching me from her key lime perch (aka high chair) in the corner of the kitchen). Oftentimes I wish she wouldn’t fall asleep so quickly, for there are still a million things unaccomplished in the day – exercises we didn’t finish, songs we didn’t sing, books we didn’t read, new areas of the world we didn’t yet explore. Being a mother is a paradox – living both inside yourself and as something cooperative, the balancing act of working in tandem with another person (who is so dependent on you, and yet, at the same time, so very determined and independent-minded).  It is always a dance, one that often sees us stumble or shuffle with two left feet or just try to get through the motions with coffee in one hand and wine in the other (both in moderation…). Every day I see my daughter growing – her [very vocal] protests if I leave the room, her annoyance and despair when she flings the kitchen whisk from her highchair tray, the way her bright eyes become twinkling triangles when she opens her mouth for shrieking giggles of delight every time I blow kisses at her, the calm almond sliver of her eyelids above the pale pink of her cheeks in that moment she falls to sleep, the mix of emotions that splay cross her face when she reaches for my coffee cup.


The Moment

Today I was going to write, and then wandered into the storm that is currently Reed College facebook group debates. The whole debate seems to be going around and around and around gender issues – extreme ‘trans’ people demanding more respect and this and that and basically having their ass pampered by the college and lashing out at alum for being ‘transphobic’ when alum step into the conversation to try to tone down th aggression or suggest more moderate, responsible and respectful ways of protest.
Here in Bishkek it all seems absurd (and I’ve decided to ban myself from Facebook for a while, and just check messages from within the message app on my phone). Reading the news in Turkey it seems absurd. Living in a Kyrgyz-Turkish university campus where we literally might be the most liberal people here – out of a staff and family community of 1500 – it seems absurd. I mean, Reed has what? possibly 10 trans students. And they want a gender-neutral bathroom by one lecture hall and didn’t like that the school invited the director of Boys Don’t Cry to speak and want a gender and sexuality therapist in a health center that in my day only had one or two therapists and want extra-special funding for their student club. And this little list has led to flame wars, accusations of every kind, and taken over what seems like the entirety of discussions in the college group, on campus even. Meanwhile, well…you’ve read the news. Politics, bombs, tenets of extreme racism across Europe and the US, still a great deal of discrimination against women (who, last time I checked, make up a good deal of the human population) in the workplace and on the street. It’s a wide, wide world currently undergoing a lot of terrifying phenomenon.
And sitting here, having just put my daughter down to nap after an hour of smiles and screams and fun and battling toys and gnawing on fleecy sheep and sticky little hands diving into banana and small frustrations, thinking about what kind of world she’ll enter in America – it all seems so very, very odd. We’re not going back to Turkey in part because of the turn towards [extreme, not necessarily very Islam-accurate] religiosity in the education system there, state-paid teachers telling young students that they’re inviting rape by not wearing headscarves (headscarves were banned for students and civil servants alike until the AKP’s rise to power, and Turkey was mostly a secular state through my husband’s childhood and adolescence). Of course we don’t want our daughter to be exposed to that kind of culture, to have to ever feel she has to hide her own beliefs, political, religious or otherwise, for her own safety. But recent discussions within the American left (for most people at my Alma Mater are at least moderate, if not quite liberal) seem to have headed for a completely self-isolated sphere. It’s like they’ve dissociated from the rest of the world, so privileged they’ve forgotten it exists, forgotten the far more fundamental struggles that still lie beyond those leafy gates.
I was going to sit down today and write. I don’t have any particular writing project I want to work on now, but I still feel that drive to set down words. So I’ve decided to write scenes, capture the here and now as it is at present. Eight years ago, after spending a summer in Beijing I came back home to Minnesota and was rolling through my 500 photographs with family when I realized that, while I had plenty of photos of ‘sights’ around the city – red walls around the Forbidden City, curling tiled roofs, the quite lily ponds of the Summer Palace – I had barely any shots of the city as I saw it, capturing the energy and raw colors of daily life. When I went back in the fall that was all I captured – I began to stalk the city on foot, camera (Canon G10, the best camera I’ll ever own) in pocket, snapping photos of anything that seemed particularly alive, from tiny transactions between individuals to scenes of a city in transition, looming construction sites and destruction sheltering a fruit stand. And why not, in the eight months we have left in Bishkek, in the last half of my daughter’s first year of life, focus on what is raw and alive around us, capture it in the ephemeral moment knowing that, without writing, it cannot last?

Picky Politics

I was alerted to recent happenings at Reed by one of my former professors, with whom I’ve kept in contact since graduation.

They wrote,

Reed is in the midst of chaos, and there are doubts regarding when it will end.  A very small group of students have been protesting for this and that now for nearly two months, with little active support from students or faculty.  However, it has split the faculty apart, as well as the student body, and chaos seems to reign.  It has also put quite a damper on nearly all classes, or at least those in the humanities and social sciences.  We need leadership among the administration, but are not getting it.  Where it will end is unknown to me.

I google-newsed Reed but (at the time, you’ll get very different results now) couldn’t find anything more than a few celebrations, articles about the post-election protests in Portland where the college is mentioned briefly, and an obituary for a student who I remember from my days working at the campus bookstore who apparently became a NYT best-selling author before dying of a cocaine overdose. You know, the average smattering…

But this past week there was news. Apparently the film director of Boys Don’t Cry came to campus to give a speech – and was shouted out of the hall by a small group of students raining her with epithets and shaking signs that read with the like of “F* this CIS B*tch!”. As one journal reports it,

There was a time not so long ago when the people shouting “fuck you bitch” at a gender-fluid gay filmmaker would have been bigoted right-wing conservatives. But because we currently live in the year 2016, the people who heckled Kimberly Peirce—director of Boys Don’t Cry, a groundbreaking film about a transgender man—during her recent appearance at Reed College were far-left students.

The students hurled a litany of insults at Peirce, putting up posters that read “fuck your transphobia” and “you don’t fucking get it” among other things. Worse, when Peirce ascended to her podium, students had placed a sign there. It read “fuck this cis white bitch.” That Peirce is actually gender-fluid is quite beside the point.

This has been followed by quite a lot of discussion on the Reed FB Group, which is about 70% alumni.  What strikes me as odd is that the very vocal trans/trans-supportive students and recent alumni seem to have this idea that because they are members of an “oppressed minority” that others have to listen to them and have to do it on their own terms.

There are a few reasons why this strikes me as odd.  First, their claim to ‘minoritiness’ seems to ignore the fact that pretty much everyone is a minority somewhere, sometime. (i.e. as I’ve written before, I’m often mistaken for a young Russian in a country that seems plenty of ethno-nationalism defined against a Soviet past and have, as a result, seen definite discourtesy based on this assumption about my identity; I’ve also experienced plenty of gender-based wage discrimination as a female – like when my husband’s employer offered me 20% of his salary for a position of equivalent rank; my husband may an educated male, but – besides being a minority/foreigner in Kyrgyzstan, he’s also a political and religious minority in his own country.  I could go on and on with different examples, but you probably get the point – near everybody is a minority in some right).  Can you imagine if it would be like if every minority or oppressed population (that is, everyone at some point) demanded that everyone else listen to them in a not give-and-take discussion? We’d have a true cacophony – how would anyone decide who should be heard when all have the right to speak unmatched by an obligation to listen?

Basically, they don’t own minorityness or experience of oppression.  Why did Trump get so many votes from the poor white population? By-and-large because they felt themselves to be an oppressed and marginalized segment of society.  But I doubt the trans-activists posting on the FB group feel much sympathy for them or would sit down and hear what they feel they have to say.  It’s selective minoritization.

Second, their approach does not seems very productive.  Squabbling among people who hold generally the same viewpoints on small differences is not what leads to broad changes in policy and practice. In the past few years we’ve seen several instances where squabbles among the left have led to right-wing takeovers in politics (see: Turkey and the coalition government that didn’t happen, Donald Trump’s triumph in America).  Why alienate your allies? Considering who America [kind of] just elected to president, shouldn’t we be a little more worried about protecting fundamental rights and defending the human respect due to all individuals, be they trans or female or black or Hispanic or immigrant or Muslim or WASP or anything else?  They would be far more likely to see results (and receive sympathy and support) if they asked not who directly agrees with and supports with, but who would work with them for like aims (such as preserving freedom of speech, lobbying for safer streets or protection of all individuals from violence and harassment). Alienating others does not alliances create.

One of the things the students seem to be lobbying for (besides a gender-neutral bathroom in one last lecture hall…this on a campus where most of the dorm bathrooms are gender-neutral) is for something to be done about the “transphobic” professors remaining on campus.  From my days with TFC, where local teachers in rural Yunnan attempted to actively ignore and shame lower-performing students who weren’t likely to pass the high school entrance exam out of class, I’ve learned that people who ‘go away’ do not cease to exist.  Just as students pushed out of school are still there in the community, so would be ‘transphopic’ professors asked to leave (or harassed out of) the school.  They’ll just go and be ‘transphobic’ elsewhere.

Why I’ve left transphobic in quotation marks is because I very much doubt many professors at Reed are truly afraid of or repelled by trans individuals.  My former professor (from the first quote) may indeed by labeled as ‘transphobic’ for wishing students would top their protesting but, from hours working with him over my time in college, I’m guessing his greatest concern is that all this activism is detracting from the academic and he just wishes students would come to class on time, thoroughly read the assigned texts  beforehand, engage in thoughtful (and respectful) dialogue in roundtable class discussions, and put effort into writing solid and insightful papers. If that means that he might, for example, try to lead class discussion back to the text under study, then – that’s what good academics and good discussion-leaders do.  They stay on the agenda. Is that so very surprising?

Even the dean of faculty, Nigel Nicholson, wrote in The Quest, the student newspaper,  that he was “deeply embarrassed and ashamed of our conduct”as “the actions that I saw were not animated by the spirit of inquiry or the desire to learn that usually animates Reed audiences. The students had already decided what they thought, and came to the question-and-answer session to make their judgments known, not to listen and engage. Some brought posters bearing judgments and accusations. Others asked questions, that, while grammatically questions (that is, they ended with question marks), were not animated by a genuine desire to explore a question, but rather sought to indict the speaker.”.

Reedies new, stop being picky. Leading your own potential allies to the axe isn’t going to do you or your cause any good.


The Kitchen Connundrum

The hardest thing I find to do as a new(ish) mother is to sit down and focus. It’s already 10:27, and I’ve been up since exactly 6:00. Even sitting down to write this is hard as, as soon as I open my computer, my mind goes in a million directions. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a cup of tea while I’m writing (and then, as long as I’m in the kitchen, shouldn’t I take the squash out of the oven and roast the cauliflower and chop the carrots and onions for making squash soup tonight)? I should text so-and-so to see if our kids’ meetup is still on for this afternoon and, if it’s not, get back to someone else who was going to come over with their kid if we were free. And e-mail. I should send my e-mail, send a response to this person and that, and suddenly I’m looking at yoga pants on Amazon.
Sometimes it’s necessary to stop everything, sit down, and write – even if all I write about is how hard it is to cease momentum and start writing.
So I’ve been up for 4 1/2 hours. I actually got in my full 45 minutes of exercise in one go this morning (yoga and HIIT, so I was actually limber enough and had enough endorphins to start the day). And then I was going to sit down and write, settle on what was important for me to complete today, but then I decided to go into the kitchen and prep breakfast before the baby woke up. Surely I’d have some time afterwards… The kitchen seems to be the bane of my existence, a blank sinkhole for all my spare minutes, the reason I never seem to have enough time to actually finish anything. Perhaps I should just ban myself from it for one week and decide instead to subsist on nothing that can’t sit on our dining room table without perishing or can’t be ordered through (the egregiously slow) Namba food. If only we had frozen greens and instant black bean soup….
The problem is that I love good food – the idea of nutrition as nourishment – and, in the absence of healthy fast alternatives (samsas instead of salad bars), that seems to mean that I cook a lot. It especially seems that I spend a lot of time preparing breakfast, which is ironic, as breakfast is the meal we finish in the fewest minutes. Perhaps I should prep more – this morning I made a (relatively) big bowl of baby oats along with roasted apple and raisin apple sauce – enough for four morning’s breakfasts, now all packed away in the freezer waiting to be defrosted – and then just prepare tea or coffee for us and stick to oatmeal or toast. Perhaps I should set a timer so I’m never in the kitchen for more than ten minutes – and then not let myself return for another hour. [Confession: as I was writing that last sentence, I realized that I had left the cauliflower in the oven and went back to take off the tin foil so it could fully roast. But I’m back now.]
I have started making soup on Sunday and then having soup with whole wheat toast and sometimes Turkish yogurt every day of the week for lunch – red lentil soup, roasted squash and carrot soup with ginger, chicken vegetable soup, winter soups full of heat and flavor. Dinner is often meat and chopped root vegetables tossed with olive oil and spices oven roasted in the borcam (glass covered casserole dish) with a grain and steamed vegetables on the side. But it’s still easy to putter and putter and find a thousand small tasks to do in the kitchen. So perhaps it’s time to (literally) set a timer on my time in the Kitchen – and make sure I do take those ten or fifteen minutes to just sit down and focus at the beginning of the day (and hope my daughter does wait until 7:30 to wake…)

On swapping kids clothes and a sense of expatness

If there was one piece of advice I would give to members of expat families right now, it would be to relax.

Today during a walk I was talking to an American expat whose granddaughter is about the same age as my daughter (a bit over 5 months).  We happened to get onto how hard it was to find decent-quality decent-priced baby clothing in Bishkek and I mentioned that I had tried to start a kids clothing swap with the Bishkek expat kids group, but nobody else sported any enthusiasm.  And part of that very well may have been the thought of the stigma of using second-hand clothes.  For me it’s a pragmatic matter: small kids grow fast and I know we’ll go through several changes of closet before we leave Bishkek.  I’m not filling my entire baggage allowance with clothes she’s outgrown, and I assume others also don’t want to cart around clothes their kids have outgrown from one country to the next.  And while I tried to buy enough clothes to last her until our next planned visit home (in March, which means I came back to Bishkek with clothes for 3-9 months covering 3 seasons), I obviously didn’t calculate in how often I like to do laundry. It is possible – generally – to find safe and sturdy(ish) kids clothes here, but it can be really hit-and-miss, and finding something like winter stockings may see you trekking to half a dozen stores and across the city (true story). Exchanging clothes just makes so much more sense.

But I also feel like there is this stigma attached to doing anything ‘on the cheap’ for certain expat circles in Bishkek.  Like exchanging kids clothes might imply that one doesn’t have as much money or can’t afford a certain lifestyle.

I’ve begun to notice that in Bishkek: it matters to have nannies and housekeepers and drivers, to have that level of comfort, to have (and be able to afford) “help”.  Being part of the ’embassy elite’ – or associated with an embassy – and all the privileges it entails can be a buoy, something to cling to and something that sets people apart.   And it seems that there is a subtle pressure to maintain this separation, to claim oneself as “well-to-do-enough”.  Perhaps this is in part because Kyrgyzstan is a relatively low-income country and, regardless of one’s job title or income bracket in their home country, expat employees are almost automatically guaranteed to be part of the country’s economic elite, and there are many people here who thus have access to certain comforts or status markers that they would not have at home.

I don’t mean to imply that these things – having household help, choosing to not use non-new – are ‘bad’ in and of themselves, but simply that they do not make the sum of a person, and there can be so many different factors and choices that go into any one decision (see above with the baby clothes) that it can’t be necessary to judge y or expect one standard.

I don’t notice the above phenomenon within the Turkish expat community, especially within the university – perhaps because everyone has the same employer, is one the same salary scale, and most live either in standard flats on campus or in one of a half-dozen newerish flats in the immediate vicinity.  While status and politics may be at play in the office, in economic terms there’s a more egalitarian view and certain level of nonchalance.

This was also something I never noticed while living in China, as I was young and single and hung out with other people who were, for the most part, young and single and unestablished.  We were there for the adventure, the experience, the vast spread of what could be learned and seen and achieved.  We bought local brands and laughed when they fell apart and laughed harder when we found outrageous fashions that somehow made it through production. We ate at cheap restaurants without a sense of shame because we were there to try what was local, instead of trying to recreate a copy of life back home.  It was a completely different way of approaching expathood – permanent exploration versus an emphasis on establishment of a temporary home. I obviously care a lot more about the safety of our infant daughter’s clothes than that of my own.  But there is something I think we can still borrow from that way of approaching a country as an expat: take what you find, enjoy what it is (lament, laugh), and don’t stress to much about cultivating a sense of status or how people might perceive your relative ranking.  Relax.  Where you are is what you create. Our relationships with others are as we create them, and far more valuable relationships are forged when we let down our guard a bit, when we forget to worry about how others might see us.

And, for those of you who are curious: I’ve cobbled together kids clothes from the following sources: LC Waikiki and several baby stuff shops in Ankara, (brought by my mother when she visited), my mother (enthusiastic first-time grandmother = an irresistible urge to purchase a lot of tiny adorable outfits), Kidsmart in Bishkek (Toktogul/Togolo Moldovo), Aliexpress (shipping takes over a month), and one expat who was leaving and looking to sell off all her 16-month-olds baby clothes. Our cleaner’s stepmother just had a daughter 3 weeks ago so we’ve been channeling her most of our daughter’s outgrown clothes and baby paraphernalia (I’ll admit, I did have to keep one of two of our favorite first outfits…).

Because Nobody in Bishkek has Money (?)

Or, “How we bought our third car for 65% of the price we paid for our first, and how we almost bought a VIP Mercedes”

We’re now on our third car in Bishkek.  [For the basic process of buying a car, and why we switched from our first to our second, see my 2015 blog “Buying a Car in Bishkek”.] Our last car was Bishkek’s (Kyrgyzstan’s…) only Audi S4.  My husband loved it and put his spare time and pocket money into fixing it up until there wasn’t a rim left to shine.  After two years it became a bit like my mother’s gardens: at every property where we resided while I was growing up, my mother would garden and garden until there was no more yard save paths through the flower beds, and I alwasy joked with her that we were moving to a new house not because she couldn’t decide if she wanted to live in town or country, but because she had literally run out of new places to garden (and new house projects to plan and commence).  Similarily, we might have sold our old car because it was getting a bit old and because my husband wanted a safer and more comfortable (read: we can actually fit the baby’s carseat in without a struggle) car, or because he had fixed everything in the car and had run out of spare parts to order or parts of the engine to fine-tune.  I mean, it was a 12 year old car, and came back from the shop with a certified maintenance rating of 99%.

So, what do we buy?  If you’ve perused my previous post (written when we bought the aforementioned car), you’ll know that it’s not easy to find a decent car in Bishkek.  Since writing that post, however, the car market has rather changed – prices have plummeted and the market has a glut of automobiles.  If you drive by any of the car bazaars, big or small, you can see row upon row of Lexuses and other SUVs.  It’s not like 2013, when my husband purchased his first car in Bishkek – a 2002 Audi A6 – and it was literally the only [relatively] newer Audi in the entire car bazaar. Cars abound in Kyrgyzstan.  And, as noted in the post heading, it seems nobody has cash. A buyer’s (and swapper’s) market it is.

We put or car on, where it sat and sat as the odd offers rolled in.  Swap my car for your car, swap my car for your car plus I’ll give you $2000, swap your car for my piece of land ready to build a house.  Plenty of people wanted out car – but it seemed none of them had the cash to buy it.

This is a theme that’s come up againand again in Kyrgyzstan: with salaries so low, where does money come from?  Everywhere we see new[ish] cars, new apartment buildings, new boutique shops selling overpriced things from the West, a run of copy-cat IKEAs, restaurants and cafes full every evening.  But when it comes down to cash to buy a car, few people seem to have it (unless they take a loan from the bank).  But let’s leave that question aside for the moment, as I’m sure a social economist could write an entire dissertation on the subject.

So, we didn’t initially have much success in selling our car, despite getting a number of offers. This brings me to the rather odd central story of his piece…

The Turkish manager of a concrete company who knows my husband through work connections and heard through the grapevine that we were looking for a new car called us up and told us that he had a 2008 Mercedes S350 in prime condition that the company wanted to sell for $15,000. Now, mind you, this wasn’t his personal car – nor really the company’s.  They had received it from a construction company, as payment for concrete delivered for a project.  For apparently, just as people don’t have cash, neither do companies, at least in the construction industry.  They trade cars as currency.  So someone – it must have been a VIP someone, for the car had not a scratch and bore the license plate number S5000 – gave the construction company this car for full or partial payment for construction, and the construction company gave it in payment of oncrete to the concrete company, and the concrete company would have otherwise given it to the cement company.  It was a nice car – S-line Mercedes are top-tier cars.  The thing even had built-in seat massage.  But 1) my husband hates Mercedes, 2) the construction or cement (honestly, can’t remember which) company valued our car at $5,000, which is far lower than it was worth and 3) have you seen the roads in Bishkek?

[What’s even more absurd (a Turkey sidenote) is that this year of this car goes for 190,000 TL in Turkey (at the time that was over $60,000), an here it’s going for the same price E’s brother paid for his boring family Peugeot.]

So the back-massage-giving Mercedes we did not buy.  But in the process one of my husband’s co-workers (read: someone with a dependable non-local salary) decided he wanted to buy our car, so we did the paperwork and bankwork and signed it off to him before spending a week in taxis. Maybe we didn’t really need a car?  After all, we now live a 5 minute walk away from my husband’s office and Bishkek does have (what seemed like) a bounty of taxis.  But it turns out those taxis don’t always come on time, if at all (that’s you, namba taxi…).  So after several times waiting over an hour for a cab, and thinking about how we spend our weekends, we decided that, yes, it really was worth it to have a car.

Within a week of selling our car, our husband found another Audi (is there a theme here?) – a 2004 A6 in near-perfect condition that had just been imported from Lithuania.  And why was someone selling a car in such good condition?  Because they had lent money to someone else who had then not paid them back.  However, the second person had bought and was importing a car, and when this was discovered, the car was seized upon arrival in Kyrgyzstan and given to the man to whom he owed his debts.  Because, again, it seems like nobody has money in Bishkek.  Or they do, but they…don’t?