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.

tutya-smiles

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, amazon.com (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 cars.kg, 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?

Mental “Me” Time for Mothers

Only after becoming a mother did I realize how hard – and how essential! – it would be to find “mental me time” in the day. I never thought about it before, though in hindsight it’s quite obvious – when you’re at home taking care of a baby, you are there for them every minute of every waking hour. Even squeezing in a shower is hard, unless you put their bouncer chair in the bathroom and play ‘peekaboo’ with the shower curtain. There is no setting your baby down and doing your own thing for more than five minutes max – and even then you have to be always aware of them, responding to every sudden need. Sure there are naps, but they 1) generally don’t add up to enough time in the day to get down everything, 2) occur at somewhat unpredictable times and for unpredictable length and 3) half the time seem to happen when we’re out walking or I’m driving the car anyway. The rest of the day, you as a parent are present. Which may work for some women who have waited all their lives to be mothers, who see this as the pinnacle of personhood or their life’s calling, but for the rest of us it’s exhausting. It means that I wake up at 6:30 just to get in 45 minutes of exercise and hopefully brush my teeth and wash my face before everyone else wakes, and then often feel as if I’m simultaneously rushing through the day – and not getting anything done. Nothing, at least, that I won’t go through again tomorrow.
Couple this with my daughter’s reverting to 3am waking and feeding after we moved into our present flat (and moved her into her own room) and motherhood can be downright exhausting. Since our Tuesday-Thursday babysitter found a full time job and moved on I’ve been feeling drained. As I told one other (highly educated, temporarily stay-at-home) mom at the weekly playgroup yesterday, I don’t even have time and mental space to think about what I would want to do if I had time. Mothering is hard, even if it’s not every moment as intellectually demanding as, for example, an academic career. When you’re staying at home there are no coffee breaks, or days when you come into the office feeling sleepy and can pass through the day in a daze.
Even when I’m off-duty I’m always alert. Two nights ago I re-introduced sleep training to break the nighttime feeding habit (as me being tired during the day is good for no one, and because she needs to learn to put herself back to sleep if she’s going to have good childhood sleep habits and if we want her to feel secure on her own while falling asleep). The first night she woke at 2:25. I put in her pacifier, went back to bed, and waited through 5 minutes of happy murmurings. Then I went in again, put in her pacifier, put my hand on her chest, and rocked her back and forth a few times until she dropped back to sleep. Then I went back to bed, but she almost immediately started up again – though her murmurings took on an edge of complaint, indignant implore. I wanted to wait ten minutes before going back in, my each murmur from our infant wracked my husband’s heart (and nighttime nerves), so after 7 I caved, put the pacifier in, hand on her chest, and counted a hundred deep breaths while I sat in the chair by her bed. At 3:25 she was finally sound asleep and I sunk back into sleep. Last night – nothing. Though my mind was still in alert, and I half woke up perhaps five times listening for any noise. Even if she was resting, my mothering instincts were wide awake. Though she did sleep from seven to seven, and I for once woke well-rested.
I find it actually a lot easier if I have more social activities during the week – even something non-baby-centric, like a lunch date or hiking, because the context gives my daughter so much more to interact with and observe, so all of her attention isn’t directed on me, even if she’s using me as a secure base from which to explore her surroundings. But staying at home – as tends to happen in these winter months – that’s hard.
I don’t resent my daughter for any of this – how can I? She’s a baby. Everything in this world is completely new to her. She’s still adjusting to her surroundings, her body, and she’s completely dependent on us for everything that is out of her reach or can’t be manipulated by her soft fingers. She’s increasingly interested in interacting with the world on her own and exploring without my direct guidance, but she still needs me (or another adult) for almost everything. And she can’t talk. Most days I think that being a baby must be terribly frustrating – you are increasingly able to understand the possibilities and offerings of this world and the human body but are simultaneously forever incapable of communicating exactly what you want and equally incapable of making it happen on your own.
That said, there still needs to be some balance. I’m not built to be a stay-at-home mom, and my daughter does need someone to be attuned to her all the time. There are some temporal fixes I’ve made for now – I wake up at 6:30 (though if she now wakes at 7 instead of 8 I’ll have to shift that back to 6/6:15…) to get in exercise before I begin the day. I write down the things that are important for me to accomplish every day and drop whatever else to concentrate on those the moment she goes down for a nap (one of today’s was writing). I limit ‘wasted’ time on my phone. And I’m beginning to write again, just to have space to “think out my thoughts”. I’ve also found another Tuesday-Thursday babysitter, so maybe I can pick up editing work during those afternoons again – four hours of uninterrupted focus. But when it comes down to it, if I do ever hear back from the post I’ve been going to interviews for (some things to take a long time in Bishkek), I will be glad to go back to work – and I think it will be good for my daughter too to have someone whose job is just to be there for her eight hours a day, someone who can give her undivided attention so I can do the same when I come home from work, home from having a day of focus and applying my mind to more long-term tasks. Ideally I could work part-time, or part-time from home, but in Bishkek I’ll take full time over not working at all. As another mother [of 3, currently working 3 days a week for the WHO, but who previously stayed home for 2.5 years] said, “Whatever you do, you’re always going to feel guilty”, and so you might as well keep yourself sane.

Not Trump’s America

Like most expats (and just generally anyone outside of America), Trump never seemed like a real political candidate.  I don’t know anyone who voted for him, or even considered voting for him for two simple reasons. First, from an international (i.e. outside America) perspective, this man is sheer ridiculous. As one Brit brilliantly sums it:

For me, as for many people, it started slowly. Notwithstanding the prior existence in European politics of pervy, orange billionaires – hello, Silvio Berlusconi! – it was almost impossible to take Donald Trump seriously. The hair! The word salad! The absence of any political positions! The bizarrely cheap-looking suits!

Surely, surely, the religious right had to object to a three-times married modeliser with a history of leching to Howard Stern? And why the fuck would ANYONE believe a self-proclaimed billionare who goes to the White House Correspondents Association Dinner and the Met Gala and invited the Clintons to his wedding is an anti-establishment candidate on the side of the poor folk? How could a man whose ex-model wife has a heavy accent – and whose model agency appears to have broken immigration laws – go out there and rant about immigration? It just didn’t make any sense.

When you’re living abroad and have a bit better sense of ‘the way things work out there’ or the difficulty of navigating any inter-cultural situation even far below the level of political diplomacy, hiring a loud orange man whose favorite phrase is a self-satisfied “You’re Fired!” and who can’t seem to string sentences together into paragraphs that meet fourth-grade standards of coherency just doesn’t make any sense.

And second, as many pieces of analysis have since pointed out, I, like many Americans, live in an isolated news bubble. The political-social side of my Facebook feed is 95% left-leaning liberal.  I have to think back to high school until I hit upon someone I think might have possibly voted for Trump – and I haven’t seen anyone from high school for over ten years.  Which is because most of my acquaintances are college educated and either attended college with me (at one of the nation’s most liberal institutions) or were met abroad (and generally people who travel or live abroad tend to both have higher education and a more open, culturally-curious mind).

But a huge segment of the American population did vote for Trump.  And regardless of how the electorate college votes on December 19th, that’s a huge problem.  Why?  Because there’s a huge segment of the American population that is literally left out of modern America and out-of-touch with the rest of the world. Ill-informed both because Trump is truly an awful person (and, if you don’t know that, you obviously haven’t been getting an honest serving of news), and because, even if one supports his supposed political and economic stances (build a wall! bring back jobs!), when one is living abroad it’s quite obvious that this just isn’t going to work in the world.  America doesn’t exist in isolation.  We can’t just go out and declare whatever we want to do without a bit of negotiation, working our way into the whole world system.

Unfortunately we’re also not too surprised.  I say “we” because my husband has recently seen a not-so-dissimilar political situation unfurl in his own country.  When the AKP (a conservative religious party) was first elected to office in 2002 they (not unlike Trump) promised to revive a nation weary of stagnant political parties, corruption, and old-guard politicians.  And for a while they did (kind of).  But when Erdogan started attempting to carve out a greater piece of power for himself and corruption allegations (and tapes, and rather hard evidence) started emerging, liberals predicted he would fall from power.  I mean, the man was recorded talking with his son about hiding and transporting millions of dollars stolen from the government. Instead he dismissed the allegations (and tapes) as false (sounding a lot like Trump here…), and people beleived him.  Much like in America, he was able to convince millions of people – again, often those who had felt sidelined, including conservatives and less-educated rural residents – that he was truly a man of the people, out to save them from deceitful party politicians.  A millionaire who had the interest of millions at heart.  And he won. 52%* of the vote (*or not. This figure is as contested as pro-Bush votes in Florida during the 2000 elections).

And because Erdogan now has “a majority” of people supporting him, he believes that his words are the mandate – that “the people” want what he wants and those that don’t are anti-state, anti-the people, and must therefore be shut up and shut down.  Turkey was once a[n imperfect] democracy.  It’s now inching towards autocracy (or, you know, hurtling at high speed), and is no longer a land where people have secure rights of free speech, of person, of gathering, of refusing religious education, of resisting discrimination based on ethnic heritage or religious belief. In short, it’s becoming the America that Trump envisions (except Muslim and not really ‘white’).

Unfortunately, Turkey’s center-left just largely threw their hands up in the air and waited for someone else to do something.  In the past, whenever the government swung too far from center, the military stepped in by staging a coup and returning things [more or less] back to normal. This time too people were waiting for a coup, even after Erdogan jailed senior generals and purged the ranks of liberals. Almost every dinner conversation I’ve sat in on has seen voiced frustration over the political situation or deteriorating everyday economics, but never do people suggest doing anything.

We’ve also seen a sudden surge in the ‘assumption of right’ among AKP supporters – their party is in power, and therefore they’re untouchable (particularly if they have a government post).  This transfers over into everything from the way people behave on the road to assertiveness in the office to everyday interactions – an overall assumption of superiority. As I’m young, white, educated and middle class it probably sounds sacrilegious for me to say I’ve experienced racism or any sort of overt discrimination.  But racism isn’t so ‘black and white’ outside of the states.  Just yesterday a woman whose husband must work at the university lashed out at me and spewed that I was “shameless” for having a kid at my age (I’m 28…but look 18?) when I brought her 5 or 6-year old kid up to her after he sent my (4-month-old) daughter bawling by coming up and violently shaking her stroller and yelling in her face while she was napping (nice kids, by the way…wonder where they got their manners).  She’s a housewife – I often see her in the tea garden chatting with the other housewives when I’m coming or going, and we’ve had to shake off her kids more than once. She doesn’t really do anything with her days, and has no profession or occupation of her own. But because she’s covered (headscarved) she’s an overlord. [I think she also thought I was Russian (being mistaken for a teenage Russian in a city with ethno-superiority issues – not fun, but another topic entirely).]

So America, let’s not let this happen.  Let’s not let Trump believe he has ‘the mandate of the people’.  Let’s not let his less-accommodating supporters turn his ‘victory’ into a green light to oppress or lash out at ‘minority populations’.  Let’s take this as a wake-up call and spend these four years figuring out how to make America a less divided nation.  Let’s actually listen to the people who voted for Trump because they saw no better alternative and include them in the political discussion with the assumption that, unless we intimately understand an issue we will never change it – and we will face the exact same crisis four years later.  Let’s not throw out hands up in the air or wait for someone else to change it.  Because, as too many in Turkey have recently discovered, if we wait it will soon be too late.

Advice to New Mothers [Abroad]

As we approach the 5th month, and our baby is actually starting to develop some independence and personality, I thought I’d write down a list of things I wish somebody had told me before I became a mother:

  1. The first three weeks will be exhausting. You will have doctor’s appointments, but try to minimize anything else on your schedule.  Just getting enough sleep will be a challenge. The best thing we did was go to an all-inclusive hotel in Antalya for 5 days when the baby was 2-3 weeks old.  For an entire five days we didn’t have to worry about cooking or cleaning up or taking care of any of our other stuff. We just let everything go and relaxed and actually felt like normal people and parents-who-could-handle-it-all by the end.
  2. Have compassion for your spouse.  They weren’t pregnant for nine months, and so, while you had  hormone changes gradually preparing you to become a parent over those three trimesters, everything is dropped on them at once.  Know that your baby will probably want to be fed every time they wake up at night, especially for the first few weeks.  Let your partner sleep – and then take care of the baby while you sleep (after feeding them) in the morning or when you need a nap in the afternoon.  Both of you being exhausted does nobody any good.
  3. Don’t expect to get a lot done.  For the first week, commit to having one good (nutritious, delicious) meal a day.  The second week commit to one good meal and one thing you want to do – some days this might just be taking a walk, or getting in a shower.  Later, add on exercise. Even at 4 months, I still can’t fit in a full schedule.  Some days it’s just exercising in the morning and one e-mail I want to write.
  4. Drop everything the moment your baby falls asleep and start doing whatever is most important for you to do that day immediately. Especially in the first few weeks you have no idea when they will wake up again. Don’t wash the dishes; don’t check the news. Take your shower or write your e-mail or do a yoga set or watch your movie or write your blog.
  5. Likewise, when your baby is awake, make sure your mind is clear enough that you can truly focus on her.  If you have to do something, involve her in doing it – even an observer can be an active, engaged observer. Don’t try to run around getting something done when your baby clearly needs a bit of attention. Sometimes all our daughter needs is two minutes – a hug, a few words, a tummy tickle or toe massage – and then she’s perfectly content to settle into the carrier while I go on getting whatever needs to be done done. But first – focused attention and affection.
  6. Don’t volunteer to do anything for anyone those first three weeks.  Be ‘selfish’ – let your sister-in-law cook dinner; don’t offer to pick up any one else’s groceries from the bazaar (but do take them up on their offer to watch the baby while you go to the bazaar!). Prepare food ahead of time and in bulk (like chop up a bunch of peppers for omelets and salads so you can throw a meal together in 5 minutes) and specifically tell other people not to eat it.  You might feel selfish doing it, but they will (most likely) understand, and this well outweighs the disappointment of opening the fridge when you feel frazzled and starving and exhausted and finding your food gone.
  7. Buy a sling or carrier that you can use immediately following birth.  I made the mistake of buying a carrier for 12 pounds+ and realized immediately that (as I am not Kyrgyz) I couldn’t just carry my baby everywhere in my arms or the stroller for the next 3 months, especially in the house.  I ordered a sling and a wrap online and suddenly found myself mobile – I could cook (without knives or stove of course), prepare to go out, move around the house – and my newborn was quite content being so close to me.
  8. Get out everyday.
  9. Carve out some time – even if it’s just a half an hour – every day where you aren’t primarily a parent.  Clear your mind so you can come back and focus. After my daughter was 3 weeks old I began teaching a few classes online while my mother-in-law watched her and, honestly, it was wonderful to have a real conversation with an adult who did not see me primarily as a parent (and didn’t have any advice about parenting or unsought comments on the way I was holding the baby or how many layers she should be wearing!).  I now get up at 6:20 because I know that I need to wake up before her if I want to get in exercise uninterrupted.  If you don’t want to (or, for the first few weeks/months, physically can not) get up earlier than your baby, get a babysitter or relative to watch her for a little bit while you read or write or take a walk or a long hot shower.
  10. Let your baby sleep.  When we came back to Kyrgyzstan (at 6 weeks) she started fussing around 8 pm every night.  And I mean alternative crying and breastfeeding for hours.  I couldn’t get her to sleep until 12, and even then it was often a long routine of rocking her in the sling, feeding, reading, music, and on and on and on.  Then I decided to start sleep training, set 8:30 as the arbitrary bedtime, determined we would turn off all but dim lights by then and lower our voices, and – BAM – she started falling asleep.  It turned out she was fussing because she was exhausted.  She didn’t need me to put her to sleep; she needed me to let her sleep.  Now we do pajamas and fresh diaper at 7; go to her room around 7:30 (and she doesn’t come out of her room until it’s time to wake up); go out on the balcony to say goodnight to the city; and then I put her on my lap to read and feed, and pop in the pacifier when she fusses.  It’s unusual for her to fall sound asleep after 8. If she’s fussing, we let her go to bed earlier. If she wakes up during the night I check on her, pop the pacifier back in, put my hand on her chest, and try to rock her back to sleep before picking her up to feed her.  Usually she falls back asleep within a few seconds.  I don’t talk to her and I don’t turn on the light as I don’t want to draw her attention and prevent her from falling back asleep.  I know parents here (and in Turkey) whose children don’t go to bed until near midnight.  That’s not normal. The kids need sleep, and the parents need some rest too. But with the lights and tv on, how are the kids supposed to mentally prepare for sleep?  If we’re out and she fusses from tiredness I just drape a scarf over her stroller or carseat to block out distractions and let her focus on falling asleep.  She’s usually napping within minutes, if not nanoseconds.
  11. Don’t assume that your baby “needs” anything beyond their actual baby needs – love, attention, nutrition, and a safe and hygienic environment.  When your baby is newborn it is impossible for them to have preferences.  They don’t need to be rocked to sleep, or held this way or that.  All of these are learned preferences. So instill your baby with sane preferences.  Kyrgyz women I’ve talked to generally believe that Kyrgyz babies need to be held cradled in the arms at all times, and that they don’t like to be set down.  I’ve had several marvel at how well my daughter does lying on her back or stomach, perfectly calm and observing us or playing with some toy.  Kygyz babies cry when put down because they’ve been trained to prefer being cradled.  It’s not like they have some different being-held-in-the-cradle-position-preference gene.
  12. Likewise, assume anything can be entertaining for your baby.  When they’re newborn they have no idea whether anything should be a ‘toy’ or ‘fun’ vs. ‘boring’.  If you need to take a shower, put them in a bouncer (on a skid-proof bathroom rug) in the bathroom and take a shower – while talking to them and playing ‘peek-a-boo’ with the shower curtain.  Until she was a bit bigger I put my daughter in the sling while making breakfast every morning, showing her and talking to her about what I was doing.  If your child it like mine, she also won’t begin to play with – or even show interest in – toys until past two months. She’s a baby.  Give her time.
  13. Take advice with a smile – and decide what to do with it in your own time.  If you’re really tire of hearing the same advice over and over again, google some scientific reason for refuting that advice (or, for the older generation more prone to giving outdated advice and less prone to googling its efficacy), feel free to make up your own scientific studies as grounds for not listening to said advice. When listening to mother-in-laws and other older relatives, treat their advice as you would that of a doctor with 20+ year’s experience – and a 10+ year lapse in their medical practice and professional training.
  14. It’s ok to say “no” or be a little pushy – as long as you’re polite and understand that people giving you that unwanted advice may be doing it out of genuine concern.  That Russian lady working at the [unpasteurized] cheese and salami stand at the market who told me to put a hat on my baby when it was 70F outside – and then tried to touch her head to see if she was cold (SALMONELLA!!!) – trying to be helpful. I found it useful to keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer on hand and offer it (ahem..squirt it on) anyone reaching for my daughter.  Sometimes just the sight of hand sanitizer makes people back away.
  15. Have something productive on hand – and not your phone!  There will be times when you’re holding your baby for 20 minutes (or more!) waiting for her to shift from dozing to deep sleep, or when you’re in the car (and someone else is driving).  It’s easy to waste time on your phone – but wasted time is dearly wasted time when you have so little extra.  Pick out something you want to read, or send a bunch of books or articles to your kindle.

The Balance Sheet/Expatcy

I realized today while reading a money blog post on calculating real wages while our little one was asleep (side note: doesn’t that always seem to happen, especially when you’re a new mother and have about 5 minutes to yourself during the day?! I start googling how long to put the chicken in the oven and end up reading a money blog through some tangent…and yet it always seems impossible to sit down and get to what I most want to do all day [which is why I’ve banned myself from my phone in the evening]…anyway) that the worth of being an expat could be measured in kind.  The author of said article argued that ‘real’ wages factor in a host of factors, everything that one incurs as a result of choosing that employment: commute, transportation, dress, extra spent on lunches and coffees, and that a ‘real’ value can be derived from adding up total hours and actual income after added expenses. He advocated using one’s ‘real hourly income’ as a tool for assessing whether or not a purchase was really of value to someone, but it struck me that being an expat can be looked at similarly. Is what we gain by being an expat equal to or greater than what we give up?  Or is it less?

Save one rather boring year in Foshan, the whole time I was in China I never questioned the value of my being there (in Foshan I had a well-paying but incredibly slow job, lived in a commercial-industrial region with good shops and restaurants but not much else, and didn’t really have any close or inspiring friends who weren’t away in Guangzhou; in fact, I contemplated moving to Guangzhou and making the hour commute just to be somewhere more interesting – but either way, I still knew I wanted to be in China). I thrived being in China.  Yes, it was stressful, and yes, I got sick from the pollution, and yes, most years I was underpaid and had to constantly worry about my budget.  But I loved it.  My experience there was infused with the sense that there was always something new to learn, always some new place to explore, an endless number of people to meet, always some aspect of society to research and discover, and a never-ending [but often rewarding] journey of learning Chinese.  The balance tipped far in China’s favor.

But in Bishkek…?

Does what we gain here outweigh what we give up, what other opportunities and experiences we would have had? When I put it like that, the answer is quite simple: no, for us it does not.

My husband’s job is stressful; I’ve struggled to find meaningful employment here that also pays a fair wage. I’m certainly not as interested in the culture as I was in China (it’s more a place I happen to be than intended to be). I miss good, healthy food – especially in the six months between seasons.  The weather isn’t great (it’s not even November and it’s already snowed four times). Traffic is even worse, and the drivers can be rude (which adds to the stress of living in the city). We don’t have a solid circle of friends.  Most of all I miss intangible cultural opportunities – bike trails and music festivals or films in the park, good places to go on a rainy Saturday afternoon like museums and libraries and concerts and theater. And these are all things I feel we had/could have in Turkey (except for the whole economic-political instability bit over there now) and could create or find in the US without losing a lot.  And that’s the clincher – I can’t think of what we will lose once we leave Bishkek.  There’s no one thing that I think I will miss especially.

I wouldn’t say that looking at our experience here this way makes me feel bitter; rather, it’s relieving to be able to look at it in a manner so clear and simple.