Sunday, November 30, 2014

Walking in a Kyrgyz Wonderland (Or Trying to Anyway)

Well, it's been about two weeks for the ATKs in Kyrgyzstan and life has sort of settled into a typical routine. We've moved out of the Hyatt and into our apartment (which oddly has three stoves) and though we haven't received our belongings yet, we've managed to settle in.  It has been nice being able to grocery shop and cook for ourselves (on one of our many stoves).

It also has started to snow. Yep, winter is officially here.

A statue on the first snowy day

When we first arrived it was 50 degrees and sunny. I was pleasantly surprised, because that seemed to be about the temperature we were experiencing in Northern Alabama and about 20 degrees warmer than the weather in Wisconsin.  I had heard so much about the brutal Kyrgyz winters and it was so nice that, of course, I went and wrote about it. I'm fairly sure that jinxed it, because shortly thereafter it rained, and then eventually snowed. Still, the snow fall was pretty and it wasn't anything crazy like what was happening in Buffalo, which I believe was happening at about the same time. There hasn't been any wind, which means there is no drifting and so it is still pretty easy to walk around.  Also, the weather is generally around 30 during the day (not bad at all) and gets into the teens at night.

Unfortunately with the pretty snow comes the glare ice.  They don't seem to salt or plow or shovel so the sidewalks and streets are in, well, less than ideal conditions, shall we say.  The thing is, during the day the ice starts to melt and then at night is refreezes. It gets very slick. See?
Mr. ATK stands on the glistening winter sidewalk outside out apartment
Luckily, Mr. ATK and I brought Yak Trax with us, so we haven't had an issue. Mainly, I'm really impressed by the Kyrgyz people walking on this stuff in regular shoes, and even in heels.  I even saw a guy running the other day.  Amazingly, he did not bite it.

So, basically, that's the report on early winter. I don't anticipate that it will stay this pleasant, but I can enjoy it for now. Oh, the heat in our apartment has kicked in and since we cannot control it--it's radiant heat which the city turns on and off on set dates--it's, like, 90 degrees in our apartment. It's very toasty. We were actually instructed not to use the air conditioner if we get too hot. Instead, we should open a window.  I can't believe someone has actually done that, but they must have, or we wouldn't have been pointedly told not to.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Phallocentrism of Hindi

Well, two years in India have passed and now my adventures in Hindi classes have come to an end.

Full disclosure: I am terrible at Hindi. It's a very difficult language. I've picked some up, but not as much as I probably should have. I don't really study like I should and I didn't make much of an effort to practice, so my lack of progress is not really surprising

The one thing I noticed though, during these two years of classes is that everything centers around men. Seriously. Everything. It can be absolutely infuriating.

You probably think I'm exaggerating. Or that I'm pulling some crazy feminist bullshit. Ok, Derrida, you're probably thinking, How can a language be male? This is just more of that feminist, deconstructionist, postmodern, critical theory crap. Next you'll be telling me a wall isn't really a wall.

First of all, no, I will not be telling you a wall isn't a wall. Second, I'm not even going to get into all stuff about gendered nouns and how masculine nouns are big things and feminine nouns are small things. I'm not quibbling about the insidiousness of words like "history" or "woman" or whatever. I'm talking about the blatant things that make me go, "Really?"

I suppose before I really start complaining I should acknowledge that the context probably plays a role in my frustration. If I were learning Hindi in a university class, perhaps I would not get so agitated. I think it's the situation in the classroom that bothers me. I studied other languages in college and never felt oppressed by The Man. (Okay, I don't feel oppressed per se.) But Spanish, Italian, and French (all languages I studied academically) are very gendered and I imagine the feminist/deconstructionist crowd would say they are all "utterly and irredeemably male-engendered, male-constituted, and male-dominated in all their features." While I can see that argument, I didn't particularly feel it. Except for the primacy of masculine adjectives for mixed gendered groups. Like, if you have ten people and 9 are women and 1 is a man, all the adjectives describing the group will be masculine because, you know, despite the fact that 90% of the group is feminine, the guys are more better and more important-er or something. I remember feminist buttons being mildly poked by that in eighth grade.

So, as I was saying, context.

Well, first of all our Hindi class is just me and Mr. ATK and a (male) teacher. Everyday, as we wait for the class before us to end, Mr. ATK and I sit in a little lobby area outside the classroom. And everyday after he dismisses the class that precedes ours, he says, "Namaste*, Mr. ATK-ji.** Please come into class." Now do you see anything missing from that greeting? Because I do. I am missing from that greeting. Yes, 95% of the time when the teacher greets us and invites us into class, he does not address me. At first I thought it was an oversight. But then it kept happening. Of course, Mr. ATK did not notice. One day I mentioned it to him and muttered, "One of these days I'm just going to stay sitting out here until he invites me into class too." And Mr. ATK looked at me like I was nuts. Then sure enough, the teacher comes out and does the whole, "Namaste, Mr. ATK-ji" routine.  I can only assume it's because I am simply an appendage of Mr. ATK, being his wife and all. As such, it is not offensive because by addressing Mr. ATK he is also addressing me, because I am a subsidiary of Mr. ATK. You know, woman--cleaved from man's rib and all that jazz. I can only assume that's his logic. Either that or he is being blatantly rude. Or both. I suppose they are not mutually exclusive.

The second issue that chafes me is the aap/tum distinction. Like many languages (all the romance languages for example) Hindi has two different words for the pronoun "you." Aap is formal and tum is informal. So you should use aap when addressing people older than you, people in a higher position than you, strangers (for the most part). And apparently husbands. Tum works for addressing peers, children, friends, people younger than you. And apparently wives. You can probably see where this is going. Every time I address Mr. ATK in class using tum instead of aap, I get corrected. Even when I refer to Mr. ATK in the third person (i.e. talking about him instead of to him) I get corrected if I don't use formal language. That's just to refer to him. Of course, he is allowed to call me tum all he wants. He doesn't get corrected. I would also like to point out that I'm older than Mr. ATK. Respect your elders! I've decided that I am no longer going to call him aap. I said, "Listen, I love you and respect you, but this is bullshit." Fight the power!*

The third thing that really riled me up was when we were learning the vocabulary for family the teacher would only ask questions about Mr. ATK's family. Like, okay, we are married so they are my family, too, (and a wonderful family they are! Hi MamaTK-in-law!) but it's really weird to be only asked questions about your in-laws. Class would go something like this, "Mr. ATK-ji, tell me about your father." Mr. ATK would oblige. Then he'd turn to me and say, "ATK, tell me about your mother-in-law."  Um, okay. Then I'd say glowing things about MamaTK-in-law (Hi!)  Then he'd turn back to Mr. ATK and ask about his brother or mother or father's older brother or something. Then he'd ask me about my in-laws some more.

Him: "Tell me about your brother-in-law."

Me: "I haven't met my brother-in-law."

Him: "Well, tell me something you know about him."

Me: "He lives in Texas."

Him: "Tell me about your sister-in-law."

Me: "I've never met her, either. I have a cousin I could talk about."

Him: "Well, just tell me something."

Me: "She's a teacher."

Him: "Tell me about your mother-in-law."

Me: "You already asked me about my mother-in-law! Why don't you ask me about my actual mother?"

Him: "Because once a girl gets married her mother-in-law is the most important person in her life. Her own mother is not important any more."

Me: Massive eye roll

Him: "Okay. Well tell me about your mother's older brother."

Me: "My mother doesn't have an older brother. She has a younger sister, though."

Him: "Oh. Well, tell me about your grandfather-in-law then."

Me: Head explodes

The primacy of the male relatives is just astounding. Even when he asked about my blood relatives--which I basically forced him to do--he would only ask about men. Preferably men on my father's side. And when he would ask about a relation that didn't exist--father's older brother, for example; I don't have one of those--if I said, "Oh my dad doesn't have an older brother, he has an older sister." He would totally change the question to ask about some other male family member, instead of doing the normal thing which would be to say, "Oh, well then tell me about your father's older sister."  He did this to Mr. ATK, too. "Tell me about your mother's older brother." Mr. ATK would reply, "My mother doesn't have any brothers. She has two older sisters." And then he would be like, "Well then tell me about your brother." For the 800th time. Seriously, what the eff is up with that? Is it not important to learn vocabulary to describe female family members?

The thing is, is that my family is kinda female-centric. I like to call them the coven. There aren't a lot of guys. There are some, but there are also lots of divorced women. And it's great, I love them all to pieces and, you know, they do their own thing. Good for them. But it's really annoying to basically be excluded from a class discussion because you can't discuss the specific relations the teacher is asking about. And when you try to offer up a suggestion of a person you could talk about, he's like, "Ew, I can't even pretend to feign interest in anything you could possibly tell me about those people. You know I heard their periods attract bears."

Anyways, so we went through this for a few days. He'd say, "Tell me about your father's older brother." I'd say, "My dad doesn't have an older brother; he has an older sister. He has a younger brother though." and then he'd say, "Tell me about your dad's younger brother." And I'd say, "WHY DON'T YOU WANT TO KNOW ABOUT MY DAD'S OLDER SISTER?! HER NAME IS ALICE AND SHE IS AWESOME!" So frustrating.

Here's the interesting thing about family vocabulary in Hindi--they have a different word for every single relationship. In English we have grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, cousin, niece, nephew... you know, the words we use to describe family members. But they are generic terms, really. In Hindi, every person has a different word. For example, let's go with uncle. Your father's brothers (both older and younger) are your uncles. Your mother's brothers (again, both older and younger) are also your uncles. Your parents' sisters husbands are your uncles, too. In Hindi, they use different words to describe each of those relationships. In my opinion, it seems like a lot of extraneous words to remember, but on the other hand, you don't need to use clarifying language ever to explain how someone is related to you. Native Hindi speakers will also point out how in English we use the same words to describe completely different relationships. For example, your sister-in-law could be your brother's wife, or your spouse's sister. The relationships are really totally different. I guess. That's what they say, anyways.

It's also interesting because there are more words to describe male relatives than female ones, especially when you are talking about your husband's relatives (in-laws) and paternal relatives. So there is a word for father's older brother (tau) and father's younger brother (chacha), but only one word for father's sister (bua/phhuphi). I guess we don't care if women are younger or older than men in Hindi. On the maternal side, there is a word for mother's brother (mama--that one gets confusing!) but no distinction between older or younger brother. Only one word for mother's sister, too. I honestly can't get into all these words. It's pretty intense. Check out this page and scroll down to where it talks about aunts and uncles. Husband's elder brother's son? That's its own special word! Bananas, I tells ya. Absolute bananas!

But, you know, they say the Eskimos have a hundred different words for snow and the Japanese have a hundred different words for love, so why not have five different words for uncle? No one will never need to follow up with the old, "How is he your uncle?" question. And I think it just shows how important family, the whole gigantic collective family, not just the nuclear family, is in Indian culture. 

I suppose upon reflect, my main issues with Hindi were with my misogynist teacher more so than the language. Though the thing with the male family members vis a vis female family members is fascinating to me. Can a language be inherently sexist? Or is it the way we use the language that makes it sexist? Or is language just a reflection of cultural values and changes along side them? Mind. Blown. Right? So many deep questions to ponder.  I do think there is something to the family vocabulary. I find it really interesting that hierarchical male familial relationships are really important. Who the oldest brother is is pretty important. The teacher would make these blanket statements like, "The wife and husband's youngest brother relationship is a very special relationship." I don't know if he was just making stuff up or oversimplifying or what, but that seems incredibly particular. Granted, Mr. ATK doesn't have a little brother so I will never be able to experience this relationship to see if, in fact, it is very special.  I don't see why it would inherently be more special. Maybe in the Indian context, but not in my world. Perhaps I should ask both my husband and my sister-in-law to see where their relationship lands on the "special meter."

*Addendum: Interesting follow up to add to this--So Russian also has formal/informal "you" (Вы/Ты) and in Russian class we use the formal you (Вы) about 90% of the time, because, you know, we are professional colleagues (or the people that actually work for the State Department are professional colleagues), and it is customary to address teachers with the formal you.  Also, if you are going to get into a habit of only using one form of "you," it's always better to be overly formal than offend someone by being informal.  Anyways, I would talk about Mr. ATK and when relaying our conversations I would instinctively use Вы because it is simply the form I am more comfortable using. Well, hilariously (to me anyway) unlike Hindi, my Russian teachers would correct me because why would you use formal language to address your husband? That's silly. Then I would laugh and relay to them my struggles with aap and tum and how the teacher always corrected me when I addressed my husband informally and how angry it made me.  They thought it was bizarre and though it is a completely different culture and language, I felt strangely vindicated by that.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The ATKs' Kyrgyz adventure begins!

The title of this post is a direct rip off of a recently discovered blog on life in Kyrgyzstan. Some would call it a classic; perhaps even a masterpiece. That blog is Jonathan's Kyrgyz Adventure. You read that right. Apparently, Mr. ATK had his own blog back in the aughts, which he never mentioned, despite writing, like, 50 posts! He was quite prolific for about a year. This tells me that his Peace Corps site had internet... so really it was more like "Posh Corps." But check it out if you are so inclined. I liked the one where he asked readers to submit possible names for a new calf. The name "Dwight K. Schrute" ended up winning (so topical!), but I prefer "Pork Chop" which came in second place (or was the second runner up, I guess.)

So on to my first impressions...

1. The City
It's very square. The city is a total grid (bless you, Soviet planning!) No wandering through winding backstreets try to figure out where you are. (I'm looking at you Old Delhi!) The buildings are all very square too. Again, Soviet architecture. Function over form I guess. From what I understand the Kyrgyz were nomadic people before the czar and his troops came to town and made, well, the town. As a result there are very few "old" buildings. Everything looks like it's from 1950.
The Kyrgyz White House, the seat of the Executive branch. It's not quite a square, but you get what I'm saying.

2. People
Well, it is not crowded. I think there are only around 5 million people in the whole country and maybe around a million of them here in Bishkek (though I don't know where they are.) This is obviously quite different than India, where they would refer to a town of a million as a "small village." I kid you not. When I told my Indian co-workers we would be going to a country with only 5 million people, they laughed and said there were more people in Defence Colony (our neighborhood in New Delhi.)
I actually have no idea what this building is, but see how there are no people? On this large plaza?  Those are the Tien Shan mountains in the background, FYI.

3. Roads
 Lots of statues and giant tree-lined boulevards. Bishkek is very walkable--likely because of the previous mentioned observations. It's a  nice grid, with nice sidewalks, and very few people on them. Mr. ATK and I have walked all over town. Lots of plazas with statues in the middle of them. Except for the giant statue of Lenin, Mr. ATK has not been very helpful in identifying who these people are.
Привет, Господин Ленин!

The cars can be a bit overzealous at times, but there are so few of them that I'm not terribly worried. I, of course, practice pedestrian safety, you know, looking both ways before crossing the street and all that, but I just don't think the traffic is that bad. There is way more traffic in India (shocking!) and La Paz (Bolivia, for the geography-impaired). There is at least 500% less honking here than in India. (Remember Beep beep, Beep beep, YEAH!? Well, there is none of that here.) It could be that the traffic doesn't seem so bad because of those giant Soviet roads. I mean, La Paz isn't a huge city, but it is a colonial one with tiny colonial streets. Cars + colonial streets = No fun driving.
Doesn't this look like a nice boulevard to walk along? There are, like, tons of these around town.
4. Restaurants
There are no American chain restaurants of any kind here, as far as I can tell. Except for one TGI Friday's sign. But that doesn't seem to actually be attached to a restaurant.

See? Just a sign on the corner

Still, there seem to be quite a few decent restaurants, including one with a menu by Gordon Ramsey. (I actually think that is true since word on the street is that Ramsey was here on one of those cultural diplomacy trips not to long ago. Though I can't see to find any information about it online, so who knows?) There are a surprising number of sushi places for a landlocked country with suspect cold chain storage. Oh, there is also a place called "Obama Grill." I assume it has no affiliation with the actual President Obama of the U.S.A. You can take a picture with his cardboard cut-out, if you are so inclined.

Yep, the Obama grill is actually a thing.

Gordon Ramsey at the Bellagio. No, not the one in Las Vegas.

5. Food.
The food is very meat based. Mr. ATK had mentioned this many times before we arrived, so it's not that surprising, but it's worth mentioning, I think. Vegetables are not standard nomadic fare, I guess. (Hard to cultivate food if you are always on the go, ya know?) It also seems to be a very dumpling-based culture. There are these dumplings called manti that are quite tasty.  Mr. ATK informs me that because of the nomadic culture, all true Kyrgyz food is meant to be eaten with one's hands. Whenever I pointed out an exception, he's like, "That's Uzbek food." They are also very big on nuts and dried fruits, which is awesome. I guess you can just pick those wherever you find them. I can tell what I'll be eating on Meatless Mondays.

Nuts and dried fruits at the market.
6. Weather
So far, so good. It was about 55 degrees yesterday. It reminded me of our last few days in Guntersville, Alabama. Mornings and evening are in the high 30s. Frankly, I think it's nicer here than in Wisconsin right now. Sunny days and clear blue skies. It had snowed before we arrived, but that all melted. I imagine this will get worse as we get farther into winter, but for right now, I couldn't ask for better weather.

7. Miscellany 
The squirrels here have rabbit ears! Look at this thing-

Rabbit squirrel!
Crazy, right?

Well, I think this is enough for now. As a parting gift, I'd like to leave you with this video, Jalpak Tash: A Kyrgyzstan Epic. It was made by North Face about back country skiing here, but it's pretty interesting and shows the beautiful landscape. I hope to do some skiing while we are here, but, uh, the stuff they are doing looks a little intense. I'm trying to find a place with chair lifts.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ugh, Frankfurt is the worst

Welcome back!

The ATKs are back in Asia! Central this time, not South. But still... So now I've lived in East Asia (Korea) and South Asia (India) and Central Asia (Bishkek). I guess that just leaves North Asia (is that Siberia?) and West Asia (I think that's called the Middle East.) So we've got a couple of boxes to check off there, though not sure how excited I am to live in Siberia. (Of course, I think Siberia is really just the term for all of Russia west of the Urals, so it's not exactly the Dr. Zhivago-esque freezing hellscape that I picture in my head. Still, I think it's cold there.)

So, I know you are all curious to know about the ins and out of Bishkek. Since I've only been here for less than 24 hours, I can't really give you that. But I can give you my first impressions... in a different post. In this post I am going to bitch about the Frankfurt airport.