Saturday, September 04, 2004

going further afield

September 4, 2004

This week I had the opportunity to get out of the city center see better how people lived. I visited a woman who lived in a two-room dormitory. She and her children slept on the floor in one room while she used the second room as a bakery, producing and selling cookies, rolls and buns. There were almost no possessions in the room they lived in – just a TV, a cabinet and some rugs to sleep on. I visited a better-off woman who converted a room of her home into a sewing factory. When I visited, a woman was sewing clothing out of a cheap black fabric with gold embroidery while a man ironed the products, the steam rising from the table each time he pressed down. She sells the clothing at a local market, where they are frequently bought by Russians and Chinese for resale in their countries.

I visited a café at a local market where the owner spent all her profits helping others, sending money to various relatives who needed it, selling food at a discount to poor market workers, and allowing a long list of people to eat in her café on credit.

Yesterday I had a long talk with an auto mechanic, who told me about his dissatisfaction with the government, its leaders and the Kyrgyz people themselves. He told me that he watches BBC in order to get the truth. “Our local channels tell us that everything is good, but I see with my own eyes that it’s not. If anything, we’re regressing,” he said.

He told me an anecdote:

One day a man who had lived very well and did everything right died. He went to heaven, but on the way he passed by hell and saw everyone dancing and drinking. Great, he thought, heaven should be even better than this. But when he got to heaven, he saw that everyone was quiet, polite and reserved. Why did I come to heaven for this, he wondered. I’ve already lived in this atmosphere. I’d rather be in hell. So he asked to go to hell and was told he’d have to get permission from God. He made his case to God and got the document, then went to hell. When he arrived, he found a terrible place, where people were beating and killing each other. I don’t want to be here, he said. I belong in heaven and want to go back there. No, the devil said, your papers say you should be here. He wouldn’t let him go. So the man asked another man nearby: What happened? When I came by here last I saw people drinking and dancing. What has happened since then? Oh, the other man replied, that was just an advertisement.

“And that’s what our government does,” the auto mechanic said, laughing, “they made an advertisement. They say all the right things, but then they don’t do anything.”

From these initial glimpses I’m seeing that the quality of life is quite low, with many earning between one and two dollars a day for a full day’s work, sleeping on the floor, and struggling to make ends meet. I’m also seeing that the phenomenon so common in developing countries, that of close family networks, seems to be very important here as well. On the positive side, it functions as a social security system. If you need help, you can count on your relatives to provide it. On the down side, it is a real barrier to the formation of a middle class. If someone happens to be entrepreneurial, smart or just lucky and they come into money, it’s difficult for them to invest the money and make it grow. Near and distant relatives in need, some truly in dire straits, others just lazy, will ask for assistance and a good family member is obligated to assist.

The auto mechanic, who now lives in a small home with an attached garage made of mud and straw, told me that he used to have a large house. “When I sold it, everyone needed money and I ended up giving almost all of it away,” he said.

As a result, I began to feel conspicuously wealthy and privileged in comparison and of course, that made me uncomfortable. The evening after I met the baker, both saddened and inspired by her struggle to adjust to a new economy, I tried to turn on my own oven for the first time. I repeated what I thought I remembered my landlady showing me. But as I held the match to the gas, I heard a small explosion and jumped back in shock, grateful that I hadn’t been burned. Only a bit later, when I ran my fingers through my bangs and felt a texture like straw did I look in the mirror and see that I’d singed my eyelashes, eyebrows and hair, just like in the cartoons. Even in a higher-end apartment, simple tasks can be a struggle.

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