Monday, September 19, 2005

a wedding

I ended my weekend with my first wedding of this fall. I received the invitation only the night before. My friend Asel was getting married.

We’d met one evening last fall at a bus stop. She was carrying her belongings wrapped in blankets and there were no buses in sight. I got a taxi for all of us.

After that, we met several times. She showed me the central and holy Osh mountain, Souleymane, and she helped my boyfriend make a turkey for a Thanksgiving celebration.

When she applied for a job with my organization, she made it to the third round, then was rejected by the local interviewers. They were too afraid that she didn’t understand the separation between work and family relations and that she would try to use her position to get services for her family members.

“Kyrgyz have that in them,” Nigora said. “Uzbeks are different. After two generations we are already distant from each other. But Kyrgyz can be nine or ten times removed and still consider themselves relatives. They really retain their clans. And that is why have all these little wars, between Akaev’s clan and Bakiev’s clan, north and south.”

She said that when people ask her for help, they know that she will help if she can. “And if I can’t,” she said, “I say no.”

“And they don’t get offended?” I asked.

“No. Recently a neighbor asked me if you could help them get credit. I told them that you couldn’t help, you just give consultations. And he understood.”

Asel called me after the interview to tell me that she’d been nervous and she was afraid she’d answered the questions wrong.

When she was rejected, she seemed to think that I would have helped her get the job. I explained that I purposely removed myself from participation, since I knew her, and that the locals made the decision.

Since then, several months ago, we hadn’t had any communications, until I suddenly received this last minute wedding invitation.

So I walked to the restaurant near my home where the wedding was being held. She comes from a rural family, makes a tiny salary as a university English teacher, and lived very simply in a student dormitory. So I expected a humble wedding.

I was surprised to walk into the smoky, vast room and see at least a few hundred well-dressed guests. On the far side of the room, I could see her, her bridesmaid, groom and best man standing at the head table. Behind them, multicolored lights flashed, as though they were inside a pinball game. A group of about 25 people stood near me, passing around the microphone and making toasts as they presented their gift.

People come up in groups, by family, coworkers, group of friends and jointly give speeches, toasts and sing songs. They then present their gift (often given as a group and often flowers, money or carpets), walking across the empty central area to the accompaniment of upbeat music. After the presenters kiss and congratulate the bride and groom, they begin dancing. Others join for a song or two, then the next group of speech-givers rises. While speeches are being given the wedding party has to stand. Watching the four of them stand wooden-like during the interminable speech, I wondered if Kyrgyz weddings were much fun at all for those getting married.

I went to greet Asel. She looked beautiful in her white dress, with a low-cut neckline and a pearl necklace. Her husband was tall, slender, and attractive. He wore a black suit and a tall, white Kyrgyz hat (kalpak). He had several gold teeth that glittered when he smiled.

I was hoping I could quietly hand her my gift and not have to stand in front of hundreds of people and make a speech, as is usually done. But one of the first things out of her mouth was, “Could you please say some words in English. I would like everyone to know that there is a foreigner here.”

I couldn’t help but feel as though that was the purpose of my presence, to show off a foreigner at her wedding. But if what she wanted on her wedding day was a speech in English, I’d give it to her.

They sat me a table with her colleagues, mostly English speakers. At least several times they repeated the request – could you please give a speech in English? They assigned one of them to translate it, though I could have translated it myself. But it gave another person a chance to look good.

So when the group of colleagues was called up the microphone, I went with them. First an older women spoke in Kyrgyz. I could understand that she introduced me as an American.

I took the microphone and said in Russian that the bride asked me to speak a few words in English, so I’d do so, and the woman next to me would translate. I then began my little toast, talking about how we’d met and wishing them all the good things people wish each other at weddings. Not long after I began speaking, people began to mutter. They couldn’t understand anything and there was no point in listening. So I spoke faster to get it over with.

After we presented our gifts, we had to dance. The videocameras zoomed in on me. I’m always nervous in front of videocameras, but especially at foreign weddings. I just imagine how people will replay the tape and point out the weird foreigner who was at their wedding.

While we were dancing, a Kyrgyz woman approached me with breath that smelled of mutton. “I’m Asel’s mom,” she said, with evident pride.

I tried to leave as inconspicuously as possible, but a relative of Asel’s followed me and told me that I couldn’t leave without food. It would be offensive to them. So I waited while he went back in and filled a plastic bag with lepushka (the round, local bread), pistachios, candies, grapes, apples and several hunks of meat.

At home, I asked Nigora if it was usual to send people home with meat. It’s considered expensive for local standards. “Yes, for the most honored guests, usually they will include meat,” she said.

No comments: