Sunday, December 18, 2005

Desensitation to death

One morning this week, as I exited my apartment on my way to work, I saw a man lying motionless next to the garbage bins. He was on the frozen ground, covering with a blanket of livid sky. He had the appearance of a drunk – the dark, worn clothing, the unkempt appearance, the loneliness of an aging man alone. But in my passing glance, his open mouth seemed exceptionally still, his outreached hand frozen in place.

I have to admit that I did nothing. I felt the requisite guilt as I continued walking and knew it was a terrible state when nobody helped someone in that condition. A lame excuse it may have been, but there was a local woman sweeping around the garbage bins, just a foot or two from his body, and she didn’t seem to pay any attention. Nor did any of the passerbys. So what should I, a foreigner do – without any medical skills, without knowing any emergency numbers.

I wondered how much of the lack of reaction had to do with his appearance. A lot, I supposed. I hoped that if I were lying next to a garbage bin, someone would stop. And I felt I’d do the same for someone who looked as though they’d found themselves there against their will. But who can really tell in the case of a low-income aging man? Most assume it’s a drunk and walk on.

Yesterday I held a holiday dinner for my local friends. Not wanting people to separate into groups due to language, I decided to invite almost only locals (plus one foreign colleague fluent in Russian), planning a separate event for foreigners in the future. I ended up with a group of almost fifteen people – Kyrgyz, Russian and Kazakh, including four children, from four months to nine years old.

I made a dish I’d learned from my roommate in Siberia – French meat (beef covered with potatoes, onions, carrots, sweet corn, mushrooms, mayonnaise and cheese), homemade peanut butter cookies, and fruit salad. I bought roasted chickens and premade vegetable salads and set out dried fruit, nuts and lepushka. For dessert, I made an apple cobbler.

We gathered around a table in the living room, listening to Christmas music CDs on my laptop computer and a little two dollar Christmas tree serving as the holiday decorations.

Though I was short on space and supplies (I asked most if they could bring their own plate and cup), it was a pleasant evening. Most seemed to enjoy the chance to meet each other and they stayed for several hours. Both the toddler and the nine-year-old told their parents they wanted to stay the night at my place, despite my complete lack of any toys.

They also seemed to like the food and praised the effort I put into it.

“You are not American,” said Svetlana, who has a baby with an American man. “Americans can’t cook. They don’t have any time for such things.”

I did spend the entire day on Saturday preparing. But I didn’t mind. Having sat down at so many plentiful tables as a guest, it was nice to finally be the host. And it was good to be reminded that despite the loneliness of living alone in Bishkek, I do have the gift of several wonderful friends and acquaintances.

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