Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Surprise Chicken Dinner

On Friday morning, Baktigul, our office manager, asked if I wanted her kill a chicken for dinner.

“We still have 12 and the feed isn’t worth the cost of keeping them,” she said. “We could kill one and have a soup in the office tonight.”

“Fine,” I said. I didn’t care too much either way.

When I returned to the office after the meeting, she opened the door holding a goosebumped, defeathered chicken corpse in her hand. The neighbor, Valentina, a middle-aged woman who works part-time as the cleaner and security guard, was helping her.

“The problem is that the electricity is still out and it takes a lot of gas to boil water with the generator,” Baktigul said. “So we’re waiting for the electricity to come back on, though it means dinner might be late.”

“OK, whatever,” I said, feeling this was definitely not an area for me to intervene.

When I took Malan to a meeting, Baktigul made arrangements with him to pick up some vegetables on the way back. A while later she called me.

“Do you want to invite your family to the office to eat?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said, continuing to go along with the plan. If she thought there would be enough for an extra five people, fine.

When I returned in the evening, I brought some salads, fruit and pastries I’d picked up on the way. I found a large table set with a white lace tablecloth. A warm aroma of boiling broth filled the air. Malan diced dill and cilantro while Valentina and Baktigul completed the finishing touches, setting out the boxes of juice and round, yeasty lepushkas Malan brought.

By the time the family filed in the door, it looked as nice as a restaurant banquet. Baktigul set a plate of boiled potatoes and carrots in the center. Another plate held the chicken, cut into small pieces. We each received a steaming bowl of broth, into which we could put whatever we wanted. There was grated carrot salad, a red bean and onion salad, a cabbage salad, and a salad with grated beets, walnuts and mayonnaise. We had a chocolate-covered wafer cake, a selection of chocolate cookies, and bow-shaped pastries filled with cottage cheese and apples.

After all that work, the chicken turned out a little rubbery. But everything else was delicious. And best of all was the conversation. Me, Malan, Baktigul, Valentina, Nigora, Shavkat, Lutfulo, Habib and Faruh sat at the table for three hours laughing and chatting.

Valentina, who appears Russian, has a son, daughter-in-law and grandson in Moscow. She and her husband would like to move to Moscow, but can’t sell their house for enough money to buy a flat in Russia. Her son’s wife is Kyrgyz and the girl’s parents had been against the marriage because they wanted her to marry a Kyrgyz.

Baktigul, a Kyrgyz, is facing the same problem. She has a Tatar boyfriend whom she hopes to marry next year. But her parents are against it because of his ethnicity.

In the U.S., attention is usually focused on racism, overt or subconscious, among Caucasians. But I don’t hear much about racism coming from other ethnic groups, though it can be just as common and virulent.

“The Kyrgyz don’t think of it as racism,” Baktigul told me, “but tradition.”

Valentina agreed. “Whatever ethnic group a woman marries into, that becomes her group and she’s expected to adopt their customs and traditions, losing her own.”

She said it got so bad with her son that the girl’s relatives beat him up. I don’t know how they eventually went through with the wedding.

“Maybe our children will be free to choose their own spouses and for their ethnicity not to matter,” Baktigul said. “But today, it’s still the parents who make the decision.” I couldn’t help crossing my fingers that she’d find a way to marry the person she loved, and not give him up because of the group he was born in to.

“The Uzbeks are even worse than the Kyrgyz in trying to keep their children within their ethnic group,” Nigora, an Uzbek, said. “But all of us, if we look far enough back, are all mixed to a certain extent. My family is mixed with the Uighurs.”

“And I’m Arab!” Malan, an Uzbek, said, pointing to his chest with pride.

We talked about the people we knew, the news we’d heard, about the development and future of the city. We gossiped, debated and laughed until 9:30, which tends to feel like midnight in winter Osh.

I returned home with the family in their little white Tico, which feels like riding in a tiny plastic model car. They gave me the front seat. Nigora and the three boys somehow squeezed into the back, which comfortably seats two. We puttered along the bumpy, dark streets to home. Laying in bed, near the warmth of my coal fire, I looked forward to a calm, quiet, weekend.

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