Sunday, February 25, 2007

Those who will be staying

Yesterday I went to my eastern dance class for the last time. I really like my teacher, Albina. She is 20 years old and full of confidence. In addition to her studies, she teaches eastern dance and cardio strip-tease at a fitness club. In the evenings, she dances at clubs and casinos.

She seemed sad at my going. “Just when you get used to someone, they take up and leave,” she said. “But I guess that’s the way things go.”

During a break in the lesson, she told me her doubts about Kyrgyzstan.

“During the revolution, we’d gone to visit a friend who lived in the center. I saw on TV how they were looting, and then went outside and saw them. I saw people carrying armchairs, right on their back. And afterwards, at the university, cell phones were being sold for 100 or 200 som ($2.50 to $5). I didn’t buy one. Maybe I was raised differently, but I couldn’t buy something just because it was cheap, knowing it had been taken from someone who made an investment in Kyrgyzstan and lost so much.”

She called the protestors on the square, during the November uncertainties. “I went to the square and I saw people sitting in tents and drinking. They were there just because they were being paid – 200, 500 or 1000 som per day, depending on how long they stayed – and they got some free food. I looked at them and I wondered what country I live in. So now we have a parliamentary democracy rather than a presidential. What does that mean?”

She said she likes President Bakiyev, that she has the sense that is trying to get something done. “And as for corruption, everyone steals,” she said. She mentioned how Akaev has $8 million in dollars in foreign bank accounts and that actions to retrieve that money have been stopped. “So what he stole from the country will stay with him, and will last for generations,” she said.

She said that Akaev was known to be a good scientist and a good profession, but she doesn’t know what happened when he got into office. And she said she didn’t know what happened to his son, Aidar. She told me that Aidar would come into nightclubs, drunk and breaking bottles. He’d point at the girls he wanted. If they didn’t stay to serve his wishes, he’d use his connections to kill them. She told me how she was dancing in the Cowboy Club one night and someone warned her that Aidar had come in.

“They told me to leave,” she said. “And the whole club cleared out. We hear that Bakiyev’s son Maxim is starting to go around with an attitude. And we hear that he recently bought a factory. They are probably starting to accumulate property, but our newspapers don’t talk about this openly, so no one knows. But at least we don’t see Maxim, at least we don’t hear about him going around drunk and causing problems.”

Then she started to think out loud about the alternatives. “There is always Almaty, where there is a higher standard of living. And a lot of people have left for there, but it’s expensive. The Russians are an evil people. Moscow is the most expensive city in the world and St. Petersburg isn’t far behind. And then beyond those cities, you have such a problem with drinking. They drink so much they are dying off. The demographic problem comes from that. As a result, Putin is inviting anybody to come be a citizen. But even if I’m Russian ethnicity, they will always look at me as a Kyrgyz because I come from Kyrgyzstan.”

And then her thoughts moved to outside the Soviet Union. “To go somewhere like Europe or America costs a lot,” she said. “I hear a U.S. visa costs $2500. And to go to those places, it’s hard if you don’t know anyone. You show up and say take me please.”

She stood upright, shoulders slumped forward, a sad look in her eyes, imagining herself as refuge without a home.

“And of course you have to be ready to leave everything and everyone.”

It didn’t seem like she’d be going anywhere anytime soon. She I reassured her that I thought Kyrgyzstan had a lot of potential and that in ten years it would probably be a completely different place, largely in part to the young people like her who would change things.

“In 10 years I’ll be 30,” she said, with a look that seemed to mean that was so old that nothing would matter any more. “I’ll probably be married by then.”

Albina is staying by choice. My friend Gulnara was tied down here by her mother and the force of tradition. When I first came to Kyrgyzstan and met her, she was young, intelligent, pursuing her MBA, and eager to pursue opportunities overseas. She’s now married, has been sitting at home for the past 1.5 years with a child, and is expecting a second, which will keep her at home for at least another year or two.

She seems to regret her lost opportunities. “I can’t wait to go back to work,” she told me last night. “I told Shakir, I’ll have this second baby, and then I won’t have any more for ten years. And then I’m going to go back and build myself a career.”

She hadn’t wanted a second baby now. She’d wanted to return to work when her 18-month leave period ended this month. But her husband, Shakir, insists that only a relative look after their son. And all their young relatives are studying. No one has time to watch a baby. Shakir won’t trust anyone recommended, even by a relative, for fear that they’d hit the child.

I asked how she’d find a childcare provider for two children when she can’t find one now for one.

“By then, Ravil, will be old enough for daycare and Shakir will take him to and from daycare. Maybe we’ll find a relative to help with the baby. But if not, Shakir will help watch him.” I kind of doubt it, but I hope for the best. Gulnara has an incredible mind – she can remember birthdays and phone numbers she heard once months or years ago – and I think she should be allowed to put it to use.

She told me how, as a student, she begged her mother for the opportunity to work as a nanny in France. “I would have lived with a family and done some childcare and housework. But I would have had the opportunity to see something, and compared to living with Russian speakers, I would have been immersed in the language.”

Her mother refused. “She said I’d be killed by someone,” Gulnara said. “Or that I’d get married to a Frenchman. I told her I wasn’t looking to get married, but she didn’t believe me. She said I needed to get married first, and then I could go wherever I wanted. I didn’t even mention anything like America. The ticket there is more expensive and it’s even further away.”

From that point on, Gulnara’s mother hurried to find her a spouse. And the decision to marry Shakir came very quickly, and without passion on Gulnara’s part.

Shakir seems to be a good person but recently he’s been showing more signs of the proud Kyrgyz man. When they go to visit relatives in Gulnara’s village, they sleep at his distant relatives house rather than at Gulnara’s parents. When I asked Gulnara why she said it was shameful for him to sleep at his wife’s parents house. He obviously hasn’t supported her in returning to work and he speaks disparagingly of her former work in a bank, saying that if she does work, she needs to be involved in private trade.

“I’m going to be different with my children,” Gulnara said. “I’m going to support them to travel and to acquire as many opportunities as they can.”

I believe she will.

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