The first thing I was told about Usen, my Russian Teacher, was that I would get lost in his dreamy eyes. And inevitably, that was the first thing I noticed about Usen – the impossible blue of his eyes.
Usen is Uighur, hence the glassblue of his eyes, and can trace his father’s family back into the steppes on the Chinese side of the Tien Shen. Born in Naryn at the height of the Soviet Union, Usen claims a complex identity. In a region of the world where nationality and ethnicity are both inherently important and inherently dangerous, Usen describes himself as conflicted by identity. He says, “My papers are Kyrgyz, but my identity is written as Uzbek. My blood flows Uighur, and I dream in Russian.”
Just like that, he will describe commonplace things with a deeply personal and uncommon poetry. Usen surprises us every day when he produces a new talent or tells a story from his life that, like his eyes, would be impossible if he weren’t telling us over steaming cups of tea or in the breaks between Russian conjugations and case endings.
Like the time he spent five years studying Russian Language and Literature at a university in Moscow with hair past his shoulders, confusing professors by staggering his walk across campus with his identical twin brother. Or the time he served in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, or when he worked as an interior designer for Turkish cafes and restaurants. When he was a professional dance instructor, a gymnast, a professional chef who specialized in plov.
As our Russian teacher and cultural integration facilitator, he is patient as we harangue him with unending questions on how to say something or to describe what we have seen in the village. Usen patiently listens, often taking a deep breath before answering, I assume to process our long and rambling questions on culture, gender dynamics, history, and verb usage. Each of leans in to listen to his answers, knowing that his softly spoken English might emerge as a story from his life. He taught himself English by studying Latin, but almost whispers his English, thinking that he is incorrectly forming sentences or using letters foreign to the Russian alphabet. He speaks nine languages, teaches five, but says he can understand around twenty, and will occasionally serenade us in each of them.
It’s difficult to be unmoved when you are being sung love songs in foreign languages while getting lost in dreamy eyes.