I’m learning Russian. I say learning loosely, as I’ve fallen behind in my studies and relied wholly on talking with others as my Russian practice, often confusing which case ending I should use, which construction of which verb. This, I realize, is not working, and I need to go back to some serious studying. But that’s beside the point, what I wanted to say is this: I’m learning Russian.
Learning languages is complicated anywhere you live, and in the Kyrgyz Republic only knowing Russian lands you on one side of an invisible line.
Oh good girl, you can speak Russian! But why haven’t you learned Kyrgyz?
It’s a common question, and I always feel inexplicably guilty for not being able to say more than a few awkward and halting sentences in Kyrgyz, although I am trying to be better, to understand more. It is common for Kyrgyzstani people to speak a mix of Russian and Kyrgyz – “Krussian” as its called by foreigners in Kyrgyzstan – and I feel like most of my attempts stumble into this category. I can introduce myself in Kyrgyz, say numbers, colors, food items. I can tell people that I don’t have a boyfriend, nor do I need one. I find it interesting the overlaps between Kyrgyz and what I remember of Arabic, quickly and aggressively getting pushed out of my brain by Russian characters and grammar rules. I find it interesting that both Russian and Kyrgyz use the word for tongue synonymously with the word for language – язык (yizyk) in Russian, тили (tili) in Kyrgyz.
Even with this broken pieces of the language, sometimes I can see the appreciation for the effort, the excitement that this American white girl is learning their language, their tongue. It has to be some version of imperialist guilt – I am learning the language of the Soviet Union, long since dead, but in its heyday dismissed the importance of local languages in its’ republics – favoring instead the unifying language of the proletariat, the collective farm. The language of “outsiders” coming to “fix” things.
As someone working within the development field, I feel this acutely, despite the basic facts that my job requires Russian to be effective. Other Peace Corps Volunteers learn Kyrgyz, and I am jealous when I see the excitement of the locals who welcome them into their shops, their bazaar stalls, their restaurants, their communities chattering excitedly in Kyrgyz. There is a sense of belonging, whereas the response to my Russian is an expectation – you are a foreigner in Kyrgyzstan, of course you know Russian. I’m the outsider who lives in the capital, who will be here for only a short time, who is working in the long line of foreigners coming to “fix” Kyrgyzstan. And that is not what my work is about.
Which leads me to work: I’ve been working on a project for the past six months – which has finally finally launched! – but made the decision with my colleagues that, for the majority of the project, trainings and sessions should be conducted in Kyrgyz. When this project takes place on the village level – in Village Health Committees and the communities they serve – Kyrgyz will be more widely understood, more powerful to describe their vision for this organization in their native tongue.
I observed two of these trainings for those working in Chui Oblast (the oblast surrounding Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek). In both, I was strictly observing, trying to follow along to see how the training I had written was faring after two translations and in the hands of a newer trainer, taking notes on what seemed to be unclear, what seemed to work well. I was impressed with myself in being able to guess on what was being covered, discussed, and asked in the session – to the point that participants in the training assumed I knew Kyrgyz.
“Kyrgyzcha belaysiz beh? You know Kyrgyz?” A woman sitting next to me throughout the training asked, in Kyrgyz.
“Jok. Tolka kitchinay. No, only a little.”
“Emnegay ti ne izuchalas Kyrgyzcha? Why didn’t you learn Kyrgyz?” (Here, an example of Krussian, a mix of Russian and Kyrgyz).
At this I launch into an explanation, that my job required Russian. That living in Bishkek it is easier to speak Russian than Kyrgyz. That I was hoping to learn both, and start seriously learning Kyrgyz soon.
“Potomuchto, ya dumayo chto Kyrgyzskyi yizik crassivyi, da? Because I think that Kyrgyz is beautiful, yes?” (I speak like a four-year old in Russian, it’s frustrating for everyone.)
“Suluu tili, ooba? Pretty language, yes?” My attempt at Kyrgyz.
Laughter from the eje. “Da, no po Kyrgyskom, yizyki nye budet krassiviyi. Yizyk sladkiy. Yes, but in Kyrgyz, languages are not pretty. Language is sweet.”
“Tatoo tili? Sweet language?”
More laughter. “Ooba, chong kuz, ooba. Yes, big girl, yes.” (Chong-kuz – чоң куз in Kyrgyz – is a term of endearment and random address to young women in Kyrgyz, though it sounds awfully strange when translated to English. In Kyrgyz, any older girl you don’t know who is also younger than you is chong-kuz, much like any older woman is eje, any older man is baike.)
Later, this woman, called Alima-Eje, secretly slipped me candy from her purse, three tooth-achingly sweet pieces of chocolate loved by Kyrygz people.
“Chtoby pomoch podslatit svoy yizyk, dlya izucheniya sladkiy yizyk. To help sweeten your tongue for learning a sweet tongue.”
Smiling mischievously with a mouth full of gold teeth, Alima-Eje winked at me and turned back to writing down notes from the training.
Image: Alima-Eje, from Tokmok in Chui, reviews her notes on the National Strategic Planning Project.