My Russian speaking skills improved immensely and it was rather fun exploring and connecting to a new place through a new language. I was fortunate to have a host cousin who was very similar to me. We were both interested in medicine and shared many hobbies. So the hours practicing Russian with her flew by. Even when I came across cultural differences, I came to accept everything as it was. Korean and American culture are vastly different. As I have lived with my grandparents in South Korea, I felt at ease in immersing in a new culture. I truly enjoyed living as part of a Kyrgyz family and learning about the customs and culture of locals.
My experience in Kyrgyzstan has truly broadened my horizons. I hope to continue fostering connections in Central Asia and return in the near future. I believe that approaching study abroad with an open mind can open more opportunities to truly connect and appreciate your home for the summer.
After 5 hours on a dirt road, we pulled into a small village that lined the waters of Issyk Kul, an alpine lake, as the sun was setting. The whole village was quiet and calm as we went down to the lake to swim.
The next morning for breakfast we had плов, манти, fresh apricots from trees right beside the dining hall, cherries, potatoes, chicken and more. There was of course tea and compote. Compote is a popular Kyrgyz drink made of fruits and spices. It is sweet and full of flavor and can be enjoyed hot or cold. Плов pronounced “Plov” and Манти pronounced “Manti” are the two most popular Kyrgyz dishes. It is almost always served when guests are invited to a Kyrgyz home. Плов is similar to fried rice. It is rich and greasy and consists of rice, carrots, and lamb meat. Манти is a dumpling filled with meat and potatoes. It is almost always jam packed with meat. Meat is often the main component of Kyrgyz dishes which speaks to their nomadic roots.
Кыликовскии is a popular Russian dessert chain. They have ice cream cakes, tiramisu, cheesecakes and more. The deserts in Kyrgyzstan tend to be less sweet but full of natural flavors.
Yurt building holds historical and cultural significance to the Kyrgyz people. My class visited the national museum after school then during a trip to Issyk Kul, we got to build one with local experts.
The lives of families that live in the countryside differ quite drastically from those who live in the city. Most of the families we came across were pastoral families who were living in a Yurt for the summer. They stated that once it became too cold, they would pack up all their belongings and herd their sheep down the mountain. Even though we were 11,000 feet up, the children we passed were full of energy. I realized as we ate lunch in the mountains how far we were from the nearest town. The families that lived up in the mountains were miles away from the next neighbor and the only way to traverse the mountain was by horse.
Camping up in the Tien Shan mountain ranges was unlike anything I have ever done before. It became frigid at night and I realized then why we were told to bring snow pants. During the horse trek, we learned to trust our horses as they continued tirelessly for hours at a time. They also walked narrow trails along cliffs and across roaring rivers. When we stopped for the second night, we met a family who invited us over to try Kyrgyzstan’s national drink: кымыз. кымыз is mare’s milk. It was sour and salty leaving a strong aftertaste. It was interesting how naturally the taste preferences of the Kyrgyz people leaned towards salty and sour things. Most drinks and even snacks reflected this and I never came to like кымыз, but I am glad I tried it. кымыз I later found, is more strongly preferred by people living in the countryside.
In Kyrgyzstan, I drank tea with almost every meal. Wherever we went, tea and snacks were a popular way of fostering connection.
Yurt building holds historical and cultural significance to the Kyrgyz people. My class visited the national museum after school then during a trip to Issyk Kul, an alpine lake located on the Tien Shan mountain ranges, we got to build one with local experts.
At the museum, we learned that it was an important custom to decorate yurts with lush velvet and felt rugs. It was amazing how huge the Yurt felt when inside. The rich colors and patterns of all the rugs seemed to stand out even more. Yurts allowed the historically nomadic tribes of Kyrgyzstan to relocate with their herds of sheep all over the mountain. Horses have also played an important role in the history of Kyrgyzstan. They have always been the best friends and lifelines to Kyrgyz people.
There were also many models of sacred buildings and monuments to soldiers who passed defending their homeland. At the museum, we learned about their tumultuous political history, but also about their rich heritage, foods, and history.
The guide shared to that the museum could not be opened for many years because the government had wanted to pay less for the forest display.
After seeing the Yurt at the museum, we build a small yurt with local experts. They noted that it usually takes locals only 30 minutes to build a large yurt more than 5 times the size of the one we built. A whole family may live in one yurt together during the summer. Even today, pastoral families living in the countryside may live in a yurt during the summer then move to a winter site with their herds of sheep. Speaking with locals in Russian was challenging, especially because of the different accents I heard in the countryside. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed learning from and hearing the stories of expert yurt builders and musicians.
On our first day in Bishkek, two local Kyrgyz students took us on a tour of Bishkek. We started with historic buildings, monuments, and the biggest park in Bishkek. The two guides talked about life in Kyrgyzstan along the way. When Алтима mentioned that a house in her neighborhood was robbed during the past week by a fake cleaning service, the other guide gasped and asked “Прикинь?” She went on to explain that “Прикинь” was an informal slang term used by younger students only among friends. It meant “Can you imagine?”. Pronounced (prikínʹ). Because of how fun it is to say, I found myself using this term quite often by the end of my stay.
Жиза is related to the word жизнь, which means life. Жиза has a very specific meaning and I noticed that it was usually only used within friends of young adults. It is used to signify that you relate to someone else’s situation or experience. However, it cannot be used to say that you have the same object, plans, ideas as someone. It can only be used to signify that a very similar situation also happened to you. So when a friend says that his favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate, you must say я думаю так же or I think the same! But if a friend says that her parents brought home a painting from the outdoor art gallery, you can respond Жиза!
During our tour, we visited an old statue of Lenin that was relocated but not torn down. The guides explained that because Lenin was referred to as Papa Lenin in media and propaganda during the Soviet era, locals are continue to have some subconscious fondness for the statue.
The Ala Too Square looks modern and welcoming. Although Bishkek is a city of one million people, the square reminds me of a park I can find in my own hometown. There are families with children all around playing in the fountains and enjoying the lovely greenery.
My itinerary for the summer included: hiking, camping, horse trek, swimming in an alpine lake located in the mountain ranges of the Tien-Shan, visiting the largest bazaar in Central Asia. The instructions I got for packing included everything from waterproof, insulated snow pants to summer clothes for 110 degree heat. It is hard to know what to expect. But I am excited at the idea of staying with a Kyrgyz host family. I hope to form great relationships with my host family and become more than a tourist or guest. I want to try authentic Kyrgyz and Russian dishes and learn about the interests of local young adults. I want to learn about their beliefs on life and how they want to live their lives. What movements and changes they are passionate about. I also want to try their favorite spots to eat, hang out, and meet new people.
I hope that my experience in a completely new culture will help expand my horizons. As a Korean American, Western and East Asian culture has coexisted in my everyday life for as long as I can remember. As a student of Russian Language and Culture, I have learned a lot about Russian and Slavic culture. While the official language of Kyrgyzstan is Russian and it is a post-soviet country, it is a central Asian country with a nomadic heritage. Thus, I expect it to be quite different from Slavic culture. I hope that my time in Kyrgyzstan will help to expand my cultural fluency and understanding of Central Asian and predominantly Islamic communities through personal experience.