Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Yesterday, I partook in some time travel. Having accompanied a group of our students to the local high school across the road - School No. 4 - in a friendly ambassadorial exchange of cultures, I found myself immersed in a classic Soviet experience.

First of all, our students were performing a modern Korean dance, but the majority of the local student performances were deeply traditional: Turkish and Afghan dance, Tajik, Uzbek and Russian songs, and of course, lots of Kyrgyz instruments and dances too. It was really very enjoyable, but extraordinarily timewarp-ish: at the end, there was a great deal of flag waving and chanting of "Kyr-gyz-stan! Kyr-gyz-stan!" which conveyed a general impression of forced patriotism. I also learned that the Kyrgyz national anthem has too many verses to count. The whole thing was a very Soviet production, and rather fun.

The truly cultural experience, however, came afterwards. Before I even had time to speak to her, the Director of School No. 4 grabbed me by the elbow and whisked me down the corridor, into a room full of gold-toothed local officials. Hoping very much that my students would figure out how to get back to their school on their own, I took a place at the table laden with festive dishes, next to an official from the Ministry of the Promotion of the Kyrgyz Language. Thankfully, our own Director came along at the last minute, and he too was seated at the prestigious head of the table. We soon discovered that by attending, we had conferred a great deal of honour on the Director of School No. 4, and had achieved a kind of temporary fame as foreigners (and therefore supposed sources of great wealth and power). As we were served plov and manti, each official around the table stood and gave a longish speech: we were given snifters of cognac (which kept getting refilled), and after twelve toasts I began to wonder if the end was in sight.

Of course, the end came finally, but not before far too much cognac and several conversations which hinted at, well, reciprocal benefits: if you contribute to our building project, we'll let you use our hall! If you send your students to talk English to our students, maybe we'll invite you to meet important people! Our Director fielded these suggestive conversations with aplomb, and we finally walked out feeling a little dazed by the whole thing.

Returning to school was like waking up from a dream. Really, it was. The Soviet Empire may have collapsed twenty years ago, but it lives on in the institutions and rites of millions. There is no easy exchange of pleasantries and ideas between people with power: there is instead an uneasy tension between people with authority and those under them, in which a deferential system of obligations and reciprocations exist. For instance, the regional political Head of Education was seated on my right, and she wouldn't look at me, and always made a point of toasting our Director first, and then me if she felt like it. I tried a conversation, but it was obvious that I was below her, unable to offer her anything, and therefore undeserving of attention. To my egalitarian ego, it was rather a blow. 

Still, this experience has opened up the possibility of a relationship between our schools, and we very much hope to foster a sense of community by getting our students involved in things like their English Conversation Club and their sporting events. It's exciting to think of the ways our students could be challenged to leave the safe bubble of our school. I hope very much to be able to report on similar events in the future - sans cognac, perhaps.

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