Keeping up with my “one blog per place”, I started a new blog when I moved across the border to Bishkek: http://lemountainsandthesea.wordpress.com/

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Why people move abroad sometimes confounds me.  Generally, short-to-mid-term expats seem to fall into three categories: people who move abroad for work, people who move abroad out of cultural interest or curiosity (this was me in China), and people who move abroad due to difficulties (with the police, with the government, or with the economy) in their home country.  Usually there’s some compelling reason for people to leave their home countries and take up temporary residence in another.  I’ve met English teachers who moved to China to study the language and explore the culture, but needed some way to pay the bills; English teachers with skill sets so low they’d have trouble finding a job that paid as comfortable a wage in the UK or US; and I’ve met engineers and journalists, managers and furniture buying specialists in Foshan (the world capitol for furniture production).  But occasionally I come across another breed – people who just seem to pop up in the oddest places overseas, no explanation attached.

Yesterday I took an American friend freshly arrived from Urumqi apartment hunting.  I had seen one ad on couchsurfing for a room available in a flat shared by some foreigners and located near the center of town.  Currently the flat has a somewhat-spacey American girl who majored in Russian studies and is in Bishkek freelancing it and just hanging around because she’s interested in all things CIS and Soviet (logical); two Belgian bikers who got stuck in Bishkek over the winter, and are now ready to pedal off across China (also logical); and an Australian computer programmer who A) doesn’t speak Russian, B) doesn’t speak Kyrgyz or another Turkic language C) doesn’t have any apparent interest in Bishkek (the American said she often cooked for him and attempted to motivate him out of the apartment), D) Is not dating or pursuing anyone, E) Is not gainfully employed or in any way occupied during the day and, F) is currently living in a country with iffy internet, electricity and supply of computer parts (on all accounts not logical).  He was also pretty spacey, and I certainly didn’t get a straight/coherent answer out of him as to how he ended up here (though apparently he also lived in China “for a long time”, enjoyed traveling around, but also speaks no Chinese).  Do. Not. Understand.  How does someone from Australia end up…in Bishkek… without apparent plan or purpose? It’s like he just plopped down here from the sky.  But I guess that’s the occasional illogic of humans.

Disclaimer: I’ll have to edit and revise this blog later, because my thoughts aren’t yet fully formed.
For half of us expats, living abroad is driven by the thrill of it, the excitement and anticipation of ever-discovery. This can be quite positive – living in a new environment, faced with new experiences and new dilemmas challenges us to re-frame our approach to certain issues and develop different skills. We are constantly learning, adapting, adjusting, analyzing. And thus this half of people who live abroad *generally* are more capable when it comes to comprehending and addressing complex issues than their compatriots at home.
But there’s a downside to being an actively engaged expat – and something to be said for the other half of expats, those who are really just living out their everyday lives abroad, and are probably living far from home for purposes of work, rather than for the excitement and thrill of living in an interesting place. Because belonging to the first type of expats – especially perhaps in Asia, which still has a ring of the exotic to it – dictates that you must always be discovering, analyzing, understanding. In China, where I lived for near five years, it often feels like there’s this race: who knows the most local, out-of-the-way place; who has the most unique ensemble of local friends; who has traveled the furthests; who has some special insight on this place or that; who has been closest to cracking open some aspect of closed culture. Discovery is a currency, and once you stop discovering, you’re broke, like a punctured tire. So you keep on discovering, pursuing, analyzing, seeking to have some edge on understanding so far unseen by everyone else.
What this does is place the expat in a direct dichotomical relationship with the local: locals are all in the “inside”, with us expats trying to seek some access into their inner lives. Friends, in this context, are also currency. It’s impossible to have a local friend without using them in some way (just as, for example, most Chinese friends *also* want to use their expat acquaintances to practice their English or learn more about life in the states).
Last summer I was always analyzing Bishkek, wherever I went – observing, taking pictures, questioning and writing about the city which I always saw as “other”, some code to crack.
But now, coming back – I’ve realized that there is indeed value in just *living* in a place. Not seeking to understand or analyze all of it, but just living: going to the market or the grocery, walking along the winter streets, sitting at home with a cup of tea in the morning, going out with a group of friends not caring where they are from but rather who they are, being plied with piece after piece of meat by Erdem’s lonely jovial co-worker who talks of his son in the states, even getting up and going to a job or classes in the morning – there’s nothing wrong with just *living* in a place.
I’m not recommending going the way of my old colleagues at the English school I part-timed at in Urumqi, guys who had lived in China for five years and could still barely order more than ramen and friend rice off a menu, who’s off-hours life evolved around Xbox, beer, eating out, and their English-speaking Chinese girlfriends, who basically lived in a bubble whose walls were so thick they couldn’t see the city around them. But sometimes it may be better to relax and live. Learn Russian, go out, mix groups of friends, let Bishkek be Bishkek.

On Bishkek: last summer when I arrived in Bishkek from China (with a ten-day stay in Kazakhstan) the city seemed chaotic, unsystematic. The longer I stayed, the more dysfunctional (completely not functioning in any logical way, a city without support) it seemed. This time, however, arriving from Chicago, the city doesn’t seem so unstable. Bishkek has not changed much within the past three months; this is, I believe, a testimony to the absolute control over city planning by the Chinese government – in provincial towns of far-off Xinjiang as much as in the prosperous coastal cities. Perhaps much more in Xinjiang, where the presence of the Chinese government and government-ordinances city-planning is evident everywhere, even in towns where there are very few ethnic Chinese.
When I was still in China it was fascinating. At times (especially when I was living in Xinjiang) frustrating to be continuously hemmed in by state control and under the government’s ever-watching eyes, but still fascinating to dig in deeper and gradually collect details of what was actually going on. But now that I no longer live in China – it’s a relief. I don’t think I would ever go back to living there, not unless the state changes dramatically in the coming years, and they somehow strike a balance between reasonable organization and freedom of movement and being, the possibility for organic urban growth and individual agency that inevitably accompanies.

Bishkek on second visit
Last summer when I arrived in Bishkek it seemed like a third-world city, backwards and chaotic, full of corrupt police and a society that was none too modern in dress, in lifestyle, in habits, in speech.
But arriving after two months in Chicago, two months in America’s second-largest metropolis (or is it third), Bishkek seems like a really normal city. Overall it’s more worn-down, with potholed streets, old homes and half-regulated traffic policed over by some cops looking for an irrational bribe (yesterday we were pulled over for turning on a red light, when Erdem had made a right turn on green; the guy just wanted a ten dollar bribe, and there’s no way to dispute). But after coming from Chicago, none of this seemed so abnormal. The nice parts of Bishkek are certainly not as urban and architecturally beautiful as some places in Chicago, but neither are the worst spots as bad as the inner city ghettos and economically bombed-out neighborhoods. In its own way, Bishkek is just a normal city.
What did strike me about it though was the street life, and urban accessibility in most neighborhoods. In Chicago you can walk or drive for huge stretches in which there are just houses. Here, most major roads – and not just in downtown – are lined with shops, restaurants, cafes. It’s casual, accessible, people-friendly instead of business-oriented. And in winter it’s sunny.
Another odd thing, noticed last time and resurrected again – the inflated price of imported or non-raw goods. Everything from clothes to books to cosmetics to coffee is more expensive and most often of lesser quality than in the US or Turkey. A cup of coffee, for example, is nearly two dollars, and milk for the coffee is an extra dollar (think what would happen if Starbucks started charging a dollar for putting a splash of milk in your coffee). Considering that milk is 60 cents a liter in Bishkek, this seems a little silly. But then again – it was a nice cafe, as modern and comfortable as you might find anywhere in the US. But still – the economy doesn’t quite make sense, or perhaps we could call it a dual consumer economy – one of cheap, locally-produced products (life outside Bishkek is generally incredibly inexpensive), and one of more expensive fare for urban consumers aspiring to middle class and expat NGO workers. Where the locals money comes from though, and how people can afford to pay $350 for a down jacket when they bulk at giving American English teachers more than $4 an hour (anecdote from a fellow student at the London School last summer) is still a perplexing phenomenon. But Bishkek – it’s not so poor or terrible a city, especially for causal everyday living, when you compare it to some of the urban centers in the US.

16 Things People Couldn’t Believe About America Until They Moved Here

Some of the more interesting points noted:

  • Obesity and food portion – It is easy to find obese people in USA. Some people are so obese that they require a special electric scooter to carry them around. This sighting can be seen easily in Walmart where obese people use scooters to shop more … food.
  • A name as common and as easy to pronounce as mine is almost invariably incomprehensible to most Americans.
  • That, American foreign policy is a very inaccurate reflector of public consensus.
  • Dependence on GPS – I knew people who went to office everyday since the past 5 years and could not tell their way without a GPS. It was amazing! I made some friends there and they were so impressed that I could tell my way back to their home without help from a GPS.
  • Credit Score WTF – The credit system in America will create a numerical value (credit score) to asses everyone’s financial fitness. No one know how the score is calculated but you need that to get a loan… or two… or three… and beyond.
  • However, in order to get a credit score, you need to get a loan e.g car financing. In order to get a loan… well… you need a credit score (notice the circular reference). Your credit score can also be created by using credit card. You just need a credit score to apply for a credit card.
  • Under-dressing in cold weather. Shoes (flip-flops?) + tshirt + cardigan + scarf (+ running nose) = winter city outfit often seen in subway and public places when it is REALLY cold outside. If in winter you see a bare-feet child in crocks running from the car to the mall through the piles of snow, it is likely to be a local one. Immigrant kids are often on contrast a bit over-dressed for the weather, wearing snowpants and mittens starting November.
  • Extreme sensitiveness towards race and religion. People tend to be very sensitive about racial and religious topics. I was embarrassed to ask a Costco employee where the white chocolate was because I was afraid she would tell me I was a racist.
  • Amazing presentation skills. A 7-year-old kid from the U.S. would beat any European in a sales pitch. I find the average American amazing in presenting themselves, doing sales, explaining how things work, etc. I’m jealous.