Category Archives: Autobiography

An American Reading Arendt in Kyrgyzstan

I taught in the former Soviet Union for exactly three years. The first time that I, a baby boomer, sat foot in the Soviet Union proper was the day I arrived to teach, June 4, 2011. Sure, after 1990, the former Warsaw bloc opened. As curious backpackers or enthusiastic researchers, it became possible to visit wonders hidden by die Mauer. Some even made Russia itself a regular visit. But, I was teaching in the Kyrgyz Republic, most commonly known as Kyrgyzstan.

Nestled amongst neighbors as diverse and dangerous as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and China, Kyrgyzstan is also comfortably close to Mongolia, Afghanistan (which explained the Manas Transit Center at the international airport), and, of course, Mother Russia. Kyrgyzstan is a tiny democracy, hopelessly corrupt, and teetering on the edges of full-on ethnic conflict (with its Uzbek neighbors) and a full-on charge to breakdown in infrastructure. The nation also happens to one of the most beautiful and wild places left on this planet. All in all, a heartbreaking place with which it is easy to fall in love. Teaching there, at the American University of Central Asia, was itself a unique experience because of the historical borderland that is the Silk Road.

Since graduating from Georgetown in 2002 with a Ph.D. in U.S. history, I have held positions in the U.S., Turkey, the UAE, Qatar, and now Kyrgyzstan. As a large part of my position at AUCA, I am a teacher trainer who conducts faculty workshops in methods of student-centered teaching and strategies to teach specific subject matter. I work with local faculty to encourage them to inspire students to think critically rather than memorizing the material and regurgitating a “correct” answer (as has been the technique in every country where I’ve taught). Instead, teachers are expected to help student understand the themes in any given piece of writing and propose questions for students to answer (in college-level English). Especially with those educated in the Soviet Union (anyone over 45), this is an especially difficult challenge. The other challenge is to help foreign faculty to adjust, not downgrade, their expectations for our students. Our students are an interesting mix of children from staunchly Soviet parents and of traditional families living in villages with basic amenities. In a sense, every student has special needs, depending on the provenance of his or her teacher. That I have been teaching overseas since 2002 and have faced a multitude of challenges, all of which has made me more flexible and a better teacher/colleague, has given me the perspective to stand astride this cultural confluence and help each help the other.

All of my international posts have had two things in common: a dominating patriarchy and at least a nominal Islamic majority. Neither of those circumstances have manifested too obviously in my teaching—after all, I take the position that I am teaching U.S. history; if a student wants to find a parallel in his or her own culture, well that’s not on me. In some of these places, one must be careful about criticizing the government or religion or give the hint of proselytizing (it is hard to teach Colonial America without teaching Puritanism). I’ve walked that line carefully and well. Kyrgyzstan is unique in one way, and it has to do with the influence of the U.S.

In addition to history, I was teaching and co-directing the Bard College Institute for Writing and Thinking sponsored First Year Seminar Program. Luckily, in 2014 I had the opportunity to teach Hannah Arendt’s “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship.” All of my students from the CIS countries (we also have student cohorts from South Korea and Afghanistan) have a clear history of the Great Patriotic War etched into their conscious minds, one even might call it an institutional memory. Many times overseas I must check to make sure university students have a basic familiarity with the ideas on display. For example, my students in the former Soviet Union know almost nothing about World War II in the Pacific. I say almost, because the atomic bomb is the only element of American or British participation in the war they are taught in high schools. So, when discussing Arendt, I did not have to explain who Adolph Eichmann was and what he represented, but I did have confront angry accusations of American atomic warfare on an innocent Japan. This is what we call a teaching moment.

Instead of focusing on the war itself, I focused on Arendt’s basic message: in times of moral reversal, failure to think, to conduct and internal dialogue with oneself, breeds personal responsibility. Interestingly, a later reading, the excerpt “The Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, claims that failing to think—experiencing great events as a member of a herd—exorcizes responsibility. Yet Arendt was correct; events such as the Holocaust require review of “automatic” morality. When all of life inverts, when that which was moral is then immoral, the illegal made legal, failing to think creates responsibility and therefore culpability. Her example is the moral upheaval that was National Socialism. Yet, another moment of moral reversal clung to edge of my consciousness, and I was almost afraid to bring it up, mostly because academic freedom is a fairy story we tell to graduate students to keep them from fearing the future. The very students had experienced a profound moral reversal, and they had failed to think the consequences through.

In 1991, Kyrgyzstan became an independent nation. At no time in history prior to 1991 was the territory now called Kyrgyzstan ever a nation state. The Soviets carved the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic from the rest of Central Asia out of subtle linguistic differences among other Turkic languages, such as Kazakh and Uzbek, and primarily Mongolian features that the Kyrgyz share with Kazakhs and Yakuts in Siberia. The nation that was never a nation is now finding itself with a rising and fervent nationalism, which is not the only lasting feature of a post-Soviet world. Kyrgyzstan is unique amongst its neighbors in that it attempts to be a democracy, and despite two revolutions in twenty years, the last president, Rosa Otembayava, did leave her position on schedule. That makes one peaceful change of power, something no other CIS nation can boast.

Furthermore, Kyrgyzstan is multiethnic. In addition to the sizable Uzbek minority in the south of the nation, the environs around Bishkek, the capital, were Stalin’s dumping grounds in the late 1930s: Tatars from the Crimea, Volga Germans, Jews, and Chechens (including the Dzharnaev family whose sons moved to Boston) were all relocated to the country so far from anywhere else. Perhaps this is why the U.S. decided to focus its aid and military cooperation on Kyrgyzstan, or perhaps it is the long Chinese border, but in any case, Kyrgyzstan’s blatantly corrupt economy is propped up by payment from the United States. The only other single industry in the nation is a gold mine operated by a Canadian firm that is under constant threat of nationalization by the government and attack on horseback by the local villagers. Kyrgyzstan is afloat because of American money. And, with American aid comes American ideology, and since World War II, American diplomacy demands adherence to the political idea of the free market economy. And there is where the moral reversal lies.

Ingrained in American foreign policy is the sanctity of the open market, the inviolability of contracts. In the spirit of Arendt, the “automatic” go-to philosophy taught in America is the so-called free market, the greatest mythological expression of which is the self-employed success. Only with careful thought that feel as though borders on the treasonous does the adult come to realize that this philosophy confused with mother’s milk is itself morally questionable. To counter, the “automatic” philosophy of citizens of the Soviet Union was the violence that was the free market and the superiority of communism. Adults also questioned (inwardly) the hegemony of the Comintern, but a freer market certainly did no mean the vacuum of social support that is the American ideal (and thankfully, not the entire American reality). In the CIS, one day communism was the rule; seemingly the next day, capitalism came hand-in-hand with American aid. Included in this ideological shift was a profound moral reversal.

America’s assumed inviolability of contracts is morally compromised in idea, and perhaps completely immoral in application. At the base of contract law lies the fiction that parties who are contracting are similarly situated enough to be considered equals. The contract provides for obligations for both parties as spelled out in the document. A contract is a legal promise. The problem with this fiction is rarely, if ever, are parties contracting truly equal. When the powerful contract with the weak, there is very rarely the change to bargain honestly, and if the stronger party doesn’t keep up its end, who will make them? Certainly not the weaker party. A contract is an opportunity for abuse.

In the Soviet Union, the situation was reversed. The State existed to protect the weaker party, banning “the freedom” of contract. While not perfect, the ruling idea was not to take advantage of the weak however one can. The ruling idea was to protect the weak, “Each according to his abilities.” The old had pensions, the ill had treatment, the artists had jobs, and the swindlers had jail. After 1991, the old, the ill, and the artists had the street and the swindlers ran the country and the black markets.The strong man, like Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, became the hero, and public utilities around the region crumbled.

The western democracies had so successfully branded communism as evil that its opposite must be good, so when what had been billed as the opposite arrived, the capitalists painted themselves as liberators. Unfortunately, some of America’s freedoms are freedom to starve, to freeze, to be discarded. In times of moral reversal (especially when the change is so dramatic), failure to think breeds personal responsibility. In Kyrgyzstan, at least, a new generation has accepted without question that communism was bad and capitalism is good just because America said it was. Moral reversal came to the CIS, and no one questioned it at all. Perhaps this helps to explain the popularity of Vladimir Putin. He questioned America, and in so doing became a dictator. The U.S. needs to divorce the free market from its foreign policy. Let people have their social welfare states; perhaps the world will end up with fewer dictators.

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Filed under #bishkek, Autobiography, Cultural differences, Foreign Policy, Former Soviet Union, Hannah Arendt, Higher Education, Ideas, Kyrgyzstan, Thinking

Women’s Work

We are moving all our belongings to the States next week. After a continuous ten years abroad, we have accumulated a rather large amount of art and other stuff. I went thorough and discarded much in the way of knick knacks and teaching materials, but ars longa, vita brevis. Some things are more important than others. I took the job at the United Arab Emirates University in 2004, long before iPhones, ebooks, and Kindle; if I was going to teach and research American history, I had to carry some core essential texts. Also, I mailed 4 large boxes to myself in Al Ain, UAE. When I took the job in Qatar, I had even more books shipped. We took extended vacations in amazing places like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Oman, Turkey, France, and Germany and picked up beautiful artwork, ceramics, and lots of old metal. Starting with 2 suitcases apiece and four boxes of books, we last moved 1200 kg. of possessions, from Turkey to Bishkek in 2011. The art collecting continued. Nonetheless, it is time to downsize. When we move abroad again, I will not to need so many books, and most of our art has not seen a wall since Qatar, so it will be happy in storage. Like a fellow bibliophile once said, moving books is like moving wet sand. We have also been moving dry sand.

Carpets, kilims, and shyrdaks make up a substantial amount of our shipping weight. Neither the Kyrgyz felted shyrdaks nor the kilims are heavy in themselves (even considering volume), but the wool carpets are difficult to lift, especially after lying on a floor for any length of time. The air in all of the places we’ve lived in the last decade has carried particulate matter: desert sand in the UAE and Qatar, pollen in Germany and France, Anatolian topsoil, and greasy miasmic coal effluvium in Kyrgyzstan. Our lungs and our floor coverings have absorbed much of this matter. The gunk that settled into our rugs just about doubled their weight. Since we are paying by the kilo for shipping to Seattle, I wanted to shed some of that international dirt. First-worlders would go out and rent a steam cleaner; I headed into the courtyard to find some place to beat my carpets.

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Beating carpets is women’s work in non-industrial societies. It makes sense. Women generally have care of the children. Carpet beating means staying in one place for an extended period of time. Since the task is communal, someone can always have her eyes on the kids. It also makes sense because the task requires physical strength and stamina and patience rather than only water buffalo killing strength. For example, the Lewis Hine photograph below shows the communal nature of doing the washing in a pre-industrial society, Tennessee in 1933 [Hine worked a month for the TVA. See Lewis Hine As Social Critic, chapter 6 for a complete analysis of the photograph]. Note the child next to the house. I say non-industrial rather than pre-industrial because Kyrgyzstan, as a former Soviet republic, is not industrialized, although it once had been. In this sense, I think of it as a Roman province, sometime around 600 CE. More on that later.

 

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I did not have a proper mattenklopper, a carpet beater, so my task was made more difficult. “Right tool for the right job,” Dad always said. I tried an aluminum cane, but parts kept falling off and it wasn’t flat (see the picture at the bottom). I had better luck with my next implement of beating, but I had to be careful using it because it also was not flat, it didn’t bend, and it was much too short. I used the billy club my grandmother stole from a policeman. He stepped into a speakeasy in the 1920s to use the loo. With my mother in tow, granny secreted the club under her dress and headed out into the street. I loved that woman. I wielded the cane like a baseball bat, which was awkward, but at least I now know how to lay down a bunt with my left hand. It was necessary to switch sides every few strokes. Otherwise my right arm might have fallen off completely. The club was easier, but it had its own drawbacks; it was too short, and I was in danger of leaving marks on some very expensive floor coverings.

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The correct implements for rug savagery.

I had absolutely no idea of the laboriousness of the task. I had difficulty lifting the sand sodden carpets over the only bars available, so Doug, my husband, came out to help me. Wow. When I started with the small carpets which I could woman-handle over my head, I actually disappeared from view. Even after living in this Soviet flat block for 3 years, people still stop and gawk when I walk through. I’m taller than most Kyrgyz men and chose to dye my very short hair fire engine red. Remarkably, the minute I started swinging at the rugs, I was no longer an object of any interest at all. I was just another woman doing the spring cleaning; the most ordinary thing in the world. However, when Doug came out to help me, you could’ve heard a chin drop (phrase stolen from Phil Vassar). Men.Do.Not.Beat.Carpets. I’m sure the men questioned my husband’s masculinity and the women thought I was completely unfeminine (by needing a man’s help lifting a 50 kilo carpet—culture, it’s a funny thing).

You know, women’s work is HARD. I pride myself on being strong and physically resilient. I spent hours with my purloined night stick pounding the sand and dirt and coal smoke out of my rugs. The Subaru parked next to my carpet beating bar ended up covered in dust, as was I. The weather here is very dry and in late May very warm. After a few hours of the most boring and difficult labor one can imagine, everything hurt and I looked like I ran a marathon. My hands were bleeding from blisters and rug burns. Still, when Doug came out to help me pound, I shooed him right back in. While I was working, several women came by to inspect my work and examine my Turkish carpets. I’ve seen these women around for three years, but none—until that day—ever acknowledged my existence. One actually spoke English to me. She assessed the (very nice) carpet and asked “How much?” Assuming she meant “How much did you pay for it?” I tried to answer in a combination of Russian, Kyrgyz, and Turkish. Glorious clucking ensued. I am not very feminine by many standards, but standing there in my shorts and Tevas, sweating and bleeding, wielding my grandmother’s stolen billy club, I was the girliest I’ve ever been.

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Everything is reused here. My beater-cane is propped against the tree, eclipsed by my wonderful neighbors.

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Filed under #bishkek, Autobiography, Cultural differences, Expat life, Feminism, good things, Kygyzstan, Lewis Hine, Women, Work

No Cracks in the Pavement

I wrote this a few years ago, but facing my imminent and rather unwelcome exit from academia, I might find myself in this situation again.

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After looking for work for six months in every country except Saudi Arabia, I have buckled down and accepted a job contributing to the inanity of the Internet. I write “content,” a term that inspires no greater understanding of information exchange than its plain meaning. The infinity of the Internet beckons those who will fill it with everything and nothing. I write for those how-do-I-do-it sites, often resorting to offering well-written but incomplete and virtually useless knowledge (as per guidelines). And, I am paid $15 per “article” for constructing the written equivalent of a painting by numbers.

Now, I am not saying that this is by any means a fruitless endeavor. Yes, income of any stripe is always welcome, but there are deeper truths about our society to be gleaned from the questions posed by the merely average to so-called experts such as myself. In this banal existence, I may have found some mystical knowledge about the human condition.

One question in particular has inspired this commentary: “How do I install a drain after the cement floor has dried?” There is an innocent beauty in that most obviously wrong of questions; we call it hope. Any one of us could be that do-it-yourselfer who, while presenting his (or her) beautiful new garage/basement/party room floor to a spouse is asked the innocuous question, “Where is the drain?” This belongs to the realm of Haiku:

Flat, dry, unyielding

Still, a windless graying sea

What do you mean, “Drain?”

Insight dawns. Visible physical deflation ensues.

Thus begins my travel from a purely academic understanding of the human condition through a portal to the true core of humanity. Whether college professor, middle manager, or waitress, the Sisyphean futility of life becomes manifest when grasped in the pathetic frustrated hands of imperfect and imperfectable human life; we are all one—there is a Zen moment in here—when in our DIY projects we neglect the most obvious and necessary. One can imagine that poor schmo standing before the computer, having been told that the Internet has all the answers, praying to the binary god, typing frantically, “How do I …?”

Now this foible of humanity lands on my desktop. Rather than gently passing on the bad news that, no, there really isn’t anything to be done now, I open my article formatter and type in the box labeled step one: “First thing, rent a jack hammer and protective ear covering …”

Next assignment: “How do I get a date for my sister?” It is going to be a long night.

signed, the content hack

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Filed under Autobiography, Irony

My “Thunder Road”

Liberty Road and Baltimore Beltway in 1962. In the upper right portion of the image, the road jogs left. To the left of that was my neighborhood.

Liberty Road Westbound in 1969, 5:32 p.m. commuter traffic.

I grew up in a suburb of Baltimore. When my family moved there in 1961 (before I was born), it was quite rural. By the time I hit puberty, the surrounding area had become a strip-zoned hell. There were still some green spaces left, if one knew where to look. I won’t go back now because I’m sure pretty much everything is paved. There is one place, however, that I am sure is still green. A family in my neighborhood donated it to the county with the stipulation that it be kept green in perpetuity. It had been their horse pasture.

My street was easy to miss when speeding past. Two dead end tertiary roads met to produce a loop; both were paved with tar and gravel. The houses on my street were all cookie cutter post-war brick colonials. So far as cookie cutter houses go, they were pretty nice, all set on a quarter acre: paradise to a working-class World War II veteran and his baby-boom family. There was a mixture of working-class and middle class families, but the middle class folks moved out and left the working classes to themselves as apartment complexes and strip malls encroached. County-level corruption in zoning is an underrated white-collar crime. Small businesses and houses yielded to McDonald’s and liquor stores. Ironically, we stayed because it was our home.

When I say working class, I mean wage-earning union folk. When I say middle class, I mean owners of the means of production. We didn’t own any stock in anything, and my father routinely turned down promotions to management. We trusted in the FDIC and Social Security. He was an FDR democrat, a union man, a shop steward, a proud member of the proletariat. The family with the horse farm (“rich” in my childhood lexicon, but it was only a few acres with a barn) left in the early 1970s. I remember their name even though I was just a shorty: Trumbauer. Mr. and Mrs. Trumbauer had accents, and my father was cordial to them but didn’t like me hanging out with the older Trumbauer kids.f. I thought it was because Mr. Trumbauer was rich and my Dad was a union man, but it was because Mr. Trumbauer was German and my father was a war hero. Having been present at the liberation of Dachau, my father moved us to a Jewish neighborhood. I don’t think Mr. Trumbauer was Jewish.

Mr. Trumbauer must have been far richer than I understood, or just a far better man than his ethnicity led my father to think he was. When he moved from his cookie cutter to the gods know where, he fought a battle with the county government. Seeing the writing on the wall (as perhaps a refugee from Germany might have been uniquely qualified to do), he wanted the boomer kids in the neighborhood to have a green place to play, so he gave away his horse farm. The county didn’t want to take it because Mr. Trumbauer insisted that it never be developed it. Later, in law school, I found this strange. I learned that such prohibitions were unenforceable, but someone must have budged because the field is now a county park boasting community gardens.

Before the gardens, while the land was in legal limbo, my world started changing. I was an unhappy teenager, profoundly bored in public school and acting out. I got my kicks by sneaking out at night to hang with dubious sorts who seemed dangerous and worldly to me, a fourteen year-old kid. The Trumbauer barn was still there in 1979, and a popular hang out spot occupied the area between the barn and the woods behind it, hidden from the road. Most nights, that little patch of defiance was packed with muscle cars blaring The Boss and Dire Straits, its denizens engaging in the illicit pleasures of the time: drinking beer, smoking a little weed, making-out, listening to music. No heroin, crack, or guns; just boomers from the middle and end of the generation trying to hold onto the peace and love thing.

The police busted us one night. I had been caught out that late once before (being out after midnight as a fourteen year-old was a hanging offense in my family), and I was not keen to repeat the experience, so I ran (or in the lingo of the time, I booked out of there). I couldn’t make it to the woods despite being a sprinter because the fuzz surprised us by driving through the woods, so I ran toward the road, the barn giving me a few seconds head start. I ran to the darkest part of the field and just dropped. I flattened out in a slight depression about 100 yards from the barn. The police flashed their spotlight repeatedly in my direction, but I remained so very still; I was one with the ground. I had just read Huckleberry Finn, and all I could think about was Huck observing that when one must be still everything starts itching at once. I became Huck Finn, a blade of grass plagued with phantom itches and twitches.

To this day, I don’t know if the police saw me and thought my attempt to hide in plain sight was so ridiculous that they let me think I had gotten away with something, whether they thought my jean jacket was just a piece of detritus containing no miscreant teenager, or whether they just weren’t that interested in teenagers playing at being grown up the summer before high school. It might have been The Boss: “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night” was my invisibility cloak.

I like to think I fooled them with my brazen stealthiness and quick thinking; I like to think Huck was right about acquiring functional invisibility through staying absolutely still in the grass. I want to thank Mr. Trumbauer for that memory, but I am quite sure that running from the cops wasn’t what he had in mind when he fought a legal battle to preserve a green space for the working-class children of World War II veterans.

History of the region: http://www.bcplonline.org/community/history-randallstown

To reserve a plot: http://www.libertyroadrecreation.com

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Filed under Autobiography, Baltimore, Memory, Teenage years