Category Archives: Cultural differences

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

Quantemplating Blood

Societies draw lines all the time. On which side of any given line one finds oneself determines the goodies divided up in societies. Socially and culturally created lines impact the biological well being of society’s members. For example, the line between citizen and non-citizen can also be line between life and death. Societies invent exceptions to their lines to avoid the harshest cases—asylum, or citizen exemption—can be extended in cases where those on one side of the line forgive those on the other side for their foreignness. With citizenship or its approximation, a person may obtain a job, have police protection, rely on a social safety net, or enjoy access to education. Without, a person—an equivalent human being—is excluded from these privileges, left standing outside in a cold rain, envious of the warm and happy glow of the hearth.

Artificial boundaries exist within societies as well; they delineate how spoils shall be divided. In homogeneous societies, such barriers fell along lines of family lineage and sex. Wealth was inherited along family lines and descended through the male heir. The society that controlled wealth had interior rules, but patriarchy and oligarchy ruled. The males of a certain family married women from families of similar status, and wealth was controlled. Those not of the correct bloodline were simply out of luck. Although conceived of as part of “good breeding” (without engaging the idea of eugenics), the only real differences between people of breeding and commoners was the artificial lineage spurred by antique conquest. Blood itself was neither better nor worse. Those with access to education and proper nutrition became rulers while those without served and represented a seemingly permanent underclass (even when the upper classes were, arguably, more feeble because of selective inbreeding to maintain purity).

Meritocracies have been imagined discreetly since the Axial Age, but in most cases, granting leadership to the most able simply could not dislodge long held beliefs in descent by blood. Membership in a leading family or tribe has consistently determined access to power and the greater share of the spoils of citizenship. Caste and class were seemingly the same because social standing determined on an immutable characteristic: blood. Conversely, membership in a family who was not in a leadership role established a rigid cast system of leaders, artisans, unskilled workers, and flotsam and jetsam of society. Social mobility upward was nearly impossible while mobility downward could happen due to perceived defects of character. Despite supposed good blood, individual lapses could result in expulsion from honored society. In the United States of 2015, such lapses are called “affluenza.” The affluent who do wrong are generally more quickly exonerated from, or less severely punished for, their transgressions. “Blood will out” is an idiomatic phrase that indicates that good breeding will show itself but that it also must be protected and cared for in a husbandry-like manner. Some people within societies are just better than others.

Of course, when the English established their global empire, they came into contact with many people who could never share the same blood as the aristocracy, so they would always be inferior. Furthermore, the “wogs,” the aboriginal peoples of conquered lands also looked different from the English ideal, as expressed in medieval romantic poetry and satirized in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (and perhaps even by Cervantes in Don Quixotes’ imagined visage of Dulcinea).[i]

Classically educated explorers took with them the ideal of coral lips and alabaster skin. Naturally, natives of Africa, the Americas and the South Pacific did not meet that standard, so were considered by nature less worthy. In the case of African Americans, the “one-drop rule” evolved: if a person, no matter how “white” he or she might appear, had “one drop” of African blood—or in other words any African ancestor—that person would be considered black and firmly outside a primary exclusionary line of social benefits. The oppression of the one-drop rule led many individuals who were genealogically labeled as unclean to take matters into their own hands and chose to act as if they were not saddle with this ludicrous measurement. They “passed” as white—they pretended to have no African ancestors—in order to occupy space on the side of the line that granted full citizenship rights. The very nature of passing and the one-drop rule are examples of the fallacy of conferring social difference based on imagined blood quality.

This blood issue also troubled Native Americans. Although considered by British colonizers as being more “noble” than Africans, mostly because Native Americans successfully resisted enslavement through knowledge of the landscape that permitted escape and immune systems not prepared for European diseases, which cause captive natives to die in droves—which ironically generated English respect for those who would die in captivity and therefore constitutionally must be free—Native American blood was still considered unclean and not suitable for mixing with Anglo-Saxon-European blood. Still, mixing happened (mostly through rape), and offspring from Euro-Native unions looked more European and had acquired immunity to European diseases from European parents. Although a person with one native grandparent was still consider and Indian and therefore not eligible for the rights of citizenship, that person would appear to be Anglo-Saxon and therefore could pass as white. In the British conquest of North America, almost all previously autonomous East Coast tribes were completely wiped out. All that remained were vestiges of the once mighty Iroquois Federation and the Anglicized Cherokee Tribe. Any individuals remaining from the smaller, losing tribes has long since integrated into larger, victorious societies, be they white, renegade African American, or traditional enemy tribes. For the Indian that passed after the birth of the Republic, white society made the most sense. Only by entering white society could individuals survive the successful destruction of their culture. And it is these very individuals who are having that choice born of necessity—assimilate or die—used against them in any attempt of their descendants to reunite with cultural values.

Many of those who passed as white completely assimilated and forgot all traditions.[ii] Being discovered as a person of color passing as an Anglo-Saxon could carry a death sentence at the end of a rope. Nonetheless, some who passed preserved in secret the culture they had left, passing it to children and grandchildren. Memories fade but oral history is reliable. When a grandmother passes a story and a bit of cultural belief onto a grandchild as a statement of coded history, the shared memory has as much (if not more value) than a written version of a similar communication. When communicated in hiding, a truth is being concealed, one that could never be communicated in the open format of a book. Whispered rites and creation stories merge with mainstream Bible stories and accepted practices and create a tapestry heritage rather than a lineage.

People don’t seem to understand the fundamental lie at the base of race in America: “race” is ethnic difference confused with biology and then codified as genealogy. That “race” follows the “condition” of the mother lead to obnoxious one-drop rules and the obscenity that was the cultural necessity “to pass.” Skip the outrage. If you really do believe in total cultural equality, being trans-ethnic is no big deal. Everyone constructs an identity to share with the world. Picking a subaltern identity is no less dishonest than picking a ruling class identity; it may even be the sincerest form of flattery.

I’m guessing that some outrage might stem from comparing the present situation—a young woman presenting herself as African American and completely adopting the culture—to minstrelsy. However, choosing to live as a member of an adopted culture does not reek of exploitation/appropriation as did minstrelsy, not matter how much white musicians appreciated what they perceived as African American culture. Ultimately the minstrel show reinforced the Jim Crow line of white supremacy. Nor is trans-ethic behavior “slumming.” There is nothing temporary about joining in toto another group’s culture. At the end of the day, no one would choose to live as a member of a subaltern group for any other reason that the culture expresses his or her true identity. The issue of trans-ethnic living only becomes unsavory when one continues to confuse ethnicity with biology and because of the unique history of race in America.

While we accept transgendered and transsexual designations, why does trans-ethnic expression feel like cultural appropriation, like a lie? Does one truly have the freedom to choose ethnicity, especially moving from a dominant to a subaltern group? Maybe this is just a case of a white girl being sick of white people crap and choosing to live without it. She choose at the same time to live without white privilege, which should also be considered before anyone chooses to throw stones.

[i] Walter Clyde, “The Middle English Ideal of Personal Beauty as Found in the Metrical Romances, Chronicles,” Ph.D. dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1916.

[ii] Karen Grigsby Bates, “‘A Chosen Exile’: Black People Passing as White in America,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio:

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Filed under Cultural differences, ethnicity, Ideas

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.


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.




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.



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.


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

Hair Cut in Kyrgyzstan: Historian Red

The one phrase I have learned in Russian is “I don’t understand these Americans.” I heard this uttered many times today. I have encountered this phenomenon in Wales as well, even though the common tongue was English. Words were coming out of our mouths from the same vocabulary, but understanding was as elusive as cold fusion. We use so much idiomatic speech and specialized vocabulary daily that sometimes attempts at communication, even in the same language, can be utterly confusing.

Since I’m an expat and must have my hair cut from time to time, I find that I often need to explain myself without the use of the lingua franca, in today’s case, Russian (I’m fine in French, btw). Although I am Slavic-challenged, I was able to get across what I wanted for my scalp, red and short. No problems, right?

First problem, REALLY short hair. In Kyrgyz and Russian culture, hair is an part of a well-scripted couture. This week, I showed my classes several photographs from the early twentieth century. All of my students insisted that any child with long hair was a girl and any with short was a boy. These gender markers are poured in rebar reinforced concrete. Chip away at your own risk. I’m American and generally show up at my hair appointments in shorts and a tank top (or sweatpants and jumper in winter). So, there I sit, dressed as a man would dress, reading a book intently (and making notes), looking about as Slavically unfeminine as I could, asking for extremely short hair. Eyebrows raised and clucking ensued. OK, earbuds in, Dave Matthews on, see what happens.

There are many shades of red in the salon palette. I’m not too picky (having had my hair dyed in Wales, England, Scotland, France, Germany, Turkey, Bulgaria, the UAE, Qatar, Thailand, Belize, and now Kyrgyzstan, in addition to most States and the District of Columbia). One day at the OAH meeting, my husband pointed out that many of the women had exactly the same shade of hair. Dubbed “historian red,” I vowed, “never again.”

Having capitulated to my insistence on short pixie hair (“elf,” the Russian word for pixie didn’t quite get the idea across), the stylist put her foot down. I was to have historian red.

I asked if anyone spoke English, French, German, or Turkish. Silence. I had successfully explained that I understood that she advised me against my selection, and yes, I understood the reasons for her objections, but please, PAJHOLSTA [пажолста], just give it a try, as an experiment? Humor me? It is my head after all. Just make it copper instead of deep red.

So we understood what I wanted, and we understood what she wanted, but asking for short, coppery red hair? Does.Not.Compute. I prevailed, and my hair is satisfactory, at least for the next six weeks. Hey, it cost 800 soms (about $18 US), and it’s a pretty good hair cut.

Short red hair


NOT historian red.

Maureen Down in historian red.


I like it, but so does everyone else, especially historians.

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Filed under Cultural differences, Expat life