Monday, September 26, 2022

Being the Other: My Trip to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

                                                             All Eyes on Me- 2Pac

This Summer, I had the honor and privilege to travel to Central Asia to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, a country formerly in the Soviet Union/USSR for those of you who are 80s babies, scholars, World Travelers, or World History Buffs. As a traveler and Professor, I honestly had no clue about this country, customs, and culture until I did my research, put on my big girl panties, and prepared for the 16 hours (yes, 16 hours) flight to Bishkek with a layover in Istanbul, Turkey. S/O to Turkish Airlines for a comfortable, smooth flight. 

When we arrived in Bishkek, I had no idea what to expect. Being jet lag, fatigued, delirious, and, above all, I felt like I landed in the USSR, getting ready to fight Ivan Drago like Rocky did to get revenge for what Ivan Drago did to Apollo Creed. This may go over some of your heads, especially if you aren't a Rocky fan. When I got off the flight and into the van, everything was in Russian or Kyrgyz. Kyrgyzstan is the land of the Kyrgyz (stan means the land of). Mongolia invaded and conquered this land in the 13th century, followed by Moscow in the early 1900s, hence why the beloved Krygz speaks Russian and Kyrgyz but looks Asian (Mongolian and Chinese). This country is also North of China. So you all are getting a quick history lesson.

The reason for my travel to Bishkek was due to my University being selected to be part of the OSUN Get Engaged conference hosted by Bard College, in which our students had the chance to learn about civic engagement, present their civic engagement projects, network with other like-minded students around the World, and enhance their international scope of work. I also co-facilitated a self-care workshop for the participants so I could add an International speaker title to my CV. Major S/O to my co-facilitator, Maria from Columbia. 

Being the Other in another country is an exciting experience. As Black women, that was one out of 10; we experienced being the other in a homogeneous nation. We didn't know the language, so we had to rely on Google Translate. We had numerous (100+ people) come up to us with families and cameras out, wanting to take photos as if some may have never seen Black folks before up close and personal. People stopped, stared, took pictures, and kept it moving everywhere we traveled. As someone who has traveled internationally to other countries, I didn't have a problem with being the other because I have witnessed this behavior from different cultures before. Still, my students grew tired and frustrated because they felt they were displayed, singled out, and damn near harassed due to the constant nonconsent photo snapping and gazing. 

Traveling outside of the states for Black People can be pretty isolating, daunting, exhausting, exciting, or confusing, especially when you go to a homogenous country. The Natives may lack cultural competence or humility and differ from their homeland. You have experienced subtle or overt racism like we do in the States. You will experience being the "only one or the other" while visiting these countries, and you will feel uncomfortable when folks stop and stare as if you are a celebrity. Customs, laws, food, language, culture, and mindsets differ entirely, but you must adjust for survival and growth. For instance, in Central Asia, their bathrooms are similar but different depending on how remote and non-conforming the area is. You must pop a squat to use the restroom to have strong knees and quads. Unlike in the US, you will also throw away the used toilet paper in the trash rather than flush it down the toilet due to the lack of a quality sewerage system. 

You learn how to adapt, adopt certain customs, immerse yourself with the people of the land, and realize that we have many similarities and differences. Hopefully, you will learn the difference quickly and research before you go, so you will not end up on Lockup Abroad.

During my travels to Bishkek, I enjoyed the mountainous areas, visiting Issyk Kul (the largest lake in the World by volume and the second-largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea.), going to a karaoke bar to hear the Kyrgyzs sing melancholy Russian music that rocked us to sleep or tears, meeting students, their advisors, and Professors from different parts of the World and creating lasting partnerships, learning more about Bishekek by visiting their museums, and learning about their way of life, and trying their food which I thoroughly enjoyed breakfast but lunch and dinner not so much. Listen, I remember getting excited about eating crispy stir-fry chicken and being disappointed because it was bland. I even tried KFC, y'all, and that was a dub, except for the fries. I don't eat KFC in the States, but your girl was desperate. Once KFC didn't satisfy my food cravings, I made a list of all the foods I would cook or order once I returned to American soil. 

Overall, I enjoyed my travel to Bishkek. I would even travel back there and stay at Issyk Kul longer because the lake was majestic, the snowcap mountains were postcard-perfect, and the serene feel fulfilled my soul. Everyone should travel internationally once in their life. Life is grand. Life is beyond your hometown, neighborhood, block you grew up on, and city you were raised in. I am thankful to have the opportunity to experience life beyond the States. I am also grateful we can take our HBCU students to various countries so they can see beyond their metropolises and experience life beyond being Black in America. 

Words of Wisdom to students and faculty members: If your University or organization offers you a fully funded, expense-paid educational trip somewhere, please consider taking that trip. Research and read about the country, culture, food, laws, American Embassy, visa and passport policies, and GO! Some Universities provide free access to classes, passports, and other resources. You cannot beat that. So go and explore the World and enjoy! You can pay for stuff, but life experiences trump everything. No one can take your life experiences away from you. 

Peace, Love, and Light,

Professor Drea

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