Meet U.S. Department of State sponsored Gilman Scholarship recipient Karly Kahl-Placek. Karly was a Gilman Global Experience Correspondent for the Spring 2014 semester in Jaipur, India. The Gilman Global Experience allows Gilman Scholarship recipients the opportunity to record videos around academic and cultural themes to share with other students interested in studying or interning abroad in the featured country. For more videos please visit the Gilman Scholarship’s Official YouTube page.
To be honest, I think I got a little cocky after not really experiencing very much culture shock while I was abroad and assumed I would have just as easy of a time readjusting when I got home. But what I’ve learned after being home for about a week is that coming home is a whole new experience entirely. On our last night in Kyrgyzstan, we had dinner with all of the students and faculty from our program. One of the faculty members told us something that I wasn’t able to fully understand until I got home. “It might seem like people don’t care about hearing about your experience,” he said, “but they do. They just literally don’t understand what you are talking about, it’s like you’re speaking a foreign language.” He told us that we might have to hide part of ourselves for a little while, until we found someone else who understood what it was like to live abroad and how it fundamentally changes so many things about you that you sometimes aren’t fully able to understand or articulate. He was right. I got off the plane and couldn’t wait to share everything about my trip with everyone I talked to. The thing was, as I told them my stories, I found myself becoming more and more frustrated. I felt like the people around me weren’t really listening to what I was saying and were just passively letting my stories wash over them. I tried over and over to explain what I’d seen and done and how these things had changed how I saw the world, I just wanted them to get it. But they didn’t. Really though, how could they? It took me a while, but I realized that they were listening; I just wanted them to hear something more than what I was saying. I think I was trying to share more than just stories with people; I was trying to share how these stories had made me feel. I was trying to take all those changes I felt and make other people feel them too, but obviously that’s not how things work. I realized that that faculty member had been right. There were parts of what I had experienced that I was going to have to keep to myself until I met someone else who would understand without me having to explain.
There are countless articles out there that talk about wanderlust and reasons to travel. They all say things that I’ve found to be very true about having experiences that change your life and how great it is to see new places and cultures and meet new people. They also almost always talk about how, once you travel, you want to keep travelling. Most of them relate this urge back to those things I mentioned before, those exciting new experiences. But I think there’s a little more to it than that. I think it comes back to those pieces that people who have traveled have to hide when they get home. Maybe when people go back out into the world they’re not just looking for novelty, but for the familiar as well. Maybe they’re trying to find others who speak their language, people who can read between the lines of their stories and hear what they’re really trying to say.
I miss Kyrgyzstan. I miss the part of myself that I left there and I’m not totally sure I’ll be able to find it again. I’m also extremely happy to be home, mostly because of burritos and the lack of marshrutkas in the public transportation system. I’ve always loved the saying “home is where the heart is,” despite my aversion to clichés. I always think it is a beautiful and comforting concept that your home isn’t dependent on a physical thing, like a house or an apartment, but is where you feel complete. When you travel though, I think it becomes a little more complex. I feel like I’ve left parts of me with people in so many places and I don’t know if it’s possible to feel totally complete in one place anymore. I know I want to keep travelling and I know this means I’ll be leaving parts of myself in places that I might never get to go back to, but I think it’s worth it. It’s extremely hard to travel and not experience some kind of growth. Maybe you give up having one place in the world where you feel like you belong completely, but you also gain this amazing sense of freedom. Whatever pieces you leave behind are replaced by new thoughts, beliefs, and friendships that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life. My time in Kyrgyzstan honestly changed my life, and it changed me. I’m figuring out how to make these changes fit into my life here in the States, but soon I hope I can venture out into the world again, and maybe find people who speak the same language.
During my time here in Kyrgyzstan, I have been interning at the Soros Foundation. The Soros Foundation operates around the world, including in the U.S. though it is known as the Open Society Foundations in other parts of the world. When I applied for my program, we chose whether we wanted to work with human rights and peace building or environment and sustainability. I chose the human rights track and was assigned an internship when I arrived in Bishkek. The Soros Foundation works with a variety of issues including education and youth, governance and accountability, health, rights and justice, and media and information. I am working in the media and information sector with the Freedom of Information Program. My work has mostly been focused on the Encouraging Diversity Through Media Project. This project is focused primarily on the development of media content about the cultural and ethnic diversity of Kyrgyzstan, strengthening the role of Kyrgyz media in constructive inter-ethnic dialogues, and providing improved access to information in different, especially minority, languages. Typically, I arrive at Soros at 2 pm and go over my assignment for the day with my supervisor. I then do my research and put what I find into a file for my supervisors to use in their work. My latest research was used during a training that Soros was involved in for journalists to educate them on how to report in a way that did not escalate conflicts and helped to diffuse them and promote peace instead.
The first project I worked on when I arrived in Kyrgyzstan was regarding the approaching switchover from analog to digital television. My first assignment was proof reading a document that provided recommendations for the promotion of a transparent, inclusive, and timely transition to digital broadcasting that respected the rights of citizens and current broadcasters. I found this very interesting because I can pretty vividly remember when the U.S. transitioned to digital broadcasting and the campaigns that were run on TV and on other forms of media to promote the change. Proofreading this document was also very educational for me because, although I had been through a switchover, I had never really understood the details of why it was happening or even necessary in the first place.
My other project has been researching the best practices for using media in post conflict resolution and to promote peace and diversity. In 2010, there were violent ethnic clashes between the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the south of Kyrgyzstan primarily in the cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad. The Soros Foundation has been doing work in different areas to help repair relations between these two ethnic groups. During my second week at my internship I attended a conference that my supervisors were participating in. The conference was titled “Civil Identity: Unity in Diversity. The Role of Media, Government and Society.” The conference had presenters from different NGOs who were working on media projects to promote diversity. These projects included funding local independent stations, running youth groups, and putting out different publications espousing peace. I am possibly the most technologically challenged person I know, so up until this point, I had never really acknowledged the benefits that media programs can have. I have come to find this topic fascinating and I am doing my final research paper for my seminar class here in Kyrgyzstan on it as well. Since I am starting my senior year this fall, I have been thinking more and more about what I am passionate about and what I find interesting and how I can make a living from it. Before this internship, I would have classified working in any sort of media related job as boring and constraining. Because of my experience at Soros, I have realized that there is a very human element to media relations that I find fascinating. It is all about learning how people think and figuring out the best way to reach them. I have no idea what the future has in store for me after I graduate, but I now have a whole new path that I can follow.
“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
This quote is the most accurate way I can think of to describe my feelings for this country. During my first few weeks, I was happy to be in a new country discovering another culture, but I was by no means head over heels in love with life here. A week or so ago, as I sat with some of my American and Kyrgyz friends on top of a hill overlooking Bishkek and watched the sun go down over the city, I realized something had changed. Somehow I had fallen in love with this country without noticing it, and I had fallen hard.
During my orientation at school before departing for Bishkek, we were shown a graph of the stages that people go through when they study abroad. I’m not going to lie, the graph made me pretty nervous. Although I had never traveled abroad before, I had traveled throughout the US and I go to school pretty far from home, so I’ve experienced being separated from my family and friends for long periods of time. The thing is, home-sickness was something that had never been a problem for me, so I really had no experience dealing with it. Looking at this graph and listening to a presenter tell us that we would all at some point feel depressed and helpless was definitely intimidating. It also just didn’t sound like me. I think the presenter could see the doubt on my face, because she was quick to assure me that she hadn’t thought she would feel those things either, but she had experienced every single stage on the graph.
During those first few weeks in Bishkek, that graph was always in the back of my mind. I kept wondering when the frustration with the culture, the homesickness, and the helplessness would hit. Then, as I sat on that hill and looked out over the city I had come to love, I realized something. This graph wasn’t written in stone, I wasn’t obligated to feel things the same way someone else did. I’m not saying that there haven’t been times when I felt out-of-place or when I missed my friends, but, for me, these feelings never resulted in me wanting to leave or feeling extremely sad. I don’t think there is any model that can accurately predict how every single person will react to a situation and I think people experience different stages of this graph at different intensities and some may skip certain stages entirely. It doesn’t mean that some people are stronger or weaker than others; it just means we’ve all led different lives and react differently to situations. For me, I think I skipped the first stage, or “honeymoon stage” as its sometimes called, and just grew steadily more comfortable in this country until I realized that it was starting to feel like home. Perhaps, the fact that I didn’t have this period of overwhelming infatuation with Kyrgyzstan when I first got here helped me to not have a lot of negative or frustrated feelings down the road. I think what all of this comes down to, is that how we react to situations is completely up to us. I have no scientific evidence to back this up, but I’m pretty sure that every single student in the history of students who have studied abroad has had some sort of inconvenient, frustrating, or scary thing happen to them on their trip. Of course, some things have more of an effect on us than others and are harder to get over, but for the most part, how you choose to react to these things will define how you feel about your experience and determine how much you learn and get out of your trip when it’s over. It’s an empowering, but also slightly scary feeling to realize that we have so much power over our lives. I’ve gained so much from my experience in Kyrgyzstan, but I think the biggest thing so far would be this realization that I define my life and that I don’t have to fit it into anyone else’s mold, no matter how tried and true this mold is said to be.
Meet U.S. Department of State sponsored Gilman Scholarship recipient Karly Kahl-Placek. Karly was a Gilman Global Experience Correspondent for the Spring 2013 semester in Jaipur, India. The Gilman Global Experience allows Gilman Scholarship recipients the opportunity to record videos around academic and cultural themes to share with other students interested in studying or interning abroad in the featured country. For more videos please visit the Gilman Scholarship’s Official YouTube page.
Since the day I started my journey to Kyrgyzstan, unexpected opportunities have become a daily occurrence for me. I can never be completely sure what my days are going to hold or what new people I am going to meet. One of these unexpected opportunities presented itself during my second week in Bishkek. One of our program assistants mentioned that there were many opportunities to teach English if any of us were interested. Two other girls from the program and I told her that we would be interested and she responded later that day with a teaching opportunity for us. A few other people in our program had already started teaching English here, and all of their situations seemed to be teaching one or two small children at their homes once or twice a week. At first, we were under the impression that this was going to be the same kind of deal, but we slowly began to realize that what we were in for was going to be a very different experience.
We got our first clue when we received a call telling us that a taxi was being sent to pick us up. We got into the taxi with no knowledge of our destination and watched the city fly by as our driver maneuvered his way through rush hour traffic (driving in Bishkek is absolutely terrifying by the way, mostly because lanes and general traffic rules don’t seem to exist.) We finally stopped at a building that had the words ENGLISH ZONE emblazoned across the front and climbed out of our taxi. We were greeted by one of the managers and then taken into a room where the owner began to talk to us about our time in Bishkek so far. After a few minutes of small talk, he suddenly became very businesslike. “So you want a job” he said. “Before we go further, I want you guys to tell me about the most influential teacher you’ve had and why they impacted your life so much.” At this point, the three of us realized that we would not be giving one on one lessons to small children while their parents made us snacks, and that we had quite literally stumbled into a legitimate job interview. We scrambled to get into professional mode and somehow managed to get out coherent and decently intelligent responses to his questions. After the impromptu interview, he told us we would have a five-day trial period and explained the premise of English Zone to us. English Zone is a school that is trying to revolutionize learning. Students are not given lessons on vocab and grammar directly, but learn it through learning other subjects in English. They give presentations on topics, debate controversial issues, watch videos, learn songs, and are just generally immersed in English the whole time they are at English Zone. “Moderator” is also substituted for the word “teacher” because the idea is that the moderator should facilitate discussion and learning more so than teaching information directly. I found these concepts fascinating and on par with my own feelings on education.
We began our trial week that day and observed a class. The next day we showed up for training and our supervisor said “Rachel and Alex you’ll be observing my class. Gabby you have a class in ten minutes that you will be leading.” I’m not going to lie; there was a moment of pure panic where my thoughts went something like “What. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve had no training. I should run…Or play dead… Is it possible to do both?” I managed to clamp down these thoughts however, and shakily walked into my class ten minutes later with a very sparse and haphazard lesson plan. That class was one of the most fun and eye-opening experiences of my life. All of the students were my age or older and were already at a conversational level. They were also hilarious and my nerves disappeared almost immediately. Since that day, I’ve been volunteering there Monday through Friday and loving it.
One of my friends told me once that he thinks that there are people we meet who are like puzzle pieces and that, throughout our lives, these puzzle pieces come together and help shape who we are as a person. For me, the students and the people I work with at English Zone are definitely some of my puzzle pieces. They have not only taught me a lot about Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan, but they have taught me about myself. They ask me questions that make me think and come up with answers to my questions that I have never considered before. They have taught me about an aspect of myself that I didn’t really know existed and helped me discover that I am passionate about helping people learn. They have told me about their dreams and ambitions and inspired me to follow my own. They are funny, smart and dedicated and make me want to strive to be better every time I moderate a class. Many of them have also become my friends and the time I have spent with them outside of English Zone has resulted in some of my favorite experiences here so far.
I had no idea when I applied for this summer program in Bishkek that I would become part of a startup company that is trying to change the education world. I didn’t know that I would find a new passion or that I would meet my students and learn so much from them. They have opened up parts of this culture that I would not have gotten a chance to see as a foreigner. Before going to English Zone and meeting the people there, I hadn’t really considered the possibility that I would come back to Kyrgyzstan down the road, this trip seemed like a once in a lifetime kind of deal. The unexpected friendships and connections I have made there have made me want to return and learn more about this country and become more involved in the work that English Zone does.
I remember when I was a freshman in high school and I was advised to “cherish the next four years” because they were going to “fly by.” They did. I remember as a freshman in college when I was encouraged to “appreciate this time in your life” as “it will go by in the blink of an eye.” It did. When I was told that my semester abroad would go by faster than any other semester, I truly did assume that it would. And it did, in ways – but in other ways my time in India was immeasurable. Sometimes it feels like the past semester sped by, but other times it’s as if a lifetime was spent in India. Traditional senses of time do not apply when you go abroad.
There are many things I’ve seen in India that I can’t process yet here in the States, nor will I be able to in the near future. Likewise, there are many things that I now notice and get unhappy about. When I see people wasting water frequently, I am immediately reminded of how limited its availability truly is. I’m also reminded again of the high consumption of meat in the United States, whereas in most of India people typically have to go out of their way to find a “non-Veg” restaurant. I miss hearing songs from the latest Bollywood films and I miss seeing cows, camels, and yes – even the occasional elephant – walking in the streets. I miss jackfruit chips and morning chai (though I do not miss mid-day, afternoon, and evening chai – that got to be a tad excessive). Most importantly, I miss the beautiful souls I met whilst in India and the incredible experiences we had there. I’ve been talking about India a lot with my friends and family, which is helping me readjust to life stateside. I’m currently trying to incorporate everything I’ve learned in India into my daily life, which is proving to be challenging in this strange old environment. I can boil up my efforts into a simple act: make the most out of every single day, just as I would if I were traveling. I may not be traveling now, but my time abroad has taught me that I can always live like a traveler
Food is a rich and important part of Kyrgyz culture. The staple ingredients of meals tend to be meat, vegetables, and rice. Ган-Фан (gan-fan) and манты(manti) are two of my favorite dishes so far. I would describe Ган-фанas a type of thick sauce with chunks of meat and vegetables over rice. Манты are dumplings with meat, potatoes, and onion inside and are usually steamed but I’ve also had fried ones in restaurants and they are quite delicious as well. I tried the other day to learn how to fold мантыinto in its dumpling shape, but most of what I accomplished was proving that I am not cut out to work in a Kyrgyz kitchen. My host family assured me that I folded them perfectly but I have learned that, when it comes to my cooking skills, they lie to me out of love a lot. The fruit here is also absolutely delicious. The first thing I ate when I arrived in Bishkek was a plate of fresh strawberries. They are smaller than the strawberries I am used to but the flavor is amazing. I have developed a slight obsession and I get irrationally excited when I see them being sold on the side of the road by the bucketful.
One thing I’ve noticed here is that food is not wasted to the extent that it sometimes is at home. My host family makes many dishes that reuse ingredients from the previous night’s meal so as to make the most out of the food they have. This has definitely made me think about the attitude toward food in the US and the amount of times I have seen leftovers tossed out instead of being reused to create another meal. Another thing I have noticed, with my host family but even more so at restaurants, is how popular tea is. My tea consumption at this point is off the charts because pots of tea seem to be equivalent with complementary glasses of water one gets at restaurants in the US. Any time I have a meal here, I can be sure that there will be some type of tea on the table.
Hospitality is a very important part of Kyrgyz culture and it is believed that a big part of being hospitable is making sure that guests are well fed. I have noticed that this mentality about food and hospitality reaches into the professional world here as well. I am interning with the Soros Foundation in Kyrgyzstan and have been to a few meetings and a conference so far. At each of these events, I can always be sure to find a spread of tea, jam, cookies, and bread at the very least and on various occasions I have seen four-course meals laid out.
Food is also used to bring the family together and is a way to show that you care about someone. I share my host family with another girl from my program and the phrase we hear the most from our grandmother is most definitely “кушатькушать!” (eat eat!). It seems to be her constant mission to make sure that we are either drinking tea or eating bread at all times. I have stumbled sleepily out of my room at midnight to go to the bathroom only to find my grandmother waiting for me with a fresh cup of tea when I come out. Our host sister Aychurek, or Chuci, told us that this is because cooking and providing food for members of your family is a way to show affection and that you care about them. Meals with my host family are one of my favorite parts of the day because it is a time when we are all together talking about our days and other random things. The mentality of eating as a thing to be enjoyed and savored and not just a process to get through as fast as possible, is something I really love about this culture and something that I want to bring back with me when I leave here.
For the most part, I consider myself a pretty easy-going person. It takes a lot to frustrate me, and luckily this trait has carried itself over with me into India. Recently, however, I had to tackle the largest issue I’ve had here yet: getting sick. The exact causes and diagnoses were unknown, but I had to remain hospitalized for two days here, in Jaipur. Hospitals are never “fun” places to be, even in the United States – but they are especially not fun in India. Without going into detail, I can say that there were many unpleasant experiences at the hospital that frustrated me as nothing had ever frustrated me before. I suddenly found myself at the lowest point of the traditional “Culture Shock” diagram… I felt completely helpless and yearned to be with my family in the United States. I had hours to ruminate on negative thoughts, which only made me feel worse physically. Eventually I got to a point where I had to decide how I was going to process this situation: was I going to let it overpower all of the amazing memories of the things I had seen, felt, and experienced throughout my time abroad? Or could I accept things for what they were and be grateful for all of the kind souls who were helping me? I chose the latter and came out of the hospital without any ill feelings (no pun intended).
Cesare Pavese once said “traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends.” Here in India, I think I’m beginning to understand what he meant.
The time difference here is eleven hours and thirty minutes ahead of my family back in the United States, and please don’t ask me how the “thirty minutes” thing got involved because it pains my brain to think about it. My point: communicating effectively with people half way around the world is often very difficult. Email tends to work out best, as it doesn’t require both parties to be awake at the same time. Skype and phone calls, however, are often more complicated to arrange and require you to rely on having electricity or access to the Internet at given times … and in the area I’m currently staying at near the forests of West Bengal, one can never rely on stable electricity or Internet access. Luckily my family and friends back home have been very understanding of dropped Skype calls and my frequent M.I.A. status. The unpredictable circumstances makes it quite easy to “lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends.” This is where adaptation comes into play. I’m glad to have met many close friends in my program – friends who can relate to the things I’m experiencing here because they’re experiencing the very same things. We find comfort in each other, and suddenly “home” feels like less of a physical place. “Home” is now wherever I am, so long as I am with people I care about. I agree with Pavese that traveling can be brutal – a beautiful brutality that forces you to read by candlelight instead of spend time on Facebook. I wouldn’t have it any other way.