08 April 2011

What Speaking Russian Says about Me

I overheard a very brief exchange at the bazaar the other day when an older Russian woman asked a Kyrgyz vendor how much a large plastic bag cost. The Russian woman asked in Russian, but the Kyrgyz woman answered in Kyrgyz (it was 10 som). Then Russian woman asked the Kyrgyz woman to speak in Russian and the Kyrgyz woman replied again, this time in Russian. And then I couldn’t hear anymore.

It was interesting for a lot of reasons. Did the Russian woman really not know the Kyrgyz word for 10? "Som” is the same in either language. But it was also obvious she was Russian, so was it reasonable for the Kyrgyz woman to speak to her in Kyrgyz?

This is just one little example of why I have a hard time speaking Russian in Central Asia. It’s basically a colonial language, but it’s also unquestionably the most useful language in northern Kyrgyzstan. The people on my street would have a hard time communicating without a common language since they are Uzbek, Dungan, Uyghur, and Kyrgyz (note I don’t mention Russians since they are very few on my street, and I haven’t met any).

But that common language doesn’t have to be Russian, and like I said, it doesn’t really make sense for it to be Russian. The Kyrgyz were here long before the Russians, and so were the Uzbeks, and the Uyghurs and Dungans came at about the same time as the earliest Russian settlers did. A Turkic language would be a more logical choice for a common language.

This isn’t really about a common language though, but about the language you choose to speak. And the story at the beginning highlights the tension. If the Russian woman really didn't know the Kyrgyz word for 10 (maybe she hasn't lived here long, but I can assure you there aren't a lot of older Russian women looking to move to Tokmok), then I have a big problem with that. But I also think it's important to speak to people in a language they understand. Both sides failed at that. But I'm more comfortable with a Kyrgyz not wanting to speak Russian than a Russian who doesn't want to speak Kyrgyz.

So I don’t like that the obvious choice I have to speak Russian communicates something about me. It’s a message I don’t want to send.

(The number one reason why Russian is the best choice for me is that it’s what my children need to learn. The adults on our street might speak Uzbek and Dungan and Kyrgyz with each other, but the kids all speak Russian all the time. That leaves my boys needing to learn Russian. Two parents who are working on Uzbek isn’t the best way to do that. Someday, I hope, Turkic languages will be a better option.)

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