Amelia Smith is a fourth year undergraduate student at The Ohio State University, studying Russian and French. She received a FLAS fellowship for the summer of 2016, which allowed her to spend the summer studying Russian language in Kyrgyzstan through Arizona State University’s CLI program for third-year Russian language. Below she reflects on her time in Kyrgyzstan.
“The people in Kyrgyzstan are more than enthusiastic to see someone from an English-speaking country, especially one who has mothered to learn some Russian or Kyrgyz. English is a language of opportunity for them, but surprisingly, almost no one is able to speak it (except for grade schoolers, for whom learning English has become more important in recent years). It forced me to actually speak Russian for most of the day, which was terrifying at first. As the weeks went on, however, I got used to the idea that I would make mistakes; people would know I was a foreigner, and that I should always keep my eyes and ears open for chances to improve. Coming back to the U.S. and entering fourth-year Russian, I actually feel comfortable at this level and quite prepared for our coursework.
The London School in Bishkek was the hub of our activities. About thirty or forty of us students, mostly from Arizona, studied for five hours for four days a week. Three times a week, we would then have a two-hour excursion into the city with Kyrgyz teenagers and speak solely in Russian. It gave me a chance to see the city and culture and, frankly, leave my comfort zone by choosing places that I would like to visit. All of the tutors and teachers I had were friendly and sweet, even if a few of them were a little intimidating.
My host family was also better than I had dared to hope. A single mother and her young son and daughter, they gave me the largest bedroom, the most food, and any other accommodations I wanted as the weeks progressed. At the end of Ramadan, they took me with them to partake in feasting that involved a lot of noodles and an entire sheep’s head on the table. Kyrgyz cuisine involves a lot of Uzbek, Russian, and Mongolian foods. I really enjoyed everything, except for shoro (a popular cold drink) and kumiss (fermented horse milk). On my birthday, my host mom bought me flowers, a cake, and some champagne (I turned 21) and celebrated with me. They were very sweet and intelligent people, willing to work with me through my lack of Russian knowledge.
On three or four occasions, we had excursions through the London School to other parts of Kyrgyzstan. This may have been my favorite part of my time spent there. We visited the lake Issyk-Kul, one of the cleanest and highest-elevation lakes in the world. We went hiking to see waterfalls and canyons, rode horses in the mountains with a local family, and even visited Kazakhstan for a weekend to see Almaty. At these times, I was thrilled to be in Kyrgyzstan and be part of a culture that most Americans will never get to see.
The only complaints I had about the trip were simply cultural differences that took some getting used to, such as the European floor toilets, the uncomfortable marshrutka rides (the fixed-route taxi), the heat and lack of air conditioning, the air quality in Bishkek itself (there is a lot of traffic), and the water quality (we bought water bottles to drink from, as the tap water was unsafe). But again, these were all easily overcome with a little open-mindedness and patience. I made several American and Kyrgyz friends that I’m still in contact with now, too! This trip helped me grow as an individual, and I couldn’t be more thankful for this very special chance to see a hidden corner of the world and live in a different linguistic sphere.”