The Power of Observation

By Grace Baldwin
Nov. 3, 2023

I aptly titled this post The Power of Observation primarily because I started taking notes of things I was seeing and just how necessary I find it to be when language barriers are so strong. In some ways, the last two weeks, I feel like an observer, watching on the outside and sometimes to my detriment.

Grace, second right, and other Volunteers were judges at Spelling Bee Jalal-Abad regional contest

I had been pondering, as I often do in moments when my host family is talking amongst themselves, their fast words and flurry of speech drowning out unintentionally behind my ears, what my family enjoyed. I knew how to ask them, I had indeed many times, what their hobbies were, etc. They all gave me numerous answers: cooking food, reading, watching movies, etc. Yet I’m here with them and in their company for all but the 20-30 hours per week I work and out of the house, so I should know what they do just by what they actually do. I had forgotten the most important and powerful lesson: it’s what people do, not what they say. I could learn purely from watching, something I did a lot in Chuy region during training, but here it is even more important.

You watch how people act, you watch how women act around men, how people greet each other. Observation is a volunteer’s greatest asset. What do they do? I have a habit, which I got from back home, of the daily dinner question “What did you do today?” with my family. My host family asks me in their own ways, my host sister-in-law and mom ask me every day how many lessons I’ve given and if I have any new news. Their answers when I ask them are always: cooking, washing dishes, more cooking, cleaning, etc. I tell Alihan (my host brother who is 4) that he needs hobbies, but really, I think we all do.

I’ve been reading consistently, and young adult (YA) has my heart right now. Every once in a while, I read a genuinely good young adult book, but most of the time I read them for the cheesy angst! (It’s like Marvel movies, they’re fun, but sometimes there’s one that’s *good* cinema, and I feel the same way about YA fantasy books). The new Percy Jackson book which recently came out sits on my list, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

So, this particular blog post will be lots of observations. My host family, which now is at 14 (12 if you don’t include me and the baby), will soon shrink. My host brothers Merder and Bakyt are leaving, driving their car back to Moscow (which is supposed to be a FOUR-day long trip). I had been told quite abruptly that my sister-in-law, Adelia, Alihan, and the other two children would leave at some point too (“in the winter” is all she said, but to be honest Kyrgyz people vacillate so much that could mean November or February). I’ve found all their company so comforting, even if I don’t speak to every single person in the family regularly, their presence is one I know I will and have missed.

My host sister Dinara first told me over a month ago that she would leave (with her son, daughter, and husband) in ten days. Fast forward ten days, and I asked her son again when they would leave. He said, ten days. It is now the middle of October. It’s no loss, for I secretly have wished they would stay as long as they are able, and it’s a pleasant surprise. Their presence infuses the house with joy and warmth. Perhaps once all the children leave- and I will cry then- I can teach my host parents Uno, or at least find something constructive to do during the long and cold winter.

Recurring things to mention is that our new dog, Bingo, has become somewhat of a menace. He has stolen my shoes from the staircase to the house on more than one occasion, dragging one sandle to the grass courtyard. He shrieks at night, and everyone except me and my host sister Aidana are scared of him. As they should be.

Grace’s host brothers
Grace’s host brothers

In school, students repeatedly greet me, and I’m sure they in some ways like me more because I don’t berate them during class. Beratement and classroom management are not unheard of, and limited physical discipline seems to be the norm. I’m not allowed to at all, nor do I have any desire to. I often feel so early on here like an exotic creature in school. Baku, my counterpart, is one of the only people in the whole school who can talk to me in my native language, which gives her a sort of prestige and esteem for being trilingual. Speaking of being trilingual, I know it causes her sort of a mess and it is starting to do so to me as well. We speak Kyrgyz at home, but sometimes the children speak in Russian (due to the Masha and the Bear cartoon they watch constantly), and sometimes I remember the Kyrgyz word for things, and sometimes I only remember the Russian word. Talk about a trilingual mess. Once October is over, I am going to try to slowly learn some Russian phrases (starting with numbers, because in the bazaar everyone tells me prices in Russian, and I constantly have to reask them before they tell me the Kyrgyz word).

Another peculiarity I noticed is that students only write in pens here. I find it interesting that the word for pen is ручка (ruchka) but it also refers to markers, and the word for pencil is карандаш (karandash) which also refers to crayons. Because students only write in pens, they have an abundance of white-out which they commonly use. It has never been very clear to me why they prefer pens, but it almost seems like pens are more common here (or cheaper).

Host sister Adelia
Host sister Adelia

Another common sight, which I saw a bit in Chuy, is the proliferation of the English language on clothing. Several students have English words on their blouses (quotes often) or American or Western brands. This is not limited to children, either, my host brother in Chuy wore a t-shirt that had an inspiring quote about putting all of yourself into things, and he asked me to translate it and I couldn’t. I’ve found it amusing to ask them if they can read what they’re wearing, and they always say no. My host sister the other day wore one that said “You never walk alone” which I found sweet, and it was all the more amusing when I finally got to tell her what it said. I mean, I’ve found tons of people with Chinese or Japanese on their clothing in the US who can’t read their own shirts so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me.

My host sister Adelia is the sweetest of the kids and laughs all the time. She wears her hair in pigtails and routinely runs around the house with her backpack falling behind her, full of markers and broken crayons. Alihan is the most jealous, constantly whining when he doesn’t get to partake in adult activities, but he has the best smile and easily the most curious spirit, as he points at stuff all the time, shouting “Mana!” At me (it means “look” or something of that variety). My host brother Emir is a crier, and that’s all I have to say about him. I’ve made jokes about that being his only hobby. Alihan also has a habit of constantly calling everyone around the house “mom” (I’ve had to repeatedly tell him, and his actual mother has too, that me, his father, and his aunt are all *not* his mother).

My counterpart Baktygul and I continue to teach, with some lessons flourishing and others being difficult. 8th grade continues to remain the hardest, mostly because they are unfortunately in a weird jumbled spot on Thursdays and Fridays, wedged between 6th and 7th graders on the schedule. In addition, they perform in the school concerts, sing songs and dances, and I lose them the most in terms of lessons (during holidays or major concerts/school events, classes get skipped and that’s that). As such, I have a bad habit of simply not remembering what I teach 8th grade and forgetting students (I feel like I disassociate around 8th grade, maybe it’s like Schrodinger's cat where they do exist and do not up until I walk into the classroom). 5th grade is the one I remember the most amount of students’ names. Here is a fun linguistic confusion: class in Kyrgyz - klass- means grade level, lesson- sabak- means class (like English class), and кабинет (cabeenet) means both cabinent and also classroom. Talk about confusion!

The funniest part which I tease Baktygul eje (*eje means older sister in Kyrgyz) over is that her husband calls her throughout the day, as expected, as he works in Europe, but he calls for thirty seconds and then hangs up. He’ll ask “How are you, how is class?” and then she will answer and the conversation will be over. Then, he’ll call again. She claims it has to do with his work schedule, which I sort of understand, but it’s a continuous funny part of the day, where we’ll be between classes, and I’ll look up to hear her phone ring, and then 30 seconds later, they’ll be done.

Spending time with host brother
Spending time with host brothers

As fall and winter arrive, I am sad that my family now eats inside more on the floor, as I really like our tapchan (a raised platform for eating) in the house. The funniest thing I kept forgetting to mention was the nightly bird-shooing routine. So our family has a courtyard with a “box” of birds - I kid you not, it’s a wooden box where my host mom keeps birds. For the last month, my family has had a large reservoir of corncobs, and we routinely used to break the pieces off into buckets to feed the birds (and sometimes Bingo). At night, though the daily ritual is to run after the birds and corral them back into the box. Sometimes it involves flapping your arms, shouting, using a broom, or just picking them up. Haha.

This past weekend, I got permission to leave school early to go to Jalal-Abad City. There has been a cold front, so it rained and was freezing (a low of 2 degrees Celsius and a high of 15 or so, and with rain it certainly felt like 2-4 degrees, which is low 40s-50s for my Fahrenheit people). The American Corner is an organization in Jalal-Abad that works in conjunction with the US Embassy in Kyrgyzstan to promote English and American diplomacy. The main coordinator invited the volunteers in Jalal-Abad to be judges at the local spelling bee competition to determine the finalists to send to the National Spelling Bee happening in Bishkek next weekend. I was the pronouncer at the event, and it was a great time.

Volunteers with Spelling Bee contest winners in Jalal-Abad region
Volunteers with Spelling Bee contest winners in Jalal-Abad region

I, in the past, have watched Spelling Bees and have heard the greatest tip from seasoned people is to ask for alternate pronunciations, as it helps to hear the sounds. Kyrgyz is a phonetic language, so even I could have excelled at a Kyrgyz spelling bee because the words are predictable. However, English, as I remind myself has so many different pronunciations of words and the letters act differently constantly. The letters "c" and "k" and "s" slipped students often as did "g" and "j" with students confusing them. They gave us a set of letters with beginner, intermediate, and advanced, and some advanced even had words the average English speaker doesn't commonly use in everyday conversation and words you could find in a native English middle or high school spelling bee. The students impressed me.

This weekend, in Jalal-Abad, I bought a new pair of work pants, new jewelry as I bought some new earrings last week, some school supplies, and other toiletries. Upcharging at a bazaar is hard to avoid as a tourist, but it was a problem I noticed this weekend in particular as items seemed overly pricey. My solution for this in Bishkek was to scout out the stores, Globus being the main one, to gauge prices - and your average bazaar seller should sell soap or toothpaste for the same or cheaper (unless Globus is on sale, and then sometimes Globus is cheaper). A common trick is that sellers won't put the price on the item and then will inflate the price when you ask/check out. In restaurants, this could be like inflating the cover charge or charging more for additives. Usually, my philosophy is similar to the way I barter, if it's something I can find elsewhere- like most toiletries, I will look elsewhere and bring my business elsewhere if people are being rude/up charging me. If it's something I can't find somewhere else, I usually capitulate, because even then, it's usually cheaper than back home. Part of me is tempted to mass buy toiletries here, pack it in my suitcase, and bring it home to my mom so we have an endless supply.

Dinner with host family
Dinner with host family

I have found that I remember people at the bazaar, and they remember me. It's always fun when they realize I speak Kyrgyz. My continuous barrier remains the Russian menu (which is to be expected because we eat at a lot of Western-style restaurants). I have a mind map of the bazaar in my head, and I remember parts of the city. After the spelling bee, however, I realized I didn't remember where the marshrutka stop was, resulting in lots of walking in the cold rain at 6 p.m. Not my brightest moment.

In the last two weeks, I've also become preoccupied with learning more about the volunteer who served in my village before me (he served about 6-7 months before the pandemic). Luckily for me, I haven't heard many comparisons (a few comments in the beginning but no comparisons regarding language- at least none to my face). I find it hard, but I do honestly ask what he did well, what he did better than me. Maybe that's not fair because it's only been under two months when I'll be here 24. Some of it is language. It is progressing slowly, but a large part of me still finds it difficult to talk to the teachers or my host family in large settings. Usually, I can talk to one or two people but more than that it's really hard because I get lost in the sauce. The way I currently deal with this is by relying on different love languages/ and nonverbal communication. The teachers love it when I dance, and I know that says more to them than anything I tell them. Similarly, I try to give my young host siblings toys, even if I can't always understand them. You can always find ways to express love beyond language, though I'm someone who loves words, so it's not easy.


I guess my last remark is just a comment about how we consume media. Parts of me feel jealous or FOMO when I see what other volunteers are doing, or what my friends back home are doing. It's the persistent filtering of our lives. Part of that is why I made this blog, to dispel the notion that Peace Corps service is perfect and provide more than photos, though I like photos. Behind a photo of a toi (a big celebration in Kyrgyzstan, e.g. wedding) are hours of waiting for the marshrutka (mini bus in Kyrgyzstan), awkward silences, cold weather, and very suspicious meat forced into your hands. Behind a photo of a spelling bee is the cold rain outside, the mad dash around the city to find a public toilet, the time before and after. Photos capture us in moments, but as we all know, they speak more than words but they rarely provide context or tell an entire story. As I said, the goal is not to go to the most tois, to drink the most chai, to buy the most stuff, to do the most traveling (that might be a goal of mine- but quality time with your host family is always underrated), or who has the best house, or the most family members, or who speaks the best Kyrgyz. Maybe our goals are one of those. We rarely photograph quiet moments or our failures. Tomorrow, Dinara - my host sister, will go back to Moscow with her son and daughter, and I'll have only a few photos of us all. But she will come back. I don't have a ton of photos of the other volunteers in Jalal-Abad.

The summer is over, and I can't deny the apprehension as winter approaches. It's going to be cold- and maybe lonely, but I'm okay with that. I have my books, and I have Adelia and Alihan for as long as they will be here (I haven't clarified when winter is, I think I prefer not to ask). The days seem to pass quickly- as opposed to Pre-Service Training which felt so long - and the days I have sometimes repeat themselves and sometimes surprise me.