National Identity of Kyrgyzstan
When I was in the eleventh grade, I was chosen to be part of a select exchange program to travel to the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan for a month. In 1997, from February until March, I lived in the capital city of Bishkek with a host family and lived as they did.
Some of the students that went with me stayed with Russian families. They clearly had it easier. They got to take part in customs we had been learning about in our Russian classes for years. I, on the other hand, stayed with an ethnic Kyrgyz family. At first, I was very unsettled and worried. It was an intimidating situation for me. Each family that was chosen to host us was required to have a student enrolled in the school where we would be studying. Most of my group had hosts that were of similar age as them. I was in a family with a student in grade 4. Therefore, he spoke minimal English, as his studies had only recently begun. Also to strain my first week there, I was to learn that my host mother was in Italy on a business trip. So, it was a family of only three men-the father and his two sons. This was nothing of the ordinary family setting I was prepared to expect. Kyrgyz customs seemed strange to me and their language seemed like gibberish. But soon, I would learn that I had the better experience. I lived with Kyrgyz people. It was, afterall, their country. I was able to learn the essentiality of the Kyrgyz identity.
The Kyrgyz people are Muslim and follow the Islam tradition. With me being Hindu, it was hard for me to accept their traditions and beliefs. But, throughout the month, the family and me talked in depth about our various beliefs and thoughts. And in this process, my language skills were improving. In the end, I was able to find that my experience transcended religion. I had even started to join in the custom of raising my hands over my head before a meal- a Muslim tradition. This Kyrgyz family held religion very highly and it was apparent why. When I asked my host brother why he and his family were so religious, he replied very calmly but with a defensive tone that since the Soviets had taken their country over and stripped them away from religion, they now do not take it for granted. And now that their country is mostly made up of Kyrgyz and Russians, they (the Kyrgyz) wanted to cling to their customs even more to separate themselves from the Russians living amongst them.
The next thing I learned about was the strained relation between the Russians and ethnic Kyrgyz. The Kyrgyz people enjoy their new freedom as a sovereign state. Their key economic goldmine has been tourism. The country has the beautiful Tien-Shan mountain range and Lake Issyk-Kyl, which never freezes over. My host father worked for the tourism board in the capital. They were the quintessential "new wave" Kyrgyz. They held strongly to their past and beliefs, but were riding the business wave for all of its rewards. My host mother owned a shoe store and traveled to Italy and Greece for supplies. When I asked them about their experience under Soviet rule, they were very hesitant to bring it up. They said they would rather look to the future and only recall the time that they were free from oppression.
It was evident that the entire town of Bishkek shared that feeling. Streets, parks, and monuments were renamed to the names they had before Soviet rule. An example is the capital Bishkek, which was formerly called Frunze after a Soviet general.
The Kyrgyz are a people proud of their national identity. Even though there are strained relations between the Kyrgyz and Russians living in Kyrgyzstan, there is a certain bond that holds them all together. When we went to the schools and asked the kids what they considered themselves to be, it was undisputed what they were. Kyrgyz and Russians alike said they were first and foremost Kyrgyz and that their home was Kyrgyzstan. The revolution of 1991 was one of the best things to happen to the country of Kyrgyzstan. It is true that it allowed for their economy to grow and for many lifestyles to improve vastly. But the key benefit lied in the fact that the national identity of Kyrgyzstan was able to resurface and evolve for the betterment of their people.