Monday, May 9, 2016

Winter Camp

February 12, 2009

Winter Camp

I spent the week of February 2nd with 18 vivacious 9th Form students from School #9 in Talas.  (See photo)  In an effort to keep us busy during the two-month winter break, Peace Corps secured grant money from PEPFAR, President's Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (or something close to that).  It's about the only good thing I can think of W doing in 8 years.  Anyway, along with my friend Gauhar (the young lady on the far left) and with the support of the school director (older woman, far left), we held a workshop covering HIV/AIDS prevention and life skills.  Two women from the local chapter of the Red Cross came one morning to give a presentation.  The other mornings we discussed self-esteem, time management, bride kidnapping, the 5 Languages of Love and decision making.  We ended each day with a one-hour English lesson.  Oh, and I also made sure our grant money included a hot lunch each day.  A few of the girls spoke English, and the rest spoke Kyrgyz.  Gauhar, who speaks English as well as anybody I've met here, did a great job as my translator.  Even though I know these young ladies have a better handle on life skills and safe sexual practices, I won't be here to see the results.  But, their friends and family will be and that's what really matters.

In the book: more details about the camp, a profile of Gauhar and her family and why our friendship didn't last (it wasn't our decision).

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Politics of War - The Afghan War

February 6, 2009

The Controversial US Air Base in Kyrgyzstan

Here's a story from the New York Times about the country where I'm
living right now.
Dispute Mounts Over Key U.S. Base in Kyrgyzstan
Published: February 4, 2009
MOSCOW — A day after the president of Kyrgyzstan announced plans to
close a key U.S. military base in his country, potentially
jeopardizing NATO supply lines to Afghanistan, American diplomats and
military officials in the region said Wednesday the base was still
operating and negotiations on its future were continuing.
Enlarge This Image
Vyacheslav Oseledko/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
An American at an entrance to the air base in Manas, which
Kyrgyzstan's president said Tuesday he would order shut.

But the Kyrgyz government said it has already approved a law to end
its cooperation with Washington, arguing that the American mission in
Afghanistan has outlasted its original goals. It said it had decided
to shut the base because Afghanistan has a stable government and the
terrorist threat has been removed. It also said NATO air strikes have
caused an unacceptable rise in civilian casualties.
President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced the decision to close the
facility on Tuesday during a visit to Moscow to seek financial
support. The American base at Manas has served as an air hub and
refueling and transit point for NATO efforts in Afghanistan, and U.S.
officials have several times intervened when Kyrgyz officials
considered shutting it.
In a statement on Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, the capital
of Kyrgyzstan, said: "We have been in touch with Kyrgyz authorities on
the future of Manas air base. These discussions will continue."
"At this point we have not received formal notification of a decision
by Kyrgyzstan to close the base," the statement said.
Maj. Damien Pickart, a spokesman for the Manas base, said in a
statement on Wednesday: "Until we have been directed to adjust course,
we are going to continue to perform our mission here. The aerial
refueling mission, the tankers that we fly to Afghanistan have been
flying today, and coalition personnel processing in and out of
Afghanistan are continuing to pass through Manas."
Mr. Bakiyev arrived in Moscow under pressure to ease economic troubles
in Kyrgyzstan, which is heavily in debt to Russia and dependent on
remittances from migrant workers. President Dmitri A. Medvedev said
Russia would extend a $2 billion loan and $150 million in aid to
Kyrgyzstan, which Mr. Bakiyev hailed as "serious and important
At a press conference, Mr. Bakiyev said the U.S. had not paid
Kyrgyzstan enough in return for the use of the base — and expressed
anger over a 2006 case in which an American serviceman shot and killed
a Kyrgyz truck driver on the base. The American left the country,
against official protest.
"How can we speak of independence and sovereignty if we cannot enforce
the law on the territory of our own country?" he said, at a press
conference. "All this has given rise to a negative attitude to the
base in Manas. And that is why the government has made such a
Mr. Bakiyev's announcement represented a blunt challenge to President
Obama's highest foreign policy priority: the war in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has also been seen as a jumping-off point for cooperation
between the United States and Russia, which is wary of the spread of
Islamic extremism.
"It's an extremely serious point, because the premise of American
policy is that there is a common interest here," said Stephen
Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations,
which is based in New York. "If they're trying to tell us otherwise,
that message will get through."
The question of supply lines to NATO and American forces in
Afghanistan has become increasingly acute with attacks on the
centuries-old route from Pakistan over the Khyber Pass.
On Tuesday, Taliban militants blew up a bridge, forcing the suspension
of road shipments. According to The Associated Press on Wednesday,
militants then torched 10 trucks stranded in Pakistan as a result of
the destruction of the bridge.
The uncertainties surrounding the supply lines has added urgency to
American and NATO efforts to secure alternative supply lines through
Central Asia.
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, on Tuesday called the
Manas facility in Kyrgyzstan "a hugely important" air base for the
United States.
During negotiations this summer, State Department spokesman Sean
McCormack said the U.S. would pay more than $150 million in assistance
and compensation for the base. At the time, a government statement
said the United States had contributed more than $850 million to
support democracy, economic development, aid projects and security in
the Kyrgyz Republic since its independence from the Soviet Union.
NATO's special representative to the area, Robert Simmons, spent
Monday and Tuesday meeting with officials in Bishkek, telling
reporters the site was "vital."

At the press conference, Mr. Bakiyev said Washington had ignored
requests for more money.
"Eight years have passed," he said. "We have repeatedly raised with
the United States the matter of economic compensation for the
existence of the base in Kyrgyzstan, but we have not been understood."
The base was opened in 2001 with Moscow's blessing, but Russian
leaders were increasingly irritated by the continuing presence of
American troops there. It was not clear whether Russian officials had
pressed Bishkek to end the agreement.
To Russians, the longstanding U.S. presence at Manas suggested
ambitions "to strengthen its position in this region" — against
Moscow's and Beijing's interests, said Andronik Migranyan, an analyst
at the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, a Russian think-tank
based in New York.
"The American government is involved in many things that Russia does
not like, and this is something of a bargaining chip," he said.
Mr. Migranyan said friction over the air base will "become a
serious impediment to Russian-American relations" if Mr. Obama follows
through on his plans to beef up the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. He
added, however, that there was likely room to negotiate.
"If President Obama halts the construction of elements of a missile
defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland; if there are broader
discussions on global security, if negotiations start on START I; and
many other issues, then Russia will support the United States in
Afghanistan," he said.
Kyrgyzstan's close relations with the United States have long
unsettled Russia and China, which both have military interests in the
In 2005, the country appeared to move further into Washington's orbit
after a popular uprising, supported in part by the United States,
toppled the corrupt and increasingly authoritarian government of Askar
A. Akayev, sending the president fleeing across the border. The
bloodless coup was part of a wave of popular revolts, known as colored
revolutions, that remain a source of anger and suspicion among Russian
officials, who consider them Washington-hatched schemes meant to
undermine Russia's influence in the region.
Similar uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine ushered in governments that
quickly sought to shut out Moscow's influence in favor of stronger
ties with the West. Kyrgyzstan, however, has often sought to strike a
balance among Washington, Moscow and Beijing. The government has
allowed Russia to maintain a military base on Kyrgyz soil and is a
member, along with China, Russia and three other Central Asian
countries, of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security
Upon his election in 2005, Mr. Bakiyev vowed to pursue an independent
foreign policy, saying that Kyrgyzstan would not be "a place for the
fulfillment of someone else's geopolitical interests."

Alan Cowell contributed from London.

 I knew almost nothing about the Manas Air Base (MAB) until April 2010 when it became my home for a few weeks. That’s where the Peace Corps stashed us after the revolution that overthrew the government. Much more on that later in the book.

MAB was a golden goose for President Bakiyev.

Also in the book: more on the corrupt family of President Bakiyev and a link to an article about an American who somehow secured a $3 billion contract at the airbase. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Journey is More Interesting Than the Destination

February 3, 2009

From the “That Only Happens in the Movies” Department

Almost every trip I take to Bishkek includes some kind of drama.  I've told you most of them, but here's another from a while back.  In November, on my way to Bishkek for a meeting with AUCA folks, my taxi was at the apex of one of the mountain ranges when I felt the front tires shimmy.  Now, I don't know a piston from a petunia, but I knew this didn't feel right.  In order for the shimmying to stop we had to slow down to about 5 mph. I envisioned my 4 hour trip extending to two days.  After stops and starts with this malfunction, I determined we weren't going to make it to Bishkek unless the wheels or axle or something was fixed.  But, where?  We were 10,000 feet above sea level, not exactly a place with a service station around every hairpin turn.  Resigned to whatever the universe had in store, I returned to reading my book.  About ten minutes later, after traveling what seemed like a hundred feet, our driver pulled into what looked like an abandoned maintenance facility from the Soviet era. And that's exactly what it was.  I didn't know if he knew it was there or not and I didn't care.  (He probably did.)  The fact that it existed was amazing enough.  I mean we were literally in the middle of nowhere. And to top it off, of the four bays in the garage, the one on the far right was an oil change bay.  We pulled in.  The driver took the only wrench in his little tool kit and proceeded to walk under the car where he began tightening all things loose.  Twenty minutes later we were back on the road, zooming around every bend like a Grand Prix race car.  What are the odds we find an oil change bay in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan to fix our car?  Maybe better than I thought, but it still seemed like something out a movie to me. 

Most drunk taxi drivers made city runs. I know because I saw them drinking and playing cards while waiting for fares. Talas is not a big city and many people walked instead of opting for a taxi unless they had bags to carry or the weather was poor, so the drivers had a LOT of downtime. These city runs started at the bazaar and ended at the vauxhall, the long distance bus station, but with sedans and minivans instead. The trip took less than two minutes and cost twenty-five cents (10 soms). Most of the ride took place on the main road of the city, which was a residential highway through town, not a shopping district, and the drivers treated it like a drag strip. My favorite saying was, “They’re all in a big hurry to go nowhere.” I heard a little girl was run over a year before I arrived.

Also in the book: more information on long distance drivers; Sasha, the driver who would shop for you in Bishkek.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Great Week; A Sobering Ending

January 24, 2009

A Great Week; A Sobering Ending

What a week! My best one in Kyrgyzstan. Where do I begin? (Thank you, Love Story) One of the most beautiful women I've seen in Bishkek greeted me at the bus station, where there's not a bus to be found, just taxis and marshrutkas. Her name is Kseniya and she works for American University of Central Asia (AUCA). (Pictured with Kostya, an AUCA student and my guide and translator for the week). She whisked me away to campus where I ate the first of several great tasting, familiar looking free meals from the U's cafe. Then I met my hostess for the week. Her name is Elvira and she's the top stage director for the Russian National Theatre in Bishkek. She directs for other local theatres and teaches at a couple local universities, including AUCA. I stayed at her apartment with her and her dachshund, a chubby 12-year old diva of a dog. Elvira's primary language is Russian. We each know about 20 words of each other's language, yet we were able to communicate effectively all week with the help of my newly purchased Russian-English dictionary. Kostya said, “Elvira's a little bit famous in Bishkek.”  Elvira, in her best English said, “Elvira, in Kyrgyzstan, popular, Jennifer Lopez." Okay, so I spent the week with two divas. She also likes to play mother. One night I wanted a cheeseburger for dinner and she wouldn't let me, saying it wasn't healthy. So, Kostya and I went to a pub the next day where I had one. She served me salted raw bacon this week and it tasted great. I guess pork fat qualifies as health food to her.

The Playwriting Workshop reminded me why I like teaching college students. The motivated writers that came all three days, which amounted to about 8 of the 36 who showed up on day one, were extremely interesting, and wrote a nice mixture of funny and poignant scripts. They also agreed to write a 30-minute play. I'll come back in April and we'll have another reading series. There may have been more interested students, but maybe they didn't think they could fit writing a 10-minute play into their schedules. Totally understandable. And it also whittled the class down to the 10 student level I asked for from day one. From my days as a resident playwright in Charlotte I remembered how the high school students had to be there whether they wanted to or not, so you're forced to deal all levels of enthusiasm.

I also agreed to hold a one-hour master class with some of Elvira's acting students.  I needed a translator for this one and it went pretty well considering one guy in the audience hogged all the Q&A time because my translator was too timid to tell him to shut up. I spoke about how theatre is produced in America and a little about my style of directing. I think they were expecting an acting coach as they kept asking to do exercises. In the audience were two actresses I'd seen perform the night before in a play at the Russian National Theatre, directed by, of course, Elvira. The play was a comedy and very entertaining even though it was in Russian and I understood very little. Kostya, who attended with me, gave me a brief explanation of the plot and the character relationships to help me along.

That would have been activity enough, but there was more. The school paper interviewed me. The national television station interviewed me after the master class. I took part in a press conference sponsored by NTS, with you know who on the panel with me, which, if you care to view it, can be found at  The home page gives you a choice of languages and on the next page, far right, is a link to their recent press conferences. I also met the director of the station, a very nice man named Naryn.  He said next time I'm in town to let him know and we'll do this again.  Anyway, Kostya told me I didn't smile enough. There was a reason. The Peace Corps had to approve all these media events (I don’t think we got approval for all of them) and there's a laundry list of topics I can't mention or discuss, government and religion topping the list. I was thinking so hard, making sure I didn't misspeak, I forgot to smile. If there's a next time I will try to smile more. All this and taxi rides everywhere I went all week, I kinda felt like a celebrity. Got to admit, I liked it. For four days. Certain I couldn't take a steady diet of it.

On the ride back to reality, I mean Talas, my fantasy week came to an abrupt end.  

Early in the trip, my driver engaged in a playful back and forth, who can pass who and get to the top of the mountain first contest with another driver, one I believe he knew. I say that because all of these drivers seem to know each other. Anyway, the other driver won. Later on we had to slow down because of an accident; a gray car on the right side of the road and a red one on the left. It was a head on collision at very high speeds based on the conditions of the cars. When I saw that red car, well, half a red car, I knew it was the same one I'd seen in the passing contest. As we passed I saw the driver. He was dead, still pinned behind the wheel, his head lying on his shoulder. How many times have we seen someone speed past us and wonder, 'if that guy doesn't slow down, someone might get killed.' Not sure if he was alone in the car and/or if anyone else died (these taxis usually have at least 5 people in them). I can't believe anybody in either car survived but I couldn't tell either way. My driver, a very capable one, drove slower for a while but then went back to his usual high speed. You know I've written about the drivers in Kyrgyzstan before, but this was the first horrendous accident I've seen. The kid that died couldn't have been more than 25. My condolences go out to his family and to any other victim's families, if there were any.

In the book: what I used to inspire the students to write their plays; some information on Nikolay Shulgin, the man who allowed me to conduct the workshop and why I didn't return for another one; most eligible bachelor in Kyrgyzstan.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Dealing With the Age Gap

January 19, 2009


I was in Bishkek last week for PC meetings and didn't have access to a computer, nor time to write. Back in Bishkek this week for a drama workshop at American University of Central Asia. As you might guess, it's a treat to be here because everybody at the school speaks English. Well, almost everybody. More on that when I write the recap this weekend

In-Service Training (IST)

Last week I didn't have access to a computer because I was at IST, one of the mandatory trainings of our service. The first two days we worked with our counterparts (CP), our teaching partners. Since I'm at a new school, with a new CP, a school that's never had a volunteer, it was essential she attend. I can always use more teacher training and she definitely needed it because the PC system was totally foreign to her. She left on Wednesday and I wish I could have gone with her.

If I were never to see my fellow volunteers ever again, save two or three, it would be all right with me. I'm kidding, but being around them is like taking a trip to 30 years ago. I see them and I'm looking into a human mirror. I've written about this before, but their behavior, well maybe I'm just gettin' old and cranky. Actually, it's hard to admit that I know now what I was like at 22. I was doing the same stuff they are. Ain't pretty now and I'm sure it wasn't then, either. For example, I walked past the same volunteer every morning, on purpose, just to smell if he reeked of the previous night's revelry. There wasn't a single morning he let me down. At least he wore a sport coat and tie every day in an effort to distract people from looking at his Rand McNally eyes. I really do like most of my peers and had some wonderful conversations last week; and as long as they don't intrude into my space with their youthful frivolity, I say let them live and learn like I did. Hopefully, it won't take them as long as it took me.

That said, maybe this puerile behavior has its plus side. Both our Country Director and Program Training Officer mentioned we are a special group of volunteers, having lost only 3 since swearing in. Outside of medical or disciplinary separation, I don't see us losing many more over the next 19 months. In truth, I'm proud to be a part of such a group; the service part.

Holy man, another entry related to age. Reading these emails for the first time since I wrote them, I’ve been repeatedly surprised at the frequency with which the subject affected my PC life, not always in a negative way, but to the point I felt the need to write about it. I’m suffering from serious brain strain in an effort to stay original regarding this topic as I lost copious amounts of cerebral matter when I was the age of my young compatriots. Well, let me have a try, anyway.

Also in the book: what being around young volunteers taught me; why we were one hotel away from sleeping in tents.

President Obama

By the time many of you read this we will officially have a new president. There has to be an optimistic aura enveloping the entire country. As one volunteer, who's been away from America since 2005, told me, “For the first time in four years, I don't have to pretend I'm Canadian.” Now, if he can create good paying jobs for all those who have lost theirs recently, including some people close to me, I'll be a happier man. The eyes of the world undoubtedly will monitor Obama's first 100 days with more scrutiny than any president in my life time. I believe he's up to the task, although as my students say, “Time will show.” And just in case you think I'm not doing my job over here, they used to say that. Now they say, “Time will tell.”

Barack Obama has less than a year left in his second term as I write this and it’s pretty incredible that he has accomplished so much in the face of unprecedented obstruction from an opposing party. Hail to the Chief!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Six Months In, Lookalikes and Rumors

January 3, 2009

Hi All,

Life is a bit slower in January as we have no school.  We might not have any in February if it gets real cold, but so far it's been pleasant as mountain winters go.  Pretty amazing, one month and I'm an expert of mountain winters.

PC meetings and a drama workshop at AUCA will help January fly by.

Gotta run (not really, but I want to sound busy)


A Milestone of Sorts

Tuesday, January 7th marks six months in Kyrgyzstan. (December 20th was my 3 month anniversary as a volunteer.)  Of the 63 trainees that landed in Bishkek on July 7th, 54 of us are still here.  We lost 6 during training and only three since swearing in. Granted we don't live in the middle of nowhere in thatched roof huts with no electricity—actually the no electricity thing we do have—but, still, there are difficulties and adjustments have to be made.  Health, both physical and mental, is the key to survival in my opinion.  I'm not discounting homesickness, less than ideal work environments or any of the many other valid reasons for leaving, but if you're not healthy you're not going to be able to work through any of those other issues.

The next month will be a real test as the weather will likely be very cold and there is no school.  That means lots of down time that must be spent indoors.  Keeping myself busy with writing, extra classes for my students and a drama workshop at American University in Bishkek will help me navigate my way to February when it's rumored school will resume.  If not, we'll have another month of even less to keep us busy.  It would be easy to fall into a depressed state and/or drink more than usual.  That could result in more volunteers going home.  Let's pray that doesn't happen.

In the book I talk more about what I did to avoid getting too depressed, a good decision, and how my background helped as well.

January 3, 2009

Bits & Pieces

Throughout my life I've had people tell me I remind them of somebody, none of whom I would have chosen.  There was an actor in the 70s named Bradford Dillman and a basketball player named Brian Winters; I was told I resembled both and they look nothing alike.  Not to mention no one knows who the hell they are.  But, during my recent meetings in Bishkek, I realized I'm definitely moving up, prestige-wise, on the “You look like” ladder.  On successive days I was told I looked like Kevin Kline and Robert DeNiro.  While I was flattered I could make no sense of the choices. 

Winter in Kyrgyzstan 

On Christmas morning, just another Thursday for most Kyrgyzstonians, I awoke to a foot of snow. Gorgeous as it was, I was mildly cursing the heavenly powder as I had to shovel a hundred feet of it to get to the outhouse. Yesterday, it was warm enough that some of the Xmas snow was beginning to melt.  Then today it snowed again.  I'm thinking we might have snow on the ground until the spring thaw because of our elevation (4000 ft.); that every time some starts to melt it will snow again.  Not sure what's worse, all that sloppy slush or ice hidden under the snow.  Either way, walking has been quite an adventure in itself the past ten days.

In the book: details on the fall and how fortunate I was not to suffer a serious injury.

New Year’s in Kyrgyzstan

New Year's Eve in Kyrgyzstan fairly resembles the States with a couple of variations.  We have Christmas trees, they have New Year's trees.  Both are decorated and presents are exchanged in some houses.  I didn't see that in ours, but maybe they did it when I wasn't looking.  House parties are the norm with lots of food and plenty of champagne and vodka.  At midnight people revel outside and there are fireworks.  The major differences are 1) Most of the house parties involve only the family.  Friends and neighbors gather earlier in the day or on New Year's Day.  We had people over at 3pm on the Eve.  2) Fireworks are legal as they are sold at the bazaar and I'm not talking fire crackers and sparklers.  Everybody shoots off smaller versions of the kind you see in major displays.  It's colorful, loud and fun to watch, but I gotta think it's dangerous.  My host brothers, 9 and 11, were firing away and even though my host parents were watching, something could have gone wrong.


A fellow volunteer overheard me talking on the phone to a Peace Corps staff member and the next thing I hear is that we are an item.  I had heard the Volunteer rumor mill was creative but this was a stretch even for them.  Today I was going to visit a fellow volunteer in his village, but my body decided I needed some exercise instead and had me running to the outhouse all morning. In a text message he said his host family knew a little about me from a family friend or member.  According to him, I said I have a wife and children in America.  I have declared myself the Center for Misinformation in Kyrgyzstan.  

In the book: the same rumor under different circumstances in China. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Kyrgyz Education System Explained

December 24, 2008

The Kyrgyz Education System and Me

This could be a long one, ladies and gentlemen, so go to the bathroom, grab the beverage of your choice and a snack and enjoy.

I've been wanting to write about this for quite some time, but thought better of posting it to my blog because I was trying to be sensitive to the citizenry of Kyrgyzstan.  We know what good that did me.

The other day I signed an agreement to teach at a new school, beginning January 5th.  The reasons for my move are both personal and professional.  Obviously, one of the reasons was the blog issue.  I didn't like having to censor myself, nor did I appreciate being told I was the individual who had to change, with no effort put forth by my young Kyrgyz co-workers to try and understand my point of view or offer any compromise regarding the blog.  Still, I was willing to take one for the team and stay because I really like my students.  But, when a teammate invades my privacy, the entire ball club can kiss my behind.  On two occasions I gave my flash drive to my counterpart, the one person I felt I could trust, to copy our class syllabi.  Weeks later, upon seeing the desktop of her laptop, I discovered she had helped herself to all the files on it.  These included some of my plays and personal documents.  What shocked me more than seeing them was the fact that she didn't even hide them in a folder.  I didn't even take the issue to my department head.  I immediately called my PC Program Manager and told her to please find me a new school.  Initially, she wanted to transfer me to a new site, but I like Talas, have made some good friends and didn't want to leave.  She also explained to me that privacy is not taken as seriously here as back in the US of A.  Okay, so those are the personal reasons.

Professionally, I wasn't being challenged enough at the U.  I felt this way even before the reasons stated above.  If you're going to teach in the PC, the university is the ivory tower.  You live in a city which means amenities like a decent bazaar, Internet connections, and cafes and stores that carry a wider variety of foods than if you lived in a village.  You're surrounded by people who speak English and people who want to learn it.  The levels of competency run the scale, but I speak English about 99% of the time.  If I lived in a village, I'd be forced to learn a language I'm not too keen on and won't do me any good once I leave here, simply because they don't have very many English speakers.  (Beginning in January I'm taking Russian classes.  Finally, I'll be able to read the menus in the cafes.  And if I ever get down to Brighton Beach...) I teach Conversational English, if you can call sitting around chatting teaching.  It's like having my own talk show, albeit with the same guests every day.  Yeah, it's the good life, relatively speaking, but it's not enough.  I was asking the universe if it thought I would be more effective in a different environment and voila!

My new school is called a college.  In the States it would be most like a community college.  Maybe this would be a good place to describe the educational system in Kyrgland.  Much of it has been held over from Soviet times.  The first section of a student's career is a combination of primary and secondary school, from Forms 1-11, equivalent to the same grades in America.  All 11 years are spent in the same building.  After 11th Form, students can move on to a university, which is 5 years (years 12- 16 in our system) so they graduate at 22.  Or, they can leave secondary school after the 9th Form and attend a college for 3 years.  My college offers agriculture, bookkeeping, veterinary medicine and a couple other disciplines, but I forget what they are.  After this, students usually move on to university for their final four years.  There are also stand-alone technical and medical colleges. The young woman who lives with us attends the medical college and is studying to be a pharmacist.

Why will my new job be more challenging?  Simple.  At the university, most (no, not all) of the students in the English department spoke it at some level of being able to communicate.  At the college, the reverse is true.  There is no English Department at my new school.  And the students only take it their first two years.  The third year is spent on their specialization.  Three teachers make up the department.  They each possess one copy of a 20 year old text book from the Soviet days from which to teach.  There are 3 computers in the entire school and no Internet.  My desire to teach younger students with fewer English skills was granted.  And I can't wait to begin.  At the U, maybe two or four students came to my extra classes.  At the college, 40 have signed up.  They are hungry for some English.  At the university, although I love my students, they think they're God's gift to English speakers simply because they're in the English Dept.

I mentioned that all 11 grades are taught in the same building.  Well, the students also take all their classes all 11 years with the same classmates.  It's the Group mate system (another Soviet holdover).  It stems from the collectivist culture of Kyrgyzstan; one for all and all for one.  The problem is it doesn't foster individual thinking.  The same system holds at the university.  For example, my 5th course students are divided into two sections of about 12 students each.  These 12 students all take the same classes all five years.  When I asked a student a question and they either didn't understand or couldn't think of the words to respond in English, 8 group mates are whispering the word or response in Kyrgyz so the student isn't embarrassed.  Sounds good, but how is that student going to learn if their group mates are always feeding them the answers.  And this is why some students reach 5th course and can't answer “What is your favorite food?”  Their listening skills are non-existent because they've never had to listen.  Their group mates listen for them.  I hope I can have a positive impact with the younger students so that when they get to 5th course they can hold a conversation with someone in English.  Alone.

Two more things and I'll wrap this up.  One, there is no such thing as an elective.  If you decide to enter the English Department, you will study English, a second foreign language (most take Russian or German) and how to become a teacher.  That's it.  The students have no other options.  The curriculum is set for their entire 5 years.  I understand this is going to change in the near future, but “near” in Kyrgyzstan could mean years. Two, grades don't mean squat in this country for several reasons.

Living in New York I learned that everything is available for a price and if you're willing to pay it, it's yours.  (I had a boss who wanted to see The Lion King so badly—back when the performances were sold out months in advance—paying $500 a ticket to see it within two weeks was worth it to him.)  Same thing takes place here, but on a smaller scale.  I've heard of students who never attended a SINGLE CLASS for five years, but were standing on the stage on graduation day after their fathers visited the school.  If the teachers were paid a decent salary, they wouldn't have to supplement their income, if you know what I mean.

The grades here run from 1-5, with 5 being an A.  Get a 3 or above and you pass.  Translated into numbers, the bottom of the 3 range (a C in the States) is 56 (78 in the States back when I was in school).  So, you only need to know half of the material to pass.  I had students that didn't reach that level so I gave them a 2.  By the time that grade reaches the official grade book, that 2 will take on a new shape:  3. Like it even matters.  One student's appearance at the final—a 5 minute oral exam—was her first since the first class of the semester.  I had no idea what grade to give her, zero was out of the question, so I asked her.  She said, with a straight face, “A three.”  Okay.

Many female students get married while they attend university, some as young as 18. They usually have a child fairly quickly.  When they do, they quit coming to school.  Example. I had a student who dropped out two years ago because she got married and gave birth.  Then she had another child.  This semester she decided to return to school.  Did she pick up where she left off? Nope. She left in 2nd course, her group mates are now in 4th course, and so is she.  She lost 3 semesters of schooling and will never recover those lost classes.  That's because of the group mate system.  I must ask someone what logic is behind this practice.

So, between group mates feeding answers, not having to make up for courses missed and (allegedly) paying for grades, you can understand how someone in the English Department can get to graduation day without being able to hold a simple conversation in English.  On the other hand, the system works well for the motivated students, just like anywhere.  I have met several legitimate highly educated, multi-lingual graduates in my short time here.

What I've tried to do is describe the Kyrgyz system so you can compare.  Nothing I have written has been fabricated or exaggerated.  And lest you think I'm letting the United States off the hook, we all know there are schools in America that are grade factories and teachers will give students grades they don't deserve for various reasons (you know what I'm talkin' about), and we have plenty of unmotivated students, etc.  No system is perfect, but some are better than others.

The move to the new school definitely improved my teaching skills. I learned to be more patient and realized the students almost always knew less than I thought they would; even the simplest words and phrases confounded them. ‘What is your favorite (color, food)?’; ‘How old are you?’; ‘Where do you live?’ are just a few. By the time I began teaching in China I was well-prepared to start with basics, as in a few classes I felt the room was full of primary school students instead of English majors. That said, their English was miles ahead of my Chinese.