Assalomu Alaykum! Salamatsyzby! здравствуйте!

Assalomu Alaykum! Salamatsyzby! здравствуйте! Hello!

My name is Kristina and I am a 26-year-old Austrian with a slight obsession with Central Asia and travelling to the more remote parts of the world. Learning a lot (of and about) languages, foreign cultures and trying to gain a better understanding of traditions while teaching German has been my mission in the past years.
Initially, this blog started out as a mere means to inform my friends and family about my life and adventures when I first moved to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. It became a lot more than that to me after realizing that writing helped me to make sense of the strange world surrounding me, to deal with culture shock as well as to help me organize the chaos in my head. My Central Asian adventures haven't ended yet and I am looking forward to entertaining you with some more (crazy) stories from Kyrgyzstan in the very soon future!

I am also a couchsurf host - if you're planning a trip to Naryn, let me know on here and we can take it from there :)

I am always happy to hear from my readers, so please don't hesitate to contact me if you have comments or questions, about travel tips in Central Asia or about life in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan :)

Much love,

Montag, 16. September 2013

The UZ files: episode 2

(in German: Aktenzeichen UZ ungeloest, Folge  2) 

Intercultural communication gone wrong, or: The missing shoes

Those of us who have lived abroad or have been in touch with people from foreign cultures extensively, we all know how we praise our "intercultural communication skills" in our cover letters or CVs when applying for a job. Surely, after living abroad in different countries for about two and a half years now, I think I have put my foot in it often enough to prove that I now know how to behave in a culturally sensitive manner. Also during my German as a Foreign Language programme, I heard about culture shock and intercultural communication in theory, which should have left me well prepared and equipped with an attentive mindset to avoid  so-called "critical incidents". These are defined as followed:

"Critical incidents in intercultural communication training are brief descriptions of situations in which a misunderstanding, problem, or conflict arises as a result of the cultural differences of the interacting parties, or a problem of cross-cultural adaptation and communication."

While these are only part of intercultural communication training, they are a real thing - critical moments where you simply don't know how to behave without offending the other person. During my time in Tashkent, I had one particularly fine moment of which I am not too proud, but which makes up another one of those mysteries which will remain unsolved.

As I have mentioned previously in my blogs, I live in a lovely house with a garden and a pool together with two Germans. My housemates' contracts, however, ended in June, so that I was left alone for the summer. Our landlord and lady, an old couple, were always extremely kind and helped us take care of the garden, clean the pool and even prepared plov for Saskia and Matthias when they left the country.  As kind as they were, they were also a bit too much - sometimes showing up at the house unannounced and talking A LOT when they were only supposed to collect the rent, so that whenever we met, I was left very tired and utterly exhausted. Knowing that I was a poor intern who wouldn't be able to afford the entire house, they offered me to stay in the house over the summer with the condition that instead of Saskia and Matthias, their daughter (about 35 years of age) and granddaughter (1 year) would move in with me. Since the house consists of two separate parts, I thought to myself, why not - it would not only be a shame to give up the house, but also a hassle to find a new apartment and a landlord/lady who would register me.
You should know, however, that Uzbek family life is very different and that people here have a different understanding of privacy. I have heard numerous stories about expats getting hassled by their landlords and that they would enter the apartment when the tenant wasn't there or just show up on the weekend to install something new or to randomly clean the windows. Whenever my neighbour Ernest went on holidays, I saw that the light in his bedroom was turned on everytime I passed by the house, and at one point they even left a pot of rotten food in his fridge (probably because they lived in the house while he was gone and simply forgot about it). A violation of my own sense of privacy also occured with the landlord of my old apartment, namely when he came to collect the rent, he would sometimes start cleaning our dirty dishes, which always left me thinking: Well, nice of you, but it's none of your business? My favourite story, however, is that of one expat girl who left an unfinished puzzle in her living room when she went on holidays. When she came back, the puzzle was finished.

Before I moved into the house, Saskia told me how the landlady's daughter (Emira) would often come to the house when nobody was there and that, afterwards, things, such as cosmetics or good clothes, had gone missing. Therefore, without even knowing her, my opinion of Emira wasn't too positive before she even moved in. She finally did, and things were awkward. She didn't really speak English, I didn't really speak Russian, so that conversations were hardly possible. She would often invite friends or the entire family into the garden, which left me feeling like an intruder in my own home. She wasn't unfriendly, but it was clear that I wasn't wanted there. Due to Saskia's stories of items disappearing in the past, I was particularly careful and made sure to always lock my part of the house. Until one day...

Eric came over to the house one sunny afternoon in early July after having played footie and left two pairs of shoes, namely an expensive pair of Nike runners and an old pair of flip flops, in the hall. He had other plans for the evening, so that I said he could leave the shoes at the house and just pick them up another time. A new week started and we all got very busy, so that he didn't have a chance to pop over and grab his shoes. When he did, however, I went straight to the hall to get them... but they weren't there anymore. We looked and looked, in my part of the house, in Emira's part of the house, in all sorts of storage rooms, presses and drawers, in the garden and bathroom, but both pairs had simply disappeared. Emira saw that we were looking for something, so I explained to her that we couldn't find the shoes, but she said she didn't see them. Eric and I were left completely clueless and slightly flustered, knowing that we couldn't just accuse her of having taken them. I told Eric to check once again that they weren't at his own apartment or at the school, just to make absolutely sure that we looked everywhere with no exceptions. So he did, but they were still gone.

Eric and I deliberated upon how to proceed. Should I simply confront Emira in my semi-existant Russian? Should I contact her parents? How should I address the problem without actively accusing and pointing at them, knowing that I would have to live with her the next two months? I understood that Eric was pissed off and that it was my responsibility to get the shoes back, but how should I do it without offending them but getting my point across at the same time? Would they kick me out of the house?

I decided to speak to a local to be on the safe side, so I told Bekzod from my office. Bekzod was absolutely shocked and initially thought I was kidding. He kept on asking me, "do you seriously just want to sit there, say nothing and let them steal your belongings? If the shoes aren't in the house, she must have taken them." We had a great time bitching about her and imagined a scenario where he would call her and tell her what a low-life she was (those were his words). In any case, he said I should definitely address the issue. Thinking that it was probably a good idea to get someone who wouldn't usually hang out at my house and who had nothing to do with the family privately, I asked Bekzod if he would come to the house the next time the parents were there and to translate for me. And so he did. When the landlord asked his usual question if everything was okay, I explained the situation of the shoes having disappeared. I also said: I genuinely don't want to accuse anyone, but I don't know what to do because they aren't even my shoes and if they were, it would be my issue to deal with. However, my friend Eric is really disappointed now, and it is a fact that the shoes are gone. I am not sure what to do about it but maybe Emira cleaned the house and moved them or something like that.

Uzbeks have a very flowery way of dealing with things and there is a saying for every possible situation, so that the landlord told us in a 15 minutes speech how the family has rented the house to foreigners for over 15 years and that not even a needle had gone missing in all these years. By means of three different sayings (e.g. "Sweep before your own house"), he told me how I should take care of my own stuff and not leave anything lying around, but he also apologized sincerely and paid 60$ for compensation. Considering his heartfelt apology and his shocked reaction that I would ever think that they had stolen something, I felt slightly bad. However, like Bekzod had said, I couldn't just let it happen.

A few weeks later, the landlady called and asked me to stay home in the evening because they wanted to add some new furniture to my bedroom. Knowing that they would bring a few strong men carrying around presses and wardrobes, I tidied up my part of the house a little bit and made sure I had nothing in the room which they could possibly break. One of the items I removed was my scale, which was made of glass. I decided to put it into a press beside the bed. The press contained a few blankets and mattresses, therefore being a press I had only opened once when I moved in because I didn't use any blankets. I opened it, moved a few things around to make space, and as I pulled out one of the blankets, what did I find? Eric's Nike runners. I stopped breathing at that moment. How was this possible? My discovery left me absolutely petrified and questions if I had rudely accused Emira even though she was innocent started racing through my head. I started to question my own memory because I genuinely couldn't remember that I ever opened that press, let alone put Eric's shoes there. Had I gone senile or contracted alzheimer's at an incredibly young age, or had my memory disintegrated at such a worrying rate? How did she get into my part of the house, did they have an extra set of keys? Doid that mean they could enter my part of the house whenever they wanted anyway? And, if the Nike runners were there, where were the flipflops? After catching my breath, I checked the rest of the press, but the flip flops weren't there.

In shock, I wrote Eric an email explaining what had just happened and his response was the following:

What Emira has done is obviously plant the runners because we definitely didn't put them there and I reckon she put them back panicking that we noticed they were gone.

Most of my friends thought the same and their piece of advice was mostly that considering how many other things had disappeared (e.g. my beloved coffeemaker) I should keep the money and the shoes and never address the issue again. I was really uncomfortable, but for me, that was the only possible solution.  I am aware that I can be somewhat chaotic and there are a lot of things I forget, but putting only one pair of the shoes into the press and then completely forgetting about it was even too much for me.

Weeks passed, and Emira finally moved out because my new and very lovely German housemate Margarethe moved in. One day I discovered that one of my shower gels - a nice and expensive one which I had received as a present from a friend of mine - had disappeared. I was furious, asking myself if it would ever end. Margarethe - fluent in Russian - suggested that the next time she would see landlord & lady, she would innocently and naively ask them if anybody else had keys to the house because some of my stuff had gone missing again. So she did, and their response was: Oh, Kristina has a tendency to lose things.
The same night when she said that, the landlord called us at 9pm and wanted to talk to both of us urgently. The old couple came over, and things started to become dramatic. He held another 30min speech about how hurt they were, that they were rich people and didn't need to steal a shower gel, and that they are well-respected people in the mahalla and don't want any word to spread about them stealing things when they clearly didn't. They also made it very clear that I was an unthankful brat who - after their generosity, loving and treating me like their own daughter, I would dare - once again - to accuse them. They were clearly hurt and even offered us to change all the locks and keys in order to restore trust. Margarethe and I were apologetic and kindly refused.

It will remain a mystery what happened to the shoes and why - even after getting caught - Emira still kept on stealing, obviously putting a strain on the landlord-tenant relationship, as well as damaging her parents' reputation.

The mistakes I have made or issues I should consider for the next time are:
- Uzbeks love their gossip, and people constantly talk within the mahalla. There is genuinely nothing worse for an Uzbek family to have a ruined reputation. I shouldn't have spoken to an Uzbek to address the issue of stealing, knowing that there might be a chance that he knew them and other people in the mahalla. There is a good chance that our mahalla now thinks that our landlord and lady are thieves, which is something I genuinely didn't want.
- I should have talked to Emira directly instead of her parents. Clearly, her parents wouldn't admit that their daugther is a filthy thief, and there is no possibility I could address that.

So many things to learn...

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