Me and a Kyrgyz-speaking American playing Kyrgyz national instruments at a local handicrafts NGO outside of Bihskek

Who are You in Kyrgyzstan

Published: June 6, 2013

The latest online video to have gone viral is “What Kind of Asian Are You?”, a comedy sketch co-directed by David Neptune and Ken Tanaka for YouTube’s Comedy Week extravaganza, a program that features live performances and video debuts from some of the top names in comedy.  In the video, a Korean-American woman is asked by Clueless American Joe, “Where are you from?” When she says, “San Diego,” he asks, “No, where are you from?” She finally says her great-grandmother is from Seoul. He then engages in all sorts of Korean stereotypes. She then throws the question back to him: “Where are you from?” He says that he is “just regular American.” “Really, so native American?” He concedes that his grandparents are from England. She then hits him with all possible English stereotypes, a hilarious montage that ends with, “By the way, you guys make really good fish and chips.” In one week, this video garnered over four million views.

As a Filipina-American, I can relate to the woman’s unamused reaction to the question, “Where are you from?” It’s a frustratingly worded question, really, because it opens the door for people to question the way you identify yourself (“Where are you really from?”). I much prefer to answer the more straightforward: “What is your ethnicity?” [It’s Filipino] or “What is your nationality?” [It’s American] or “Where do you live?” [Virginia]. But “Where are you from?” — people might as well be asking, “Who are you?” And what kind of question is that?

In Kyrgyzstan, this is a very important question. This is a country where you are expected to know exactly who you are: where you’re from, where your father is from, where your father’s father is from, and so on and so forth down the ancestral line for seven generations. Your father’s hometown and tribe determines your identity. One of my Kyrgyz friends says that even though she was born and raised in Bishkek, she tells people she is from Issyk Kul because that is where her father is from. Kyrgyzstan is also a country where there is a strong north-south divide. It makes a big difference whether you are from the north (read: Bishkek) or the more Uzbek-influenced south (read: Osh).

Kyrgyzstan was formed from the unification of 12 famous tribes, and these identifications, along with geographic splits in the country, are still major drivers in society and especially in politics. Kyrgyzstan is now home to more than 80 ethnicities, and has two enclaves: one belonging to Uzbekistan and the other to Tajikistan. Again, in those enclaves it makes a big difference where you are from. In April there were clashes in the Tajik exclave of Vorukh when Kyrgyz laborers tried to build a road through the Tajik lands. Furthermore, Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries in Central Asia. So for taxi drivers and bazaar vendors, it makes a big difference if you are a local or a foreigner. Here, people need to know.

So yes, now that I am in Kyrgyzstan, I get asked this question a lot — and yes, often in the form, Vy kto? (Who are you?). In fact, because I have an Asian face with American mannerisms, I get asked this question daily, whether I’m buying tea from a sidewalk vendor, asking for directions, or buying a ticket to a show. Where are you from, Kyrgyz-looking-girl-with-an-American-accent? It’s always the first question people ask me. (After that, I get asked my age, marriage status, and marriage ambitions. This is standard Central Asian procedure when making introductions.)

How do I deal with it? When I first arrived in Bishkek, I treated the question as an exasperating but necessary game. Usually I’d say Ya filipinka (I’m Filipino), because most of the time people would want to know my ethnicity. But I’d also often say, Ya amerikanka (I’m American), especially after revealing a particularly horrid American accent and I felt like I had to explain myself. When I was in an inviting mood, I’d say playfully, Chto Vy dymaete? (What do you think?), which would usually trigger a conversation. If I was in a non-inviting mood, I’d just say Nyet. (The question is usually, “Are you Indian? Uzbek? Afghan? Korean? Chinese? Mexican? Tajik? Kazakh? Japanese?). If I was at a museum, I’d answer with a firm, Ya studyentka (I’m a student) to avoid paying the exorbitant foreigner’s fee. If I were with an American who clearly knew I was American, I’d say “I’m from Virginia.” If I were with an American who thought I was Central Asian, I’d say, “I’m from DC” (as if responding with our nation’s capital underlined my American-ness). [I should point out that “DC” is synonymous with Metro DC, which includes Virginia, Maryland, and Washington.]

After a while, though, trying to read the situation got exhausting. And I resented the fact that I had to explain myself at all. But the truth of the matter is – I’ve got nothin’ on these Central Asians. With their history of artificial borders, deportations, and migration, their sense of identity is far more complicated than mine. And that humbles me. Imagine identifying yourself as Soviet your whole life, only to wake up one morning and having someone tell you your motherland no longer exists; that you are now to identify yourself as a Kyrgyz citizen. How does one deal with that? I can only imagine how stressful and frustrating it must be to answer the question, “So where are you from?” by Clueless Foreigners who are unaware of Stalin’s “nationalities policy,” which deliberately mixed and mashed the ethnicities of Central Asia.

I have come to this realization watching Central Asians deal with their sense of identity when they ask each other this question. There is no scoffing, no rolling of the eyes, no calculations in how to cut the conversation short. People are open about themselves, and matter-of-fact, even lighthearted. One of my acquaintances, who is part Uzbek, part Uighur, says when she is asked this question by other Central Asians (and she is asked this question a lot, because apparently she has an Uzbek face with Uighur eyes), she often responds, Ygadaitye! (“Guess!”).

Central Asians are also patient, especially with foreigners. Often they’ll turn their history into a teachable moment and say things like, “My parents were from Pishpek, which is what Bishkek was called before 1991,” or “My dad was from Kazakhstan, and my mom was from Kyrgyzstan…but that was before there were borders.” Of course, at times they will throw their hands up in frustration when dinner reservations get pushed back an hour because people will get lost and confused by the old Soviet street names with the new Kyrgyz street names. (Isn’t it enough that we can’t answer the question, “Who are we?”, let alone, “Where are we?”) But people here share with you their past. And they expect you to return in kind.

It’s a nice way of looking at it. I’ll always remember how one of my Tajik friends, who is a white-skinned blue-eyed Pamiri, explained what it was like working in Moscow as a factory worker. [Note: There are more labor migrants in Russia from Tajikistan than from any other Central Asian country.] When Russians asked him where he was from, he’d say, the Pamirs. They’d then ask, “Where’s that?” He’d say, in Tajikistan. “So why are you white?” He’d then say that many Pamiris look like this because Alexander the Great once passed through the Pamirs. They would then reply with a confused and faint, “Oh?” My friend threw his hands in the air and laughed. “You see, what do they know?” Then, more seriously, he shrugged and said, “Eh, what can you do?”

The simple answer is: You can’t do anything. You can’t stop people from asking, “Where are you from?” Furthermore, you can’t stop people from asking you to identify yourself, to explain yourself, even to justify yourself. You can, however, choose how to react. And that is what I have learned from my experience in Kyrgyzstan.

So now, when I get asked, Vy kto?, I try to adopt a similar open attitude. The last time I jumped into a taxi, and the driver looked at me through his rearview mirror and asked, Vy kto?, I didn’t dissolve into self-pity, or get defensive, or get aggravated that this was the fourth time that day. I simply asked him directly, Hy, skolko stoit? (How much is the fare?) He raised his eyebrows and gave me a reasonable price as he pulled away from the curb. I nodded approvingly. And then I smiled. Ya amerikanka, I said. After that, we had a great conversation.

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About the author

Eirene Busa

Eirene Busa is a Master's Candidate at Georgetown University with the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies. She has a BA in History and a Minor in Middle East Studies from the College of William and Mary. She studied Russian at the NOVAMOVA Russian language school in Kiev in the summer of 2012. She is currently in Bishkek with the SRAS "Home and Abroad: Report" program.

Program attended: Home and Abroad Scholar: $10,000 to Study Abroad

View all posts by: Eirene Busa