The American Dream. It is a unit of study in the eleventh grade. It's roots go back to the beginning of the United States. There are facets of it that we all actively pursue in one way or another. But how “American” is it? Is it not true that no matter where you are, what culture you come from, you will desire to better your situation, to seek and achieve financial stability, to achieve whatever society has said is the “norm”? No, the American Dream might not just belong to Americans.
Perhaps though, only in America has it always felt possible.
Here are a few glimpses into Bishkek life:
When Peter and I go to check and see if there are potato samcis at our favorite place, the same girl is always there. She looks to be about 20 years old, give or take, and she is there no matter what time of day or what day of the week it is. She sells samcis for roughly 40 cents each.
When Peter and I go to our favorite bread shop, 3 of the 4 girls who work there are always there. Perhaps, they get a little more time off than the samci girl, but not much.
People live and work at the dump. Some families say they like living on the dump because it is warmer. Some parents have left their children in the villages and are ashamed to tell them where they work. These folks search for plastic bottles of all sizes in good condition. They sell them for 1 cent to someone who washes them and then sells them to local farmers /merchants for 2 cents. The farmer then puts milk in them, a wife fills it with a sauce or Kumas (fermented mare's milk), the merchant fills it with something and the goods are taken into the city and sold.
In Bishkek, when it snows, the snow sticks to the sidewalks and roads, is trampled by pedestrians and cars. The roads might be sanded. The sidewalks are cleared only if it is in front of a shopkeeper who cares to clear it. Public employees carve out a small pathways through the public spaces, like the park and Ala-Too square. For the most part, old men and hunched over old ladies, young children, men and women with heavy bags, all of us, we walk on the sidewalks slick with ice.
And I wonder... What does the samci girl dream of doing? What do the young men who sell produce by the side of the road want for their lives? The cheerful bread girls, are they content? How many elderly grandmas slip on the ice and break a bone?
Perhaps the Kyrgz people and the American people live by two different sets of expectations. Perhaps the Kyrgz people expect life to be hard. They are not surprised by hardship, the necessity of long hours at work, or the inability to seek permanent financial security. I am not saying that they enjoy these hardships, nor are they easier because of a different set of expectations. It's just that perhaps they are not always looking for someone to blame when the going gets rough.
Perhaps we expect life to be easy. We expect to be able to go to college, to find substantial and worthwhile employment that allows us to use our gifts and natural abilities. We expect to be able to save up for our own home, and/or find a bank that is willing to to supply us with the necessary loan. We expect that if we work hard enough, we can achieve anything we want. We expect to have clean water, clean air, nice roads, sidewalks that are level and even; we expect that after it snows the roads will be cleared quickly and without the interruption of other services (like garbage pick up). We expect to be able to choose – choose the kind of job we will have, choose our spouse, choose where we will live and how we will live, choose to save our money for a boat or perhaps for travel, choose the “perfect” college for our kids.
I don't know what to do with all these thoughts. All I know is that I am not the samci girl; I do not have to support my family by picking through trash in the dump, I can come “home” to clean air, pure water and streets cleared of snow. I do believe I have many choices and opportunities in life. And somehow, I know I am to use these opportunities wisely, to give generously, to be ever grateful for all that I have.