As my service continues to draw to a close, that means that a new group of volunteers is preparing to arrive. I’ve received a lot of awesome emails from newly invited PCV’s (both to Kyrgyzstan and to other countries), and I wanted to put together an FAQ to help answer some of the questions you asked (and that you didn’t know to ask)! ALL of this gets covered during your Pre-Service Training, but I know I had all these questions ahead of time and wanted to know everything there was to know.
What Should I Bring?
Kyrgyzstan is a bit different than most Peace Corps countries thanks to two big things: winter, and nice things. You’ve got to pack for walking to school in the snow and below-zero, while also packing for some serious heat. But on the other hand, you’ll likely have decent internet access. I made a packing list specific to Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan last year, and you can check it out here. It covers what I brought, what I wish I had brought, and what I didn’t need to bring after all. You’d be surprised just how much you can find here or on a weekend shopping trip to Almaty!
Everyday Life Questions
Kyrgyzstan does have a different culture that you’ll be integrating into on a daily basis. Here’s a few of the biggest questions I received about culture and lifestyle
What’s the weather like?
It’s hot in the summer, cold in the winter. Your training will begin in the sweltering mid-August heat of Chui oblast, up to 90-100 degrees Fahrenheit. In Osh, winter temperatures hover around freezing, but in Naryn they can go well below zero. Spring brings heavy rain. Bring loose-fitting and modest summer clothing (cleavage, bare shoulders, and bare legs are inappropriate for all genders), and nice warm long underwear and layers for the winter (and snow boots). And professional clothing is a must – I brought an inexpensive suit and have needed it on several occasions.
Can I be a vegetarian / I don’t eat red meat!
It’s possible, but you should be prepared to eat meat when necessary. Kyrgyzstan’s diet tends to include a lot of meat and a lot of carbs, and it can be rude to refuse a piece of meat. While it is definitely possible to be a vegetarian, from what I have seen, those volunteers end up cooking for themselves for most of their meals, and it’s difficult for them to be as strict when eating with many local colleagues. Vegetarians must be especially aware of the risks of anemia (over 50% of Kyrgyzstani women are anemic), and our office gives us vitamins to take in the winter to offset the loss of nutrients. That being said, it can definitely be done, but you may want to consider putting it on hold or being more “flexatarian.” One previous vegetarian volunteer made a very good point during our training: if you are vegetarian because you object to living conditions for animals on farms and industrial farming in the US, you’ll be happy to know that most animals here roam freely and have fantastic lives. All the meat here is halal except the pork from the secret ladies at the bazaar. Check out my series on food and my post about Osh to get an idea of some local dishes. Fruits and vegetables are plentiful in the summer, and painfully expensive in the winter. Several volunteers have also enjoyed learning to can/pickle produce for the winter to offset this cost.
What about food intolerance/allergy?
Many volunteers here have served successfully with dietary restrictions. Learn the words you need (Allergy is a cognate in Russian and Kyrgyz, thankfully!) and you can ask waiters and families to avoid these ingredients. I personally don’t like mayonnaise or hard-boiled eggs, so I told my family once and no problem. However, volunteers with wheat intolerance/allergy may have a difficult time due to the prevalence of wheat/carbs in the diet, and because bread is a common offering of hospitality and refusing can sometimes be considered offensive. It’s something to keep in mind. You can still serve, but you may face additional challenges.
I’m worried about alcohol!
The entire former Soviet Union has a reputation for alcohol consumption. Indeed, some people have said to me jokingly as they drink, “we’re Muslims, but we’re Soviet Muslims.” Alcohol consumption varies from region to region, and the office tries to accommodate your personal feelings about this in site placements. In my experience, the southern part of the country consumes alcohol far less often than the north. In fact, I drink perhaps once every three months with locals. On the other hand, in the north, some people are offered alcohol more than once a week. Luckily, Peace Corps includes some sessions during training on ways to politely refuse alcohol, including excuses like “I’m on antibiotics,” right down to secretly watering it down. Families are given training on not forcing you to drink, too, to help reduce this risk. You can also say you don’t drink for religious reasons. Alcohol is a challenge during service, but a manageable one. The most unusual part of this for most people is adjusting to people around you drinking at work. My recommendation for this is to be firm that you can’t have anything to drink at work, and be ready to remove yourself from the situation if it starts to get out of hand.
Will I live in a yurt?
No, we’re not quite as cool as PC Mongolia (hey, Jenni!). But you can go sleep in one on the weekend if you want! I live in a house, but I set up a yurt-style bed on the floor because I found it to be very comfortable. So I guess I get to feel like I live in a yurt except with electric heating and a washing machine.
How do host families work and what is is like?
Kyrgyzstan is unusual among Peace Corps countries for strongly encouraging volunteers to live with a host family for the entire 2 years of service (as opposed to for the first 3-6 months). This is partially for safety reasons – a host family can help and protect you in an emergency – but also to help you practice your language skills and integrate into the community and the culture. I’ve noticed that foreigners here who live alone tend not to develop the same level of local integration and friendships as those who live with families, and such integration and language is an enormous asset not only from the perspective of having a personally rewarding and fulfilling time in country, but also from a professional standpoint of knowing a variety of local people through your host family who can help you in your work.
The way it works is that PC puts you with a host family, and you get a room in their house (or a compound across the yard – PC is working to try and do more of this type of housing so you can have more privacy) that is required to have a lock on the door, a bed, a table and chair, and there is required to be some type of toilet facility (in most cases, an outhouse), and a few other requirements. Bathing facilities are usually a banya/bathhouse at home or nearby in town (showers are rare). Volunteers are given money by PC to pay their host families for monthly rent (at a fixed rate set by PC in a contract with the family), utilities based on a set rate (with reimbursements if it’s more expensive), and volunteers can negotiate with their families over how much to pay to share dinners/food with the family (since volunteers’ habits vary). Some volunteers choose to cook for themselves, but I deliberately chose to eat with my family for all my dinners as a way to have time with them to practice language and such.
If your host family and you aren’t getting along, there is a procedure for changing families, but PC recommends you try to make it work. In rare circumstances, PC will allow a volunteer to move into an apartment, but in my experience, there has to be a very good reason, and it is not permitted or is not available in a lot of the country (including in the South where I live, and in most villages). I personally recommend staying with your host family for all the reasons I mentioned above – language, integration, and social contact. Most every volunteer I know says that living with a host family is one of the most rewarding parts of their service!
Do I need to fast for Ramadan, etc?
Nope. You can if you want, and you get mad street cred if you do, but people don’t expect you to fast. Just be mindful to not drink or eat in public out of respect. Unlike most of the Middle East, it’s not illegal to do that, it’s just rude. Do feel free to join, though, if you’re invited to an iftar or another religious feast! If your family is fasting, you can also offer to do some of the cooking for them, or extra housework. And, I personally think you should try to fast one day during Ramadan, just to understand the experience of fasting. I find it helps me connect to some of the more important things in life and makes me grateful for the things that I do have. If you are Muslim, you won’t feel pressure to fast. A lot of my local friends say they will fast, but after a few days, say “I tried, maybe I’ll do it next year.”
How do I bathe? Is that a Banya?
Most volunteers serving in Kyrgyzstan can expect to bathe once a week in a facility called a banya, which is a traditional Russian-style sauna. You change into a towel/naked in one room, in the next you bucket shower off, and the third room is a hot steam sauna, where you sit for 10-20 minutes and let yourself sweat. Then you go out and douse yourself in cold water. Then you go back into the steam room for another 10-20 minutes then rinse again. You repeat this process a few times, and it completely steams all the gross out of your skin. While it’s only once a week, every volunteer I know looks forward to banya day. You can even go to a Russian bathhouse in the US to try it out before you go. A very small number of volunteers have showers at home, but ever since my first banya experience, I actually wish I had one!
What about toilets?
Most volunteers serving in Kyrgyzstan use outhouses, both at work and at home, even in the cities, even in polyclinics and hospitals. Most toilets are squat-style toilets, which you’ll get used to quickly once you arrive. You use an outhouse like any other toilet – squat and go. I thought this would be the hardest thing to adjust to for me, but I got used to it very quickly. Oh, and toilet tissue (I usually use baby wipes actually) should always be thrown in a waste basket next to the toilet, never into the actual toilet (it damages the pipes here). A few volunteers have toilets inside their houses, but this is very rare, and some of those toilets are only for “number one,” and you still have to go outside for “number two.” Many restaurants and cafes in cities have sit-down flush toilets now, but it’s not universal. My house has a compromise – it’s an outhouse across the yard with a flushing squat toilet inside it. It’s freezing cold, but it’s clean!
And washing my clothes?
Most volunteers serving in Kyrgyzstan wash their clothes by hand. Host families usually will teach you how to do this during PST, and it’s pretty simple to learn. It’s for this reason that it’s good to bring clothes that hold up well to repeated hand washing. Some volunteers do have washing machines (or a kind of mechanical agitator-stirring-box-thingy) at home, but I have yet to see a dryer in country.
How does the money work?
PC sets up a local bank account for you that you get a paycheck by direct deposit into each month around the 20th of the month (usually the first Friday after the 20th, but sometimes as late as the 30th). You get a local ATM/debit card that you use at ATM’s from the bank to pull out this money in cash. The living allowance is about 200-250 USD per month, which is MORE than enough to live a comfortable life in Kyrgyzstan (it’s more than most locals make, and is about 3 times what most teachers make). That paycheck is calculated by breaking down your pay into specific blocks by what it’s for:
Housing: 5,000 KGS (set in a contract with your host family)
Utilities: 400 KGS summer, 900 KGS winter, plus a one-time 3,500 som for houses heated using coal in winter (PC will give you more if you provide a bill that shows that it cost more, so you won’t have to pay it out of pocket)
Food: 3,815 KGS (I pay 1,500 of this to my family)
Housing Supplies: 215 KGS
Communication: 1,390 KGS (this covers phone, internet, postage, etc)
Clothing: 250 KGS
Local Transportation: 1,100 KGS (note – this isn’t enough for the city, so I receive a supplement to cover my commuting)
Personal: 260 KGS
Discretionary: 870 KGS
City Cost Of Living Adjustment: 3,000 KGS (because certain regions are more expensive)
Leave Allowance: $35 per month, converted from dollars to KGS at current rate
Tutoring: reimbursed based on amount used
You also get a one-time “settling-in allowance” to cover moving-in costs like buying a heater, cooking utensils, plates, water kettle, etc. It’s not to be used to buy a modem, clothes, beer, etc. Once it’s gone, it’s gone, and you’ll have to save money yourself to buy a new heater if yours breaks, so I really recommend saving this. There’s also an emergency allowance you’re required to keep in cash to cover travel to Bishkek in an emergency.
This money is more than enough to live comfortably on during your service, and I’ve even been able to save some of it (some months, I’ve saved about half). Some volunteers choose to use money saved from America for nice things, fancy groceries, and alcohol and nights out, but I prefer to work within the budget that I have locally. Local colleagues and friends do notice and gossip if you seem to be in Bishkek every weekend. And most of them WILL find your Instagram and will know about your Bishkek weekend.
And at the end of your service, you receive your readjustment allowance, which is accrued at I think $350 per month as of Oct 2016 (subject to change). PC holds onto this until you close your service, but you are taxed on it at the time of accrual (which sounds horrible until you realize that your taxes owed will be zero for most of your service, and it reduces your tax burden the year of your COS). DO file taxes during service even if the total is zero, because that data can then be loaded into the FAFSA if you’re planning grad school in the future. My FAFSA right now is a BEAUTIFUL thing.
And vacation time? How does that work?
PC KG gives us weekends off (because our offices and schools are closed anyway), so from the end of work Friday until Sunday night, you’re able to do what you want and travel in-country. You must text your whereabouts any time that you’re out of your site. Vacation days are called “Annual Leave,” and you accrue 2 per month up to 48 total during service. You are required to use Annual Leave any time you will be out of site on a work day in-country, or any time you are outside the country (unfortunately this includes weekends). Thanks to this rule, I have used 19 of my 48 days on weekend days, so in practice, you should consider Annual Leave to really only be 14 working days per year (rather than 24) when planning your trips. Also, keep in mind that you cannot take Annual Leave while school is in session (meaning only in June-August, Fall Break, Spring Break, and January can you take Annual Leave). We also have something called “Program Leave,” which allows you to help other volunteers around the country with their projects and work and not use Annual Leave days because it’s work-related. With my Annual Leave, I’ve traveled to Europe, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, the US, and within Kyrgyzstan extensively. Other volunteers have also enjoyed visits to Dubai, Oman, Thailand and Southeast Asia, China, Tajikistan, and Russia. There are also special categories of leave that don’t use vacation days for things like the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, Foreign Service Exam, Interviews, and international trainings, so if you’re planning grad school, you’ll be able to do your necessary prep. There are also a few categories of leave for illness/death of immediate family members, in which case PC may foot the bill for the ticket depending on the circumstances. You’ll learn more about all this in PST.
What about phone, internet, and staying in touch back home?
You’re in luck – Kyrgyzstan is SUPER posh corps in this regard. Because of PC safety policies, we all have access to phones at our sites, and almost always have cell service. The cheapest carrier costs only 2 KGS per minute to phone the US (that’s literally less than 3 cents per minute). And internet, while 2G in most sites (maybe 25%-50% of volunteers have 3G or LTE in their sites), is super cheap. I pay about 135 som per week for 30 minutes of calling and 6GB of data. Unlimited data can be had for about 1000 som per month on some carriers. This is literally good enough data to Skype home multiple times per week. I text, WhatsApp, Facebook, and everything with friends back in the US like I never left. You will DEFINITELY have no trouble staying in contact here. And if you recall in the money section, the office allocates 1,390 som to communications, so you can totally afford unlimited data. Some volunteers buy modems for their computer internet, but I just hotspot my phone. Only a few volunteers have wifi at home. Oh, and guys…Netflix works here.
What About Safety?
A lot of people wonder how safe it is here, how safe the Peace Corps is, etc, some after researching the region, and some after not researching. I can tell you already that the country’s name ending in -stan doesn’t mean anything about how safe it is. In fact, I don’t hesitate to say that I’m safer in Kyrgyzstan than I am in the United States on a day to day basis. With that in mind, here are a few of the biggest safety questions I’ve heard:
My family heard “-stan” and is worried about safety.
Kyrgyzstan is a peaceful democracy that is very different from Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is probably what a lot of people think of when they hear the country’s name. I’ve never heard of a shooting here, I’ve never heard of a stabbing. State security services do a good job stopping things before they happen. In fact, in Osh, in six years the only crime against a volunteer was a single pickpocketing. Unfortunately, theft is a risk everywhere in the world, but I generally feel safer here than in the US. Why? Kyrgyzstan’s culture is a “collectivist” culture, which means that people see it as their responsibility to help and protect each other, especially guests.
How do people react to Americans in the current political climate?
In my experience, there are far more people who are pro-American than anti-American here, and when people hear about the work you’re doing, you have an opportunity to positively represent the US in a way that can change a lot of people’s preconceptions about the country. Every so often, you’ll meet someone with slightly different perspectives, and that’s normal in all countries. I usually just try and represent my best self, and avoid discussing politics. You’re “on duty” 24/7 as a PCV, including at 2 am on Saturday night at da club, so keep that in mind. Someone may not bring it up to your face, but your behavior no matter when reflects on all Americans living and working in Kyrgyzstan, so we should make an effort to represent the country well.
How will I be perceived as a white/black/Asian/Jewish/other diverse group volunteer?
So I’ll preface this by saying that I’m a white male with a whole lot of privilege who openly admits that I still don’t always get it right when it comes to issues of diversity, so please bear with me – I just want to share a few observations on this knowing full well that my understanding is limited. Diverse volunteers play an important role in representing America’s diversity and acceptance of all peoples of all backgrounds. In many cases, those volunteers might be the first person of that background that local people have met. The Soviet mentality of “nationality/ethnicity” often means that people will ask “what’s your nationality,” but really mean, “what’s your ethnicity,” and if you say “I’m American,” they may follow with “no, but where are you REALLY from.” Even I get asked this because I have a German name – amusingly, some people I’ve met have said to me that only Native Americans are ETHNICALLY “American,” which is technically true and makes me smile every time. This is awkward for many but it’s an interesting teaching moment too about the United States. This sort of challenge is something I hear a lot of diverse volunteers experience. I’ve heard some Asian volunteers have struggled here with being perceived as “Chinese” rather than American (sometimes even mistaken for Kyrgyz people), and sometimes held to different cultural standards because of that (there is a large local Korean minority in Kyrgyzstan, hence some Korean-Americans can be directly seen as local). Even some Hispanic volunteers can sometimes be mistaken for Uzbeks. Basically, you have to contend and deal with challenging stereotypes and sometimes being a spokesperson for your “group,” for lack of a better description. Some African-American volunteers have to explain frequently that they’re actually not from Africa. For safety reasons, *ahem* “fabulous” volunteers should not be open about that aspect of their identity while serving, and avoid discussing the topic as well (at least, using the specific words since they’re cognates). Religious volunteers can practice their religion here (there are a few churches), but proselytizing is 100% illegal and forbidden so don’t do that. One note, in Islam, Christianity and Judaism are actually specifically protected, and people here know and respect Buddhism (it was the region’s religion before Islam), so don’t feel like you need to hide your religion in some way, just be mindful of talking about it. If your host family identifies as Tengri (the traditional Central Asian religion that is very, very uncommon), learn about it and teach me, because I’m very curious about it!
What about 50+ volunteers?
Kyrgyzstan until recently actually hosted the oldest volunteer in the entire Peace Corps! Age is highly respected in Kyrgyz culture, and older volunteers sometimes find themselves on the receiving end of lots of respect and support from locals for this reason. The older volunteers I know (mid-30’s up to 70’s and 80’s even) have generally had enormous success in their communities with their work and projects. I actually think they are some of our best volunteers! Many counterparts are older in age, so older volunteers are able to connect with them in a different way than counterparts with a large age gap. The main challenge I think that some older volunteers have faced is that the younger volunteers in their cohorts aren’t always on the same page as them, and sometimes have different priorities, so some older volunteers may feel some isolation from other volunteers at times. But overall, the older volunteers in my cohort are some of the people I respect the most and I think have done some of the coolest things for their communities, and their age and experience has been an enormous asset for them.
What if there is an urgent emergency, like a medical problem? What will happen?
I’ll be the first to tell you that PC takes safety and health very seriously. If the situation is dire, PC gives you emergency money that you keep so you can pay a car at 2am (why do all my examples in this post take place at 2am???) to drive you to Bishkek. If it’s urgent and the drive isn’t possible, they will send other people to help. I have heard a story of at least one HELICOPTER being called in to get volunteers to safety, and another a SWAT team. Our health staff have contacts in all major health clinics in the country, and our security staff have contacts in all police and government offices in the country. And, the local health infrastructure is actually very good – volunteers with appendicitis get appendectomies here, and others have had several major injuries handled in-country. And if the local health system isn’t able to handle the situation, Peace Corps will pay all costs associated to Medevac you to another country that can handle it, usually Thailand or Washington, DC. Your health and safety is that important to them. I know for a fact that Peace Corps has spent over $10,000 on my medical care so far during my service. It’s the best health insurance you’ll ever have, and they mean business.
Unwanted attention, sexual harassment and assault.
Unfortunately, sexual harassment, unwanted attention, and sexual assault are challenges that some female (and a few male) volunteers will experience during their service. The fact is that norms about what constitutes sexual assault can vary widely between countries, and something that meets our definition of sexual assault may not be understood that way in a different culture. That doesn’t mean that PC doesn’t take this seriously, nor is assault OK in the slightest – it’s not, and it’s never your fault if you are the victim of an assault. To the contrary, PC has made a very concerted effort to address this issue in the past few years. PC KG now does trainings for counterparts, heads of school, and other local colleagues to make them aware of unwanted attention, sexual assault and some of the expectations of volunteers, which allows them to intervene in situations that make volunteers uncomfortable, and applies pressure to them to protect the volunteer. PC also does a long unit on your rights as a volunteer regarding sexual assault, and has been going out of its way to train staff on sensitivity and policies on how to handle assault. PC recognizes both the issue of assault, as well as the “wear and tear” of the unwanted attention that young women may experience here. We have recently added special policies to help volunteers live closer to workplaces and have access to safer transportation, and have conducted additional focus groups to help understand the problem and find ways to reduce risk and improve support. For example, hire out a private taxi if you don’t feel safe (PC will pay for it when a volunteer feels that other options may be unsafe), don’t sit next to men if you can, and if a man comes into a classroom while you’re alone in there, turn on the spidey senses. You’ll learn more about this in PST.
In the unthinkable event that you are the victim of an assault, PC has designated trained Sexual Assault Response Liaisons (I know three of them at our post and I know they are fantastic and supportive people to be doing this job). They can help make sure you are safe, or enroute to a safe place, and help support you and guide you through the process. This will all be covered at great length in training, but victims have the right to specific health services (plan B, STI testing, rape kit, etc.), a Victim Advocate at HQ to help make things happen so you don’t have to, and some specialized telephone counseling resources (although they are usually limited in scope and sessions). In some situations, a volunteer may be medevaced to the US for additional treatment and counseling. There is also a helpline that is completely anonymous in DC. PC KG makes a very concerted effort to ensure that volunteers who wish to continue service after an assault can continue their service. In my experience, our post handles this issue better than many other PC countries, and is continuing to take this issue very seriously. Again, this will be covered in greater depth in PST.
So what kind of training can I expect on Safety and Security?
I’m glad you asked… what a perfect segue into my next section!
What Is Training Like? And What Languages Do I Need To Know?
Peace Corps provides a comprehensive training curriculum called Pre-Service Training, or PST. PST is a 3-month program in total (in some years, and in some countries, a different schedule is followed, so your experience may vary) that covers policies, culture, language, technical (i.e. how to do your job), health and safety. A lot of PST will feel repetitive to some people who are well-traveled or who have previous overseas experience, but PST is designed to allow anyone in America to join the Peace Corps if they want to, hence covering things like “culture as an iceberg” and many things that I have known since I was 9 but that some others hadn’t heard before. Note that PST will change this year from what I am told, so some of this is just based on my experience.
Where will we be trained?
This varies from year to year, but your training starts with Staging in the US, and continues with PST in country. Staging for me took place in Tyson’s Corner, VA, but for others it can take place in Philly, LA, SF, Miami… wherever there is convenient conference space and a reasonably priced flight to your country of service. PST takes place in villages around Bishkek, and you’ll be expected to stay in your villages for the first month or so before you’ll have permission to take day-trips (no overnights) into Bishkek. The specific villages change from year to year, but they usually have experienced host families who are SO happy to welcome you to their homes. These host families go out of their way to take care of you and help you, so please be respectful of their rules – you’re representing America. My PST family still talks about how one of their previous volunteers would sneak out and drink every night. Don’t be that person.
What is PST language training like?
This year, the PST program is changing to reduce the amount that you have to travel from village to village (a welcome change!). PST I think will have two main types of day: language day and cluster day (and occasionally, half and half or other special days). Based on my experience, most days, you’ll spend about 1h30 in language class, take a coffee break, then spend another 1h30, then have lunch at one of your host family’s houses (they pull out the stops for this!), then another 1h30 of class. After that, sometimes you get an assignment to do as homework, like sentences, or sometimes you get an assignment to go talk to people in your village. I usually would sit down with my family and chat with them for several hours in the evening over tea and dinner, before taking some me-time to read or watch TV and going to bed. The host families are trained to let you have some space since it’s a big adjustment, and your brain will shut down at some point. PST is definitely a firehose, though, and I think it may have been one of the hardest parts of my entire service. So, bring your best energy and deep breathing strategies!
Cluster days will be one or two days a week. On those days, you’ll combine with another language group for group sessions on Peace Corps policy, safety, security, health, culture, etc. This is a new approach for this year that I don’t fully know the details of, but compared to our experience in PST two years ago, I think it’s a great upgrade since it reduces the amount of time you have to spend each week commuting.
I’m so excited to learn Russian!
NOPE! While Russian is a national language of Kyrgyzstan, you will almost certainly be learning Kyrgyz. Only a few of you will learn Russian (in our class, it was 3% of trainees). Wait! Before you get sad, let me say a bit more. While Russian is super useful, the vast majority of the sites volunteers work in will be Kyrgyz-speaking sites. Not only is Kyrgyz easier to learn than Russian, but it also helps you show respect to local people you work and live with. In fact, I’ve had a lot of doors open for me because I spoke to people in Kyrgyz, not Russian. And on more than one of my projects, I’ve worked in rural communities without a single Russian speaker. Thus, Kyrgyz skills let you do far more projects in villages and smaller sites where Russian may be more limited! During PST, you will learn Kyrgyz in class and practice it with your host family, and this will prepare you for your work at site. After you are sworn in, you are able to hire a tutor and be reimbursed for tutoring in Russian (or Uzbek, if you need to know it at work like I do), so you can also study Russian if you need or you like (I needed it to work with one of my organizations, so I studied it on my own). If you are one of the 2-3 people who will learn Russian, that’s not a bad thing; you’ll have a very small language group that will allow you to learn quickly, and the language is still extremely useful everywhere you go.
Wait, so how many languages do I need to learn? You just scared me there…
You just need to learn one language, Kyrgyz (or Russian), and as English teachers, you’ll be speaking mostly English at work. In a few very special cases (like mine), you’ll need to learn to understand Uzbek (which is mutually intelligible with Kyrgyz), because of having an Uzbek colleague or an Uzbek family, and a few volunteers have lived with Kazakh families (Kazakh being so closely related to Kyrgyz that even locals can’t hear the difference sometimes). And in a few special cases you’ll need to learn some Russian in order to convince people to speak Kyrgyz to you, or to speak to a colleague, or to order at a restaurant in Bishkek, etc. In my group, two of us switched our languages to Russian because we had Russian/Tatar colleagues we needed to communicate with. But these situations represent less than 5% of volunteers, and the vast majority only need to learn Kyrgyz. That being said, if you already know Russian, Turkish, Persian/Farsi/Tajik, French, or any other Central Asian languages, you’ll have a great advantage from a vocabulary or grammatical perspective.
So how can I prepare for language then?
Peace Corps is working each year to do a few lessons over Skype before you arrive. My biggest advice is to learn to read Cyrillic before you arrive. This is pretty easy to do, and I wrote a blog about it. You can also study Russian on Duolingo, but keep in mind that the more Russian you know, the more of a crutch it will be that could interfere with learning Kyrgyz. You’ll learn Kyrgyz the fastest if it’s your only option for communication. The teachers we worked with in our PST were some of the best I’ve ever had in terms of language teachers, and they’ve literally invented the methodology of teaching Kyrgyz to native English speakers. You can arrive knowing nothing and within 3 months achieve competency you need for work in Kyrgyz. And, thanks to data, you can go back to Russian Duolingo if you need it. I’ve done a few Kyrgyz lessons as well on my blog.
What does “competency” mean?
At the end of 3 months of PST, you have to take a Language Proficiency Interview (LPI) to check your level of Kyrgyz. You must meet a minimum proficiency standard in order to swear in as a volunteer and go to your site to start your work (this is also for safety so you can handle most situations on your own). The standard for Kyrgyz is Intermediate-Low after 3 months of intensive immersion, and in practice, over 97% of volunteers achieve that standard (or better). If you go to class, do your homework, and take an hour or two to sit and practice with your host family, you will meet the standard without any effort at all. From what I saw, most of my group reached this competency bar within the first month, hence my confidence that you’ll be fine!
You still haven’t said anything about Safety and Security training!
Each week, you’ll spend 1-2 hours working through case studies, policies, and situations you may encounter in specialized security trainings. They help you learn to protect yourself from pickpockets and other petty crime, and also strategies for avoiding becoming drunk, understanding local laws, and how PC policies work regarding these issues. It’s very thorough, and by using case studies, it is very good at helping you see how situations in the past have been handled (both well and poorly). This training prepared me well to know the laws and my rights, and helped me feel comfortable advocating for myself and taking precautions to prevent dangerous situations. An example of a law that will affect some volunteers is that it is actually technically illegal to smoke on the street in most of Central Asia. Most locals don’t know about it because it’s rarely enforced, but volunteers have been fined for it in the past, so training reminds you of this and other laws so you can know and behave accordingly.
What about TEFL training?
Since I’m not a TEFL, I can’t speak directly to this, but I know it goes very in-depth on planning, working with varied learning styles, etc. In 3 months of this type of technical training (including many practicums), you’ll feel totally prepared to enter the classroom when you arrive at site. The training is designed for you to arrive without any experience but have the competency you need to accomplish your job by the time you get to site.
What Is Work Like?
This post is already getting really long, and PST being 3 months and all, it’s still a long way off before you get to site and start working. That being said, here’s some answers to this type of question to help you set some longer term expectations and goals.
What is a typical day like?
This is hard for me to answer since I’m not a TEFL, but from what I understand, many TEFLs get up in the morning, have breakfast, walk to their school, do some lesson planning, teach some lessons, do some other planning, teach some more, maybe lead a club, then do some other work, then head home for dinner with their families. Most TEFLs work on teacher trainings a few times a year, and they are expected to lead a few English clubs. Some also lead other clubs, for example I lead a movie club, a business skills group, a health group, and a running group. Many volunteers do things like girls groups as well. The age range varies from site to site (as young as 7 and as old as 40-50 in some cases for universities and talking clubs). Most volunteers are assigned a single counterpart but may work with several other teachers in their school or community (this is good as it spreads the skills transfer to all the teachers). Expect to be working 40 hours a week, just like a typical job. In fact, I recommend thinking of this as a job in terms of how you approach adjusting to the job and learning.
I can’t wait to start all of those groups the first week I get to site!
CALM DOWN SISTER! In fact, I recommend that you plan to do NO SECONDARY PROJECTS until you’ve lived at your site for about 6 months (meaning, don’t even start until April 2018). Your priority when you get to site should be integrating, improving your language, getting to know your colleagues, students and family, and learning about your town and what it needs. For example, if the school has running water and sinks, maybe they don’t need a grant for hand-washing stations. If the community has competent teachers, then they need different trainings than a different community with differently skilled teachers. And if they only speak Kyrgyz, then your beautiful Russian videos will be of no use (this actually happened to me). Know your community first, and ask them what THEY see as their need. This will ensure you have far more success in your projects. And, it helps you cope with the intensity of moving to the new place and avoiding burnout. As for what to do? March/April is a great time to start planning things like summer camps, such as Girls Leading Our World, Teaching Our Boys Excellence, or other sorts of youth empowerment-themed camps. Lots of volunteers do these every year, and there are TONS of resources available, so ask around to learn more about them. Your 6-month mark is perfectly timed for you to begin working on those types of summer projects!
What are other Secondary Projects?
As I mentioned before, different groups like running club, yoga club, women’s club, young mothers’ club, etc. are all popular and successful. But you need to know your community first. For example, it’s not appropriate in my community for me as a man to teach yoga to women. Some other successful secondaries to keep in the back of your mind: summer camps, sports camps, sports clubs, soccer camps, Grassroots Soccer, ski camps, building a daycare, bringing clean water to a clinic, helping a tourism association, helping local entrepreneurs start businesses, helping local businesses and NGOs launch websites, anything having to do with English, and lots of other ideas. Once you’re settled and feel ready to take on the commitment, the office and the program managers can help you brainstorm how to make your ideas for these a reality.
What’s your single biggest piece of advice to us?
Peace Corps is a job, and approaching it as such I think improves your performance and your success. That means you dress and behave professionally at all times, you find work to fill your time, you are at work when you are supposed to be, you abide by policies, etc. Peace Corps is not a two-year backpacking trip, it’s not study abroad, it’s not a free ticket to school. It’s a job. You get out of it what you put into it. And, interestingly, it follows many of the same patterns of jobs. It takes 3 months of training, 3-6 months to get into the flow of your work once you start, then you hit a bit of a slump at 6 months emotionally, then you hit your stride from 6-18 months, then you’re about ready to start making the plans for what’s next from months 18-24. It follows a typical job flow so closely that I think it’s good to approach it as one – I know this approach has helped me become a better volunteer.
I know there are plenty of other questions I haven’t answered here, but I’ve deliberately skipped a few that you’ll pick up in PST or that you don’t need to worry about just yet. I hope that this is a useful resource to you, and I can’t wait for you to arrive here! I hope you’ll come to love Kyrgyzstan as much as I do.