The best advice I got was ‘expect the unexpected’!
As I prepared to come out to the field, I received a lot of advice and a lot of thoughts on how my first few months on the field would be, but overall, the best advice I got was ‘expect the unexpected’! I have been out to Central Asia for summer camps since 2014, so in some ways I knew what I was getting myself in to. It meant that I could get myself around the city, order a burger, do my shopping and navigate the craziness which is the local public transport system (well at least I was prepared for being shouted at for not knowing the protocol on the overcrowded minibuses that serve as the main mode of public transport), but it also meant that I expected my time here to be just like extended versions of my 2-week trips!
There is a real sense of joy when you realise you understood what was just said to you in a shop or café
One of my main activities here is language learning, and it has been quite a shock to come face to face with the rules and exceptions of the Russian language. The language lulls you in to a false sense of security before hitting with you a completely unexpected rule or exception! There have been days where I feel I have made progress, and days where I feel like giving up completely, but there is a real sense of joy when you realise you understood what was just said to you in a shop or café. Being a white westerner in Central Asia has both benefits and drawbacks; many people are genuinely interested to know about where you come from and what life is like in the west, while some people eye you with suspicion as to why you’d want to come to a country where most young people are dreaming of leaving?
Missing salt and vinegar crisps
It is always fun to have a conversation about Liverpool football club, or teach people how to say ‘traditionally English’ phrases, but it can also make locals ashamed to talk about their country because they believe the west to be infinitely better that Central Asia, so there is a balancing act to be done when meeting locals. Where I live, there is a growing café culture, with café’s and coffee shops seemingly popping up every week. Along with café’s there is a growing art scene, including paint and photography, as well as music and film. As a musician, this has given me a brilliant opportunity to meet local musicians and make friends. There have been downs as well as ups, some minor like missing salt and vinegar crisps, and some more serious like being made acutely aware that while superficially, religious freedom is granted in the region, Christianity is still eyed with a lot of suspicion in the cities and openly opposed in the villages.
If you are reading this while you prepare to come out on the field for the first time, get all the advice and information you can get before you arrive, be ready to take the good with the bad, be ok with getting the language wrong, be ready to answer a million questions about the West, be ready to miss some of your favourite foods, to be frustrated by pseudo-religious freedoms, but overall remember to ‘expect the unexpected’ and be excited to see God use you in ways you could never predict!