Kyrgyz, U.S. Women's Club shows similarities, creates friendships
Service members deployed to the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, pose for a group photo with their new Kyrgyz friends during an American Corners: Women's Club meeting Oct. 14, 2011, in Bishkek. The Women's Club is just one branch of the American Corners program, which launched in this country in 2003. The program promotes mutual understanding between the Americna and Kyrgyz people. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Cindy Dorfner)
by Master Sgt. Cindy Dorfner
376th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
11/14/2011 - TRANSIT CENTER AT MANAS, Kyrgyzstan -- It seems no matter the location, get a bunch of women together and they can always find something about which to talk. That's the idea - and the result - in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, when female American service members deployed to the Transit Center at Manas visit with Kyrgyz ladies during a weekly American Corners: Women's Club.
The Women's Club started from an idea of the deputy director of the Bayalinov Library, according to Robin Solomon, Public Diplomacy Outreach officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek.
"(The director) told us that women in Bishkek were eager to speak directly with American women about their professional, personal and family experiences," Solomon said. "The success of the Women's Club confirms this, and it is an excellent example of the power of people-to-people diplomacy, which the American Corners program was designed to promote."
The "American Corners" program was launched in Kyrgyzstan in 2003 as a partnership between the U.S. Embassy Bishkek and local institutions. An American Corner is an information resource center modeled in the American style with the purpose of providing comprehensive and up-to-date information about the United States, and thus promoting mutual understanding between the American and Kyrgyz people.
The unique aspect of really getting into the culture is what initially drew 1st Lt Tahina Montoya to participate. She's been twice and loved the experience.
"My favorite part is developing friendships and gaining their trust," Montoya said. "Once they're comfortable, they open up and talk about interesting traditions and practices ... and how they feel about those traditions. These are things we won't learn from inside the Transit Center or by reading any book."
Asel Emilkanova is 22 and once lived in the United States for three months. Still, when she first visited the Women's Club, she thought women in the American military would "look like boys and be rude." She admitted she gleaned this opinion from watching movies and was happy to change her opinion.
"This Women's Club provides a good opportunity for women to exchange their life experiences," Emilkanova said. "We talk about how to be a good mother or wife, how to look after children, how to run a business or changes in traditions."
Montoya, a 376th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron intelligence officer deployed from MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., said she was surprised at hearing about a Kyrgyz tradition.
"At our first meeting, we talked about the tradition of bride-napping," Montoya said. "The majority of the women understood that it was outdated, and didn't really agree with it."
Despite differences in some traditions, the women seemed relieved to find out they have more in common than they first might have guessed.
"I wasn't sure what to expect before, but I was pleasantly surprised after chatting with these women," Montoya said. "They're pretty much your average young women - hardworking, ambitious, goal-oriented and constantly looking for ways to explore and change the world."
A native of Lowell, Mass., Montoya said the experience has been different than what she expected, but in a good way. She thought the exchanges would be more formal, and thinks the relaxed atmosphere makes it more fun. For now, the group meets in the library for a round-table type discussion on a variety of subjects.
"I think we Americans often assume that we are so different from everyone else," Montoya said. "What I now realize is while there are some differences, there are several similarities. We have to focus on the similarities, not the differences!"
Almagul Kushtarbekova, a 20-year-old student, finds the all-female environment perfect for discussing life issues without shyness. She said the gathering has made her start to think more about Americans and she hopes to get to know her new friends more closely.
"I think these meetings help close the gap of ignorance," Montoya said. "Yes, we're all in Kyrgyzstan, but meeting with, learning about, talking to the locals help us understand each other in a different way. It's something that can't be done within the compounds of the Transit Center. When I leave Kyrgyzstan, I want to say that I really got to know the country, the culture and its people."