A Thousand Words On Culture: Dancing With The Stans
Kuah Jenhan talks about his friendly meetings with the Stans, at the Stans.
BY kuah jenhan | Oct 27, 2017 | Culture
Dear Esquire family,
Zdravstvuyte, Salam, or *car honk* from Kazakhstan, which is the standard greeting here! It is 1°C right now. Brr! As I write this, I am waiting to be warmed by a plate of pilaf or plov, rice cooked in broth and lamb juices, at a restaurant called Rumi. Yeap, it is named after the Persian poet and very much like his poems, this restaurant has beautiful columns, a mystical charm, will be there for you all through the night (it opens till 1am), and fills you with longing and hope (I have waited for 20 minutes and I can smell the pilaf).
People here speak no English but are really friendly (I think). I went to Medeu yesterday. Almost all Kazakhstanis claim it is the world’s highest ice skating rink! “Is high skate!”, they would tell me. It sits at 1691m above sea level— I know this because I looked it up on Wikipedia and now I also know it really is not the world’s highest ice skating rink but it is okay, Kazakhstanis are extremely proud of it. “You know Medeo? Manual. No automatic. Manual!” they exclaim enthusiastically. I deduced that they were trying to tell me it was named after a wanderer name Medeo which is cool because "Kazakhstan" actually translates to “Land Of The Wanderers.” However, I don’t know what ‘no automatic’ meant though, I highly doubt Medeo wandered around in a manual car centuries ago.
I got spoken to by a lot of people in Medeu when they found out I wasn’t local. Turns out I actually look local because most Kazakhstanis have either a Chinese, Mongolian, Russian, or Korean heritage. An old lady, blonde with a head scarf, deep wrinkles, and a thick burgundy jacket approached me trying to sell some snacks. When I replied, “nyet thank you” which is a rubbish translation of “no thank you”, she lit up and handed me a rolled-up brown paper-like snack. She insisted and gestured for me to eat it. I put the paper in my mouth, praying it was actually food. I think it was some dried fruit jerky. Kind of tasted like haw flakes. I guessed she then asked where I was from or something along the lines and I said “Malaysia!” She then asked me, “career?”, which strangely is a common first question here based on my experience. Not knowing how to mime a stand-up comedian, I mimed writing instead. She looked perplexed and laughed. “American no American?” she pointed at me. I said, “no American, Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur.” She then was very happy and handed me a bag of sunflower seeds and said, “Free! Free!” and danced and cheered, “America NO! Kora Lopa! I love Kora Lopa! NO America!” It was entertaining. I took a video of this. I will show you when I get home!
Also, the nicest thing that someone said to me in Kazakhstan was….wait my pilaf is here! I’m going to eat it hot. Be right back!
Oops! Dropped some rice on my keyboard, had to wipe it. Yeah, so, the nicest thing and also the strangest thing I was told was, “you have Hollywood smile.” I don’t exactly know what that means but I will take it. I am filled and fulfilled, I will continue writing tomorrow.
Hello! I am flying out to Tashkent, Uzbekistan soon. Here’s something interesting—through various conversations over the last 4 days, I found out that in Kazakhstan, people believe they must get married by the age of 25. A girl who was 25 and still single told me that the reason was, “In Kazakh, 8 girl, 1 guy. Many guy is spoiled. They choose! I am old, maybe I die alone.” A little bit of an overreaction in my opinion but she is after all, young! Ha ha!
Last night was beautiful though. I arranged to meet a friend, Ulya. We met at Mega Alma-Ata, one of the few (and huge) shopping centres in Almaty at 11.30pm. She lived nearby with a 10 month old Aaron Amir. I arrived and the security guard gestured an X on his chest. I told him, “I’m waiting for drug.” (Relax, “drug” means friend in Russian.) He then asked that odd question again, “Career?” this time I mimed typing on a computer. He nodded.
Stuffing my hand in my coat pocket in the freezing -1°C, I glanced at a street lamp and saw rain particles reflected in the light. Great, it’s raining. Wait a minute, rain in sub zero temperatures means snow, doesn’t it? I dashed out onto the empty carpark, an unlit ferris wheel in the background, and saw and felt snow for the very first time. Throughout my stay here, the streets were paved with snow and sludge but seeing snow fall was really something else. It filled me with childlike wonder to discover that snowflakes actually looked like snowflakes to the naked eye! However, word of advice, it does not taste magical.
Soon, I saw a huge snowflake running towards me from the opposite direction. It was Ulya, in a big puffy white Hello Kitty jacket. Ulya is Russian, has the longest eyelashes, roundest eyes, 27, and is a single mom. Since everything was already closed, we chatted and walked circles around the carpark, an unlit ferris wheel in the background, and now with 5 curious security guards looking on, observing this suspicious computer typing mime. Ulya tells me about the culture and I learnt that the stigma of being unmarried by 25 is much worse than being a single mom or a divorcee in Kazakhstan. When it got too cold after 30 minutes, we decided to part but not before she asked me about my language. She asked how to say ‘Thank You’ to which I answered, “Terima Kasih.” ‘Terima Kasih’ is such a nice phrase. It can literally mean ‘to give compassion’ or ‘compassion received’ or very often both at the same time.
Bellagio, Central Asia.
It is now the night of my first day in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I befriended an American traveller on the same flight, Erik Olson. We spent today visiting the Hazrati Imam Complex where the world’s oldest Qur’an is - the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin - and shared a lovely Uzbek meal in a restaurant called Caravan. Again, an aptly named restaurant, because it is there I learnt that Erik, from Portland, is a travelling performer like myself. He leads the notable metal band, Lord Dying, who has toured with the likes of Toxic Holocaust and the lead of Pantera! We were both in search of some creative enlightenment.
I have four more days here and I am looking forward to what comes next! That’s all from me for now and I hope this post card reaches you in time before the magazine goes to print. Wait, it’s a digital postcard. Of course it will arrive, but I will no doubt find some way to be late, again. Sorry!
Before I head to bed, apart from meeting the very cool Erik, I have finally learnt why “career?” was such an important question. During my first cab ride here in Tashkent— which, by the way, everyone is a cab here. There are hardly any official taxis so you just flag anyone down and get a lift and it usually just costs $1-2. The man asked me, “career?” and this time I was bold. I held a fist near my chin, swaying the other hand around, like a stand-up comedian.
He says, “NO! Career? Me Uzbek, You Kazakh, Russia, China, Japan, Career?” Turns out I have been asked if I was Korean all this while and I, like a fool, played charades.
This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Malaysia's April 2017 issue.