Mothering in Someone Else's Motherland

This is the story of how I became a mother in Kyrgyzstan. Misha was born during our first stay in this country from 2004 to 2006. I hope this story will give you some insight into the cultures here, the city of Bishkek, the first revolution, the ups and downs of parenthood abroad, and why we in the world we wanted to go back!

We returned to Kyrgyzstan from fall 2011 to summer 2013 with Misha and his little brother Sebastian, eager to share with them the cultures and languages of Misha's birthplace. I have detailed the adventures of our second two years in Kyrgyzstan on this blog starting with this post.

A traditional yurt in the mountains, perfect for tending to grazing livestock in the summer months.
Misha: "Kyrgyz boy"
Misha running full speed down Sovietskaya, age one.

Mothering in Someone Else's Motherland:

Having a baby in Kyrgyzstan

By Tamara Kula
June 2006

Four days after we bought our plane tickets, we found out I was pregnant.
This discovery came after Josh and I had already geared our entire summer – from working overtime at our summer jobs to lining up positions teaching English abroad that fall to planning our August wedding – toward one goal: traveling to the post-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan to learn Russian and teach English.
After much tumultuous contemplation over what to do with our one-way tickets, we decided to follow our hearts. After all, if there’s anything Asia is known for, it’s having babies. And if we were uncomfortable in any way with the hospitals there, we could always do as my mom encouraged and come home at Christmas.

A Different World
That’s how we ended up in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. It’s a place where you can find designer jeans and one-hour photo processing amid outdoor corner stands run by women who earn less than a dollar a day selling gum, sunflower seeds, and individual cigarettes. It’s a place where you can see an old man in a traditional Kyrgyz kalpak hat walking on the same street as a little girl walking to school sporting a Barbie backpack. It’s a place where chaotic traffic fills the roads and the smell of burning garbage fills the air while a rooster crows nearby, a cow grazes in someone’s front yard, and clucking chickens strut down the gutters. It’s an ironic combination of the modern world and traditional village life – the magic of Bishkek.
In the early morning of Sept. 3, 2004, the day of our arrival, we excitedly took to the streets, weaving along cracked and dilapidated sidewalks between old Soviet buildings, overgrown yards, and rundown playgrounds, until we reached the main north-south street, Sovietskaya, where the London School was located. Josh knew where he was going, as he had spent two months in Bishkek the previous spring visiting our American friend Chris – and had returned to me bursting with enthusiasm to go back and experience this completely different world from America and Europe. I wasn’t hard to convince.
A completely different world is what we got. Kyrgyzstan is a country of great extremes. I was shocked to find that not even we Americans could afford a lamp from a store on the street, but at the bazaar we could find dozens that made Wal-Mart prices look high. While the country is infamous for its corruption, drastically underpaid doctors, and outdated facilities, it is also home to some of the most generous people we have met, people who have almost nothing yet are willing to share everything.

Lush greenery covers up the city's grey Soviet-era apartment buildings.

Sovietskaya, the main north-south street

The mountains are always visible - just a 30-minute drive away.

The hustle and bustle of bazaars is fascinating.

Pregnant in Kyrgyzstan
At 10 weeks pregnant and 24 years old, I spent the first week fighting jet-lag, exhaustion, and morning sickness – all while teaching from 2:30 to 8:00 p.m. four days a week. Even though I literally collapsed as soon as I got home every night, I loved my students, a mixture of old and young, Russian and Kyrgyz, who were interested in what I had to say and eager to learn.
My first visit to the doctor ended in tears. It wasn’t that my doctor was particularly rough, but neither was she gentle. She wasn’t cold, but neither was she warm and welcoming. She didn’t even make eye contact with me, much less speak to me, only communicating through my Kyrgyz friend Gulnara, also pregnant, who is married to Chris. When I walked out of the office, Josh was naturally greatly concerned and I tried to explain through my sobs that it wasn’t so bad, that I was just shaken up because it was hard being pregnant for the first time in another country where I didn’t yet understand the language.
The hospital itself was not bad. Called the “Spetz Balnitza,” a hospital for government officials during Soviet times, it is now open to anyone who can pay. Though the building was old and the hospital obviously lacked funding – there was only one scale to serve everyone and the test tubes were chipped – we were relieved to see a bright waiting room with plants, posters, and pregnant women everywhere.
We quickly came to realize that everything in Kyrgyzstan, especially doctor visits, is highly inefficient. My monthly doctor visit actually took nearly a week’s worth of my precious mornings to squeeze everything in. I had to give blood one day, urine another, get an ultrasound another, and see the doctor herself yet a different day. My doctor records were made up of plain scraps of recycled paper, which the doctor hand-wrote and glued into a small file. To give urine, everyone was expected to bring her own container, so I set my huge plastic water bottle (which earned some giggles from the staff) among jelly jars and shampoo containers.
The ultrasound, or “oozie” as they are known in Kyrgyzstan – short for “ultrazvuk” – was another surprise. The screen is positioned so that the mother can’t get so much as one peek at her baby. But Josh, Chris, and Gulnara narrated how it was really kicking and moving. The doctor told us it was six centimeters long. (“Six point one!” Josh corrected every time I shared this information. “You make him sound like a shrimp.”) The best part about an ultrasound in Bishkek, though, is the price. In America we paid $300 for one ultrasound. In our Kyrgyz hospital, we paid about seven dollars – and that was the “American” price, bumped up from $1.25 for locals. I paid about 370 som for a typical visit, whereas a local would only pay 35. However, when $10 is a high-end price for a check-up, I couldn’t complain.
My second check-up the following month went considerably better than the first. By that time, I could understand some basic Russian, making the whole process much less scary, and I could answer when the doctor asked how I was sleeping and eating. She told me to eat everything that I wanted and not to worry, that everything was “horosho.”
By my fifth month, I finally started getting a little belly, though my doctor constantly told me I was “hudinkaya” – skinny. Chris and Gulnara had left for America to have their child there, so my Russian friend Tatiana was accompanying me to my monthly check-ups. After discovering that my eye prescription was minus seven, the doctor bluntly told me that I would have to have a Caesarian because giving birth would be dangerous for my eyes. I tired of their tendency to give me the worst-case scenario before investigating. They sent me down the hall for a quick eye exam. The eye doctor dilated my eyes, looked at them with a bright light, and concluded that I would be okay to deliver normally as long as I had all my children before age 30. It was all I could do not to roll my eyes.
After Christmas break, it was getting quite obvious that I was pregnant and our secret was out with co-workers and students. My students were a constant source of ideas for names. Russian names included Alexander (Sasha for short), Mikhail (Misha), Alexei (Lyosha) for boys. Natasha topped our list for girls. Kyrgyz names included Adilet (meaning justice) and Arstan (lion) for boys, Aisulu (beautiful moon) and Altinai (golden moon) for girls.
After telling people that I probably would have my baby in Kyrgyzstan, the typical local reaction was, “Really?? You’re so brave!” – a comment that, rather than boosting my confidence, made me question what in the world I was doing. Adding to my concerns were the warnings people gave me about doctors who perform Caesareans simply because they can charge more for delivery. Ambulance unreliability was another worry on my list – one of my friends said she had called the emergency number when she had food poisoning only to be told that the ambulances weren’t running that day because they were out of gas.
In January, at seven months, I had another ultrasound and the doctor announced that it would be a “malchik” – a boy! In Asia, boys are preferred; a mother will almost undoubtedly keep having children at least until she produces a son. Our friends here were surprised to learn that Josh, like my family back home, was holding out for a girl.
I continued teaching until the end of February, since the baby was due at the end of March. Most women in Kyrgyzstan, however, quit work within a few months of getting pregnant and often spend the last few weeks of their pregnancy waiting in the hospital. My friends were surprised when I told them that in America, teachers in particular often work until the day before they give birth.

The Birth House
In early March, we toured my rod-dom – birth house. If we didn’t like it, this was our last chance to back out and head to America. We were flooded with relief to see that the private hospital was like a dream come true. I couldn’t have imagined a better hospital, even in America. In contrast to old Soviet buildings, this three-floored structure was clean and white with perfect, unblemished hallways and floors. It had waiting chairs, coat racks, and complimentary robes and slippers. It had rooms for everything – a laboring room, birthing rooms, private or double overnight rooms, an emergency operation room, a baby intensive care room, a kitchen, etc. Their technology was completely up to date. Women could labor in bed, in a chair, standing in a walker, or even in a Jacuzzi. Delivery cost $250, with an extra $12 per night for a private room. A public hospital delivery in Kyrgyzstan runs locals about $100 – quite expensive for most families, considering that equals about a month’s salary at a respectable job.
My hospital, Clinica Profesora Asimbekova, was run by Gulnara Umetovna, a reassuring, plump, motherly Kyrgyz woman who was to be my delivery doctor. Patient, kind, and understanding, she was the best doctor I met in Kyrgyzstan. She communicated directly with me in Russian, asking several times if I had questions. After seeing the facility and meeting my doctor, all of my misgivings about giving birth in Bishkek disappeared. At this modernized hospital, Josh would even allowed to be present at the birth – something extremely rare in Kyrgyzstan. Often both the husband and the wife are adamant that the man be absent during the birth.

Revolution Baby
Then, on March 24, 2005, three days before my due date, the revolution hit. The day before and that very morning there had been only rumors of an impending revolution, but suddenly that afternoon, it became a reality.
That morning I had visited the doctor, who recommended lots of walking and sex to encourage the baby to be born soon. That afternoon, I remember hearing a growing roar and looking out the window to see a flood of protesters marching down our street on the way to the White House. We spent the rest of the day glued to our TV watching CNN, Sky News, and Russian news channels and seeing downtown Bishkek overrun with 10,000 protesters from the southern city of Osh, fueled by anger over government corruption and the unfair recent elections. The TV showed mobs of people with sticks and stones, the opposition leader riding a horse at top speed through the square with a yellow ribbon trailing behind, and police beating people in an attempt to keep order. However, looking out of our own window just six blocks away, the revolution hardly felt real. Everything looked normal.
Josh, who went to school to teach that day as usual, was asked by his students if we planned to stay in Kyrgyzstan. “Of course!” he told them. “We’re having a baby here!” The students started calling it the “revolution baby.” Soon, Josh was back at home again – classes having been cancelled because of the downtown ruckus – and our friends started calling and warning us not to leave our house. We ignored this and went out to eat at a little cafe near our apartment for shashlik – spicy grilled lamb meat. It was then that we realized a real fear was gripping the city. The cafe was closing early. Our waitress was hurried, anxious to finish her shift and go home. Very few other people were in the cafe. The streets were empty.
That night we were awoken at 3 a.m. by noise in the street – people shouting, a loudspeaker blaring. We turned on TV to learn that the police had fled, order had collapsed, and the entire city was being looted. Kyrgyzstan’s first and only president Askar Akaev had been forced to escape the country.
The following afternoon we joined the crowds on the streets surveying what had happened to their city. We were shocked to see the little grocery store next to the school completely wrecked. Windows were broken up and down the streets, the insides of stores ruined and looted. Piles of glass and burning garbage were everywhere. The destruction gave off a piercing sense of sadness. Bishkek was a city that could use all the help it could get; now everything good in the city was ruined.
The next night we didn’t venture out. Huddling together on our balcony, Josh and I saw darkly-clad figures darting about in the night and heard people yelling, glass breaking, and gun shots ringing out in attempts to keep order and enforce curfews. The streets darkened as if the electricity was failing. The wind came up and rain started to fall. Friends and neighbors started calling and telling us to fill up our bathtub with water, after having heard rumors that the water supply would soon be poisoned with lye. We didn’t quite know what to think – and our baby was due any day.
In the following days, things gradually returned to normal. The lye in the water turned out to be only a rumor. People were out and about again, even in the evenings. I was impressed with shopkeepers’ resilience as they replaced or taped up their broken windows and reopened. Josh and I made a trip to the bazaar to buy a few baby essentials. We found the bazaar to be the same as always – a chaotic feast of the senses, thriving with people, noise, and smells. We jostled our way through seemingly endless stalls and narrow rows of tables to ask prices – “skolka?” – and snoop through items: food, clothes, blankets, TVs, pots, toothpaste, batteries, diapers, chess sets. We dodged merchants shouting “Doroga!” and “Jol!” (“Make way!” in Russian and Kyrgyz) as they brusquely shoved their carts loaded with bananas, blankets, or other goods through the crowds.

Protestors march down Sovietskaya

Downtown Bishkek turmoil

Looted and destroyed shops

The Big Day
And then, on April 5, I woke up at 4 a.m. with contractions. A few hours later I woke up Josh, who immediately started talking excitedly about the prospect of meeting his son so soon, while shooting me occasional sympathetic glances. We went to my hospital in mid-morning, only to be sent home since I was just two centimeters dilated. Disappointed, we took a marshrutka (a crowded minibus for five som a ride – and if you’re pregnant, someone will always give up a seat for you!) downtown and went to a restaurant, then looked around the ZUM superstore. I spent the day with bothersome, ever-strengthening contractions. By evening, they were more regular and so uncomfortable that I couldn’t do anything to relieve them. We headed back to the hospital at 10 at night. I was examined and told that the baby would not be born until morning, but we were given a room.
My birthing room was a plain, white room with nothing but a bed, a table, and a sink. The simplicity of it was rather comforting – absent of all the frightening-looking equipment in a typical American hospital room. The next six hours were the hardest. Josh was wonderful, giving me a backrub almost the entire time, even though he was also completely exhausted. Doctors and nurses checked on me periodically, monitoring my heartbeat, giving me encouragement, and assuring me that pain medication was available upon request. Finally, I was told I would see my baby within the hour. The doctors, Gulnara among them, started instructing me to push in three positions: squatting in a walker, squatting supported by Josh, and finally, at the very last minute, on the bed. Though the whole birth process was in Russian, Josh and I had no trouble handling it without a translator. I recall the doctor’s repeated encouragement – “Maladyetz, Tamarachka!” – and suddenly they placed a chubby, warm, wet baby on my naked chest. His forehead was wrinkled as if in extreme confusion and he cried only a little before snuggling into me. Josh and I stared in amazement at this very small creature that seemed to have everything we did – a complete tiny human being! He was born just before 4 a.m. April 6 at three and a half kilos and 52 centimeters.
I was immediately given sugary tea and a bowl of soup. My baby stayed cuddled on my chest, nursing, for the first half hour, then was taken briefly to be bathed, vaccinated, and dressed in blue. When the nurses brought him back, Josh carried our little bundle to my new room where I would stay the rest of that night and the next. The baby, instead of being taken to a nursery, remained with me for my entire stay.
We didn’t name him until that evening, when we decided he looked like a “Misha.” We gave him the official name “Michael Adilet Kula” so he would forever be connected to Kyrgyzstan. His passport, with a photo of him at three weeks, proclaims his place of birth as Bishkek, though he is an American citizen.
             I was very pleased with my doctors, natural birth experience, and help with my newborn during my hospital stay. Everything seemed completely normal – practically American – until I checked out. As I was leaving, the staff told me in all seriousness that it was very important not to shower or bathe for 40 days because temperature changes would be dangerous to my breasts. I was completely caught off guard. Was this a joke? When I asked Tatiana if this was normal, she said she had been told the same thing. “Did you do it?” I asked incredulously. She smiled and said, “I’m not stupid!” Of course the first thing I did when I returned home was take a shower.

Misha, one day old
Proud parents

Too Much Advice
            The first month with Misha was a struggle. Not only was I missing my mom and family and trying to learn how to breastfeed and care for such a tiny person, but I was also surrounded by people telling me advice that sounded absolutely ludicrous to my ears. As a new mom, I was forbidden to cook or wash – again because of the risk of changing temperatures endangering my breasts (supposedly bringing infection). I was also forbidden to eat, even in small amounts, red fruits and vegetables, cucumbers, coffee, and sugary things like chocolate or even juice. I found this ridiculous and I ate whatever I wanted, excluding alcohol of course.
Josh had his own battles at the food shops near our home. The saleswomen, knowing I had a new baby, refused to sell Josh strawberry yogurt because I wasn’t allowed to eat strawberries. With annoyance, he assured the ladies that the yogurt was for him. They also forced him to buy cream, four to six percent milk, and eight percent yogurt, insisting I needed all the fat I could get.
Our landlady, who cleaned and did our laundry, nearly drove me up the wall. Though I eventually came to love her and she became Misha’s Russian babushka (grandma), that first month she was like the Hollywood version of a mother-in-law – the worst imaginable. If Misha was in my arms, she said I was spoiling him. If he was lying on a blanket, she said the poor boy wasn’t getting any attention. According to her, I was holding him wrong, dressing him wrong, bathing him wrong (she was apalled that I bathed him in the sink).

Misha's sink bath

Acquaintances, friends, and co-workers also flooded our home with more of the same. Everyone acted as if the worst thing you can do to a baby was to put a disposable diaper on him. They themselves are content to let the baby wet his clothes, the bed, and the floor 20 times a day. When they saw Misha dressed in a pair of pajamas, they shook their heads and immediately took a receiving blanket and wrapped him so tightly that he looked like a mummy. Misha, not used to this, rarely found such a position comforting. We were told that Misha would develop a hump back and a bad neck if we continued to let him loll about unwrapped.
Other superstitions involved head shape. According to popular lore, Misha’s head would remain forever misshapen if I didn’t rotate him in his sleep. One student of mine, observing Misha’s head with a concerned look, proudly told me that she rotated her own baby’s head five times a night. Impressed only with her insanity, I simply asked, “Doesn’t he wake up?” No matter how many times we explained that Americans have normal heads despite not being turned from side to side in our sleep as infants, locals insisted that Misha would grow up too ugly to find a bride.
On similar lines, I was supposed to massage Misha’s ears while breastfeeding him, otherwise they would remain flattened to his head throughout life, and massage his feet, lest they never develop arches.
If I ventured onto the streets with Misha in a front-carrying kangaroo pouch, it was even worse. Perfect strangers would tell me that babies under three months should never be carried in a pouch (contrary to what my American baby books told me). It also never failed that in their eyes I had drastically underdressed him. I never understood how babies in Kyrgyzstan didn’t die of heat stroke considering how bundled up they were even in the middle of summer.

My sister Tanya wearing Misha in the controversial pouch during her visit to Bishkek.

Even though before I was always called too thin, after Misha’s birth I was told that I simply must bind my stomach or I would forever be fat. People in Kyrgyzstan tend to be blunt. I tried to take all the advice in good stride, smiling and nodding and continuing on my walk.
During pregnancy, I committed a big no-no: cutting my hair. My friends and students were shocked and even embarrassed for me that I would dare to do such a thing. One of my Russian friends wished to cut her hair while pregnant with her second child, having seen that I had done it with no ill effects. Her husband, however, was not convinced and forbade it.
My favorite superstition, however, is the talisman. People were greatly worried for Misha because he didn’t wear a protective bracelet of beads that resemble eyes. Nearly all children and even many adults wear this bracelet to protect them from “vsklad” – the evil eye curse. After questioning people if they honestly believed this, we received many personal testimonies that it was true. One friend said when she was young, someone cursed her and she developed eyeball-like spots all over her arms. When her grandmother gave her the protective bracelet, they vanished. Misha never wore the bracelet but neither did he ever get sick beyond the sniffles while we were there. When we explain that this curse simply doesn’t exist in America, they remain skeptical, just as we are of their beliefs.

Multicultural Baby
As much as all the baby advice irritated me, it also amused me and made me appreciate raising Misha in a different culture. I loved how Misha was surrounded by so many languages – Russian, Kyrgyz, and English, not to mention many others such as Uzbek, Korean, etc. Misha’s playmates were almost all Russian and Kyrgyz. As a stay-at-home mom (though teaching private English lessons out of our apartment), I enjoyed taking Misha to visit my friends, allowing me to practice my Russian and hang out with other moms, and helping Misha to gain valuable social skills by fighting over toys with other kids.

Misha makes friends with little Anya.

Saule and Misha in Erkindik Park

With Ainura downtown

Daddy and Misha in the mountains

We were lucky to be invited into many people's homes.

I quickly noticed that babies in this part of the world are forced to grow up sooner than ours. When Misha was just a few months old, people started telling me which solid foods to feed him – though I intended to wait until six months. A few months after that, and everyone started asking me if I was potty training yet. After his first birthday, people were surprised to learn that he was still in Pampers all the time. One of my Kyrgyz friends informed me that five months is the proper time to start toilet training. When I calmly explain, as always, that in America we wait until two or two and half years to start potty training, I always received wide-eyed looks of bewilderment as to why we wait so long.
           Our friends were also surprised that we hadn’t cut his hair. Traditionally in Kyrgyzstan, a child is shaved bald at one year. If not, supposedly, his hair will never grow in thick and full. I, however, had no intention of shaving off Misha’s beautiful wisps. His reddish hair attracted a lot of attention. Some people actually told me that obviously I bathed him with special herbs and that’s why his hair was red.
           During our last few months in Bishkek, Misha started to transform from baby to boy. He started to talk – not so much in words as in intonation. He heard plenty of English at home, of course, and he also understood several phrases in Russian. If you asked him, “gdye myachik?” he would promptly run and find his ball, bringing it back to play. He didn’t know the “pattycake” song, but if you said it in Russian – “ladichki” – he would gleefully clap his hands. His toy cell phones said “kak dela?” instead of “how are you?” and the majority of his children’s books were in Russian. When I watch the video of his first steps, my best friend Saule is there in the background, counting each forward totter: adin, dva, tri, chitiri…
           We left Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2006, after many sad goodbyes. Our families were surprised that we stayed in Kyrgyzstan so long – and frankly, so were we – but our attachment to Kyrgyzstan and the close friends we made grew with every month we spent there and leaving became harder and harder.
           We arrived in the United States just before the Fourth of July, and for the first time, Misha got to meet my parents who for so long had only photographs of their first grandchild.
          The ease of living with a baby in America hit us immediately. Everywhere we go accommodates babies. The curbs are stroller friendly, restaurants provide high chairs, shopping centers have carts with baby seats. In Bishkek, Misha ate in his stroller, slept on the floor, and rode in cars on our laps, like a good many babies there. Back in my hometown of Brookings, SD, though, a high chair, crib, and a car seat were waiting for him, not to mention more toys and clothes than he will ever need.
After two years abroad, it’s a bit strange to be back. Instead of going to a crowded bazaar where it’s nearly impossible to find what you’re looking for, we now go to America’s painstakingly organized, air-conditioned version: Wal-Mart. Here I buy eggs individually stamped with a red mark in a Styrofoam carton instead of eggs with mud and feathers still stuck to them packaged in a plastic bag. We sorely miss the quirks of Bishkek, the funny moments that come from being a foreigner, and the feeling that everything around you is new and different.
However, the time had come for Misha to see a new culture and country – his own. He now eats Cheerios and PBJs, wades in the kiddie pool, and is learning lots of English words. Perhaps as he grows older, he will be called “Mike,” but to me he will always be Misha.

Six years later: 

Misha at age 7, with Sebby, 3, walking in Bishkek snacking on doughnuts. They attended preschool/school, spoke Russian with admirable accents, and played with all the neighborhood kids.

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