Posted by: Kathryn Hulick | May 15, 2008

Boys Hands Can Wash Dishes

Pokrovka, Kyrgyzstan. December 9, 2004.

“Ket-rin!” My host mother, Mahburat, makes my name sound like a police siren. It echoes across the rooms of the small house and I wonder what I did this time. Did I leave the teapot boiling? Did I line up my shoes too close to the door? Did I throw egg shells in the wrong trash can? Mahburat’s rules were numerous and baffling. It didn’t help that every time I messed up, she saw it as a personal failing. In Kyrgyzstan, girls don’t make mistakes. They are expected to keep the house neat and tidy, bake bread so it looks beautiful, and pour tea without making any noise. They had their whole lives to practice. I’d been in the country for only six months, three of them spent in training with a host mother who was only four years older than me.

“Ket-rin!” Mahburat shows up in the doorway of my room. She looks like a cartoon character. Dyed dark red, frizzy hair frames her large eyes, tiny nose, and pursed mouth.

“Emne-boldu?” I ask in Kyrgyz, “what happened?” I wait for the spew of words that I won’t understand.

My Kyrgyz is actually very good. My first host mother talked to me all the time, and loved quizzing me on vocabulary any chance she got. She made me memorize an entire Kyrgyz song one afternoon. But Mahburat isn’t Kyrgyz. She’s a Uighur-Uzbek mix. She moved from China to Kyrgyzstan’s capital city of Bishkek as a young girl, and grew up speaking mostly Russian. She also spent 13 years living with her husband in Uzbekistan. To complicate things even further, her home (and my home now) is right near the border with Kazakhstan. If you put together all these different nationalities, you get a dizzying pool of diverse languages and dialects. As far as I can tell, Mahburat uses all of them, all at once.

She says something about washing things. I understand that much, at least. One word I know is Russian, and I’ve heard it before.

“What’s Odeyala?” I ask.

She calls my host father, Jakob, to translate into Kyrgyz for me. He’s Uighur, too, but at least he grew up in the middle of Kyrgyzstan speaking Kyrgyz. He’s just as much a cartoon character as Mahburat, with a nose that dwarfs the rest of his face, sparkling, wise eyes, skin tanned dark from working in the fields, and an easy smile.

“Odeyala is blanket,” Jakob tells me. “She’s doing laundry, and wants you to bring out your sheets.”

Well, that’s not so bad. Mahburat has an electric washing machine that looks like R2D2, but she won’t put regular clothes in it for fear of something getting ruined. I wash all my own clothes in basins out in the yard. At first, I was frustrated that there was a machine I couldn’t use, but eventually laundry became a meditative, calming process of soaping, rinsing, and squeezing. And it was nice of Mahburat to wash my sheets for me.

It was also wonderful that she respected my privacy. Most Kyrgyz host mothers would have barged straight into my room and grabbed the sheets off my bed themselves. And this wouldn’t be rude; there’s no such thing as personal space here. But since Mahburat and Jakob’s kids are all grown up, I have two small rooms of their house all to myself, and they leave me alone there.

Sometimes I wonder if Mahburat won’t come in because although I’m neat and organized by American standards, she thinks I’m a slob. But I try to remember how lucky I am that I can trust my host parents never to snoop around my room.

I disappear into my “mess:” books and papers stacked on a table, my unmade bed up against the wall with the oriental rug hung on display, and my computer on the floor with a cord snaking across to an outlet that it shares with my Peace Corps water distiller. I bundle up the sheets and pillow cases under one arm and take them out to find Mahburat.

She’s in her own bedroom, and she freaks out. “Ket-rin!”

In her hands, my mass of crumpled sheets and blankets resolves into a perfectly neat bundle contained inside one of my pillow cases.

“You’re a girl, not a boy,” she tells me, all in Kyrgyz. “You need to be more careful.”

I’ve heard this line before. Then, I didn’t have the words to explain myself. Now, even though I can’t quite understand her I know she can understand me. I decide to give it a shot, and discover a new fact about myself that will come in handy throughout my service. When I’m angry, my language gets much, much better.

“Boys and girls can do the same things. It doesn’t matter that I’m a girl. In America, my father does laundry. He washes dishes. It would be rude if he didn’t.”

Mahburat isn’t phased. “This isn’t America. Boys don’t wash dishes.”

My brilliant reply: “But boys hands can wash dishes!”

Mahburat: “No they can’t.”

Although this conversation ends quickly with both of us upset, and our senses of decency slightly disturbed, we would eventually learn to understand each other, in more ways than just linguistically. I was determined to show her not only that I could learn her rules, but also that being a girl or boy should have nothing to do with it. Some of her rules were meant to be broken. I wasn’t allowed to move sacks of potatoes with my host dad—I did it anyway. My fellow volunteer Ian wasn’t supposed to wash dishes because he’s a boy—he washed them anyway.

My discussions with Mahburat got longer and longer. We talked about American and Kyrgyz culture, women’s rights, her past, and my future. Slowly, slowly she started to understand how important individuality, freedom, and equality are to Americans, and I began to realize that Mahburat was highly respected for her skills as a housewife, and wouldn’t let her husband help her if he tried.

Against all odds, we became friends.

One day, a few weeks before the end of my service, Mahburat sat me down and told me the following story, “When my friend asked me to host a Peace Corps volunteer, I didn’t really want to. I didn’t like America from what I saw on TV. But now I am so glad that I said yes. Sometimes people in the village tell me rumors about you—they don’t understand why you’re here. I tell them that you are helping and teaching their children, and that you came all the way across the world, away from your home and family, to do this. I’ve met your parents, your volunteer friends—and all of you are wonderful people. Now I know another side of America, and I will miss you so much when you leave.” Her speech moved me to tears as I remembered all of the difficulties we’d overcome. At that moment, I knew I’d made a difference.



  1. I like this story, Kathryn!

  2. I REALLY enjoyed reading your narrative about what life is like in Kyrgyzstan as a PCV! Thank you!

  3. awoke says : I absolutely agree with this !

  4. Hi Kathryn,

    I’m kyrgyz.I enjoyed your story.

    Question for you:

    How good are you in kyrgyz language?

    I just wonder.

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