Aleksei Matkova rides a green bike around his village, and like many men everywhere, he enjoys the simple things in life: fishing, eating meat, fixing things and ending the day with a nice cold beer from the magazine, which is Russian for corner store.
When his wife Valentina occasionally scolds him, Aleksei smiles mischievously and retreats to his man cave where he continues to fix the same car that has clearly been broken for quite some time. The headlights are gone. There are wires sticking out from under the closed hood. But still, almost every night, his legs peek out from underneath the car while his dogs watch him attempt to repair the car they use as shade on hot days.
At the end of some evenings if his farm work is done, Aleksei sits in his man cave among his tools and broken car parts drinking his beer and chain smoking while Valentina milks their cow.
Valentina wraps her fuchsia colored hair in a leopard-print scarf every morning and evening to keep it clean while she milks the cow. Though older married women in Kyrgyzstan work, many of them work at home, but Valentina puts her hair in curlers, dons an eighties-style jacket and skirt and goes off to a science institute every weekday, where she works as a secretary.
Though everyone’s host families that I’ve met have their own distinctive qualities, I noticed a lot of the families seem a bit more traditionally Kyrgyz than mine. Many host parents have more kids, and if the kids are not theirs, their children’s children are around. Some families live more rurally on larger farms with vast fields, while Aleksei and Valentina have a modest garden and farm with a cow and its baby, 20 or so rabbits, a few sheep and goats and enough chickens to put eggs on or in almost every meal every day.
After weeks of communicating through hand gestures and poor Russian, it turns out Aleksei and Valentina are a bit of an anomaly.
Though they’ve stayed in their current home in Studencheskoe, Kyrgyzstan for 17 years, Aleksei and Valentina are originally from Kyrgyzstan’s northern neighbor, Kazakhstan. Aleksei’s mother and sisters still live there, and in three weeks when I leave for my new house at permanent site, he and Valentina are planning on visiting them.
When their son Vitalic was 15 and their daughter Natasha was about eight, the couple left Kazakhstan and came to Kyrgyzstan. Aleksei said there wasn’t a lot of work at the time.
According to my language teacher Usen, Kazakhstan went through a rough patch about 25 years ago, though the country is currently on a healthy upswing. At that time, a lot of Kazaks came to Kyrgyzstan, and many of those people remain here today.
Kyrgyzstan is interesting in many ways, but the ethnicities of the people who live here make its geography particularly noteworthy. Surrounded by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and China, Kyrgyzstan was also once a part of the Soviet Union, which means there’s a good mixture of people who live here. And, though no country’s native people have completely uniform skin tones – especially the U.S. – there isn’t really one here like in more eastern Asian countries. If you Google image Kyrgyzstani children like one of my best friends did before I came here, you’ll see a lot of brown-skinned Asian children, but as you’ll see here, many kids here also have fair skin.
In their late fifties, Aleksei and Valentina’s children are grown. Their son Vitalic, 32, lives 10 minutes away by car in another village with his wife Alyssa and her parents, their two-year-old daughter Nastia, who are pictured above. Their second child Natasha, 25, lives with her husband in Russia. Valentina enjoys talking fast, candy for breakfast and her granddaughter. Aleksei enjoys ketchup, trying to get vegetarians to eat meat and shortbread cookies with mayo. Sometimes he buys me ice cream.